Two Big Public Space Makeovers for Chicago

The Atlantic Cities

By David Lepeska

Chicago is set to transform a derelict elevated rail line that cuts across its North Side and an over-commercialized, showpiece tourist attraction on the lakefront into two of the city's most appealing public spaces.

The Bloomingdale Trail and Park and the makeover for Navy Pier, expected to cost a combined $185 million, both took major steps forward last week. After a year-long competition, a team led by New York-based James Corner Field Operations won the commission to redesign Navy Pier, the state's most popular tourist site, receiving unanimous approval from the pier's governing board.

The firm's most high-profile creation to date is New York City's High Line, an abandoned stretch of elevated railway transformed into a stunning park. In December, James Corner won the competition to design Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, alongside the primary venue for the 2012 Summer Games in London.

The challenge in Chicago is to shed the 3,000-foot-long pier's kitschy image without a wholesale reconstruction. Pier attendance has fallen slightly over the last decade, as visitors have flocked to Millennium Park, a half-mile away.

The 17-member team includes New York-based nArchitects, lighting artist Leo Villareal, and French botanist Patrick Blanc, known primarily for his vertical gardens. Of the remaining group of landscape architects, water and real estate consultants and graphic designers, four are from Chicago, including designer Bruce Mau, whose firm is based in Toronto but lives just north of the city.

The makeover, which is likely to undergo significant alterations before construction begins, is expected to cost about $85 million. Initial designs seek to create a sequence of appealing outdoor spaces along the promenade, including tilted lawns for recreation, a fountain that could spout jets, mist or a reflective sheet of water, and hanging gardens inside the pier's Crystal Gardens pavilion. The plan also adds a swimming pool with a sand beach and an amphitheater that would slope down to Lake Michigan level on the east end of the pier, with cantilevered overlooks offering views back to the city.

Navy Pier originally opened in 1916 and is expected to be remade in time for its centennial celebration. Chicago architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham devised the pier as part of his 1910 Plan of Chicago. His vision, according to Corner, was in part about "the creation of settings or stages, where people can come into close proximity with one another, interact with one another... in the context here of being out on the lake."

Corner's previous project, New York's High Line, cost $115 million, draws millions of annual visitors and has attracted more than $2 billion of private investment to the surrounding area, creating jobs and sparking economic activity.

That's what Rahm Emanuel is envisioning for the Bloomingdale Trail and Park. “We have all read about what the High Line has done for New York economically," he said at a press conference last week. "I hope this has the same impact.”

Emanuel said initial funding had come together for the $100 million project, which is expected to begin construction later this year and be completed by 2014. Designed by Arup, Ross Barney Architects and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the new park will have benches and foliage on either side of a two-way path.

It looks in renderings much like New York City's High Line, but will be nearly twice as long and with gentle curves and dips. It will also allow bike traffic and include several green space access points at ground level.

Besides offering expansive views across several Chicago neighborhoods, the new park will improve local transport links. The multi-use trail will connect the west side to areas near the lake and the Loop, and the anchor parks will link the trail to L train stations and major bus stops.

The Chicago & Pacific Railroad originally built this 2.65-mile stretch of rail line at ground level in 1872. After a series of accidents involving pedestrians, the tracks were elevated about a century ago, but have been out of use since the mid-1990s. Within a couple years, the determined and the curious will no longer be forced to slip through fences to use the space and enjoy the view.

Ran March 19, 2012:

Chicago Group Aims to Counter Anti-Islam Sentiment

The New York Times

February 23, 2012

By David Lepeska

As anti-Muslim rhetoric rises locally and nationally — some of it fueled by the presidential campaign — a group of Chicago-area Muslims is battling back, using tactics including a television ad campaign and public forums against bigotry.

Gain Peace, an Islamic outreach organization based in Chicago, spent $40,000 in December to counter negative portrayals and produce two television ads intended to promote Islam as a just faith. The spots, which will run through March in the Chicago area on Fox, CNN and TNT, depict friendly Muslim students and professionals and display a phone number and a Web site for more information.

“This is an election year and in the Republican primaries and elsewhere, generally we have seen more discrimination, hate and misunderstanding about Muslims,” said Sabeel Ahmed, director of Gain Peace. “We wanted to take it up a notch.”

During a political engagement workshop for immigrants on the near West Side early this month, Ahmed Rehab, the head of a Muslim advocacy group, urged attendees to fight attacks on Islam with accurate information about the Muslim faith.

“What’s worse than ignorance is misinformation, and that’s what I find Islamophobia normally falls under: It’s a process of miseducation,” said Mr. Rehab, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “But what can be done, can be undone.”

That un-do list has been growing. Last November, Pat Brady, the Illinois Republican Party chairman, urged the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the state’s leading immigrant support group, to expel CAIR-Chicago from its list of affiliated organizations. He cited “CAIR’s reported ties to Hamas terrorist supporters, its anti-Israel organizing and its tolerance for anti-Semitic discourse.”

The coalition declined and called Mr. Brady’s request “a descent into anti-Muslim hysteria.”

In the presidential race, both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have depicted Islamic Shariah law as a potential threat to United States sovereignty. One of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy advisers, Walid Phares, regularly warns that Muslims aim to take over American institutions and impose Shariah, a legal code based mainly on the Koran that can involve punishments like cutting off the hands of a thief.

Republican-sponsored bills in more than 20 states, including Michigan, Indiana, Iowa and Missouri, would ban courts from recognizing foreign laws, legislative shorthand for Shariah. Yet no United States Muslim organization is calling for the institution of Shariah.

Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said the rhetoric might become more heated during the coming primary battles in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri and Wisconsin. “In reaching out to your base, there’s a tendency to throw red meat out there,” he said.

The effect of these verbal attacks may go beyond the political. Hate crimes against Muslims increased nearly 50 percent in the United States in 2010, according to a Federal Bureau of Investigation report released in November. That month, officials at O’Hare Airport fired a baggage handler who was accused of writing “Burn Islam” and “Filthy Muslim” on his Facebook page.

Officials from CAIR-Chicago plan to address anti-Muslim attacks from far right groups at their annual banquet next month. Leaders of the Nation of Islam are expected to respond to Muslim discrimination during the group’s convention at the United Center this weekend.

Gain Peace, which produced the television ads, is part of the Islamic Circle of North America, an Islamic education organization based in Queens, N.Y., accused by conservative groups of extolling terrorism.

“These TV ads are out there to fool people into thinking that Muslims are just like us,” said Constance Gavras, head of a Chicago-area chapter of Act! For America, a grass-roots anti-jihadist organization.

Mr. Ahmed, of Gain Peace, dismissed any connection between Islamic Circle and terrorism. “There is always a link people try to make,” he said. “But there is no proof.”

Mr. Redfield, of the University of Illinois at Springfield, said he thought the Muslim groups were smart to combat anti-Muslim rhetoric. “In politics, if you don’t define yourself someone else will,” he said. “They have to be proactive in terms of trying to neutralize ignorance and willful manipulation of negative opinion.”

Islamic Circle hopes to distribute the television ads nationwide.


Habibi: Gorgeous graphic novel comes up short

A book review for The National

By David Lepeska

Craig Thompson’s Habibi is a wonder: a rich, gorgeous and boldly ambitious fairy tale about love and spirituality, the ancient and the modern, East and West and the decline of the natural world. It’s also something of a disappointment.

Thompson first gained renown in 2003, with his semi-autobiographical debut, Blankets. That book recounted his blush of first love in rural Wisconsin and his decision to leave the evangelical Christian faith of his parents. It earned great acclaim and half a dozen awards. With his new work he has set his sights higher.

The story opens in an Arabia-like desert facing severe drought. Desperate to survive, a father marries off his daughter, Dodola, inexplicably named after a Slavic rain goddess, to a gruff, older scribe. He whisks her away and takes her virginity, then teaches her to read and write. One night, thieves ransack their house, slash the scribe’s throat, kidnap Dodola and sell her into slavery.

At the slave market she comes across an abandoned, dark-skinned, three-year-old boy, Zam. When Dodola escapes into the desert she snatches the boy and takes him with her, to raise as her “Habibi”, or darling. For nine years, they live in an abandoned boat beached on the dunes as Dodola sells herself to men in passing caravans in return for provisions.

The adolescent Zam follows her out one day and watches as she is raped, crouching in angry fear behind a camel. He curses himself, then goes out searching for food. “We could be reclaimed as slaves at any time,” she says when he finally returns. “[Zam] didn’t understand that our world was dying. People were crying out for water, but the sources had dried up,” Dodola thinks to herself. “However, the masses will need something to distract them from destruction ... and my body will still be a commodity.”

As the last in a series of images, we see Zam beneath Dodola’s closing thought: “This is the world of men.” When Zam goes out foraging a second time, Dodola is snatched up by bounty hunters who hand her over to a drooling, pot-bellied caricature of a sultan. She becomes his aphrodite, the favourite among his well-stocked harem.

That common Arab cliché is just one among a handful of Orientalist stereotypes in the book: desert caravans filled with rough merchants, dirty souqs, frolicking harem girls, despotic, turbaned leaders, subservient eunuchs. It’s often hard to tell whether Thompson is using them to titillate and entertain or to comment on their questionable use in ages past.

If Dodola is not being ravished by one man or another, she is being fantasised about. And unlike R Crumb and a handful of other popular graphic artists, Thompson clearly relishes form, shape and movement.

Dodola is a raven-haired beauty, with saucer eyes, broad lips and a petite, hourglass figure. As a youth, Zam is slim and dark, catlike. Fully grown he is massive, imposing, filling the scenes with his bulk. His size and blooming desire compound his fear of further hurting Dodola, making him uncomfortable around her after he witnesses her violation.

After her disappearance he goes out searching for her and falls in with a group of hijras. During the scene of their reuniting, years later, Zam flashes back to Dodola telling him the story of Noah and the flood.

Throughout the book, well-known religious tales unspool with regularity, often before a backdrop of phantasmagorical images or flowing Arabic calligraphy. In an apparent attempt to bridge the divide between Islam and Christianity, Thompson includes several stories shared by the world’s two most popular monotheisms: Adam, Abraham, Noah and others are mixed in with quotes from the Quran and bits from the Bible.

But as one who has lived and worked in the Arab world, I was left wondering: where are the Muslims? What’s missing from the religion in Habibi are the religious. To Thompson, the Arabic alphabet is protean and pliant: a shifting tapestry of symbol and anecdote that he wields to often glorious effect, highlighting the links between Arabic script and Islamic geometry and endeavouring to make Islam less foreign to his mostly Western audience. But he approaches religion with a certain detachment – perhaps a hangover from his distasteful experience with evangelical Christianity.

None of the characters is shown in prayer. None embraces Islam as a guide to living, a moral compass, or anything other than a well of stories to be dipped into as needed. For a book so laden with religion and spirituality, it’s all a bit soulless, as if the narrative takes place in the unruly idol-worshipping era of jahaliyyah, before the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed.

The actual when and where of the story seems fluid, shifting from medieval Arabia to something resembling 21st century Dubai in the space of a few pages: a lavish apartment in an under-construction skyscraper abuts a medieval souq where slaves are sold to the highest bidder. Beyond the Bible and Quran, Habibi incorporates references to the Arabian Nights and Scheherazade, poems from Rumi and bits of alchemy and astronomy.

As in Blankets, Thompson employs flashbacks and more than 600 pages of lush, graceful drawings in the service of a long, winding tale. But Habibi is far more sweeping, covering the bonds of servitude, the shame of fantasy, the complexities of love, the fragility of the environment, the ignorant greed of humanity, as well as Allah, the Prophet Mohammed and the possibilities of Arabic script.

Thompson is a dazzling artist and a fine storyteller, ranking among the finest graphic novelists today. But Habibi sets a nearly impossible target. Too much sensationalism, too much religious mumbo-jumbo and too little of the human spirit undermines the work. And in the end, the lessons of the narrative are ambiguous and possibly contradictory.

Still, being brought low by ambition is the least damning of literary failures. Habibi is a ripping yarn, often beautifully told. If Thompson tries too hard to pass it off as a moving and important work of art, it’s a credit to his skill that he nearly succeeds. Call it a marvellous failure.

Ran February 2012:

Why the US is disengaging from the Middle East

For The National

By David Lepeska

January 9 was no banner day for the US in the Middle East. In Baghdad, a series of bombs killed at least a dozen people and wounded more than 50, underscoring America's failure to establish security prior to the departure of its troops from Iraq.

In a speech in Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad refused to step down despite months of increasing violence and international condemnation. "When I leave office it will be by the will of the people," he said.

Finally, Iran sentenced the former US marine Amir Mirzaei Hekmati to death for spying for the Central Intelligence Agency - the first time since the 1979 Revolution that Iran had ordered the execution of an American.

It would be hard to more clearly state the central thesis of Fawaz Gerges' forthcoming book, Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment, than with the events of January 9, 2012. "America's ability to act unilaterally and hegemonically, unconstrained by the local context, has come to an end," he said during an interview at Chicago's InterContinental Hotel last month.

Gerges, a US citizen born to a Christian family in Beirut, holds the Emirates Chair of the Contemporary Middle East at the London School of Economics. After focusing on terrorism in recent books - including 2005's bestselling Journey of the Jihadist and last year's The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda - his new work, out in May, returns him to a subject he has been writing about for decades.

"Obama is correct not to take ownership of the Arab uprisings, because we're seeing changes from within the region," Gerges adds. "You might say Obama is the Gorbachev of America's foreign policy in the Middle East."

The book begins shortly after the Second World War, when the US treated Arab countries dismissively, its eye towards Soviet containment. American support for the creation of Israel, the 1953 coup in Iran, the oil embargo of 1973, the Iranian hostage crisis, the US intervention in the Gulf War and George W Bush's policies in the wake of 9/11, all played their part.

"The US is seen as a supporter and sustainer of the autocratic order in the Middle East," Gerges says. "This culminated in the Iraq War, and reinforced the perception that the US cannot be trusted, that it was neocolonialist."

This is the legacy inherited by Obama, who sought a new beginning by offering respect and seeking broader engagement in his landmark June 2009 speech in Cairo. "No system of government can or should be imposed on any nation by any other," he said. "That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people."

Obama tends to hedge in this way, approaching contradiction. He denounced Bush's ideological promotion of democracy and hawkish international stance but has since backed intervention in Libya, expanded drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas and sent 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan.

Similarly, the Obama team hoped his outreach in Cairo would allow the US to "cut the umbilical cord to the Middle East", says Gerges. "From day one, they believed that America's future was in the Pacific, and believed the US was on a very costly detour in the Middle East."

At the time, national security adviser Thomas Donilon saw Washington's influence as too strong in the Middle East and too weak in Asia, according to Ryan Lizza. In his lengthy, widely read Obama profile in The New Yorker in May, Lizza argued that "the Arab Spring remade Obama's foreign policy".

Gerges would argue that it helped bring Obama's initial policy objectives to the fore. At first, the uprisings seemed to paralyse Washington. Obama sought to be on the right side of history, with the protesters, but also wanted to keep his allies. "They were caught napping," said Gerges.

After five days of uncertainty while protests raged in Tahrir Square, the US called for Mubarak to step down. Since his departure, Washington has supported the generals, backed parliamentary elections and mostly maintained its distance.

Yet the Obama administration has broken with decades of US policy to engage with the Muslim Brotherhood. In high-level meetings, officials at the State Department have received reassurances of the brotherhood's respect for human rights and interest in maintaining peaceful relations with Israel.

The shift is an acceptance of Egypt's new political reality, with the Brotherhood and the Salafist parties winning more than 70 per cent of parliamentary seats in the recent elections, and of Washington's reduced influence in the region. Even while continuing to hand over more than $1.3bn (Dh13.9bn) in annual military aid, Obama can make no demands on Egypt's leadership.

Gerges sees Egypt's Islamists emulating Turkey's moderate, highly successful AKP, and is less concerned about their religiosity or foreign policy than their ability to govern - a concern underscored by the chaos of Egypt's first parliamentary session this week. "I'm more worried that Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood have no blueprints to resolve the major problems facing Egyptian society," he said, referring to a moribund economy, a lack of capable institutions and oppressed minorities. "In the next election, if Islamists don't deliver the goods - and most probably they won't, because the challenges are horrendous - I think they're going to do much, much worse."

In other countries facing uprisings, Washington had a hard time keeping up with events and constantly tweaked its position. In Libya, after leading the intervention "from behind", according to the received wisdom, since the killing of Muammar Qaddafi the US has generally disengaged. These days, Washington mostly equivocates: supporting regime change in Syria and Yemen, while maintaining friendships with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco.

It's a policy of do-very-little, and may be the best option available. Jordan, Bahrain and Morocco appear, for the moment, on solid ground. Violence in Syria has been on the rise, whatever the US policy, and Al Assad seems to be gaining confidence once more after the recent failed Arab League mission.

Washington's two great ventures in the region remain on the brink of failure. Iraq seems increasingly unstable since the departure of American troops and, in Afghanistan, attacks on US and coalition forces by supposed Afghan allies have peaked.

To suggest that stable, pluralistic political systems will emerge anytime soon in Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria and other countries is simplistic if not downright ignorant. Right now may be the ideal time for the US to disengage from the Middle East, just as Arab countries, led by the people, become less predictable.

Gerges envisions a lengthy transition from authoritarianism to political pluralism, with bumps and detours lasting decades. "The Arab world has taken the first step in a million-mile journey," he said. "There's no regime that's immune to this new mood of empowerment, despite all the nonsense of the uniqueness of the Gulf states. Regimes in the Middle East will ignore this changed psychology at their own peril."

The theories in Gerges' new book are not revolutionary. Other observers have noted American decline, particularly Fareed Zakaria in his book, The Post-American World. And some of Gerges' ideas seem lifted directly from Lizza's Obama profile. But few have looked at these issues - American decline, shifting of priorities, Obama's equivocation - so expansively in light of the Arab revolutions.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, respected foreign-policy hand and national security adviser under Jimmy Carter, writes of the coming multipolar era and a likely vacuum of international leadership in his new book, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power. He warns of a less stable world, with a more aggressive China and a potentially chaotic Middle East. "It is imperative that the United States pursue a new, timely strategic vision for its foreign policy," he recently wrote, "or start bracing itself for a dangerous slide into global turmoil."

As Gerges expected, the new American vision looks eastward. In November, on a visit to Canberra, Obama announced a deployment of 2,500 marines to Australia, fortifying American influence in East Asia with an eye towards China's rise. The US has also been beefing up its forces in Guam, a Pacific island territory. In January, Washington renewed diplomatic ties with strategically important Myanmar and released a strategy statement that said "we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region".

This disengagement from the Middle East should result in less regional resentment about US influence. What's more, with the death of Osama bin Laden and the rise of the Arab voice, the era of the late Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb and jihadist terrorism may be coming to a close. For the most part, Islamists today - from Morocco to Jordan, from Egypt to Tunisia and beyond - seem less inclined to violence and, like the general populace, more appreciative of the pull of pluralism. "It's the first time in 600 years that Arab people have an opportunity to determine their own affairs," says Gerges. "The world is being born before our eyes."

All of which may alter the East-West dynamic that's part of the international landscape at least since 9/11. "There's always been this whole conspiratorial notion about the US being behind the Middle East," says Gerges. "Now we might finally see some healing and normalisation of America's relations with the Muslim world, and the Arab world in particular."

That healing is unlikely to be complete without a resolution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition, countries facing new regimes are sure to have a hard time achieving stability without a degree of external assistance. Gerges hopes to see mini-Marshall Plans for Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, coming from Europe or Turkey, Iran or wealthy Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar.

One key international player is noticeably absent from this list. "What can the US achieve without the influence, without the resources?" Gerges wonders. "The Arab uprisings have starkly exposed the beginning of the end of America's moment there."

Ran January 2012:

Election Marks Next Phase of Egypt's Democratic Struggle

For The National, November 2011:

Barring an election delay, Egyptian voters heading to the polls next week could put their country on the road to becoming Turkey, that regional beacon of Muslim democracy, or Iran, that dark, authoritarian theocracy - or a military state somewhere in between. Some 6,000 candidates from over 50 political parties are running, but Islamist groups led by the Muslim Brotherhood are likely to gain a near-majority of parliamentary seats.

What they do with that power - whether they push for a more Sharia-influenced constitution, how aggressively they confront the military - may well decide the fate of the new Egypt. Few are better placed to assess the shifting political landscape than Gunes Murat Tezcur, who has studied Muslim political actors across the region, particularly in Iran and Turkey. If Egypt's Islamists hope to establish a legitimate democracy, he urges them to strike a balance: be patient enough to gain political legitimacy, yet stay vigilant for opportunities to confront the military.

"A reformist government has the best chance of reducing the power of the military when it is confrontational, but has also accumulated enough power to overcome the military's resistance, as in the case of Turkey," Tezcur says during a recent interview in his office at Chicago's Loyola University, where he lectures on political Islam and democracy.

Tezcur's book, Muslim Reformers in Iran and Turkey: The Paradox of Moderation, applies moderation theory to Turkey's Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and the Reform Front in Iran. The theory describes the process by which radical political actors - such as Islamist parties, or socialist parties in Europe at the turn of the last century - begin to accept pluralist electoral politics and the rule of law and move away from provocation in order to win the necessary votes to gain office.

The AKP is among the most successful contemporary examples. "Here you have an Islamist party rising in the late 1980s ... and it soon became clear that they could not get the votes they needed to win elections," explains Tezcur, a 32-year-old Turkish national. "So a younger generation led by Tayyip Erdogan helped the party shift to a more centrist platform."

Today, the AKP's grip on power is practically unchallenged. In Iran, however, former president Mohammad Khatami and his Reform Front lost traction several years ago because "they failed to use their leverage to gain concessions from the Guardian's Counsel and other Iranian institutions," says Tezcur. "Ultimately they could not change the power structure."

The question, then, is whether Egypt's Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, can successfully navigate the shoals of transition like the AKP, or are doomed to smash against the rocks of authoritarianism like the Reform Front. Meanwhile, some western observers continue to question whether Egypt's Islamist groups are working towards liberal democracy at all.

Tezcur argues that, for Islamist parties, embracing pluralist politics and becoming more open-minded (ideological moderation), helps move along the process of democratisation. But becoming less confrontational and building coalitions (behavioural moderation), can be problematic. "Behavioural moderation is not necessarily conducive to democratic progress," he says. "In certain contexts, as happened in Iran recently, it actually hampers democratisation. This is the paradox of moderation."

He sees this tension between behavioural moderation and the process of democratisation as central to politics in post-Mubarak Egypt. Indeed, many have pointed to Turkey as a model for Egypt, both as a successful, modern Islamic state, and for its leadership, in the AKP.

Egypt has a powerful, politically influential military, as Turkey had for decades. In both countries, Islamist groups have been oppressed for long periods - the Muslim Brotherhood under Mubarak; the AKP before coming to power. Turkey's Kurds and Egypt's Copts have faced varying degrees of marginalisation for half a century. Finally, millions of secular, modern urbanites in both countries must accept that more conservative, more religious voters in smaller cities make up the balance of the population.

"Turkey is a model because of its success in politics, economics, foreign policy in recent years," says Tezcur. "But there are so many differences between Egypt and Turkey." Turkey has seven decades of mostly free and fair elections, while Egypt is having its first legitimate vote. Turkey's middle class is larger and more influential. And most importantly, there has never been a mainstream demand for Sharia.

Tezcur believes the Egyptian military is unlikely to gain the type of power long held by their Turkish equivalents, mainly because of the Kurdish insurgency. "Their argument is that 'We are fighting against the terrorists, the insurgents, so we need more power,' which basically means they can dominate the civilian government," says Tezcur. "Unless the Copts become insurgents, I don't think you'll have the same problem in Egypt."

Yet Egypt's military leadership, known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), has been consolidating its power. Scaf generals recently drafted supra-constitutional principles that would increase military controls and leave the generals free of civilian oversight. Muslim political parties have vehemently rejected the principles, and tens of thousands of protesters returned to Tahrir Square last week calling for the military to reduce its grip on power. Back and forth clashes between protesters and security forces on the square - the most violent since the departure of Mubarak - have resulted in several deaths and hundreds injured.

The Scaf "has emerged as the most serious threat in the transition to democracy," Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote last week. "The military rules Egypt - and it intends to maintain its control indefinitely."

Some generals have begun to depict Scaf as the guarantor of Egyptian secularism - much the same role as Turkey's military held for decades. "We want a model like Turkey, but we won't force it," an anonymous Scaf general told The Washington Post in July. "Egypt as a country needs this to protect our democracy from the Islamists. We know this group doesn't think democratically."

Of course, the AKP has in recent years pushed the Turkish military from its lofty perch, from where it had muscled out a handful of civilian regimes since 1950. In consolidating its current position, the Egyptian military hopes to keep the Muslim Brotherhood from doing the same.

Still, a quick glance at the list of political players in Egypt reveals the AKP's influence: the Building and Development Party, Change and Development, and Equality and Justice, all Islamist parties; the Justice Party, a liberal group; and of course the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice.

"These groups look at the AKP as very successful, because it's kind of a cross-class party, with large support among merchants, traders and the middle class and also lower classes," says Tezcur. It has also managed to run a sizeable country rather well for a decade, and has made the military its subordinate. "For these Egyptian parties, this is the model."

Three party lists are most important: the Islamist Alliance, including Nour and the Islamic Group's Building and Development Party; the Democratic Alliance, led by the Brotherhood; and the liberal Egyptian Bloc, featuring the Free Egyptians and Social Democrats. Liberal groups and secular parties led by youths who fomented the revolution in Tahrir Square are expected to garner about a fifth of the total vote, while Islamist parties are likely to receive about half (40 per cent for the Brotherhood; five to 10 per cent for Salafis).

Once in power, Egypt's Islamist reformers are likely to fare better than Iran's Reform Front, as the Scaf has nowhere near the deep roots and influence of Ayatollah Khamanei and the Guardian's Counsel. Yet Iran still offers a cautionary tale for Egyptian parties: being patient is good, but being too patient could be disastrous.

"On the one hand, they may pursue a patient or gradual strategy in order not to provoke the military," says Tezcur. "The risk is that they miss unique opportunities and lose their influence over time. On the other hand, they may directly confront the military and risk repression." Another concern is how the Brotherhood and the Salafis will treat Copts and Muslim minorities. "The real challenge is more about how to protect individual liberties and minority rights," says Tezcur.

If Islamist groups are to achieve lasting success, their leaders must be charismatic, open to new ideas and willing to challenge the party hierarchy. About a decade ago, Erdogan appeared at the forefront of a new, open-minded generation of Islamists in Turkey.

When the Turkish prime minister landed in Cairo for a September visit, a Brotherhood-organised crowd of thousands greeted him at the airport with shouts of "Allahu Akbar!" Erdogan spoke of secularism and later met a handful of religious and political leaders, including Muslim Brotherhood chairman Mohammed Badie.

Details of their meeting were kept secret, but Tezcur thought Erdogan might have advised Brotherhood leaders to follow the example of the AKP, which held power for years before going after the most powerful generals. "He would tell them not to get overexcited, to be more strategic, and pursue your policies more patiently and gradually," says Tezcur.

Patience is likely to be a virtue for all the candidates. It will require more than four months of staggered rounds of parliamentary votes for all of Egypt's 40 million eligible voters to have their chance at the polls. Many observers are convinced the organisational strength of the Brotherhood will win out, and Islamists will gain a high percentage of the early vote. This could put the fear of Sharia rule in both the military leadership and liberal youth, sparking more widespread protests and violence.

Either way, Egypt's path to democratisation is only beginning. Tezcur says it takes years for a single party or group of parties to gain the strength required to stare down entrenched powers.

"It takes a couple of elections before you see which party becomes most prominent, which has the best social networks and can draw votes from the various sectors of society," he says. "In Egypt, there may only be a few opportunities on which to capitalise to achieve a breakthrough towards democratisation. If you miss them, who knows when they will next be available."

Ran November 2011:

Ayad Akhtar Bursts onto the Literary Scene

For The National

By David Lepeska

Ayad Akhtar’s writing career may have begun with a whimper, but aspiring writers and literary historians may someday study his early years for clues to his eventual meteoric rise.

In a freshman-year fiction class at the University of Rochester, in New York, Akhtar’s professor urged him to send one of his short stories to The New Yorker for publication.

“I never sent it, I was too scared,” the 41-year-old recalled during a recent interview at the American Theatre Company on Chicago’s North Side. “I felt I was going to be called out as a fake. So I stopped writing and didn’t write for seven years.”

Akhtar fell into theatre, teaching acting in New York and Europe before studying film and writing screenplays. He gained confidence, life experience and a firmer grasp of drama. Then, several years ago, he found his voice and tapped into a geyser of creativity.

His script for the 2005 film The War Within – in which he played the lead role – earned several screenwriting honours. More recently, critics have lavished praise on his debut novel, American Dervish, published last month. His first play has won mostly positive notices since its late January premiere in Chicago, and its producers hope to move it to Broadway. To top it off, another Akhtar play will debut in the United States in March.

“This is an embarrassment of riches that I don’t understand,” he says with a shrug and a bewildered grin. “I think this business, show business, is a business of attrition. Sooner or later your relationships, your craft and your voice will coalesce into something, but you have to stick it out.”

Born in 1970 outside Milwaukee, Akhtar grew up in a mostly white, well-to-do suburb. Both of his Punjab-born parents worked as doctors. Much like the parents of Hayat Shah, the 10-year-old, Milwaukee-reared protagonist of his novel, Akhtar’s parents maintained a certain distance from the local Pakistani community, and from Islam.

Today, Akhtar lives in New York City’s Harlem. He is slim and poised, with long, elegant fingers and a standard expression of Midwestern welcome. He moves with an actor’s deliberateness and speaks with the confidence of a man in firm grasp of his art.

“There was something about the Quran and stories of the Prophet that pointed at an unfathomable depth of experience,” he says, recalling being drawn to Islam at nine years old. Then he remembers a less austere touchstone from that period. “In the Empire Strikes Back, Yoda’s discourses on reality with Luke Skywalker resonated in the same way.”

A similarly open-minded approach to identity stands out in his work. In Dervish, a key Jewish character considers converting to Islam for marriage, while the young protagonist negotiates between the minimalist Islam of his parents, the devout Islam of a live-in family friend and the liberated Muslim adolescents of 1980s Wisconsin.

After swearing off writing, Akhtar transferred to Brown University, in Rhode Island, to study theatre. He earned a film degree from Columbia University and, by age 25, had become a struggling screenwriter.

“I worked with all these amazing producers and got beat up,” says Akhtar, citing executives from Lars von Trier’s Zentropa Pictures and Mark Burnett, of reality TV fame, among his mentors. “That four-year apprenticeship in writing screenplays taught me so much.”

The main lesson may have been a shift in perspective. After years of writing about external, less familiar subjects, he returned to his own life, to Pakistani-Americans, and writing became a joy. “At some point I realised I was avoiding who I really was, and that’s when people started connecting with my work,” says Akhtar.

Over the next eight years he wrote The War Within (with a Columbia film school classmate), American Dervish and his two plays, Disgraced and Invisible Hand. The day after his agent sent it out to publishers, the novel sold to Little, Brown and Company, a top literary firm, for six figures. Within a fortnight the rights had been snapped up in nearly 20 countries.

The plays may be a more difficult sell, with their grim portraits of contemporary Muslim life. In Disgraced, the cousin of the protagonist, Amir, advocates taqiyyah, or dissembling to protect one’s faith. In a recollection from his childhood, Amir’s mother spits on her own son for his adolescent interest in a Jewish girl – a dismissal he in turn passes on to the girl. Beaten down by the delicate politics of post-9/11 America, Amir ultimately destroys his marriage and his life.

In Invisible Hand, which opens next month at St. Louis’ Repertory Theatre, an American investment banker working on emerging markets in Pakistan is kidnapped by extremists who force him to generate his own ransom by trading stocks. The story draws a connection between violent extremism and the havoc wreaked by the global financial system.

Akhtar admits that his stage works – set in the post-9/11 world – are darker and less optimistic than his novel. “The plays are both pretty dystopian,” he says. “They pose dark questions about the realities of where we are politically.”

Kimberly Senior, the director of Disgraced, reads three or four plays a week and watches close to 100 every year. Yet she saw something new in Akhtar’s first play. “It blew me away,” she says, “I was shocked and couldn’t believe that Ayad had gone there. This is a story that hasn’t been told.”

New York’s Araca Group, which recently produced A View from the Bridge, starring Scarlett Johannson, co-produced the Chicago production of Disgraced with ATC and hopes to take the play to Broadway.

Akhtar is doing his best to stay grounded. He calls himself “deeply devout”. His disdain for bigotry against women is clear in his work, particularly in the character of Mina Ali.

Intelligent and strikingly beautiful, Mina is an undeniably charismatic presence in American Dervish. She is also a devout Muslim and, as Akhtar wrote in a recent essay for The Daily Beast, “subject – in tragic ways – to a patriarchal order with which she struggles”.

The New York Times described American Dervish as “effortlessly told” and “immensely entertaining”, comparing it to the work of Jhumpa Lahiri and Neil Simon. The latter reference greatly pleased Akhtar, who cites Jewish-American writers such as Simon, Woody Allen, Philip Roth and Jerry Seinfeld among his influences.

“I feel like they’ve given me a way to tell stories about a religious minority in the American project,” he says. “That’s really the sensibility that’s informed me more than any Muslim writers of my generation.”

In his writing Akhtar strives only to give pleasure and to be guided by the truth. It’s an artistic mandate that appears to be working. He’s completed his third play, a comedy. He’s talking to Hollywood about producing one of his screenplays. And he’s waist-deep into his next novel, involving a Pakistani-American artist living in Vienna. “It’s about young western Muslims dealing with identity in a very highly politicised environment,” he says. “Things in Europe are of course disastrous right now.” On a recent trip, says Akhtar, German border guards rudely asked only the Muslims aboard a train from Austria for their papers. Days later, a German villager, muttering under his breath, called Akhtar a “Taliban” and told him to get out of the country.

Much as Europeans are grappling with a staggering influx of immigrants and their unfamiliar culture, Akhtar sees Muslims the world over struggling to balance modern life with Islam. Some are moving towards a more fundamentalist interpretation, while others have embraced a more moderate stance. “The jury is still out as to what direction this is going to take,” says Akhtar.

Though his writing focuses on Muslim life in the West, Akhtar has a message for those looking to anoint him as the spokesperson for Muslim America. “People expect a writer to be a spokesman for a community,” says Akhtar. “I am not a spokesman for anything. I’m an artist, and I should be judged on how convincing my portrayals are.”

Ran February 2012:

Chicago's Booming Beer Scene, Explained

For Atlantic Cities

By David Lepeska

Perhaps no American city has embraced beer in recent years as heartily as Chicago. Places like Portland and San Diego have well-deserved reputations as craft brewing hotspots, but the Windy City – home to a pack of upstarts, several established players and two of the country's premier institutions of beer knowledge – seems well on its way to replacing its northern neighbor, home of baseball's Brewers, as the mecca of American beer.

“The trend in Chicago mirrors larger national trends in craft beer, but 2012 will be a banner year particularly for Chicago,” says Paul Schneider, who writes about the city's craft beer scene at chitownontap.com. “We are primed for absolutely unprecedented growth in volume, dollars, breweries, and SKUs.”

The city's biggest beer producer is of course MillerCoors, America’s second largest brewer, which opened its new headquarters downtown a few years ago. But it's the craft beer scene that's got the most depth these days:

-- The local leader is Goose Island. Launched by John Hall in 1988 as a brewpub on the city's North Side, it's now the 18th biggest U.S. brewer and was recently purchased by Anheuser-Busch. Goose Island's beers are sold across the U.S. as well as in the U.K. and Sweden. Its ales win major awards seemingly every year, and its limited-run specialty brews – such as Bourbon County Coffee Stout, which is brewed with beans from Intelligentsia coffee – usually sell out in minutes.

-- Jason Ebel and his brother Jim founded the other elder statesman among Chicago's craft brewers, Two Brothers, in suburban Warrenville, Illinois, in 1996. The company continues to expand – opening its second brewpub, in a 150-year-old, 70,000 square-foot roundhouse, last year – and its award-winning Domaine DuPage and Bitter End brews are sold across the Midwest and in New York.

-- Half Acre Beer began production in 2006, but gained a much higher profile after opening its Lincoln Square brewery and tasting room and launching its Daisy Cutter Pale Ale a few years later. After facing frequent shortages due to high demand, Half Acre is expanding to boost production by a third.

-- Revolution Brewing opened a brewpub in Logan Square in late 2009 and is now building a stand-alone production facility, with cans expected to reach area shelves by May or June.

-- Flossmoor Station, in the suburb of Flossmoor, has been named the best small brewpub brewer in America by the Great American Beer Festival.

-- Then there's Three Floyd's. Every year on the late April day it releases its Russian imperial stout, Dark Lord, some 6,000 beer lovers from across the world descend on the tiny burg of Munster, Indiana, and transform the Three Floyd's brewery and pub into a pilgrimage destination just to claim a few bottles of the black brew.

“Pretty much every local brewery is operating at capacity and trying to find ways to get more beer to market,” says Schneider. “They can't make it fast enough.”

And it's only the beginning. Schneider's 2012 craft beer preview lists nearly two-dozen Chicago area brewers in various planning stages.

Several are embracing innovation. The New Chicago Beer Company has partnered with The Plant, a sustainable food production facility on the South Side. Samuel Evans, who owns New Chicago Beer with his brother Jesse, is looking forward to fueling his brewery with steam from The Plant's $2 million anaerobic digester.*

“It makes perfect sense for a brewery because we create a lot of organic byproducts and use a ton of energy,” says Evans. “Other breweries have to cart away their spent grain, we just wheel it down the hallway and put it in the digester.” (Magic Hat Brewing, in Vermont, uses a similar digester.)

Argyle Brewing is creating what may be the first community-supported brewery. The Ravenswood outfit will support itself with subscriptions from members, who will in turn receive their monthly supply of brews.

Other new brewers include Broad Shoulders Brewing, founded by a former Goose Island brewer, and Pipeworks Brewing, which recently began production in its Wicker Park location after a successful Kickstarter campaign.

So why is this happening in Chicago? Chalk at least some of it up to institutional memory. Across the street from Goose Island's original brewpub on Clybourn Avenue sits the Siebel Institute of Technology, founded in 1871 and the oldest brewing school in the United States.

Scions of the Stroh's and Busch families learned the brewing arts at Siebel nearly a century ago. Today, scores of 21st century brewers-to-be come looking to gain insight on the finer points of hops and brewing styles. Siebel offers classes in Chicago, Milwaukee, Denver, and at its sister campus in Munich, Germany.

Chicago is also home to the Craft Beer Institute, which trains beer servers, distributors and restaurant and industry professionals in the history, production, handling, and consumption of beer. The program recently issued its 10,000 certified beer server certificate, just four years after Chicagoan Ray Daniels created the program.

With established players like Goose Island, up-and-comers like Half Acre and a wave of newcomers, new entrants to Chicago's craft beer scene might worry about the competition. Not so.

“We're not worried in the slightest,” says Samuel Evans of New Chicago Beer. “We're actually friends with the majority of these new breweries, and we all have our own niche we're going after. Craft beer's a very interesting industry, it's very open. There's countless collaborations between breweries. When one brewery struggles, others come in and help them out. It's just a culture that's been created around this young growing industry.”

Chicago's craft brewers are developing a culture of collaboration and cooperation just as millions of Chicagoans are learning to appreciate a fine brew. “The craft beer scene is definitely going to be a prominent feather in Chicago's cap,” says Schneider.

Ran February 2012:

Speeding Tickets for Going 26 MPH

For Atlantic Cities

By David Lepeska

Last week, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn approved Chicago's new plan to monitor speeding via camera in safety zones near schools and parks. In advocating for the bill, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, "My goal is only one thing: the safety of our kids."

Under the new system, drivers are fined $50 for going 6 to 10 mph over the speed limit and $100 for going 11 or more mph over. In most streets near schools, the daytime speed limit is 20 mph, meaning that a driver going 26 MPH is eligible for a fine. The plan would be in effect from early morning until 8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and until 9 p.m. on Fridays.

A Chicago Department of Transportation study that reportedly inspired the bill found the cameras would generate about $56 million from seven locations alone in its first year. This is just slightly less than the annual revenue from the city's entire red light camera network.

The new system, which requires an upgrade of cameras already installed on red lights, will have a lot more than seven cameras. Nearly 80 of the city's 189 red light camera intersections are in safety zones, and the city is now authorized to install fixed and mobile speed cameras in any of more than 700 safety zones, defined as 1/8th mile buffers around schools and parks.

The cameras will go live July 1 and will start issuing citations after a 30-day warning period. The revenue is to be spent not just on public safety but also on all variety of infrastructure, from roads to sewers. Chicago's City Council took up the bill this week, with Alderwoman Leslie Hairston comparing it to George Orwell's "big brother."

The criticisms are not unique to Chicago. Some D.C. residents have accused the creators of a similar speed camera system there of manipulation, citing the difficulty of going only 25 miles per hour when driving downhill. The system generated over $43 million for the city in 2010. Similar cameras have been come under attack in England, France, and Poland, as well as in El Paso, Texas.

Yet most analyses of the effectiveness of speed cameras have found that they reduce speeding, which usually means fewer collisions. A 2007 study of speed cameras in Illinois highway work zones concluded that the percentage of speeders fell from 93 to 45 percent in one area. And a study of seven camera sites in the Washington, D.C., system found the number of vehicles speeding by more than 10 mph declined by 82 percent compared with similar sites without cameras in Baltimore.

Perhaps Chicago drivers can find some solace in the simple, relatively straightforward system – 5 mph or less over posted speed limit, from early morning to late evening. Drivers coming up on this impossibly complex sign, near a school in suburban Detroit, for example, are essentially forced to come to a full stop if they want to know the current speed limit.

Ran February 2012:

What's Behind the Urban Chicken Backlash

For Atlantic Cities

By David Lepeska

At this point in the locavore narrative, urban chicken-keeping has vocal advocates and an adamant opposition. Some cities welcome backyard poultry with open arms, while others are more skeptical. As the practice grows, the two sides seem prepared for a long, drawn out war on the value and propriety of chicken-keeping within city limits.

Urban farmers generally view a backyard coop as a natural extension of their garden and a convenient, eco-friendly source of protein – though no academic study has examined the environmental impact of the practice. Some even see their charges as pets with benefits.

"Even slaughter that is performed 'correctly' is still no treat to witness or hear."

On this side, we have Martha Stewart, that doyenne of domestic perfection, and Susan Orlean, the sensitive, bestselling New Yorker writer played by Meryl Streep in Adaptation.

Their neighbors take a more jaundiced view. Protest groups in cities across the country have helped devise bills to ban or restrict the practice. These opponents argue that chickens are smelly and noisy and a potential health risk; that the coops are eyesores that potentially bring down property values; and that they attract rodents and predators, like coyotes, endangering chickens as well as children.

And then, of course, there is the potential slaughterhouse next door. "Botched slaughter is all too common," writes Ian Elwood, of Neighbors Opposed to Backyard Slaughter, an anti-urban animal outfit in Oakland. "But even slaughter that is performed 'correctly' is still no treat to witness or hear."

Due in part to such concerns, Boston, Detroit, D.C., and Toronto prohibit the keeping of livestock within city limits. Chicago, like New York City, views chickens as pets and has no limits on ownership, though slaughter is forbidden. But suburban Naperville and Northbrook are considering bans, while Evanston has set a limit of six hens per household.

Many cities in the West are going in the other direction. In 2010, Seattle raised its hen limit from three to eight per household. Some animal-friendly residents of Portland, where residents can keep up to three hens without a permit, have been running a tour of local chicken coops since 2003.

In Vancouver, Mayor Gregor Robertson sees chickens in every lot as part of the city's destiny as the world's greenest city -- and launched Operation Chicken to make it happen. In 2009, the Vancouver city council voted unanimously to allow backyard chickens. A year later, the city released detailed guidelines for keeping backyard hens, including what kinds of properties, proximity to property line, and type and number of chickens (four hens).

Perhaps no city is as divided over the chicken question as Oakland. City officials are considering allowing residents to raise and slaughter not just chickens, but goats, rabbits, ducks and other animals, in their backyards. Backers argue that it would help alleviate food deserts.

Oakland's anti-slaughter group sees the practice as a socio-economic problem. NOBS argues that the city's approval of the slaughter of chickens “would serve the needs of a small group of people interested in creating artisan animal products instead of serving the low-income communities.” They've posted flyers around the city, playing up fears of stray chickens wandering the city and children witnessing grisly scenes of animal killing.

Despite this opposition, some degree of urban chicken keeping is most likely here to stay, and compromise is probably inevitable in many municipalities. Attacks like that of NOBS appear more likely merely to inflame the process.

Ran February 2012:

How Istanbul Became One of Europe's Safest Cities

For Atlantic Cities

By David Lepeska

Political observers have recently been trumpeting the Turkish Model, citing Turkey's democracy, its open-minded Islamists and economic zip as an example to newly liberated Arab nations and other Muslim countries.

In the 18th century, however, its capital presented a less positive model. The Istanbul of that era – with waves of migrants, an underclass of servants and unskilled laborers, overburdened housing stock, dirty slums abutting elegant mansions, high levels of petty and violent crime – looked much like Dickensian London.

"The scholarship has kind of put all cities in the Middle East in the category of 'Islamic cities,' focusing on Islamic institutions and drawing a hard-and-fast line between these cities and European cities,” says Fariba Zarinebaf, professor of Islamic studies at University of California, Riverside.

In Crime and Punishment in Istanbul, 1700-1800, Zarinebaf uses court, prison and police records, surveys, imperial orders and a variety of Ottoman narratives to map the city's criminal activity. She also highlights Istanbul's importance as a port, its layered history and its great diversity. "It was so much more diverse than any other European city," she says. "It's the most cosmopolitan city in the Mediterranean world."

To control crime and rebellion (the city experienced uprisings in 1703 and 1730, the latter of which toppled the leadership for several months) the state embraced heavy-handed tactics familiar to contemporary Arab autocrats: planting spies in coffeehouses to eavesdrop, rounding up and exiling foreigners and the marginalized and creating guilds and neighborhood associations to report back on questionable activity.

"What's happening today with the Arab uprisings is just déjà vu," says Zarinebaf, who points out that protest movements in both eras were due in part to simple hunger. "What happens when people rebel? The state cracks down."

Yet the historic Turkish justice system offered a much more enlightened model, mixing elements of Sharia with modern law. With thousands of Albanians, Greeks and Kurds among its population of about 400,000—the same as Paris at the time—18th century Istanbul was about 40 percent Christian and 5 to 10 percent Jewish. "Istanbul was never really a Muslim city," says Zarinebaf. "It had to cater to these various interests and as a result it became far more flexible."

Rather than having his hands cut off, for instance, a man found guilty of pickpocketing was generally sentenced to row in the galleys. Rather than lashed, a woman guilty of prostitution might be banished to Bursa, in Anatolia. If the woman repented, she could choose to pursue rehabilitation.

In this regard, 18th century Istanbul was more modern than a handful of 21st century states. Saudi Arabia and Yemen still punish homosexuality with death. In Pakistan, women unable to produce four adult male witnesses to their rape are found guilty of fornication and jailed.

As a result of its complex history, 21st century Turkey balances Islam, liberty and a touch of authoritarianism. Alcoholic drink and public brothels are tolerated by the state – political dissent and a free press less so.

In terms of policing, Turkey's vast cosmopolis offers lessons for the developing megacities of today, places like Dubai and Jakarta, Nairobi and Cairo. Istanbul has in recent decades been undergoing a rapid transformation, as urban expansion and modernization remake previously dilapidated and marginalized neighborhoods into welcoming retail and residential districts, often pushing the less advantaged to outlying areas. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former Istanbul mayor, envisions the city as a global hub and world financial center.

It's already one of the safer major international cities, for which Zarinebaf cites layers of law enforcement. Policing principles are drawn from the military. Training and education is essential – 85 percent of Turkish police have undergraduate degrees.

The city sets up police checkpoints at night to monitor movement. An integrated surveillance system connects hundreds of CCTV cameras to thousands of squad cars and scores of mobile stations, keeping an eye on most public areas.

At the same time, a community watch program maintains local vigil, via merchant guilds and neighborhood groups. “Today if I move to Turkey I have to report to the local police and tell them,” says Zarinebaf. “This kind of approach to policing – not only from the top, but also from below, keeping an eye on the neighborhood – this sort of policing is uniquely Ottoman.”

Zarinebaf lives in the Windy City but prefers the former Constantinople, which has the lowest assault rate in Europe. “In Istanbul, I feel safer than I feel in Chicago,” she says.

That should come as little surprise to Chicagoans, who saw their murder rate spike by more than half in January. Maybe it's time to take a closer look at the Turkish model.

Ran February 2012:

When Police Abuse Surveillance Cameras

For Atlantic Cities

By David Lepeska

The ACLU has portrayed Chicago's extensive crime camera a system as a $60 million threat to privacy. Turns out Chicago police officers sometimes see the system as a threat to their privacy as well.

In the wee hours of June 13, 2009, a Chicago camera scanning a West Side neighborhood recorded a small, rowdy party taking place in a vacant lot. A young man standing in a nearby yard also comes into focus.

All of a sudden, the camera's circuitous route is interrupted, diverted back to the party and then pointed at an empty stretch of sidewalk. It stays on that spot for about 10 minutes, and when it returns to its regular rotation we see not one, not 10, but 19 police cars on the street next to the party. In the intervening period, police had arrived in force to break up a fight.

Torri Hamilton, the lawyer of the young man who had been standing in the yard – and was subsequently charged with resisting arrest, though later cleared – says police officers went in with mace and billy clubs to disperse the crowd.

Chicago's police-run crime cameras require manual control to be diverted from their usual scan. To Hamilton, the re-positioning of this camera, at essentially nothing, suggests the police, after receiving a call about the fight, had diverted the camera so that their use of force would not be recorded.

Jody Weis, former head of the Chicago Police Department, concurs with this diagnosis. He told a reporter from radio station WBEZ:

Weis says it's not too much of a stretch to think officers would divert the cameras. He says when he was in charge they had a problem with officers turning off the cameras in their cars, "and I think it was because people had a fear, we don't want this camera recording what we're doing and I don't know how many times I spent and said 'Guys, if you're doing your job correctly this camera's your greatest friend.'"

All of which suggests that the monitoring of cameras, thought to be one of the keys to successful crime camera systems, is susceptible to not just incompetence, but also abuse.

This fear of being caught in the act of using excessive force can be traced to the infamous Rodney King incident of 1991, in which a bystander captured Los Angeles police officers beating King with batons after a high-speed chase. Footage of the baton beating later sparked widespread riots.

Apparently, diversions of crime cameras are not uncommon. Along with their recently published study on the effectiveness of crime camera systems, the Urban Institute released a handy guide for officials planning on implementing their own surveillance plan. The authors warned: "cameras may be diverted to another viewable area when an incident occurs and catch little or nothing of the incident itself."

The report neglected to mention who might do the diverting.

Ran December 2011:

Why Your Water Bill Must Go Up

For Atlantic Cities

By David Lepeska

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched a $4.1 billion initiative to replace his city's dilapidated water infrastructure last month, spinning it as a plan to create 18,000 jobs over the next decade. The rub is that by 2015, most Chicagoans would pay more than double their current water usage fees. “The work here, in my view, is essential for Chicago’s economic future,” Emanuel said at a construction site where crews replaced piping dating to 1886.

Unsurprisingly, most Chicagoans are unhappy with the rate hike. But their city has at least a thousand miles of water line that's 100 years old or older, so the upgrade is a must. And Chicago's not alone. Built mostly during the late 19th and early 20th century, much of the country's water infrastructure—from wells to dams and reservoirs; from storage tanks, aqueducts, and treatment plants to pipes and valves—is rapidly failing.

The problem is most troubling in cities, where dense and increasing populations put greater demand on already-strained systems that municipal governments generally lack the funds to upgrade. Without robust, urgent action, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly half the nation's pipes will fall into the “poor, very poor or elapsed” categories by 2020, risking widespread failures and a considerable threat to public health.

Failing water infrastructure has been making headlines for over a decade, to little effect. In 1998, a 128-year-old water main burst under Fifth Avenue in New York, flooding several streets, creating a 35-foot-crater and rupturing a gas line that shot flames 20 feet into the air. In 2001, the American Water Works Association published a report [PDF] about the "Replacement Era" that warned that our nation's pipes were reaching their expiration date.

In 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave water infrastructure across the country a D-minus. Four years later it handed out the same grade. In 2007, an increase in giant sinkholes in cities and towns all over the country coincided with the EPA's launch of its Aging Water Infrastructure Research Program.

Now it's nearly 2012, yet water systems in Washington, Alaska and North Dakota still use wooden pipes. This past summer, pipelines burst across the country due to record heat. Oklahoma City's utilities department recorded 685 main breaks from July to early September.

The ASCE says leaks cost us seven billion gallons of water each day—nearly 2 trillion of gallons of water, worth nearly $3 billion, every year. The EPA estimates 700 water mains break every day, or nearly one every two minutes. And a study by UCLA and Stanford found that more than 1.5 million people in Southern California get sick every year because of bacteria from polluted water released by broken pipes.

Jeffrey K. Griffiths, professor of public health at Tufts University and chair of the drinking water committee on the EPA's Science Advisory Board, says that aging pipes should be replaced at a rate of 2 percent each year. But the current rate across the U.S. is less than half that. “We're going to have increasing numbers of breaking pipes; the infrastructure is not going to last much longer,” says Griffiths. “The longer we delay replacing the pipes, the cost will be higher. Plus there's the public health problem that contaminants in the ground get in the water and people get sick.”

The EPA estimates that adequately upgrading the nation’s water infrastructure would cost between $750 billion and $1 trillion over the next couple decades. Yet with the protracted recession, neither cities nor the federal government have funds to spare. And because water infrastructure is mainly underground and out of sight, political will in Washington remains low. Only about $10 billion of the $787 billion 2009 stimulus package was aimed at water infrastructure. What's more, the federal government's share of water infrastructure spending has plummeted from about 75 percent to about 3 percent in the past 35 years, according to Ken Kirk of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

• • • • •

The result is that state and municipal governments are often forced to shoulder an impossible expense. A $3 billion sewer system debt forced Jefferson County, Alabama, to declare bankruptcy earlier this month—the nation's largest-ever municipal bankruptcy filing.

Mayors and city officials are turning to taxpayers to foot the inflated water infrastructure bill. In many places—including Los Angeles, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., Sacramento and now Chicago—residents have pushed back against proposed rate increases.

Chicago's water rates are among the country's lowest, so perhaps that city is due for a hike. But many urban residents are asking a reasonable question: isn't there another solution?

The American Water Works Association has called for federal funding for half the annual replacement costs, or about $15 billion each year, according to the AWWA's Tom Curtis. This seems reasonable, considering the U.S. government pays about 80 percent of the costs for replacing roads, bridges, and airports.

Alex Mattheissen, of New York-based clean water advocacy group Riverkeeper, supports legislation to establish a Clean Water Trust Fund or the creation of a National Development Infrastructure Bank that would combine public and private funding. Others are calling for the creation of a single office overseeing national water policy and supply, with a comprehensive national strategy to prioritize decision-making and expenditure. But considering the exorbitant replacement costs, any federal commitment is unlikely to be a game-changer.

“It would be great if the federal government got back into the funding game, but even if they did it wouldn't be at a level that would make that much of a difference,” says Kirk, head of NWACA. “Local governments are going to continue to bear the brunt of the cost of infrastructure improvements. So we have to put local governments and utilities in a position to spend those dollars more wisely, more cost-effectively. We're talking about green infrastructure, new technologies, more flexibility.”

In order to avoid another major overhaul down the line, our 19th century water infrastructure systems must be replaced with 21st century technologies. Scientists are working on pipes that sense when they are about to break and call for repairs, sensors that evaluate water quality and systems that adjust reservoirs in danger of flooding.

George Hawkins, head of DC Water, Washington, D.C.'s water and sewer authority, has installed leak-detecting sensors that immediately send data back to a central control room. This has enabled the city to identify and repair aging pipes and valves before they blow, which necessitates costly replacement. The technology is also credited with reducing leakage loss by more than a third.

An engineering professor at Virginia Tech University is working with the EPA and water utilities to develop a system called Sustainable Water Infrastructure Management, or SWIM. Some cities are unsure exactly where their pipes run, what they're made of or when they were first installed. SWIM offers electronic, Internet-based mapping and monitoring of buried water infrastructure, helping a water utility gauge the condition of its pipelines from above ground. The system is already in use in Las Vegas and Chicago, with Seattle, Atlanta, Miami and Dallas up next.

Engineers at the University of California, Irvine have developed prototype robots that can repair and retrofit aging water pipes by applying reinforcement material rather than excavating and replacing the entire pipeline, saving time and money.

Still, cities and their residents will continue to shoulder the majority of the expense. A recent NACWA report estimates that the costs of upgrading water infrastructure will in the coming years lead to increased debt and possibly economic contraction, which means rising water rates in many U.S. cities.

For decades we've paid very little for the most necessary of commodities. A survey last year by ITT, a leading provider of wastewater systems, found that two-thirds of Americans take their water for granted. Yet that same percentage would be willing to pay a little more to rebuild aging water systems.

A day after Mayor Emanuel held his news conference to announce Chicago's upgrade, a 91-year-old South Side water main burst as if on cue, closing streets, flooding nearby basements and curbing area water supply. To those poised to complain about pricier water: consider the possibility of a few days without it.

Ran November 2011:

Looking to Boost Transparency, Chicago Turns to Students

For Atlantic Cities

By David Lepeska

A new course at Northwestern University presents an ingenious cost-cutting move for cities staring at mountains of debt: bring in a team of undergrads to do your work for free.

Starting in January, students enrolled in Poli Sci 395 are set to work directly with officials in Chicago's Inspector General's office to improve transparency and accountability within the government of the country's third largest city.

"I wanted to give students an opportunity to experience real civic engagement," says Northwestern political science professor Don Gordon, who created the course. "I wanted to give them a sense that they can make an impact by engaging in their community."

Urban studies programs around the country often include a stint of public service, an internship with local government or a close examination of the development and execution of urban policy. But this is next-level engagement, not to mention a rare opportunity for undergrads.

Gordon, who worked as a community activist in Chicago for decades and ran for alderman four years ago, first proposed the course during a December 2010 lunch with Chicago's Inspector General, Joseph Ferguson, who had guest lectured in Gordon's earlier courses. Ferguson was receptive, as were Northwestern's higher-ups, and by March it was a done deal.

That same month the Inspector General's office launched Open Chicago, a project to enhance transparency in city government as a means to improve efficiency, integrity and accountability. The initiative aims to provide Chicagoans, the media, and elected officials greater access to key documents and data, and allow them to make recommendations.

"[The Northwestern] course is designed to further the work of our Open Chicago initiative, so the students will be conducting analysis and research that we have wanted to do with our own staff but haven’t yet done, so that’s a tremendous benefit,” says Aaron Feinstein, IGO Director of Program and Policy Review.

Due to funding shortfalls across the municipal government, the Inspector General's office is woefully under-staffed. The office is budgeted for 69 positions, yet has just 50 employees on staff. "While the students get fantastic, hands-on experience, the IGO gets free labor,” says Gordon.

Longtime Mayor Richard M. Daley often stressed transparency, but his successor made it a keystone of his campaign, promising "the most open, accountable and transparent government that the city of Chicago has ever seen." Since taking office in May, Mayor Emanuel has made a wealth of information on crime, lobbyist clients and city contracts available for the first time.

Yet he has also been taken to task for withholding information about his daily schedule, interoffice communications and the development of major policy initiatives like a recent water rate hike, the addition of more traffic cameras and plans for a downtown casino.

Feinstein has seen positive changes, but he's hoping for more. "The city has not made as meaningful strides in disclosing data and information that inform the public about the decision-making process," he says. For example, the IGO has asked Emanuel's office to release documents provided to the city council – but not made available to the public – during the recent budget debate.

The course, which may help bring such documents to light, has been a hot commodity on campus. Its 15 available spots filled up within 24 hours of the opening of registration last month. Gordon now plans to add a few more seats.

Early in the course, the students will scour the country for innovative examples of transparency in local governance, such as New Mexico's Sunshine Portal or Manor, Texas's, Manor Labs, and pass them on to their colleagues at Open Chicago.

The students will then examine transparency within the city department of their choice: the police department, the fire department, emergency management services, the department of procurement – or just about any other city body. They'll pore over available data, look at how it's made available, its accessibility, its utility, and also consider what information is not available. Each student's final project will be put on the IGO website, available for scrutiny by city officials and the general public.

Ferguson is slated for a guest lecture, and the students will pay at least one visit to the downtown offices of the Inspector General. "Getting people who do not work on the city day-to-day we think will bring a fresh perspective to the analysis of the city's transparency and accountability efforts,” says Feinstein. "I think the students are likely to ask and then attempt to answer fundamental questions that those of us who work on this every day may occasionally lose sight of."

Be careful what you wish for, Mr. Feinstein. Gordon might urge his charges toward aggressive critiques of their city-employed colleagues. He recently wrote a book on civic engagement entitled, Piss Em All Off: And Other Practices of the Effective Citizen.

From December 2011:

The Roots of Detroit's Ruin

For Atlantic Cities

By David Lepeska

That the price of a house in Detroit can cost less today than a new car seems one of the great ironies of 21st century America. But no major city has been harder hit by the recent recession, or by the decades of manufacturing attrition that preceded it, than the Motor City.

It’s famously lost a quarter of its population in the last decade and 60 percent since 1950, and now sits on the brink of bankruptcy. “We are at a critical and pivotal time like none in Detroit's history,” Mayor Dave Bing said in his state of the city speech Wednesday.

In his forthcoming book, Detroit: A Biography, journalist Scott Martelle details how the city – felled by one of the great innovations of the industrial era, a grave lack of official foresight and swirling poverty and prejudice – has come to redefine urban collapse.

Martelle starts his story at the beginning, with French naval officer Antoine Laumet de Cadillac beaching his canoe on the north bank of the Detroit River in July 1701 and establishing Fort Pontchartrain.

Economic boom-times arrived with the 1825 opening of the Erie Canal, a key shipping link to the East through which boatloads of iron ore, copper, coal, and lumber from the Lake Superior region passed.

• • • • •

Detroit's population neared 300,000 at the turn of the century, just as Ransom Olds, David Buick, the Packard brothers and Henry Ford began their battle for automobile supremacy. By 1914, Detroit was making half the country's cars. By 1929 it was the fourth largest city in the country, with a thriving economy, a population of 1.6 million (nearly 160,000 working in the auto industry) and impressive new roads and skyscrapers.

Yet it was built on sand. Martelle points to Henry Ford's great innovation, the conveyor belt-driven assembly line. “It was the first critical step in the dehumanization of manufacturing work,” he writes. “Skilled craftsmen lost out to unskilled laborers who performed a single task, day in and day out.”

The line became standard across the industry and wages fell, leading to protests and ultimately the creation of the United Auto Workers union. Yet by providing decent-paying jobs to the least skilled, the assembly line dictated that future Detroit workers would rarely need more than a high school education or any skills that might help them find work beyond the most menial jobs.

“It drew to Detroit the relatively uneducated, made Detroit a magnet for the lower economic strata, from the South and other parts of Midwest,” says Martelle. “Obviously you need laborers, but this skewed the balance.”

And in a free market those jobs would constantly seek out the cheapest labor. General Motors sniffed the changing winds long before most, opening factories as far afield as Europe, South America and, in 1929, that godhead of outsourcing, India.

The Great Depression hit Detroit hard. Auto production fell by three-quarters in just three years, forcing tens of thousands of layoffs and countless foreclosures. Major banks faced insolvency.

By 1940 the industry had rebounded, converting plants to build tanks, planes and various other vehicles and spare parts for the war effort. Detroit's economy hummed again, and half a million people arrived looking for work, mostly African-Americans from the South.

After the war, the big automakers went back to their old ways. Cars sold in record numbers, driving a booming local and regional economy. Depression-era troubles had failed to convince Detroit officials to diversify.

“It was a lack of imagination,” says Martelle. “The leaders saw people buying cars again, and thought, ‘making cars, that's what this city does best.’” That decision, Martelle argues, played a major role in the city's eventual collapse.

“It's hard to imagine Detroit would be in its current condition if the post-war economy had diversified significantly beyond auto-making,” he writes in the book.

• • • • •

Later opportunities to point the city in a better direction came and went. Martelle chronicles the 1949 election of Mayor Albert Cobo, whose anti-integration, slum-clearing policies helped spur the exodus of whites to the suburbs, the devastation of the 1967 riots and the years of crime, drugs, and gang violence that followed.

Along the same timeline, the Big Three were busy decentralizing their operations. By the early 70s, one out of every three dollars invested in the major automakers was heading overseas.

The 1973 oil embargo, the subsequent race to increase fuel efficiency and the rise of Japanese automakers like Honda proved the straw that broke the city's back. Within two years, U.S. auto production had fallen nearly 30 percent, and Detroit was well on its way to becoming a byword for urban decay.

Martelle intersperses his narrative with a handful of telling resident bios. Michael Farrell buys the century-old, long-neglected Taylor House mansion in Brush Park for $65,000 in 1981. He hopes to revive the neighborhood and achieves modest success until the financial crisis steals his momentum. With no grocery store or retail of any sort, today the area is known mainly for its Victorian “ruins porn.”

“When you lose the commerce, you lose the city,” Farrell tells Martelle in the book. “Detroit has no commerce.”

• • • • •

Yet encouraging signs have appeared. John Thompson grew up in rough-and-tumble Cass Corridor, where he opened Honest ? John's Bar and Grill in 2002. An independent bookstore, a creperie and an art movie house have since followed, along with a trickle of new residents, providing what Martelle calls “a little shoot of new urban intensity.”

A modest uptick in the auto industry has meant new jobs, but mostly outside Detroit. Companies like Dan Gilbert's Quicken Loans and Blue Cross Blue Shield have begun reinvesting in Detroit's downtown, creating thousands of jobs and incentives to new residents. Nonprofits like Skillman Foundation and Kresge Foundation work to rebuild and preserve neighborhoods via education and engagement.

Still, these are tiny slices in a vast city of 140 square miles. With about $40 million left in the bank, Detroit is essentially bankrupt, and facing a deficit of $200 million. Since taking office in mid-2009, Mayor Dave Bing has cut nearly a quarter of his workforce and enacted a 10 percent pay cut for the rest, cut garbage pick-up and police patrols in large swathes of town and recently asked for a $150 million loan from the governor. As if that weren't enough, the Detroit public school system is considering closing half its schools.

Pittsburgh, another single-industry city that collapsed in the 70s and 80s, has in recent decades begun to rehabilitate itself. In 2010, more than one in five jobs in the region were in education and healthcare, nearly a 20 percent increase from 2000. The focus on these sectors as well as finance and technology has drawn a new wave of immigrants.

Martelle sees the legacy left by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie in that city as crucial. Carnegie Mellon University is a top research and academic institution, while the Carnegie Institute operates four respectable museums. Together they establish strong educational and cultural roots.

Henry Ford, on the other hand, created the Ford Foundation, which has been based in New York for decades. “That's a lesson for other urban areas,” says Martelle. “Try to draw corporations into creating institutions that could sustain the community in the future.”


Ran December 2011:

Are Crime Cameras Worth the Money?

For Atlantic Cities

By David Lepeska

In May 2010, a 30-year-old Pakistani-American drove his Nissan Pathfinder into one of the most scrutinized urban spaces on the planet and parked along the curb.

In the hours that followed, more than 80 city surveillance cameras – as well as dozens of private cameras, constant media feeds and amateur tourist videographers - failed to capture an image of Faisal Shahzad and his suspicious, fertilizer-packed SUV in Times Square. All those electronic eyes couldn't even provide police investigators an image of the suspect (the balding middle-aged man standing near the vehicle in popular security footage had nothing to do with the case).

Instead, a street vendor pointed out the smoking Pathfinder to mounted police officers, leading to Shahzad's capture more than 50 hours later. In the end it wasn't high-tech 21st century surveillance that caught the crook, but good old-fashioned community vigilance. "The successful model for getting the alleged 'bad guy,''' wrote the Boston Globe, "is more Sam Spade than Jack Bauer."

For years, video surveillance has been seen as a potent weapon in the fight against urban crime. The Department of Homeland Security lays out millions of dollars to throw a surveillance net on our cities. Last year, it spent more than $830 million in 64 metropolitan areas as part of its Urban Area Security Initiative – up from $15 million and seven cities for the same program in 2009. This year the total is $662 million across 31 cities.

Yet the question of effectiveness has haunted governments, police officials and academic researchers for decades. It should also haunt taxpayers, because camera surveillance doesn't come cheap. London's 10,000 camera system, for example, has cost more than $320 million to set up and maintain.

The answer, thus far, has been decidedly mixed. Studies in San Francisco and London – two cities on opposite sides of the camera-density spectrum – found little to cheer. San Francisco's 68 cameras placed in high-crime areas failed to reduce assaults, sex offenses and robbery, and merely moved murder down the block, according to a UC-Berkeley report.

London city data revealed that police were no more likely to catch the perpetrators of crimes committed in camera-dense areas than in other boroughs, suggesting no link between more cameras and better crime solving.

A 2009 meta-analysis by researchers from Northeastern University and the University of Cambridge examined 44 previous studies and turned up some positive results. They found surveillance systems to be most effective in parking lots, cutting crime by 51 percent. Cameras in public transport areas – at subway stations, on trains and at bus stops – generally reduced crime by almost one quarter. And camera systems in public settings cut crime by about seven percent.

Britain – with as many as 4 million cameras across the country – accounted for the majority of these reductions.

Now comes a rigorous new study from the Urban Institute, analyzing surveillance systems in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), which has invested more than $16 billion to advance community policing at the state and local levels since 1994, sponsored the study, released in September.

The researchers focused on select high crime areas where cameras had recently been installed and studied crime statistics going as far back as 2001 to include before and after data. In Baltimore, crime fell by 25 percent in one area, 10 percent in another and yet stayed the same in a third. In Washington, cameras appeared to have no effect on criminal activity.

In Chicago, the country's most extensive, integrated network, cameras in Humboldt Park correlated to a 12 percent decline in overall crime, including a 33 percent reduction in drug offenses and robberies and a 20 percent drop in violent crime. Meanwhile, a second Chicago area of study, West Garfield Park, saw no crime drop.

The Urban Institute researchers made two important advances over previous studies. First, they reviewed each cities' decision-making process, the set-up of the surveillance system and finally usage. They found that active monitoring by trained personnel had a greater impact than cameras merely left to record video for later use, in the event of a crime in that area. They also found that costs, if not monitored, can spiral out of control.

Second, the researchers devised a system for calculating the social and governmental costs of various crimes, including expenses related to arrest, pre-sentencing, incarceration and cost to victim. “No prior research has sought to explore the degree to which camera use is cost-beneficial—a critical inquiry in light of the economic challenges currently being experienced by jurisdictions across the country,” they wrote in the executive summary.

Under their system, murder costs $1.4 million, aggravated assault $89,000, robbery $120,000 and rape just $62,000. Baltimore saved $1.50 for every dollar spent on crime cameras, according to the report. The crimes prevented in Humboldt Park saved Chicago a whopping $4.30 for every dollar spent on both the Humboldt and West Garfield systems.

In the end, the Urban Institute researchers offer a handy guide for city officials and law enforcement agencies, with tips from the reasonable (“assess your needs and budget before investing,”) to the mundane (“weigh the costs and benefits of using active monitoring”).

Their best advice is to manage expectations about the impact of crime camera systems: “Footage quality may be adversely impacted by darkness, inclement weather, equipment damage or dirt;” "Images can be grainy, cloudy, or otherwise unclear;" and “cameras may be diverted to another viewable area when an incident occurs and catch little or nothing of the incident itself."

Aaron Doyle, a criminologist at Carleton University who is part of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University and co-editor of a book out next month called Eyes Everywhere: The Global Growth of Camera Surveillance, sees this study as consistent with previous work.

"The worst-case scenario is that these positive results in two of the three cities will be over-hyped and lead to the kind of mega-expensive runaway train that CCTV has been in Britain,” says Doyle. “It is possible that a modest well-planned network could be part of a range of measures that would help in some limited contexts, but I think crime is better dealt with in ways that build and involve community."


Originally ran December 12, 2011, at: