Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “levees”

Please, Stop Whining About Spending! – Tom Rossi

The words “tax” and “spend” get thrown around a lot by our beloved politicians – especially by the Republicans. The simpletonistic, cave-man assumption we are all to follow along with is: “Taxes bad, spending bad. Ugh! Atouk zugzug Lana!”

The idea actually is pretty simple – government spending necessitates taxes, and the more taxes, the less money in your pocket. Fair enough, but also myopic.

Everyone, except a handful of fringe lunatics, agrees that some spending is necessary. In general, Democrats believe we have to spend money on some kinds of public health programs and things like that, while Republicans always seem to think we need a more military might.

Right there, something should become obvious – not all spending is created equal. What surprises me is that the anti-spending crowd is opposed to moderate spending now, that would prevent mega-spending becoming necessary later. Now we’re talking about my favorite word: infrastructure.

America’s infrastructure is in a sorry state. That isn’t some nutty, liberal viewpoint, it’s the opinion of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Here’s the report card they gave the U.S. in 2009:

2009 Grades

Aviation D

Bridges C

Dams D

Drinking Water D-

Energy D+

Hazardous Waste D

Inland Waterways D-

Levees D-

Public Parks and Recreation C-

Rail C-

Roads D-

Schools D

Solid Waste C+

Transit D

Wastewater D-

America’s Infrastructure GPA: D
Estimated 5 Year Investment Need: $2.2 Trillion

Why do I always harp about this? Because these elements are the life’s blood of America. The individual pieces of our infrastructure are aging and deteriorating, and it will eventually cost us… big.

Even the most hardcore of bottom-liners have to see that our economy will utterly fail if our water, transportation, flood control, energy, waste, and educational systems and facilities start to falter with increased frequency. And, at this point, we’re not even talking about preventative maintenance. We’re trying to keep up with massive failures.

How do you treat your own home, and your own car? Car owners know that skipping their oil changes at “Jiffy Lube” to save $35 will most likely lead to a ruined engine, at a cost just slightly higher than $35.

Homeowners know that “saving” the expense of fixing a little leak in the roof that appears one day will certainly mean a nightmare, where the entire roof will have to be replaced and the house will probably suffer water damage.

Fixing water pipes or levees before they burst, fixing bridges before they fall into the river, and repairing roads before they completely shut down transportation can save ten times what these repair jobs cost.

And the dollar-cost isn’t anywhere near the whole story. Any of these infrastructure failures causes huge logistical catastrophes, as well. Imagine what it would be like if the bridge or the freeway you take to work was out of commission for 6 months, or if you had to go without running water for as long.


Another big reason to start investing more in our infrastructure is that it would create many, many jobs. We could put Americans to work physically fixing America. Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? And it wouldn’t be giving away money for the sake of it, it would be directly improving our country in so many ways.

I’m tired of all the anti-spending ranting. We need more spending, not less. We just need to focus our spending on constructive activities.

-Tom Rossi


Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.


Brad Pitt – Jon Stewart has a crush too

So I gushed about Brad Pitt. Guys can do that and, frankly he deserves it. Still, it is nice to know that I am not the only one. Jon Stewart had his say too. I couldn’t embed the clip, so please click here.

Interview 2 – this is the one regarding his work in New Orleans. The other is just cute and funny.

Both are worth it and you can donate to the work at Making It Right.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

I Love Brad Pitt

Heralding from the olde countrye I am not amused with the whims and ways of actors and actresses. Living in California, I can’t help but note the amount of time people spend talking about them, and not necessarily their artistic achievements either.

We have family in SoCal which brings me, a few times a year, closer to Hollywood, duly noted by the fact that the stories often contain personal anecdotes: I met xxxx at the supermarket, I swam in yyyy’s pool.

But I do have a crush on Brad Pitt. I don’t think it is because of his devilish good looks and I am not even sure in what movies I have seen him. The crush was preceded by admiration. Upset with the failure of our government to come to the aid of those who lost their houses to Hurricane Katrina and the levee debacle, Pitt got some like-minded friends together and went to work, creating an organization called Make It Right.

But Pitt isn’t just about building houses. He wanted to make an environmental statement. People in the area talk about their houses being too cold in the winter and an oven in the summer. Heaters and air conditioners work around the clock for those who can, and often those who can’t afford them (I’m talking about the inhabitants and the environment).

Pitt’s houses are environmentally suited to the climate of New Orleans and some can even elevate in times of emergency to rise above the floodwater. Critics will tell you that it looks like these houses have landed from another planet and do not reflect the culture of New Orleans. This is correct, but not necessarily a bad thing. It is okay to move with the times, to acknowledge that we can improve on the past and to seize an opportunity when a visionary comes to town.

Finally, these houses are not donated. The residents receive help obtaining a mortgage and buy their homes. There is no charity involved. These are not Brad Pitt’s houses. They belong to the people who  live there.

Brad Pitt has not only helped restore a neighborhood, he has helped restore pride. You can’t put a price on that. And I hear he’s a pretty good actor too!


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

No Natural Disaster

If you enter the search words: Hurricane Katrina + a natural disaster, you will assume from the first few sites that New Orleans suffered from a terrible natural catastrophe in the last days of August and beginning of September 2005. A mighty hurricane, an act of God, man-made defenses could not stand up to the forces of nature… It is perhaps understandable that people thought that then.

Here’s a word of advice. Don’t say that near anyone from New Orleans. In fact, after hearing their stories, after seeing the levees and the surrounding area, I don’t believe it either.

The levees were designed to withstand a hurricane the strength of Katrina, but they were not built the way they were designed. The bottom line is that the negligence in the construction of the walls was the reason why the city was devastated.

It’s like referring to the oil spill as a natural disaster. Wait, they did. The one article that stands out in the first ten on my google search is John McQuaid, who actually focuses in this post on whether we allow those culpable to subtly hide their shortcomings by blaming nature or God.

“Today, though, there’s a big problem: we can’t tell any longer where nature leaves off. Start with global warming and work your way down. Mankind is now causing what used to be called “natural disasters.” The Gulf oil spill is not a natural disaster in the traditional sense: nature didn’t cause it. But it is a natural disaster in that it’s disastrous to nature.

Or take the oft-litigated (in the courts and the media) case of Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levee system. I’ll repeat this here, for clarity: most of the devastating flooding of New Orleans occurred because faultyflood walls collapsed because of errors in their designs approved by the Army Corps of Engineers – i.e., the U.S. government. Natural disaster? Not really, though obviously nature had a hand in it. John Goodman’s character Creighton Bernette articulates this eloquently in the first episode of Treme.”

If we are failing to make the distinction between natural and man-made disasters because we are becoming numb to the series of catastrophes that seem to hit us, then this will become an increasing problem. If those who are taking the unnecessary risks, cutting the safety protocol corners to save money, are able to yield the nature/God car without impunity, that is darn right dangerous.

And unforgivable. Strong words? Ask the residents of the Gulf Coast. They’ve been hit twice in five years and, as people with a strong connection with the land, and many being God-fearing folk, they are not fooled by such doublespeak. They are just astounded that the rest of us are.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

Black And White

Today is Martin Luther King Jr Day, the birthday of a man who had a vision of a society where race and color would add to an exciting web of egalitarian diversity. We have achieved much since he took up the struggle, but we still have a long way to go.

When the waters rose above the dysfunctional levees of New Orleans, when the storm hit, nature did not differentiate between black and white, Christian and Jew. But the reality is that the areas which have a high percentage of African-Americans, were the worst hit.

When the survivors share their stories, race is almost always in the background and often in the forefront. Many of the travesties recounted by black people who got caught in the storm, when not relating to the wrath of Mother Nature, focus on how they were treated by what they perceive as the white authorities.

I am working in the Lower Ninth Ward. I have been here every year but once, when our group was sent to nearby St. Bernard’s Parish. The Lower Ninth Ward saw the worst destruction and may never recover despite the best intentions.

The Lower Ninth Ward, though mired in poverty, boasts 95% home ownership and has the highest density of African-American home ownership in the country. Those of us who return year after year to volunteer should come regardless of the victim’s skin color. But I would be lying if, as a white Jew, I did not admit to being aware of the race element, and how it strengthens my desire to return and help rebuild these communities.

Martin Luther King Jr had a dream. We all need to help build that vision. There is a Jewish saying: It is not for us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.

Here is my offering for Martin Luther King Jr’s Day. Thank you to Janis Ian for a timeless song.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com/

From New Orleans to San Francisco

I am currently concluding a week of volunteering in New Orleans with students from our San Francisco Hillel. A lot has changed: my first time here we gutted as many houses as we could to allow the residents to received their insurance and begin the long rebuilding process. In my second year, we helped build drywall and roofs to those who could only afford the materials but not the labor. This year we have been helping to establish a community garden in the Lower 9th Ward, the hardest hit area. Whereas in the past we were helping to rebuild the physical, this year it felt like we were helping to heal a community.

One surprising aspect this time is that we keep meeting people living in New Orleans who were linked to the San Francisco Bay Area. I feel there is an indefinable link between two cities that just don’t comply with the American norm.

The piece below is from Unwanted Heroes. I wrote it after my first trip here.

Chapter 2: The Fog Rolls In

I love San Francisco. Yeah, I grew up in London with fog on the Thames, but I don’t recall locals stopping to admire it.

Other cities share similar traits to San Francisco; Rome has hills, London has immigrants and culture, and Paris the artistic mystique. But San Francisco has all of this and it’s not thrown in your face. It just is.

I lean over the rails on the Embarcadero and stare out at the looming Bay Bridge, gray and partially veiled by early morning fog. Next to me stands a metal woman, eighteen feet high, a creation welded from hundreds of recycled pieces of junk. She holds hands with a child about six or eight feet tall, and together they stare out to sea.

The metal woman lacks the elegance of the Statue of Liberty. That’s what makes San Francisco special; it works without pretentiousness. I’m told that the metal mother and her child stand at the Burning Man festival in the desert. Fire courses through her body and out of her hand into the child.

We could do with the fire right now. I shiver as I watch wisps of fog on the water.  It’s very early and I must open the coffee shop. Despite the cold, I love this hour of the day; the city slumbers, but is not asleep. It’s simply preparing itself for the onslaught.  In two hours, tens of thousands of people will spew out of the BART and MUNI public transport tunnels. Others will stubbornly drive in, searching for elusive and pricey parking spaces. The more enlightened drivers have recruited two passengers from the casual car pool pickup points scattered around the bay, thereby avoiding the bridge tolls and utilizing the carpool lanes. The passengers, for their part, get a free ride into town.

Walking down Mission Street, I see Clarence, a huge African-American, dressed in a shiny black suit. I can’t tell if he’s awake behind those big black sunglasses until he raises his saxophone to salute me. The shiny instrument gleams, even in our fog-filled streets, and Clarence lets rip a short riff to announce: The barista has arrived!

Clarence stakes his position very early in the morning. There are more street musicians than ever these days and, with only a limited number of prime spots, Clarence must claim his territory. But at this moment, he plays only for me and I feel like a king. Clarence knows I don’t have money to throw in his open sax case; perhaps he’d feel insulted if I did.

But later, around 9.30 when the herd is safely corralled into their office cubicles and Clarence’s muscles are aching, he’ll come and rest in The Daily Grind. When I think Mr. Tzu, isn’t looking, I leave a cup of coffee on Clarence’s table. I used to mutter under my breath that some jerk had changed his order after I’d already poured his cup and there’s no use in waste. After about the fortieth time, I figured Clarence had picked up on my ruse and I just put the steaming cup on his table.

No thanks, but I know the gesture is appreciated, just as I appreciate Clarence playing for me as I pass in the early morning. He’ll sit for an hour or so and then slowly move off. I know little of Clarence, but he’s part of my life; another strand that weaves this urban tapestry called San Francisco.

Two weeks ago, some students entered The Daily Grind, their clothes covered with ‘New Orleans’ insignia. They were excited and boisterous as they passed Clarence at his regular table. From the way Clarence eyed them, I thought that their intrusion annoyed him. But I was wrong.

“Hey! What’s with th’ shirts? Whatca y’all doing with New Orleans?”

A young woman, blonde, thin and tanned, excitedly explained how they’d just come back from a week helping to rebuild houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina. “You should’ve seen the damage that hurricane did,” she concluded.

“Ain’t no hurricane that did that gal,” Clarence growled. “Weren’t no nat’ral disaster. Don’t let ’em bull ya’. The hurricane would’ve done some damage, but if those levees had held, if those bastards had built ’em like they should, well, ain’t no one have died there. My grandma’s house waz swept away, broke her it did. Such a proud w’man.”

Clarence rose and moved heavily to the door, but then turned. We all watched him. He spoke now in a softer tone. “But I thank y’all for going down there t’ help. It’s import’nt y’all show ya’ care, that some’n shows they care.”

We saw the tears as he turned and left leaving behind a heavy wake of silence. I couldn’t stop myself. I nodded to Tabitha to cover for me and followed him out of the café.

He stood on the corner of Mission and Spear caressing his saxophone and let rip the most beautiful, soulful jazz I have ever heard. He wasn’t playing for me that time; he wasn’t even playing for San Francisco. I could almost see his tune rolling out of the bay along with the fog and making its way to the Gulf.

When he finished I approached, not knowing what to say. We stared at each other.

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “I-I’m so sorry.”

I spoke with Mr. Tzu, the coffee shop owner, later that day. I had an idea and from that week, every Friday at lunchtime, Clarence would play in The Daily Grind to a packed audience. Big jars were scattered around the tables with labels: All Proceeds to New Orleans Relief Projects.

And as the music touched our customer’s souls, the jars filled: because San Francisco has a heart, and that heart was bleeding for a sister on the Gulf Coast.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com


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