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Planet Rochester: How are things on the ground? 

Johannesburg seems a world away, and the Earth Summit a world apart. Or so it seems to Americans, thanks to our head of state, who --- unlike 100 of his peers --- will not be attending.

            But the summit is actually the most local and immediate of events --- for all localities worldwide, simultaneously.

That's how I see it, anyway. Or rather, feel it. Yeah, we're past the fin de siècle thing and Y2K, but Labor Day, the end of summer, and the approaching fall make a guy reflective, even emotional about the subjects he's fated to write about.

            So I've been thinking about the Earth Summit and us. Specifically, I've been wondering what the summit's preoccupation, "sustainable development," should mean for this regional home of ours. How do we make the global conversation local? How do we reconcile sustainability and growth? Are we doing concrete things to make our future better? Will we ride out the ups and downs of global markets? Are we connecting the dots between here and the world, and taking the "global village" seriously? Have we got a clue?

            Here are some bulleted "dots" to chew on.

            • I think we've hit a plateau on environmental protection. This hits home when political candidates sloganize cures for Upstate New York's flat-lined economy. One big reason Upstate is ailing is that our urban areas, and plenty of small towns as well, are pockmarked with "brownfields." These abandoned industrial properties, from the Love Canal clones on down to erstwhile neighborhood dry cleaners, need to be cleaned up --- with the polluters paying for the job.

            As things stand, businesses that emit pollutants have a rock-hard incentive to relocate to pristine areas where land is cheap and regulation slack; that often means out-of-state. So what do we do about this? Mostly our leaders run a "race to the bottom" against other jurisdictions. We need to quit the game. There are decent alternative models: One of them is the restoration and conversion of old urban buildings to stores, workshops, and apartments. But this is being done only piecemeal by private developers. It needs to be public policy buttressed by a movement to resist unnecessary or inappropriate projects outside the urban core.

            • Housing, housing, housing. I mean affordable, environmentally friendly, and accessible homes, not more McMansions. A few years ago, an "Analysis of Impediments" to fair housing prepared for the county, city, and two suburban towns said we didn't have enough affordable units or money to meet the needs. Today local housing advocates say around half of Rochester-area tenants spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. The problem cuts across urban-suburban lines. Yet in face of this need, vast resources go instead into McMansions beyond the horizon. And underneath is the dynamic few people dare to discuss: the political face-off between urbs and burbs, with the question of race and class paramount. (The dynamic partly explains our desultory moves on the urban lead-paint crisis.)

            Suffer through the TV ads, or even scan the campaign websites of the "major" gubernatorial candidates --- incumbent George Pataki and challengers Carl McCall and Andrew Cuomo --- and you'll see that affordable housing and homelessness aren't at the top of the New York agenda. Cuomo, a former federal Housing and Urban Development secretary, gives the most attention and detail to the issue. But the fact is, New Yorkers are too busy tossing nostrums around to address the issue.

            • Schools. I'm too depressed to say a lot here. But if we think sustainable, we'll have a nationally funded public school system with local, democratic controls. No more fiefdoms of privilege based on high housing values, or islands of poverty based on abandoned cities. It's been said that the public schools are about the only American institution in which Americans must behave and must be treated roughly as equals. That's the type of experience that everyone needs. And defense of public schools, not to mention educational reform, must rest on that simple truth.

            • Health care. I declared myself on this one last week. So here I'll add only that we're letting sustainability slip away from us, and putting it under the knife of national policy. The fact is, there's very little that can be done locally on this one. A concerted community effort failed even to save Genesee Hospital as such --- though I'm hopeful the complex will be used for some kind of care.

            Health care is a right. It should be in the Constitution. If it were, we'd have to do the right thing: see to it that everybody gets full and equal medical care, as needed. No deductibles, you might say.

            • Economic development. Just as with Tom Golisano-style messages about creating jobs (except paid firefighters' jobs, which The Tom would turn to volunteer posts) and cutting taxes, I hear too much about casinos.

            I agree 150 percent with former City Newspaper writer Mark Hare that casinos are a dead end. They're also an insult to traditional Native American values.

            As a native Niagaran, I cringe to think that the Temple of Ugly, the Niagara Falls Convention Center, will be made more so by being turned into a temporary gambling den. And yes, news reports say a second casino may be on the way for Niagara Falls, Ontario, the crossborder city which in a better world would be a close regional partner, not a competitor. And who knows how many other casinos will pop up, or where? Will our home become an archipelago of one-arm bandits interspersed with Lotto counters?

            Call me old-fashioned, but I think the basis --- the foundation, not necessarily the bulk --- of a sound economy in this region is agriculture. And that's precisely what we're shortchanging. Ag is the state's biggest industry, and we've got some of the finest farmland on earth. Every cubic inch of our soil should be treated like gold and diamonds, or actually, much better than those inert vanities.

            • Transportation. I've said I'd enjoy a ride on the fast ferry to Toronto; bike in hand, I might even become a frequent boarder. But I don't think the ferry is a sustainable thing. Other, less expensive (and admittedly more limited) lake ferries have come and gone.

            But in any case, the accent should be on rail. Hey, we've got the rights-of-way, the existing tracks, the rolling stock, everything but the political will to create 21st century rail links with Toronto and other destinations. What absurd prejudice --- witness recent condemnations of Amtrak subsidies, so puny next to the routine private-public payouts for roadways and motor vehicles --- keeps a modern rail system off the American political map?

Well, that's my Labor Day rant.

            Love or hate it. No "moderates," please.

            Consider where we're headed together, you and I. It's pretty much where we've been, only worse.

            Dicey "gaming" palaces, breaks for big business, high rents and "no vacancy" signs for the poor, overgrown bathtub toys for Lake Ontario, brownfields forever... None of this sounds remotely sustainable to me. Unless you redefine the term yet again to mean "we're stuck with this crap."


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