Friday, December 24, 2010

DUST: What does the flag capture?

My suspicion is that I have less to say on this subject than I’d like to think, but I’m still feeling my way around in terms of the appropriateness of featuring certain material on this blog, so in the meantime it is best that I linger on the fluffier subjects. And I can’t help but indulge in my love of flags and all their expressive content while I live on a multinational military base. As my previous Afghanistan post indicated, they’re everywhere. They are less prevalent in their original, fluttering cloth form on an American base like Bagram Air Field. But the other two bases in which I have lived, Kandahar and now Camp Marmal, lack a single nation’s dominant military presence, and flag poles stand sentinel at various points across both bases.

The above photos, both taken at Kandahar, are hardly the greatest at capturing the semantic properties of flags. In the first photo, the flag—possibly German—projects just to the right of the street sign with “Illinois” misspelled, and in the second photo, a Danish flag (if I recall correctly) spears the sky in the distance on the left, slightly higher than the power lines. I never intended the flag to be a focal point in these photos. But they do at least suggest the flags’ power to serve as monuments in a base setting, primarily through two different expressive tools. When propelled on poles or stanchions, they punctuate the landscape by simply being taller than most structures amidst a flat, treeless terrain. And the banners themselves achieve prominence through their hues: bold colors contrast to the sepia tones of dust and particulate matter that veils the horizon, even when low wind levels keep the flag furled. The example below in Camp Marmal with a Norwegian flag gets the point across somewhat better, thanks to cleaner air and the relative absence of power lines.

These contrasts help to explain how flags engage with their surroundings at the sensory level, but the question remains how they operate spatially. In short, how do they govern the area around them, if they have any control at all? Obviously the devices used in display of the flag matter critically here. Within the context of a coalition base made up of multiple national armies such as this, the flag most clearly connotes two seemingly paradoxical territorial ideas: 1) that the area below the flag is part of that nation’s compound and “belongs” to it, so that the flag presides over that portion of the base; and 2) that the particular nation has a presence on this base and is a “team player” in the Afghanistan conflict as a whole. It’s quite simple. It operates much the same way when flags project from a particular movable object, such as the Croatian flags on the MRAPs below:

The red white and blue (also an adhesive on the side of the vehicle) is the national flag; the other one pertains to a particular mission. Obviously these vehicular flags serve primarily to identify the nationality owning that vehicle, which means they do not appropriate the same amount of space as the ones tethered to poles planted in the ground. But these flags can venture outside the wire and still effectively indicate Croatia’s participation in combat.

The use of words “govern”, “preside”, and “appropriate” only effectively applies, though, to flags in isolation. Throughout many of these coalition bases, flags are grouped in a formation of multiple poles, like the one below in Camp Nidaros, a Norwegian compound nestled within Camp Marmal:

Despite the fact that Marmal is a German-owned base and is the headquarters for Northern Regional Command (led by a German General), these flag formations tend to be as egalitarian as possible, most likely in an effort to demonstrate that no one country’s forces are hierarchically superior to another. The formation in the above photo seems particularly self-abnegating, because the banners attached to the poles are not even national flags: they are narrow streamers with a different configuration of each country’s respective national colors. They diffidently reference the country without proclaiming it. If I can interpret them correctly, this display shows, from left to right, the colors of Norway, Finland, Latvia, Sweden, and Germany. All of those nationalities with the exception of Germany have troops stationed in this particular compound Camp Nidaros; billeting for Germany is scattered elsewhere across the base. One would think that either the compound’s commander (Norway) or the base commander (Germany) would occupy the central flag pole to show ownership. Instead, that pole belongs to Latvia, while Norway and Germany occupy the peripheries. I have no doubt that this configuration was conscious. Place a flag in the company of others and the aforementioned territorial paradox—that of simultaneous individual ownership and operating as a team—immediately collapses, because the ability to denote “owning” a portion of the base evaporates. Here’s another formation at Camp Marmal that coyly dissolves hierarchy:

The flags of the United States, Germany, Afghanistan, and the U.S. Navy all hang at half-mast. The deployment of an even number of flags clearly avoids placing any one flag at the center, and in this case, the host nation, Afghanistan, gets equal representation with two countries and one branch of the military of that same country. The building to the left houses exclusively US forces, predominantly associated with the Navy, yet two other nations’ flags wave out front.

The half-mast configuration, nearly always intended to show mournful deference for the recently deceased, assumes a new poignancy with the next photo, taken just minutes after the previous, as dusk had set in:

This event comprises an unannounced visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the evening of December 18, 2010, speaking at the memorial of a German soldier who had died in an accident the preceding day . Notice that in the first of those two photos, the German flag is half-mast. But here as elsewhere, the presentation soon diverted to the shared responsibility, as Merkel continued her brief speech about Germany’s involvement in Afghanistan. By the conclusion, the flag was full-mast along with the others.

Again, the flag formation avoids placing any nation in a position of primacy. Germany, the owner of the base, stands at an unremarkable position of third from the left. The United States, the second largest presence, sits on the far right. And while there are an odd number of poles (21), allowing the potential for one pole to take center place, the framing of the poles around a central memorial places eleven on the left and ten on the right; no nation takes the center stage. Here are some close-ups of the memorial in daylight without the crowd:

Protocol for the display of the US flag requires that it observe international standards when juxtaposed with other nations, and none should rest above another at a time of peace. Obviously the existence of Camp Marmal is predicated on this precisely not being a time of peace, and yet the coalition nations (including the euphemistic “host nation” Afghanistan) still observe the peaceful display here as in every other location where more than one national flag presides over the space. Yet every time the flag waves in isolation, it proclaims its territory. The difference, it seems, is the level of conscious thought invested in the display: asserting national presence and ownership requires demands very little additional scrutiny, and, cheaply fluttering from the back of a Hummer, almost seems like an afterthought. Conversely, the assembly of a group of national flags in mutual respect requires serious deliberation.

The semiotics that underpins any display of multiple flags operate differently when the display takes place indoors. The pictures below take place in a DFAC (Dining Facility) at Kandahar Air Field:

It seems to be common practice to decorate the dining halls in the larger bases with national flags. But the flags preside over clearly bounded space here; any assertion of territoriality simply adds a dimension to the message already communicated by four walls. The display of flags indoors does not convey the potentially contentious air of imperial entitlement that it has the potential to suggest when outdoors; the flags address an enclosed space and not the open air, or the land itself. Perhaps it’s just me, but flags also lose expressive impact when they are limp and static; the fluttering of a flag from wind, however mild that wind may be, projects authority that it is hard for a motionless flag to muster. So while the exterior display of flags seems particularly sensitive to the fact that these nations collectively occupy a land with which they are waging war against a certain faction, all the rules fall by the wayside when flags hang indoors. No one seems particularly sensitive of who owns what. The PAX terminal at Camp Marmal is an excellent example:

Near the back of the building on the right is a colossal German flag—the country that owns the base. The other flags in the photo represent the three nationalities with the next largest presence on the base: in the far distance (with the checkered shield) is Croatia; to the right of the German flag is the American flag; to its right (partly cut off by the picture’s edge) is the Norwegian flag. All of these flags occupy a noticeable second tier to Germany. Pan to the right, however, and the message becomes a bit more muddled.

From left to right, the picture shows Norway again (same flag as the previous photo), Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Montenegro, Slovakia, Latvia, and part of Turkey. The positioning, size, and even the choice of nationalities here seem to be based more on expediency than any sort of conceived arrangement. The spacing between them seems inconsistent, the size does not fit with either a hierarchy or an egalitarian coalition, and while Turkey and Slovakia may be part of the coalition, they have yet to show any presence at Camp Marmal, while other nations clearly berthed here have had their flags omitted. Anyone plunked into this facility while blindfolded would draw the conclusion, upon removing the blindfold, that it is a German-run building. Provided that he or she knows the German flag, the enormous mural makes it obvious. But the participation of these other nations and how they fit into the system on this base is completely undefined. The flags help add color to an otherwise sparse terminal; otherwise they might as well be garland.

The DFAC at Camp Marmal has a similar configuration on one of its walls, with even more diluted semantic results:

Again, we see a row of thumbtacked flags used as decoration, with little regard for placement. Is this display trying to show a hierarchy, with the NATO flag (the white compass on a blue field) taking precedence in the middle of all the participating partners? That doesn’t work, because the NATO flag is not in the middle; there cannot be a middle position with twelve flags. Are the participants all on equal footing? Perhaps they are, but the disparity in size of the flags would not suggest it:

Montenegro and Latvia are huge compared to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the United States, and NATO. Again, it seems the decorators bought whatever size flag was available (and whatever relevant nationality they could find) in order simply to decorate, without intending any other message. Compare this to the precision and thought that they applied to the adornment of another wall, with photos of the Afghan countryside:

It’s much easier to get away with a sloppy flag display in an indoor setting, where there is less at stake.

No doubt this analysis may come across as one of my much-ado-about-nothing posts. After all, they’re just flags, and it is possible that I’m projecting my own fascination with the topic by inferring more out of it than anyone ever intended. But flags are also a powerful diplomatic tool, and they may be the most widely available, transportable material to clearly convey both a nation-state’s government and often the very essence of the land. Witness the recent global coverage of burnings of the American, Danish, or Israeli flag and it would be hard to shrug aside its potency within a broader understanding of semiotics. In a multinational setting rife with the potential for a serious imbroglio, a blasĂ© display of a nation’s flag could set tempers flaring.

The use of flags on these bases suggests that the outdoor display has significant political ramifications, but indoor displays do not matter so much. Maybe it’s true that an indoor display will never carry the same territorial weight, but it can still result in a transnational contretemps. A recent meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, hosted by President Obama in New York City, aroused some ire and international press when the Philippine flag was accidentally displayed upside-down, indicating the nation to be in a state of war. The problem with the indoor settings at the PAX and DFAC in Camp Marmal isn’t that they’re purely hierarchical or egalitarian; it’s that they’re neither, or a little of both. National flags might be beautiful to some, but they are too semantically rich to serve a purely aesthetic purpose.

I conclude with one particularly interesting flag that can serve on its own as a microcosm for what a carless flag display loses semantically. The national flag of Croatia has already graced this blog post a couple of times; they constitute one of the largest forces at Camp Marmal.

This brief analysis constitutes a bit more of what I know about vexillology, the study of flags as semiotics, which I covered at much greater length in a blog post on the Maryland flag many moons ago. The Croatian flag is by no means a particularly bad flag; it certainly looks far more elegant than the contrived, deer-on-hind-legs antiques that constitute many of the US state flags. But the real core of the flag is the checkered shield, serving as the flag's central charge; this escutcheon pattern predominates on a lot of the exercise gear that the Croats wear around the base in their down time. I particularly like the way the checkers align with the bottom blue fess (stripe). The decorative "flair" sitting in the place of a coronet above the checkers might help to embellish the shield, but they erode the symmetry, suggest hierarchy (some emblems might be more important than others), and they complicate the entire presentation, thereby diluting the message and the overall readability of the flag. The North American Vexillological Association asserts that the key indicator of an effective flag is that a child should be able to draw it from memory. Its impact should be immediate and unforced. By no means is the code of the NAVA the Gospel on flags, but I cannot imagine most six-year olds reproducing the Croatian flag after just a few minutes. Most 40-year-olds wouldn’t do a great job either.

The weaknesses in the Croatian flag echo the problems with the display of national flags in the interior public spaces of Camp Marmal, or many other situations where they serve an ornamental purpose. The display of flags to convey either hierarchy or egalitarianism is fine; there are no inherent faults in either of these organizing principles. The deficiency lies in when the display blurs the line between the two—when it is ambiguous as to which entity, if any, should stand out—which is precisely the problem with the array of symbols in the Croatian flag and the panoply in the DFAC. Ambiguity serves a distinct aesthetic purpose, but a flag’s communicative intent should always be clear. We don’t make light of the most prominent proxy for nationhood, whether in an Olympic natatorium or in a war zone.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The hood is well-paved with good intentions.

As I keep my blog on life support while I remain in the Afghan theater, I hope—more or less—to alternate posts with observations on life here behind the wire with more of my conventional posts, featuring photos taken from this past summer and earlier. Today’s post has been surprisingly difficult for which to gather information, intensified by the fact that I have no other outlet while at a base in Afghanistan. But I’m now prepared to show one of the most potent examples used today of a means for individual districts in urbanized areas to assert some level of self-governance.

Metropolitan America today comprises such a patchwork of neighborhood association—many of which duplicate the functions of municipal government—that it’s hard to believe that these now ubiquitous civic groups were relatively uncommon just forty years ago. In his article “Revolution or Evolution?” from the quarterly journal Regulation (also available under the title “The Rise of Private Neighborhood Associations: Revolution or Evolution?” in the book The Property Tax, Land Use, and Land Use Regulation edited by Dick Netzer), William A. Fischel wrote that private associations as we know them today originated in the condominium boom of the 1970s, principally to pool community resources in the governance of shared space, but their subsequent proliferation embraced communities of single-family houses, while their overall supervisory scope ballooned as well. In some communities, they have served simply as a means of consolidating the sentiments of the residents of a neighborhood in response to any changes implemented in municipal government services, or—more often than not—changes in zoning and land use. Elsewhere, neighborhood associations have assumed a broad array of duties under the political aegis of common area maintenance, and in the process they have accrued an incredible amount of power. Many neighborhood associations already perform functions that have traditionally fallen under the responsibility of municipal government: as Fischel points out, “They collect garbage and remove snow; they provide local infrastructure such as roads, sidewalks, and sewers; they regulate land-use and occupancy; and they provide collective services such as recreation and sometimes even health-maintenance for their residents.” Some cities, as Fischel observes, even contract with the neighborhood association so that the latter can provide those services through the association's revenues, while the City then provides members a break on their local taxes.

Perhaps most significantly for the focus of this article, these associations of homeowners have emerged in neighborhoods that predate the very political concept, sometimes by more than a century. They offer a means of protecting the interests, and, most saliently, the property values, of the individuals who live or own real estate within a specific association's boundaries. Several months ago I wrote a two-part article called “There Goes the Neighborhood”, focusing upon the maturely established Garden District Civic Association in Baton Rouge and the semantic differences between the more traditional term “neighborhood” and the more contemporary “subdivision”. The bottom-up level of control (dare I call it “grassroots”?) that this Baton Rouge association has been able to wield through the consolidation of three smaller historic districts has, to a certain degree, shielded it from the disinvestment and visible economic decay that some of the other neighborhoods around it have suffered. Today, Baton Rouge's Garden District stands as the most affluent old neighborhood in the metropolitan area—a sharp contrast from the broadly upper middle class “subdivisions” on the city's outskirts.

The “Garden District” name in Baton Rouge owes a great deal to its larger, splashier city 80 miles to the southeast, New Orleans, whose own Garden District remains one of the preeminent collections of southern mansions, many of them antebellum, in the country. It is a celebrated tourist attraction in a city that has more than its share of curiosities for the outsider. Needless to say, it has a powerful vehicle for organizing and prioritizing the interests of its residents in the Garden District Association. New Orleans' Garden District Association epitomizes Fischel's example of a neighborhood association broadly assuming duties prescribed to municipal governments: it has drafted its own zoning guidelines, it helped to confer authority to the Historic District Landmarks Commission for all development changes, and it monitors the area within its boundaries through the Garden District Security Patrol. Essentially, it mitigates some of the onus to the City of New Orleans in providing services to the area, and it funds these services exclusively through the dues of its residents. Fischel notes, however, that no city has completely surrendered its responsibilities to a neighborhood association. They can't. City cops still retain law enforcement authority over neighborhood security patrols; mayors and city councils could not contract away law enforcement or zoning/land-use control to a neighborhood association, even if they wanted to.

But particularly powerful neighborhood associations have found a means of achieving a remarkable degree of control over how their jurisdiction looks and operates, regardless of the fact that, as political entities, they lack any police power over the city. Fischel argues that, rather than diluting the power of municipal land use decisions, they have refined or even intensified it. Another neighborhood just two miles away from the Garden District in New Orleans demonstrates the potentially complex interplay between a city and its neighborhood association.

Broadmoor anchors itself at the intersection of two of Uptown New Orleans' most prominent streets: Claiborne Avenue and Napoleon Avenue, where the above photograph was taken. Most of its housing dates from between the turn of the 20th century and World War II, at a point when civil engineering technology allowed the draining of the swampy lands of this part of town to make it habitable. By Broadmoorians' own admittances, the area sits at “the bottom of the bowl”: all of it rests below sea level, far removed from the natural levees created over time by the depositing of silt along the banks of the Mississippi. (The oldest and most famous New Orleans neighborhoods, such as the Garden District and French Quarter, sit right along the Mississippi, much more safely above sea level.) Despite some venerable, palatial homes along Napoleon Avenue, the Broadmoor area has never attracted tourism. A 2007 New York Times article observed that Broadmoor's greatest curiosity is that its racial demographics in recent decades have largely reflected that of the city as a whole: not quite 70% African American, approximately 25% white, and a smattering of Asians and non-white Hispanics. The variety of housing types has resulted in an economically diverse neighborhood as well, from working class to upper-income levels, in which about half of the population owns its own home, a figure on par with the city as a whole.

No doubt to its own residents, the area seemed palpably hopeless after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2006: Broadmoor was doused by the flooding after the storm, with most of the housing suffering inundation from 5 to 10 feet above their foundations. Then-Mayor Ray Nagin's announcement at the end of 2006 from the results of his Bring Back New Orleans Commission surely aggravated feelings of impotence. The Commission advised that the flooding was so severe and the land so far below sea level that the area should revert to permanent parkland, represented among several sites in the city through green dots. The report recommended bulldozing the homes where green dots rested on the map.

The announcement—notorious to some members of the community as “The Green Dot Report”—helped mobilize the officers of the Broadmoor Improvement Association (BIA). Days later, the Association organized a rally for the neighborhood, many of whose members were still displaced and scattered across the country. Mayor Nagin learned how unpopular it was for a council of outsiders to dismiss broad swaths of the city without local input; he promptly tossed the report and dissolved the Commission. The BIA, under the leadership of president LaToya Cantrell, realized it could use its institutional presence to consolidate the voices of its diverse members and help draw greater attention to the neighborhood's profound needs.

The outside stimulus of those green dots surely stirred the residents of flood-ravaged Broadmoor into collective mobilization. It didn't hurt that the area was the childhood home of the Landrieus, an influential political dynasty that includes a popular former mayor (Maurice “Moon”), a US Senator (Mary), and the recently elected current mayor (Mitch). Or that Walter Isaacson, biographer, former editor of Time magazine, and Clinton/Obama appointee, also grew up in the area. But the fact remains that the Broadmoor Improvement Association accomplished an incredible amount in the ensuing two years after the storm. Anyone who lived in New Orleans at the time would recognize the “Broadmoor Lives” banners attached to every light post along the neighborhood's most prominent streets, all colored green as a clear ironic inversion of those condemnatory dots. And in a matter of months, the BIA secured assistance from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government on devising a rebuilding plan; to this day, it receives interns from both the Kennedy School and Harvard's Graduate School of Design each year. As the aforementioned New York Times article indicates (one of several national media outlets to feature the organization), the BIA secured $5 million in pledges from the Clinton Global Initiative. It increased the size of its boundaries listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It received a $2 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation to rebuild its local branch of the library. And, of course, it shepherded the gutting and restoring of the many badly damaged homes, resulting in a return rate that far surpassed that of areas equally damaged. It may seem trite to suggest that the BIA's influence helped endow its former residents with a renewed faith in the cohesiveness of the community after the disaster, but the high profile Broadmoor has been able to achieve since Katrina has made it the envy of other neighborhood associations in New Orleans and across the country. Clearly they have gotten something right.

Press attention on Broadmoor has slowed in recent years, but that does not mean that the BIA has suffered any dilution in influence. The red lines on the map below shows what the BIA considers the boundaries of Broadmoor as they fall under its jurisdiction:

It's quite a large neighborhood, and an observation of the declared boundary of an adjacent neighborhood association suggests that those boundaries may be under some dispute. But if BIA's jurisdiction—and, consequently, the neighborhood of Broadmoor—has grown since Katrina, its influence and efficacy has made it hard for residents in the “disputed territory” to voice many complaints. Some of the most recent changes to the area suggest that its ability to attract outside investment continues unabated.

The sign announcing the entrance to the neighborhood has sat there for years. The tree plantings are obviously new; so is the sidewalk. This pedestrian trail runs in the expansive median (or “neutral ground” as New Orleanians would call it) on Napoleon Avenue. The sidewalk and the plantings begin at this intersection and continue northward to Napoleon Avenue's terminus, where it diverges to form Fontainebleau Drive and South Broad Avenue (incorrectly labeled Broad Street on Google Maps). The picture below, looking northward on Napoleon Avenue, better demonstrates the expansiveness of this improvement.

The trail lasts about one mile. But Napoleon Avenue extends at least another mile south of Claiborne Avenue, to its terminus just beyond Tchoupitoulas Street at the Mississippi River. Here's the view down the other portion of Napoleon Avenue, in two photos. First is the “hub” where these two major streets and their medians meet with a square of shared neutral ground:

Clearly those proud, mature palm trees are newly planted. But continue south on Napoleon Avenue, on the other side of Claiborne from Broadmoor:

No improvements, nor any evidence that improvements are planned. While it is possible that the other portion of Napoleon will benefit from this investment at a later phase, a nearby sign that reveals the identity of the investor suggests otherwise:

This is hardly a project funded by the City of New Orleans, nor is it one paid for by neighborhood association's annual dues. This is ostensibly part of a larger civil engineering and “site restoration” initiative supported by the US Army Corps of Engineers, an agency famous in New Orleans for its responsibility in constructing and maintaining the complex system of levees and canals. Needless to say, after the multiple breaches in the levees resulted in the flooding of the city after Hurricane Katrina, it is not a terribly popular agency in New Orleans. While I hardly have the knowledge of the topographic and drainage issues to determine if this site restoration was fully warranted, it cannot help but also tacitly involve a certain degree of currying favor in order to restore trust among New Orleanians in the USACE's ability to protect the city from flooding.

But check the boundaries of the project on that sign. The improvements—using an impervious paving surface, I might add—will only involve certain stretches of Napoleon and Claiborne Avenue. I have outlined in green those segments according to the description on the sign:

They fit within the BIA's boundaries like a hand in glove. I hate to engage in armchair conspiracy theorizing, and it is unfair to assume there is a malicious or ulterior motive behind the targeting of improvements in a particular neighborhood. After all, these stretches of Napoleon/Claiborne and Broadmoor itself are “the bottom of the bowl”—some of the lowest points in a city already overwhelmingly sitting below sea level.

But if this does demonstrate an example of a municipal sub-unit receiving favorable treatment from an agency larger than the city or even the state, it won't be the first time. Earlier I referenced the grant that BIA received from the Carnegie Corporation of New York in order to repair flood damage to the Keller Library, the Broadmoor neighborhood's closest branch. It was a wonderful achievement that testifies to the tenacity of the BIA in seeking solutions to community problems. But BIA does not own the Keller Library, or any library branches; the New Orleans Public Library system under the City of New Orleans does. The resulting contretemps suggests that the Broadmoor Improvement Association has sought to address community problems by bypassing the City, definitely in the library scenario, and quite possibly here as well, regarding the community's desire for a more attractively landscaped, pedestrian friendly neutral ground.

Without casting stones at either party, I can recognize that the BIA saw both a certain level of bureaucratic inertia in the City's ability to work with FEMA Public Assistance (PA) in kick-starting recovery projects, as well as an exogenous solution that it was perfectly willing to take into its own hands, by pursuing a grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The neighborhood association figured that it could secure the money and then sort out the responsibility of implementation later, a decision that may have proven wise in expediting the recovery process. And even if the City was never going to have to fund the restoration of this library due to FEMA money (nor would it fund most levee-related improvements that the Army Corps have a federal mandate to address), the City's leadership to a certain degree was relieved of an administrative burden of managing the requisite paperwork to procure FEMA's Public Assistance funding, which, under FEMA PA stipulations would only return the facility to its previous, pre-Katrina condition. BIA's goal was to get the Keller Library back functioning better than before; with this generous grant, they can most likely succeed, provided they reach necessary consensus with the board at New Orleans Public Library.

Neighborhood associations contribute a sheen that inadvertently amplifies the potency of land use regulation. The significantly smaller geographic boundaries, the lack of any true police power that requires the added administration of enforcement (that burden still falls on the City), and, as Fischel recognizes, the ability to appeal to homeowners' concerns about preserving value in what is most likely their single greatest financial asset—all of these help allow neighborhood associations to refine land use decisions within their jurisdiction. As is the case with the Broadmoor Improvement Association, they may prove disproportionately powerful if they can mobilize their residents to attend Planning Commission meetings they otherwise would shrug aside, or to even develop their own series of plans which they impress upon the city to codify.

Three generations ago, the predecessors of the contemporary neighborhood associations assumed a much less benign role than anything documented here. Fischel is one among many to recognize that the earliest zoning and land use regulations helped enforce racial segregation, as did neighborhood covenants. Well after the Supreme Court struck down racial zoning and segregationist covenants, communities used associations to protect the investments of their homes, usually from racial minority families moving in—a home-grown attempt at redlining. In his book The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, Thomas Sugrue observes how well over a hundred precursors to the modern neighborhood association arose in Detroit, uniting people of various national origins (Italian, Irish, Polish, German) through their shared whiteness and goal of keeping Negroes out. Their organizations scarcely differed semantically from the NAs of today; many were called “civic associations”, “homeowners' associations”, “protective associations”, or “improvement associations” (pp. 211-12). Civil rights legislation by the mid 1960s theoretically quashed such trans-ethnic alliances, and the modern neighborhood association could scarcely get away with such overt articulation of racially discriminatory goals.

The BIA, with its racially diverse membership in a reasonably integrated neighborhood milieu, has ambitions that are captured in its title just as well as coming from an admiring New York Times journalist. No doubt other associations serving a less diverse population cannot claim such ecumenical goals. Fischel and others recall how smaller municipalities have in the past used zoning to block the construction of low-income housing within their jurisdictions; Mount Laurel, New Jersey offers the most famous example of this. Conversely, modern neighborhood and homeowners' associations have deterred newcomers through draconian standards regulating a home's exterior appearance, through prohibitively expensive annual dues, or through restrictions prohibiting owners from taking on tenants or converting part or all of a property to a rental unit. They also depend on a certain level of coercion for those who refuse to join, regardless of whether or not they agree with the perceived majority's vision for the neighborhood. None of these are necessarily racially motivated initiatives (though some isolated instances clearly are), but they echo the Mount Laurel goal of preserving home values through a certain level of homogeneity, most likely socioeconomically derived. Fischel recognizes that homeownership is a double-edged sword: it can induce aggressive territorialism but it “induces people to pay attention to the quality of life in their communities”, such as school improvements even if they don't have kids. It may motivate the residents of Broadmoor to fix a City library that sits on their turf, even if they won't ever pick up a book there, and it encourages them to advocate for sidewalks on the neutral ground, even if both sides of the street have them at the curb and they do not walk anywhere regardless.

The larger predicament arises when a neighborhood association's vision encroaches on the authority of the City, even if it does not impede on the rights of other associations. I anticipate that this potentiality for the subversion of a City's authority—even if it derives from legitimate grievances against the City's ineffectualness—will result in a declarative Supreme Court decision within my lifetime. In New Orleans, the BIA recently announced that a State Senator is seeking legislation for a formal recognition of the Broadmoor Neighborhood Improvement District. Fischel believes that neighborhood associations' embedded covenants and rules have generally complemented zoning to articulate further public demand for land use regulation, even though he suspects that the influence of zoning is in retreat. But the interplay between the two can result in disharmony when a neighborhood association essentially seeks exogenous contractors to do work for which the city is ultimately responsible, and I believe we have yet to see the residual effects of this power struggle. Neighborhood associations use their respective cities' inkwells, but they can gesture with a much sharper quill.

Monday, November 29, 2010

DUST: Never mind the bollards.

Readers and friends have been nagging me for another, more detailed article on Afghanistan. I wanted to get a blog post out before the end of the month, and tomorrow I leave for an indefinite amount of time to explore yet two more bases (my fourth and fifth since I’ve been here in the Afghan theater). Internet access for my personal computer—where I store all my photos—is still limited but improving, little by little. The biggest hindrance now, though, is that I have not been able to vet my observations for national security concerns. I have learned that photography of some things on base is strictly verboten, but I haven’t learned exactly what may compromise Department of Defense internal information—and it’s possible that something seemingly innocuous all of a sudden becomes classifiable when subject to further analytical scrutiny.

Which is why I’ve chosen something for my first real essay which is so mundane that you can find it anywhere in the US. And I’ve clearly always had a penchant for the mundane. The subject is bollards, and my most recent home base, Camp Marmal outside the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, has them everywhere:

I realize that “bollard” isn’t exactly part of common parlance, so if the photo above didn’t make it clear, a bollard is any short post or impediment, usually of concrete, that restricts vehicular movement. Apparently it's more of a British term; “bollard” in the American sense is mostly nautical, referring to the post at a wharf to which mooring lines from vessels are tied. Typically bollards shield pedestrians from cars, and that was most likely the intent of the German engineers who built the original infrastructure at this base six or seven years ago. Unlike some of the other bases I’ve visited, Camp Marmal has made a conspicuous effort to accommodate pedestrians. It would seem foolish not to do so: nearly everyone on a base gets around by foot, and only the largest ones can justify a shuttle that would comprise the equivalent of mass transit. In addition, most bases are almost completely unlit at night, so it is incredibly dangerous to walk alongside a road without sidewalks. Yet the much larger, NATO-managed Kandahar Air Field in the south of the country has virtually no sidewalks. Everyone is forced to walk in a bed of rocks—they’re too big to be considered gravel—similar to the groundscape visible in the photos above. (Nearly everyone at Kandahar also wears reflector belts at night; you could receive a fine if you don’t.) The bollards at Camp Marmal also severely restrict parking, since a vehicle cannot park on the side of the roads, all of which are only two lanes wide. Kandahar, conversely, lacks bollards for the most part, and drivers park willy-nilly with little consequence. The bollards here aren’t aesthetic, like one might see in a public square; they are as coldly utilitarian as virtually everything else in the austere landscape of an Afghanistan military installation.

They get the job done, but are they fully necessary? I regret now that my photos don’t capture it as well, but a closer look reveals that the pedestrian environment on the opposite side of the street is not quite the same.

No sidewalk there. For the most part, Camp Marmal has only invested in sidewalks on one side of the road, which is better than nothing, but much of the space at the verge on the other side is devoted to an open drainage ditch, to accommodate the water during the rare but violent Afghan thunderstorms.

But wouldn’t these drainage ditches serve as an impediment to vehicles in themselves, and are the bollards really necessary on that side of the street? The truth is, I don’t entirely know the answer. My guess is that these ditches would restrict virtually all cars in a non-military setting, but nearly a third of the locomotives on an Afghan base are the gargantuan MRAPs, whose tires could easily negotiate a mere drainage ditch. Then again, MRAPs are among the most top-heavy vehicles in existence, so even if they can handle the groove, it could disrupt their center of gravity enough to cause a rollover. Ideally, a careful consideration of the necessity of bollards at each location—rather than just installing them en masse as a precaution, could have saved a great deal of money, if it turns out that stormwater management infrastructure genuinely serves much the same purpose.

Elsewhere in the base, some construction managers with a more artistic bent have tried to improve a different type of bollard, this time at a bridge crossing.
The colors of the German flag clearly evoke a patriotic gesture imparted upon the bollard in the foreground. But what about that striped object in the distance? Could Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat have met its demise in a bed of wet cement?

No, it’s another painted bollard, this time apparently referencing the American flag, with clearly less successful results. I suspect that the artist chose these two flags because the countries represent the overwhelming majority of the troops bedded at Camp Marmal (the remaining 20% consist largely of Scandinavians and Balkans), but the aesthetic gesture clearly wasn’t as well thought out. I had to pass by this multiple times before I determined it was a flag, even though I should have known, since it leads to the entrance of the American compound. But the artist clearly didn’t refine his or her space management skills.

At least all 47 states are accounted for.

Friday, November 19, 2010

In limbo a bit longer.

My apologies to all, but I have yet to stabilize here in Afghanistan--I am still base-hopping, and will continue to do so for a bit longer. This was not my intention, and I have by no means forgotten my blog, but while I remain a transient, I cannot form a contract with a private Internet Provider. And without an Internet Provider, my only option for blogging is the occasional 30-minute allotments we get at the shared Internet cafes, which is not enough time for a substantive post, and it makes it hard to draw from the research and photographs stored on my personal computer. I will say that I am currently at Bagram Air Field, it is much more compact than Kandahar (and therefore far more walkable), it's a more picturesque setting, and the old infrastructure/architecture initially installed by the Soviets seems to be serving the American forces well (as well as French, Polish, Egyptian, Korean, and Macedonian).

Thanks for your patience while I continue to establish a "hub" for my work here. As always, comments are greatly appreciated.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sweeping the dust bunnies.

Much thanks for your patience as I adjust to the technical challenges that life here in Afghanistan affords. I'm currently working at Kandahar Air Field, and only within the past twenty-four hours have I (after much difficulty) procured an open Internet connection. And by "open", I mean that it is unrestricted: obviously through work I can easily access the Internet, but the Department of Defense understandably limits access to "time-waster" sites, so I have little ability to use the Web for purposes other than checking the news and sending e-mail. All blogs are prohibited. Fortunately I've found a reasonably secure wireless connection at an Internet cafe, though it is slower and more expensive than anything I would encounter stateside. Needless to say, my access is limited and will continue to remain that way until I've found a rhythm.

But that rhythm will elude me for quite some time. Within the past two days, I have found out that I am most likely going to transfer to one of the bases in the north of the country, with a probable interim period at Bagram Air Field (also in the north). Thus, I cannot forge a contract with an IP here in Kandahar because in all likelihood I won't remain here much longer. To avoid this post from seeming overwhelmingly negative, let it be known that these changes, though jarring, should also prove exhilarating and will allow me to explore military installations within a variety of milieus: some run by NATO, some by Americans, some by other allies; some in regions more peaceful than others; some in milder climates and lower elevations while others are nestled in the lofty, frigid Hindu Kush range that comprises a huge portion of this landlocked nation. I will continue to work on posts of American landscapes which will appear intermittently here at the blog, and--security concerns notwithstanding--will alternate those more conventional posts with montages of the dusty valleys of eastern Afghanistan.

I conclude with a photo from the "Boardwalk" of Kandahar Air Field--essentially the downtown of the base, a commercial center where the most people congregate and the majority of conventional goods and services are available. (Also the most frequent target of hostile rocket attacks.) Are these distance measurements accurate?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

From dirt to dust.

I have completely neglected my blog posts this month, and though some might see my justification for it as a cheap excuse, I’m willing to throw to my readers to gauge their long-term support over these snags. “Snags” is probably an understatement, but for the past few weeks I have been preoccupied with preparations for a new job in Afghanistan, most likely at a US Air Force base there. I left my temporary home in Biloxi earlier last week, and I have been typing this document on a plane to Florida as my week of orientation begins, to be followed by the arduous flight halfway across the globe.

Though I am thrilled about the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead in this new job, it does place my blog in limbo. I remain committed to discovering new landscapes and exploring the built environment, but my focus has remained doggedly within US boundaries. I put “American” in the blog with a clear purpose in mind; I had to narrow the scope to some degree. But I will not likely spend much time on American soil for the next year, and this distance from home leads me to question how much time I’ll be able to spend on American Dirt. Yet I still have dozens of potential topics for posting, enough to sustain the blog during this sojourn. Unfortunately, the demands of the new job will give me even less time than I have had throughout October, and my Internet connectivity might be meager by Western standards. I will continue American Dirt, but the rate of posting for the months ahead may be more akin to this October (2 or 3 posts a month) rather than the prolific months of 2009.

Friends and supporters have helped my ambivalence about how to continue: many encourage me to blog about Afghanistan, regardless of my initial goals with American Dirt. And since most of my time will be spent on US bases there (probably Bagram AFB), it wouldn’t entirely deviate from my thematic focus to feature articles and analyses—the built environment will remain fundamentally American. However, I fear the blog could tread dangerously close to a series of real-time journal entries, which has never been my intention or desire. I’m also a bit constrained by conflicts of interest and national security, regarding how much I can elaborate upon what I see there.

Thus, I intend to find balance in this transition from Dirt to Dust. The thematic core of American Dirt will occupy much of my blogging activity at this URL over the next year, with articles and observations very much akin to what I have featured in the past. But I will occasionally deviate with Dust—a term I use to describe any Afghan observations, most of which will likely dominate with photos until I determine the propriety of writing full analytical pieces. I choose the word “Dust” not just because of its good alliterative qualities when paired with dirt, but because dust ostensibly is a prevailing part of the Afghan way of life: a gossamer powder, not unlike talcum, which settles onto everything (hopefully not the innards of my computer).

Stay tuned in the months ahead, for although the posting frequency may be a bit sparse, I should more than compensate through an unconventional approach at reconciling landscapes both domestic and foreign.

And thanks, as always, for your readership and support.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dividing the loyalties at the bumper.

While I continue to sift through articles and scholarship on neighborhood associations in my free time, I’ve come to realize I’ve let the posts lag a bit too much. So I offer a quick rumination on a topic I love but haven’t featured much: license plates. Some states doggedly adhere to a certain design over the years; Minnesota and Delaware come to mind for offering the same appearance for the standard plate for as long as I can remember. Other states refresh their plate design routinely: Ohio, Indiana, and Mississippi generally feature a new look every two to three years. In addition, some states only offer a few specialty plates; again, Minnesota and Delaware seem particularly consistent in this regard. They may offer plates for veterans and environmentalists, but the variety is relatively limited. Indiana and Mississippi, again, offer so many designs that it’s hard even to identify the standard.

But now I must provide a quick snapshot from a license plate I have only seen twice—once in New Orleans and once (here below) in Gulfport. Chances are slim that it’s from the same car, but it’s hard to imagine there are too many other examples of these out there:

This strikes me as among the strangest specialty plates that a state can offer: one featuring a university (Louisiana State) that differs from the parent state featured on the plate (Mississippi)! I can certainly understand states offering plates for alums from the key university in state, but why would a state offer plates with the logo and motto of one of the most prominent rivals? While I’m sure this isn’t the only example—the Plateshack website above features a Delaware specialty with the West Virginia University logo—this is the only example I have seen in person. Louisiana and Mississippi share a border of more than two hundred miles, much of it focused upon the nation’s most prominent river. Their shared cultural ties to the Deep South are unquestioned. And it probably is more common for a Louisiana State University alum to live in Mississippi than, say, Vermont. But the Academic Common Market from the Southern Regional Education Board reveals a significant number of reciprocal agreements for academic programs between the two states: thus, a resident of Mississippi can enroll in certain departments at LSU and still only pay in-state tuition.

It may be bold to say that this spirit of cooperation extends to Departments of Motor Vehicles, but Mississippi most likely does not owe Louisiana enough to feature the Pelican State’s pre-eminent state university on the back of cars licensed and registered in the Magnolia State. But clearly it happens, and I’m sure a keen eye would find a car that features the opposite—a Mississippi university on a Louisiana plate. The culture of license plates’ design and content seems to be shifting away from centralized, authoritarian control across the country, as increasingly more flexible, diverse plate designs add to the aesthetic palette, even in comparatively staid plate states like Minnesota. A simple search for Department of Motor Vehicles yields privately owned sites like these, suggesting that the private sector passively allows some mild outsourcing of this branch of government. We may eventually get to the point where the combined culture of (increasingly popular) vanity plates and specialized designs work to eliminate the significance of a state’s original or flagship plate. If states continue to feature content from their neighbors just as Mississippi has, it could over time erode the significance of identifying cars by their parent state. I know this is a complete stretch, but it may even become meaningless altogether to list the state name on a car—the plate number and the design could be enough. As long as the plates retain a high degree of individuality it would hardly seem to disrupt the cultural order: after all, what better place for Americans to announce to the world their emotions, vocations, and ideals than on their bumpers?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Midpoint assessment (spatially).

A few weeks prior, I managed to achieve what would have seemed to me unthinkable when I started this blog 15 months ago: a blog entry featuring my 25th state. Upon featuring an article on airport security in Roanoke, Virginia, I had officially covered half of the US states. Obviously, from looking at the spread of articles, some of these states figure more prominently in the blog than others; it is clear that I have spent a good amount of the past two years in Indiana and Louisiana. And, of course, the fact that these articles explore half the states hardly means I have come even close to covering half of the country’s land area. The nation’s 3,141 counties (or county equivalents) offer at least a somewhat more pointillistic way of surveying the land, and I have only covered about 2.2% of them. And, as anyone scanning the featured states in my blog can quickly see, the West remains virtually completely untapped. Featuring more Western landscapes remains a goal of mine, but my familiarity with the region leaves something to be desired; I haven’t visited California in 13 years.

But leave it to me to sell myself short, even as I try to promote the blog. The intense work load is unlikely to let up soon, which prevents me from posting as frequently as I’d like, as well as devoting time to get the word out. But that hasn’t stopped me from enrolling my blog in Google Analytics to learn the stats regarding my blog's viewership. Unfortunately my subscription has been spotty since I first enrolled in December 2009; I unwittingly terminated my enrollment in April of 2010 when I changed the blog’s template. I finally realized the error of my ways in early August of this year, but the three months in which my Google Analytics tracker was down will remain a mystery. Nonetheless, here are the most critical observations at this point in covering 50% of the states (if hardly 50% of America):

- My most popular blog articles have surprised me, since they usually aren’t among the most commented upon. The persistent success of Indianapolis’ Greenwood Park Mall is my third most viewed site; the unusual skyline of Houston is the second most viewed, and the study of the flag of Maryland (and vexillology in general) is my most frequently viewed page.

- For a blog titled American Dirt, it comes as no surprise that English is by far the preferred language of my viewers, and that the overwhelming majority of visitors to my site come from the United States, followed by Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia. More surprising is that Malaysia, Philippines, and Switzerland feature into the top 10. And alas, the world’s most populous country, China, has not viewed my site at all in the past two months. Brits actually spend a longer time on average on my site than Americans, by more than thirty seconds.

- Even as the geographic scope of my blog has expanded (it initially nearly always featured articles in Indiana), the majority of sites used to reach me are Indianapolis-derived blogs: and Urbanophile.Com are the top two.

Diversification has long been a goal, as well, of course, with expansion. But the former may even be more important for ensuring long-term support. Even as my posts will likely be sparse for the foreseeable future, I hope—however slowly—to improve both of these two characteristics. Thanks again for reading, stay tuned for more, and, as always, I welcome your comments--and will be happy to respond.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Butts in the loo.

In many ways, this study serves as a companion piece to the previous blog entry. Both articles explore a social phenomenon that has swept the nation, largely manifested through increasingly palpable policy justified by the goal of providing for the common defense or promoting the general welfare. The previous post, scrutinizing passenger screening at airports to prevent terrorist attacks (the common defense), examined how the laborious and increasingly invasive security procedures not only inconvenience passengers but the airports themselves, depriving the Roanoke Municipal Airport of an entire gate. And this article looks at a potential “pushback”—perhaps the funniest I can find—against the increasingly mainstream indoor smoking bans (the general welfare).

Though it may seem trite to assert that anti-smoking ordinances have taken the nation by storm, the fact remains that the laws in place today in virtually every state would have been unthinkable even thirty years ago. The Atlantic magazine recently chronicled some of the earliest bans, from the global Papal fiat of 1624 that banned tobacco because it prompted sneezing—which in turn resembled an orgasm—to the American temperance movement of the turn of the 20th century, in which crusades to abolish smoking (some successful) accompanied that of the more high-profile pursuit of alcohol prohibition. Adolf Hitler ostensibly labeled tobacco “the wrath of the Red Man against the White Man”, recalling how early settlers of the Americas foisted intoxicating liquors upon a genetically unprepared indigenous population. Anti-tobacco sentiment was embraced by the Nazi party. Few, if any, of these initiatives flourished to achieve widespread, long-term enforcement; successive governments repealed all of them.

Even though the US was long the cradle of the global tobacco market, it has also largely set the standards for the contemporary wave of anti-smoking legislation. Though several jurisdictions passed laws in the 1970s restricting smoking in restaurants to separate sections, the City of San Luis Obispo, California, first implemented a ban in all public places, including restaurants and bars—the first in the nation, and, purportedly, the world. What began as sundry municipal ordinances in the early 1990s expanded to a statewide anti-smoking campaign in 1995, which saw the first workplace smoking ban. Opposition from the tobacco industry pushed the ban’s effect on bars and nightclubs until January 1, 1998. Other states followed with their own bans (at varying levels of severity), to the point that, as of 2010, only 11 states have not enacted a ban—and the majority of these states still allow municipalities to create their own laws prohibiting smoking. Other countries have followed suit, and some—with a less decentralized system of governance than the US—have enacted California-style indoor smoking bans for restaurants, bars, and pubs across the entire national boundaries in a single fiat. Meanwhile, San Louis Obispo recently escalated its own smoking ban to include restrictions on city parking garages and lots, streets, sidewalks, stadia, playgrounds, and parks. The City isn’t quite the pioneer this time around; over twenty other cities in California preceded it in banning smoking in these new locations.

However, one institution has proven doggedly immune to this sweeping attack on the culture of cigarettes: casinos. Several states’ laws have stalled in the legislature because of appeals from the gaming lobby. Nine states that passed widespread smoking bans years ago have exempted casinos. Other states have exempted the hospitality industry altogether, while regulating most other workplaces. Even states with otherwise generally uncontested bans, such as New Jersey, have allowed smoking to continue in the robust gaming parlors of Atlantic City: after the Council passed a ban in 2008, it quickly rescinded it due to the casinos’ pressure, allowing smoking to remain on 25% of the floors. Other states that have not exempted casinos from the smoking bans have witnessed an impact: the Illinois Casino Gaming Association has experienced an over 30% drop in revenues from February 2007 to the same point in 2009, while comparable casinos in Northwest Indiana have only experienced single-digit declines amidst a punishing economy. Although hardly the only factor influencing Illinois casinos (the regulatory climate for gaming in the state is much stricter overall), casino operators easily predicted that plunge in revenues; many of them estimate that 70% of casino patrons smoke.

Regardless of the viability of those estimates, a quick trip to a casino not affected by anti-smoking legislation suggests that they milk what survives of the smoking culture for all it’s worth. Mississippi, for example, has no statewide ban (though over 20 municipalities in the state ban smoking in all workplaces). Casinos are not subject to any laws outside of municipal bans, and no city in the state with casinos would ever dare regulate them, for fear of driving them out of town. The smoke-friendliness of a Mississippi casino hotel is manifest within moments of walking through its doors: aside form the ashtrays at nearly every slot machine or poker table, smokers can criss-cross the parking garages, hallways and the main lobby without repercussions, cigarette in hand. Most casino hotels offer a bounty of smoker-friendly overnight accommodations, and even the elevators—where smoking is banned virtually everywhere else in the United States—apparently permit smoking.

But nothing shows smoker friendliness like a public restroom.

The men’s room at this Mississippi casino (to be left anonymous) even allows the more coordinated gentleman to have a smoke while taking a leak. Notice the ashtray to the upper left of the urinal.

And just in case he isn’t so great puffing and pissing simultaneously, it has a grooved spot to store the cigarette.

I particularly like the fact that the casino restroom accommodates the youthful or more vertically challenged smoker as well.

But my favorite element of all: the toilets let the men smoke during number two as well.

I’m not sure this ashtray acknowledges multitasking talent or a remarkable defiance of basic hygiene. Although it has become increasingly common knowledge that men wash after restroom use far less than women, thus perhaps explaining why men may be less fazed by putting a cigarette to their lips while nature is calling than women would, something tells me that this casino accommodates female smokers in their respective restroom as well. At this casino, even an institution like Starbucks remains remarkably tolerant of smoking.

Though the sign still proves that they prohibit smoking in the store’s premises within this casino, the establishment is completely open to the adjoining lobby where people may smoke freely. In fact, I have witnessed in another casino that people can stand one inch outside the premises or scoot a cafĂ© chair to the hallway, while letting the smoke waft into the Starbucks. Virtually everywhere else in America, Starbucks has long been vehemently anti-smoking; they have increasingly started to impose smoking bans on their outdoor patios. Starbucks' regulatory rights do not extend into the hallways of a casino, but the java giant would hate to sacrifice its ability to supply caffeine to late-night denizens of the already notoriously windowless casinos. A huge number of Mississippi casinos have Starbucks in them.

Even as casinos are proving to be one of the biggest indoor environments that advocate for their right to accommodate smokers, more and more are falling prey to the bans. Iowa’s governor Chet Culver has recently considered expanding the state’s ban so that casinos are no longer exempt, and the Atlantic City moratorium on the casino smoking ban still falls under increased consideration. But if the gaming industry can continue to argue that its success depends on remaining a bastion for smokers, it is unlikely that too many more states will impose bans while the economy remains weak and casinos provide abundant jobs. Their infrastructure's subtlest details support smoking.

At the beginning of this essay, I compared this casino initiative to an earlier blog post in which another sweeping policy—that of heightened national security in airports—manifests itself with increasingly restrictive results, just as is the case in the relation between smoking bans and gaming. The similarities stop there though. The Transportation Security Administration and all of its rigorous screening standards have arisen, almost cumulatively, as a direct response to the terrorist attacks on September 11. Airport security was relatively unobtrusive prior to this event, which provoked a spike in regulating how people could board airplanes. Though some could argue that the intensity of smoking bans has spiked as well within the past five years, no single discernible cataclysm spawned it. It has arisen gradually over decades and with widely varying results across jurisdictions, while the federal government has implemented airport security standards with great uniformity. These striking differences may explain why one of the two initiatives has elicited far more chatter of controversy. While privacy advocates have objected to the intrusiveness of screening technology and airlines have said that the hassle detracts patrons from flying, the implementation of airport security has hardly divided the nation enough to arouse “breakaway” airport authorities; that would be illegal. By and large the public has voluntarily ceded this responsibility to the federal government. Conversely, smoking bans remain profoundly fragmented spatially and have suffered rejections in a number of municipalities where leaders have attempted them; the likelihood of the United States seeing a national ban akin to Ireland seems faint. In fact, by some metrics, it’s too late—Ireland passed the ban in 2004 as a national policy. Despite one of the most aggressively anti-smoking cultures in the world, the American public would never tolerate such a top-down approach for smoking, even as top-down was largely accepted as the ideal solution for airport security.

No doubt I’m engaging in some pretty vicious rhetorical gymnastics to analogize these two phenomena, but perhaps the crucial way of viewing them through the same lens involves their relation to the mundane. Even for the most frequent of fliers, air travel deviates from normal rhythms far more than, say, using the restroom. It is generally easier to shift public opinion in non-routine matters than those experienced by everyone. Smoking may hardly be a universally shared experience, but to the habitual smoker, it is as much a part of the day as a trip to the toilet when you get out of bed. I’m not trying to be an apologist for smoking/gaming nor a critic, but removing ashtrays from casinos has clearly generated more flak than installing body scanners in airports. Now only these questions remain: how did the public react when smoking was banned from flights, or what would happen if airports introduced gaming, as is the case in smoker-friendly Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam?