*

Saturday, March 24, 2012

It's location, location, location!

This map showing B&Es adds weight to the claims of a senior LFP editor.

Today, The London Free Press crime reporter Scott Taylor told readers they have a one in 60 chance of being burglarized. Taylor tells us that last year there were 2,900 reported break-and-enters in London, a city with roughly 170,000 households and businesses. A little simple math and Taylor calculated his one in 60 number.

Back when I was still working at the newspaper, I used to give a senior editor at the paper a ride home from work. He lived in the southwest end of the city. One night we chatted about home break-ins. He told me his neighbourhood was very quiet and very safe with very few break-ins. He claimed that crooks were lazy and liked to burglarize homes either near where they themselves lived or near a main road. I gathered he thought crooks were so lazy that they didn't even want to drive too far off the crime beaten path. They like easy access.

If the editor was right, where you live in London will modify your chance of being burglarized. Using info and maps posted by Neighbourhood Watch I looked at Southwest London, the editor's neighbourhood. Then I looked at an area east of the core.

I have to admit that what I found didn't leave me all that surprised. When I worked downtown at the newspaper, the cars of employees parked in the company lots were regularly burglarized. For some years I lived just west of the core and break-ins were not uncommon. My one daughter lives in what is known as EOA, the East of Adelaide neighbourhood. She has had her home broken into as have some of her neighbours.

This is not to say there are no break-in in the southwest. There are. But the your chance of being burglarized in the southwest end of town are not as great as for those living in some other parts of the city. If you live beside a pedestrian walkway joining two streets, I believe your chances of being burglarized go up. As the editor said, crooks are lazy and like easy access. It seems both urban planners and urban burglars like walkways.

Some neighbourhoods and some home locations are definitely more at risk than others. When it comes to the burglary game, the dice are loaded.

During the same period as above, the editor's neighbourhood had no B&Es. None!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Newspapers have short memories



Newspapers have always had short memories. When the pressing demand is reporting today's news, it is hard to find the time to report yesterday's news. So the fact that reporter-poet Randy Richmond doesn't recall the city's previous vision for Reg Cooper Square comes as no surprise.

Yet, it is interesting to take a moment to reflect on the forgotten, but rather recent, past. The London, Ontario, downtown is not what it once was. No surprise here. Most downtowns across North America are not what they once were.

London, like hundreds of other communities, desperately wants to revitalize its downtown. The vast majority of Londoners live outside the core, work outside the core and shop outside the core. Why cities devote so much energy to their downtowns to the detriment of their suburbs is a puzzle.

Today's big idea on how to breathe more life into London's core is to take a fully functioning apartment building, along with the aging city hall beside it, and let the University of Western Ontario take over both. The apartment building would become a student residence, while the city hall would become a major component in a university campus growing in the centre of the city.

Centennial Hall, the third important building sitting on the edge of Reg Cooper Square would also fall into university hands.

To hear these plans discussed, one could be forgiven for thinking that no one had ever had any imaginative ideas about the area. But that's not true. The city planning division put forth a Downtown Design Concept some years ago. The study promised to "encourage new development . . . that will accentuate the Downtown's positive aspects and contribute to its functional success."

This plan had depth. It was the result of work done by the consulting firm Wallace, Roberts & Todd. The well known firm prepared the design concept and proposed guidelines for the Downtown. And what has happened since the release of the report? As far as Reg Cooper Square is concerned, nothing? Unless, you count continuing decay.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Was CBC's the fifth estate attack on Oxycontin biased?

The Myth of Drug-Induced Addition. Source: Parliament of Canada
Sunday night the fifth estate looked into addiction problems associated with OxyContin, one of the most popular pain relief medications in Canada.

It was a fairly one sided presentation. The CBC program had a singular point of view: Oxycontin as a highly addictive, potentially deadly narcotic, over prescribed by doctors influenced by the drug manufacturer's erroneous claims of safety.

Was the fifth estate story the whole story? As a simple blogger writing from home, it is impossible for me to say. This said, I'm well into my 60s and worked for more than three decades in the media. I saw a lot of one sided stories and learned that many media stories making it into the top ten list had good hooks, played well at first, but had little staying power. A lot of drug related stories fall into this slot: Think crack babies.

W. Joseph Campbell writes:

"As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the crack baby scare 'was a media-driven myth based more on anecdote than solid, sustained research.” It turned out to be, as the New York Times put it in 2009, “the epidemic that wasn’t.' "

My years spent closely working with reporters have left me suspicious of one sided stories. Canadians, the CBC tells us, will ingest possibly 10 million grams oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin, for pain relief in 2012. That's a lot of oxycodone. With numbers like these, surely there must be something good to be said.

On the growing Oxycontin problem, Campbell quotes the words of a lawyer-politician, the Florida attorney general, who said: "I’m scared to death this will become the crack-baby epidemic.” Which, of course, proved mostly an epidemic of media hype.

A little more googling turned up this positive story from Karen L. Simon:

I suffered for 20 years with an arthritic hip while being miss-diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. I finally got a doctor who cared enough to order a plain hip x-ray and I was able to get hip replacement surgery.

After the operation, my surgeon said that the femur head was half gone. Without pain medication there is no way I could have had any, I repeat, any kind of life. I was on pain medication for 20 years and went off with no withdrawal symptoms.

Your continued reports on pain medicine abuse simply make it harder for chronic pain patients to get adequate pain medicine. Believe me that if you suffered from pain 24/7, you would require medication. Please, Please report on some other better subject.

Ms. Simon is not alone in singing the praises of Oxycontin. Very little searching will turn up hundreds of positive testimonials. What I found very interesting in Simon's story was she claimed to have used pain medication for 20 years without suffering severe withdrawal. Is this possible? The short answer is: Yes.

Let me quote Richard Pacheco of the Harvard Law School, who as a third year law student he wrote a paper on the use and misuse of OxyContin.

"The physical dependence associated with some drugs can be treated by gradually reducing the dosages of the medication to the point where a patient is drug-free and has no withdrawal symptoms or craving"

You may believe Pacheco or not, but be aware that media scare stories to the contrary there are many who agree with Pacheco. And, of course, many who do not.

Still, there are areas of agreement, right? For instance, OxyContin is highly addictive. Some of my quoted sources claimed OxyContin pills when crushed and then snorted or swallowed resulted in  almost immediate addiction, much like heroin. Crush it, snort it, and be left immediately needing to do it again and again. Bing, bang, boom and the addictive boom smacks the unsuspecting user.

I've read this claim before and alarm bells went off. Immediate addiction, an interesting concept seeing that addiction involves a recurrent failure to control and a continuation of a behaviour with significant destructive consequences. 

It is a lot like reporting something is the first annual. If something has only been done once, it cannot be annual. Just like many "annual" events fail to be held again, many folk taking "immediately addicting" drugs, do not develop an ongoing pattern of abuse.

I can hear the protests to this line of reasoning already. Fine. But a reporter has an obligation to report the whole story and the whole story is that many do not believe in "immediate addiction."

Terms like addiction, dependence, withdrawal are not the neat, clear cut descriptive words many in the media would like us to believe. Read the following from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) discussion of an entry in the upcoming fifth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

"The term dependence is misleading, because people confuse it with addiction, when in fact the tolerance and withdrawal patients experience are very normal responses to prescribed medications that affect the central nervous system," said Charles O’Brien, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Substance-Related Disorders Work Group. “On the other hand, addiction is compulsive drug seeking behavior which is quite different. We hope that this new classification will help end this wide-spread misunderstanding."

I don't think the media understand that there is a large group of people who would argue that dependence, tolerance and withdrawal are all very normal responses to oxycodone based pain relievers.

One person, claiming to be a legal user of OxyContin, wrote on the Net:

"To keep this within limits I will not get detailed on the benefits of Oxycontin. As you can read on the other forums it works. I take 80mg 3x a day and it works great. Been on it for 5 years now and liver test done last month was excellent.

I am tired of the bad rap this medicine gets though. There are even sites devoted to its removal by people who have lost loved ones who abused the drug. While I feel for these people, no one told anyone abuse this wonderful drug. When taken properly this medicine works excellent with little to no side effects.

It is said that you become dependent on this medicine but it is meant for long term and a good doctor will bring you down properly. So withdrawals should be minimum. This is a true wonder drug."

Let's give the last words to W. Joseph Campbell writing one of his Media Myth Alert posts.

(There is) a tendency among journalists "to neglect or disregard the tentativeness that characterizes serious scientific and biomedical research, and to reach for certainty and definitiveness that are not often found in preliminary findings."
Journalists pushed too hard on thin, preliminary, and sketchy data, and extrapolated rather extravagantly from small numbers of anecdotes. It’s a pattern that tends to repeat itself, as journalists fail to take lessons from misreported drug scares of the past.

"What reporters need to do,” the inestimable media critic Jack Shafer has written, "is challenge their sources in criminal justice, medicine, drug treatment, legislatures, and the user community when they make assertions of fact."

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Soledad O’Brien takes on Joel Pollak



It was a messy bit of television. Soledad O'Brien of CNN's Starting Point interviewed Joel Pollak, Breitbart.com editor-in-chief, and the interview got downright messy. Too much talking over one another. No clear winner. Folk like Tammy Bruce are claiming "CNN’s Soledad O’Brien Crashes Her Clown Car." Those on the other side are claiming O'Brien pinned Pollak and Breitbart.com to the mat.

The fuss was over the release of a video showing President Obama back in his Harvard Law School years introducing Prof. Derrick Bell, the first tenured black professor at the school, well-known for his Critical Race Theory.

After viewing the clip, O'Brien asks Pollak, "What part of that was the bomb shell?" She continues,"I missed it." She accuses Pollak of completely misreading CRT.

O'Brien was right --- connecting Obama, a Harvard law student, to Derrick Bell, a Harvard law professor, is not a bomb shell --- but I felt her point got lost in the ensuing group discussion. This was messy American news programing. This was not a clear BBC style presentation or a multifaceted CBC panel discussion.

O'Brien says, accurately I might add, that a lot of law students read Derrick Bell. It is part of their education, she says. Unfortunately, O'Brien's word were not allowed to stand on the own. The whole discussion gets very confused as other panel members jump into fray. Even Rush Limbaugh gets tossed into the mix. Sheesh.

It is interesting to note the the Harvard Law School Bulletin published a tribute to Derrick Bell after his death. The Bulletin wrote:

(Bell) helped to develop critical race theory, a body of legal scholarship that explores how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions. And more broadly, over the course of his five-decade career, he worked to expose the persistence of racism.

Dean Martha Minow said: "From his work on the front lines of legal argument in the civil rights movement to his pathbreaking teaching and scholarship on civil rights and racial justice issues, Professor Derrick Bell inspired and challenged generations of colleagues and students with imagination, passion and courage."

"He has left a trail of immeasurable scholarship," said HLS Professor Charles Ogletree ’78 of his former professor, his mentor and his friend.

The New York University School of Law News reported: "The NYU Annual Survey of American Law dedicated its 69th volume to the late Derrick Bell. . . . (Bell spent) two decades at NYU School of Law as a full-time visiting professor"

NYU President John Sexton said, "(Bell) had the capacity that the really great teachers have, to make you think about something completely differently from the way you thought about it before you began to work with him. . . . I’m not sure I’d be here today if it hadn’t been for his pushing me as a scholar."

It seems there are a lot more people than just President Obama who admired Professor Bell and there are also a lot of folk who would support Soledad O'Brien's position. Sadly, panelist Amy Holmes did not come across as one of her defenders.

Amy Holmes wishes more had been made of this video in 2008. This should have been "put into the public square," she argues. Ah yes, if only the MSM had gotten its teeth into this back then as they did with the Jeremiah Wright stuff. This video would have really made for some incredibly messing and uninformed discussions, something CNN and their ilk seem to think makes for good television. Funny. Their rating don't reflect the popularity of their approach.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rust Belt cities can learn from each other

A few months ago I attended a meeting encouraging the discussion of ways to save downtown London. Why someone would think knocking Detroit, Michigan would add anything to the discussions, I can't fathom. But one person did just that.

I was angered. Detroit was a wonderful city. When I was a boy it was middle class heaven. Its descent into a state of urban hell can only be looked at with great concern. If a city as mighty as Detroit can crumble in not years but months, all cities are at risk. All cities, and that includes London.

With the loss of the Electro-Motive Diesel plant this year, the loss of the local Ford assembly plant last year, and an unemployment number that is among the worst in the entire country, I think London may have strolled through the door to Rust Belt Ville.

Flint thought a mall would bring back their fading downtown.
What measures have many Rust Belt burgs taken to try and stem the decay? Uh, put in an expensive, first-rate downtown mall? Yup! Flint did that.

Hmm. Didn't London do that, too? Yup! Think Galleria, oh, we changed the name to Citi Plaza to attract a tenant. Last I checked, there are signs the tenant may leave but London will have the name to remember them by.

What was the business that was going to turn around the London mall? A call center. Yup, the business model that lots of Rust Belt cities attached their rusting chain to. It didn't work out all that well for many of them, either.

Hmm. Maybe London could get the university to open a downtown campus. That's been a popular strategy throughout the Rust Belt. Sometimes a university will take over an empty building near the new downtown campus, injecting hundreds of students into the dying core. Yup, London is considering this move, too

Oh, there is one difference in the London approach. London is threatening to move residents out of a functioning downtown apartment building, to empty it in order to move student in. Some would see this as a weird twist on an old core renewal scheme.

Which brings me to one of my old complaints. London had a fine downtown theatre that deteriorated from years of neglect. In the end, the auditorium was demolished and a parking lot put in. The facade of the building was sorta saved. But, most would be hard pressed to tell it was ever a theatre. The theatre was torn down over the protests of a group of Londoners who wanted to see it transformed into a performing arts centre.

So what have other Rust Belt cities done? Well, many have not gone quietly, letting a gem slip away. Accepting a parking lot as full replacement. Tonight, I stumbled upon the Utica, New York solution. Gosh, but I hope it works.

LEDs provide the light. A green chandelier.
Utica took a bold approach. They dumped $20 million into renovations to their old theatre to bring the Stanley Theatre for the Arts up to the standard demanded by today's touring companies. And they did things that made news --- like installing the world’s largest LED free-hanging chandelier.

Custom crafted of steel, blown-glass and acrylic, the magnificent chandelier is 35 feet in diameter, 17 feet tall, 7,000 pounds and hand-finished in antique gold and bronze. It was designed to complement the Stanley Theater’s Mexican baroque Moorish theme.

But this is not just another large chandelier, this baby exhibits state-of-the-green-art technology. Using 274 LEDs, the chandelier uses power equivalent to eleven 100-watt incandescent light bulbs – a 98.5% energy savings!

The London solution: Gutted theatre, now office space.
The refurbished theatre has had a rough start. But it is still struggling along and when one considers the present economic climate, this cannot come as a surprise. I like these folks' style but it will be some time before we know for sure whether the Utica approach or the London approach is best.

It is hard to make a comparison between London and Utica. The London theatre is now expensive office space on long term lease to the city. Because of the high leasing costs, the remaining Capitol Theatre facade is an ongoing cost to the city and will be for many years. In Utica the refurbished theatre may also be an ongoing cost to the city. Which will be the bigger drain? Which is the best use of taxpayer money?

The Utica, New York, solution: a refurbished theatre.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Meet Muncie Indiana

Screen grab from The London Free Press video showing scenes from Muncie, Ind.
Every since it became clear Electro-Motive Diesel in London was closing and the operation moving to Muncie, Indiana, I've been interested in knowing more about this small, American city. The London Free Press visited Muncie and shot a short video of the town --- Between the Lines: EMD shut down. Many folk in Muncie who have viewed the piece say it does not mirror the town accurately. The newspaper's video, they say, shows only the poorest parts of town. (I think they are being a little unfair but I won't argue with them.)

Lobby of Roberts Hotel, Muncie, Indiana.
Today I saw some tweets out of Muncie that rekindled my curiosity about the town. It seems the elegant, eight-story, heritage hotel in downtown Muncie, the Roberts Hotel, may evade its date with the wrecking ball.

A Cincinnati developer hopes to turn the old hotel into senior housing. The Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority has approved $1.3 million in rental housing tax credits per year for 10 years toward the cost of the $16 million project.

Roberts Hotel, Muncie, Indiana. Still standing.
It's good news for a hotel that was once the crown-jewel of Muncie. It hosted five presidents and numerous celebrities in its day. In 1982 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It has been touch and go for the hotel, empty since 2006 but it appears Muncie may save its downtown gem.

Londoners should applaud Muncie's good luck. Old time London folk still talk fondly of Hotel London and its beautiful, oh-so-ornate ballroom. But the Ontario city lost its gem when it was demolished to make way for the future --- a couple of tall, modern towers, the tallest buildings in town at the time.

Hotel London, London, Ontario demolished decades ago.
Gosh, the two old hotels look similar. The big difference seems to be that Muncie is still working to save its old heritage hotel while London said good-bye to its gem some decades ago.

Seeing that the little Indiana burg is working to save its heritage hotel, I wondered what the folks in Muncie have done with their old downtown movie theatre.

London has managed to save the Grand Theatre but lost a real gem in the Capitol Theatre which was allowed to slowly deteriorate to be finally razed for a parking lot. Some of the exterior facade was retained but the auditorium is gone.

Well Muncie has managed to save its Civic Theater. You have to give Muncie credit. For a little place suffering all the economic hardships common to Rust Belt cities, Muncie is still in there fighting to save some of what once made Muncie Muncie.

The Civic Theater in Muncie, Indiana.
Some how the image I was getting of Muncie was not in sync with the little video posted by the local paper. I decided to cruise some Muncie streets using Google StreetViews.

First, I visited the downtown. Yes, lots of it looks sad. But, a sad looking downtown is not news. Gosh, from my travels, I expect a downtown to look sad. Muncie did have some bright little spots. Muncie is clearly struggling but it is still struggling. Many downtowns have given up the battle and are just plain dead.

Heritage buildings in downtown Muncie from Google StreetViews.
Now I turned my attention to Muncie's residential neighbourhoods. They looked pretty bad in the video. After cruising a few neighbourhoods using Google StreetViews I can report that a lot of what I saw reminded me of Northern Ontario.

Cities in Ontario's north that were fine places to live in the '70s, today look sad, rundown, forgotten. Paper mills have closed, logging operations halted, mines closed. With residents stripped of income, towns and cities can look pretty sad pretty quick. But I did see homes that said that Muncie was not always like it is today and held promise that it may yet have a future. Homes like the one below tell me that not everyone has given up on their city.

Muncie could again be a good place to live. If only there were more jobs.
One odd thing: The local London paper failed to show us the heritage neighbourhoods which still survive and thrive in Muncie. There is the Emily Kimbrough Historic District, established in 1976 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 ( the district was expanded in size in 1989) and the Kirby Historic District which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

Muncie has its high points as well as its low.
Will the move of EMD to Muncie help bring the good times back? I don't know. But the wages being offered by Progress Rail don't seem to be up to the task of enabling workers to maintain good homes and pay the taxes necessary to provide first-rate municipal services. I noticed that a lot of the streets looked like they needed some expensive maintenance. To be honest, a lot of the town looks threadbare, sorta like vast tracts of London. (Sorry London but it would not be hard to shoot a video making the Forest City look Rust Belt sad.)