Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Herald's Chicken: Translating NIMBY Speak
posted by Peter Rossi
This week's edition of the Herald (7/30/08) contains a classic example of NIMBY-speak - the letter entitled "Come Out to Doctor's Hospital Meeting." This letter is difficult to decipher without a Rational-NIMBY dictionary. For the benefit of our readers, I will attempt a translation.
The letter starts with a hollow appeal for readers to come to yet another public meeting on the fate of the Doctor's Hospital. I say hollow as the author does not provide the meeting's location. I'm told the address is posted inside the shuttered offices of the HP Historical Society, but this is just a rumor.
Next comes an assertion that there are "important concerns ... expressed by the community." While not an outright misrepresentation, the author hopes to convince the reader that the entire community agrees with what is little more than just his own opinion. This tactic also absolves the author of any responsibility if the eventual (and likely) outcome is that the Doctor's Hospital remains abandoned.
Had enough? Please read on. I haven't even got to the juicy parts!
What do you suppose is the first "concern?" "Diminished" parking and "Congestion." This is classic Hyde Park NIMBY dialect. Doctor's Hospital is located on a virtually abandoned stretch of Stony Island Blvd. The author is well aware of how preposterous the congestion attack is for anyone familiar with the DH site. So instead of giving the exact location, he casts wider aspersions, referring to the "southeast corner" of our neighborhood. "Congestion" is the HP NIMBY rallying cry. It sounds so much less selfish than admitting that you want to keep the public parking space in front of your house for your own use.
Number 2 is also an out-dated classic. The hotel proposed by the property's owner, The University of Chicago, has "excessive height and bulk." You would think the U wants to build a replica of the Merchandise Mart on the spot instead of a hotel. Who is the arbiter of what constitutes "excessive?" -- why the author, of course.
Number 3 is the claim that what is proposed is of "mediocre quality." Not only do our local NIMBYs assert control of all development in our neighborhood but somehow view themselves as having a superior aesthetic sense.
The University unwittingly threw a bone to the NIMBYs by involving White Lodging in the project. Generic "congestion" and "excessive height" statements can now be accompanied by claims of "questionable labor practices." Our local NIMBYs, who have done more than any other neighborhood group to harm and exclude people of modest income, now claim to be the friend of the working man.
It is interesting that our "preservationist" author leaves concerns about "demolishing" the "historic" Doctor's Hospital to number 5. "Historic" is NIMBY for "old."
NIMBY-speak likes to invoke the worst images of change, so our author can't resist the D-word. Fellow NIMBYS, they want to DEMOLISH the existing building. Chicago is the most architecturally significant city in the world because its citizens understand that buildings can and should be torn down if needed.*
If your back is against the wall and change might happen, the garden variety NIMBY thinks -- "how can we delay progress indefinitely? I've got it, let's study it!" We need a comprehensive "development plan" for the three blocks on Stony Island from 56 to 59th, proclaims our scribe.
The next paragraph is a masterpiece of inconsistency. "Whether one is for or against a new hotel, these issues need to be resolved." Sounds very reasonable (but didn't he just say we needed to study it forever?). As you read further, however, the polemic takes over. The issue must be resolved "in favor of ... traditional character and ... future best interests." This is very clear. There is no tenable position in favor of the hotel proposal, as it can't possibly keep "traditional character" alive in HP.
Next we have a longish paragraph the gist of which is -- hey, we NIMBYs designed a great plan for the site that keeps the DH building. What's more, you folks who want the new hotel are just plain dumb -- don't you know that you can get a tax break for "preserving" the old building? This is a classic NIMBY tactic -- hope that the reader won't do his homework and will tell his friends -- those preservationist types have already figured it out and it will be cheaper!
It is true that some of our NIMBY friends consulted an architecture firm but no one really knows what transpired. Details are very hard to come by. As for the tax credit argument, I believe that Representative Chicken Little has proposed a tax break for buildings constructed of solid gold. Using our author's peculiar logic, this means that gold buildings would be cheaper than brick.
Instead of a real alternative, we have people who merely claim to have an alternative. I would believe our local NIMBYs if they found someone willing to plunk down the $20 million+ that any proposal (with or without the D-word) will require. The only real alternative they have proposed is to continue to have an abandoned building on prime HP real estate.
The author loses restraint altogether in the last paragraph. First, the author reminds the Alderman (Leslie Hairston) of her awesome powers to stop any significant development. The sentence serves a dual purpose - insult the Alderman (doesn't she know her powers?) and remind would-be NIMBYs that all they need to do is pressure the Alderman.
The last sentence is a threat directed squarely at the Alderman. You better play ball and "exercise leadership" on "behalf of the community." For exercise leadership, translate that to "do as I say." For community, translate that to "me."
Let's understand this letter for what it is. There is no on-going development in our community (Solstice and Village Center are merely plans at this point). The only construction of any significance takes place on the U of C campus. This NIMBY author wants our neighborhood to stay that way -- a backwater. We can't afford this unless we want our community to die.
*The Chicago Fire, firm bedrock and cheap land also played a role.