Into the Wilderness

It's taken me until Lent to try to write about what's been happening since January.  The last month-plus has been an emotional rollercoaster as the new Voldemort administration -- I've decided to refer to the new president as President Voldemort until further notice, to deny him his branding and keep my blog free of his name -- has released an unending stream of horrifying craziness upon the country.  There has been so much to complain about that I haven't even been able to keep track of it all.  Even as I recognize that my privilege will insulate me from many of the worst decisions coming out of Washington, I grieve for all those directly affected.  Meanwhile, the stress within my family has risen with the level of exterior crazy, while my work hasn't been exactly stress-free either, with major deadlines last month and in late January.  To put it mildly, I haven't been in the mood for New Year's Resolutions, starting new projects, or hauling myself off of the sofa and onto anything new & exciting.

The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that what I've been feeling has felt exactly like endless Lent: an extended trip into the (inner) wilderness, and a trip that won't necessarily end with Easter like it normally does.  Normally Lent is when I try hardest to tackle new things, like fasting from carbon, giving more time to others, or self-improvement projects.  I did manage to make a list of things to do and to peruse some of the Lenten calendars online (here's one if you need it).  But I'm not sure I'm up to the task.  The wilderness alone is just so daunting, much less all the extra obstacles I could choose to tackle to make my stay here more challenging.

This year, I want to commit to learn how to give myself and others extra slack; how not to expect too much when there's no reason to expect anything at all; and how to forgive what needs forgiving.  Maybe I will also manage to clean out my apartment of stuff I don't need, exercise at least three times a week, and re-start my company-wide service projects.  Or maybe I'll just try to get some sleep.  The wilderness is enough to handle on its own.

I wanted to write a scathing denunciation of Voldemort and his cronies, a fervid paean to liberalism, tolerance, and diversity, and a trenchant critique of modern American politics, but I'm just too tired.  I can't even imagine how tired all the real activists, leaders, and fighters must be, the ones who are organizing the resistance and trying to galvanize tired people like me to assist.  I am grateful that my elected Congresswomen are out there representing me fully in the US House and Senate every day, pushing back against the crazy (read: racism, sexism, xenophobia, scapegoating, nepotism, lying, and rampant abuse of the office of president).  I am grateful for so many women and men who are making sure we understand how "not normal" these last weeks have been, even if I can barely keep up with what's happening.  I am grateful for friends and colleagues who support me and my family.  I am grateful for everyone who is calling their representatives and writing letters and naming injustice when they see it, because injustice has become a much more obvious part of our society in the last few weeks; even if it's always been here, it's become much bolder than before.

I remain hopeful that the Voldemort comparison is only a metaphor and that the new administration is not actually intent on subverting our democracy into some kind of dictatorship; that at least some members of the new administration are decent people at heart, even if they support some of Voldemort's policies; and that our system of government is robust enough to withstand even this.  I remain hopeful that we the resistance can successfully continue to resist.  And I am hopeful that once I can understand life in the wilderness a little better, I can find the road out of it and help others along the way.

But for now we are here in the wilderness, so for this Lent, I'm going to try to learn to live with that.


Why I am Not a Curator

Another old unfinished post from the drafts pile... now complete!

Often I have to explain to my colleagues that I studied art history (with a concentration in architecture) in undergrad, and recount how I decided that staying in art history wasn't for me.  Those outside the arts fields usually wonder what one does with an art history degree anyway, and I have to explain that many graduates either go into teaching or research or, after getting their master's degree or PhD, become curators.  As much as I respect the brave souls who choose those routes, I have some fairly strong opinions about why I didn't think that curating or teaching was for me.  And most of those reasons have to do with money and politics.

Regarding the PhD route, my undergraduate advisor recommended that I take it, so I spent a summer doing independent research at Stanford to test it out.  Although I don't mind research, I was so unmotivated that I never actually wrote the paper I set out to write.  I read a lot of books, took a lot of notes, and then... did nothing with it.  After this, I decided that research wasn't really my strong suit.  In talking with graduate students in my department, I also heard that intra-departmental politics is practically a field of study unto itself, in addition to navigating the complex path into a graduate program and then a tenure track.  Finding funding for one's work is always a challenge, as is finding the right academic support and colleagues.  This all sounded like more than I wanted to tackle.

Next up I considered working in an art museum or similar curatorial position.  This seemed more interesting since you don't just do research, write papers, and teach students, but also have some engagement with the public.  I was able to get an internship at a museum in San Francisco, in the education department, working with high school students.  As part of the internship, we met occasionally with curators from other departments to understand their work.  What I learned was that while curators of large museums, which depend on a certain amount of public patronage, do get to focus on their own research interests sometimes, they also have to produce shows that will be popular enough to sustain the museum the rest of the time.  Besides that, much of the work requires meeting with donors and others who are needed to keep the museum running.  None of that sounded very appealing to me.  Museums are ultimately a big business, although one that depends on a combination of philanthropy, public support, and commercial business.  From my perspective, this makes it even harder and more complex than "normal" business with its ordinary financial imperatives.

As to the art market, I never had as much interest in other types of art as I did architecture.  So in addition to a dislike for promoting or selling art and meeting with donors, and to a lack of interest in the financial side of things, I have never had much interest in what the art market actually sells.  That made staying out of galleries an easy decision.  Art critic Holland Cotter has a great piece from a couple years ago that very well describes my own attitude toward buying art: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/04/arts/design/how-to-spend-120-million-edvard-munchs-scream.html

My last internship test case was working for an architecture firm that specialized in historic preservation.  This gave me the chance to see historians at work in a private/commercial setting, plus an introduction to architecture practice in a general sense.  I found the environment much more engaging, and enjoyed working with others on projects that combined research and design.  And so I applied to architecture school.  The next summer, I went to a different firm, but found a similar excitement in working on projects there, which helped solidify my choice.

This isn't to say that working as an architect is somehow immune from the imperatives of funding or of public opinion; in fact, it's far from that.  At my current firm, we specialize in education work, including both public schools and universities, in addition to various other types of public projects.  All of these projects require large amounts of public funding and, thus, public oversight.  We have to argue for our projects at city council meetings, internal oversight meetings, with school districts and their committees, and sometimes with individual donors.  But somehow, I feel like the "politics" here is more straightforward than it would be for, say, a museum show.  We are trying to build or improve schools and beloved community buildings, and it's less a question of what or why than of how.  How do we design something that works for all the owners, users, and others involved?  How do we spend the public's money most effectively and efficiently?  Our design reviews and discussions within my firm are collegial and sometimes even exciting, as we work together to solve these problems.  Then we convince our clients, and then the public.  It's a relatively transparent process, even if we don't always get what we want.  Since our clients typically come to us with funding in hand, our main concern is using it wisely and well.

Architecture is still a luxury of the 1% when it comes to housing or personal use, or even when it comes to directing major works of public architecture (eg, major donors have an outsize say in how building are built).  But architecture can be part of everyone's day to day experience, and I believe publicly-funded architecture ought to be responsive to the public interest.  The buildings we were on are ones that many people get to use and enjoy.  So I'm happy I get to work where we get to make this happen!

Counterfeit Architecture

Time to clean out the ol' half-written blog post inbox!

What does it mean to call a building a "forgery"?  Is it possible to forge a work of architecture in the same way that a painting can be forged?

In Japan, apparently architectural forgery means that you have forged the certificate stating how much your building cost, which is used to determine if your building meets earthquake codes.  Unfortunately, this seems to have happened with some frequency, resulting in buildings that are not safe to inhabit, and are a danger for buildings next door.


In the US, buildings are now copyright (since changes to the copyright act in 1990), so it's possible to "forge" a building by copying it.  The professor of my Professional Practice course told us a story of desperate clients who copied a house.  They first contacted the architect of the house that they had noticed while driving around their neighborhood, asking if the architect would build them an identical house.  The architect said no, because the owners of the house did not want a copy of their house in their neighborhood.  In architecture, the architect owns (has copyright over) their "instruments of service," meaning their drawings, which means that the architect gets to decide if and when to re-use the drawings.  Often, though, the architect will honor the wishes of the owners in making the decision on whether or not a design, like a house, gets used again.

The unhappy neighbors who could not get the architect to build a copy of the house for them went to a contractor instead, who secretly measured the house and built it from his measurements.  Of course, the owners found out, since the house was built in their neighborhood!  The architect (and the court) was able to determine that the house was indeed a forgery, copied from the built work, since it contained changes that were made in the field; if the architectural drawings themselves had been copied to build the second house, it would not have contained those changes.  I can't remember if the result was that the house was torn down, or that the neighbors paid a steep fine, but the point is that it is now possible to sue someone for copying your house, and not just stealing architectural drawings.

Intellectual property in architecture is a tricky thing.  It seems obvious that we can draw a line at outright theft of drawings, or of clandestine reproduction of someone else's house, but now that buildings themselves are copyright, what does this mean for influences from one architect to another?  In practice, probably nothing, since I can't imagine this law will be used to prosecute architects who merely borrow ideas from others rather than wholesale lifting of entire works.  But I think it does raise the question of attribution and borrowing, and for me, underscores the importance of acknowledging our sources.  Architects don't always seem to do a good job of citing their sources.

In any case, next time you want to steal a house - by building your own copy - try not to build it too close to the original.  Your neighbors won't be pleased.


Book Review: Death and Life of Great American Cities

The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) by Jane Jacobs is a classic of urban planning and urban design, and I really have no excuse for getting around to reading it so late in the game.  I knew about it for ages, knew everyone quoted Jacobs whenever possible, and yet it took me until I was about to teach an introductory class on architecture & urbanism to get a copy for myself.  I finally finished it and definitely recommend it.  It's fascinating both for her foresight to what was coming in city planning, and her recognition early on of the factors and problems that we've taken decades to face in the academy.  Her understanding of cities was deep, built on personal experience, research, and speaking with planners, city officials, and academics.  Without formal academic training in urban design, which at the time was focused on then-radical theories of superblocks, towers-in-the-park, and "urban renewal" (neighborhood-scale building demolition to make way for megaprojects), Jacobs was apparently considered a fringe voice until the last twenty or thirty years.  Jacobs died in 2006, and now has a "Jane Jacobs Day" in both New York and Toronto, where she lived the latter part of her life.

Her descriptions of New York City life are magnetic and lovely.  Her phrases are often intentionally humorous, and always down-to-earth, accessible, in a way that no architectural theory book I've ever read has been.  She speaks lovingly about her neighborhood in Greenwich Village and about the North End in Boston.  She also mocks the orthodox, modernist planning theories of the 1930s-60s as being just variations on a theme, calling them collectively the "Radiant Garden City Beautiful."  Her special target is public housing projects, in the specific guise of towers-in-the-park, which she sees as soulless, dead spaces.  A few choice excerpts:

"This is the most amazing event in the whole sorry tale [of the history of orthodox city planning]: that finally people who sincerely wanted to strengthen great cities should adopt recipes frankly devised for undermining their economies and killing them." (21)

"The idea of sorting out certain cultural or public functions and decontaminating their relationship with the workaday city dovetailed nicely with the Garden City [Ebenezer Howard, 1902] teachings.  The conceptions have harmoniously merged, much as the Garden City and Radiant City [Le Corbusier, 1930s] merged, into a sort of Radiant Garden City Beautiful, such as the immense Lincoln Square project for New York, in which a monumental City Beautiful [Burnham, 1890s] cultural center is one among a series of adjoining Radiant City and Radiant Garden City housing, shopping and campus centers." (25)

"To say that cities need high dwelling densities and high net ground coverages, as I am saying they do, is conventionally regarded as lower than taking sides with the man-eating shark." (218)

"The best than can be said of [government-run public housing] is that it did afford a chance to experiment with some physical and social planning theories which did not pan out." (325)

The book is divided into sections of different focus: the first part, on descriptions of city life and activity; the second, on the importance of diversity in cities (including diversity of functions, buildings, etc); the third, on her analysis of how cities suffer and decline; and the fourth, on "tactics" for addressing these forces of decline.  As a proponent of density and diversity, and also as an advocate for residents' rights to fight unwanted changes to their neighborhoods, Jacobs was prophetic.  There are many NIMBYs who owe their thanks to Jacobs for her groundwork on how neighborhoods can fight top-down city planning.  This strategy today has a mixed legacy, as I'll discuss in my next book review, which focuses on Los Angeles instead of New York.

While much of her book is still timely and useful, there were a host of urban problems she either failed to address or to forsee.  She was not all-knowing, after all.  Two good treatments are here (Edward Glaeser, urbanist / economist) and here (Nicolai Ouroussoff, former architecture critic for the NYTimes).  And yet, I am the kind of person who thinks reading the primary sources is a good idea, and this book provides the context for ongoing debates in urban design.  A critical reader should  also remember Jacobs' own context, which was amid major government-sponsored projects that we no longer have the public funds or support to create.  Lack of government muscle behind infrastructure projects is one of today's critical problems, quite opposite from what Jacobs experienced.  Balancing necessary major infrastructure projects with sensitive incremental infill in cities is a delicate act indeed, and Jacobs would surely agree.

For architects and planners, this is a must-read.


Taking the LEED AP BD+C Exam

Last weekend I took the LEED AP Building Design + Construction (BD+C) exam, and, mercifully, passed.  (Something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving!)  I have two purposes in this post: first, to describe my study process for anyone else who's interested, and second, to reflect on the exam at a higher level, to consider whether it's a worthwhile use of one's time.

Exam Prep

I passed the LEED Green Associate exam back in 2013, at the end of graduate school, and have been maintaining my credential since then through continuing ed and actual project experience.  I recently completed the LEED certification process for two projects at my office and am working on a third.  Overall, I felt that I had a solid foundation of understanding coming in to the exam prep.  I gave myself two months to prepare and used two different study guides: Gang Chen's "LEED v4 BD+C Exam Guide," plus his sample test book, and Fulya Kocak Gin's "LEED AP BD+C Exam Preparation Guide."  I also read all of the reference materials listed in the Candidate Handbook from GBCI, but skimmed the actual LEED BD+C Reference Guide rather than reading it thoroughly.

It took me forever to get through Gin's book - but I think without it, I would not have gotten much from Chen's book.  The Chen book is sparse, likely because he intends it to be used as a reference manual after the exam and not simply as a study guide; it doesn't contain any exercises or quizzes to help you retain the information.  However, it does helpfully condense the amount of material you're trying to memorize.  Ultimately, I created my own study sheets that condensed the information even further, to help me memorize just the essentials.  I can't say that I recommend either book over the other; it's probably useful to have both, as I did.  The Gin book is full of "fluff" (photos, useless charts, etc) but does have quizzes and other information that can help with memorization.

I thought both books had terrible sample exams.  They both have significant numbers of choose-all-that-apply questions (where you have to choose multiple answers in order to answer the question correctly), but my experience with the actual exam was that it did not have a lot of those type of questions.  The calculation questions in Gin's book were much too complex.  I scored quite low on both the sample exams, but scored relatively high on the actual exam.  So I wouldn't put too much stock in their sample exams, but unfortunately, I don't have any other questions to recommend.

The actual exam did involve a lot of rote memorization questions based on the LEED application process, as expected, and the rest were analytical or problem-solving questions related to the same.  I thought about 10% of questions were very unclear or difficult.  I received a score of 193 out of 200 (170 is the minimum to pass, 125 is the exam minimum), with scores of 75% or higher in each category - so I think my study strategy was effective.  Basically I read through both books, took all the sample exams, and then the week before the exam, I created my study guide and read all the reference materials.

Reflections on the Exam

I had a difficult time motivating myself to study for this exam.  The exam tests only your memorization and understanding of the LEED certification process -- nothing more.  This process is, of course, described in excruciating detail in the LEED Reference Guides, so there is absolutely no reason to memorize it.  At all.  Ever.  So why is there this whole exam and credential system around it?  As far as I can tell, it's purely about money, about a system that supports the continued existence of USGBC / GBCI and that, occasionally, results in better pay for the individuals who have gone through the system and earned the credential.  You will gain nothing more concrete from the exam preparation process than that.

Earning the credential is also, however, a signal that you think LEED, and by extension, sustainable design / green building, is important.  It indicates that you have dedicated your time and money to learning about and pursuing design strategies that fight climate change.  Even if the primary force behind the credential is money for USGBC / GBCI, the mission of those organizations is to safeguard the planet by changing the way we build and operate buildings.  So what kept me going through the snore-inducing pages of point calculations and percent-savings on energy was the thought that getting my LEED credential was an act, however small, of resistance.  Since the status quo in our country is apparently climate change denial and business-as-usual, this is one way of joining the opposition movement.  While living in California, where we have better-than-average laws and codes to combat global warming, I've sometimes forgotten that the rest of the country isn't following our lead.  The whole purpose of LEED is to provide a national, even international, standard for building design and construction that minimizes the impacts of our work on the environment.  Having spent a lot of time memorizing what the requirements are, I can attest that the principles at play in LEED are actually good ones -- a lot of emphasis is placed on choosing appropriate sites and other factors that have a much bigger impact on a building's energy use than what kind of air handling equipment it has.

I can't say that I learned anything useful from the LEED AP exam.  I also can't say that it was easy, or that studying for it was entertaining, or that now I feel more empowered to work for green buildings, or that I am now more capable of persuading clients on why to build better buildings.  I will probably forget everything that I memorized in short order, because I won't be using the information regularly, and because the numbers change every few months when new LEED Addenda get released.  But I have made a public commitment of my time, energy, and money toward fighting climate change, and I will keep it up until being a LEED AP is no longer a signifier of something unique, and something better comes along to signify my commitment.


A Voter's Guide: Local Elections 2016

I spent a long time researching different local races and some of the ballot measures here in Santa Clara County.  In case you're on the fence or want some further information to guide your voting, I've compiled my thoughts here.

Selection Methodology

I have three tiers for selecting  candidates.
1. Alignment on Issues:  I will choose the candidate who is most closely aligned with me on the issues I think are important.
2. Experience and Education:  All other things being equal, I will choose the candidate who has the most knowledge of what is required for the position, either through education, previous experience, or active participation in similar positions.
3. Women and Minorities:  All other things being equal (#1 and #2 above), I will choose candidates who are women or minorities in order to increase the diversity of voices of our elected officials.  It's my own personal form of affirmative action.

The Issues

We're fortunate enough to live in a place where most things are good.  We have good schools, good parks, lots of (some would say too many) jobs, etc.  We even have a fairly cohesive constituency who agree that issues of climate change are important, equity and justice are important, and a strong education system are important.  Thus, I tend to agree with the candidates on most issues, and have just a few main issues that I use to separate them:

1.  Housing:  The Bay Area in general and Mountain View in particular are suffering from a high jobs-to-housing imbalance that is driving the cost of housing up.  The underlying issue is that we do not have enough housing (supply) to accommodate everyone who wants to live here (demand), and building new housing is expensive.  In some areas, like San Francisco, it's not even allowed as-of-right as it is in most of the rest of the country.  My top issue for local elections is choosing people who want to encourage the construction of new housing, not just for low-income individuals, but for all income levels (ie, "diverse" housing).  Refer to my previous discussion of this problem.

2.  Transportation:  Because of the lack of housing, there is a traffic congestion problem where people must commute long distances to their place of work since they cannot live close by.  I want to elect people who will take a multi-modal approach to solving the transportation issue through supporting high-speed rail / Caltrain electrification, biking and pedestrian infrastructure, BRT, etc, and not just highway widening.

3.  Rent Control:  This is specific to Mountain View, where we have two similar but fundamentally different rent stabilization measures on the ballot.  I can attest that our rent has been going up by 4% to 10% per year since 2013, so I can understand the anxiety about this issue.  However, my general position is that tenant protections, like protecting tenants from evictions without just cause, are good, but price fixing is bad.  Economists seem generally agreed that rent control / rent stabilization does not achieve the goal of making housing more affordable, and in fact can have the opposite effect, as has been the case in San Francisco.  Here's another comment on that.  Thus, I have voted against both rent control measures and would prefer to support candidates who oppose rent control.

The Races

US Senator: Harris.  In watching her debate with Sanchez, she seemed clearly to have a better grasp of the issues and more well-thought-out policies.

US Representative: Eshoo.  Her Libertarian opponent, Fox, seems to care only about the debt and nothing else.  Eshoo, the incumbent, is doing fine by me.

State Senator: Hill.  His opponent, Ciardella, seems a bit crazy.  I don't like that the incumbent, Hill, opposed a proposed highway toll that I think would have been a good idea to discourage driving and encourage public transit, but otherwise I think he's doing fine.

State Assembly: Berman.  He seems to have much more thought-out policy proposals than his opponent, Veenker, and generally aligns well on the issues, despite his support of a retail protectionism measure in Palo Alto that I oppose (requires ground-floor retail in certain areas of the downtown).

For the three school board races, I thought all the candidates were generally good ones, so I'm not as strongly supportive of my choices here.  However, if you want a recommendation:

SCC Board of Education: Mah (her opponent has no experience)
Foothill-De Anza Board: Ahrens, Casas, Landsberger
MV-Whisman School District: Wilson, Gutierrez, Blakely

Mountain View City Council: For this race, with eight candidates for four seats, I ended up making a chart on my whiteboard to help me sort out their various positions and experience.  I oppose Coladonato for his intemperate reputation and lack of policy positions, although he's the only candidate who, like me, opposes rent control.  I decided against Cornes and Clark because they do not support new housing strongly enough, and against Carpenter for his lack of experience.

That left me with Ramirez (my top choice), Abe-Koga (has good experience), Matichak and McAlister (also experienced), who all more or less support new housing and sensible transportation policies, despite all also supporting some form of rent control.  It will be interesting to see how this election plays out and what happens in the rental market after this.

The Ballot Measures

I borrowed heavily from Justin's research into these, so I'm just going to summarize the ones that I looked into myself or think are most important.

51:  Voted No.  This was the toughest one for me.  I am a strong supporter of school construction, both because I think education (and the facilities that support it) is critically important, and because I have a financial interest in new construction.  However, I decided that I agree with the Governor, who opposes this measure, that the existing school bond program that this money would support is inequitable and has the wrong priorities.  I also agree with the San Jose Mercury News that developers should be shouldering the cost for new school construction, as is common across the country; state bonds should be reserved for the communities with the least ability to fund adequate school facilities themselves.  I hope that a "No" vote signals that the legislature needs to take up this issue again, as the governor has asked, and design a better bond program that benefits the poorest school districts most, not wealthy districts.

53:  Voted No.  I don't want to see a statewide referendum on every infrastructure project that costs more than $2 billion (which is probably every major state-level infrastructure project).  The state needs the ability to fund and build important statewide infrastructure without subjecting it to votes from people who will self-interestedly vote against it.

59:  Voted Yes.  This is a ridiculous measure and I initially thought I might abstain.  California legislators cannot do anything concrete to overturn Citizens United, so this is merely a protest vote saying that we don't like it.  I decided in the end that I might as well join the protest.

62: Voted Yes.  The death penalty is outdated and awful.  It's also morally reprehensible.

66:  Voted No.  This would speed up death penalty sentencing and make it easier to execute people.

67:  Voted Yes  / 65: Voted No.
The plastic bag measures are pretty ridiculous, especially when they show up on either side of something as important as death penalty sentencing.  However, there are major differences between the measures so it's important to separate them.  Measure 67 continues the state-wide ban on single-use plastic bags and allows stores to go on selling bags as usual.  This would have no noticeable effects.  Measure 65 would direct money collected by stores for selling bags into a special fund.  Why two measures?  Apparently, measure 65 is supported by the plastic bag industry, who would prefer for us to overturn the existing ban (by rejecting measure 67), and even if we uphold it, could potentially prevent it from being enforced if measure 65 gets more votes.  Just be careful and approve the referendum (ban) but reject the initiative (bag fees) so that we continue as normal.

A: Voted Yes.  I agree with SPUR's analysis that a measure that provides permanently affordable housing for those most in need is a good idea for our area.

B:  Voted Yes.  Again, I agreed with SPUR's analysis that this is a good measure for transportation funding, since it is multi-modal and not just for highway expansion.

V:  Voted No.  See my discussion above about rent control.

W:  Voted No.  Ditto.

I hope this is helpful to some folks still trying to sort out everything on the ballot!


On the Border: Part II

It's been over a year since my last post about my trip to the US-Mexico border, but I'm finally getting around to posting the rest of my thoughts and photos.  If you want to remind yourself why this is an important topic (aside from the election-year immigration hype), check out the following short documentary.  Thousands of unaccompanied minors are still trying to cross into the US from Honduras and Central America.

Between Borders: American Migrant Crisis (New York Times)

July 14th - Douglas, AZ

Our second day at BorderLinks had us up early and on the road to Douglas, Arizona, a border town that neighbors the larger town of Agua Prieta in Mexico.  During the two-hour drive, we stopped at Tombstone, AZ, a laughable tourist trap where there was once a pointless gunfight that for some reason has become famous.  We wandered around for a bit, marveling at the racist stereotypes on display in the shop windows, before finishing our trip to Douglas.

Douglas is a town of about 18,000 people, while neighboring Agua Prieta has around 80,000 people.  Our first stop in Douglas turned out to be lunch with the mayor, Danny Ortega Jr.  (Mayor Ortega has since stepped down, deciding not to pursue another term.)  Our meeting was arranged by Frontera di Cristo, a Presbyterian-founded border ministry, which assists with outreach events like this one.  Mayor Ortega had grown up in the area and remembered what the towns were like before the border walls were built.  Understandably, his primary concern seemed to be economic progress, and he said that he was pushing for an upgrade to the port to make trade easier.  The economy of Douglas relies heavily on Agua Prieta because it is so much smaller, and he described how the two towns would sponsor joint events in the years before the wall.  Now his town was suffering because of the trade and travel restrictions it imposed.

After lunch, and much discussion of the wall, we finally got to see the border wall for ourselves.  We met with Jack Knox, a retired Mennonite minister who is active in trying to care for migrants and advocating for more humane immigration practices.  He and his wife Linda visit the wall every day to pray and look for people in distress.  He described the various forms that the wall takes, and we drove along it, able to see it for ourselves.  Closest to the official border crossing (the port), the wall is double-layered, metal and mesh, and very tall.  From there it transitions to a tall steel panel wall, then to vehicle barricades, and finally to a simple fence.  The road along the fence creates a scar on the landscape that seems to have no end.  US Customs & Border Patrol is stationed along its length every few hundred yards - at least near the town - in their white and green trucks, watching it.  Our little group grew exhausted from the heat after being outside only a few minutes in the brutal July sun.  We would learn later about the many casualties, often youths, who have been shot while climbing the wall, including American citizens.  The Border Patrol often cannot tell the difference between American and Mexican citizens, and the shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality that seems to be shaking the nation this year appears to be quite common at the border.

The net result of this mish-mash of walls, fencing, and barricades is that people trying to cross illegally into the US are attempting their crossings further and further out in the desert, where the crossing is less guarded but more physically difficult.  I do not believe that people will stop trying to cross even if we were to build a massive wall all the way along the border.  (Based on our later meeting with Border Patrol, it appears that determined people have found plenty of ways to subvert the walls we do have.)  Instead, the walls seem to cause needless deaths from exposure as the most vulnerable people try to cross in the least safe locations.  Looking out at the desert, it seemed insane to try to build a wall along the entire length of the border.  What good would it do?  People in desperation always find a way over, under, or around any obstacle.  The harms, on the other hand, seem very concrete: more people dying, a massive waste of resources, and environmental degradation.  This architectural obstacle is a fool's solution to the problem of immigration, which is really caused by grinding poverty and systemic violence.  Unless we solve those root problems, erecting higher and longer walls will do nothing but hurt more people.

We spent a short time at Frontera di Cristo's offices afterwards to cool down, then attended the border vigil that Jack and Linda host every week.  They said that in all the many years they have been doing this, they have never had to hold the vigil by themselves; someone else always shows up.  That week, it was our group and a few others.  We walked down the main road leading to the border crossing and laid crosses on the sidewalk in memory of those who have died in the desert trying to reach safety in the US.  We laid over 200 crosses, but there have actually been many more deaths than that.  While we walked, it started to rain, and the smell of rain and cars was very strong.  It was the first time I had seen rain for some time, and I still remember feeling grateful for it.

We had dinner at Jack and Linda's home, then spent the night at the house of a sympathetic Border Patrol officer, who happened to be out of town and let us use his home.  As you can imagine, there are those who feel strongly that the Border Patrol does have good work to do - preventing drug and weapons smuggling, etc - and who feel that changes in their methods related to the treatment of migrants can come from within.

Our next adventure: crossing the border ourselves!  In Part III.

Want to learn more?  Read:

  • Death toll in Arizona from exposure in the desert: this map from the Humane Borders project
  • Recent news report (May 2016) on the number of deaths this year.  Despite overall lower numbers of people crossing now compared to the early 2000s, the death toll remains high relative to the number of people attempting to cross.
  • Wikipedia article on the death toll