Friday, November 13, 2009

From the Department of Absurd Priorities: Paying Extra Taxes for Leaf Blowing

The ear-splitting whine is unforgettable. When I heard it outside my front door, I knew immediately what it was. A leaf blower, being (mis)used by a crew of landscapers who, as you'll see, are the tip of a much larger problem.

Guy in back blowing leaves out of the square under the tree
and loading them into that truck.
(click on pix to enlarge)

We've seen a lot of gentrification in 20 years, and much of it ain't pretty. Recently I saw Wicker Park, our neighborhood, referred to as Liquor Park, a nod to the predictable sports bars that seem to have cropped up everywhere. Along with new business came new ways of dealing with problems.

A couple years ago, the powers that be established in our neighborhood an SSA, a special service area that runs along commercial avenues and levies an extra tax on residents/commercial businesses on the street. According to the city:

SSA funded projects could include but are not limited to: security services, area marketing and advertising assistance, promotional activities such as parades and festivals, or any variety of small scale capital improvements which could be supported through a modest property tax levy.

We went to the first community meetings where the SSA was being pitched. I wasn't happy with the notion of paying extra for services we'd always performed ourselves--shoveling snow, picking up litter, planting--but there was talk that our SSA would focus on boosting the number of bike racks and resolving knotty parking issues, things that cities should do.

Once the SSA was approved, we grudgingly accepted we'd have to go along, though I could recall just a few years back when I'd still see shopkeepers and homeowners sweeping and shoveling their own sidewalks and picking up trash, a time when neighbors on our commercial street stayed connected via the daily tasks we did out of a sense of pride or simply to make our street a nicer place.

I could even remember when I scolded the gangbangers who once populated our streets about not carving their gang signs into trees because it hurt the green we needed so much. That one cost me: they spray painted HONKY BITCH on our front door. I laughed and painted over it. But my (now obvious) point is that there was no SSA to manage these interactions 19 years ago.

Now that it's up and running, it's clear the raison d'etre for this SSA is to make it easier for folks to come here and spend money. Not building bike racks and resolving parking issues. (Bet you didn't see that coming.)

Taxing for leaf blowing is an absurd waste, and frustrating for someone keen to hold onto the last scraps of horticultural sensibility and, well, street life. I gave up this spring trying to get these same guys to stop cutting back the two clematis I'd planted under our tree and woven carefully through the wrought iron. Apparently they looked weedy.

Trying to order my thoughts on all this got a little easier when I started reading Life Inc: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back, by Douglas Rushkoff (thanks for the refer, Erik). There's enough in the first few chapters to sharpen the focus:

Unquestionably but seemingly inexplicably, we have come to operate in a world where the market and its logic have insinuated themselves into every area of our lives. From erection to conception, school admission to finding a spouse, there are products and professionals to fill in where family and community have failed us. Commercials entreat us to think and care for ourselves, but to do so by choosing a corporation through which to exercise all this autonomy. Sometimes it feels as if there's just not enough air in the room--as if there were a corporate agenda guiding all human activity.

Back to the street scene: I raced out to stop them from blasting out and ferrying off the leaf cover I'd started building, leaves carried from back to front to mulch our tree, the biggest on the block but without much open soil relative to its size. It needs all the help it can get.

I was referred up the line to a supervisor and asked him to not remove the leaves, for all the obvious reasons. He wanted to argue, poking the ground beneath the tree (which at the surface is dense with roots) and saying there was plenty of mulch. There isn't.

Looking longingly at my leaves, but walking on by.
I said no thanks to the very people I'm being taxed extra to pay and who should know better. Most likely, they're following orders from the SSA committee. But in the end, instead of having a friendly street conversation with neighbors, I'm trying to educate some guy who's not interested, in part because his next job is (wait for it)...mulching under the trees.

Finally, just to be snarky and ensure the leaves stayed in place, I emptied all my herb-loaded, done-for-the-season window boxes on top of the leaf base.

See the basil and sorrel still growing?
I think you'll agree that's a beautiful sight that can't be bought
with even the fattest SSA fund.


David Dennard said...

This seems more like a too much government problem than a too much free market/corporation problem.

Bruce said...

Nice post Heidi.

The faceless corpogov structure doesn't make many allowances for DIYers, does it?

We're shaped and molded, encouraged by strong carrots and sticks, to behave a certain way. Then when some people, predictably, don't play along, "Hey, you're not keeping up your little area, it's bad for business!", in steps the business/city partnership to colonize a little bit more. The ratchet effect.

Plenty distopian.

Chris said...

I would have to say this is too much government in the wrong area. Micromanaging is bad no matter where it is and this is clearly the city micromanaging the curb side appeal of the block. Even though they have no clue from the guy blowing the leaves to the person way up on the food chain telling them to do it.

H2 said...

Thanks for the comments, all. The very day this post went up, I happened to notice a busy group of workers back around our tree.

You can probably guess what they were doing. Removing the window box contents/additional mulch I'd dumped there, shoveling it into a big bin to cart away.

No need to do anything, I said brightly with a smile. You can just leave it all here. The main guy responded: cool, less work for us.

Chiot's Run said...

I too hate the leaf blower. I was out raking the other day and heard all my nieghbors using them. I think the rake is much faster and much quieter. Not to mention - FREE to use.

H2 said...

Thanks, Chiot's. Good to know we have anti-leaf blower compadres.