Tag Archives: City politics

Montgomery’s Lightning Route

photo(1)Did you know that Montgomery was once home to the nation’s first electric trolley? It was a marvel of the times, a true wonder of science, technology and progress. We were envied by the rest of the world for our public transportation.

No more. Now, we only drive cars or trucks, burning fossil fuels and cutting off the poor from employment and health care. Out city buses became famous for racism and tactics deployed against it. We now incentivize sprawl, which is convenient for those looking to flee neighbors that don’t look like them or share their values.

This sign is still on display downtown, as poetic in decay as the discarded idea it represents. Here’s hoping that one day our city will again be on the cutting edge of something good.

Gun Shots

I’ve been sort of sick lately. Nothing major — just some headaches that I hope are not a signal of some growing mass in my brain. But when you don’t feel well, you’re thankful for peaceful good sleep.

Also, I have work in the morning. And when you have to get up to go to a job, you’re thankful for a good night’s sleep.

Both of which are reasons why I’m annoyed to be up with my heart racing due to the familiar sound of gunshots.

We’ve written before about how we were diligent when we moved here about dutifully calling the police after hearing them. We figured that the “time of call” would help the police pinpoint the exact time that the shots were fired, somehow assisting in the ongoing investigation. But the police seemed bored when we called, and it was, after all often 2 in the morning. So we made a note of it the first time we heard them, woke up, and rolled over and went back to sleep. It was like our cynicism deflowering. We were here now, and the gun violence was just part of the landscape — not even worth reporting.

It’s a familiar, if unpredictable routine by now: hear the shots, wait for the sirens, scan the paper the next day to see if it was anything the media discovered. I almost said, “See if it was anything major,” but it’s still major in the lives of the participants, even if it doesn’t make the newspaper.

When the shots wake me up, I still note the time, as if I’ll later have firsthand knowledge to contradict some sort of official report. I’ve decided that I can tell the difference in sizes of guns from the shots. Tonight’s were especially close and sounded closer to the AK end of the spectrum than the clipped bursts of an Uzi. And yes, they sounded fully automatic. Much different than the occasional pistol round.

One thing that made tonight’s shots memorable is it sounded like someone yelled something during the spray. Might have been the shooter yelling something like, “boom.” Might have been a victim crying out. Hard to tell when you’re groggy and it all happens so fast. Anything can get mangled if you replay it in your mind enough times, especially if it’s just a tiny fragment. Within a few minutes, it’s hard to know if there are six shots or seven, and you appreciate the hard work of the justice system (both lawyers and witnesses) trying to piece together little scraps of violence several months (and even years) after they happen. Memories fade, especially if they aren’t written down right away.

And I guess that’s why I’m writing now. We weren’t hit. No holes were punched in the walls or windows. The dog didn’t even wake up. We didn’t call the police. Shots were fired, almost certainly in anger, and the night sprouted a blurry sonic blanket of sirens. It sounds like they might be driving around in circles in the next neighborhood, either chasing a suspect or totally passing by a victim who is leaking life.

Anyway, I’m not sure what we can do. It’d be nice to do an interview with local law enforcement. Our police chief is Kevin Murphy. He is not to be confused with Chris Murphy, who heads our city’s Department of Public Safety. Chief Murphy was hired by Chris Murphy, who used to be the head of the Alabama Department of Public Safety (the state troopers). Our police chief from 2004-2010, Art Baylor, was appointed by Obama to be a federal marshal.

But an interview with local officers and leaders isn’t likely to be all that enlightening. I’ve interviewed cops before. They mostly just talk about how crime is down and how nobody appreciates how hard their job is. Both facts are unarguably true, although the current crime fighting strategy (cramming poor people into unconstitutionally overcrowded prisons) leaves something to be desired.

Montgomery’s Worst Intersections

Every place I’ve ever lived had its own special archivists devoted to cataloging the many sins of the city’s drivers.

“They drive so slow here!” (Seattle) “They drive so fast here!” (Atlanta) “You can’t ever turn left here!” (Los Angeles) “Wow, you can really see the sparks when they hit those speedbumps.” (Albuquerque) “They drive so fast here!” (Los Angeles)

Montgomery’s no exception. Who among us, be we locals or expats, have not sat over tea or something more high-octane and listened to (if not held forth on) the itemized sins of Montgomery drivers? They inexplicably turn from the middle lane. They don’t know what to do at a yellow light. They stop at weird times. They freak out when someone uses their horn. Etc.

It’s so common to blame a city’s traffic issues on its drivers. If only we’d learn how to follow at an appropriate distance, discover that our brakes work best if applied only when necessary, and resist the temptation to text while driving on I-65, everything would be better, right? Sadly, no. Montgomery drivers (aided by inept politicians that refuse to make it illegal to text and drive) have plenty of failings just like the idiot vehicle operators in every other city in the world. But they’re only to blame for part of our City of Dreams’ traffic nightmares.

To be fair, we don’t really have “traffic” here in the way that major cities do. Which, for anyone who’s ever sat on the 405 or the 285 in rush hour, is a major plus for life in our fair city. Instead, we have hyper-local catastrophe zones created when bad driving meets worse urban planning. We call them Montgomery’s Worst Intersections, and we’re counting them down right here on Lost In Montgomery for your rubbernecking pleasure.

4. Taylor Road and I-85 eastbound. We get it. You don’t have to be ashamed of going to Eastchase now that Earthfare is there. But it’s still the Hellscape and you kind of want to get in and out without anyone knowing about your dirty business. Yet, when you exit the Interstate and turn onto Taylor Road from that far right hand lane, we’d still ask that you pay attention to the sign that says “KEEP MOVING.” Because it means that you should KEEP MOVING, not pause daintily to see how you will get across three lanes of traffic to the Banana Republic. This intersection is one that has actually been recently improved by the addition of the extended turn lane to facilitate actual merging. Now, if someone would just tell the drivers.

3. All of Zelda Road at lunchtime. Your nightmare begins when you try to get off 85 by way of the Ann Street exit. You will be forgiven for thinking you are likely to be rear-ended because, well, that’s what happens when you are stopped on the Interstate. The city planners, bless their asphalt-encrusted hearts, didn’t seem to anticipate more than one or two cars hoping to exit onto Ann Street at any given time. Especially at lunch. Especially with the cornucopia of gross food options south of the freeway. Downtown traffic floods here since the downtown eating options are poor. La Zona Rosa, the Down the Street Cafe, Moe’s, the various fast food magnets — they all lure people with their siren call of lunch. Oh, if you want to go left on Ann, there’s a Wal-Mart, which is always crowded because it’s the cornerstone of the consumer economy.

Should you manage to successfully turn right in search of food, your gauntlet is just beginning. There is an unimaginable 90-degree curve at Country’s Barbecue where cars are flying onto the main road from all angles. Woe unto all who seek to cut across to the secret shortcut. Still on Zelda, you will then endure several blocks of people trying to turn left across traffic into various tiny parking lots — without a turn lane or light in sight. Sad that a street named after one of our city’s most famous and interesting literary figures (well, named after someone who was named after her) is in fact a soulless and congested fast food-pocked deathtrap.

2. The Boulevard and Narrow Lane Road, near the entrance to Baptist South. Let’s say that you were designing byways around a medical center where lots of elderly people and injured people and disabled people and grieving families and small free-range children were likely to be wandering about, particularly going to the CVS across Narrow Lane Road. Now, let’s say that you were also a sociopath. That explains why you decided to run an access road along the Boulevard next to a dubious-looking pedestrian bridge, just up from a crucial turn-in (Normandie Dr.) to the hospital complex. If the five-way stop isn’t already a recipe for wrecks, throw in the general unfamiliarity of the population with service roads running parallel to major streets, and add in a bunch of ambulances and elderly drivers who are either a) terrified or b) trying to be nice and let people out in front of them. This intersection has it all.

1. Was there any serious argument about which intersection would be the worst? If you’ve spent any time at all where Narrow Lane improbably joins both Carter Hill and Mulberry, you already agree with our choice. In the first place, there’s no shortcut around this intersection unless you’re willing to go all the way on the other side of Huntingdon or, to the north, the freeway.

Turning left from Woodley (at Huntingdon) onto Narrow Lane? Break out the books on tape or some podcasts, because you’re going to be idling there on Narrow for a while, wondering what on Earth could be going on at the improbably-named Country Club Shopping Center (where Martin’s is).

The Winn-Dixie in that shopping center is an essential part of the surrounding neighborhoods, a home-from-work stop for everyone whose grocery needs don’t rise to the level of Publix. Then there’s the poor Sonic, whose business has to be significantly depressed by the fact that there’s no obviously legal way to get into and out of its parking lot without getting onto Carter Hill. And the scrum on Carter Hill! The addition of the extra red light in between the other two red lights adds an element of mystery to the whole experience. At one end is a country club and a college campus, while at the other is a hellish commercial set of strip malls and (not too far down Carter Hill) another college campus.

It’s as if someone took a poorly rehearsed but passable high school ballet recital and then, just to see what happened, tossed in a wild colobus monkey. City planners intent on crippling a major urban area would probably come up with something like this intersection to perfectly compliment a city with no functioning public transportation.

Night Life in Montgomery

From time to time, I wonder why I don’t go out more in Montgomery. I have lived in a fair number of large cities and have visited countless others. I like going out to bars and clubs. Sometimes I like to go hear live hip-hop. Sometimes I like to go hear electronic music and go dancing. I like good beers, whether in upscale joints or places with sawdust on the floor. Other times, I prefer a more lounge sort of environment, with couches and tasty mixed drinks, maybe a pool table or some darts. Why don’t I go out more?

Then I read articles like this one in the Montgomery Advertiser, and I remember that I’m not in New York or Austin. I’m not even in Tuscaloosa, which has some problems with the police and some anti-drinking forces within the university but by-and-large tries to accommodate the young people and nightlife crowd with a variety of bars and live music venues.

No, Montgomery is no Tuscaloosa. Here, bars and clubs are the enemy (unless, of course, you are talking about The Alley and the Entire Future of Downtown Redevelopment). To most who live in this area, Montgomery must be fled by sundown. For those who stay behind, you’ve got what is discussed in The Advertiser’s article: a police-state crackdown with SWAT raids on local businesses. As if I needed another reason to be glad I’m not a student at Alabama State.

Let’s take a look at the article, from Feb. 10 by Scott Johnson. Headline: “City Uses Raid-Style Inspections on Nightclubs.” Well, that’s fantastic PR right there. Really just what you want to see when you are thinking about holding a convention in Montgomery or going out for a night of dancing. The thing is, the Chamber of Commerce types who that ought to bother are probably more mad at the newspaper for reporting the truth than they are at the police for turning local clubs into Gestapo Night.

So what’s behind the use of armed SWAT raids at local clubs (some of which have no history of violence)? According to the article, “through the years,” there have been shootings at some nightclubs. How many shootings? How many years? It takes some hashing through the article to discover.

From a careful read of the piece, we learn that one club was shut down by the city: Top Flight Disco … in 1997!

And another club, Celebrations, closed on its own in 2007 after some controversy.

Oh no! Two clubs closed in the past 13 years! Horror! Call in the SWAT team!

I’m frankly surprised they were able to get the owner of Rock Bottom American Pub to go on the record as complaining about the raids. Even money says that club gets the door kicked in just to make sure the liquor licenses are up to date. Oh wait, Rock Bottom already was raided, along with six other nightclubs on Jan. 16 and nine more the night before that. Fifteen clubs in two nights!

Maj. Huey Thornton, a police spokesman, said the SWAT team was necessary for the safety of the inspectors.

“These officers have specialized training in dealing with situations where there may be large crowds,” Thornton said. “We don’t want to send our officers — or any city or state em ployees — into any situation without providing them the safety and security to accomplish their mission.”

Damn, maybe that’s the kind of important crime fighting lesson we missed at the Crime Expo.

Three places were shut down for over-crowding — Frontstreet Entertainment, Magic Nights Club, and Club Rewind. For how long were they shuttered? Oh, for a whopping 16 hours, although the court has the option of suspending their business license for 10 days.

Frontstreet Entertainment was certainly a likely target of the raids. Montgomery residents will remember that there was a shooting there on Christmas night, injuring two teenagers. Horror. Freakout. Teens not old enough to drink were at a nightclub. Shooting. Christmas.

And yet while the article says the Frontstreet shooting “prompted” the city to take action, the quote from Mayor Todd Strange calls the raids “a proactive approach.” Either the article is wrong and the Frontstreet incident had nothing to do with MPD’s raids, or the mayor doesn’t know the difference between “proactive” and “reactive.”

But sure, we get the point. He’s explaining why the cops are raiding the clubs where there is no history of violence. They’re showing up with guns to prevent violence from happening. That makes tons of sense. Send ’em a message!

Oh, but also, buried in the story was the fact that there was also a fatal shooting at something called Club O’s back in January. Club O’s then shut its own doors. So let’s recap the rationale for the raids:

1. Top Flight Disco was shut down 13 years ago.

2. Celebrations closed itself amid controversy three years ago.

3. Two teens were shot (but not killed) at Frontstreet Entertainment in December.

4. Two people were killed at Club O’s in January (and then Club O’s closed down).

Holy crap! Let’s nuke the Alley Bar! I might have seen a Huntington student use a fake ID to get into Bud’s and order a margarita at El Rey’s! Let’s burn something down!

And if you like to shoot pool at Deja Vu, just keep in mind that your money is going into the pockets of an owner who makes apologies for the cops.

“I appreciate it as a business owner that they are coming out and making sure things are run right, but just make sure it’s fair across the board,” said Lithia Barber, owner of Déjà vu Billiards.

Barber, who said the raid was “kind of scary,” wondered why inspectors targeted her Burbank Drive business and overlooked other nearby nightclubs.

The SWAT team members came into the club wearing masks and carrying rifles, locking the door behind them, Barber said.

Oh, just masks and rifles? Well, I guess they have to “make sure everything is run right.” Hard to imagine they can do that with just masks and rifles and not actively kicking every patron of your establishment in the face, followed by cavity searches.

While Barber questioned the use of the SWAT team, she did say she supports the inspections and would welcome more of them.

The inspection only took 20 to 30 minutes and was not that much of a disruption, she said.

“We ended up having a really good night that night,” she said.

Presumably, by “we,” she means her cash registers still turned a profit, and doesn’t mean that her customers “had a really good night” as armed cops with masks locked the door behind them and searched through everything. Hey, what’s 20 or 30 minutes when you’re a paying customer looking to shoot some pool with friends?

The article goes on to say that our Mayor has promised to “keep conducting the surprise inspections for as long as they are necessary.” Oh. OK. Since they were so necessary before.

“We will continue doing them and probably be pretty aggressive until the message gets out there,” he said.

And what is that message? For me, it’s a good reminder of why I don’t go out and spend money in my hometown.

Crime Expo 2010

All the latest in crime fighting technology and fish taxidermy

Oh dearest reader, we have let you down. We, like Icarus, aimed too high. We wanted so dearly in the molecules of our cardiac fiber to respond to the alluring flyer we received promoting a “crime expo” at the Mann Museum here in town.

A crime expo? And what is the Mann Museum? Would there be rows of vendors selling burglar bars and pepper sprays and mace foam? Would there be self-defense experts teaching ninja moves to soccer moms worried about ruffians? And would there be wildlife learning at the Mann Wildlife Learning Museum?

After all, the electronic handbill carried with it a most nefarious image of a highly-dangerous criminal clutching a ring of keys and wearing a cartoonish “robber” mask. Where did he get those keys? If he is merely a janitor or custodian, why is he wearing a backwards baseball cap and that suspicious Lone Ranger mask? FEAR!!!!

So we put on our reporter hats and wigs and we Googled this “Mann Wildlife Learning Museum.” Turns out, it’s part of the city zoo complex. So we drove and we drove. With a 6 p.m. start time, we were in a mad post-work scramble. Must eat food! Must find hidden museum! Must be there before judo lessons and taser demonstrations!

We arrive ready to take notes. When people think of Montgomery, they often bring up crime. The image is that our urban area is full of crooks, thugs, hoodlums, and no-goodniks. Douse that gumbo with a healthy degree of classic new and old Southern Racism, along with very real poverty and urban decay, and you’ve got a lot of people talking about crime all the time. This talk fuels white flight and is the enemy of those looking to redevelop downtown. The fear monster is alive and well among folks of all races and walks of life. Oh, and there’s actual crime too.

So we were ready to be critical and yet honest in our time-tested Lost in Montgomery way. If we saw a creepy police state thing, we’d call it. If we saw a good deal on lethal and/or non-lethal weapons, we’d report those deals. (Note: The hot pink pepper spray was not a good deal). If the whole thing came off as a cheesy PR stunt for law enforcement, we planned on holding up the light of scrutiny to the whole scene.

So we got there at 6:05 or so. One way in, one way out. Single door. Sign in when you get there. And you walk in at the “front” of the room, meaning all of the chairs are facing you as you walk in. There are about 50 people there, maybe 60. We pass the empty podium and walk to the back. There in the back, amid a bunch of weird empty aquariums are the crime expo “exhibits.” Some of the aquariums are empty. Some are terrariums that have living creatures in them. They look to be in bad shape. Many have lots of moss growing on their foggy glass making whatever is inside super difficult to see. Some are labeled (newts, other swampy critters). Others are unlabeled. And an entire display case is empty as if undergoing renovations or something. It appears it once had poison dart frogs. The entire “museum” looked underfunded and sketchy. But maybe that’s because it was cleared out for this meeting. Clearly we’ll go back for another trip during normal business hours, in hopes that we will see more than stuffed turkeys lining a hallway.

In the far back are walls covered with stuffed fish: Big bass, marlins, etc. There are four tables there. The first is from ADT, the home alarm company. They have the usual sales pitch handouts about crooks and the need for alarms. Another table is from MADD. They are against drunk driving. As usual. Another table is from a gun dealer. They have a few tasers on display and a few pistols. Nothing remarkable. And the final table is from Christ for Crime Victims. Evidently, this is a Jesus-based charity that involves bringing new doors and windows and other anti-crime fortifications to folks who have been victimized by crime. And then (I guess) they tell you about the Lord or something. Unclear. And that’s it for exhibits. Takes us about 10 minutes to make “the rounds” to all four tables. The meeting still has not started.

We find seats. The crowd is multi-racial. Many of the black folks there are wearing the red shirts of the “Enough is Enough” campaign that is pretty big here in Montgomery. It’s an anti-violence, anti-gang campaign run by Rev. Ed Nettles of the Freewill Missionary Baptist Church. Rev. Nettles himself was present, as were a ton of police officers and a bunch of old people. We were the youngest people there by a good margin.

So we sit. And sit. And it’s now 6:30. And we have to be somewhere at 8. We thought we could stay from 6 until 7:45 or so and hit the road. We thought we’d see some cool exhibits. Wrong. When it’s 6:30 and nothing has started yet and they’re telling people to go enter a raffle to win some ADT security package, we get worried. The doors we entered are soon going to close. Then people (possibly people in police uniforms) will stand in front of those doors and start talking. And we won’t be able to leave.

So, dear reader, we failed you. We did not stay for the informative law enforcement programming. We did not learn about crime in our beloved community and what the police want us to do about it. We did not get to ask our burning questions about the “Volunteer Police” who hilariously cruise our neighborhood. We have some brochures about what to do in case we see “someone suspicious.” And the back of the “Enough of Enough” shirts have the word “VIOLENCE” in a circle with a big slash through it … and under it says: “Try Jesus!”

So if that helps you, we are grateful. But we carry a heavy sense of guilt at our journalistic failings. You, the crime wary citizens of this body politic, deserve only the finest information about the doings of our order-preserving guardians.

Plastic: A primer

When the City of Montgomery terminated its curbside recycling program, as an added “screw the Earth” bonus, it also slipped in the end of plastics recycling. As we noted a few months ago, the new inconvenient drop-off sites only accept cardboard and paper. If you’ve got glass, you’ll need to go to the Alabama Environmental Council facility up in Birmingham (although we’ve heard about some glass recycling in Auburn, but have yet to verify that – appreciate a lead from any of our readers).

If you want to recycle plastic, there’s always the AEC option. But driving to Birmingham makes a big old carbon footprint to recycle a few bottles. Other cities manage to recycle plastic just fine – ie, the surprisingly effective and progressive recycling program run by the nearby city of Troy (although they don’t do glass either).

There is, of course, a catch. The AEC and City of Troy don’t accept all plastics – just the ones with numbers 1 and 2 on the bottom. I was curious about what these numbers meant, and why the other numbers weren’t being accepted by Alabama’s pathetic meager recycling efforts.

Thanks to the Internets, I was able to figure out what the symbols mean (sort of – chemistry is not my strong suit by any means). I learned that all plastics are not the same (which I knew, but it was good to be reminded of why) and thus cannot in fact just be dumped into a big Recycl-o-Matic (such is my understanding of how this process works) to be remade into new plastic things. For those who are interested, here’s how the plastic numbers break down:

  • 1 – PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate). Seems like this is the most common, especially for water and soda bottles, because it’s cheap. Evidently it is also easy to recycle – here’s a video of a plant if you’re interested in learning more (as I was … dig that crazy pan flute music!). These bottles get shredded and recycled into things like fabric and carpet. Generally, American consumers recycle somewhere between 12 and 20% of PET bottles.
  • 2 – HDPE (high density polyethylene). Milk jugs, trash bags, detergent bottles, cereal box liners, and so forth. Evidently it can be recycled into a bunch of stuff and is very durable. Seems like it’s tougher and longer-lasting than PET.
  • 3 – Vinyl or PVC. Evidently can be recycled into useful products like speed bumps. If it were recycled. Which it rarely is. Do not burn or use to prepare food unless you really like the taste of chlorine.
  • 4 – LDPE (low density polyethylene). Plastic shopping bags and those awful dry cleaning bags (although if you’re dry cleaning, you’re already willing to accept some level of enviro-poisoning). It’s also in carpet, some squeeze bottles, etc. Can be recycled into other plastic stuff like shipping envelopes.
  • 5 – PP (polypropylene). Evidently this stuff can stand high heat, so it is often used by people who need to pour hot contents into plastic. Also evidently it’s used in a lot of yogurt containers. You know, the little individual ones that animals get their heads stuck in and then die. The Internets inform me that this kind of plastic can be recycled into ice scrapers and brooms, among other useful products.
  • 6 – PS (polystyrene). Styrofoam is one kind of this. Also egg cartons and CD cases. In the 1980s, there was a huge battle over styrofoam use by companies like McDonald’s. Of course, lots of that had to do with CFCs and the ozone layer. And look how well all that turned out. Regardless, you’ll be lucky to find any place to recycle this stuff even if you’re living outside of the Southeast (and if you are, why the heck are you reading this blog?), and even if you get it recycled it’ll only be good for filling other plastic devices.
  • 7 – Other. This category includes everything else, including hard plastics with BPA – something that the FDA has recently said it’s going to take another look at despite previous assurances that it was perfectly safe.

All of which is more in the way of a for-your-information, since there’s really no way to recycle your numbers 1 and 2 plastic here in Montgomery anyway, unless you bundle them for business/recreational trips up to Birmingham (which is what we try to do, although that is more aspiration than reality right now – fortunately, we’ve got a great big shed out back to store stuff in).

Your waste plastic is your inter-generational legacy gift to the Earth if you don’t recycle them (or maybe even if you do, especially if other folks are using the old Montgomery collect-and-dump strategy). And that’s if you’re lucky. If not, your stupid little bottles and sheets and giblets may go straight to the Pacific Gyre. And then maybe one day dissolve, messing with the endocrine systems of our friends in the sea.

There is, of course, some debate about whether it’s a good idea to recycle at all. The most famous example of this argument was made by John Tierney a while ago. You can read his article here, and then consider one of the many critiques of his piece here. There are so many alternatives to buying plastic, but it would be nice to at least have the option to recycle here in the Capitol City. The city needs to figure out how to budget for more progressive trash policies rather than following the horrifying national trend of seeing Alabama as a trash dump.


IMPORTANT NOTE: After this post was put up, alert pro-Earth commenter John P. pointed me to Mt. Scrap, which does take plastics #1 and 2. Thanks!

Montgomery: Recycling disaster

It’s been about six weeks since Mayor Todd Strange, ever mindful of ecomomics, stopped the city’s curbside recycling program. We (and our large group of friends) were quite saddened by this news. Even though we had our share of issues getting our hands on the official municipal orange recycling bags, we do recycle a lot, even collecting glass (which Montgomery never recycled … at least as long as we’ve lived here) and sending it to another nearby (more progressive) city for reprocessing.

So, we were prepared to be vehemently opposed to the end of curbside recycling, but instead were surprised to find ourselves somewhat lukewarm on the issue. Only a third of Montgomery households participated in the program. And we can vouch for the flexible definition of “participate” – while we regularly put out at least one full orange bag every week, other houses appeared to put out a bag with a few items in it every two weeks. Even if you are a strong believer in recycling, it’s hard to justify the fossil fuel use for trucks cruising up and down streets for the weekly recycling pickup when results are so meager.

It gets worse – turned out that city was using the McInnis Recycling Center (a business effort of the Montgomery Association for Retarded Citizens) to process the materials. That facility could only handle about a quarter of what it got through curbside pickup. The remainder was either sent to the Elmore County recycling program or to the landfill. Only 1% of the city’s waste was getting recycled.

Eliminating this massively ineffective recycling program saved the city $400,000 per year (so we were told by the local newspaper). The City was bleeding money, facing an $8 million budget shortfall and burning through the entirety of municipal reserves. In this fiscal crisis, with the city taking a bath on any number of budget items including the terrible Bobby Bright legacy lunch trolley (which was losing $75,000 per year), we found ourselves agreeing with reduced pickup. Or even eliminated pickup. The Mayor said that the city was moving toward drop-off sites that would be open twice a month on Saturday. Probably this reduced recycling input (conceding that ending curbside pickup would lead to decreased participation) would mean that all the recycling at least, you know, got recycled. Maybe the city should have thought about the capacity limitations of Montgomery’s retarded people before they set up the recycling program. We’re not saying those people shouldn’t have jobs (obviously), but if the McInnis facility can’t handle being the sole site of Montgomery’s recycling program, they shouldn’t be handed a job bigger than they can do.

In any case, we were less motivated to show up and complain about the end of curbside recycling once we found out how wretched the existing program was. That’s when Mayor Strange hit us with the one-two punch of his proposed alternatives.

  • Option One: Sort All The Trash. The Mayor was talking for a while about a program like the one being set up in Baldwin County by Team Green Recycling. TGR is a private company building a plant to take in all of Baldwin County’s trash, unsorted, and sort it before it goes to the landfill. They make money by selling the recyclables, and the city makes money by reducing landfill costs. Turns out it’s not cheap for cities to handle solid waste, and it makes financial sense for cities to reduce their trash output (though landfill fees are still inordinately cheap, especially in communities without an interest in forcing “true pricing,” taking pay-later externalities into account). In any case, this approach seemed credible and reasonable, having been tried before in other similar communities. But we haven’t heard much about it since October, and maybe that’s because TGR’s money is all tied up getting the Baldwin County project off the ground, so they’re not ready to invest up here.
  • Option Two: The Plasma Plant. A “plasma plant?” Sounds like some of that geoengineering crap that people float to avoid having to deal with the pressing need to actually reduce consumption and carbon emissions. Without knowing anything at all about how this works, we can only say for sure that the city’s has recently agreed to do a one-year “feasibility study,” after which we may build a plant which may be ready in three years.The idea of these things is that they use very high temperatures on the solid waste, recyclables and all. No special curbside pickup. No sorting. No consumer effort at all. Organic stuff vaporizes and makes steam to run a turbine, so gasification plants are supposed to generate power to sell back to the grid. Other stuff that doesn’t “gasify” ends up being reduced into “slag,” which industry sites assure us can be used for many purposes, including building blocks and roads. The plants don’t produce ash. One of the major problems is that no municipality in the US has a running plasma plant now. The first one, in Florida, is expected to be running by 2011. There is a plant in Huntsville that uses plasma technology, but it’s basically just an incinerator and produces ash. And we have no information on what this means as far as air emissions when you go around and burn up an entire city’s worth of milk jugs and disposable diapers and glass jars and old cell phones and batteries and all the other shit that people put into their trash cans.

The Mayor said he’d get back to us on these options. The City Council said fine. Then we received Picture 1this flyer in the mail informing us of the recycling drop-off locations, and including the fine print that plastic would no longer be recycled by the city. Only paper and cardboard and aluminum. This seemed like some kind of sick joke. Recycle two days a month, paper and cardboard and aluminum only. Plus, it turned out that at least one of the schools had Saturday school, causing some unpleasantness (or at least jockeying for parking) between the school attendees’ parents and local recycling aficionados.

All of which has left us with a number of questions. Such as:

1. If the city is so super broke, how are we going to afford cutting-edge plasma technology that NO OTHER CITY IN THE UNITED STATES HAS?

2. What are we going to do if the feasibility study comes back in one year and indicates that a plasma plant isn’t an ideal solution? What if they cost more than we expect, or don’t work? Or they leave poison in the ground where they are built? Or emit lots of air pollution? Or blow up regularly, killing all the workers who work there?

3. What are we going to do in the meantime? Fill our landfills with glass and plastic simply because the City of Montgomery can’t seem to set up a recycling system like the one in Troy, Alabama, population 12,000 or so? A tiny town 45 minutes to the south of us has figured out how to do curbside recycling of glass, metal, paper, cardboard, and plastic, and not bleed money and go bankrupt? What’s our problem up here?

4. Can’t we just stop our absurd twice-a-week trash pickup and do a single day of the week to pick up trash and a single day of the week to pick up recycling? And start doing glass? And plastic? And somehow not exclusively rely on McInnis to sort it all? And maybe even find a way to sell the recycled goods on the private market and make it into a revenue stream for the city? Or if not, just declare that this is a service (like free parks, for example) that makes our city worth living in and it’s worth it to lose money on since it makes our city a more attractive place to live?