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Long Story Short: Degrees of winning

5/25/20



 

Reopening Buffalo and the death of social distancing

“Thanks to the collective efforts Governor Cuomo asked me to oversee for our region,” begins the mass-email from Lieutenant Governor of New York, Kathy Hochul, “we were able to meet all seven metrics necessary this week to enter Phase 1 of reopening.”

 

The email came last Friday, three days after, to the relief of many, Phase 1 of the “reopening” of Western New York began. It went on to say, “This could not have been accomplished without the close partnership between State, County, and local officials—and Western New Yorkers who are stepping up to meet these extraordinary times.”

 

Are we, though?

On a video interview linked to the email, Hochul says, “[Phase one] could have been months away, but because people listened to us and adhered to social distancing, wearing the masks, which has been so important…” Wait, social distancing? Wearing masks? Has Kathy Hochul been in Western New York since the first blast of spring weather blew into town (then left, and has since returned)?  

 

In a May 5 Facebook post, I wrote, in part, “I'm seeing lots of variations on the same comment: ‘They aren't taking social distancing seriously.’ ‘They’re meeting in groups and not wearing masks.’ ‘They don't care about anyone but themselves.’ ‘Why are they so stupid?’ ‘They are terribly inconsiderate.’”

 

Two factions

The fact is, a large portion of the population doesn’t understand, doesn’t accept, or doesn’t care about social distancing, as evidenced by widespread public behavior. Conversely, there’s a portion of social media users who never tire of posting statements of outrage about it. There are many reasons people choose not to wear masks, says NBC News—such as COVID-19 fatigue and wanting to feel in control—despite widespread agreement that it’s an effective way to help control the spread. And the daily drumbeat of Facebook tsk-tsking and admonitory news posts isn’t altering that.

 

Unmasked joggers and bicyclists in particular have become targets of virtual animosity, despite evidence that outdoor transmission of the virus is unlikely. There are a lot of misconceptions and intensified fear about the probability of contracting the virus under various conditions. “People passing by you in a supermarket are unlikely to infect you. Outdoor environments appear much safer as well,” reports Bloomberg Opinion. “In one study, which followed hundreds of cases, all but one transmission occurred indoors.”

 

For people on the progressive end of the political spectrum, mask-wearing—often illustrated in a Facebook selfie—is a sign that they take the pandemic seriously and are willing to make a personal sacrifice to save lives. That’s a courteous and prudent position, but endless social media “reporting” about noncompliance has become a form of virtue signaling that undercuts the sacrifice.  

 

We get it!

You can only point out a problem so many times before people reach “mental fatigue.” Routine grousing quickly loses its impact. Anyone with working eyes knows that large numbers of people in Buffalo/Niagara are gathering outside in groups without wearing masks. Social distancing, if not dead, is on life support. Aside from inside stores, where mask wearing is still common, it’s becoming increasingly rare to see people with facial coverings. Construction crews labor in unmasked proximity. Porch and patio gatherings have resumed in full force. Hikers crowd tight trails.

 

Governor Cuomo has said he favors police enforcement in public places, but local leaders are reluctant to take that route. Without enforcement, growing numbers of people seem determined to flout New York state mandates. It’s likely too late to put the genie back in the bottle.

 

A social experiment

What happens next? If health experts are right, there will be a spike in local infections and hospitalizations, which could delay Phase 2 or end Phase 1 of the region’s opening. How will people react if that happens? Would tightened restrictions be met with greater cooperation, or more aggressive resistance? On the other hand, Western New York now has 525 contact tracers as required by the state, which Hochul considers, “so important because once someone has been identified as positive, we can isolate it…” So maybe we’ll keep the lid on infection increases. Who knows? We are living in a big petri dish of epidemiology, psychology, and social science. Time will tell what grows.

 

 

Art for society’s sake

An activist artist, whose name we’re withholding for reasons that will become apparent, poses the following riddle of sorts:

A drug dealer, a drug buyer, and a small child enter a neglected park. They all have a specific agenda. "I'm here to sell drugs!" says the drug dealer. "Great! I'm here to buy drugs," says the drug buyer. "And I'll probably stick around and use them, as this looks like a great place to leave my used needles." "Um… I'm just here to play?" says the kid.

 

The question: If you live near the park, what should you do?

If you say you would call the police, our mystery riddler wants you to know that’s the wrong answer. The dealer might be arrested, the buyer may leave, but will the child reclaim the park? Citizen policing presents a disproportionate risk to young men of color, and over-policing a neighborhood creates trauma for the whole community. "Policing just increases the feeling of fear for everybody," says the community member; "it may disrupt the criminal activity of one or two people, or even lead to larger bust, but it never solves the ongoing problem.”

 

A cycle of poverty

“The trio in the riddle,” says our anonymous quizmaster, “are characters in a cosmic joke caused by a cycle of poverty and violence beyond their control, and even if one dealer is pushed out, another will replace him, so the kid still won’t be able to play in the park.” Adopting a “warlike attitude” in one location is futile. And the US has never fully addressed this problem on a larger societal level.

 

What to do?

The immediate answer to the riddle is to stop the cosmic joke from playing out in your park. That’s the concept behind a new post-graffiti art initiative now in its infancy on Buffalo’s West Side. The very small artist group has no moniker yet, so I’m coining one: West Side Interventionists. The idea is to put small, temporary street installations in known drug havens, starting with Massachusetts Avenue Park, to make those areas that are attractive to drug dealers and users less accessible. It’s kind-of like the work of the graffiti artist Banksy, except West Side Interventionist installations serve a function by appropriating public spaces where people buy and consume drugs, and filling the spaces with “creativity, fun, and beauty.”

 

A movement begins

The first work of guerrilla art is a modest effort named Covid Bells. Inconspicuously located in the northwest corner of Massachusetts Avenue Park—a popular heroin-shooting nook—the work involves a network of interwoven nylon lines, with almost 100 bells attached that ring when an orange cord is tugged. A mirror leans against the corner.

 

"Covid Bells is just a fun thing, put together out of scrap materials and fishing line," says the artist. "It's designed to be taken down the minute kids can get back on the court.” In the meantime, there are plans to expand it. “It's a comment on how we are each a separate being, but we’re still interconnected, even if it is in an invisible way right now,” says the artist. “and we all still have a reflection.” In the spirit of the initiative, there’s a standing bet within the group as to how long the mirror will survive before it gets smashed by rocks or other kid-fueled energy. 

 

Coalescing concerns

"This is a convergence of a few things for me," says the Covid Bells’ creator; "it was a sad day when they pulled the basketball hoops off the court, sending a message to the neighborhood kids that this was no longer their place to play. That vacuum created even more opportunities for criminal activity.” The West Side Interventionists believe that areas typically used by drug dealers all have something in common: neglect. “By making a space look occupied, admired, and used, it tells people to find another place for deals," they say.

 

As Covid Bells was being installed, a child approached to ask how it “worked.” “I showed him, and he laughed,” says the artist. But laughter is not the artist’s entire goal. “The piece will be fully successful if it telegraphs a message to people using the park for crime that this isn't quite the right place to do their deals.”

 

The goal of the covert project—artists do not have official permission to install works—is to make the park friendlier for kids, “so they can come and play and not worry about gunshots, illegal narcotics, and needles,” says the artist, “and if they get to interact with some art, great."

 

A call for work

West Side Interventionists invite others to install works in Massachusetts Avenue Park. But they ask that artists respect the park by not creating anything that can’t be easily removed. “Dig deep and create something that honors and elevates the diversity and raw creativity of the West Side,” they urge. Street Installations of this nature are effectively abandoned by artists upon completion, so they give up control. “Have fun,” say the West Side Interventionists, “and realize that for many kids, destruction is an act of creativity, so be ready for your art to be destroyed.”

 

 

And the winner is…

For those unaware, Long Story Short was a finalist for a national journalism award that was presented last week. I won’t bury the lead; we lost. But you know what they say; it’s an honor just to be nominated. Thanks to COVID-19, I’ve come to really believe that.

 

The CRMA

Every year, the City & Regional Magazine Association (CRMA) presents awards in multiple categories for journalistic excellence. Some years ago, Spree won a bronze award in criticism for articles I wrote. Bronze is the lowest step of the tri-level Olympic podium, but at least you’re on the podium. [Spree has also won Silver awards in General Excellence and Feature design, among others—editor] I didn’t attend the award presentation. I learned that Spree won from our editor, Elizabeth Licata. Since then, the CRMA has done away with gold, silver, and bronze awards. Now, like the Oscars, there are five finalists, one winner.

 

This is the second time for this nomination. Long Story Short was also a finalist for best Online Column in 2018. Here’s how the whole process went down from my perspective:
Licata: “You were nominated for a CRMA Award!”
Me: “Great, let me know how it turns out.”
(Several weeks later)
Licata: “You lost.”
Me: “Okay, thanks.”
There might have been a bit more discussion, but that’s the gist of it. 

 

The pandemic difference

This year, LSS was nominated again, but, thanks to COVID-19 and the need for social distancing, the awards were presented online, so anyone could “attend” (you can still view it if you’re curious or bored). The slickly produced PowerPoint presentation was narrated by someone who sounded like the voice on Disneyworld’s Carousel of Progress. It beats an actual person reading at a podium.

 

As the awards unfolded, I began to appreciate the award show axiom about it being an honor just to be nominated. The competition is sponsored by the Missouri School of Journalism (MSJ), the oldest in the country. More than 100 judges select the finalists, including MSJ professors and representatives from the Atlantic, Better Homes & Gardens, Harvard Business Review, Life, National Geographic, the New York Times, New York magazine, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, the Washington Post, and many more.

 

Fifty-three magazines submitted 741 entries in thirty-five categories, and, as is the case every year, about six publications dominated the awards. Denver took six; Chicago and Portland each took four. Philadelphia, Boston, and Texas (yeah, the whole state) also got multiple awards. Honolulu, Palm Springs, Boston, San Diego, and Washington DC won many of the remaining ones. These are large city publications, often having multiple editors, sizable staffs, and comparatively huge budgets.

 

If you happen to publish a regional magazine in a city like Washington DC, local news is often national news. This is true as well for many of the other finalist magazines. Denver, for instance, received an award for revisiting the Columbine school shootings on their twentieth anniversary. Top honors often went to investigative reporting. Racism, murder, and cancer were big topics. Few small city magazines are even finalists. For them, this competition is like a college basketball team playing in the NBA. They may be good, but they’re still going to get trounced by the Chicago Bulls.

 

The big moment

So, I was admittedly thrilled when Long Story Short was named alongside online columns from San Diego, Boston, Denver, and Philadelphia. It was a rush hearing the melodious voice of the polished announcer intone, “Bruce Adams’ kicky (or did he say kinky?) and eclectic columns cover the gamut from movies to juicy court cases to the merits of tall ships. The rat-a-tat-tat pacing delights and gives readers an old-fashioned and often delightful insider’s view of everything Buffalo.”

The category ended with, “San Diego Magazine wins with the Setlist, by Jeff Terich.” Terich is a nationally known music critic, whose blog has six commercial sponsors (note: you are reading this without ads). Being included as a finalist among Terich and the other big city writers was like wandering into an exclusive club wearing flip-flops and a Frank Zappa tee-shirt, but somehow still being allowed in.

You can watch the CRMA presentation of best Online Column here at 1:10:10.

 

 

Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

 

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