March 6, 2015

gentrification and the economics of plunder

Filed under:, , , — cwage @ 1:59 am

These classes, according to the degree of enlightenment at which they have arrived, may propose to themselves two very different ends, when they thus attempt the attainment of their political rights; either they may wish to put an end to lawful plunder, or they may desire to take part in it.

In 1850, Frédéric Bastiat wrote his famous work, The Law. This book centered on his observation that legal frameworks, and the violence used to give them weight, were being used to pursue not simply the application of justice, but increasingly the pursuit of what he called "legal plunder" -- the act of using coercion to redistribute property. This distinction is emblematic of a great divide between how people remedy our various societal ills, and the above quote succinctly summarizes this divide. There are those who see legal plunder as a problem in and of itself, and there are those who, for better or worse (and with a hefty dose of egomania), don't like where society's boat is going, and are simply hoping to get their hand on the tiller. It goes without saying that I fall in the former camp, and I'm writing this to explain my critical take on the discussion around gentrification in my city to date.

I have a friend who lives in San Francisco, who I occasionally keep abreast of the goings-on in Nashville, and she often casts an amused eye on our growing pains. For someone who lives in SF, our housing crisis seems downright quaint, by comparison. Larger cities have been undergoing this process for generations -- San Francisco itself is undergoing another in a seemingly endless series of transformations. For a peek into the sort of future that awaits us (if we continue on our current path), please read this article. Read all of it. Understand how they got there -- how each iteration of policymaking was another layer on the ball of wax. This phenomenon is not new, and I have yet to see a proposal for our city that hasn't been tried a dozen times over in cities like SF, with dreadful results. (Seriously, ask anyone from San Francisco about Prop 13 sometime - there are plenty of people there with dumb opinions on it all too)

But before we get into the proposed solutions, what is the actual problem? What is gentrification?

Amidst all the debate in Nashville, I haven't seen an article that defines it particularly clearly (at least, not on purpose). Because I couldn't really even find a coherent summary of the actual problem, I asked, on twitter, a while back (with a clear agenda of some subsequent socratic questioning in mind). Among the myriad responses, you can see a lot of common ideas: "rich people kicking out poor people", "white people kicking out black people", "it's simple progress", "developers are evil", and so on. These are glib answers from people with tongues half planted in cheek, but they do pretty accurately represent the depth to which we probe the issue (i.e. not very). Personally my favorite glib definition is "change I don't approve of". But I digress. For the purposes of this conversation let's broadly identify two (of many) camps of people who can be affected by the various forces that coagulate under the term "gentrification": there are lower/middle-class (often minority) people who are literally forced financially to relocate their home, and there are people who dislike changes to the "character" of their neighborhood. It's the former that I am primarily interested in -- often this category overlaps with the latter, but just as often, the latter are indirect beneficiaries of the gentrification they so revile.

Nashville's media is, naturally, shining a light on the issue, albeit obliquely. A brief tour of some of the more recent pieces on the problem, focusing specifically on how they frame/define the problem and what they propose as a solution:

Steve Haruch, "High Rises vs. Honky Tonks"
The Problem: a heightened focus on growth has raised property values, which developers are capitalizing on, and Nashville is losing its soul
The Solution: ?? (I think Steve's article was more just a sad lament than a prescription)
JR Lind, "Priced Out of Nashville"
The Problem: Nashville is desirable ("It City") -- people that came to Nashville for low cost of living can no longer afford to live here.
The Solution: Not rent control, possibly more affordable housing, mostly Nashville will become so expensive that it will lose its allure and the problem will solve itself. (I think JR had a swiftian proposal for a wall at one point, but I can't find it.)
Abby White, "Everybody knows Nashville is hurting for affordable housing. What are we gonna do about it?"
The Problem: "rising property values also mean rising property taxes — and higher costs all around" (direct quote)
The Solution: Abby here covers a variety of recent suggestions: NOAH's three-point plan: "preserve and produce affordable housing through recurring funding for the city's Barnes Housing Trust Fund, inclusionary housing policies and creative uses of federal, state and local funds. Second, offer means such as home repair assistance, property tax relief for longtime residents and homeowner education to prevent people from losing their homes. Finally, create a structure of accountability for affordable housing needs."
Bobby Allyn, "As high-dollar houses crowd onto tiny lots, teardown fever is sickening neighborhoods across Nashville"
The Problem: Old houses are getting torn down and replaced by newer, more expensive ones (roughly)
The Solution: affordable housing requirements for developers (via interviews with residents)
James Fraser and Amie Thurber, "Nashvillians should have the right to stay put"
The Problem: One third of households in Nashville do not earn enough to afford the market rate housing available in our city.
The Solution: Mostly the same as NOAH's stated ideas above.

Lots of words, but very few new ideas. In general, the proposed solutions generally tend to revolve around a few core policy ideas: means-tested inclusionary zoning requirements that mandate lower rent for certain income brackets, and property tax "relief" for certain categories of residents (a brief moment of lucidity here). They are essentially legislative band-aids that ignore the root of the problem, and simply hope to carve out exceptions to remedy a short laundry-list of perceived ills. They're laudable attempts, or at least they would be, were there not so little evidence that any other city has had any measure of significant success with them.

And yet, despite the aura of bewilderment pervading the discussion of the roots of gentrification, the actual, literal problem is right before us, and it's tremendously simple and terribly direct: property taxes are forcing people out of homes they own, or rent. Property taxes raise the barrier to ownership, and disincentivize (or essentially prohibit) continued ownership. That's it. But actually talking about this is oddly verboten -- even discussion of property taxes as a problem at all are in the context of temporary, limited and selective "relief" for the taxation. It's taken as a given that property taxes exist and must exist -- a sacred thing; a veritable force of nature. But, they're not, and they aren't a fact of life -- not any more than gentrification is, and they are two sides of the same coin. They are the cause of this phenomenon: the literal plunder of one party by another, acting collectively. There is no magic in this world, only the actions of human beings and their consequences. You cannot turn a blind eye to the source of the problem while simultaneously condemning it. If you believe that property taxes are as much a certainty as death, you are supporting the process of gentrification. If you believe that the moral way to administer human activity is by the action of elected representatives who direct this coercive plunder, you are the gentrifier.

So what to do? This is where you expect, I assume, that I will deliver my Grand Solution. I don't have one. How could I? It's quite a mess we've all made of things, really. The morally correct course of action is, of course, to do nothing (Literally, I mean: dismantle and/or ignore the system of coercive regulation). Barring that seeming impossibility, the opponent of gentrification should consider the next best thing: reducing the imposition of property taxes on the owners of valuable property. I realize the phrase "owners of valuable property" in your mind will conjure the developer fatcats in their infinite expanses of high-rises, but in this context I literally mean the people we are (supposedly) concerned about protecting: the lower-middle class, often minority, property owners and renters who are literally forced out of their homes.

Will there be negative externalities? Yes. Will there be unintended consequences? Yes. Will we have to figure out a better way to fund our daycares-slash-prison-camps schools? You bet. Will upper class accumulated capital find loopholes and exceptions to maximize their acquisition of land and squash any hope of easing the little guy's tax burdens? Probably, yes. This is a horrible house of cards we've built and dismantling it without hurting people is difficult, if not impossible. It may be an awful and impossible problem to detangle, but you cannot blunder around pretending, wide-eyed, that no one knows what the source of the problem is. You know what the problem is. Fix it, or get out of the way. If we believe, as James Fraser and Amie Thurber claim to in their Tennessean op-ed, that people "should have the right to stay put", then by all means give them the right: the right to own and retain property.

February 19, 2014

google fiber

Filed under:, , , — cwage @ 11:52 pm

Because I'm a contrarian (or should I say buzzkill. get it? buzz? kill? google buzz? get it? SEE WHAT I DID THERE), I'll play devil's advocate to the frenzied excitement over Google Fiber in Nashville. Some supposed factors driving the excitement:

Fiber is fast
Well, fiber is a physical medium that is quite capable of fast transfer. But a network has to be built to take advantage of that. This involves several points of expansion:

First, your own network infrastructure has to support these gigabit speeds. Maybe you're rollin on gig-e wired throughout your house, but if you're like me and 99.999% of internet users in Nashville, you're using a macbook on the same shitty $50 802.11n WAP that everyone else uses -- which maxes out at about 300Mbps and usually clocks in more realistically at 100-150Mbps. Yes, this technology will evolve and grow. When? Pro-tip: not till more than 3 trial cities support these next-generation speeds.

Second, all the services you use now that ostensibly would benefit from 1Gbps bandwidth -- a surprisingly short list, currently -- have to scale their own infrastructure to support all these new clients desperately wanting to saturate their shiny new broad pipes. Will these vendors -- Dropbox, say, for example -- have incentive to do so? Well, maybe. Are you willing to pay for it? Are enough people transferring big enough files that people are willing to pay a competitive rate? Maybe -- over-the-wire backups are a clear need here.

Third, google itself has to have built the infrastructure to support -- not everyone at 1Gbps at once of course -- but an infrastructure that will support the average number of users using their fiber service and some margin for bursting/excessive load/etc. This may sound like it goes without saying, but consider how often wireless carriers roll out a New Bigger Faster 8000G wireless platform but clearly don't expand the network capacity behind it (I'm looking at you, AT&T. and Sprint. and, well, everyone.) Did/will Google scale this appropriately? Maybe. Hopefully? Who knows. Minor but real concern.

That said, yes: there is an "if you build it they will come" effect wherein larger capacity spurs innovation. But it won't be some magical lightswitch that flips on once you have something with "fiber" in the name such that everything will be 10X faster. It will be an incremental, evolutionary path of growth -- which is good! -- but not magical or instant. Just like the transition from the days of ~56k/ISDN to broadband was not magical or instant, this transition too will take time. Maybe add an exponent or two here allowing for Moore's law, sure.

Video streaming with cable sucks -- fiber will fix that
Video streaming with cable (e.g. Comcast) sucks because Comcast is throttling services that threaten Comcast's dwindling legacy cable bread&butter. This gets into the territory of advocates for so-called net neutrality, but that's a debate for another day. So, it's great that Google can provide some competitive incentive for Comcast to evolve or die. Conversely, though, I see no indication that Google intends to do anything other than enter the fray of this very competition for the same media services and thus be incentivized to perform the same sort of throttling of their competitors. In short, streaming problems have long since ceased to be a problem of technology: Netflix's HD streaming (for example) maxes out at around 5Mbps. The remaining problems of shitty user experience now revolve entirely around competitive throttling. Google may or may not be just as bad.
I'll finally have the upstream/symmetric bandwidth to host personal video servers!
Sure. Explicitly against Google's ToS for the service, but hey. How aggressively will they enforce this? That remains to be seen.
Free internet!
TANSTAAFL. Ask yourself why Google is willing to offer a tier of free internet service. This is a company that has capitalized on the decreased privacy of its customers at every opportunity. The only conclusions you can draw are ... uncomfortable. How will they treat your data? How will they sell it? How will they treat traffic that ensures privacy (VPN/SSL/etc)? Will they even allow it? There's a good case to be made (sadly) that so few people even care (or are educated enough to care) about their privacy such that the few people who do will be a non-issue.

To sum up: competition is good. Even competition from Google is better than nothing. But you won't find me frothing at the mouth or fawning over the mere prospect. Google is a company that wants to compete with everyone by doing everything. This means they not only compete with Comcast for internet access, but they will (in all likelihood) compete with Comcast (or anyone else) for the same legacy content that has motivated Comcast to depriorize/throttle its content and generally be shitty at the one thing they're supposed to be good at. It also means (because Google isn't particularly specialized) that they're probably going to suck at it, and/or sacrifice innovation, support and progress for its multitudinous other endeavors (witness gmail). How many products with satisfied customers have already been sacrificed at the altar of Google+? Why do we believe this will be any different?

It's possible that Google could surprise me by being focused and efficient in providing this one service, but they're a company that's spent the last 5 years doing the exact opposite.

High-speed fiber internet access provided by a competitive company with no interest in selling me anything other than reliable, fast, hands-off internet access? Now we're talking -- I'd be excited about that. Oh, Google? Yawn. How long will I be using that product before they decide to abruptly EOL it? (Yes, I'm still bitter.)

BOOM. Debbie downer out. *drops mic*

UPDATE 1: -- some good comments from facebook:


I got called a "pessimist" for even hinting at the points you bring up.

You bring up a lot of technical points (and there is _some_ counter argument to them) but the bigger reason why I was non plussed about the announcement (again, more providers in a market is a good thing) is less about technical and more about economics and consumer empowerment.

The best thing that could happen is Metro opens up it's considerable fiber assets and leases them to service providers. Not only do the tax payers own those resources, but it keeps control and ownership here in town rather than Palo Alto. This can be done in a cost neutral model and in some examples, it even generates a profit for tax payers (shudder).

Having Google come to town is good but as you say, there's nothing indicating the they won't be the same oversubscribed and low bar customer service as the existing oligarchy already is. If Nashville really wanted to be respected as a "entrepreneurial tech leader" then it should be insistent on some things. Infrastructure issues you raised but also free access to the poor, ubiquitous coverage across the county (or MSA if we're really thinking ahead), and the ability to extend the wireline into wireless services for all citizens.

Let's have some self respect and stop slobbering all over ourselves because some popular girl looked our way.


agreed, and well said. The technical aspects I bring up are not so much to dismiss the progress, of course -- I'm not a luddite -- but just to point out that this is nothing new. Google didn't invent fiber -- as you say, we've got shittons of it, which we paid for, sitting dark. So yeah, excuse me if I don't fall over myself faint with praise because google throws around the words "fiber" and "gigabit".

Knowing this and then reading the cryptic (and sinister in its ramifications, depending on your opinion of our current metro administration) language about how google is "evaluating" the cities and that they'll "work with our city leaders" is ominous. What exactly is there to "work with" them about? (hint: incentives). Which I guess we're supposed to be excited about and fall all over ourselves to support instead of asking ourselves "hey didn't we, like, already pay for a bunch of fiber? why are we paying more to convince google to do the same thing?"

Google is very clever indeed, using the aura of privilege and prestige to "select" cities to deign with their service instead of just launching it. This enables them to court their suitors and cherry-pick the very best of the state-subsidized incentives.

and I have no doubt our mayor would railroad this through as quickly as he has our other bread&circuses with nary a thought to what actually makes sense. So then we have a big-ass national company with government incentives serving us internet. Great. How is this any different, exactly? Except that google is also trying to do 23948234 other things? Meet the old boss, same but infinitely more distracted as the old boss.

But hey, at least we'll be really cool -- woo woo, #itcity.

To clarify succinctly: I don't care if Google wants to come compete. I have no problem with that. The excitement to me is ill-informed, and the minute that our political class attempts to turn that excitement into government-subsidized incentives for Google, you'll see me raise holy hell. (Or, more realistically, post a whiny blog entry and go back to work.)

August 9, 2013

state of the media

Filed under:, , , , , , , , — cwage @ 4:45 pm

the dreaded usa today effect

Some required reading before you go any further: Why Nashville Needs Newspapers -- the Nashville City Paper's farewell editorial, and JR Lind on the dim future of newspapers.

In the latter, JR says:

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos paid $250 million for The Washington Post. Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway is adding newsprint alongside Dairy Queen and Orange Julius in its prodigious portfolio.

Boston Red Sox owner John Henry bought The Boston Globe.

Nashville doesn’t need to rid itself of newspapers. Nashville newspapers need fabulously wealthy benevolent benefactors.

Nashville needs a John Henry.


Eventually Gannett will bail on The Tennessean, and someone will have to step in if Nashville is to have a daily newspaper. Without a savior, 1100 Broadway will become a very valuable piece of empty real estate, the subject of interminable, high-minded and saccharine “imagining sessions.” Somewhere out there, some 20-something downtown resident is shoehorning an IKEA where the newsroom used to be.

I agree 100% with the premise (that Gannett will bail on the Tennessean) but I am less sure (or optimistic, at least) of his solution.

Gannett's current business model with respect to its local/regional papers is doomed. I won't go into a lengthy history of the evolution of media business/revenue models here (but Eric Alterman's Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy is a pretty good intro). But there was a time, of course, when local papers were just that: local. They served to disseminate a hearty mix of news and opinion -- often leaning heavily towards the latter. The revenue model was simple: they printed papers, and they sold them. If they didn't break even, they hoped for (and often got) a wealthy benefactor. Advertising changed things with the realization that advertisers would gladly pay to have their ads featured. Not long after, crafty newspaper businessmen began to realize that their ad sales were more or less directly tied to the broad appeal of their content. It no longer paid to provide a platform for just any soapbox rant or political screed -- these heavily biased pieces appealed only to small niches. What earned the most ad revenue was to stick as close to the center of any political/social divide as possible. Thus the ominous specter of objective journalism was born. Far from being the bedrock foundation of golden-age journalism we think of it as, objective journalism was invented to sell ads.

Corporate consolidation on a national level was the next inevitable step. As communication/technology advanced, people increasingly relied on "local" papers to relay national/international news. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there's an inefficiency in a nation of local paper staffs all producing essentially the same content. Enter companies like Gannett: buying up local papers, laying off portions of the staff, and replacing their content with centrally-produced copy.

This brings us more or less to where we find papers like the Tennessean today: it's still nominally a "local" paper, but it serves very little of the needs that a "local" paper once served. That was okay, because even if it didn't adeptly cover the needs of a local market, it still served as a conduit for national/international news. The Internet changed all that. The news I once had to buy a paper to read, I can now pull up on my phone.

So, what now? Sorry, did you think I had a solution? Ha. Well, JR thinks we need a hero. I agree that it would be nice, but I am less optimistic, at least with respect to the prospect of saving the institution of the Tennessean, should Gannett abandon it. Wealthy benefactors are hard to come by, in my experience. And should one come along that wants to attempt to hero this particular situation, there are a few hard truths I think they would be faced with:

  1. Physical printed papers are a waste of time. They may still be key for penetrating demographics (*cough*oldpeople*cough*) that still like dead tree editions, but they are useless for building something new to fill the void we're facing, and the overhead will forever be an albatross.
  2. No one wants to pay for news they can get elsewhere for free.
  3. Ad-driven content turns off readers, because a) it favors centrism, and b) ... ads are annoying.
  4. People like to share content.

Note that no-where in that list did I say what you might have been expecting: "People don't want to pay for news anymore". I don't think that's necessarily true. It was a given for decades (centuries?) that you dropped a coin into the box to get a newspaper. People are willing to pay for information. The only thing that's changed these days is that people don't want to pay for information they can get elsewhere. Why would someone buy the Tennessean to read the same shitty re-hashed national stories they see on Yahoo News? People pay for value.

There are some really tricky things to reconcile in the above list of constraints. Maybe people will pay for valuable content, but how do you compel them to pay for it other than restricting access via a pay-wall? This conflicts with #4 -- if I can't easily share/discuss a recent interesting article with my peers who may not subscribe, what's the point of reading it at all? The Nashville Post (another Southcomm publication) has subsisted thus far with a pay-wall model, so it seems to at least work for certain niches, but business news caters to a demographic that has deeper pockets. Conversely, it may work because the Nashville Post is one of few local publications genuinely producing 100% unique, valuable content. If you want to read what they're writing about, you have nowhere else to go. There's a glimmer of hope here that a subscription-based model might not be as much a non-starter as we think.

I don't have a concrete answer, but I have a vague picture of a business model that I think could work. I'm a simple guy. I believe in the power of the marketplace. If there's something of value I can't get elsewhere for free, I pay for it. I think other people would too. I have a vision of a small news outfit: digital production, subscription based. It would necessarily have to start small in order to grow organically and shift with the desires and whims of its customers. The subscriptions they buy need not necessarily pay for access to the content. The content itself could be free, and maybe the subscription buys you other perks: SMS alerts, customized/tailored frontpage tailored to your category preferences/etc. There's still a lot of potential for the industry to evolve, here. But I don't see the Tennessean -- even freed from the fetters of Gannett -- as being the source of the necessary innovation. There's simply too much overhead, unless they radically re-shape the company to be more in line with the above constraints.

The City Paper failed because its free, ad-supported revenue model just didn't work -- even with valuable locally-generated content. The Tennessean is failing even in spite of the fact that they still manage to get people to actually buy their physical papers. While I lament the failure of the City Paper's admirable attempt to reinvigorate a traditional newspaper business model, the lesson should be clear: it's time for something different.

July 12, 2013

blues in the street

Filed under:, , , , , , — cwage @ 4:10 am

I was reading a bit of Nashville history in George Zepp's wonderful Hidden History of Nashville and ran across the story of Cortelia Clark. I was surprised I had never encountered this man or his music before. He was a street musician, and a Nashvillian by way of Chicago. He lived at 934 Jefferson Street in a small wooden frame house, located just up from where the Garden Brunch Cafe is now. Sadly, this house was the site of an unfortunate accident in which his kerosene stove exploded and caught fire. He survived briefly, though eventually passed in the hospital -- his friends claiming that the hospital cooking wasn't as good as his wife's, and he lost his will to live. An album of interviews and his music won a grammy in 1967 for best folk recording.

I understand he performed in a number of places downtown, but most commonly on 5th avenue between Church and Union, which coincidentally is now the locus of a small resurgence in the arts itself. Check out an interview and a song below:

The street sounds in the background crack me up. Sounds like 5th avenue was a livelier place in 1965.

March 5, 2013

the scene’s 2013 photo contest

Filed under:, , , — cwage @ 9:49 pm

Some of the photos from the Scene's photo contest that I thought were noteworthy:

  • Scott Simontacchi, “Eloise,” Bowling Avenue
  • Holden Head, “Pasiphae,” East Nashville -- I actually found this photograph to be grotesque, but that doesn't make it a bad one. It did get me reading about Pasiphae. Pasiphae, in Greek mythology, was the daughter of Helios that fucked a bull and gave birth to the Minotaur, and represented the evils of feminine lust and excess. I am not 100% certain what the connection between her and this photograph is, but it got me thinking/reading, so there's that.

February 18, 2013

the Nashville Software School

Filed under:, , , , — cwage @ 7:47 pm

The cover story in the City Paper this week is on the Nashville Software School. It's a great read, and it's about a great program.

The NSS is a game-changer for technology and education in Nashville. I'm immensely proud of everyone involved of it and incredibly thankful to John Wark for his tireless efforts to get it going. Years ago, Nashville's first ISP, Telalink, had an intern program that accepted anyone and everyone for weekly meetings to teach and discuss just what this whole "Internet" thing is, anyway. I learned about everything from ISDN channel bonding to CGI programming (in C, no less, until I discovered Perl). I am forever indebted to Thomas Conner, Bill Butler, Tim Moses and everyone else at Telalink that helped us out back then. The roster of people that came through that program (me notwithstanding) is a veritable Who's Who of incredibly smart people here and abroad. Nick Holland (also a Telalink intern) and I tried to revive a similar program years ago (and I believe a young Eliza Brock was a member!). It fizzled, eventually -- frankly, due to the hustle of running a small biz -- a testament to the time and energy required for something like this. I had wanted for years to start something up again and I'm delighted that I don't have to (yay, laziness!). The NSS has done all that and more.

I'm a product of the Nashville public school system, and an aborted failure of our country's higher education system. A year into it and roughly $17k in loans later, I learned that if I was going to learn anything about technology, it wasn't going to be at a university. So, I've been in the private sector ever since. I would have killed for something like the NSS to have been around then. It fills a huge gap in our education system, and it makes me tremendously excited.

Some ideas I'd like to see emerge from the success of the NSS in years to come:

  • The resurgence of an intern program more suited to younger people -- something to get high school-age students started and funneled into the NSS (or something like it).
  • Something more accommodating to people still working full-time -- either a less aggressive courseload and/or after-hours courses.
  • More advanced parallel tracts of schooling: systems engineering/devops, network engineering, and so on. These are all areas where schooling and expensive certification do exist, but pales in comparison to the education via the school of hard knocks. Something like the NSS could serve this demographic as well.
  • Local business/govt-sponsored scholarships. I realize that giving out money for education is a hairy business once you get into trying to decide how to hand it out (merit vs. need vs lottery vs who-knows-what), but it could be done well.
  • Failing that, or in addition to it: A way for federal money (Pell, Perkins, et al) to be available to students of the NSS. This is probably a long-shot for a variety of reasons, but it'd be nice to see this money redirected to grassroots programs like the NSS that are actually generating real skills and real jobs in a relatively short turnaround rather than padding the bottom line of elephantine institutions of higher learning.

January 10, 2013

LP Field: we should demolish it because of how it sucks and is terrible

Filed under:, , , , — cwage @ 8:23 pm


Behold our east bank, withered and dying.

LP Field. I've said it before. I'll say it again here, so it's on the record. The construction of LP Field on the east bank will go down in our city's history as the worst thing that ever happened to its urban development. Aside from being hideous to look upon, this monstrosity occupies the entire east bank of the river -- urban space that could be put to any number of fantastic uses to develop and improve the downtown community. Instead, it sits empty most of the week, and it puts a stranglehold on connectivity between the two sides of the city -- an annoyance for the most part, an infuriating clusterfuck on gameday. I won't pretend to be an expert on the places it could have potentially gone, but I'd be hard-pressed to think of a location worse than where it ended up.

Now that the Titans are doing poorly, I vote we seize the moment and tear it down.

October 25, 2012


Filed under:, , , , , , , , — cwage @ 2:02 am

Today's entry in "random history tidbits I found while nursing a crippling sinus infection headache":

A doctor advertising the cure of onanism (masturbation) practiced on "North Cherry Street" -- now 4th Ave:

Onanism or Self Abuse.

How many parents have seen the reason of a gifted son go to ruin; have seen him fade away from their homes, their hearts, and their hearths, like a shadow of evening from the hills, and have turned in tears to the tomb to which he has gone down, in the bloom of, beauty and the meaning of existence, without. once suspecting that the darling hope of their declining years was a victim to a solitary habit, which, alas ! is so common among the young. Let those thus afflicted call on DOCTOR COLEMAN, No. 64 North Cherry street, or address him by letter. Post Office Box 502, Nashville, Tenn.

Now that's what I call ad copy.

August 29, 2012

what makes a wing?

Filed under:, , , , , , , , — cwage @ 5:44 pm


While I have been on hot chicken kick lately, my one true love is the hot wing -- preferrably, traditional buffalo. However, a recent contender for my favorite wings ever are the "extreme heat" wings at Ghot Wingz. Despite not being buffalo (they are more of a saucey sweet/hot barbecue-ish type wing), they are easily my favorite, and are hands-down the best wings I've ever had in Nashville. So good, in fact, that I have yet to even try their buffalo wings because I can't forego the extreme heat.

I had them today, actually, and it got me thinking: we can all agree that the sauce is a key factor in what makes good chicken wings. But what about the chicken itself? This is clearly a huge part of the quality of the final product. To me, Knockout Wings is a great example of this. I really wanted to like Knockout Wings. They came highly recommended. They are located conveniently right down Jefferson from my office. Service is fast and friendly. But their wings just aren't good. I wrote in my yelp review that the sauce itself is good (although my opinion even of that has gone downhill lately), but that the chicken itself just tastes.. gross. The bones are small, and the meat, clinging desperately to the bone, has that sortof dehydrated and withered look, and the taste is much the same. Ghot Wingz' chicken, conversely, is excellent. Large (but not too obscenely hormone-induced huge like you find some places), flavorful, juicy wings.

So what is the difference? I realize that in this wide world, there are myriad ways to raise, butcher, brine, and season chicken meat that will all vastly change the end result. But I find it hard to believe that all of these local hot wing places in question aren't all just buying the same Sysco bagged frozen chicken that everyone uses. But maybe I'm wrong. Does anyone know? Are there different sources for worse/better chicken? Is it possible Ghot Wingz isn't using frozen chicken? Does Sysco offer different grades of quality that you can buy? Is it all the same chicken but different methods (e.g. baking before frying versus not)?

June 11, 2012

hot chicken that i made and then ate

Filed under:, , , , — cwage @ 6:32 pm


A few corrections since I wrote this:

  • First, nashville style hot chicken is a uniquely southern food, so in my attempt to make the actual fried chicken base, I looked up a recipe for "Traditional southern fried chicken" -- i.e. buttermilk brined, heavily dredged in flour, buttermilk, and flour again. The result is a very thick, very bready fried chicken which is fine on its own, but absolutely wrong for nashville-style hot chicken. Opinions vary, but in my opinion the archetypical nashville-style chicken has to have a thin, flaky breaded crust (more on that later).
  • Second, no sugar. That was a huge mistake -- I'm more open to creative additions of sugar or honey these days, but it's way too easy to overdo it (as I did). Sweetness will detract from the spice and heat.

So, I decided to try my hand at making hot chicken. I loosely based it around this recipe. Before I get into the specifics, though, I want to pat myself on the back a little. Not for successfully making hot chicken, no, but rather for the fact that when I first tried it 5 years ago, I said to myself: there's nothing mysterious about this chicken. Magical and wonderful, yes, but not mysterious. It's obviously a shit-ton of cayenne pepper slathered over fried chicken. So while it may be heretical to downplay the mystery around Nashville's primary culinary claim to fame, I have to say: it ain't complicated. I honestly had a much harder time getting the fried chicken right.

That said, a few details, photos and questions:

  • The assembled ingredients.
  • I marinated the chicken in buttermilk and a random assemblage of salt, onion powder, and garlic powder. I added a little bit of ghost pepper sauce for the hell of it, but it was barely perceptible. The buttermilk marinade had been recommended to me often as a rather traditional way of doing things, but I'm not convinced of its merit. I'm no stranger to the science of how brining and marinating works, and I'm not clear on how buttermilk could have really penetrated the meat that much. It did provide a slightly goopier base for dredging in the flower and aiding a crispy crust, but that's about it. I think next time I'm just gonna brine it like normal.
  • Safety first. I don't fry stuff a lot. You never know. Sometimes I set stuff on fire.
  • An optional but highly recommended accompaniment. Chef's little helper.
  • The resulting paste. Shortly after this photo I realized I needed to make more, and I did, and had a Sugar Accident. I accidentally dumped way too much sugar into it. In the spirit of my "eh, fuckit" attitude to cooking, I just rolled with it. This was a mistake. The sugar was a bit overwhelming and turned the gritty/smokey pepper flavor into a sortof sickly sweet crust in the end. The chicken was still good, but the sugar bumped it out of contention for "Great". Ah well. Similarly, I had a lot of trouble getting it hot enough. I added a bunch of chile to round out the flavor a bit, but I felt like I couldn't add enough cayenne to get the kick I wanted. Maybe the cheap Kroger cayenne I bought was old. Maybe I need to experiment with blending in some hotter peppers?
  • This was probably unnecessary and pointless, but I added some cayenne to the flour before dredging. I figured it couldn't hurt, but maybe the pepper could burn and add a bitter flavor. I didn't notice. I probably won't do it again though.
  • Dredged and ready to fry. Of course, I made a huge mess.
  • I had the slightest bit of trouble actually frying the chicken. I was having trouble getting even the individually cut 8ths (legs and thighs) to cook thoroughly without the crust starting to burn. I had the oil temperature pegged at right around 330F. Do I need to go lower to give the meat more time to cook before the crust burns?
  • And, as usual, I'm incapable of making reasonable portions of anything and wound up with Way Too Much Chicken. Normally this would be a good problem to have, but I have to admit, it's not great. The excess sugar in the crust is a bit much for me. But I'll suffer through it. Somehow.

So there you have it. I feel pretty confident that I can nail it the next time around. As I said above, this dish is not a complicated one, so I think I need to resist my urge to experiment and fuck around. The secret is in the simplicity: a shit-ton of pepper and fried chicken. What more do you need?

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