30.11.07

Feedback Loops: Comment Roundup

One of the great things about the internets is the way it allows for reader-writer feedback ... someone comments on comments about comments on a commentary on an article about commenting on the internet, and all hell breaks loose. Well, I'm for it. I love comments, and for some reason I got a deluge of them this week, coming in from all countries, continents, corners. I thought, in the interests of feedback feedback, I'd comment on the comments and see what happens. Let me start with this doozy:

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Other City Sidewalks: Babylon NY":

Wow, you really don't seem to get Babylon Village, do you. I live in town and love it. I moved from Brooklyn after too many years of cramped spaces. To me, the Village has "just enough" of everything for me to offer a very balanced experience between small town and more urban offerings. I think that to measure it in terms of how urban it is misses the point completely about why people live there.

Well, honestly, I agree completely with Anonymous. I don't really seem to get Babylon Village. I mean, I kind of understand why people might want to live there... its like an authentic suburb. You can have your house/yard and eat it too, driving around on the South Shore. In Caro's book on Moses, he describes the historic fishing/working classes along Long Island's South shore, and how different these little villages were from the wealthy Gatsby enclaves on the North side of the island. of course, this is before Moses facilitated Arthur Levitt's potato field alchemy, turning the center of the island into a repeating series of stripmalls, big boxes, outlets, and LIE exits.

My point is that Babylon Village is close enough to the city, conviently on a LIRR stop, to allow for some denser development. Why isn't there a vibrant street life in Babylon? Why aren't there sidewalks? Why aren't there at least a few apartment buildings? Mixed-use developments? According to Caro, people in these little Long Island villages have a long history of trying to keep 'city people' out of their communities, for whatever reason. My proposition is that they're still doing it. The fact of the matter: walking on Babylon sidewalks sucks.

My friend Ann wrote about my New London diary:

My grandparents used to live in New London and used that same library! They didn't know each other when they lived there because he was 5 years old, so hung out in the more adult reading section and grandma was in the children's section. Thanks for reminding me of this part of my family history, Bill. I have New London blood in me.

One of the things I didn't mention about my New London visit was that I got horribly horribly lost. I parked the car somewhere in a 2 hr. surface parking lot, somewhere surrounded old by brick buildings, and started wandering around the city, eventually finding people, corner stores, a coffee shop, train tracks, the Thames River, the old town square, the Patrick Henry schoolhouse (or something), and a few bench bandits. But, at some point I had to re-find my car, and I had this vague notion it was somewhere up one of the hills that surround this river valley town.

I walked up and up and around the hills of the city, passing by this familiar-looking grey church a half-dozen times, looking and looking for the car, wandering down used-car lot streets, past stoplights, abandoned buildings, brambles, and gullys.

I eventually found the New London library, went inside, and asked the librarians to help me (help me please!), saying "I lost my car. It's in a parking lot next to a little red hut. Do you know where that is?" They smiled, and pointed me toward the middle of town, nowhere near where I'd thought it was. When I got there, I found a parking ticket on the windshield. I guess it's easy to enforce parking laws in a town with no people.

Herr Engen has left a new comment on your post "My Way or the Skyway":

The skyways do need to go, but with a lack of money the first thing to do is to close them. Then slowly dismantle the system. To those that say they add to city vitality they must have never been to another city. Separating work and nightlife crowds into 2 sectors cuts the consumer base in half. Walking downtown is, currently, quite boring. The buildings are not inviting, both as a result of their hugeness and...shit, what does this blog matter, no one will read it anyway!

There are so many ways in which we agree, Herr Engen. Yes, this blog is useless. Yes, the buildings have a brutal hugeness that stomps on humanity... In fact, that's the point of a skyscraper. It's meant to inspire and impose as it pokes the clouds. But that doesn't mean the part we use and see the most, the bottom two floors, shouldn't be interesting, have windows, gargoyles, marble, or any number of detailed details. And the more I think about and walk about skyways, the more I hate them. Can't we all just get along? Can't we all just walk along the same damn street?

Minnesotans are so proud of their cold, cold climate! Drop a Minnesotan into a cosmopolitan party, and within 90 seconds they'll be describing the cold, cold weather, puffing their chests and rubbing their hands. And, if there's one we should be proud of, its that really know how to bundle up.

Well, skyways are weak. They're entirely neutered. Either stop bragging about your winters, or get out of the skyways, folks. What do you think those boots are for?

I was talking with a friend of mine last night who used to walk the skyways, once in a while, from the Steven's Square area down to his job at the Graves 601. (He doesn't work there any more.) He told this tale of a group of people, walking these artifical streets at 6:30 in the morning, getting trapped on the Skyway Level of the TCF Building, let in thourgh a door that wouldn't re-open. All the skyway doors were locked, and this group of people wandered around the building for quite some time, searching in vain the rooms of carpeted, blank mall-space for a way out, until finally getting into the one working elevator and taking it down to an exit-able floor.

As Herr Engen says, skyways:
...separate people into upper and lower classes
...split the customer market for any business in half
...make Minnesotan weather-boasting awfully hypocritical
...look dumb, for the most part

Skyways should go the way of the Metrodome, and head to that great Modernist utopia in the sky.

CitySlicker has left a new comment on your post "Sidewalk Semiotics: "Auto Mobility"":

I agree with the authors you read, as most true urbanists do. But you sometimes stop short of committing to what you really want to say, that automobilization is the opposite of urbanization. There are many things I like about your writing, but the biggest is probably how you manage to get your point across without pissing anyone off! Sometimes I find that hard to do after I've been biking through downtown, lulled by the block-long walls surrounding me and almost squashed by F-350s.

I know this girl with some notable punk tendencies, who was biking one night down Hennepin Avenue on a weekend, when some clubbing girls in a white car cut her off, and threw McDonalds litter at her and her bicycle. When the car came to a stopsign, she took her U-lock and smashed in their side window. (I think she spent the night in jail, too!) (This kind of thing was mentioned in this great bike article from MSP Magazine, too.)

Was this wise? Justifiable? Fun?

I don't really hate cars, though one time a grey Jeep mini-SUV totally cut me off on SE Como, turning right in front of me, barely avoiding my front wheel. I flipped them off, which was kind of a first for me.

Don't get me wrong, I hate cars as much as the next guy. I especially hate road rage.... it totally pisses me off! And on snowy days like today, I love seeing people struggle up a hill, clog the intersections, scrape their windsheilds, and spin their tires in the increasingly drifting whitebanks. Snow covers everything, making curbs invisible, erasing the border between sidewalk and street. Everything disappears, lines are no more.

That said, seeing cars in accidents freaks me out, on the freeway or on the avenue, but sometimes I think there's a kind of terrible justice in it. And I really, really love seeing bumper-to-bumper traffic from a freeway bridge.

But mostly, cars make me sad. In the morning I stand on my streetcorner, waiting for the bus, and watching as car after car pull up to the stop sign, and after a microscopic pause, drive off. I have a little second, there, where I can see into their windows and watch their faces. Maybe one out of a thousand will be smiling.

These comments all regarding this post on the great TC divide:

To some extent I would agree. One could say that the different way in which each of the Twin Cities has grown up has endowed St. Paul with more desirable urban neighborhoods. What Minneapolis has, which has had been more of a challenge to foster in St. Paul, are large areas of its old central business district (see the Warehouse District) transformed into new and desirable neighborhoods.

Charlie Quimby said...
St. Paul is more stable, for reasons good and bad.

Another age difference, I'd wager, is that in St. Paul, street cars cemented what was there, while in Minneapolis, they influenced development. (See history of Kings Highway area, etc.)

CitySlicker said...
The author makes good arguments about why the cities are what they are. Does anyone associate Mpls with families and tradition? No. We associate it with partying and skyscrapers. The comment about the streetcars is spot on. That's why it would be so much easier to reintroduce streetcars to St. Paul!

What is the difference between Minneapolis and Saint Paul?

I once took a non-scientific survey of this, asking a ton of random strangers, and the most common answer was that "Saint Paul is neighborhoody," and that it's a "big small town", while Minneapolis was a "small big city". What makes it more stable? Are people just that much less likely to want to try something new? Is that why its hard as hell for a new fancy restaurant to start up in the Capital City?

I'm afraid I don't know the history of the King's Highway area. Anyone care to enlighten me?

Streetcars in Saint Paul should go along Grand Avenue? West 7th? Como Avenue? Robert Street? Rice Street? (That's the order I'd build them.)

27.11.07

Great New Resource for Lenders

I can't believe I scooped Par on letting all the TC citizens know about this great new website for lenders. The Predatory Lending Association has a host of tools to help you screw people out of their home equity, available on their new website. Check it out!



For example, here's the helpful map of all the closest payday loan spots, liquor stores, and pawn shops in my neighborhood. Go Rice Street!

Actually, I live in the one of the neighborhoods with a lot of foreclosures (though nobody really escapes this problem). The house next door is registered vacant with the city... I read somewhere that 10% of the homes in Cleveland are vacant, and they're probably incredibly concentrated in certain neighorhoods... With restrictive covenants, redlining, steering, blockbusting, and gated communitites, US real estate interests can be proud of continuing the fine tradition of pissing on the poor for over two hundred years.

In a related note, the fine City of Saint Cloud received three awards in just the past few weeks:

Two for being "liveable", and one for hate crimes! ... I guess that balances out. Go Saint Cloud!

26.11.07

Other City Sidewalks: New London CT

The sidewalks of New London are treadworn and old, and they'd speak volumes if you could dig down beneath the surface and look on layers of structure, amassed like filo dough or limestone or onions or lasagna. Leaves and pages of history Settled in 1646, its about as old as you're going to get in the New World. It was the heartbeat of whaling and fishing, men in ships putting out to sea for years in search of oil, settled first by the puritans or the Brits, before the many small revolutions of this country. It's easy, therefore, to get lost in New London, to wander along streets that follow twists and turns, forming rings around each other like a Pilgrim's Path. These are streets that slowly formed, like tree rings leading round the older parts, and on a cloudy grey day, like the day I was there, there's no way to tell where you're headed.


[A grey summer's day on the blustery coast, and two women walk down the wide sidewalk, through the mzaze of forgotten buildings. Do they know where they are?]


New London today has a lot of the same thrills and disappointments of many of the cities I visited on my eastern Amtrak tour: It has the history of Savannah, without any of the historical tourism. It has the old industrial stock of Durham, without much of its gentrification and re-use. It has the maritime feel of Babylon, without stores selling WASP'y boat shoes. New London's sidewalks wind through narrow streets, surrounded by old Victorian warehouses, and lead down a rather steep hill to the wide mouth of the Thames River, which opens onto the Long Island Sound, which opens onto the Atlantic. The riverfront forms a broad harbor that was for a long time the lifeblood of this town, as ships rolled in and out like rabid clockwork. Like most of these places built on past technologies, there's a lot of nostalgia surrounding the river... nostlagia, shipyards, ferries, and docks. And unless you brought your nostalgia machete, its fairly difficult to reach the river on foot, these days. You have to cross the railroad tracks, the busy stretch of iron between Boston and New York.

[New London as seen from the old Fort on the far side of the River Thames.]

I wasn't the only one walking around New London that cloudy summer weekday. I found a coffee shop overlooking the harborline, and it was the kind of place I enjoy, where all ages of people gather, students to retirees, all coming to have conversations about religion or book clubs or weather or nothing. Of course, it was probably the only coffee shop in New London, so maybe nobody had a choice...

[This hot dog vendor was granted a municipal monopoly.]

The other citizens of New London that I encountered on the sidewalks were locals, people who lived in the deserted downtown where nine out of ten stores were shuttered and dark. For example, I came across a friendly man with few teeth who told me that he walked from New London to Niantic each day, a distance of 5 miles, simply because he liked to walk. I walked with him along the street for a block or two while he told out of the side of his mouth how nice it was to walk and live downtown. There's an old downtown hotel that he told me about, a massive twenty story brick building, which is apparently now subsidized housing. New London had a few little art galleries, including one next to what looked like a porn shop, but most of gorgeous downtown buildings were pretty empty and unused.


[Kind of pretty, in a way.]


To my midwestern eyes, it certainly seemed like New London could become a beautiful place, filled with pottery shops and yarn stores. But I guess tourists prefer the pastoral landscapes of Westchester and the Berkshires. And I suppose nobody would commute the hour and a half (two hours?) it takes to reach either Boston or New York, though if the US had a faster train system New London might become a nice little retirement community.

The sidewalks are just about perfect, though, wide and interesting, or potentially interesting if the shops weren't nearly all closed... like Mallovers Jewelry shop, which declares on a sign in the window both their pride in their longstanding history as part of the downtown, and that they've recently moved to the nearest mall. There's not much down here, save for the aforementioned art hangouts, porn purveoyors, the threadbare corner stores, and a single hot dog vendor cart, staffed by a women with a folding chair. In fact, after my walking friend, I came across a pair of industrial gentlemen hunched over a sidewalk bench. They looked municipal, and quite pleased, I went up to them and asked, "So, you're putting in new benches, eh?" (... knowing as I did and do that benches, places to sit, are one of the premier sidewalk amenities that no small city should be without...). "Nope, we're taking this one away," the burlier of the two men said. "Apparently someone doesn't like who's sitting on it," said the other guy.

I had nothing to say about that. You can't make people go away by removing benches, any more than you can make people come by adding them. No, these New London sidewalks lack luster, but have spades full of history and potential.


[Hey, I was going to sit there...]

24.11.07

Home and the Holidays (Loosely to do with Sidewalks)

I just decided that Thanksgiving is the opposite of Halloween, domestically speaking. Thanksgiving is entirely set within the house, people and holiday-ness filling its dining, living, and cooking rooms. Maybe somewhere in the clement South they have Thanksgiving in yards or parks, but the way I see it everything takes place in doors, on couches, chairs, tables, lit by lamps, warmed by furnaces and fires, protected by panes of glass, shingles, and walls full of insulation. Thanksgiving is nothing more than this celebration of being inside, being part of families, houses, plentiful environmental food chains, and (finally) the Earth's ever-changing atmosphere. Thanksgiving is in, daddy-o.

Halloween, other hand, is out. It's decidedly out. It's so far out, it's gone! It's out there, man, and so are you, wandering the streets of the city, walking all over the place, dressed as not-yourself as you can be. You're not at home, in here... you're out, out the door, out there, somewhere sneaking around, but nobody knows its you! You're so out, you're not even yourself any more. (That's how out you are...) Or maybe its you, this out there far gone delusion of a self that you seem to be, as you wander far from home, like Ulysses or a circus. And what do you see on your travels? Maybe nothing, maybe darkness, but maybe there are wonderful things lurking in the shadows of the evening? You find gourds gone wild, the freedom of fright, and the streets are paved with candy. The whole thing is a celebration of getting lost, and finding yourself, somehow, in the unfamiliar.

Yeah, these two holidays are in and out, you and me, two sides of the same flipping coin. You could map it out...

Halloween------------Thanksgiving
Outside----------------Inside
Street------------------Home
Stranger---------------Family
Unknown--------------Known
Dark-------------------Light
Sweet------------------Savory
Candy------------------Turkey
Absence---------------Presence
Dionysus--------------Apollo
Nomad----------------Farmer


Christmas, on the other other hand, is some sort of out of control synthesis. It strikes me as mostly about consumption, the reification of connections through materialization, materialism, the commodity. Sure we all have some family traditions, but at a broad cultural level Christmas is shopping. We have our list, and we are blessed with the task of coming up with the 'ideal' purchase for each important person in our lives. These items stand in for our connections, emotions, and love. This has little to do with the home, per se, though in a way it might represent the interface between a material landscape and the interior worlds of home and feelings. You bring these things in, from out there, and deposit them in your lives, concrete reminders of the connections between all of us.

Does anyone ever admit to liking the experience of Holiday shopping? It seems like such a part of the process, entering the fancy-doodad shop as the ubiquitous music drones on and on. Really, isn't this a social process, too? Aren't you really saying, "please, let me be a part of this world! I want to inhabit a world where everyone scours the shelves and racks, looking for a part of themsleves." I wonder if this is the lost marketplace, the agora, the bazaar, the town square. Maybe Christmas, too, has a dash of the urbane, like nutmeg on a nog?

8.11.07

Manchester is to London as Minneapolis is to Saint Paul

I'm reading Robert Fishman's excellent history of suburbia, Bourgeois Utopias, and came across a chapter detailing how suburbia took off in Manchester during the early 19th century. Fishman claims the the sudden growth of suburbia in the Northern industrial English cities (Manchester being the prime example) happened in large part because the ruling elite there weren't historically grounded, because they "lacked legitimacy", and that they didn't have the accumulation of social and aristocratic connections that came with being part of the ruling elite. Fishman writes that:

In Manchester the bourgeoisie found themselves captains of industry, employers of large numbers of workers but lacking in the older trappings of aristocratic authority.

In other words, the suddenness and scope of the industrialization processes going on in Manchester made it possible for newly wealthy people to move out of the city and create idyllic neighborhoods on the outskirts of town, places that combined country and city into a wholly new utopian vision, and arrangement that Engels famously descried in his Condition of the Working Class in England some years later.

There's even a wonderful description of how one particular merchant, Samuel Brooks, made the decision in 1834 to abandon his 'in town' residence and transform the digs (on the main, fancy, wealthy street) into a warehouse, a move that spearheaded the wholesale transformation of the neighborhood into the very first, unified Central Business District

The argument reminded me of Macalester professor Mary Lethert Wingerd's book, Claiming the City, which details why and how Saint Paul is so very, very different from Minneapolis. (In case you're one of the people that things the two cities are exactly the same, Wingerd explains why that might not be true.) For one thing, Minneapolis boomed a few decades later than Saint Paul, so that Saint Paul's economic and population growth peaked sometime around 1890, while Minneapolis grew faster a few decades later, largely fueled by large-scale industrial milling (vs. Saint Paul's role as a commercial trading and wholesaling center). According to Wingerd, this difference greatly affected the development patterns of the two cities, particularly changing where wealthy people lived in the two towns. The wealthy, rich folk of Minneapolis largely lived in the far southwestern areas of the city, particularly settling in the area between the chain of lakes and Lake Minnetonka. In Saint Paul, on the other hand, wealthy people stayed on the middle of town, building grand homes along Summit Avenue along the hill directly overlooking Downtown. She claism that this spatial proximity between rich and poor translated into greater understanding and cooperation between workers and owners in Siant Paul, which is one of the main reasons why giant labor battles (like the 1930s Minneapolis trucker's strike) didn't really happen in the capitol city.

It struck me that this was similar to the development patterns of London and Manchester, descrbied by Fishman. There's a way that rapid change allows for development of dramtically new types of social, material, and physical organization, in much the wayme way that a forest fire will clear the land for new species composition in a forst.

Waht do you think: Is Saint Paul a more stable urban environment than Minneapolis? Are these long-term differences still important? Still visible?

7.11.07

Why Saint Paul City Council election results matter

Well, let's just admit it: nobody knows why the Saint Paul City Council matters at all. Really, what do they do? Apart from personal charisma, or message themes, should I care that one person got elected rather than another? Do they have any real power?

Well, when it comes to sidewalks and land use, the composure of the city council matters a lot! In this city, land use and development issues are probably the City Council's #1 job, because (unlike Minneapolis) the mayor has most of the power in the city to set and carry out the budget. So, when it comes to issues like zoning ordinances, transit oriented density, affordable housing, walkability, and development subsidies, the city council matters a lot.

That's why yesterday's election results are great news. Not only did voters get rid of one of the most pro-Chamber of Commerce (read: corporate) development members in Debbie Montgomery (she never saw a big box store she didn't like), but they added former University United employee Russ Stark to the mix. Voters rejected (either through apathy or opposition) the message sent out by the tens of thousands of dollars that megalomaniacal developer Jerry Trooien spent on this election, which will hopefully mean he'll take his dog and pony show to some other town where civic life isn't quite so well defended. Anyway, I'm quite excited by the possibility that Saint Paul will adopt some common sense ordinances about walkability, transparency (and here I'm talking about walls), and encouraging non-auto transportation during the next few years, particularly along the future University Avenue LRT corridor. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

2.11.07

News Flash!: Five Stories (One Global, Four Local) #4

The secret to fighting global warming may be infrastructure? There's a new report out linking climate change to land use planning. At least in the USA, this might be true. Compared to highly-developed Europe, New World places (like the US and Canada) have almost twice the # of cars (732/1K people v. 414/1K people), over twice the raw energy use (443kJ/capita v. 193 kJ/capita), and over twice the electricity use (52.4 GJ/capita v. 22.8 GJ/capita). How much of this difference is due to the far less dense landscape? Why do Americans dislike density so much?


This is kind of a big story! With the Saint Paul City Council elections less than a week away, the Saint Paul Police Federation is facing allegations of making illegal campaign calls to three hotly contested city council wards. According to City Pages’ Blotter blog, the police officer’s union has made robocalls to voters across the city in violation of Minnesota state law, though the union claims that because the calls come from outside of the state, they’re perfectly legal. Public safety and the number of police officers on the street has been one of the hotbutton issues in many of the city council campaigns, especially in Wards 5, 6, and 1. However, according to a finance reports dug up by City Pages, the money for the calls is coming from wealthy Twin Cities developer Jerry Trooien, whose riverfront mega-development was voted down by a City Council earlier this year. This is particularly perverse, the way that Trooien (and his 'Mythica' megalomania) is spitting in the face of the City Council. Nothing trumps property rights! (Make sure to vote Tuesday if you live in St Paul.)


The Saint Paul school board voted Tuesday to maintain current levels of military recruiting in the city’s public schools, rejecting a plea by a local group in favor of recruiting restrictions. According to the Pioneer Press story, this is the second time that community members have tried to confine military recruiters tables to career centeres, keeping them out of high school cafeterias. The proposed changes, which were rejected on a 4 to 2 vote, would have also restricted military recruiters’ visits to equal any other interest group.


A story in the Star Tribune reports that the cleanup of toxic spills in Sout Minneapolis’ Phillips Neighborhood will grow three times as large, surrounding the site of a former pesticide plant along Hiawatha Avenue. The plant, which operated until 1968, contaminated a large area as arsenic wafted from rail cars, and last month the EPA added it to its Superfund priority list. The yards of up to 500 more homes will be dug up, following what the agency calls a ‘worst first’ timeline, where those homes with the highest level of pollution are cleaned up quickly


And finally, The Twin Cities’ first co-op, North Country located on Riverside Avenue, is shutting its doors for good this week, as its board decided that continuing declines in sales made the grocery impractical. Opening in 1973, the co-op was one of the first to sell and market organic foods and vegetables, now found at nearly every grocery counter in the state.

9.10.07

Models of Cities

From Norman bel Geddes' GM-sponsored Futurama exhibit to mockups of Leibeskind's post-9/11 Freedom Tower, urban models have a profound influence over how we think about cities. For one of my classes at the U, I've been discussing with a retired computer scientist the relationship between current computer modelling and empirical (and/or reductionist) approaches to understanding social processes.

In particular, the relationship between experiment/empiricism and modeling is what intrigues me. I'm not suggesting that modelling has to supplant physical experimentation, but there are many cases where physical experimentation is impossible or unethical. Consider, for example, studying the way that industrial chemicals affect human populations. Doing tests on actual people is completely immoral, so we often test on animals and extrapolate (messily) to people with far less than certainty.

Similarly, studying cities isn't the kind of thing which easily lends itself to the methodology of experimentation. If you want to determine the relationship between social diversity and crime, for example, it is impossible to conduct a 'scientific' experimentation. One can only study existing structures.

This problem is magnified as one starts to consider problems with broader timescales. Think about the difficulty of looking at generational change, for example, the relationship between transportation infrastructure patterns and political activism.

I'm not suggesting that these sorts of problems allow themselves to be modelled either. These kinds of problems resist a great many approaches. However, modelling can allow us to perhaps see things, and include some level of empiricism, that 'traditional', experimental science cannot.

I have been reading a working paper by one of the leading urban modellers, Michael Batty, that offers up a theory of how models of cities have progressed and changed as computer technology has improved. Batty argues that models have moved from being "iconic" representations of idealized types of cities to "symbolic" representations which reflect empirically actual data. He writes that

Before the digital computer, models insofar as they were articulated at all for cities and city planning, were mainly iconic, built from traditional materials, and used to display 2D and 3D physical designs. Yet even in [early 20th c. planner, pictured above, Patrick] Abercrombie's time, there was a sense in which planning required more powerful tools and statistical techniques, hence symbolic models were implicit in that abstractions were used to symbolize the social and economic data of cities and display them in maps and charts.

Batty's piece, which you can read here, is a fascinating look at how new models are part of a long tradition of conceptualizing cities through representation. He includes some rather exciting looks at the possibilities of geographic data modeling and 3D urban rendering, as well as ways that complexity approaches to models, grounded in cellular automata or the interactions of many, many individual agents, can develop artificial cities according to various criteria.

8.10.07

MPR Decoder: Listen to Garrison

Sorry about the lack of posts, but I highly recommend listening to Garrison Keillor's nostalgic-but-thoughtful speech about historic preservation which aired last Friday.

http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2007/10/05/midday2/

Keillor mentions some of Saint Paul's greats (and my personal hangouts): Nina's Cafe, Swede Hallow, Connie's Creamy Cone... then ties this into a broader critique of today's skinflint modernism and mass produced architecture.

25.9.07

City Sounds: Perhaps My All-Time Favorite News Article Ever?

This is, perhaps probably, I kid you not, perhaps my all-time favorite news article ever.


It's a London Observer bit on a recent study about city sounds and research on people's enjoyment of different acoustic environs.
Now a £1m, three-year research project is building a database of noises that people say improve their environment. It will translate those findings into design principles to help architects create sweeter-sounding cities.

[...]

Davies is looking for members of the public to take part in mass 'sound walks' through cities or in laboratory listening tests, where the team will use MRI scanners to measure participants' brain activity as they are played a variety of urban noises.


There's even a wonderful, though not comprehensive, list of urban sounds people apparently like.

Among the urban sounds researchers have found to be surprisingly agreeable are car tyres on wet, bumpy asphalt, the distant roar of a motorway flyover, the rumble of an overground train and the thud of heavy bass heard on the street outside a nightclub.

Other sounds that are apparently kind to the ear include a baby laughing, skateboarders practising in underground car parks and orchestras tuning up.


I would add to this list such obviously wonderful sounds as:

  • Church or clock bells chiming
  • Wind blowing through trees
  • Bicycle bells
  • Ice cream truck songs (though not at great length*)
  • The unintelligible din of cafe conversations
  • Crows cawing
  • Most any kind of music, played at an echo-y distance (esp. a tenor saxaphone, of course)
  • Boat horns
  • Boats in general
  • Water in general, waterfalls in particular
  • The bell sound train gate arms make when they lower
  • Saws that cut wood
  • The sound of a pelican street sweeper
  • Pigeons taking off / cooing

On the other hand, I would add this to the list of sounds I find distasteful, along with airplanes passing by, jackhammers, the beeping noise of backing up trucks, pile drivers (!), leaf blowers, garbage truck hydraulics, and the honking of car horns:
'In the laboratory, many listeners prefer distant motorway noise to rushing water, until they are told what the sounds are.'

I hate, absolutely hate, the sound of a distant motorway noise, almost (but not quite) as much as I hate, absolutely hate, the sound a very close motorway noise. In fact, my hatred is proportional to proximity, I'd imagine. Freeway noise is such a constant, flat, high-pitched whine... it's got zero acoustical value.

I'd also be curious, re: this study, about the mixture of these various sounds, and how their periods of intermittency affected people's ratings of their aesthetic value.

(I'm kind of ambivalent about lawn mowers and lawn sprinklers. They're not found often in cities, anyway. Also neutral-to-slightly-positive on the sounds of subways passing underground.)

[h/t BLDGBLOG]

*When I lived in an old industrial loft building in a deserted part of Bushwick, Brooklyn, an ice cream truck would basically circle our block for hours and hours on certain summer days, playing over and again the song Turkey in the Straw (I think). This, for obvious reasons, might have driven me insane. Also at that apartment: being only two blocks away from a city-owned facility which cleaned empty Pennsylvania-bound NYC-garbage-hauling semis from the hours of 12am to 4am, I enjoyed the constant idling of large diesel engines directly outside my 4th floor window, to which, after no little period of adjustment, and due to the necessities of sleep, I resigned myself.

20.9.07

WARNING: The Kogler!

A friend took this this cryptic photograph quite recently. It appears to be evidence of the long-rumored, never-before-photographed "Kogler".

A cryptic admonition... What does it mean???



Who? ... or should i say WHAT is the Kogler???

Please, won't somebody think of the children?!?

The Kogler! The Kogler!

19.9.07

Sidewalk Semiotics: "Auto Mobility"

[An utterly useless sign in Saint Paul]

I was doing what I do best the other day -- surfing the internet while the earth spins around -- and I came across an entry that launched me down a long slopingly green hill of thought, rolling and spinning and gathering grassy bits of brain dirt all about my person. It got me spinning and tumbling until I knew not which way was up. My head spun as I wondered about this idea of freedom... What is it to be free? What do we think of when we think of freedom? Close your eyes, and repeat to yourself, "freedom... freedom... freedom..." Go head, and try to conjure up an image of the free-est freedom you can imagine. What do you see?

Chances are you'll be seeing a car commercial. For half a century now, every third ad on the television is a car commercial featuring some one or two beautiful people, winding down an empty black mountain road in their fastback, flooring it in a freeway, or fourwheeling Devil's Tower in a Freelander, looking down at an sublimely untouched natural like some Enlightenment painting. For so many of us freedom means the open road and a full tank of gas, the wind whilstling past your window as the radio belts CCR past the Big Gulp-ful cupholder. This, the cockpit, is the terrian of absolute control, the landscape of freedom and auto mobility.

Well, the thing that got me thinking about freedom was this rather innocuous part of a recent non-political post on M(i)N(nesota)C(ampaign)R(eport) dealing with those panhandlers with cardboard signs by the interstate onramp. Joe Bodell is writing about how easy it has become to ignore these people, but I was thinking about whether or not freedom really lies behind the wheel of a car. Here's teh quote that pushed me down the hill:
Admit it -- there's something uncomfortable about being stuck at an intersection with someone holding a cardboard sign outside. You're a captive audience -- on foot it's easy to ignore such an indigent, but when you're in a car you have a choice either to stare or be painfully obvious about not staring.

Think about it. At least in this instance, these panhandlers have found a captive audience. When we're sitting there at the red light, we're some of the least free people on the planet. We sit there trapped, literally strapped into a one ton piece of steel, and our only graceful exit is to turn our heads and stare at our shoes. This is why the onramp panhandle is simultaneously so awkward and effective.

And this isn't the only time when drivers are highly constrained. In fact, most of the time you're behind a wheel, you're incredibly un-free. You have to stay between the lines, stop and go at various lights and signs. You can only go as fast or as far as the car in front of you. You can't even really go much slower than the car behind you, either. (A friend of mine drove 22 mph down the length of Smith Avenue the other day, just to prove this point. It was incredibly, painfully awkward.) No, the car is the last place you're going to want to be if you want a feeling of limitless freedom. Sure you occasionally find yourself alone on the open road, driving through a car commercial on your way to the lake cabin or Aunt Ida's farm, but probably 75% of the auto time spent by most people is insufferably restricted.

In fact, if you want the freedom of limitless mobility, the best thing you can do is walk on your feet. For an easy example, look at the photo up above, of the 'sidewalk closed' sign. What percentage of people walking down this street obey this sign? My guess is something like 2% of all pedestrians wouldn't actually walk right around this sign, and continue on their merry way down the street.

In a cars, on the other hand, you're constantly at the mercy of the orange traffic cone. How many time have you been driving down a road, found yourself at the clogged end of a meaningless, empty 'road closed' sign?

On foot, one can walk or not walk. Run or not. One can continue forward, and suddenly reverse course and walk backwards. One can skip, jump, turn left, turn right, turn around, go forward and then suddenly turn backward for no reason whatsoever before continuing onward again. Try doing any of that in a car. (Possible exception: those lowriders with hydraulic suspensions.)

Take it from me, brothers and sisters. There's nothing so free as feet. What is liberty, if not the ability to do what you want?

I suppose this all sounds silly and trite. It's painfully obvious, and nobody really likes their bumper-to-bumper, do they? Sure road rage springs eternal, but feet are so slow!

I thought so too, and I wouldn't have mentioned any of this, only I was reading Flesh and Stone, a wonderful look at the interrelated histories of the city and the body by high-minded urban theorist Richard Sennett (who along with his wife, Saskia Sassen, have pretty much cornered the market on high-minded urban theory), and came across this passage in the introduction.
The look of urban space enslaved to these powers of motion is necessarily neutral: the driver can drive safely only with the minimum of idiosyncratic distractions; to drive well requires standard signs, dividers, and drain sewers, and also streets emptied of street life apart from other drivers. As urban space becomes a mere function of motion, it thus becomes less stimulating in itself; the driver wants to go through the space, not to be aroused by it.

Sennett's point, as I see it, is that our ultra-boring, ultra-monotonous freeway landscapes (and their neighborhoods) reflect precisely these constraints of auto-mobility. After all, if nobody can stop and smell the flowers, why have flowers?



[Free running -- like a car commercial for feet]

10.9.07

Sing Along: We've All Got a Wide-Stance Now

I was reading a friend's blog yesterday, an entry about a bit of bathroom graffiti that he'd seen and enjoyed.

I, like many people, enjoy a great deal of the bathroom graffiti that I encounter, not only because sitting in a stall is boring, but because its a way that each of us individuals communicate with each other when we privately share a public privy.

Yeah, so bathroom graffiti is neat, but the real boon of my friend's blog was that it got me thinking some more about the 'wide stance'. As you probably know, Idaho Senator Larry Craig was busted in a Minneapolis Airport bathroom for soliciting sex from his stall neighbor. And later during a police interrogation he defended his gestures by claiming that he was "picking up a piece of paper" and, quite famously, that he had "a wide stance."

Given Senator Craig's political leanings, the episode is both sad and amazing. But the real tragedy of this tale is that Senator Craig had to resort to such half-assed, feeble, gesticulatory subtlties simply in order to get laid.

Now, why is it that a U.S. Senator has to resort to stall-side toe-tapping just to make friends? Is there something particularly American about this episode of sidelong glances and Miami vice? Would something like this happen in a different country, a place where people could just have their hypocritical gay tryst without resorting to toilet humor? I think what I’m really asking is: Does America have a wide stance?

Bear with me. You'll have to admit that here in the USA, we boast of a supremely individualistic culture, where each of us is granted the opportunity to remake ourselves from the ground up. With each new boatload of immigrants, Americans became people that believe in the possibility of renewal, in revolution, who believe that somewhere, out there across the ocean, greener grass grew round golden cobblestones. We’re a nation of speculators all eating our revolutionary All New Diets of SPAM or TV dinners or vegan food or Paxil-burgers without buns in our half-acre nouveaux faux-Tudor Ranch/Colonial where nobody knows you’re a dog. We’re a country where it’s not hypocritical to be an anti-gay closeted senator because nobody’s the same person for very long anyway, and we’re able to maintain this kind of revolutionary fervor because our lives are so compartmentalized.

Here, there’s nothing more sacred than private property, and no property's more private than private parts. What with all the detached homes, picket fences, car windows, grey cubicles, teevee screens, air-conditioned skyways, eye-pods, and mirrored sunglasses... here, the only possible way to communicate is with the occasional nervous twitch, the merest flicker of a hand, hopefully glimpsed through the crack in the door or under the divider, but probably mistaken for a scratched bugbite or involuntary spasm. Instead, we have bumper stickers and blogs, T-shirts and skywriting... all vain attempts to reach the unreachable communication. Instead, we have bathroom graffiti and internet comments, with all their reciprocal snark... O, the dashed hopes of Charles Lindbergh in June! Or, to put it another way, aren’t we all self-loathing closeted Senators sitting in our stalls, reaching out for a helping hand? Isn’t there a little wide stance in all of us?




Find more photos like this on Bathroom Graffiti Project

Sidewalk of the Week: 25th Street

As I wait for my lost camera to come back to me, somehow, I feels like time to offer up a Sidewalk of the Week clearinghouse, going through my vast reservoir of sidewalks past and present to find the chociest bits to share with you, gentle reader.

Oh Camera! Why have you forsaken me? Bring me back my rolls of digital sidewalk film! You are my memory, my one and only link with my pedestrian past! Do not leave me here lifeless... forgetful... forgotten... Why are you so small and hard to find? Damn you, digital technology! Damn you, Moore's Law!

Sorry.

This week's very exciting Sidewalk of the Week is 25th Street in South Minneapolis, right in front of the Birchwood Cafe. The Birchwood Cafe is one of those places that serves as the heart of a neighborhood, singlehandedly bringing people out of their homes and cars and into the warm busom of the public. Like the Riverview Theater, Jerebek's New Bohemian Bakery, or Nye's Polonaise Room, The Birchwood sort of defines its entire region (ergo the no doubt common phrase, "I live by the Birchwood"). Mostly, that's because its food is damn good, and its got enough laid-back atmosphere to strangle Jimmy Buffet, allowing it to become the meetinghouse for people all around the commercially underserved area between Seward and Longfellow. And that's enough to make the Birchwood a stunning example of good urbanism.

But as we all know, good urbanism alone does not garner the Sidewalk fo the Week laurel. No... for that we must turn to The Birchwood's sidewalk. We must lower our gaze, stoop to all fours, and go eye-to-toe with 25th Street's wonderful blend of cafe culture and residential bliss, for the Birchwood's sidewalk is a perfect example of how to seamlessly integrate a business into a neighborhood.

As you can see in the adjoining photo, unlike the demarcative hubris of a great many sidewalk cafes, The Birchwood does not encumber the pedestrian in the slightest with superfluous tables or chairs. Nary a hurdle will be placed in your way, should you unreasonably wish to walk cleanly past the Birchwood without stopping to buy a loaf of tasty bread, or cup of fine black coffee served in a porcelean mug. Instead, one's stroll is met with a subtle, gradual intensification of use, as grass becomes flowerbed becomes bike rack becomes table. These amenities serve at the same time as buffers between the car-laden street and the bustling cafe, though 25th Street is so quiet that it hardly seems necessary.

The 25th Street sidewalk, simultaneously serving the needs of a neighborhood cafe and little kids with chalk in their hands and hopscotch in their hearts, is the perfect blend of business and pleasure. It's a concrete example of multitasking. It sings the kind of sidewalk harmonies rarely found, and impossible to create. And for that, 25th Street between 33rd and 34th Avenues South, I salute you.

4.9.07

Wither The Gas Tax? or, Gas Tax Withering?

Well, according to a short, cantankerous Minneapolis legislator I met at the fair, and confirmed by this article, it looks like Pothole Pawlenty might just weasel his way out of signing a gas tax, squeaking off into the night, mullet intact. Here's the relevant quote from the Strib piece:
In the letter, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller appear ready to drop the idea of a more comprehensive special session to deal with larger issues like property tax relief and a bonding bill and to focus exclusively on the two disasters which struck the state in August. They also suggest they would consider abandoning the idea of a gas tax increase, using $370 million in existing funding to address disaster needs.

I am really disappointed about this. Perhaps the State Fair pushed the fallen bridge from the minds of Minnesota, but there doesn't seem to be much momentum anymore for doing something to fix the fact that a perfectly unstruck-by-disaster bridge fell into the Mississippi randomly one day. Perhaps, more likely, the DFL's ambitious saber rattling (calling for an extended special session, and broadening the agenda to include LGA funds and property tax relief) scared the Governor into wilting away. In essence, a lot of people (myself included) wanted the bridge to rectify last year's rather disappointing budget session.

The question is now: Is Pothole Pawlenty going to call a special session at all? And if not, how will his post-bridge promises look come February? Is our children learning?

If there's a bright side, though, I have a lot of faith that the next legislative session will bring a veto-proof increase in the gas tax. The DFL was only a few House votes short of an over-ride last session, and there are a number of fence-sitters that'll fall like steel girders over to the transportation funding side of the aisle.

P.S. My time off was nice, spent up in Western Ontario reading and fishing. I noticed for the thousandth time that Canada has a different attitude about government than we do. People there seem actually proud to wear a non-military uniform

24.8.07

Dog Day Vacation

It's August... August, when nothing happens... I'm going to be in remote Ontario for the next 10 days, so if you want Twin City urbanism I urge you to go to the fair.

There's nowhere in Minnesota that more resembles Taipei street life, or Weegee's Coney Island, than Dan Patch Avenue during late August.

Posting will resume after September 4th.

-Bill

16.8.07

*** News Flash *** #3

I'm re-starting a previously recurring feature of Twin City Sidewalks, mostly due to laziness. It's called ***News Flash***, and involves me linking to things with varying degrees of pith.

  • First up is a link provided me by reader Caitlin, a radio program called Radiolab out of WNYC in New York that deals with emergence, or the way in which interactions of individuals create a higher order structure cognitively independent of any particular mind. The example most often used to talk about emergence is ant colonies, the way in which the colony forms a larger 'organism' based on interacting behavior of individual ants, independent of any ant 'mastermind'. Like the makers of this program, I'm of the mind that emergence is also a great way to understand cities. For example, this radio show talks about the way in which flowershops congregate together in cities. ("Traffic is everything.") Though its a bit depressing to think of ourselves as tiny ants running around willy nilly...
  • My favorite sociologist Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone guy) has a new article talking about 'the downside to diversity.' His argument, as far as I can tell, is that homogenous neighborhoods are more likely to foster social capital then ones with a great deal of diversity, which seems pretty common sense to me. I live in a very diverse neighborhood, and people around here tend to 'turtle' (as Putnam says), and not talk to each other as much as people in more lily white places like St. Anthony Park or wherever. But, what I'm not reading enough is how segregation can also be bad for society as a whole.
  • A nice link showing some maps of how the T.C. looked before they put the interstates in during the 60's and 70's.
  • The ISLR had a nice op-ed in the Strib on how locally owned energy (ethanol, windmills) is better for local economies.
  • On the other side of the river, the PiPress had some coverage of the St Paul Port Authority, and how it's been quietly redeveloping unused industrial land all throughout the city. Despite my reservations about Robert Moses, whose tool of choice was also the port authority, I've been a fan of most of the SPPA's work. For example, the recent Great Northern Railyard developmeny in my neighborhood.
  • Urban sprawl is nothing new, according to this article on Angkor Wat.
  • Two articles in the Strib on local urban bidness... First, the need for more benches for sitting... Second, are big box stores doing anything (anything substantial?) to fit in better to their neighborhoods? Judging by the Walmart on South Robert Street, I think not... I guess its better than an enema? (T.C. Bonus Question: Once you take away the fireworks and philanthropy, is Target really any better than Walmart? I keep saying 'no.')
  • What Google Maps looked like one hundred years ago...
  • Duluth rocks, and apparently someone finally noticed.
  • This incredibly awesome event is happening today. Get thee to Nicollet Mall. (Guerrilla marketing at work...)
  • And a friend of mine is launching a new wiki intended to produce a wiki-what-should-be, called Humane Earth. Feel free to edit it, vendettas and all.
  • And finally, this is one of my favorite things to listen to lately: Okeh's Laughing Record. Check it out.

15.8.07

Other City Sidewalks: Babylon NY

The only thing I knew about Babylon NY, located about a third out on the South shore of Long Island, was that it had been the home of Robert Moses, scourge of American cities. If you don't know who Robert Moses is, I urge you to put aside a month, sometime in the near future, and read The Power Broker, Robert Caro's 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Moses. It's a fantastic biography, combining drama and painstaking detail with the rarest of ease, and in it you learn the dangers of concentrated power as Caro tells the saga of Moses's insane forty-year grip on New York infrastructure, building highways through neighborhoods and displacing hundreds of thousands of people, spearheading 'the projects', and singlehandedly yoking U.S. cities to the automobile for what will probably be an eternity. (On the other hand, the bridges he built haven't fallen down yet.)

So, needless to say, when I got to Babylon NY, the town where Moses parked his subsidized yacht, I was most filled with biblical trepidation... trepidation and a desire to somehow unearth the visible scars of Moses's mad genius. Would I find a Moses bust? Would it be the land of gated communities? Or hanging gardens? What I found, though, was a pastoral fishing village surrounded by well-manicured, sidewalk-free, and quite expensive real estate.

[One of Babylon's old half timber'd shop buildings.]

The other day walking along Raymond Avenue, I'd been struck by the neat way that the parking lot for Noll's Hardware was tucked neatly down an alleyway, behind the streetside storefront.
If these alleys marked University Avenue's industrial/St. Anthony Park seam, they were far more common in Babylon. Every street in the little downtown had a back alley parking lot. There were even whole houses tucked behind stores. (Here's one, pictured at right, for which the only access is this long dumpster-filled alley.) The little downtown is just a five minute walk from the Long Island Railroad commuter train, and features a host of old-school thrift-, paperback book-, antique-, and drapery-stores. It boasted a few grocery stores, and a number of Irish bar/restaurants that must have dated back to the South Shore of Long Island's economic fishing foundations. What struck me most, though, was the drive-through grocery store called The Dairy Barn, which uses a sort of nostalgic aura to entice people to buy milk and bread without leaving their driver's seats.

Babylon, despite its nice sidewalks, transit access, and walkable aura... despite its lamppost flower planters (hanging gardens?), its inlaid red brick trim, and the delicate arch of its maple trees that lend it a precious authenticity... despite all that, I didn't' find an urban spirit in Babylon NY. For one thing, the 'downtown' (or village center) is really sparsely populated. There was one building on a main corner that seemed to be undergoing condo-i-fication, but you'd be hard pressed to find an apartment to rent in that town. Similarly, Babylon seemed almost entirely dependent on cars to get around. The streets date back, I'm sure, a long way, but couldn't they put in some bike lanes or something? (Of course, the same could be said of recent Sidewalk of the Week winner, Carter Avenue, which could serve as a dead ringer for Babylon's village aesthetic.)

I went on a long walk from the downtown to the Babylon harbor, passing along a suburban-seeming sidewalk winding through the lawns of suburban houses. It seemed almost exactly like any of the nicer Twin Cities suburbs (e.g. Edina, Roseville), complete with two-car garages and the proverbial picket fence. most of these houses must have been built after Moses completed his Long Island highways (ever politically astute, he called them 'parkways'). (Indeed, it was Moses's highways which spearheaded the development of suburban Long Island, cultivating Levittowns at an astronomical rate.) I walked on the sidewalks of Babylon, and when the sidewalk disappeared I walked on the edges of roads, through yards, and around poles. I walked but didn't find any sign of public space... The best I could do was the entirely benchless municipal pier, where I sat on the pavement with a book and stared out at the sea.
Would Moses were here, I'd kick him in the balls.


[The view out Babylon Harbor, presumably looking at the Robert Moses causeway connecting Robert Moses State Park with the mainland, and probably Robert Moses's own personal favorite view.]

14.8.07

Principles of Sidewalkery: Increasing Returns

Today its time for another POS -- or Principle of Sidewalkery (POS). This time we're going to look at increasing returns, or the idea that 'Sidewalks Aren't a Zero Sum Game'. What is increasing returns?

Well, the first thing to think about is why certain types of businesses cluster together in cities. For example, New York City is famous for having 'districts' in certain parts of the city, where, for example, fifty different industrial lighting shops cluster together along a certain stretch of a street (The Bowery). Why do businesses that compete with each other (ethnic restaurants, antique shops, nightclubs, &c.) often end up in the same kinds of neighborhoods when classical competitive economics dictates that they should create unique identities by locating themselves far from one another?

That's one of the puzzles of increasing returns. At the same time, increasing returns points to the notion that good businesses create good sidewalks, which in turn create good businesses, and so on and so on (and scooby dooby doo) in a catalytic cycle of positive feedback. Increasing returns means that street corners create their own street corner audience, that not only does neighborhood specialization decrease the effect of direct competition, but that vibrant pedestrian traffic can grow itself along contiguous stretches of sidewalk like a grapevine on a fencepost, or like mold on old bread.

Last week's Sidewalk of the Week, Raymond Avenue, is a good example of the idea of increasing returns. While the University Avenue area has many corners boasting one- or two-story mixed-use buildings, for some reason only this particular stretch along the Northwest corner of Raymond has shop after shop after shop with (relatively) thriving pedestrian flow. According to classical economic principles, restaurants might just as well move to some of the empty-ish buildings around the corner, or across University Avenue, capitalizing on their low rent and separate geographic identity. The last thing two restaurants would want to do is bunch together and directly compete with each other for business. But for some reason, the two most successful restaurants in this area are on the same block. Its because instead of competing over the same cafe-going pie, by locating next to each other Key's and Jay's Cafes increase their returns and grow the Saint Paul dining public. This part of town becomes known as the 'Cafe Corner,' and twice as many people show up to eat.

Similarly, on Saint Paul's Selby Avenue the success of Lula Vintage Wear (a vintage clothes store) catalyzed a two new vintage stores (Up Six on Snelling Avenue, and Go Vintage 54 across the street on Selby) opening up less than one block away, so that now there are three vintage stores forming a vintage clothes district on this little part of town. [image from lulasvintage.com]

Or to offer another example, one popular nightclub in Minneapolis's warehouse district spawns another across the street, until the entire area becomes known for its nightclubs. So instead of competing for the same pool of club-goers, the neighborhood's identity grows the total number of club-goers, and everyone comes out ahead.

At the same time, increasing returns creates a generalized, overall neighborhood prosperity. In other words, customers to one successful business create pedestrian traffic which can support other unlike businesses in the immediate vicinity. The more people you have walking around a certain area, the more easily a hardware store or a grocery can grab and extra customer or two, so that vibrant walkable sidewalks tend to grow and thrive in tightly contiguous clusters. Sidewalks aren't fighting over a set amount of retail business, but instead can increase their retail return by encouraging neighboring businesses.

So increasing returns to sidewalk vitality works in two ways -- first (1) by allowing for neighborhood specialization to create a unique identity for an entire sidewalk corner, rather than a single business, and second (2) by increasing overall pedestrian flow so that other nearby businesses benefit from added traffic flow. And unlike cars, which are a pain in the tuchas to start, stop, and park, people on foot can amble, stroll, and meander their way along a stretch of sidewalk, whiling away their days gazing in shop windows. Increasing returns is one of the big reasons that sidewalk vitality so often comes in tightly compacted stretches. Good sidewalks make good neighbors, and streets take on lives of their own.

Also:

The increasing returns of sidewalk specialization is certainly nothing new. I'm reading The Continuing City, by urban morphologist and geographer James Vance Jr., and he describes ancient Greek cities thus:

We cannot establish a detailed picture of the commercial geography of Athens or other classical cities, but we can reasonably accept the idea that one did exist. The segregation was horizontal, into the [merchant] quarters already mentioned; it also seems to have been vertical to a small degree. Foundations remain that suggest the existence of upper-story storage of goods, as well as "living over the shop." ... The geographic anchor of all this internal structuring of commercial areas was an agora. Traders first congregated there; from there, they came to occupty more differentiated craft and traders' districts. [p. 55]

8.8.07

Sidewalk of the Week: Raymond Avenue

Politically bookended by the dogged, probably all-male Libertarian Party of Minnesota headquarters on one end, and the longstanding (hopefully female) quality newspaper, Minnesota Women's Press, on the other, the sidewalk along Raymond Avenue is this week's Twin Cities' Sidewalk of the Week. Where else can you find such a spectrum? Congratulations!

In a way, stepping down Raymond Avenue is like stepping back in time, wading through a yellow fog of modernity, and standing on tiptoes of timelessness to peer through the knothole of The Now into the hearts of Saint Paul's Hamden Park. (So to speak...) What I mean is, the two block stretch of businesses that runs along the West side of the street boasts of the kind of retail diversity you rarely find any more in the Twin Cities: two restaurants (Key's and Jay's), a host of really small offices including a print shop, a newspaper, a political office, and a karate studio, a hardware store, an antiques shop, and a medium sized grocery store called Herbst Maket which doesn't appear to have changed one iota since the mid 60s -- in other words, canned vegetables abound around the meat counter. This sidewalk's vibrancy really sets a high bar for the University Avenue area, and I think there are only certain parts of the Asian districts of the street can match its pedestrian attraction.

My sense is that this stretch of sidewalk, practically the only retail corner along this largely industrial section of University Avenue, serves as the Main Street for Saint Paul's Hamden Park neighborhood, located just North of this corner along Raymond Avenue. Somehow the folks that live around here have managed to support their grocer and the hardware store and keep them afloat for all these years.

One of the things that makes this sidewalk so interesting is the way in which the businesses extend out onto the street, forming a kind of arching tunnel of trees, shop signs, grass & tables through which one is invited to amble. For example, [photo at right] the vintage store, Succotash, puts some of their awesome 60's furniture out on the street, inviting anyone to place their tuchas into an antique chair. Jay's Cafe, too, has under-umbrella sidewalk dining, a rarity in this part of Saint Paul

Another of Raymond Avenue's nice sidewalk features is the rear-of-the-building parking lots, that presumably date back to the time before cars (a.k.a. B.C.). The sign for Noll Hardware [pictured at right] points to the parking in the rear of the building, and cars can drive down the little dirt alleyway to a parking lot that doesn't intrude at all on the sidewalk retail frontage. This alley is perhaps a little narrow for drivers today, but, really, new businesses thinking of ways to incorporate additional parking ought to really consider this kind of parking structure. All it takes is a little bit of fore knowledge on the customer's part, and you have parking lots and sidewalks harmoniously working together. The sidewalk keeps its finely woven fabric, its window'd warp and dog walk'd woof. If only every sidewalk could be so lucky.

5.8.07

MPR Decoder: Broken Bridge = Gas Tax?

As Laurie Blake reports, a gas tax is a near certainty in a special session likely to take place in September. After years of trying to pass a gas tax, having it vetoed, and coming within a vote or two of getting one enacted, it looks like the Minnesota political standoff has reached a tipping point (after I 35W tipped into the river).

MPR's midday (blissfully free of Gary Eichten) had a whole show with the leaders of the legislature talking about the gas tax, without really mentioning it too many times. Apparently the only question now is, how big will it be?

The way I read this: the DFL knows they have all the political cover they need to pass a gas tax and not take any heat for it. Pretty much the only political angle for the Republicans is to accuse the Democrats of 'politicizing the issue,' kind of like what happened at Wellstone's funeral. So the DFL is going to stay very, very far away from saying anything negative about Pawlenty or the House leadership, and instead repeat over and over again how important it is to 'fund long term investment' to keep our roads 'safe'. They can't really lose with that.

Usually in these special sessions, the Governor and the two leaders of the House and Senate meet in advance of the session and agree to agree on the one or two needed bills, so that the legislative session itself is kind of a perfunctory formality. I'm not sure if this session will be like that, though, because it sounds like the DFL is going to try and have a larger agenda, not only to pass as large of a (political heat-free) gas tax as they can, but also to include some of the LGA restoration (aid money to cities) that the governor vetoed this spring.

Here's a terribly rough transcription, with most of the fluff edited out, and some editorial commentary.



Speaker of the MN House, Margaret Anderson Kelliher (MAK): We need to come up with a 10% match on federal money, and it might even be higher... The debate about congestion has changed to a life and safety debate -- and I don't think its a debate any more. [Meaning: I don't even think Marty's bestest, most conservative friend Rep. Tom Emmer is stupid enough to stand there and say we don't need more money for roads when the freeway is laying in the river.]

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert (MS): We certainly need to do a bill for overtime, a match of federal funds ... and then there's going to have to be an assessment done... [Meaning: We need more time for all this emotional political heat to cool down, before we try and minimize the tax increase.] We need to assess what the need is... We're not going to come rushing in... [Meaning: We're not going to be happy about passing a permanent gas tax in September]... It would be helpful to have hearings... [Meaning: Please give us more time] ... we do have a bonding capacity, many of those types of things so we have an analysis done and that it wouldn't drag on for a long time, come in and have swift action... [Meaning: Please no gas tax! You know how we hate taxes... We just want to pass a really quick appropriation of borrowed bonded money to look at a few bridges, and get out of there without having a long unwinnable debate about this.]

MAK: We'll be forming a joint House Senate committee to review information from the past, and examine further aspects from the I35 bridge... In 1997 the legislative auditor did a study of bridge and trunk highway system and looked at deficiencies and funding issues... We're going to ask them to begin work to update report... They wrote that 1997 it was $100 million, and now its over a billion... [Meaning: You want time to study the issue? I'm going to 'head you off at the pass' here and start studying the issue right now, so that when we have our session we'll already have a fresh report in our hands and can talk about the gas tax!]

MS: We can get money out to those folks that need it, but we don't have a firm idea of the amount of money... I want to help in what way I can on a transportation package that we can move a bill through quickly and get the governors signature on it and also some long term needs that we have... [Meaning: Pawlenty might veto something! We're not afraid to do it. (OK we are afraid, but we'll talk about it at least...)] We have to place life safety first... We're gonna have to look at some other mechanisms, the surplus or um other places to meet the immediate needs... [Meaning: Oh. I almost said the words Gas Tax. Don't make me say those words... it hurts... it hurts...]

State Senator Steve Murphy, Chair of the Transportation Committee (SM): We do know full well what the full impact is on our transportation system. Speaker Kelliher said that we're deficient over a billion dollars, and that's only on the trunk highway system... If you add everything up that number is 1.7 billion dollars of unmet need every year.... Clearly a third of our budget is in what I would consider a deficit situation, and we need to do something about filling up that hole... We need to make major strides, and it will take a tax increase. [Meaning: There's no way in hell, Marty, that you're going to get away with not passing a gas tax.]

MS: We all agree that the need is there. [Meaning: Even I, Marty Seifert, cannot say the words 'high tax state' when the freeway is laying in the river.] We had different bills before the leg, I had one, Rep. Bernie Lieder (Chair of the House Tranposrtation Commmitte) had one. I think we're all open minded in this situation to getting the critical needs taken care of first and foremost, and that would be the bridges, life, and safety as the speaker mentioned, and then moving forwards. I think there are preferences from different members that would like to see bonding and general fund dollars. [Meaning: Now that most of the moderates are gone from our caucus, I'm going to have a hell of a time trying to get them to stomach a gas tax increase.] The gas tax is obviously gonna be something that's there for us to use in this particular situation. And I'm open minded I'm not gonna close the door on anything. [Meaning: I can see the writing on the wall. This sucks.] ... The details are certainly gonna be hashed out ... A lot of people would say I don't know all the differences between bonding, general fund, and gas tax, but my guess would be end of the day when all this is done ... this is probably gonna be some type of a combination, with some focus on life and safety, dangerous intersections, and bridges... We really need to focus on those critical needs first and then moving out long term. [Meaning: OK OK OK, a gas tax. I get it. But it's going to be a small one, or Mary Liz Holberg will sic her dogs on me. Please, please don't make it a big gas tax? I beg you!]

CALLER: How are we going to pay for this? ... We've wasted government moeny on things like stadiums and the mall of america, and we needed that money for other things [Meaning: Hey did you notice that the interstate fell into the Mississippi for no reason? ... Wait, nevermind. The Twins are on TV. Go Twins!]

SM: We just have a terrible underfunding problem with transportation. We need to take a major stride at addressing that underfunding.... We need to have more money, and if that takes a tax increase to get it done, so be it.... Back in 1988 when we last increased the gas tax, that 20 cents was buying 17 cents worth of product. not its 12 or 13 cents because of inflation . And we can't continue to bond because that just takes away from our maintenance program. We need to have all those pots of money that go into transportation need to be increased so that none of them has to shoulder the burden 100 percent. What's paying for the majority of work right now is our property taxes, and we can't continue to do that. [Meaning: Big gas tax now. No ifs ands or buts. Don't say the world 'bonding' to me. I don't even want to hear the word 'bonding.']

MAK: In my time in the legislature we've had no less than 3 major transportation packages, two that have gone to the governor... [Meaning: It's pretty clear whose fault this is, and its not really mine.] We have an underinvestment issue. I believe that we need new revenue. It has been my position, the position of every member of the house DFL caucus, and many members of the house republican caucus, and I think the senate is on board completely for doing some raising of the user fee, which is the gas tax, that funds our roads. Folks are right to have some very strong feelings about this right now. My hope when we go into special session is that we don't only deal with the immediacy of this situation, but we get the job done on funding our transportation system overall. And i don't think that's that hard to do, when you look at the fact that there have been a number of packages that have already been publically vetted. [Meaning: This is as close as I'm going to get to blaming the governor. But its pretty much the governor's fault, and I'm not afraid to stoke the fires a bit and tell people about all the other transportation funding packages we tried to pass. Now though, we have the votes to pass this thing with or without the governor on board, so don't mess with me Marty Seifert.]

SM: I want to caution people about just dealing with the immediacy of this issue. this bridge didn't decide to fall on Wednesday out of the clear blue. We got here... We don't know yet, ... We need to wait for the NTSB to come back with a report so we know exactly what happened with that bridge. But that bridge didn't get into the position that we have where it needed continual maintanence... We didn't get there overnight. [Meaning: This is as close as I'm going to get to blaming the governor, too. It's pretty close though. I'm this far from blaming the governor. [holds fingers close together]] ... We need to look long term because this is going to e along fix for a lot o the other infrastructure that you hear about. Cancer doesn't happen overnight, and you don't cure it overnight. We're talking about a 10 year plan.... [Meaning: A cancer metaphor. Perfect!] We need long term plans to try to address this with large infusions of cash spread out over a period of time so we can address these issues so they don't become catastrophic at a later date. [Meaning: Yeah, I'm talking about a big gas tax.]

MPR reporter Mike Mulcahey (MM): Doens't this cause a criseis in confidence in our state government? [Meaning: Didn't you guys pretty seriously f' up here?]

MAK: It is difficult right now. I know minnesotans have their own anxieties about this. ... But its not enought for us to say we believe we have a good system. ... We're witholding the speculation part of this... But I do think its striking that this bridge is carrying a load of traffic that it wasn't designed for... It all poitns back to this very same question of an overall investment strategy.... We need to renew our committment to a long term strategy here. like SM said, nothing gets this way overnight. [Meaning: We seriously f'd up. Its pretty obvious that we f'd up.]

SM: We need to put the blame game behind us. now is the time to join hands and come up with a package that works for everybody. we can't continue to point the finger. ... When we heard this all of our hearts sank. There was a terrible feeling in the pit of our stomach that if we had started this 15 years ago possible this may have never happened. but overall we need a huge investment Mike. [Meaning: I f'd up too. If only I'd tried to blame the governor more often and more effectively in the past!]

CALLER: How are we gonna pay for all of this? What about overtime for police officers? The City of Minneapolis funding for police officers is already stretched thin. ... The LGA money is stretched tight...

MAK: There will be some significant costs here... I do think we saw an action this week what things like LGA goes to, sitting in that emergency command center the last two days, watching the coordinated command of the county and the state ... [Meaning: I'm still thinking about whether or not I can twist the governors arm even further here and try to get the LGA cuts restored. I'd like to, but I'll probably just use it as a bargaining chip instead, to get more gas tax money.]

MM: About that LGA issue... What about the governor's recent veto of the tax bill? A lot of cities are looking at a dismal budget situation, aren't they?

MAK: That's up in the air. I've never stopped talking to the gov about having a special session on the tax bill, on the vetoed small capital investment bill... I think we need to go back to those issues. as we ask local units of govt to go out with us to inspect bridges and safety. We need to understand that we're one Minnesota. You should be able to be anywhere in the state and have police, fire, safety, and have a good road to drive on. I think that's critical for the entire state. [Meaning: Damn straight. But there'll be plenty of time to use this bridge issue to restore LGA cuts later, and I don't think I'm going to try and do it now. That doesn't mean I won't talk about it, though. (See: chip, bargaining.)]