29.7.07

Other City Sidewalks: Durham NC

For better or worse, I've spent most of my time in the old South in run-down places, dilapidated towns, and weather worn waystations... places like antedivulean New Orleans, Savannah Georgia, Memphis, Tennessee, and Bessemer City, North Carolina... so that when I think of The South I think of carpets of kudzu, faded paint peeling from signs, cars on bricks in the tall grass, and the smell of barbeque drifting over fields of trailer homes. I do not, however, think of America's post-industrial economy, nor do I think of the medical device industry, but arriving in Durham, North Carolina all that began to change. The difference was gradual, but somehow, arriving at the Cary train station, I crossed a bridge into the 21st century.

In his influential book of dot.com hype, Edge Cities, Joel Garreau apparently described Cary as the epitomal 'edge city,' kind of an autonomous, suburban, information economy paradise. My aunt and uncle on the other hand, aging hippies that live in the Durham-area woods, describe Cary as a Containment Area for Relocated Yankees. Whichever way you look at it, I was pleasantly surprised that the area in and around Durham, the so-called 'research triangle', seemed to have a burgeoning, diverse economy. Duke Univeristy and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill are both located a within a dozen miles of donwtown Durham, and their combined influence (multiplied by the multiplier, of course) means that North Carolina's tri-city area (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) is a happenin' spot.

Perhaps because of the overall economic strength of the region, the city of Durham is undergoing an extensive overhaul of their sidewalks and street grid, adding a seemingly limitless amount of streetscape improvements aimed at rekindling a historic aura to the surprisingly well-preserved (albiet small) downtown core. It seemed to me that the downtown sorely needed some sort of catalysis, because, somehow, the region's economic vitality had passed downtown Durham by. Pretty much the only open or interesting storefront was the (mind-blowingly awesome) Book Exchange bookstore, which had rooms and rooms of 20ft shelves stacked high with books arranged, not by author, not by subject, but by publisher (!), so that there was an entire wall of 'Blackwell' or 'Oxford University Press' books from which you had to browse. It certainly challenged my knowledge of the publishing industry.

I asked the bookstore clerk, though, about the sidewalk project outside and he complained that the city'd been working on the streets and sidewalks for years and years. I'd probably have gotten a better response if I'd asked him about whether he'd enjoyed getting his wisdom teeth removed, and it points to one of the oft overlooked (by planners, anyway) problems with big construction ideas: the short term impact it has on currently operating businesses, which for many business owners, is what they're really thinking about most of the time anyway.

But Durham, which I learned had served as the Black Wall Street, with a number of banks and businesses fostering entrepreneurialism for African Americans during the early 20th century, has a lot of historical, dense infrastructure to offer, and their sidewalk/street project, when its finally done, should turn the downtown into one of the nicest places to live in the area. Part of the attraction, I'd gather, is the draw of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park (D-BAP), where the legacy of the classic movie Bull Durham has translated into strong attendance and support for Tampa's AAA-affiliate baseball team. (Durham is the smallest population Triple-A city in the country, reflecting both the strength of the region and the popularity of the franchise.) The D-BAP is one of the rare cases where I think a baseball stadium can actually serve as a neighborhood development tool, and a whole mixed-use complex is going up surrounding the relatively new stadium (office buildings and some retail). Other projects in Durham include changing the old tobacco factories into mixed-use office/indoor retail spaces, and local arts and crafts incubators. Like many old East coast cities (e.g. North Adams, MA), there's a whole lot of old industrial building stock, and finding uses for these huge, brick spaces can be a real challenge.

As for the Durham sidewalks, the city is replacing much of the poured concrete, and many of the crosswalks, with inlaid red brick, adding traffic calming bump outs, installing pedestrian/car separating iron posts, and changing many of the streets from one- to two-way traffic (thus decreasing the rate of speed, and making it easier to navigate the complex street grid). All together, these improvements will dramatically increase the walkability of downtown area, and look really nice. When they're finally finished in the next year or so, you can bet that downtown Durham will turn into a student hang out, a condo- and yuppie-filled neighborhood, and a great place to have your office if you're a lawyer or something. It's the kind of thing that many cities with old downtown cores, and relatively vibrant economies, should be doing (e.g. Saint Paul). (Of course it helps that Durham, probably for economic reasons, didn't extensively 'modernize' their downtown during the 50's and 60's.)

[Downtown Durham's beautiful art deco Kress building, currently being condo-ized.]

23.7.07

Pawlenty to City: Drop Dead

Some time ago, newly relocated blogger and friend of TC Sidewalks, Stephen Gross, wrote a post favorably comparing the Twin Cities to his native Cleveland when it comes to small, independent retail. It leads him to an overwhelming question:
And then I moved out here, and wow! Everywhere I look I see independent businesses. Besides the restaurants (big fan of Barbette & Three Fish), I see record stores (Electric Fetus), clothing (Cliche), quirky Asian imports (Robot Love), audio repair (The Good Guys), jewelers (Gerber, Gold'n Treasures), and more. Grand Avenue (with the exception of the Pottery Barn stretch) is a real testament to the strength and vitality of independent retail in the Twin Cities. How did you do it? Is there just an incredible commitment on a cultural level? Are there public policies of which I'm unaware that foster this growth?

Stephen's question had been floating around my mind for a while, and I didn't really have an idea about what the 'secret' to independent retail might be until recently when I saw an article in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press detailing the consequences of a budget crunch at the city government. According to (last journalist standing) Tim Nelson's piece, there's a big bottom line shortfall at City Hall and there's little choice but to make sizeable cuts in library and park funding in the capitol city. They're going to have to close a few library branches, and a few rec centers in various parts of the city.

Sure, on the one hand this is nothing new... city governments have long been struggling to make ends meet. But apparently the key missing budget ingredient is this little thing called local government aid (LGA). According to the piece,
The changes come five years after the state, suffering a $2 billion budget crisis of its own, made significant cuts to aid to local governments. St. Paul has made do with about $18 million less annually than the state and city expected as recently as 2003.

To compensate, the city has raised property taxes in each of the past two years - by $1.9 million, or 3 percent, in 2006, and by an additional $5.5 million, or 8.5 percent, this year. The city, since 2002, also has doubled the street fees it collects from property owners. But levies haven't kept pace with the drop-off in nontax revenue.

Minnesota's local government aid (LGA) structure is a very unique system designed to offset income inequality across municiaplities throughout the state, focusing particularly on big cities like Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Set up by a strong urban-rural DFL coalition in the early 1970's, it essentially set up a shared taxbase where wealthier suburbs (like Minnetonka) would send money to poorer cities (like Minneapolis). As political scientist Myron Orfield describes in his book, American Metropolitics, LGA was created
as an alternative to annexation and consolidation of local governments ... [and] was an attempt to respond to a number of concerns, including increating property tax rates, tax-base and tax-rate disparaties, and interjurisdictional competition for development.


What it essentially meant was that economic growth in Minnesota happened at more of a regional level, so that the entire state would sink or swim together instead of suburbs or cities cannibalizing each other for high-income earners or lucrative companies. (Of course, this still happened, but to a lesser degree.) It also meant that older cities like Minneapolis and Saint Paul which had to make dramatic transitions towards a more decentralized, auto-oriented, post-industrial landscape, had far less trouble maintaining their infrastructure (police, parks, etc.) than almost all other U.S. cities. While a city like Cleveland was almost bankrupted during the 1970's (under Kucinich?), Minnesota's LGA system meant that Minneapolis was able to keep a strong economy, retain much of its middle-class, industrial workforce, and keep its small independent businesses. LGA was a real success story, and as Orfield points out in his book, its the kind of thing that almost never happens in the every-man-for-himself world of American politics.

Sadly, though, LGA has seen steep cuts under two successive Republican governors -- Arne "Veto" Carlson in the 1990's and Tim "Pothole" Pawlenty in the 2000's. And Pothole's latest veto of LGA restoration directly aimed at staving off some of the Twin Cities' fiscal problems is yet another case of bad politically-motivated economics. Minnesota's local economy hasn't been performing as well lately, and in my opinion, the LGA cuts are an important reason why.

Update:

LGA doesn't just affect Minneapolis. As it says in this story, cities like Bemidji get big parts of their municipal budgets from the State, too.

Also Too:

Mankato has the same story as well.

20.7.07

Sidewalk of the Week: Carter Avenue

The gold standard for Twin City sidewalks has to be the corner of Carter and Como Avenues in Saint Paul's Saint Anthony Park neighborhood. These folks here have pulled out all the stops, and have turned this intersection into one of the nicest, most interesting, most relaxing places to sit around, drink a coffee, read a book, and enjoy being outside in a Twin Cities neighborhood.

Sure, its "a little yuppie disneyworld fantasy", as a friend of mine says, but even so, its a good one. It boasts a little wine store, a pottery shop, a bakery, a coffee shop, a local bank, a hardware store, a post office, a Bibelot shop, a Carnegie library, a restaurant, and one of the last remaining independent bookstores in the Twin Cities. All these things are woven together with a series of sidewalks, benches, flowers, and (glory be!) brick patches inset into sidewalk along each corner. Not only that, but the neighborhood's relatively cut off status, trapped between freeways, train tracks, and campuses on three of four sides means that there's very little traffic going by on the perfectly sized streets, streets that aren't even on a linear grid thanks to the rare bit of Twin Cities topography. The landscape, like the infrastructure, charges the experience of this space with unexpected angles. So instead of streets built for cars, on Carter Avenue its mostly people that you encounter... people strolling around and going from here to there, sitting, waiting, walking dogs, going out to eat, and window shopping.

I just spent a half hour sitting on the bench here and watched old couples, families with little kids, and a matte black beater full of white T-shirt punk rockers who sat one bench over. The only thing this neighborhood really lacks is a certain amount of income diversity, but high property values are the unfortunate effect of gorgeous sidewalks. But the University of Minnesota's Saint Paul campus isn't too far away (nor is the theological seminary), and I think there's a fair amount of student housing scattered amongst the well-to-do. Finding Carter Avenue is like finding a photograph of your long lost best friend tucked inside a book pulled randomly off a shelf, and during these long summer days there's no better place to sit and remember. That's why you, Carter Avenue, are this week's Sidewalk of the Week.

Principles of Sidewalkery: Walkability

Hi, and welcome to the first installment of a new segment here at TC Sidewalks... Principles of Sidewalkery (POS). For today's POS, we're going to springboard off of a number of new happenings in the sidewalk community and look at walkability . Earlier this week I learned about a new website, WalkScore, that uses Google Maps to measure the walkability of neighborhoods according to how many commercial locations are nearby.

While its seems the website is having a few technical problems, it's a neat idea. And it broaches the question: What exactly is Walkability?

I also wanted to share with you a snippet from a recent comment thread on local clearinghouse gristmill, MnSpeak, the other day that caught my eye, having to do with Minneapolis's new downtown transportation plan, and the federal dollars that are coming our way:
There are problems with the plan, I'll admit, but I don't think that more mega-ramps are the answer. The mega-ramps are an idea stuck in the 80's, when downtown was conceived of primarily as a 9 to 5 workplace.

Now, when we think of downtown as a round the clock destination, and when we look to developing the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, it's important that people using all modes of transportation be able to move in and through town.

Also, I'm not sure exactly where the idea that cars make a street unwalkable comes from. What makes a street unwalkable is terrible streetscape, poorly timed pedestrian crossings, too many curb-cuts, etc. Cars really don't have much to do with it.

And taking the buses off of Nicollet Mall is a bad idea propogated by people who don't ride the bus. Hennepin Avenue doesn't have the capacity to handle all of those buses, as evidenced by the condition of bus traffic during Nicollet Mall reconstruction (and will have even less capacity when they convert it to two way traffic). Moving the express buses to Marquette/2nd and shifting the rest of the buses to Hybrid is a reasonable compromise.
»» Submitted by »»» MunsingW at 1:24 PM on July 10

Surely walkability means different things to different people. To some, it signifies simplicity. For others, it means the very opposite, and connotes a dash of chaotic din. Particularly for those with crutches, or without legs, walkability is something altogether different. According to "On Foot: A Brief History of Walking," a great little tome written by Minnesota writer Joseph Amato
The eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon word walking meant "to roll about and toss" as the sea does. Moving from shore to land (as earthly travel so often does), by the thirteenth century the world broadened to mean "to move about" or "to go on a journey". At this time of emerging commerce and expanding pilgrimages, it acquired its contemporary meaning of 'going on foot'.


Walking has been around a long time, and there's a undeniable magic to the stroll, to the alternating rhythm of feet. Music is based on walking. Health comes from walking. Even though it might seem slow, Walk-Rate (1.5 mph) is still the ideal speed for experiencing the world: you can think, you can notice things, you can stop and smell the flowers.

It's only recently, during the last generation, that we've begun to replace feet with other sorts of technology. (Segway!) Just think of all the drive-in and drive-through options we have today. You can see a movie, go to a restaurant, get coffee, get your medication, go to the bank, and shop for groceries (in certain towns anyway, like the Dairy Barns in Long Island) all without leaving your car. One might argue that walking is at an all time low, at least in this country, as we staple our asses to the driver's seat.

But, one of the big problems with increasing per capital walking in the USA is that so few of our neighborhoods are actually walkable. Its really difficult to walk , even you have your nice new pair of New Balance sneakers ready to go.

So, what are the principles of walkability? Well, this isn't rocket science. The first thing you need is something to walk upon... something on the side of the road... something like a sidewalk. Sidewalks are brilliant. They're little places made especially for people, but where I grew up in the suburbs (Mendota Heights) we didn't have many sidewalks. People, if they wanted to walk anywhere, would walk on the road's shoulder, and let me tell you that no self respecting mother would left her kids walk on the 40 mph shoulder of the street where I grew up. Sidewalks should be a no brainer, but sadly many of today's new neighborhoods still today lack even the most basic building block of pedestrianism.

The second vital component is that you need somewhere to walk to. This is the problem that the WalkScore website focuses on -- namely that most new developments are homogeneous masses of residential housing in which, even if sidewalks and density made it possible to walk through a neighborhood, it'd still be pointless because there are no destinations. Where I live now, I'm lucky enough to have two grocery stores within a block of my house, and it allows me the luxury of walking for two minutes to buy a stick of butter, a can of pop, or a fresh homemade bratwurst if I get the inclination.

Only once we have these two crucial bits -- the sidewalk and the destination -- can we start to look at Advanced Walkability. These are the kinds of things that I usually think about on TC Sidewalks: Is the street wide and comfortable? Is it interesting to look at? Are there windows in which to gaze? Does the sidewalk separate the people from the cars? Perhaps some nice-smelling flowers?

Good, walkable neighborhoods are easy to spot simply because they feature pedestrians. And by that standard, probably the most walkable place in the Twin Cities is the State Fairgrounds during two weeks in August: There's tons to look at and do, there's plenty of space, and its just about impossible to get hit by a car. The only downside to the State Fair is that parking is a nightmare. If only there were some way to walk to it...

19.7.07

Event: Policy and a Pint on Gas Prices

Good event coming up tonight at the Varisty Theater in Dinkytown, one shining example of rehabbing old buildings in Minneapolis. They're talking about the price of gas, and the role of subsidies and taxation in our US transportation system. Good stuff, and I'm going to try and make it.
It seems to be one of those great mysteries of American life -- why does a gallon of gas cost the price it does? Sometimes we think we have a rough idea why: that it's tied to some nexus of Middle East politics and turmoil, oil company greed, and supply-and-demand. But is there more to it than that? And who is really pocketing the most from the profits?

We'll ask all those questions, and even hear about how some consumers believe it should cost even more than it does.


Count me among those who think gas should be much more expensive. More details on the event here .

Update:

Policy and a Pint... How was it? Well, for an event with David Strom in it, it had a surprising lack of bite. For one thing, both Strom and his interlocutor, Akshay Rao, a marketing professor in the U of MN's Carlson School, wore their economist hats for the entire hour. Steve Seel, the MPR's (The Current's) very Dee-jay-like emcee for the evening spend most of the time asking questions of each of them, and the audience spent most of the time listening to them agree.

Apparently gas prices are at 40 year highs right now, and will only continue to rise. Apparently the US Govt hasn't been doing enough to make long-term investments in alternative technology, and apparently US auto manufactures are not only stupid and stubborn, but (and this is according to Strom) the entire structure of US corporate governance is corrupt and incestual. Also, the only people really making a lot of money off of the high oil prices are the oligarchs in nations like Saudi Arabia, Venezuala, and Canada (!).

Where Seel should have pressed the two economists is about the role of government, and the possibility for cultural change. These are the only places that Rao and Strom seemed to disagree, for example, they had contrasting opinions about whether or not passing a gas tax was actually feasible. (Strom kept insisting that it would lead to a 'Bastille Day' amongst irate, tax-hatin' Americans.) Furthermore, they didn't really address the role of transit in the equation, and whether or not it even makes sense to consider cultural infrastructure as part of the oil equation. I think they also bespoke some mild disagreement on whether or not Europe was a good example of energy efficiency, and I think if climate change had really been broached, they'd probably have disagreed about that too.

Overall, though, it was kind of funny to see people that ostensibly are at opposite ends of the political spectrum agree on 90% of the issues. I'm not sure whether that was because economics is such a vague, abstract way of looking at problems that its hard to really use its language to tackle political issues, or because this was one of the cases of 'coming around full circle'. One of the questioners mentioned that they ought to have had someone representing "the left" on the stage with Strom and Rao. And if "the left" means someone who isn't a free market economist, then I'd have to agree...

16.7.07

Other City Sidewalks: Savannah GA

Before I went there, what I knew about Savannah could fit comfortably inside a thermos. I knew it was in the South, and therefore hot. I knew it was old, and probably beautiful. And I knew that it had some sort of unique town plan involving repeating sequences of squares, probably full of romantic trees. Oh, I also knew a few semi-factual tidbits from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (MITGOGAE), for example that Savannah was populated by idiosyncratic extroverts who make great book characters, and that, for a lot of people, the hot Southern heat probably causes an acute swelling of the violent tendency. But as it turns out, I had a pretty good ground on which to build my Savannah experience. In fact, the town’s economy is almost solely due to tourists, art students, and historic preservation, which capitalize on the fact that Savannah’s history and unique streets create some of the best sidewalks in the country. But at the same time, walking around Savannah I found the city’s other legacy a bit less pastoral. Like many cities in the US, the 50’s and 60’s were not kind, as Savannah made a number of irreversibly poor decisions, like tearing down old structures to build parking lots or catering to mega-hotels. And on top of that, outside the historic district Savannah is fairly segregated and poor. Today Savannah seems to be a mix of two legacies – one good, one bad – and walking around this old small city, you can read the checkered past of American urbanism.

So let’s run through the three phases of Savannah: the historical, and modernist, and what ever you call the present. First, Savannah is one of the most interesting, well-preserved cities in the country. It reminds me of New Orleans, or old parts of Boston: the historic district features a host of 18th and 19th century buildings, and the riverfront strip is an almost perfectly preserved picture of what old river cities looked like over a hundred years ago. Not only that, but these buildings sit around a unique town plan that scatters little public squares at the center of every other intersection. There's nothing like this anywhere in the world, as far as I know, and Savannah's squares are fantastic examples of walkable public space. (For example, see the other Calhoun Square at right.) They're kind of like parks combined with traffic circles, as John Berendt author of MITGOGAE, describes:
"The streets were to be laid out in a grid pattern, crossing at right angles, and there would be squares at regular intervals. In effect, the city would become a giant parterre garden. [City founder, James] Oglethorpe built the first four squares himself. 'The thing I like best about the squares, 'Miss Harty said, 'is that cars can't cut through the middle; they must go around them. So traffic is obliged to flow at a very leisurely pace The squares are our little oases of tranquillity.'"

Because of the squares, the historic district forms a pedestrian paradise, and spending time in the squares is an almost unbeatable urban experience. You really get a sense of the way that the squares became centers of neighborhood identity and interaction, as people walk their dogs and go about their daily business. (The closest I got to an actual MITGOGAE encounter was seeing this old man wearing a white suit and hat who would loudly shout “Good Morning Savannah! I am here for your sins!” while carrying a large cardboard sign on a stick that read “Jesus Saves”. Apparently this happened every day -- I saw him no less than three times -- and he often got into arguments with the local townsfolk, shouting through the park about the exact nature of sin and redemption.) In fact, the only down side to the squares is that while you’re sitting there enjoying the sunshine peeking through tree branches laden with Spanish moss, every ninety seconds a trolley bus filled with tourists rolls by with a loudspeaker blaring out how the squares allow people to sit and enjoy the sunshine peeking through tree branches laden with Spanish moss. These trolley busses are ubiquitous, and often follow each other bumper-to-bumper, so that you can hear different tour guides giving speeches at the same time, one growing louder as the other softens like a Doppler Effect from some sort of Disney Hell.

On top of the squares, there is the rich history of Savannah itself. Thanks largely to happenstance, the city escaped burning during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and you can go on tours of a bunch of the old homes. Not only that, but thanks to its position as a port city, Savannah was home to pirates (!) during the 19th century, and there is an actual historically-certifiable Pirate House where you can eat food while an animatronic pirate regales you with perilous tales. And, my favorite bit of history is called “underground Savannnah.” Apparently, when the city raised a large embankment along the waterfront to prevent flooding sometime in the 1800’s, they actually buried the first floor of the downtown area, which means that as you walk along some sidewalks you are actually walking above another set of sidewalks. (You can see one of these buildings in the above photo.) If you look down through grates in the sidewalk, you can see another door where the first floor of the building used to be.

All this leads me to the second stage of Savannah, the one I call modernism. The reason why Savannah is home to the modern historical preservation movement is that Savannah, like most American cities, was being extensively modernized during the post-war years. And, of course, when I say 'modernized' I really mean 'bulldozed'.

Its funny how, in Savannah, the main street is the most optional part of the city. Broughton Street forms the main drag of ‘downtown’ Savannah, and it definately has the abandoned department store feel of many 50’s main streets (or parts of downtown Saint Paul). What’s interesting is that most of the space along Broughton is still, to this day, vacant and unused. You see boarded up windows, ‘for rent’ signs, and empty theater marquees for even emptier theaters. Like many downtowns, all the retail business in Savannah seems to have been sucked out to shopping malls and big box stores, and there’s very little left of the once-vital 50’s retail scene.

Here’s another quote from MITGOGAE:
"[MITGOGAE’s anti-hero, Jim] Williams had played an active role in the restoration of Savannah's historic district, starting in the mid 1950s. Georgia Fawcett, a longtime preservationist, recalled how difficult it had been to get people involved in saving downtown Savannah in those early days. 'The old part of town had become a slum,' she said. 'The banks had red-lined the whole area. The great old houses were falling into ruin or being demolished to make way for gas stations and parking lots, and you couldn't borrow any money from the banks to go in and save them. Prostitutes strolled the streets. Couples with children were afraid to live downtown, because it was considered dangerous.'" (5)
What you realize when you walk through Savannah is that the 50’s were a brief window of opportunity and optimism for downtown retailers, as the decades of depression and wartime gave way to a booming American economy. No doubt stores like Lord's (pictured at right) were doing great business. At the same time, though, American cities were changing rapidly as centrifugal forces like the automobile and the television moved wealthy population out into suburban areas. Reading the descriptions of the women striving to save the Davenport House, a 1830’s house that spearheaded Savannah’s preservation movement, you get a sense of the desperation that downtown business owners must have felt as they saw their business disappearing for want of parking lots.

All of this helps to explain Ellis Square, a huge construction project underway in downtown Savannah. Ellis Square was originally a giant covered market, the likes of which have all but disappeared from the American landscape, that was bulldozed in the early 1950s to make way for a giant municipal parking garage. The city is now un-bulldozing the market by moving the parking garage underground, and ‘restoring’ the square, which lies at the heart of downtown, back into a park (pictured at right). While it struck me that Savannah was already kind of awash in parking lots (there were a number of big ramps surrounding the riverfront district), but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Apart from the parking lots and large-scale Main Street buildings Savannah’s other urban planning disasters are the giant hotel and convention complexes that dominate the city’s skyline at various points. Not only are there huge, thirty-story hotels that form little campuses – like the Westin and the Marriott – but there are two large convention centers that sit within the city, or on the island right across the river. But by far the worst of these is the Hyatt Regency Hotel, which sits right next to the city hall and forms a giant pink mountain of concrete that actually covers River Street, the main riverfront strolling spot. It blends into Savnnah’s old historic building stock with all the grace of an earthquake at the Faberge museum. It sticks out like the Pope at a slot machine. It's terrible, not only architecturally, but because it ends up dominating the landscape surrounding what should be the focal point of the city. Not only that, but I have it on good account that their beds are horribly uncomfortable. I can only imagine the bribes that must have exchanged hands when the building was approved in what I can only assume was the 1970’s. All together, the decades after World War Two were not that kind to Savannah, Georgia. And though I suppose its nice that so much of the town’s beautiful history has survived, I was oft struck by how much nicer the city could have been.

Today, though, Savannah has seen something of a renaissance since the redlining, crime-laden days described by MITGOGAE’s Ms. Fawcett. Following the lead of Savannah’s pioneering historical preservationists, an art school has spent the last few decades buying up historic properties throughout the city and turning them into classroom buildings, and the tourist industry is certainly booming. There are pirate tours, ghost tours, history tours, civil war tours, house tours, riverboat tours, and even tours featuring all the films have been shot in the city. But at the same time, it doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot else going on in the local economy, apart from some industrial jobs centering around Savannah’s status as a shipping port. So while there are parts of town where, if you squint, you can pretend you're not surrounded by tourists (for example, I really liked hanging out in the 'City Market' area, over on the West side of downtow), at the same time it's hard to see how a city like this could ever really become something other than a resort town. Its hard to imagine Savannah having a bustling diverse population filling its city streets with life, but that doesn’t change the fact that its an excellent place to go for a vacation.

Walkability: 9 ... Better walking you will not find, this side of the Atlantic
Interest: 7.5 ... Lots to love if you love history
Vitality: 6 ... Lots to hate if you hate tourists
Verdict: Savannah is the USA writ small, and has some of the best Sitting Benches in the world.



P.S.: For more on race relations in Savannah, read this article on Troy Davis, the condemned death row inmate.

10.7.07

Sidewalks + Internet = The Coolest

I just discovered Google's laest map feature, which, on top of their sattelite/map hybrid, makes looking at cities with a God's Eye perspective all the more fun. Pretty soon I'll never have to leave my house... There are only five cities up and running right now (S.F., Miami, Vegas, N.Y., and Denver) but you can expect to see virtual views of University, Lake, and a host of other TC sidewalks on the internet any day now.

Google's Streetview



Also:

I discovered Streetview thanks to the alternately awesome and creepy article in today's Salon.com about Alternate Reality Games (ARGs).

The launch of the new Street View function on Google Maps a few weeks ago brought a new flash of paranoia for McGonigal. Google, everyone's favorite purveyor of enthralling but creepily powerful things, sent vans topped with cameras down the streets of five major U.S. cities, taking pictures all the while. Now users can take a virtual stroll down a San Francisco street, and can see real photos of everything in their path. The program kicked up a swift controversy because some photos show identifiable people in the windows of their houses, or parked cars with their license plates clearly visible. Already, users have found great delight in turning up photos of women bending over, women sunbathing, and an unfortunate man leaving a seedy strip club.

This tool, or similar ones that may be coming down the pike, must have people in the intelligence community twitching with happiness, McGonigal speculates. And she wouldn't be surprised if their thoughts tend in an ARG-ish direction. "Players of these games sort through so much intelligence and come up with really sophisticated analyses for them," she says. One "crazy scenario," she adds, would be a game designed by Homeland Security in which players combed through entire cities looking for certain people or signs of suspicious activity. McGonigal knows it sounds like a stretch, but says the regular come-ons she gets from D.C. groups keep her nervous. "I don't know if I believe they could make an ARG that would suit their purposes, but I believe that they want to do it," she says.

McGonigal has a habit of turning life into a series of secret missions, and her latest project has a sweet payoff. She says that when she jets around the world for technology conferences, she too often neglects the new scenery and holes up in her hotel room. So she's invented an endeavor. In each new city, she uses cookies to spell out one word of the Albert Camus essay "The Myth of Sisyphus." She calls her project "cookie rolling" because before she can spell the word she must roll a cookie up and down a public street. The first word of the essay ("the") was written in fortune cookies in San Francisco. She's done 22 words so far. She has 1,384 to go.

9.7.07

Political Post: Surge vs. Surge


The time has come to wonder which Surge will end up being more successful: the 2007 'surge' in Iraq or the 1997 Coca-Cola caffeinated lime-green soda product.

Let's compare!

Analysts say Surge, the new soft drink announced Monday, is a gamble, but is worth a shot in a market where other citrus drinks have fizzled. [link]

The offensive is the biggest by US troops since the assault on Fallujah in November 2004 and is part of the “surge” of troops by George Bush. It is a desperate gamble to rescue the occupation from defeat. [link]
Addressing those who are already calling the “surge” a failure, Kilcullen says:

“Ten days ago, speaking with Austin Bay, I made the following comment: ‘I know some people in the media are already starting to sort of write off the ‘surge’ and say ‘Hey, hang on: we’ve been going since January, we haven’t seen a massive turnaround; it mustn’t be working’. What we’ve been doing to date is putting forces into position. We haven’t actually started what I would call the ‘surge’ yet. [link]

Surge is Coca-Cola's biggest gamble on a soda brand since its decision in 1985 to replace the Coca-Cola formula with New Coke, a flop that cost the Atlanta-based company $35 million. [link]

Persisting indefinitely with the surge strategy will delay policy adjustments that have a better chance of protecting our vital interests over the long term," Sen. Lugar said. [link]

Surge was widely associated with the extreme sports lifestyle, with television commercials similar to those currently used by Mountain Dew. Expired cans and bottles of Surge now sell on eBay for high dollar amounts, including a reported $160.08 for a 12-pack sold in April 2005. [link]

The attempt to move forward, the "surge", has so far borne few if any fruits, while any attempt to edge backwards is fraught with new dangers. [link]

World Championship Wrestling (WCW) was sponsored by Surge. The Surge logo can be found in some WCW video games. [link]

The Pentagon spokesman said this week's report will be a "a snapshot at the front end of the surge capability." ... He said "the surge is not an open-ended commitment," but it is premature to judge it now.

"What we do hope is that the surge, in fact, will achieve its results as quickly as possible so we can get to a point where we draw down American forces ...." said Snow. [link]

We want to let you know that SaveSURGE.org has every intention of continuing our campaign. We will not give up! SaveSURGE.org will live on and we will continue to celebrate and advocate for SURGE. [link]


Also:

I don't know why I'm obsessed with cola, but here's a post from a few years ago about how the Strib's new redesign resembled New Coke, and here's a bit I wrote many many years ago about parallels between politics and cola marketing.

Also Also:

I'm old enough to have been a Post-secondary U of MN student when "that obscene, green mountain" was surge-flavored, snowy topography dwarfing Coffman Union. Does anyone else have this unfortunate image burned into their long term memory banks?

8.7.07

Sidewalk of the Week: Lyndale Avenue (For Real this Time)

I've spilled a good deal of virtual ink lately on how to reconcile auto-oriented land uses (gas stations, car lots, repair shops) with pedestrian spaces (sidewalks, shops, &c), mentioning how Lake Street seems overly-reliant on car lots, and that University Avenue has a similar automobili-burden which they deal with in variously successful ways.

That said, this week's Sidewalk of the Week (Lyndale Avenue somewhere around 52nd Street) caught my eye precisely because of its auto-pedestrian reconcilation. Here you have a car dealership across the street from a Midas Muffler repair shop, yet the avenue doesn't feel like a godforsaken wasteland. Instead, the Volvo dealership had done a number of nice things with to make their vast parking lots blend into the surrounding infrastructural fabric: they've got a clearly demarcated sidewalk bordered by green grass on both sides, trees along the street, a very slightly raised berm and/or flowerbeds and wooden planters.

They've done all this despite the fact that, at this point on the edge of Minneapolis proper and first ring Richfield, Lyndale Avenue is five lanes wide and rather inhospitable. It's not a street you'd want to needlessly cross. Instead, its very car-centricity makes it a good model for similarly daunting streets like University Avenue and Lake Street.

That said, you can't expect businesses to spend money on sidewalk improvement just as a philanthropic geseture. It would run counter to the very principles of market capitalism. So while it ought not to be very difficult to retrofit car dealerships, repair shops, and gas stations so that they have pedestrian amentities like these along their sidewalks, something like that won't happen unless cities adopt financial carrots (tax incentives) and sticks (assessments). It's certainly in most people interests to recognize that a little bit of foliage can go a long way to acheiving walkability.

Across the street from the sparkling Volvo dealership lies this Midas Muffler shop, which is a little bit more of a mixed bag, sidewalk-wise, offering only few wooden corner planters, and lacking the crucial demarcation between parking lot and sidewalk. But it's still better than most of what I've seen along either Lake or University. And that's why you, Lyndale Avenue somewhere in the mid 50's, are this week's Sidewalk of the Week.