Other City Sidewalks: Chicago and DC

[I’ve recently completed a train trip around the country, traveling for various reasons to a half dozen large and small cities up, down, and around the East Coast and Midwest. My goal on this trip was to take long walks everywhere I went and to try to gauge the levels of walkability, interest, and vitality in the different places that I ended up, to come up with some sort of feel for each of these places. Permit me to tell you about it…]

My first stops on Amtrak Tour '07 were Chicago IL and Washington DC, obviously two of the most important American cities. All in all, I spent almost an entire day in Chicago, sticking to the downtown loop. Of course, the loop isn’t really the place to spend time if you want to walk around Chicago and see what the neighborhoods are like; it’s a very commercial downtown even if people do actually live down there. (I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Chicago in the past and I really like its neighborhoods.) But that said, I've heard a lot about how the city is experiencing a bit of a renaissance lately, becoming more bike friendly and environmentally conscious. Mostly, though, “the New Chicago” seems to be a code word for Milllenium Park, which is a beautiful addition to the Michigan Avenue strip.

Personally, I’ve long thought that Lakeshore Drive is a needless barrier standing between the citizens of Chicago and the blue waters of their chief natural asset, and I sometimes fantasize about shrinking the road to two lanes (like the Mississippi River Parkways) even though I realize it’s often the best way to get anywhere. So, given that the actual lake is kind of a bitch to walk to, Millenium Park seems like it's quickly become one of the best public spaces in the country. I’m not even talking about the Gehry-designed auditorium… No, I really like these public statues/fountains (hey kids, there's an actual lake right over there!), and (most especially) the big blob sculpture called Cloud Gate, through which people can walk and in which people can see, not only their reflection, but a reflective panorama of their entire urban surrounds. People crowd around these two sculptures all day long, and it becomes a great splace for people to relax and enjoy being in the heart a city that often seems like it only cares about business. Say what you will about Mayor Daley and his crony-laden fiefdom, whoever designed Millenium park did a good job. (Is this the kind of superficial, feel-good governance that Bloomberg is also adopting in New York? … the kind of thing that doesn’t really address larger social problems?)

My only other observation about Chicago is that it so much of it seems so new. Apart from the El, which none other than J. P. Sartre once called [Actual Sartre Quote Coming Soon!], it really does seem like a great deal of downtown Chicago has been bulldozed and rebuilt in the last 50 years. There’s not a great deal of smaller-scale historical infrastructure left. In fact, the above photo shows one of the only blocks I could find that seemed to have any sort of wear and tear … I guess its fitting, though, because Chicago really was the city that pioneered both absurd land speculation and the skyscraper.

Walkability: 8.5 ... Easy to get around, unless you want to go to the Lake
Interest: 6 ... Downtown is a little bit boring, actually
Vitality: 9 ... But there are tons of people there anyway
Verdict: Chicago is an exciting blend (70/30) of New York and Topeka

Washington DC, on the other hand… I didn’t spend more than a few hours walking around DC, and I’ve never really spent much time there. I have friends that swear on their mother’s grave that DC is really nice, and that there are entire parts of the city that are fun to be in (e.g. Dupont Circle), but in my many short visits to DC through the years I have been left with a singular sort of despair. And this time was the worst…

Getting off the train at Union Station is nice, but walking around the Capitol area sucks. Not only is there a freeway running right through the heart of L’Enfant’s plan… not only is almost everything in the center of town some sort of monolithic, beige, anonymous office building (Fedralist or modernist: it doesn’t matter)… Not only are many of the people you meet actual wonky bureaucrats (not that there's anything wrong with that)... All that, I can live with. No, the thing that bothers me is the post-9/11 presence of giant concrete barriers at almost every damn intersection in the city. These security measures make the sidewalks almost illegible, and that’s a real problem.

Legibility is an important part of the pedestrian experience. Kevin Lynch, pioneering urban-theory-guy, wrote about legibility in his 1960 book Image of the City, saying that (basically) people need to be able to immediately understand, or visually read, a space in order to feel comfortable in it. This shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone who has ever been lost in a department store or afraid to go down a narrow alley…

But, even if Washington is now safe from car-bombing terrorists, the simple act of walking down a DC street has become something of a labyrinthine gauntlet. For example, on any of these corners it’s not really evident where one should cross the street. It gave me the creeps even before I was weirded out by the omnipresent black-tinted SUVs bursting with assualt-weapon weilding police. All this, on top of DC’s already homogenously boring environment, turns what should be one of America’s best walking environments into a disappointment. There’s very little public life in this town, as far as I can tell, which is ironic considering its almost entirely funded by public dollars.

In fact, the only thing I like about DC is the lack of tall buildings (there are height restrictions in place) and the museums. (Also, I should mention my love for the community of really smart and motivated people that live there.) But my point is that maybe the sidewalks of Washington DC (and, for that matter, the spaces surrounding government buildings throughout the country) should also be chalked up as victims of terrorism.

Walkability: 6 ... Kind of a pain in the ass to walk around
Interest: 8 ... More culture than yogurt
Vitality: 3 ... Needs a permanent Million Man March
Verdict: DC, at least downtown, seems as dead as Bush's congressional agenda


Chris said...

(First, let me say that I love this blog -- I am from Minneapolis, and will be moving there again in a few weeks, and your observations of the city's life is always interesting.)

I think you do DC a little discredit. You're right about the bland, anti-terrorist sentiment of the downtown federal districts, and it's a bit unfortunate that this is what surrounds the National Mall. (In fact, it is frustrating how difficult it is to find a good restaurant within a few blocks of the Mall.) But if you head away from the geographic center of the city, I think you'll find the buildings and streets become less intimidating, and much more walkable.

Dupont Circle is a great area, definitely, and there are many more: Adams Morgan, U St., Columbia Heights, Mt. Pleasant, Petworth, Friendship Heights, Tenleytown, Woodley Park, etc.

I've lived in DC for two years without a car, and love walking the streets. Because the weather is reasonably warm most of the year, the bars and restaurants tend to have outdoor seating, and this adds a liveliness to the sidewalks.

DC also has a great subway system, and this keeps thousands of cars off the downtown streets, making it much easier to get around on foot or bike.

Bruce said...

I'll mostly echo what Chris said. Aa a Minnesota native, too, contemplating a move back to Minneapolis(or the possibility of bi-locating)I'd urge you to check out DC's neighborhoods.

Eastern Market, Adams Morgan, U Street, Mt. Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Dupont Circle, all have a very different feel from the section you've experienced. Also, DC's downtown, especially around Chinatown-Gallery Place, has come back in a big way, and now rivals some of the livelier parts of any US city.

I prefer the climate here, too, and have been spoiled by the ease of getting around. Because of its scale, it's very easy to walk major portions of it in an afternoon. I'm also spoiled by the DC Metro system and know it would be an adjustment not having something comparable in the Twin Cities.

Glad I found your blog.


safe meds said...

This is art, I'M IMPRESSED SEEING THOSE things on the streets and sidewalks because in my country I can't see that.