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.)


*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.


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!


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]


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!


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.


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