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.)


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!


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...]


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...


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?


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?


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.


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.