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6.30.2004

People Watching
The following people were seen on a 20 minute walk from 16th and Valencia to Haight and Fillmore:
1. An older, white woman in her 50s. Silver hair, nice smile. Sitting in a bus shelter on Church just north of Market and waiting for the inbound J-Church. An interesting woman because she was totally normal looking except for the fact that she was covered - covered - in stuffed animals. I don't mean the little Gund kind of stuffed animals, I mean the big ones, 6-12 inches. Not sure if they were sewn on or pinned on or stapled to her clothes, but at first glance she very closely resembled a pile of stuffed animals with an old lady's head poking out of the top.
2. A late 30s, early 40s black man with dreads interwoven with green thread. Etched face that made him look older than he probably was. Riding a skateboard at high speed south (downhill) on Fillmore just south of Haight Street. He was holding those hippy rope toys (long rope in each hand, each with a tennis ball weight attached to the end - the kind of thing the hippies swing in rhythmic circles to make the voices in their heads go away) and swinging them wildly while screaming at the top of his lungs. He was a good skateboarder, too. Made a right hand turn at high speeds without flinching.
3. A 40ish year old black woman, dressed professionally crossing Haight to catch the 22-Fillmore northbound. I was standing on the corner and she said something to me that rhymed with "grime." Being a stranger, I instinctively reached for my cellphone since I figured she was asking for the time. Not so. She repeated herself, waving her hand in front of her face (palm to the face) and said, "Am I shiny? Does my face look shiny to you?" "No," I said, "you look fine." I figured she was on her way to a date and had shiny-face-phobia. She continued on her way, wiping her forhead with her sleeve, and proceeded to ask the next four people she encountered if her face was too shiny. Not a single person understood her question on the first try and she kept having to repeat herself slowly to make herself understood. As she got on the bus, frustration (and insanity) building, I saw her shake her head and say, "Damn. people in this city are deaf!"

6.29.2004

Long Arms
Almost exactly a year ago I was in a nasty accident that featured my bicycle losing a quick skirmish to a reversing minivan in San Francisco. I got to ride in the ambulance, experience SF General's famed ER, and spend a few nights in the hospital, during the first two of which the doctors believed I had a broken sacrum. In the end it was just a badly broken hip.
Looking back on the event, I wrote that it is one of those life events that simultaneously feels like it happened both yesterday and also decades ago. It sits on a distant horizon but when I reach for it I am surprised to notice that my arms stretch to infinite lengths allowing me to inspect it closely.
This relates to a recurring idea for an essay I've been chewing on lately: How to be a Traveler in Your Own Hometown. Or, put less concisely, how to walk out your front door into the neighborhood you see day after day and still have a fresh eye for new things. The more I think about this idea, the more I think it is a strategy for how to use your brain. Traveling is exhausting. Can we really expect to feel the thrilling inundation of travel everywhere we go without having to nap every three hours? I don't think so. I don't think we're capable of it, nor do I think we even want to do it. But what we should be able to do is turn that switch at will. On days when scheduling or finances precludes you from hopping a quick flight to Istanbul to give yourself a royal brainicure, you need to be able to take a deep breath and open that extra eyelid that lets you see your own living room like a foreign country. There are things there you have never seen.
So this gets me back to my accident. What is so important about that event that makes it simultaneously distant and accessible? Besides it being a near death experience, I mean. I think what it is is that more than any other thing in my recent memory it has a deep meaning. It is connected to so many other events and feelings in my life in so many clear ways. It is a nexus in the web of my life in the last year. Now for the big stretch: how does this relate at all to urban design? Stick with me, because it does. This characteristic of being distant yet mentally accessible is exactly what we need to surround ourselves with if we want a living environment that encourages/allows the feeling of hometown travel. The things in life that are easily accessible, that are capable of being seen from multiple perspectives and still offer new meaning, are those that have many clear relationships to other places, events, people, etc. Think about the last time you walked around a neighborhood with someone who knew its history inside and out and realized that all those random buildings actually meant something. In much the same way that Google ranks the importance of websites based on how many other websites link to them, places in the city are raised in importance in the minds of the residents based on how many ways they relate to other points and events in the city. Market Street is the easiest example. It is the north border of SoMA and the Mission, the south border of the financial district and Duboce Triangle, it is weighted down on either end by the Ferry Building and Twin Peaks, it hosts parades, has distinctive architecture, etc., etc. This example is cheap because you can't expect the entire city to be as distinctive as Market Street (besides, nobody could ever turn left, which would be ironic in such a liberal city), but the principles can be used on smaller levels.
So then the question of how to travel in your hometown becomes twofold: how to make the meaning of every place in the city accessible to those who want it and how to get people to turn their brains on.
I'm working on it, I'm working on it.

6.28.2004

Tivers and Rides
I saw Rivers and Tides last night, the documentary about Andy Goldsworthy and his natural, temporary, and elegantly beautiful sculptures. It was a wonderful film. It made me want to quit my job and chase a dream of being an artist. He wakes up at his house in Penpont, Scotland and wanders the town and fields making art. What a dream of a life.
Mostly, though, I was struck by how different his sculptures seem from the architecture that we build. Goldsworthy seems to be a simple man, interested entirely in quietly following his intuition and playing on the themes of birth, death, and the temporary nature of things. It is definitively at odds with old-school architecture, whose goal is to immortalize the artist. On the one hand, it would obviously be decidedly bad if architects focused on creating buildings that decayed beautifully and quickly. But on the other hand, there is something quietly, elegantly, and even proudly beautiful about the modesty inherent in spending hours on your hands and knees to build something that won't last a day but will shine with beauty while it lasts.
This is why I was initially so attracted to urban design, because by virtue of the fact that the spaces are public, they are in a constant state of flux, even decay.

6.25.2004

SlowTrak
How come eastbound, Bay Bridge-traveling cars equipped with FastTrak STILL have to wait for the metering lights? Doesn't it pretty thoroughly defeat the purpose of getting to zip through the tollbooths if you just have to wait in line with the rest of the peons? On days with heavy traffic, the line for FastTrak-only lanes is just as long, and sometimes longer, than the regular manned booths. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this could use some improvement.

6.24.2004

The People Are Stupid
If there's one thing I've learned about politics while living in San Francisco the last five years, it's that the people are too stupid to govern themselves. We put everything to a referendum out here in SF and even though I try and do a dutiful job of reading the background reports on the issues, there's no way to get a firm grasp on a list of twenty issues without studying up for months. There are two reasons the system has evolved to a point where professional politicians and policy experts are the norm.
1. it's simply too complicated for the average Joe to understand and vote intelligently on these issues.
2. these people have to put their kids through college somehow.
I'm thinking of this because I caught an article in the Florida Herald-Tribune that a group is trying to pass an amendment to the state constitution that makes every change in a municipality's comprehensive land use plan subject to a referendum. This is a professionally bad idea. It gives NIMBYs lots of power (because they will be the only ones who have the incentive to vote on proposed land use policy changes) and hamstrings land use policy experts, making it difficult for them to put their kids through college.
A Real Band-Aid
So, after taking easy potshots at Baltimore in a recent posting, a friend of mine, who prefers to be described (fictionally) as "a 37-year employee of the Baltimore Streets and Highways Department just counting his days until retirement," had this real-world retort:

Okay Harvey, what should they do instead?

I’ve never visited Mr. Roles’ block, but I can picture it. He lives in a
row house, with vacant houses on either side of him. There are probably
many other vacant row houses on the block and some vacant lots, too. What
are the options?

The private sector? No developer in his or her right mind would invest in
Mr. Roles’ block. Sight unseen, it will cost 70-100K to rehab each of his
neighbors’ houses and a developer would never recoup the costs. Houses on
that block probably appraise for only 20-30K, so there’s a huge gap between
what a developer would need to sell one of these renovated houses for and
what a bank would lend a potential buyer. Plus, banks don’t like to lend on
blocks with high vacancy rates – sort of a modern day version of redlining.

Public Subsidy? The City of Baltimore could acquire and subsidize the
renovation of Mr. Roles’ neighbors’ houses and sell or rent them as
affordable housing units. But, old industrial cities - like Baltimore -
with declining populations and shrinking tax-bases have been losing out to
growing cities like Houston and Phoenix in terms of their share of federal
community development dollars. What’s worse, with a Republican
Administration bent on total world domination, funding for cities in general
is at an all time low. So, for each renovation that the City of Baltimore
subsidizes, probably ten others go untreated.

How about a pocket park or sideyard? Maybe the solution is to demolish the
properties on either side of Mr. Roles. That costs money, too. It will
cost 12-15K to demolish each structure, plus 9K to stucco the walls on
either side of his house, plus 5K to compact and stabilize the ground on
either side, that’s more than 50K just so Mr. Roles can plant basil.

The boarding up solution at about 1K per house is probably one of the better
interim solutions out there. The boards keep out the rain and snow so the
houses are protected from further deterioration. Boarding up also deters
the drug dealers from using the vacant properties as stash houses for their
goods and restricts the flow of vermin from the vacant houses into Mr.
Roles’ house. So until the federal government begins pumping subsidy
dollars into cities or Mr. Roles’ neighborhood becomes the next Mission
District, at least he has a slightly better view then when he was surrounded
by gaping holes.

Abe U. Rocrat

By his own admission, he was in a cranky mood when he wrote it, but he makes some good points. I was pointing out the pervasive defeatism in Baltimore and having fun being pithy, but he knows of what he speaks. The problem is real and my lack of policy expertise - i can only aspire to be called a wonk - means that I couldn't come up with any real proposed solutions. "Something about taxes? Tax Increment Financing?" was about as helpful as I could be.
I did have this to say in my defense, though:
The weird thing is that if your city has been in the dumps long enough to make the same quick-fix suggestion four times (kids painting fake flowerpots, hanging curtains, etc., etc.), then it's clear you're stuck in a rut. I have no problem with band-aids as long as there is a long-term solution at work simultaneously. That's how you solve things. While you're tinkering with the policy you put on some window dressing to keep things rolling. But if you're stuck in a cycle of band-aids, then the long-term solutions are clearly failing. The people are stuck cheering for new band-aids, which is a depressing thought.

I wish I had better suggestions, though.

6.23.2004

Blog Love
I just added a link to San Francisco CITYSCAPE: the online journal of bay area urban design to my links list. It's a well-informed rundown, review, and critique of current projects and political processes that effect the physical face of San Francisco. It fills a gaping hole created by the Chron's lack of serious urban design coverage.
The Aging of Modernism
Sometimes I love Modernism's clean angles and stark shapes, but I'm generally of the mind it doesn't age well, what with entropy not tending towards right angles and all. If a Modernist building could stay new looking while the vines and plants around it grew to a wild state, that would be a visually arresting juxtaposition. But that's not the way it happens. The buildings themselves tend to decay. And while there is a certain poignancy to seeing clean, perfect lines slowly give way to the inevitable crumbling of nature, it certainly ain't pretty.
I was thinking of this because where I work, we have subscriptions to all the hip design magazines. They all love the Modernist look, in buildings, in furniture, interior design. It's the hot new retro-craze and they can't get enough of it. I wouldn't mind the trend so much - because I do like the way the products look - except it drives me nuts that Modernist designers still don't seem to have addressed the problem of how the buildings age. I'm just as fascinated as revisiting old ideas in new design as the next guy, but simply recycling them without improving on them is a waste of everyone's time. In the latest issue of Metropolis Magazine, in the section where they feature a new furniture product (I can't give the link because the print version isn't online yet), they chose to look at a Modernist cubicle. (Get it? Modernist cubicle? It's redundant!) It looks nice, with clean, sharp lines and angles, slick materials, and basic colors, but it's still just a cubicle, and it's still going to look like crap when it's full of scattered papers and pictures of ugly teenagers with braces.

6.22.2004

Band-Aiding the Door Shut
This article is either cynically entertaining or downright depressing, depending on how seriously you tend to take things. It's from the Baltimore Sun and you have to register to read the article so I'll paraphrase for you.
Basically, Baltimore is overrun by abandoned homes. Until the city decides whether to tear them down or not, they've hired Charles W. "Bill" Coleman (and his firm Creative Camouflage Inc) to paste pictures of doors and windows on the plywood sheets that cover the doors and windows. Get it? It's the ultimate cheap fix.
This is not the first time the city has tried something like this.
In 1986, then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer launched a $10 million campaign to beautify boards and vacant homes with paint. In 1990, a program called "stabilization" hung curtains in the windows. And pupils from Stadium School recently painted scenes of flower pots and curtains on several boarded windows.
The quote that really breaks my heart? Check this out:
On a recent afternoon, Coleman sat with Rudolph Roles on the 71-year-old's front step. Roles has lived on the block his entire life. His house is wedged between two of the rowhouses sporting the faux facades. "It makes a whole lot of difference," Roles said. "It really makes the neighborhood look like it should."
Talk about a new low in expectations for city government. I know that life hasn't exactly been rosy in Baltimore for awhile now, but where's the vision? Someone in Baltimore should have the balls to suggest papering over their city hall with a picture of an effective city hall.

6.18.2004

Stale Bread
Oh man. Even though my brother-in-law recommended I read its review in the Times, I'm fairly certain I dislike everything about Dolores Hayden's new book, A Field Guide to Sprawl. The book is a dictionary defining new terms she has created to describe urban sprawl. It comes off as hokey and contrived in the review:
"There's a toad!" she exclaimed, referring not to a warty amphibian but to a defunct Toys "R" Us (Toad: Temporary, Obsolete, Abandoned or Derelict site). In her green Passat wagon, she zoomed past a profusion of "litter on a stick" (billboards) before spotting some "ground cover" (cheap, easily bulldozed buildings, often self-storage units, put up to generate income while a developer waits to build something more profitable).

Hayden's terminology scores a ten on the hoke-o-meter. Besides "Toad," "Litter on a Stick," and "Ground Cover," there's also:
Alligator: Real estate scheme gone belly up
Lulu: Locally Unwanted Land Use
Nope: Not on Planet Earth

To which I would like to add:
A Field Guide to Sprawl: An expensive paperweight

You simply can't singlehandedly create a new language of slang, and to attempt it is to beg to be ridiculed. To do so is to misunderstand the process in its entirety. Author writes book and uses a word to describe an item. Readers agree with author and adopt word, thus making said author famous. You can't foist the words on the public en masse. It reminds me, strangely, of when Major League Soccer, the new professional soccer league in the United States, began advertising rivalries between teams that had only existed for four months. It fell flat on its face.
And I take issue with Hayden's belief that "[i]f you don't know what to call something, you don't know how to criticize it." I couldn't disagree more. She has the entire process backwards. First you criticize something on its merits, then you give it an insulting name. Every critic knows that.
It's not that I doubt Hayden's motives, it's that I question her intellectual creativity. On the one hand, being a writer I fully understand the power of language - it's ability to mold and manipulate the way we view the world around us. It is the ultimate and original PR tool, and Hayden is trying to influence the debate on American design in a direction I support. (Incidentally, I have never agreed that pictures are worth a thousand words, because you can't say a picture. The mere act of repeating a word that has taken on a particular connotation buries that meaning/belief deeper in your consciousness. The equivalent action does not exist for an image)
On the other hand, as I have said before, I am particularly wary of people resorting to the use of lingo as an intellectual crutch. New words for old things do not necessarily mean new ideas. And when an intellectual goes through a dry spell, idea-wise, more often than not they suddenly start tagging old ideas with new names and claim to be on the cutting edge of design. The fact that Dolores Hayden is advertising her skills at renaming the world in lieu of actually coming up with new theories to explain it makes her stale bread, by which I mean, "a crusty, useless object that no longer contributes helpfully."
See? First I criticized her, then I insulted her.

6.17.2004

Now Warming Up in the Forest, #43...
I went to Coors Field in Denver on Tuesday night, where the Colorado Rockies play baseball. It is a nice stadium. Really nice. Kiss of death nice. There is plenty of room, nice wide sidewalks and easy access, a view of the mountains, good sight lines. My cynicism is rooted in the fact that I have a lot of trouble liking any building or place that is sparkly new. I get suspicious, like I'm at Disneyworld and there are hidden tunnels where all the garbage is tucked away. I have a deep distrust of anything that is pleasant to the point of hypnosis. But back to the stadium. In it's niceness, it looks uncannily like SBC Park in San Francisco, only instead of a view out over San Francisco Bay it has a view west to the Rocky Mountains. And instead of the wall in front of McCovey Cove as its signature element (and really, with all the new ballparks today, I don't doubt that "signature element" is a term the architects use), it has a small forest behind the center field fence. I'm not kidding. There is the cutest little forest of what looks like fir trees right between the bleacers and the center field wall. The best part is that these trees are part of the visitor's bullpen, where the relief pitchers warm up. There are two mounds out there in the trees, creating a decidedly minigolf-like environment.
This is one of those things that if they meant it as kitsch, then it's brilliant. However, seeing as how everything else in the stadium is so clearly well thought-out and planned, I don't think they meant it as kitsch. I doubt they wanted kitsch to be their signature.
I have ideas for this forest. I think big. I think that, if it's going to be a forest, they need to take it a few steps further. They should put a cave out there underneath center field and release a bear out there. Then when the pitchers warm up he could sneak out and attack them. That would certainly add some excitement to the game.

6.14.2004

Definitive Problems
I spend a lot of time on the weekends in Dolores Park in the Mission. I people watch, I do crosswords, throw the frisbee. It's a good place. People bring their dogs there and I love to watch the way they do the meet and greet. Every once in a while I see a huge dog, a Bernese Mountain Dog, for example, trying to do the introductory dance with a little Jack Russel Terrier or something. Inevitably I end up thinking to myself, "How is it possible that these animals are the same species? How is it that we use the same word - 'dog' - for both of these animals?"
Now, I think I may have written a similar thing the last time I visited New York as well, but walking around the city this last weekend, I had that thought again. How is it possible that both San Francisco and New York are both called "cities" when it is so clear that they are animals of a different nature?
I had a similar thought when riding in a cab in New York. He was braking and dodging and running yellows and honking and I love it. And then I flew back into Oakland late at night and grabbed a supershuttle back to the city. The driver refused to break the speed limit. How is that these are both called taxis?

6.10.2004

It's Like St. Patrick, Only Different
Someone once told me that rats were just sh*t with legs. And I've since heard that pigeons are called flying rats. I don't think it's necessary to complete the syllogism. We all know pigeons are not loved.
I have a big heart. Really I do. And despite my mother's deep love for birds, I just can't get all riled up by this article in the New York Times. It describes a bizarre scene: mysterious men in a white van pull up to a New York City Park and throw seeds on the sidewalk, attracting pigeons. When a sufficient amount of birds show up for the feast, they quickly net the unsuspecting pigeons, throw them in the back of the van and drive off to Pennsylvania to sell them to live shooting ranges. It's truly, truly bizarre. And the poor pigeons really get the short end of the stick. But no matter how long and and how deeply I search my heart, I just can't seem to get upset about it.
As a matter of fact, my response is pretty much the opposite. It can be summed up with two questions. The first is, "Aren't there more important things in this world to be up in arms about?" And the second? "Will you guys come to my block?

6.08.2004

Remember the DMV
Reading a New Yorker article yesterday on the bus, I came across this quote: "Memory is fiction - an anecdotal version of some scene or past event we need to store away for present or future use." It got me to thinking, as I often do, about the function of the city as a memory repository, about how the city is just a physical manifestation of the collective memory and values of our community.
That's not an original thought. It's been written about by everyone from Nietzsche to Kevin Lynch. But as my mind rambled along and fumbled with the thought as the bus rolled up Van Ness, I started thinking about the process we've created to maintain our memories: the bylaws and regulations enforced by the city planning department. Now, all apologies to my friends who work there, but that place is a bureaucratic nightmare. It would be like hiring the DMV to write your biography! It's especially surprising when you consider that it's a widely agreed-upon fact that the clear antithesis of bureaucracy, benevolent dictatorships, are responsible for some of the most impressive city planning, such as Haussmann's Parisian Boulevards.
Now I know the universe adores entropy, but I tend to see things like this and believe there is a reason behind it. If we wanted a single charismatic person writing our story, we would have found a way to make it so. So why do we entrust our urban biography to bureaucracy? I can think of a few reasons off the top of my head.
1. Bureaucracies move sluggishly. It would be close to impossible for a single person to hijack the process and write a story that many disagreed with.
2. As a corollary to #1, the sheer number of people with their hands in the pot in a bureaucracy make it serve as a sort of democracy. Kind of. Only, as we've seen, the bureaucrats - people with a detail-oriented, political mind - end up behind the wheel.
3. Apathy. It would take too much effort to dismantle bureaucracy, rewrite the laws, and we don't care enough about our cities.
4. Fear of dictators. This is valid. As pretty as Paris is, Haussmann demolished the slums to make way for his boulevards. This would imply that the poorest people have a say in the process, though, which I would be skeptical of.
5. Ignorance. The insane number and complexity of the zoning and design laws in San Francisco alone are daunting. For example, my friend Marshall, who works at the Planning Department, noticed that there are two separate zoning classifications for Turkish Baths: "Turkish Baths," and, "Baths, Turkish." It's a morass of technicalities. This is similar to #3, I suppose.

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