The Democratic Pleasures of the NYC Health Department Rating System

This piece was first published in 2013. 


There is this whiskey bar around the corner from where we live. They sell oysters, too.  It’s the kind of place that mines a very specific vibe and mines it very well. Picture floor-to-ceiling windowed façades separated by tastefully stained strips of dark wood. Imagine low wisps of orange light ensconced in vaguely European fixtures—gracefully set above white candles in cute little vintage crystal holders—to create the kind of mystic glow that makes anybody’s face look both mysterious and more appealing. Beneath the 150-year-old Massachusetts barnwood beams, picture refugees priced out from more expensive zipcodes by their socioeconomic betters. Picture upwardly mobile hipsters. Picture white people.

My wife and I pass it every day on the way home from the C train after work. We imagine the place filling as the evening comes down and the conversations, the cigarettes, the talk of young creative people who have been liberated from fashioning things with their hands to better produce ideas with their minds. What wit! What interesting anecdotes!  Pour another drink! Try the Blue Label! We can hear their voices through the glass, blitzed with all the color and carefree whimsy of liberal arts graduates whose friendships are mostly based on the lubricating effects of alcohol. We marvel at the insouciance of those who do not have to worry about the children because they have been on birth control for the past twenty years, or else the Caribbean nanny is in tonight. I’ve just got a promotion! Another round on me!

If you detect a trace of jealousy, reader, I do not deny it. Another’s success, as terrible as it is to say, always invites dark thoughts in the secret places of the heart. Witnessing the enjoyment of something that one cannot have is a cruel burden to endure. It’s the reason I still feel the urge to knock lollipops and ice cream cones out of the hands of passing children on the street. On occasion, let it be said, I have indulged those urges. Better that none should have if I should do without. So goes the resentful logic of the heart.

It is true: I cannot afford whiskey.

But do not think me grotesque in my jealousy, reader. My wife tells me that envying the rich is one of the few remaining pleasures left to the poor. Do not take it from us.

And indeed, one of our paramount consolations came as of July 28, 2010, a date to kindle the democratic impulses lodged in the cockles of every equitable New Yorker, no matter how cynical or browbeaten. For debuting this day was the Health Department’s infamous A-B-C restaurant grading system, which cast a scarlet letter upon those unfortunate eateries whose stainless-steel sheen in front belied the dissipation behind the counter. Each letter grade, no matter how offending, must be placed prominently on the entrance to the establishment. Better still, the public penny paid for a searchable online database of all restaurants in the city, with detailed explanations for each grade given. It was like a beautiful dream: an open society, with transparent public information made readily available, empowering its citizens to be the rational economic actors the Republican party believes we all can be, and, as God intended, allowing the free market to determine the public’s standards of acceptable queasiness.

Cut to my wife and I, late September of the same year, making the usual tired trek home from work. More tired than usual, actually, as it had been pouring steadily all day—one of those days when the tops of the buildings are obscured in grey infinity. We had stopped under an awning to shake the flecks of water from our umbrellas when my wife gasped at something behind me and clawed at my shoulder. It was no Damascus moment, to be sure, but there were suddenly parting clouds, and rainclouds breaking into a hundred shafts of light, and crepuscular rays like the fingers of God through the dome of St. Peter’s. Turning around, with the skies upending and the light falling out and over everything, I saw the utilitarian font of the Health Department glowing like an icon.

The whiskey bar got a B.

The system was still so new that we didn’t know what it meant. But there was a sense of something momentous happening, an understanding before understanding, as though perhaps for once cosmic justice was to replace cosmic disappointment. We removed our shoes. We rushed home.

With surgical glee we dissected the account given on the website. The descriptions were frustratingly uniform, the result of an inspector punching in the code for a standardized comment, but gradually we came to see them as all the more tantalizing for what the bureaucracy of it did not say. There were limitless possibilities, entire worlds, in what was left unspoken.

Take, for example, the first violation: “Evidence of mice or live mice present in facility’s food and/or non-food areas.” You could drive a truck through the gaping holes of ambiguity in that sentence. The inclusion of ‘live mice’ alone opens up the horrific possibility of the physical presence of rodents at the time of inspection, perhaps tumbling playfully in the flour or skittering among the pots, so unconstrained that even a jittery staff couldn’t keep them out of sight for the duration of an inspection. And think about ‘evidence of mice’—a coy phrase including, presumably, everything from the droppings of the animals to teeth marks to chewed holes in dry goods, to—God help us—the severed limbs of the creatures, dismembered accidentally in the closing of a door or a particularly vicious fight. Which raises the question—why are dead mice not even mentioned as a possibility? Is there another code altogether for dead mice? Or is a subtle philosophical point here emphasized by the Health Department, that a mouse may be simultaneously dead or alive, until the moment it is observed, like Schrödinger’s cat?

And consider that ‘and/or.’ A phrase as demanding of greater explanation as there ever was. Are they saying that mice—evidence or otherwise—were simply in the food areas, milling about underfoot? Or merely confined to the bathroom, an area more rigidly non-food than any other unless, perhaps, you are a dung beetle? Food or non-food areas—which is it? I think I am not alone in the presumption that a healthy amount of foot traffic depends on the careful resolution of this question. But there is a third possibility, too, like a spectre arising in the mind. There is the genuine and sobering possibility that perhaps ‘food’ is meant to remain on its own, decoupled from its adjectival pairing with ‘areas.’  Yes, live mice are in the food. Or else ‘evidence of mice’—attach whatever meaning you will—has made its way onto the serving plate itself, to be dished up to an unwitting public blissful in its ignorance.

Retaining all the ambiguity of the first while introducing fresh horrors, the second violation reads thusly: “Evidence of flying insects or live flying insects present in facility’s food and/or non-food areas.” Again with the ‘evidences’ and the unfortunate conjunctives! But now imagine—flying insects! My God! Gnats I can forgive, some mosquitoes, even a moth or two fluttering against a light bulb at night—but what are we talking here? An infestation of grasshoppers? Flies? Flying—gasp!—cockroaches?  And surely ‘evidence’ in this case is more mentally redolent than mere mice droppings. What does it mean? Smashed bugs, limbs akimbo, mashed onto counters? The proverbial smoking gun of a hastily stashed and gummy flyswatter? Eggs, like grains of rice, deposited into foodstuffs or onto the inner lip of crockery?

But the coup de grâce of the inspection is the third violation: “Facility not vermin proof.  Harborage or conditions conducive to vermin exist.” Vermin? Can it be…? Google tells me that vermin can include all types of small objectionable animals that are destructive or injurious to health—but, in its most common usage, the term refers specifically to rats. Rats! So it’s far worse than anyone feared. Once the purvey of subway tracks and sewers, the noxious conditions of eating and drinking establishments are luring the large rodents of New York City into their already-tiny acreages. There are rats in the whiskey bar.  This is several orders of magnitude beyond mere mice and arthropods. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Furthermore, what does ‘harborage’ mean? And where have you heard—or will ever hear again—that phrase in the 21st century? But more to the point, what does ‘harborage’ really tell us, besides the evident use of an outdated thesaurus within the Health Department?

The implication is that someone at the whiskey bar is actively promoting the interests of the rat population. Yes, the Health Department is trying to tell me that my local whiskey bar harbors rats, like they were the members of some kind of traitorous faction.  Someone in that establishment is waging an active campaign against his or her own species in preference for an alternative vision of reality, one which elevates the nonhuman to a place of special, even prime, importance. The conditions for some kind of rat army, an explosion of rodent society, are being nourished just around the corner.  Far worse than a union rat, or even a Communist, we have a Rattus norvegicus sympathizer in our midst.

I know. I was shocked too. What possible motivation could the proprietor have? But, then, ideology has never needed reasons, has it? The illusions of a fevered mind are enough. The vain reaching for transcendence furnished, if only temporarily, by the seductions of a totalizing narrative. The feeling of being part of something greater.

And all this attached to that single letter B at the whiskey bar we pass every day.

Imagine our glee. My wife and I held each other and made love vigorously. There is justice in the universe, after all! With shivers, we whispered to each other in the filtered light beneath the sheets of the bed. All those Junior Manhattanites—those monstrously poor sufferers of the peculiar cognitive dissonance that ensnares persons desperately proud to have moved to Brooklyn three years ago but who would move to SoHo if they could afford it—frequenting a place of infestation! Rat tails disappearing like slurped spaghetti into the bloated, corpuscular lips of the rich! Insane laughter over dram after dram of exorbitant spirits—joy so refined it is oblivious to mundane matters like floating rat turds! We made love again.

I say: do not think me jealous, reader. For the democratizing effects of the Health Department make us all equal before those vaunted letter grades. It is the great leveler, whereby even the very poor may lord it over the very moneyed. Taking in food— the voluntary insertion of foreign objects inside your body to be made part of your very flesh—is intimate in a way that few things are. Dysfunction there breeds dysfunction everywhere. Every valley high and every mountain low, indeed.

And so, when I close my eyes to sleep, and fancy myself able to hear the clinking of the glasses and the hearty cheers of the clean and well-dressed upper classes around the corner, I see an apocalyptic vision firing the inside of my eyelids. For I know a day is coming, and that right soon. My wife and I will rise late one night, past midnight. We will don our Sunday best. I will put one leg on at a time with great care into the void of my trousers. She will help me part my hair crisply so no strand is out of place. I will tie a bow into her fresh curls and zip her flowered dress. Our shoes, polished black as mica, will be new. We will have a moment together in silence before the mirror. And then we will leave.

The whiskey bar will be bright with its bacchanal festivities. No one will see us coming. Streaming in together at full speed, quick as thieves in the night, we will spread our hands to heaven with a shout. They will see our faces, radiant, beatific, like that of St. Stephen’s, and they will be afraid. We will relish their fear. Their surprise will invigorate us. Our fingers will splay and arch. And with one voice we will thunder to shake the foundations of the earth:

“Rats! Rats! All this time and you’ve been eating rats!”

Vive le Salon!

This piece was first published in 2008. Throwback Friday!

The Art Salon takes the art dialogue away from the exhibitionism of the public square, back to the privacy of personal circles, even the intimacy of the home. Salons first became popular among the nobility of 17th century Europe as a time when the comtesse and her girlfriends got together to hear about things that mattered – in the salon, their equivalent of our living room. Salons became a form of meeting integral to the shape of society – at least one gave rise to the French Revolution in the 18th century. For the trophy wife, the revolutionary, the avant-garde artist, salons have always been about standing up to the status quo.

Recently, I went to one such inspiring salon evening. Ryan Callis, an artist, and Chris Davidson, a poet, just hosted their fifth installment in Seal Beach, California, near Los Angeles. With the blessing of their wives, these two co-workers and neighbors open up the Davidson home every other month to other rabble-rousers and creatives. As the sun was setting, a few dozen friends and strangers milled about the front lawn, porch, and kitchen, and finally settled into the living room. That night, we heard a pair of artists speak, viewed a slideshow of Nokia-sponsored photos of India, listened to a poet recite from her book, and were acoustically serenaded by a rock outfit. Weeks later, I catch up with Ryan Callis via email, and tell him how smart he and his compatriots are for luring the art crowd to their surf and turf.

So is your artist salon REALLY called, “The Society of Interested Persons” ?
Ha, ha, ha, yes sir, it is. I have an affinity for creating titles as a potential for fun word combinations. My MFA show at Claremont, with Evan Roberts, was called The Grand Order of the Salt Dippers. We both surf, so we were “The Grand Order”. I think “The Society of Interested Persons” has a fun ring about it. For a poet, Chris had called it the very un-fun “Second Saturday Salon”. Yawn. I spiced it up.

What kinds of people typically show up to the Salon?
As founders and key inviters, Chris and I look to our friends and families as repeat customers. Next come those that visiting artists and lecturers bring. A few neighbors and an occasional passerby join in. We run in different circles and have a ten-year age difference between us. So we already mix it up with our own crowds. But maybe our crowd can be summed up best as 18-70 years old, poor to rich, Christians and not Christians, G.E.D. to Ph.D.

Do they fight?
It’s awesome because all these folks get together in a somewhat neutral environment, compared to, say, a gallery. Because we have breaks between presenters, I think it is amazing to watch everyone mingle, network, and be able to have topics for conversation.

Are art salons on the endangered list of art world species?
I don’t know. I know that in this day and age, anything without money or drool-inducing entertainment is automatically a rare species. But I observe the art world as more community-based – more potential for interesting community than most other worlds.

What in your opinion makes for a good salon gathering?

One in which quality of presenters and the enthusiasm of the crowd come together! A good salon is just an awesome evening all around; you can just feel it.

I still wanna know what unexpected things have happened.

Drunk, chatty housewives have been the surprise! Lots of inappropriate commentary or questions during presentations, but always innocent enough and funny in hindsight. There was another time when a presenter’s dad came to hear her speak, but thought a college party a few houses down was our salon! He ended up hanging out at that rowdy “salon” for two hours until he wised up. All alcohol-related things I guess.

Tell me something that’s printable about your co-host Chris.

Chris is an awesome poet. He is a man of many ideas and little time to make them happen, which is where I come in handy. He is also a very generous guy and he’s let us invade his house.

Tell me something about what YOU do when not co-hosting the Salon? You’ve got that solo show at the gallery coming up.
Yes. When I am not salon-ing I am painting, surfing, family-ing, and praying. I make art; the salon is a part of that. A less-cool-than-painting part of that. Oh, and I teach university sometimes. The salon is my way of acting out Dada urges.

What’s in store for next time? I missed the drunk housewives last time, I guess.
Next for the salon will be Chris as poet, me as the artist, and a local singer/songwriter named Barrett Johnson. Barrett is awesome, and I did the art for his album. It’s a question mark as to our lecturer, although on my mind is local and surfboard-shaping legend Rich Harbour, or Otis College of Art’s curator, and an interesting gal, Meg Linton. People keep asking for our work to be featured, but we had felt it was too soon, until now. Los Angeles artists Lynne Berman and Steve Roden, as well as LA critic James Scarborough have tentatively committed to the next, next salon. That would blow my mind.

photo by:

Works (and Cities) in Progress

This piece was first published last April.

In early March, Tom Brokaw picked Reading, Pennsylvania as “emblematic of many struggling cities.” In his short profile, students at Reading High School say they can’t wait to get out of this city. For many years, people in the suburbs and surrounding farmland told me they didn’t want to go in. Reading has been a city to drive around at all costs, and a place to dream of moving away from.

Slowly but vitally, crime rates have declined in Reading and new commerce has sprung up. Revitalization still looms a long way off, and a staggering unemployment rate, homelessness, and poverty hover close. But if Reading really functions as a symbol of other U.S. cities’ struggles, then maybe closely examining one crucial element of what makes people in Reading proud of their community and hopeful about its future will illuminate what can help elsewhere.

The GoggleWorks, the biggest arts center of its kind in the nation, calls Reading home. As a renovated factory building set in the heart of Reading, it sparks hope that the arts can jolt life into the city.

The campus is roomy enough to feel peaceful. Well-lit hallways look into 34 active studios. It’s also busy enough to feel energized.  Seniors, high schoolers, professionals, and elementary kids walk the halls. High school girls chat in Spanish and laugh. Artists help each other haul sculptures into one of the GoggleWorks’s five galleries.

Anyone can tour the galleries for free. Visitors can wander up to the second and third-floor studios to view works completed and works-in-progress and leave notes for artists or talk to them while they work. Community members can take classes at the GoggleWorks, and students can receive need-based scholarships. Several artists, like artists-in-residence and husband and wife Jesse Walp (woodworking) and Bethany Krull (ceramics), have visited city classrooms.  About his recent classroom visit, Walp said he wanted the third-graders to know “…there are other options in life.  There are artistic ways to live.”

Factory exterior prior to renovation; photo courtesy of the GoggleWorks

With such freedom of movement into and out of the GoggleWorks, the community has embraced the GoggleWorks as theirs. Barbara Thun, a GoggleWorks artist who says she wants viewers of her paintings to feel both an experience of beauty and a sense of unease, says, “Already our neighborhood community takes pride in this place.”  Thun, who is also on the GoggleWorks’s board, points to a lack of vandalism around the art center’s six-building campus as evidence that the community feels ownership.

How Does It Start?

So let’s say you live in an economically-gasping city like Reading and believe art fosters collaboration across the many lines that divide people, and you believe that this kind of collaboration infuses life into neglected urban areas.  How do you start a center for the arts in a city like Reading?

The GoggleWorks began when Albert Boscov took a walk.

Boscov visited Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (that’s right, “Christmas City“) during a First Friday event. Boscov happens to be Reading’s best-known businessman; his family started a chain of department stores. As he found himself among thousands who thronged downtown Bethlehem’s streets, he considered how similar Bethlehem’s history was to Reading’s and envisioned Reading infused with this kind of energy.

Second floor space prior to renovation; photo courtesy of the GoggleWorks

Boscov knew the arts had been instrutmental in reeling Bethlehem back from the edge when it lost its industrial base. (Remember Billy Joel’s song “Allentown“?  Remember the line about Bethlehem Steel: “Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time”?) Boscov contacted Diane LaBelle, an architect who had just left her job as director of Bethlehem’s Banana Factory arts and cultural center to ponder what to do next in life. When Boscov approached her with the idea for a Reading-based arts center, it was clear that this was what to do next.

The idea for the GoggleWorks took shape.  The city donated a recently-closed factory that had manufactured safety glasses.  As LaBelle toured its interior, she says, “It was so filled with light… I could see artists working.”

Boscov gathered a small cohort who asked LaBelle for a concept design.  She capitalized on the light that had captivated her and left the factory’s aesthetic intact. Indeed, encountering old boilers, heavy steal doors, and defunct circuit-breaker boxes, GoggleWorks visitors can still imagine themselves spelunking through an old factory.

The whole process, from the day LaBelle first saw the building to the day the GoggleWorks celebrated its opening, took three years.  LaBelle’s concept crossed the governor’s desk in 2004, and he approved it and granted $3 million for the project that same year.  Meanwhile, Boscov’s cohort ran a capital campaign to raise additional funds and LaBelle met with “anybody that would meet with me” to ask them: what does Reading need from an arts campus?  It turned out that people from over 500 organizations wanted to meet with her.  Above all, as GoggleWorks’s soon-to-be founding director, LaBelle wanted to fill in the gaps and provide what the city’s arts organizations needed, “but not be competitive with what was already there.”

Why Art?

Photo: Sean Talbot

But what does all this mean for the community? Why does an arts center bode good things for Reading?

When Barbara Thun describes changes the GoggleWorks art center has made in Reading, she talks about the parents of Berks Ballet Academy students.  Many of the students lived outside the city and their families weren’t used to driving downtown.  At first, when Berks Ballet moved into the GoggleWorks, parents picking up their kids would idle their cars as close to the door as possible, wait for the young ballerinas to hop in, and whisk them away.  As suburban parents grew more and more comfortable with the GoggleWorks and Reading, this changed.  Barbara Thun would see kids with dance gear sitting outside, laughing and playing while waiting for their parents.

More foot traffic into and around the GoggleWorks means more people on Reading’s streets and that, says Thun, “equals less crime.”  The GoggleWorks’s large parking lot casts light on the surrounding sidewalks and helps make the city safer at night.

More people crossing into downtown Reading means the city is now part of a bigger relationship.  Ideas, cultures, and talents that had stayed isolated as suburban, rural, and urban people kept their distance from each other can now mingle, and that feels safer and more comfortable each time it happens.

Not only does a site for the arts make art experiential, it means that artists are seen as essential to the community—risk-takers and beautifiers who will care for the community’s good– instead of being thrust to its outskirts.  For a long time, many Berks County artists felt alienated from their community. GoggleWorks artist and board member Suzanne Fellows, creator of a blogging paper doll named Eudora Clutey,  has lived in the area for 27 years.  She told me, “I felt like a total outsider until I found this place… Now that I’m at the GoggleWorks, I don’t want to leave.”

There must be something about the process of making art that is hopeful, too. To peer into artists’ studios is to see that beauty and wonder emerge through slow, sometimes mysterious and labored accretion. Watching ordinary people discipline themselves to bring forth artifacts is indicative is good evidence of a city still “in progress.”


Creating a Place like the GoggleWorks

What could brand new or concept-stage community arts centers learn from the GoggleWorks?  What attitudes and plans make the GoggleWorks function well in downtown Reading?  Here’s what the GoggleWorks artists, staff, and founding director think.

1. The community has to want it.

It can’t be one person’s brainchild or something only artists want.  The community needs to grab onto the idea, help to make it happen, and be aware that the art center is there.  You “can’t just put art there and hope people will see it,” says Kristin Kramer, GoggleWorks’s Director of Marketing and Development. From the get-go, the GoggleWorks designated a “special events committee” of people who knew Reading well and could organize events designed for neighborhood appeal.

2. The community has to feel like it’s theirs.

Providing scholarships so that everyone can come is essential, and so is refusing to have a territorial attitude toward the arts center.

3. Artists have to feel like it’s theirs.

Many GoggleWorks artists serve as board members, and all of the third-floor artists gather for Friday lunches, which have resulted in new ideas for exhibits.

4. People need to feel safe.

Keeping the GoggleWorks well-lit and ensuring plenty of foot-traffic has made even those who are cautious about Reading feel at ease here.

5. Other organizations can contribute.

Renting two floors to “arts partners,” arts-oriented companies and non-profits encourages cooperation, a central hub for the arts, and even a solution to economic challenges non-profits and small organizations face.

6. Artists can volunteer their time.

The GoggleWorks requires artists to contribute six hours per month of volunteer time, which keeps rent low and allows the GoggleWorks offer even more to the community.

7. Variety helps.

The GoggleWorks houses a theater that shows independent films and facilities for glassblowing, photography, woodworking, ceramics,  jewelry-making, and more. Variety draws a greater range of artists, lets artists learn from each other, and invites community members with a broad range of interests to take classes and learn new skills.

Life Without Water in Lumberton, NM

“Life without water would be weird cuz people would start dying. Sum people would go crazy, and I would go crazy if there wasn’t water. There’d be no more Kool-aid or pop. The world would come to an end. People would start dying one by one. Dying bodies all over. Dead.” –Cody, former eighth grade student at St. Francis School, Lumberton, NM, Sept. 2009

Lumberton, New Mexico
Elevation, known: 7,318 ft.
Population: according to the 2010 census 73.
Water: Sometimes Lumberton has it; sometimes it doesn’t.

Lumberton is in northern New Mexico, in the high desert. It’s not Santa Fe, and it’s not Taos. It’s 127 miles north of Santa Fe.

There’s a baseball field, a cemetery, and when you turn on the main paved street of town, County Road 356, you come to St. Francis church and the school. In between both there used to be a giant sand colored water tank on wheels known as “the water buffalo.” Across from the school, on the other side of the arroyo, a crumbling water tower sits.

“By the way, in case anyone hasn’t told you, don’t drink the water,” I was told when I first came to Lumberton as a teacher six years ago.

A piece of paper that hung in the school bathroom titled “Boil Water Advisory” advised residents to “boil the water for five minutes before drinking, cooking, dishwashing and bathing. The presence of E. coli in water indicates that the water may have been in contact with sewage or animal wasters, and could contain disease-causing organisms.”

So I didn’t drink the water. Like most in town, I’d go to the water buffalo carrying jugs to fill up with potable water.

But the quality of the water wasn’t the only problem. The water would also stop running.

“Since I’ve been here, the water’s been off two times, but I think it was scheduled,” second grade teacher Kyle Lara says.

“No, it wasn’t,” eighth grade teacher Rohan Oberai interrupts.

“That’s what I was told.”

Rohan twists his hair and shakes his head. For Rohan, the water’s been out for several hours on two separate occasions.

The longest period without running water I experienced was one month. Students of all ages sloshed buckets of water to pour down the toilets to make them flush.

“Someone was stealing it the first time and drought the second,” Rohan continues. And he says it matter-of-factly. “I don’t know the reasons. You hear so many different stories, you just go with it. Don’t believe any of it, just go with it.”

Before Lumberton had a water system in the 30s and 40s, when the town was booming from the lumber and mining industries, people would take barrels and buckets to the river and haul water from the Navajo River. They’d use the water for everything, no filtration, just straight from the river.

The Water Buffalo

The Water Buffalo

In 1949, the Lumberton Mutual Consumer Water Association (MCWA) was formed and drilled the first well. Most wells drilled in the area have too much sulfur to be drinkable, or, they eventually run dry. In 1967, the well went dry. A replacement well was subsequently drilled including a 20,000 gallon storage tank, and 12,280 linear feet of distribution line was installed. The water was not always clean or reliable, but until 1985 there was no intensive involvement by the state. In 1985, emergency was declared and the water declared unfit to drink. Brown water was known to occasionally come out of the faucet into the early 2000s. Operations were moved, and Lumberton MCWA drilled two wells near the Navajo River. In 1991, the first water treatment system was installed—an infiltration gallery with a conical sedimentation device.

However, the water quality was not considered safe by the state, and in 1999 the New Mexico Environment Department issued the first boil advisory to Lumberton MCWA; the advisory stayed in effect until the fall of 2009.

“NMED was unable to verify the safety of Lumberton MDWCA’s water supply because the association failed to provide water samples for testing,” states the Review of Selected Capital Outlay Projects, November 20, 2009.

In the late 90s, the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency sent the water buffalo to Lumberton. Also during this time, Bill Lindner and his wife retired and moved to Lumberton. “I knew a little bit about the water situation, but we were pretty well committed at that point,” Lindner says. A plant had just been built with grant money from the state and USDA. The plant was housed in a tent next to the river.

After arriving and settling in Lumberton, Lindner became the Association’s bookkeeper.

With the new plant in the tent, new distribution pipes were built little by little, also using grant money from the state. Throughout this process, water availability went off and on.

“We had clean water when the plant was running right, but there were difficulties with it,” Lindner says.

One difficulty was not having a licensed operator to run the plant.

“The Association attempted to save money by having the plant operated by the Board members, who did not have adequate knowledge to operate it successfully,” a letter written to the NMED by president of the Lumberton MDWCA Elma Garcia states.

Lindner says that the state and the town argued back and forth on this point. The state was demanding that Lumberton raise its water rates to pay for a water plant operator; the town was refusing because the people couldn’t afford it.

“Then, in frustration of the plant not working, it was decided to run river water, with no purification, through the pipes,” Lindner says.

After this, the NMED kept a closer watch on Lumberton, and in May 2007 the state, under the auspices of the Sanitary Projects Act, took over operation and management of the Association.

Rates were raised, and the town was not happy. People received bills larger than what they could pay. During the month of September 2009, when water ran for only a couple days, people still received water bills, some for upwards of $100. Stories of shots being fired at the meter reader circulated speedily through the town.

Despite the backlash from the consumers, Lindner says raising the rates worked. The plant runs.

However, he and his wife still don’t drink water from the tap and don’t use a home filtration system. They go down to Albuquerque or Farmington and stock up on bottles and jugs of water. And they’re not alone in town. Those who have been in town for several years, or maybe even close to their whole life, don’t depend on the water system. They say it’s good, that there is drinkable, running water in Lumberton. But underneath the statement is the old way of life, reflective of an era in which the Lumberton MDWCA consumers learned to never depend on running water.

But that’s Lumberton. If you’ve been around any amount of time, you’re used to it, even if you’re frustrated. And during the mass for the feast day of St. Francis, the entire town of Lumberton, young and old, new and native, can be heard singing the Canticle of the Sun, “Praise for the rain that waters our field, and blesses our crops so all the earth yields, from death unto life her mystery revealed springs forth in joy of life.”



Real Life in Mumbai: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

If I want to make an argument, a cogent argument, what do I need? A position. Data. Facts and figures. Hard evidence, to speak to the head. Soft evidence, to affect the heart. I will assemble these things and build a fortress around my position. I will state my case. I will strive to convince and persuade, eliminating that which does not support my point, polishing that which does.

This type of rhetoric floods our contemporary communications. Some go further still, expressing their political and religious positions in the new media of visual memes, a shorthand able to stir praise from those who agree, derision from those who do not.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
Random House, 2012, 288 pgs
Purchase at Amazon

How refreshing, then, to come in contact with a living story, not an deadening argument, one that illuminates the complexity of an issue. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo could be said to be about economic inequality, but that would be an unfair reduction. She chooses not the path of rhetoric, but rather the path of story, and the result is more than a book about social justice. It forces the reader into a discomfort that only comes as we walk in other people’s lives, imagining their cooking fires, smelling the sewage, sorting trash.

The title comes from the barrier between the seen and unseen parts of Mumbai. A wall divides them. One side of the wall faces Annawadi, a slum near the airport. The other side faces the overcity, and is covered in an advertisement selling flooring. The ad papers the wall, repeatedly using the phrase “beautiful forever.”

The book satisfies the nonfiction reader’s needs for facts: the origins of the people in Annawadi, the history of the place, the lives of the current dwellers, the struggles they face, how they intersect with the surrounding city and the authorities. She does this through the work of a reporter, but with the voice of a storyteller, delivering three years of journalistic exploration scene by scene and life by life, telling of three families who live behind the wall, with plots and subplots and a style that echos a novel.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers submerges its reader in Annawadi. The setting and statistics become the ecology, a context of which the people, and by extension the reader, are a part. When the book is finished, reality has been enhanced, challenged, changed. The reader has worn someone else’s skin, and it’s uncomfortable.

Discomfort starts as we move beyond statistics. Numbers give us a sense of scope but also provide us with distance and excuses. Three thousand residents and only six people with jobs sounds like a big problem, bigger than I. It would be easy to breeze past that sort of statistic in a straight news piece. On the other hand, Abdul and his efforts give me as a reader a way to empathize. He is one of the many who is not traditionally employed, yet finds ways to care for his family. This takes him off of a graph and puts him in my mind—a person kind of like me.

Discomfort continues as “the poor” are named and have successes and failures, both economic and moral. The aforementioned Abdul, along with Asha and Kalu and Zehrunisia and Fatima and others, are not representative of the poor or symbols of economic disparity. If they were, they might be easier to dismiss. Instead, their specific desires and heartaches allow us to consider that both systemic and individual ways can be corrupted. With full story, rather than glossy anecdote, the reader can no longer see the residents of Annawadi as merely oppressed or merely foolish. This opens a door that a chart cannot, an invitation to see ourselves, our systems, our motives for what they are.

A quick survey of responses to this book suggests that most reviewers were moved. It’s difficult to find naysayers, but their words are intriguing. One feels the book is good but not great, as it does not explore larger forces in play, the stories of the overcity. Is the author’s work lessened because she chooses to tell the story of a few people in Annawadi and not the story of those in charge? A second reviewer expresses concern that the narrative style might diminish the plight of the slumdwellers. Does an absence of forcefully expressed hard facts, combined with a compelling tale, lighten the weight of suffering for the reader?

Boo allows the people to stand with limited quantification, their morals unpolished; she shapes the story without fortifying the possible rhetoric. This is the final discomfort. When a story reveals systemic injustice and also broken people, will we act anyway, or do we champion justice only on behalf of innocents? Can we find the humility and mercy to enact justice even though we are broken people in a broken world?

Montmartre to The Moulin Rouge: Can an Art Scene be Fabricated?

“Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word ‘soul,’ and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion, but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit.”[1] For what is man, if not a soul? With it we consider our world and ourselves, we assess life according to dimensions beyond food and safety. It is the soul that desires more than these. It is the soul that knows the difference between life and the abundant life, between that which is merely material and that which transcends the world to embrace the spiritual. And when the soul turns its eye to the abundant life, it sees beauty. This is the realm of Art. Or, perhaps, it’s the value of Art. For what is the value of Art if not to affect souls?

For some time, however, there has been confusion on this point, and this confusion has been costly in two ways. First, as Thomas Frank of The Baffler explains in his must-read article, “Dead End on Shakin’ Street”, urban leaders and arts foundations waste millions trying to stimulate economies by fabricating neighborhoods into “vibrant art scenes.” Their notion, that importing artists makes a place cool, and that such coolness will somehow create prosperity, is a vacuous will-o’-the-wisp. They have no idea how an art immigration might stabilize an economy or cause growth.

Second, this misunderstanding of the place and purpose of art in life and community distracts us from the profound value an artist does bring to those near him. This value is not prosperity. In the Venn diagram of society, economic growth and abundant life only marginally intersect, as economics is concerned with what people have, while art is concerned with what people are. A prosperous place provides food, safety, and comfort. Art nurtures the soul. Living in an artful place is a spiritual experience because artists of all kinds contribute to the soul of that place. I want a healthy, productive artist population in my village not because it will become cool and mystically prosper, but because I want my town to nurture my soul, helping me to see differently and question differently, helping me to appreciate a color I’d never known or find a musical chord unplayed on the radio. Marcus Aurelius said, “The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.” The place in which we live is the context of our thoughts. For our soul to thrive there, it needs the rich nutrients of art’s insight and beauty, art’s mirror into our own soul and window into the soul of our neighbor.

For this, we need some artists, living if we can find them, but dead ones are good too.

* * * *

Five or six years ago, my friend Mike and I were in Paris, enjoying a weekend away from our work in Belgium. He had been to Paris several times and was my guide. We toured the Louvre, sat in on a funeral at the Notre Dame, and climbed the Eiffel Tower.[2] The next morning Mike took me up a 400-foot-high hill to visit the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, a towering cathedral overlooking Paris from the city’s highest point. As we walked, he described the Basilica and mentioned, casually, that there was also a “small artist colony” nearby. My interest in the cathedral was mostly archaeological. We traveled often together and if there was a castle or cathedral where we were going, we made every effort to see it. But I had never been to an “artist colony” and was excited, for anthropological reasons, to see what a colony of artists looked like.

Later I learned that this “small colony” was the most prolific art scene in the Western World: Paris’s Montmartre. Artists such as Monet, Picasso, van Gogh, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Langston Hughes, and many others worked there at some point in their lives. Some were very poor, barely able to get by. I don’t know whether Montmartre prospered as a community during their time, but it certainly thrived.

I wasn’t expecting what we found there. As I stood outside the Basilica, the whole neighborhood had a calm economy of beauty: diverse but simple, vigorous while at peace with itself. Art was everywhere, near and far. Paintings and people trickled into the cobblestone streets. Beauty breezed in from every side. To my right rose the old cathedral, white in the morning sun. Below, to the left, the city of Paris—also white, oddly enough—stretched to the horizon, the black Eiffel Tower rose to one side. The place was quiet, but hopping. Shops opened, people swept sidewalks, tables and chairs were arranged on sidewalks and in the square. Maybe it was the jet lag, but I remember how easy it was to breathe there. All was calm, but not sleepy. At a table on the sidewalk in front of a pastry shop sat two people, I don’t remember if they were old or young, sipping morning coffee, smiling at each other. I was struck. The soul of man—ancient, industrial, and modern—came together in that spot as a blanket for that couple.

We only spent a few hours there, drinking coffee in the early morning, exploring the paintings and stained glass treasures of the Basilica and wandering the streets until lunchtime, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place more “human.” It wasn’t merely the art that gave the place its soul. It was the centuries of people living off the beauty, creating it and being molded by it. By the time I got there, the neighborhood and its art had become one.

Later that day Mike and I wound our way down to the lower city’s 9th arrondissement, at the foot of Montmartre. The tone of the streets changed. The buildings became tall, their faces flat. Plywood paneled the outside of a nightclub. The sidewalks had a greasy sheen to them. Few people were about; it was still daylight.

From a gash in the storefronts rose a red windmill: the Moulin Rouge. I had seen the movie—I’m listening to the soundtrack as I write—but hadn’t known the place was real. It didn’t look anything like the grand circus in the film. It looked like a strip-club. The door was hidden by the shadow of a deep entryway. Had it been open I might have entered, for purely anthropological reasons, of course.

I got the sense that the Moulin Rouge was prosperous. It was quite a spectacle. Red neon scrawling wandered all over its front. And I have no doubt that once the sun set the dark streets would be vibrant indeed with certain performing arts.

The walk from the peak of Montmartre down to the Moulin Rouge is about one kilometer. Both are prosperous, but only one has soul.


[1] Marilynne Robinson, When I Was A Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012),  8.

[2] We did this in one day, though I was very sick. Apparently the pharmacists in France are alchemists. Using mostly charades and sign language I was able to acquire a pint of something that fixed me right up.

photo by:

In Plain View

West Texas is long on churches and short on curb appeal. It is mythmaking territory, a land where legends sprout more readily than trees. The names of its towns speak the truth about this arid swath of geography: Levelland. Plainview.

Balmorhea State Park's artesian fed pool.

The fancifully-named “Sweetwater” breaks the trend, but then again the town did build its own lakes in the late 1800s in order to attract commerce. That’s what you have to do in West Texas if you want a lake: you have to build it yourself. The land is so flat that whichever of the six flags that flew over the state at any given time in the past few centuries would have been easily visible rippling in the dry western breeze for many, many miles.

About other regions, it might be a stretch of the truth to assert that the character of its residents reflects the land’s contours. About West Texas it would be a falsehood to argue otherwise. Whether the landscape draws certain types of folks, or whether it makes folks behave a certain way once they’re already out there, is not clear. What is clear is that you know what you get with these people. They speak directly, and let you know exactly where you stand, just like a quick glance around the dusty plains will tell you exactly where you stand relative to the nearest house, farm, town, low-hanging cloud.

You can hear everything, too, in a terrain unbarricaded by natural soundbreaks. In a 2007 interview with West Virginia Public Television, American composer George Crumb said that the mountains of his home had imprinted their soundscapes indelibly on him through their endless echoes. And it’s true; Crumb’s music is always resonant with echo, either vastly or intimately. The wide West Texas country also comes with its own soundtrack. The even, steady, predictable beat of the plains across which trains once howled is mapped onto the sparse and transparent music of Buddy Holly, one of its greatest sons. The rockabilly singer who hailed from Lubbock and streaked across the pop music firmament like a brief and bright comet wrote and sang in a level, straightforward way, like the earth under his feet. His lyrics and delivery functioned in a single layer: if he sang “oh boy,” it meant he was glad. He didn’t even take poetic license with Peggy Sue; there really was a Peggy Sue. Plain songs with plain words by a plain man from the High Plains. No point in singing the multifaceted and signifyin’ blues here. The land is the blues.

Maybe this kind of landscape heightens the moral sensibilities, makes people better somehow. After all, hiding iniquity is quite difficult when even on the rare un-clear day, you can see forever. There is no cover for evil deeds. Perhaps this is why fundamentalism flourishes here: you can see exactly what your neighbor is up to, facilitating both judgment and fear of judgment. Or maybe this kind of landscape just makes people brazen rather than ethical. Everyone will see anyway, the thinking might go, so what does it matter? The notion of such a wide open expanse is inextricably bound up with sight, literal and moral. You can especially see the fundamentalist evangelicalism that dots the plains: pious specks of tiny Assembly of God churches, get-right-or-get-left billboards, and Christian bookstores.

You can hear it, too; on a three-day visit I counted as many references to the Rapture in normal conversation. The end of time was spoken of as it were just around the corner; and indeed, in what can sometimes seem a post-apocalyptic wilderness, it is easy to believe it just might be. Upon concluding a conversation, one elderly gentleman left me with the cheerful promise, “See you here, there, or in the air!”

Second only to the  fundamentalism in regional religious thought is a loose conglomeration of land-centered beliefs that coalesce around the thesis that until the Rapture, West Texas is the best place on earth to wait it out. Charles Reagan Wilson wrote a book called Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause. In it he argues that the mythology embodied in the “lost cause” worldview, which emerged among southern states following a humiliating loss in the Civil War, constitutes a religion, with high priests, sacred texts, and rituals. It is a convincing argument, and can be applied in some senses to the fervent regional loyalty of Texans. The only difference—and it is a big one—is that their pride, never having been mortally wounded by sociopolitical defeat and cultural irrelevance, doesn’t have to be bolstered by falsehood. Standing on the High Plains, surrounded by longhorn cattle and empty miles, one comes to share their unshakable belief that Texas would be just fine if the other forty-nine should fall.

Surely one of the highest liturgical rituals of Texanism must be the outdoor musical drama “Texas,” performed almost nightly near Amarillo since 1965. Big enough and epic enough to stand up to the canyon (!) in which it is performed, the musical is a cocktail of love stories, expansionism, and frontier dilemmas set in a vague period in the 1800s. The requisite Native Americans obligingly appear in headdress, and vigorous square-dancing is pounded out over a score reminiscent of Copland’s Billy the Kid. Given that even the terrifying thunderstorm depicted in the play coincides with a romantic stage kiss, “Texas” makes frontier life look pretty great. It is easy sport to poke fun at the bland patriotic finale tacked onto the production in recent months, until one realizes that throughout most of this number, the Texas flag is still foregrounded onstage, with the American flag in the background. No, Texas’s cause was never a lost one; and it is impossible not to feel a thrill as riders on horseback fly through the canyon bearing the flags that have flown over the state. The rite is enacted to an enthralled congregation seated on the floor of a rocky open-air cathedral, a reminder that West Texans have succeeded at living on the plains not by subduing them, but by acquiescing to them. Descending into the massive gash to watch the musical hammers home the strange sacrifice of mingled pride and humility that these flatlands demand from their dwellers.

Land and people are connected here as they are everywhere—always a truism but always different in its manifestation. In Wendell Berry’s What Are People For?, he speaks often and in many ways about the “practical harmony” between a land and its people. In West Texas, the harmony is sometimes discordant, with certain strains missing as raindrops pelt the earth less frequently and buffalo hooves have fallen silent. Yet it is still there, throbbing through the music of the plains, which sometimes sounds like a square dance in a canyon, and sometimes sounds like the moan of a lamenting cow, and sometimes sounds like two electric guitars and a dutifully-thumping bass for a Lubbock boy to sing against. The sounds and sights grind themselves into the souls of their inhabitants, whose much-lauded fierce independence is yet ever-dependent on the flat lands on which they stand.





I want to meet the man who twisted the curves into wrought iron fences.

Sit me sown with that sandy soul who pulled the big bricks into pyramids,

the woman who wove the tapestries in the Cloisters.

I want to wear an architect on my sleeve

who beats and builds ever so soundly

and I can take him out at any moment

and ask him questions.


Why do men no longer build cathedrals?

When I lean on my brick and siding Ohio home I feel no flying buttresses.

The men who molded great buildings with their fingertips

lay now,

and feed the vines that crawl up their walls.

I want to bless their big decomposing fingers.


When I walk New York’s West Side I cup my hands over old apartment buildings

and read their rocks like braille.

The gargoyles and Roman numerals speak secrets to my fingers.

When I run my little finger along stained glass I know that

creaking floors crack jokes

and rusty screen doors ramble sometimes

about those who walked through their doors

for a hundred years.


Give me marble and a thousand days to cut it,

and domed ceilings like upside-down sailing ships,

and old Victorian doorways marked with the heights of growing children.


Marry me to a carpenter,

give me even five minutes of dialog with a stonecutter,

because even Christ and Socrates carved creations to hold me.

My Neighbor, the Thief

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the core question being answered is “who is my neighbor?” The answer that everyone is your neighbor is revealed through the hardship that the unnamed protagonist goes through after being waylaid by thieves. While the Samaritan is revealed to be the most faithful neighbor in the scenarios that follow, very little is said about the thieves. They are more plot device than characters, existing to put the rest of the parable in motion. But what happens when your neighbor is the thief?

My wife and I moved into our first house last year, in a neighborhood that could be described as transitional. Three blocks south is the desirable, thriving (expensive) neighborhood that’s held up as the pre-war ideal of neighborhood design, at least as far as our sprawl-obsessed city is concerned. But our neighborhood, while still featuring the desirable bungalows and old trees, is populated by tire shops, taquerias, and a thriving blue collar population.

Well, blue collar with the exception of our newest neighbors. In January, the handyman and his three sons moved out from next door. The new renters were a family reputed to be electricians, but who rarely seemed to leave the house. In fact, most of their business seemed to come to them, arriving at odd hours and only staying for minutes at a time.  Either they were the most efficient electricians in the world, or they were drug dealers. Otherwise, however, they’re ideal neighbors. Quiet, friendly and always socializing on their front porch.

But in a situation where there is considerable come-and-go, not every person who occupied the house held to the same good-natured neighborliness that the primary renters did. The Mayweather-Cotto fight brought a large crowd to their house, every punch that connected drawing cheers audible across the block. But hey, that was what we knew we were getting into here, along with a close proximity to downtown, and a fine doughnut shop within walking distance.

Soon after the boxing party, on a Saturday morning around 5 am, we heard banging noises in our backyard. Peering out the windows, we could see little in the predawn gloom, and returned to bed. Almost immediately, though, we heard breaking glass.

One of the drawbacks of our little house is the lack of a garage, so we park our cars in the driveway. As I peered out our bedroom window, I could see both cars on the pebbled asphalt, and a figure crouched in the shadows next to my car.

“Call 911,” I barked as I dragged on a pair of shorts and grabbed my trusty Maglite, wishing desperately that it were something with a gauge and a pump action.

I stepped out into the driveway quietly, my bare feet feeling concrete porch, dewy grass and asphalt in short succession.  The figure turned to look at me.

“You better run, bitch!” I shouted, the previous weeks of watching The Wire overflowing into false bravado.

Surprisingly, he did.

I dashed up the driveway to find two fence posts kicked out of place, and the window of my car punched in and scattered about. Turning left to peer through the hole in the fence, I watched the thief dart across our neighbor’s back yard and over the opposite fence. Gone.

A scant three minutes later, the familiar white and blue Crown Vics of the Houston Police department arrived, a pair of them.  My wife had told the dispatcher that the thief was headed north, and they came from that direction, searchlights sweeping the alleys, but no runners were found.

Our neighbors across the street, the daycare worker, the laborer and the aspiring seminarian came out onto their front porches. The house next door remained silent, playing possum as the police cars idled outside.

The officers took statements and eventually requested that the residents next door come outside. The other neighbors and I quickly identified the culprit as the one gentleman who was sweating profusely at 5:30am. The police took him into custody.

Just a week before the break-in, we had met a tall, tanned man with an easy drawl and a gigantic white pickup truck. He’d just purchased the house next door with the intent to renovate it, while still maintaining the classic lines underneath, and sell it. The day after the break-in, I called him. I told him about the robbery, about the four bicycles that the police found in the back yard, stolen from the other neighbors, and about the three foot tall marijuana plants that the bikes were propped against.

After my snitching, the next door house was quickly unoccupied, and it’s currently undergoing its extreme makeover. The ten days that the renters remained were tense, the waves from the front porch replace with averted stares and strained silence. I don’t know if they ever knew that I was the one who’d put that particular finishing touch in motion, but I felt the sting of the implication every time I pulled into the driveway.

Today, our block is unquestionably safe– and calmer that it was before. The experience brought us closer to our neighbors, and knit us into the community even more. It’s our tiny battle scar in a not-quite-rough neighborhood.

But I’m still troubled. The renters next door were neighbors, too. They lost their place to live through the foolish actions of one member of their circle. Yet here I am, in the house that I own, swelling with pride for having gotten them evicted. Was I loving my neighbor or not?

I can certainly justify myself by pointing to the justice done, a criminal rightly punished by the proper authorities. The likely drug dealers expelled from their haven (no doubt to make another neighborhood feel the unease that we did).

I even crow about the progress, the sunny new bungalow that will soon replace the decrepit dump next door, and the attendant rise in my own property value. From all sides, it feels like I’ve done rather well. The $200 for a new car window is a small price to pay, right?

The pull inward that I feel, the guilt and confusion about how I love my neighbors even when they’re the thieves who beset me on my life’s road to Jericho is a reminder, a reminder that thieves are neighbors, too, who need grace and friendship as much as I do. Who are in community with us all. I wish I’d bandaged his wounds and helped him, but that’s not how it played out. Instead, bandaging the wounds of our whole neighborhood meant helping to eliminate a toxin from within.

My attempts to reconcile the tension between justice and grace, the personal good versus the community’s peace aren’t leading me anywhere but further down a rabbit hole, but I suppose until all our wounds are bound and salved, we’ll always live in this tension. And sometimes, next door to it.

My City is on Fire

As I write this, fires ravage my city. If I do a quick search online, I can see fire lick the hills behind my church, which sits in a neighborhood where my in-laws and two sets of family friends have homes filled with valuables and memories. There are reports of buildings burning to the ground, burning to a pile of black ash. The air is filled with smoke, even in my part of the city twenty miles from the flames, and we can hardly see the mountains because of the haze. Thousands of people have fled their homes with just the essentials. They are camping in hotels and on the friends’ living room floors, waiting for things to return to normal.

The Wallow Fire in Arizona and New Mexico, Summer 2011. Photo by Kevin Benedict.

I live in Colorado Springs, a sprawling city of 500,000 people. It takes an hour from north to south or east to west to cross by car, and it sits in the valley below Pikes Peak, a bare and striking mountain in the Rockies.

The fires started because Colorado is a desert. The landscape is a combination of dirt plains and forested mountains, but this year we have only received 20 percent of the rain we expected; in other words, we are in a major drought. Naturally, only evergreens would color the landscape with life; an on-looker would see only a subtle palette of browns, yellows, and oranges across the plains and the evergreens covering the mountainsides. But now, you can see brown smoke and  bold orange flames on the ridge lines of our mountains. You would imagine that they were once dormant volcanos now awake in violent fury, but really, the fires are stripping them of their beauty.

Last Saturday, friends were told to evacuate their homes voluntarily, if they felt like it, because a fire had begun in a far-off canyon. We had a party with a family of evacuees and cooked frozen pizzas on the grill to keep the insides of our houses cool. We ate a cream pie for dessert and chatted through the evening.

But then the winds picked up to sixty-five miles per hour and the blazes grew out of control. We stepped outside our door Sunday morning and smelled a barbecue like it was a neighbor’s grill. No one could contain it. The temperature sky-rocketed to 100 degrees with no rain in sight. Church on Sunday was cancelled.

Then we heard that a nearby tourist spot, a ranch, no longer existed. The structure and its insides were gone, consumed. We received a call from my in-laws, worried about their house. Friends texted from far-away places — they’d heard about the fires on CNN. We heard that the “navy seals” of firefighters were called in to serve and that the Pentagon had released an order for the Air Force Academy to send planes to dump water over the blaze.

On Wednesday, my husband found a photo of our church online. We gasped to see the field beside it lit up. Only a parking lot separates it from the fire. Our church spent years raising money to erect this building, now only a couple of years old, and we may never set foot inside again.

My in-laws’ house is also in the path of the fire. Though they now live on the east coast, they lived in the house for over twenty years and have a title on file. My husband may never again see the house he grew up in.

Our friends may never return to their homes to eat a meal or take a mid-afternoon nap, and if they do, the rolling hills where deer used to wander will be blackened and empty. One family just moved into their house and filled it with treasures collected from a life of travels.

They say the fire could have begun by arson, but what’s the use in speculating? Whether someone lit a match out of malice or forgot to stir the embers in their campfire to grey, the fire began. It lives and breathes. One article said the fire “exploded” and compared our plight to a war. We are under attack and the enemy knows no moral bounds.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Colorado Springs is filled with a diversity of people. We have artists, we have religious people, we have irreligious people, we have liberals, we have conservatives, we have hippies, we have the military. Often these groups have been disunified because of our differences.

Squad Leader Joshua J. Derksen, of the Shasta Lake IHC, patrolling the area of a burnout operation on northern California's Silver Fire in September of 2009. Photo by Kevin Benedict.

Yet these people have all been moved to real compassion. Our church flooded our pastor’s email inbox with messages offering homes and places to stay to evacuees in our church body. Some local graphic designers created a handful of t-shirts, a few lauding the tireless firefighters, to sell to raise money for victims of this fire and other fires in the state. A Facebook group was created to “mob” another town that had been evacuated over the weekend with business to help struggling stores make up their losses, and so far, over 4,000 people have been invited with close to 1,000 planning to stop by.

As Singer-songwriter Tyler James says, “It took the fire to save my soul / It took the fire to change me.”

When we lose the sense of control on our lives, it seems that we can be released to truly love and suffer with each other. We have seen this enacted countless other times across the world, when disasters wipe a community clean.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I am afraid. I have never witnessed a natural disaster in progress from such close range. In fact, natural disasters feel different on TV. It all felt surreal when it began. But there is nothing like an act of God to show us humans how out of control we truly are.

To date, we do not know when the fire will stop or if it will be stopped. More than 32,000 have evacuated, leaving their homes to possible destruction. Thousands of acres (over 15,000) have burned and buildings and homes have collapsed under its heat. No one will forget these weeks or the fire that ravaged and scarred our land.

All of this has forced my husband and I to consider, what would we take with us? Perhaps some art from our walls and his studio, our hard drives and laptops, the contents of our closets and my jewelry box, my journals, but anything else? Have we forgotten anything? All of a sudden the game of “what ifs” is real and pressing. What if we had an afternoon to collect ourselves? What if it we only had an hour? Our things have such fading worth.

We could spend the whole day monitoring the progress of the 1,000 firefighters at work. We could give in to fear and call friends and family every hour to see if they are still safe. We could check photos on the internet to see if the places we care about have burned or whether they are still standing.

Or I can choose to trust. I can choose to trust that the city volunteers, giving up their nights and weekends, are truly fighting for me. I can trust that I will live through this, and even if our home burns, that what matters will come with us. And most of all, I can trust that though I am out of control, that God Himself is in control. Being out of control can actually free me to trust, and that is enough for me.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Ambiance: Where Details Are Everything

When I told my book club – an international group of women – that the “general themes” of the book we were reading were universal, my thoughts were met with a few raised eyebrows. It was the Egyptian novel The Yacoubian Building, and Egypt had been in the news with increasing frequency. I argued that a good story takes the severity or exactness of particulars and somehow finagles into the reader’s mind a familiarity, an understanding. I’ve never been to Egypt, but the fact that the novel was set there provided a springboard to gleaning more from themes (oppression of women and religious fanaticism, for example) that can shape any society.

A narrative, whether it’s a novel or a person’s life, is shaped by its location and people’s responses to it. Yet, the location – the setting – must add something, for why would we read books (or watch movies) that don’t enhance or illustrate basic human emotions?

Just like in the previous two years, I’m currently preparing to fly with my two children to somewhere in the western United States, meet my mom, and drive across the country – following a route that would make AAA cringe. Though our starting point changes each year, our destination is always Newport, Rhode Island, and my parents’ two Shih Tzus are proud passengers number five and six on this journey. So far, we’ve clocked approximately 5,000 miles, traveled through 19 states, and mastered the logistics of pit stops that involve gasoline, dog food, leashes, and two children.

We make this trip not just because it’s an easier way to transport the dogs to Rhode Island, nor simply for experiencing multi-generational bonding. Even though we may barrel through three states in one day in an attempt to “catch up” after spending the day at Laura Ingalls Wilder’s homestead in Missouri, this trip provides us – and more importantly, my children – a taste of setting. I want them to see other places and get a glimpse, however small, of how life unfolds outside of their own setting.

So, as we book tickets and attack the end of the school year with a tenacity that shows we know summer’s coming, the American west is on my mind. Last summer we began at my parents’ home in the Phoenix area, so really, it is Arizona on my mind.  In an attempt to transport myself back to the desert, I read Half Broke Horses, a “true-life novel” by Jeannette Walls of The Glass Castle fame. “I hadn’t been on a horse since leaving for Chicago, and it just felt right” writes Walls in the voice of her grandmother, who lived primarily on ranches until decamping for the “big city” of Phoenix in the 1930s. In response, I wonder about other works set in Arizona, so I unearth Barbara Kingsolver’s novels from the tall bookshelf and re-read how the author weaves important thoughts about immigration, assimilation, and differences in these desert tales. Next up is Sherman Alexie’s story, “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.”

Each of these written works provides a rich setting, using different styles of language and each based on the author’s experience or research. Reading these authors’ words is my attempt at creating ambiance in preparation, and I long to head west.

Arizona is a repository for people – lots of them, as Arizona is the most populous land-locked state in America. The snow birds, the people seeking healthy respite in a drier climate, the immigrants. It’s also a repository for me, for although I’ve never truly lived there, it’s where my family now resides and a segment of my roots stick wherever my parents may live.


Last summer: Driving north from Phoenix, and then east, moseying diagonally through Arizona and straight into the Four Corners, the drip-drop-splash of life transforms into more of a long drawn-out murmur. The colors change. Perhaps an absence of most color more accurately describes the landscape, as one starts to notice the subtle shades of brown since it seems like all the other colors have dissolved into a far-away mirage. Despite Crayola’s insistence on experimenting with its tried-and-true colors, almost all the nuanced browns still exist. Burnt Sienna, Tan, Sepia. So, like that oft-ignored section of brown crayons, subtle differentiations between the sandy brown of the ground and the mahogany-brown of the peaks placate our eyes.

We tend to look for variances however we can, don’t we?

The Superstition Mountains on the outskirts of Phoenix.

If you shuttled in from, say, New England in the autumn, the monotony of the landscape could easily jar your finely tuned sense of beauty. Instead of rolling hills of red, yellow, orange foliage, a casual observer might see a lot of nothingness. It is rocks and dust and a wee bit of green, often of the prickly sort. But if you’re there long enough, you might start to think, “That stack of rocks juts out a little more harshly than the mound back there.” Or, “The dust seems to billow more here.” Through Tuba City and Tonalea, a sparse and careful habitat overtakes. It’s not precious. Sharp and straight, like a large percentage of the state’s borderlines, the flatness is punctuated by ascending peaks that seem to jut at ninety-degree angles. Rolling hills or verdant glens or even bubbling creeks are non-existent. Similarly, in this part of the state, the conventions and conveniences of an exotic suburbia disappear. McDonald’s provides a reminder of mainstream America, but otherwise, mangy dogs run free, children cavort in the beds of pick-up trucks, and roadside stands sell produce and crafts and one wonders how they make a profit because the number of cars driving by is minimal.

We can’t stand monotony, so we adjust our eyes, make them more attuned to what’s around, not just what’s in front.


I think of a recent Arizona shooting that I read about in the news. A “militia man” who made illegal immigration his cause d’etre. I follow up on the progress of Representative Gabrielle Giffords. And Sheriff Joe Arpaio being sued. I learn that the State of Arizona celebrates its centennial this year. Does the idea of the Wild West exist anymore? I think of backyards full of grapefruit and orange trees. The red rocks of Sedona. And of course, that natural wonder – the Grand Canyon. Plus, Arizona doesn’t participate in daylight savings, so I’m always confused as to what time to call my parents, no matter what time zone I may be living in.

And I wonder how anyone can understand anything about this place if, to them, it’s just a location that appears in news stories or cowboy art.

But I’m not sure that I – someone who has a modicum of familiarity with Arizona – know much about it either. Like anywhere else, it’s a place full of conflict and also full of beauty. As Taylor Greer, Kingsolver’s protagonist in The Bean Trees, says, “Sometimes I feel like I’m a foreigner too. I come from a place that’s so different from here you would think you’d stepped right off the map into some other country. … People don’t look the same, talk the same, nothing. Half the time I have no idea what’s going on around me here.”

The smells, the sights, the distances traveled all make me adjust my eyes and understand a setting more fully. I drive through Arizona and learn to retrain my eyes and tease out the nuances of an environment. Although I might see more, I don’t necessarily see more clearly. Just as friends visiting my family’s new home in Dublin might understand the context of where we live a little bit better, they don’t really know what it means to start a new life with small children in a new country. Similarly, my family’s experience – so similar on paper to other families relocating to other Western European countries – is not the same of our friends who moved to England.


And what about The Yacoubian Building? I think I was partially correct at my book club – human emotion is universal. But the details matter, and even if I someday travel to Egypt and experience the vistas, the sounds, and the people, the setting is not mine. In the meantime, I’ll take a road trip in my mind, and sit, stew, and observe the goodness of a setting. Learning to study a setting, like a text, is invaluable. The setting helps to tell the story; to enhance it. But the setting isn’t the story.


Midnight in Paris… in New York

I had been researching the past for years, and now I was on a hunt for literary inspiration. I’d done the best I could with books and biographies, musty copies of original Life Magazines, YouTube, and interviews. Now I needed something different and I found a new experience. Art in the midst of life.

I stopped at the top of the stairway leading down into darkness. I adjusted my pearls and flexed my gloved hands as I stepped down the metal steps one at a time. I got to the bottom and the door was closed and black as night. I knocked at the door and wondered if a small window would slide open and a hushed voice would demand, What’s the password?

I waited. And wondered. Anything can happen when there’s a knock at the door.

It was modern day, early twenty-first century. But when that door opened, I was ushered into the past, to New York City in the Twenties and Thirties. Feathered head bands, red lips, flapper dresses, suspenders and fedoras were everywhere. To my left were velvety alcoves around tiny tables where you could sip on cocktails and eat little morsels of goodness. To my right was a long bar where men and women from eighty years ago were drinking out of Speakeasy-style white coffee mugs. One woman in a long white dress looked astonishingly like Ginger Rogers. I walked over to the bar, ordered a “Bad Romance,” and of course the capped and suspender-sporting bartender asked if I wanted that or a drink. I said with a knowing smirk, I knew you’d say that.

Then the music started and the elephantine saxophone and the clarinet played while the outrageously dressed singer sang her heart out. Songs reminiscent of Cole Porter, Bing Crosby, Paul Whiteman and Al Jolson. We all smashed together onto the dance floor and bobbed back and forth, witless of the tight fit as we twirled and shimmied. I had been struck speechless as I entered this new world. Everywhere I looked were people from the past. I had gone hunting for inspiration, and I found that, but I had found much more. I’ve been researching the Art Deco era for years now and I was craving the ability to jump into the past just as Owen Wilson did in Midnight in Paris. And then a friend told me about Club Wit’s End.

In February 2009, Diane Naegel and Don Spiro created the monthly celebration of the Jazz Age lifestyle, music and aesthetics. They like to think that enjoying fine cocktails, dancing the night away to  hot jazz, and dressing in your finest is not a lost art in New York City. The name Wit’s End comes from the nickname that Dorothy Parker gave to Aleck Woollcott’s East Side apartment– somewhat infamous hangout for the Round Tablers and others in the New York social set.

Club Wit’s End and the Dorothy Parker Society

The Wit’s End is held at Flute, 205 West 54th Street, New York City. Flute was once the speakeasy Clube Intime run by the infamous Texas Guinan.  On the last Saturday of every month from January to October, 7PM to midnight, they offer a chance to go back in time with live music from bands such as Grandpa Musselman & his Syncopators, Baby Soda, The Red Hook Ramblers, Gelber and Manning, Cynthia Sayer, Brian Newman and the Moonlighters.

Talking with Don Spiro and Kevin Fitzpatrick, the manager of Wit’s End, I discovered a generous philosophy that is quite a refreshing attitude in the music scene. Don Spiro said, “Wit’s End has definitely contributed to the traditional jazz music scene in New York, offering a place where bands can play to people who appreciate them in the way they should be (as opposed to playing in theaters where people are stuck in seats). We also feel musicians should be compensated for quality and, as a result, we have a great reputation amongst musicians. Wit’s End has become a hub for people who like all things 1920s and 30s, and we reach communities around the world. We are connected to similar clubs in Los Angeles, Chicago, Providence and Austin, and have branched out to other organizations like the Art Deco Societies in NY, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. We co-produce an annual Fourth of July show, the Liberty Belle Spectacular, with other vintage themed promoters in New York and have teamed with the Museum of the City of NY, the Ziegfeld Club, and the Dorothy Parker Society.”

Art historian David Garrard Lowe said that the Art Deco era had “an unabashed advocacy of beauty.” Club Wit’s End echoes that reality. Climbing down those stairs, knocking at the door and entering into the era that I had been researching and “living” for years, was incredibly meaningful. It was like walking right into my novel and I found myself subconsciously searching for characters that have become my friends, waiting for them to walk around the corner at any moment. I found a way to experience the past. And to be able to grasp a small parcel of time to enjoy it bodily instead of just mentally? Magic.

To learn more about the Art Deco era, I highly recommend  A Journey Into Dorothy Parker’s New York and The Lost Algonquin Round Table, written and coedited, respectively, by the founder of the Dorothy Parker Society, Kevin Fitzpatrick.  At you can find out about the society’s unique events including a gin tasting (Dorothy Parker American Gin, of course) in Brooklyn on April 30th as part of a Dorothy Parker launch for National Poetry Month. Another favorite (if you can get your hands on a copy), is David Garrard Lowe’s Art Deco New York. It is an exquisite photo journey and a witty, history lover’s dream.

Pablo Picasso said, Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working. We need to make spaces to create and find inspiration whether we’re feeling the passion or not. It’s a discipline as well as a compulsion to create; it’s a fantastic mix of the two seemingly diametrically opposed elements. Emotion, intuition and passion combined with the basic discipline of just doing it.

In Midnight in Paris, Gil (played by Owen Wilson) says, “How is anyone ever gonna’ come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city? You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form…” There is art to be found and savored everywhere you look. Inspiration is not passive and as Picasso says, it needs to find you busy. We need to be experts at seeking out beauty, and then be prepared and willing to see it. We need to seek out that closed door and knock. And wait. And wonder. Because anything can happen when there’s a knock at the door.


The Two-Wheeled Commute

This article originally appeared in The Curator February 19, 2010.

On an unseasonably warm day in Brooklyn last December, a bike lane on Bedford Avenue was sandblasted into oblivion, its bright white lanes buffed down into near-invisibility. It wasn’t a particularly newsworthy event if you weren’t a cyclist in Brooklyn, but in New York bike lanes are taken very seriously by a small but vocal contingent of cyclists. Though most bike lanes only consist of two painted lines on one side of the street, they improve safety, but also give cyclists a sense of belonging – an understanding (hopefully shared by motorists) that bikes have as much right to the street as motor vehicles.

So when the Bedford lane was removed, rumors swirled as to why the city had stripped it away. The most common story floating around was that upon re-election, Mayor Bloomberg had a cut a deal with the Hasidic Jewish community that lives on Bedford to remove the lane. The community was said to be upset about scantily clad women riding through the neighborhood, though no one was sure just who had expressed that complaint.

A bicycle lane on Manhattan's East 91st Street

Protests were held and others, including a naked bike ride through the neighborhood, were planned but never materialized. Cyclists were outraged. A few cycling activists even attempted to confront Bloomberg in Copenhagen when he traveled there for the UN conference on climate change. All because two strips of white paint had been removed by the same agency – the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) – that chose to put them there in the first place. As of this writing, the DOT has yet to provide an explanation.

As the fury over Bedford Avenue refuses to die down, and angry fixed-gear riders threaten to take their pants off and ride through Brooklyn in protest, it’s important to remember just how far New York and other large cities have come in their transportation planning. In the 1950s and 60s, planners were looking for ways to bring more motor vehicles into cities and to speed their travel once they got there – a movement that led to a long period of expressway construction in American cities, often requiring the bull-dozing of entire neighborhoods. It wasn’t until the 1990s that city officials began looking for ways to minimize the presence of the automobiles in cities, hoping to improve the flow of pedestrians, mass transit systems and, increasingly, bicycles. Embracing this change in planning philosophy, Janette Sadik-Kahn, the commissioner of the NYC DOT since 2007, has installed over 200 miles of new bikes lanes on New York City streets, laying down the best bike lane network in the country this side of Portland.

I started biking in New York around the start of Sadik-Kahn’s tenure. For me and for many others who previously viewed cycling as too dangerous to be a legitimate means of transport, biking was a revelation. Liberated from crowded subways and the restrictions of mass transportation, the bike allowed me to move freely through the city for the first time, without checking a system map or bus schedule. I discovered parts of the city I had only traveled through underground. Entire neighborhoods that would have required two transfers to reach on mass transit were now a breezy 25-minute bike ride away.

Riding through the city is transportation but also sport, a physical and mental challenge with an inherent risk (bike lane or no, you are still sharing space with two-ton vehicles) that can make arriving to work feel like something of an achievement. A half-century after Robert Moses tried to carve New York City into a series of interlocking expressways, Janette Sadik-Kahn was inviting claustrophobic subway commuters up onto the street and telling us to pedal our way to work down special lanes painted just for us. Taking notice, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, and many other cities initiated their own plans for carving out space for bikes, leading the writer Jeff Mapes to author a book declaring a Pedaling Revolution.

This is great news for those of us who love our bikes, but is a pedaling revolution really underway? Despite the nationwide movement towards urban sustainability (a buzz word used to describe an ever-widening set of initiatives) and the role the bicycle plays in that movement, a sustained swell of bike commuters is still needed to fill those new lanes. If that doesn’t happen, transportation commissioners will inevitably begin to listen to city dwellers who’ve yet to get religion and just want a place to park their car.

As progressive as Sadik-Kahn may be, she is still a city commissioner with the power to enforce policy decisions as she (and the mayor) see fit. If Bedford can disappear, so can the whole bike lane network, if cycling advocates and city officials can’t convince more commuters to get on a bike. And to stand on many of the newly painted lanes in New York, or the new lanes along Pine or Spruce Streets in Philadelphia, is to see a steady stream of cars and merely a trickle of bikes – a reality that is not lost on a growing body of opponents.

“Undemocratic, hippie, Disneyland schemes, the pipe dreams of DOT hipsters with degrees in urban planning who really would prefer to live in Copenhagen or Portland,” was how one commenter on the news blog described the new DOT agenda. At a community board meeting I attended in Greenwich Village, a large NYU auditorium was filled to capacity with residents angrily complaining about a new bike lane on Carmine Street. Variations on the question, “Why should we give up parking when nobody even bikes down the bike lane?” were shouted again and again at a DOT representative.

Again, cycling in large cities is, for all its merits, a challenge. Sucking down exhaust fumes as you maneuver around a city bus or a double-parked delivery truck is not everyone’s idea of a fun, healthy commute. And where planners are choosing to place new bike lanes often reflects the assumption that only younger and more affluent residents will be biking regularly. In New York, a large percentage of the new bike lanes have been placed in the high-income or gentrifying neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Manhattan; in Philadelphia the newest lanes connect the high-rent districts of Society Hill and Rittenhouse Square. If you feel like everyone you know rides a bike, there’s a fair chance you live in Park Slope, Jamaica Plain, Queen Village or a similarly youthful, hipster- or yuppie-filled neighborhood where the average resident has some time and money to burn. It’s not surprising that “Bicycles” ended up on the Stuff White People Like blog, not far down the list from “Gentrification.” And even within those neighborhoods, a disproportionate number of men are riding; for whatever reason, women have been slower to embrace the bicycle as a means of transport.

This has the unfortunate effect of allowing some politicians to claim a populist stance in opposing bike lanes. Speaking in Chinatown during his campaign against Bloomberg, mayoral hopeful Bill Thompson denounced “bike lanes that are doing damage to local businesses” and suggested that the Grand Street lane in Chinatown had been put in “without speaking to the community.” Watching a Democratic mayoral candidate depict bike lanes as an elitist tool causing harm to the common man is a conflicting experience for the urban cyclist, who may like to think of himself and his chosen form of transportation as progressive (I know I do). But until the new cycling movement develops a broader appeal, the pedaling revolution runs the risk of petering out before it has a chance to develop into a real paradigm shift in urban transportation. If urban highway building could fall out of fashion despite having widespread support for nearly two decades, how much faster could poorly-used bike lanes disappear?

Time will tell, and for now, what matters most is that – minus Bedford Avenue – the bike lanes are out there and beckoning us all to ride. And in spite of the risks, in spite of the aggravation of trying to maneuver around colossal SUVs that seem better suited to desert warfare than urban transportation, I’ll continue to take full advantage of bike lanes, and my hope is that a growing and diverse body of city dwellers across the country will start to do the same. Maybe it’s a bit early to call it a pedaling revolution, but it’s a lot more fun than expressways.

What About the Shop Around the Corner?

The hardware store around the corner closed down sometime in the last few weeks, and it’s my fault.

On Sunday, I made a stop for some batteries and saw the sign on the door. But it was dusk, and I didn’t notice the plywood in the windows. I wondered how they could stay in business with such limited hours. Then, I went to the chain pharmacy that shared the same parking lot instead.

I don’t think it was the limited hours that caused the hardware store to close.

Elwood Adams Hardware of Worcester, Massachusetts claims to be the oldest operating hardware store in the United States, having begun business in 1782.

Though it was a franchise, the hardware store was locally owned and kept a few families working and cared for. I don’t know if they offered healthcare benefits or paid vacation time, but it was always a friendly place to be, and on the weekends, they offered free popcorn.

As a homeowner, I regularly found myself making trips to the hardware store. The large home-supply warehouses stocked more items and were located closer to my house. And I occasionally did give in to the urge for cheap mulch or a larger variety of sand paper grades. But though it took longer and cost more, I often drove to the hardware store and bought garbage bags or liquid drain cleaner simply because I wanted to live in a neighborhood that had a local hardware store.

The neighborhood obviously could not sustain the business, though. My favorite coffee shop also packed up, though the owners moved their establishment just down the street. And the pet store that used to be in the same strip mall closed up, too. An armed robbery took place at one of the convenience stores at that corner a few months ago, and last summer, while I was enjoying ice cream at the Baskin- Robbins, I witnessed a petty thievery of the tip jar. The young man working behind the counter chased after the thieves to no avail, but the policeman enjoying his ice cream saved the day.

I don’t want to see the neighborhood end up this way, but my purchases aren’t enough to carry a small business, and if inertia is pulling a neighborhood down, what can one person do?

What should one person do?

According to a 2011 Gallup poll, one in three small business owners are very or moderately worried about going out of business in 2012. With this kind of hesitancy, will small business owners like Mike, the proprietor of my neighborhood hardware store, invest in growing their businesses in a way that deserves my patronage?

When I stopped by the hardware store to look for a Christmas gift back in December, the shelves were sparsely stocked and I ended up shopping at a large retail chain instead. Was this a cause or effect of the eventual demise of the shop?

Nostalgia lends part of the mystique of the local hardware store. I remember two such shops I used to frequent with my dad when I was a young girl. In both cases, the floors were oily, the aisles cluttered, and the aroma somewhat metallic. The bins of nuts and bolts and screws and nails, with their scoops and little plastic bags just like the candy store, opened up to me the possibilities of fixing things and making things. My dad excels in both.

The “buy local” movement also has gathered me up in its swell. The idea of buying things grown and made and distributed by my neighbors feels more sustainable and allows me to maintain my identity as a person rather than just a consumer. When I walked into the hardware store, Mike always recognized me, asked about the last project he helped me with, and practically begged to help me again, even if I was just looking for a simple drain spout.

And I won’t even talk about the importance of small businesses to the health of a neighborhood, giving people options for walking or bicycling to do their errands rather than getting in their car and leaving the neighborhood, taking with them their money.

But the local hardware store also stocked the same items manufactured overseas that I could buy at any of the chain stores, and the markups were even higher. And supposing Mike wanted to buy plungers and garden fertilizer and duplicate keys from a local manufacturer, or even a US manufacturer, he probably couldn’t find one. Or if he could, he himself couldn’t afford to shop local.

I love the idea of locally owned businesses, and as often as I can, I try to shop in stores and eat in restaurants that have the same commitment. My employer is a small, local business, afterall–a fact we emphasize in marketing. The estimates range from 40-80 percent of how many of us in this country work for small employers (those who have fewer than 500 employees).

But I also have to be able to afford the clothes and the food and the household goods I consume, which means you might also find me wandering the aisles of some giant big box store, with a full cart.

I guess I shouldn’t take all the blame for the demise of the local hardware. But I’m praying for Mike and that vacant building. And I’m looking for the next store with the oily floor and metallic smell where I can lay down a little bit of my hard-earned cash from time to time.

Let’s hope they have a popcorn machine.



Savannah: City In Flux

The lens centers upon a row of boarded up buildings, with tattered siding and leaning roofs. Along the edges of the image, there is a crumbling sidewalk strewn with derelict characters. At night, the streets in this neighborhood shine bright with globes installed by the city.  Behind closed doors, the community rages: shouts of anger burst through a cracked window, a woman calls for help, two kids light up in hopes of drowning reality. Young parents long to see their children graduate high school, to make ends meet on two or three jobs, to find a way to feed each little one. Several middle-aged residents aim to take pride in some small way, perhaps a backyard garden, or a carefully-lit fire blazing in a papered room that is encased behind barred windows. The juxtaposition of brokenness and a grappling towards hope is unmistakable.

Cut and scene. The camera shifts to a different perspective a mere fifteen years down the road. Kids pummel down the street on tricycles, a neighborhood baker greets passersby with a wave and warm smile, boys ready to play basketball lace up beside a flower-crowned bed and get ready for some three-on-three. The aroma of fresh food wafts from building-tops and residents rouse themselves for a bright and early farmer’s market prize as Saturday morning begins to rear its head.

Photo by Elisa Jara.

Recently immersed in a design school project tied to issues of urban revitalization and community change in one of Savannah’s most illustrious neighborhoods, I have found myself longing deeply to bring hopefulness and restoration to my current home yet struggling for answers. As a newcomer to the city, I have been thrown into a melting pot of southern charm, lingering racism, and deep-set hopes and dreams. I came to Savannah from further north with ideas about the things that make a place successful, and more personally the things that make a place enjoyable.

When friends from afar ask me about my experiences, admittedly I often refer to Savannah as a mixed bag. It has so much character: incredible historic architecture and streetscapes, unique and well-seasoned food offerings, and families with generations of rooted traditions. The city also boasts a thriving art and design school that churns out some of the United States’ most vocationally equipped creatives. Simultaneously, though, Savannah has a pungent underbelly that anyone who has spent more than a few weeks in its heart will recall. Well-known for its prevalent crime and racial segregation, Savannah is a city still in the throes of finding its voice.

On the surface Savannah glitters with the charming warmth of the Old South. Known as one of the first planned cities, Savannah developed around several central city squares and small grassy parks. Once populated with horse-drawn carriages, its wide streets and grassy roundabouts facilitated a ready flow of traffic to and from its bustling waterfront corridor. Today, many people still stroll the downtown area’s wide sidewalks well into the night, often with pets or kids in tow. These patrons, many of whom are tourists, frequent the local bars and restaurants for a taste of southern flair and laid back conversation. Paula Deen has set up shop near the old city market, offering a buffet of delicious sweet and sultry regional cuisine to those willing to come early enough to reserve a seat. Around the corner, the Savannah Bee Company sells everything from honeycomb to honey-scented lotions and offers free samples of many of its honey flavors. Yet another shop breathes the air of French culture to Savannah’s visitors, boasting a well-curated collection of jewelry, soaps and scents, books, tasty treats, and vintage furnishings. Such spots make Savannah feel a bit like an eighteenth century port town in which onlookers are transported into a slower way of doing things and where the most important item on the agenda is the dinner menu.

Further from the heart of downtown, Savannah begins to feel more like a Flannery O’Connor novel. O’Connor, notably, grew up in Savannah, so this musing should come as no surprise. Here, the streets are peppered with wandering jobless men and the occasional local gem, such as Back in the Day Bakery. A brief visit to one of Savannah’s Chu’s Market locations will offer a colorful glimpse of local culture, a beat on teen drug and gang activity, and a close-up of the tightly-knit community bonds of those born and raised in its many homes. As an outsider entering into these parts of town, one will probably feel both discouraged by the marks of extreme poverty and surprised by the depth of local character. Crumbling homes are brought to life through carefully-manicured lawns and colorful accents. Groups of elderly men mill around outside local car repair shops and abandoned grocery stores, carrying with them rich stories of community lifeblood, at times pumped rich and at others parched. Teens wander the streets in the late afternoon, some looking for a few bucks through a quick break-in while their peers are busy seeking out friends to accompany them to the park.

I’ve never met a people as courageous and determined as those who live at the crux of these perimeter communities. One, a woodworker, situated his shop in a neighborhood with kids and teens in desperate need of after-school alternatives to crime and drugs in order to serve as a catalyst for change. Another, a local printmaker and professor, opened a Tex Mex-inspired coffee shop housing locally-made furnishings and intriguing art pieces in an area of town desperately in need of more mixed-use development. Yet one more, a local music teacher, regularly gathers up the trash that populates her block, plants flowers along an ill-repaired crackling city sidewalk, and encourages the city to get more involved in her neighborhood.

As I think on Savannah’s future and my own as an urban resident, I am both moved and inspired by those who have chosen to live in the gap as agents of change rather than shirkers of responsibility who escape for an easier, more comfortable way of life. Dwelling in the clutch of the renowned “Garden of Good and Evil,” I have begun to understand, perhaps more deeply than ever, that we always live in the flux between two extremes: brokenness, and great, vast beauty. At times, the immense pain of a community may leave us feeling paralyzed, unable to discern how to help it move forward. But change is never easy, and a place full-dose is rarely what we make of it at first glean. I believe that somehow, in communities like Savannah, we must hold in hand the two extremes. We must be both passionate repairers of the broken walls and patient investors who recognize that a full-spectrum revival probably will not happen in our lifetimes. To reference Jane Jacobs, we must be willing to become the seeds of our cities’ regenerations, those seeds that bring “energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside [ourselves].” And like Jacobs, we must be content to make our little mark and let the work of future generations extend our efforts into new domains.

A Neighborly Kind of Quiet

Six and some odd years ago, I downsized. I’d grown up in one of the biggest Atlanta suburbs, and gone to school in the small city of Athens, Georgia. It was time to move on. I began my slow progress north. Somewhere past Old Peachtree Road, Atlanta’s wide interstate madness narrows to a manageable four lanes. Heading toward a life in the mountains, I pulled off at South Carolina Exit 42, and it was small highways winding up from Greenville after that: US-25, I-26, I-240.

Afterward, when I’d head back down I-85 for holiday visits to Atlanta, I’d pass the Greenville exit going south this time. Increasingly in those years, as the road widened and the semis raced by, anxiety set in. I began to see that this was all too flat; too open; too exposed. Too big.

Give me the small roads. Atlanta born-and-raised, it’s blue highways for me now. High hills and small spaces. But it isn’t just the roads I love or the landscape. It’s the sort of life that goes on in the places you find along skinnier streets. The pace of life that slows in accord with a ten minute drive into downtown — or, better, a thirty minute walk.

This is the speed that suits me: days in with my daughter; walks to the library in fall weather; grocery trips passing nary a stoplight. Strolls down the street to check our tomatoes’ progress in the community garden, and any trip over fifteen minutes taking me into the countryside. Here in the medium-sized college town I now call home, the introvert in me finds root-room. My mind relaxes. I can breathe. I can think. I can be me.

There are people who point out that cities are where movements start, where important change happens, where culture begins. I understand. I’ve lived in the cities. I’ve seen the vibrant humanity, the opportunity for involvement there, the concentrated brokenness and need. But at my best, I move at a slower, quieter pace. I want to put down roots in a place like this. I imagine, then, there must be some  purpose I can find in digging in and living slowly in a less populated spot. Things of import must happen here, too.

Wendell Berry agrees. He sees important movement starting in the known-ness of close communities, in an awareness of the people he lives with and around. “Farms, families, and communities are forms of art just as are poems, paintings, and symphonies. None of these things would exist if we did not make them. We can make them well or poorly; this choice is another thing that we make.”

"The things of import start small here. They start in my house, in my raspberry patch, across the street."

I visit the farmers’ market to pick up my weekly CSA share, and I get to know some of the people who grow my food. How well do I know the daily, difficult things that comprise their lives? The full-time librarian knows me by name. How long has it taken me to learn hers? Some neighbors on our street have a harder time than most, and their pain spills out into public arguments on the road. My impulse is to feel annoyed and stay inside. Do I? Or do I knock on their door later, offering friendship and a listening ear?

When we first moved to our neighborhood here, I discovered raspberries, fresh-ripe. But there was a problem: the neighborhood kids. They had grown accustomed to this house standing vacant and had appropriated the yard as their own, including the laden vines. Each morning as I made my coffee, I heard the ominous screech of bicycle brakes and an excited shout: “Raspberries!!” Then footsteps running up my drive, and silence punctuated by, “Ooh, a good one” and “I found some more!” Trespassers. I stood in the kitchen, fuming like the evil witch in Rapunzel, wondering how to keep the little thieves out of my — my! — garden.

My husband came home and I explained how I had protected our land and sent the children away. He paused and furrowed his brow. “That wasn’t very neighborly.” He was right. Being neighborly does not often come easily to me. Nor does being sociable.

I’ve never much liked the book Little Women. (Strangely, my husband brought the one copy we own to our marriage. He denies ownership, but there it lies, amongst his books.) I love the 1994 movie, though, and there’s a particular scene: the sisters are all aspiring toward greater lives — in marriage, in Europe, in the big city. Beth, meanwhile, mournfully asks Jo, “Why does everyone want to go away?” I concur, though not necessarily in big moments. It is more often in the day-to-day I wonder, “Why attend a potluck, that church’s women’s event, this weekend’s baby shower?”

I am at home in this town because I am a homebody. That can be both good and bad. If I don’t attend next weekend’s baby shower, I might cozy up more comfortably with my small family and a good book, but then acquaintances won’t be made and friendships will remain static. If I drive quickly rather than walk slowly to the grocery store, I won’t engage in conversation with the woman next door. If I scold and send the children away empty handed, my heart stays small and the neighboring families isolated.

If I am going to begin the work of knowing my neighbor, I will have to overcome my inclination to sometimes live a little too quietly. I will have to overcome the very impulse that makes me feel at home in this kind of place. This town, if I will make of it what I might, lays before me the possibility — dare I say, the responsibility — to be somewhat less comfortable than I’d prefer in order to reap bigger benefits than merely having a calm home-life or driving in low traffic.

There are people here to be known and loved, if I will do the work. And really, isn’t that the best, if the most difficult, work we can do? Isn’t this at the root of any movement, at the start of any program that changes culture for the better?

I don’t fool myself: no one can do neighborly things perfectly, or even well, very often. There are too many of us living different lives, each with our own struggles and worse. There have been troubling reports this past year, really horrific occurrences coming through the news about children in America who have been hated and hurt, who have suffered harm in the silence of secrecy; their neighbors knew nothing about it. A friend posted one of these reports on Facebook and commented: “Know your neighbor.” Who wouldn’t want to protect these children? It is crushing that no one did. Perhaps knowing my neighbor goes beyond willingness to share raspberries with the kids down the street. Or perhaps sharing our raspberries, our yard, our home, might cultivate the very sense of community that holds such hateful behavior at bay. It is at least a start.

My husband and I joke about a big traffic day in Blacksburg, when you crest the hill at South Main Street heading into town and see — gasp! — six cars coming your way. There is, of course, traffic in this town. But the road size and the time to get from any here to any there (twenty minutes, tops) reflects the pace in which daily life and relationship might be played out. It’s not better or worse than the different pace and the different opportunities for daily deeds and relationships in the city, save in my opinion.

This, then, I choose as my kind of home. The things of import start small here. They start in my house, in my raspberry patch, across the street. Maybe they start this way everywhere.

Can a quiet, neighborly life intersect with a desire to help the oppressed, the afflicted, the hungry? Is brotherly love sufficient if it starts small, inside the walls of my house, on our short street? I look at my daughter, my husband, my neighbor, and I think, “Yes.” Yes, if I will do the work of loving my family. Yes, if I will step outside myself and really, truly, know my neighbor.

And so it is in the very act of overcoming the quietness in me — that introverted quality that makes me feel so at home in a small mountain spot — that I live well, that I love, that I do what is most important. But don’t get me wrong: should you look for me on a Sunday evening, you’ll find our family outward bound, pulling onto some sleepy road where the cars are few and the speed limit slow. Our windows will be down and our talk will deepen. There will be movement in our souls.


Finding Bits of Wonderland

Alice irritates me. I should amend that; Disney’s Alice irritates me. Tim Burton’s Alice is much more provocative. But in the first version that I witnessed as a child, even at age seven, her decisions were ridiculous and she cried so much that it ruined any admiration I originally had for her spunk. But Wonderland . . . Well now, that captured my imagination.

On an especially dreary winter morning, the rain and sleet slipped through a crack in my umbrella, surprising my unsuspecting head with every shocking drop. The slush on the street was unusually deep and threatening to overflow into the top of my sturdy boots. People bumped into me as I clambered down the slimy, steep steps into the subway. I slid my MetroCard through the swiper and burst through the turnstile with an argumentative briefcase, awkward umbrella, and heavy coat that was now beginning to stifle me with the heat of the subway.

Bryant Park Skating Rink

And then . . . And then I heard a violin, guitar, bass, and the vocal line, “It’s the bittersweet symphony of life . . . ” by The Verve. The violin was exceptional and the music made all of us bemused travelers look at each other and try out some tenuous smiles. Suddenly the ironic moment hit me: the bothersome weather and being smashed in with a bunch of wet strangers, combined with beautiful music and the lyrics of the sweet symphony of life. Bittersweet. Perfection.

Hulbert Footner, author of the 1937 nonfiction travel book New York: City of Cities wrote about New York as an exceptionally amazing place because you could look at something 99 times and on the hundredth be completely arrested by its magnificence. After a decade of living in New York City, I still find that to be true. Over and over I am astonished at something breathtaking that I thought had become familiar and average.

This past December I took a new route to Bryant Park, taking the 7 train in Manhattan one stop west. I was going to a meeting but left early so I could visit the outdoor holiday bazaar in the park. I climbed the subway stairs, unsure of where exactly I would pop out. It was already dark and as I came to the top step and sprung out of the dark subway stairway, the scene that I had been expecting had altered, transforming into a panorama worthy of Wonderland.

The trees in the park managed to keep most of their leaves and, remarkably, were still green. They formed a lacy green canopy over the park, lit from underneath by an unearthly white glow coming from the skating rink. The backdrop was the velvet black of the night and the whole scene was encircled by the sparkling mountains of the midtown skyscrapers. Filling the air was the cheerful din of skating music and merry­makers. I walked to the west side of the park and was met by a scene out of Dickens. The beer garden restaurant was open with its Adirondack chairs sprinkled about, yellow fairy lights above, and makeshift fire pits here and there where people warmed their hands, roasted chestnuts and marshmallows, and drank their frothy beers. It was tantalizing to all the senses — a stolen moment of awareness.

Later that winter I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ve been there a hundred times. Well, maybe it had only been 99 times and this was that magical hundredth. On Friday and Saturday nights, the museum is open late and I had never been there in the evening. I walked in and was surprised to be greeted with live classical music floating down through the grand entryway. The music made my eyes look up and around to appreciate that majestic entrance in a completely new way. The skylights that are all over that massive museum were a glossy black and the lighting gave the familiar paintings and sculptures new tones, new textures. Components to the pieces leapt out in fresh new angles and came to life.

The Egyptian Room was extraordinary with its fifty foot wall of glass overlooking Central Park. The snow glittered in the moonlight and the lamplight glowed along the paths. In the room itself, there was a waterway mimicking the Nile and in the absence of daylight, the yellow lights made the surface of the water shimmer and the Temple of Dendur shone a warm golden. I longed to stay and write in there for hours. At the back of the museum was a wine bar with a live jazz band that blended nicely with my Chardonnay, cheese, and olives. Finally, as I walked out of the museum, the fountains flanking each side of the museum misted and glowed in the nighttime air. Enchanting.

I don’t know where the magic comes from or what exactly makes that hundredth time so special. I’m quite partial to New York City and think the city really does have an energy all its own. But everywhere there are unseen, exceptional moments to be had. Perhaps it’s about taking a new approach: visiting somewhere during a different part of the day, finding a new angle, going with a new friend.

Author H. Jackson Brown, Jr. says, “Sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eye.” Maybe it’s a perspective of heart, of openness. Watching and waiting for those stolen moments. But, I think, it is also about risk and not dithering around so much that you never make any choices, nor experience anything new at all. Being aware — actually creating the time to hear the bittersweet symphony of life. To find the small bits of Wonderland left to us.

Alright. I grudgingly admit it: perhaps Alice isn’t so irritating after all.

“Alice” by Shel Silverstein

She drank from a bottle that said DRINK ME

And up she grew so tall,

She ate from a plate called TASTE ME

And down she shrank so small.

And so she changed, while other folks

Never tried nothin’ at all.


Taking Liberties

There are certain values and practices that Americans hold dear above all others. Somewhere near the top of that list is the boastful enjoyment of free speech and expression — one of the few of such values that is supposedly protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Sadly, having been whittled down to shavings by overly-critical legal interpretations and applications over the years, the ideals of the First Amendment have finally begun to collapse in upon themselves. Most recently, a Second Circuit U.S. Appeals Court ruled that the use of public schools in New York City for conducting religious worship services could be perceived to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and therefore the Board of Education is within its constitutional right to prohibit the use of public schools for worship services outside of school hours. (Bronx Household of Faith, Robert Hall and Jack Roberts v. Board of Eduction of the City of New York and Community School District No. 10)

The first and most obvious problem here is that the language itself has been extended to meaning outside of what is reasonably implied by the words used. The Amendment clearly states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . ” (emphasis added) It does not say that Congress shall not allow something that expresses religion and indeed, such allowance would only validate the rest of the Amendment anyway, which says that Congress has no right to prohibit such expression or private establishment in the first place. Inasmuch as the use of a school might be perceived to be an endorsement by the government of a particular religion, more so could the prohibition of the use of such space for religious purposes be seen as a violation of the clause allowing the free expression of religion given that the space in question may be used for other non-academic, non-government-related activities outside of school hours.

What is interesting here, though, is that the court’s decision explicitly states that it is not restricting the free expression of religion or even religious activities, only that it is reasonable to restrict “religious worship services” from being conducted on school grounds. This splits hairs between the idea of viewpoint discrimination, which would be a constitutional violation, and content-based restriction, which is considered viewpoint-neutral. In summary, the court says that it is okay for people to assemble in a school building, sing hymns, hear Scripture read and taught, and even to pray, but these activities cannot be done in the context of a worship service because then they become exclusive, and exclusivity is considered viewpoint discrimination worthy of a content-based restriction.

Another question considered by the court is whether or not the use of a government-owned forum as a venue for worship is, in any way, an endorsement of any particular religion. The court says that yes, someone may reasonably perceive the use of a government facility for hosting religious worship as an endorsement of that particular faith. But the application of law should not be entirely or even primarily determined by potential perception of the situation, but only by interpretation of the law, which must be done in a much more legalistic manner than the court has done here. To interpret the language, “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” to mean, “shall be privy to no religious worship practices” takes exceptional liberty in determining what the original language was seeking to convey.

Furthermore, the government takes no pains to exclude certain religious material from other government-owned or -endorsed materials, all of which may be perceived to be governmental support for the Christian or Jewish faith. United States currency, for example, proclaims, “In God We Trust,” which I would think a far greater endorsement of religion than the use of a public school since not all public schools host church services, nor do they all brand themselves as subscribing to any particular spiritual entity, yet all currency pieces contain this proclamation. We can also consider the Oath of Allegiance for those wishing to become U.S. Citizens, which ends with the phrase, “so help me, God.” This phrase is now optional, but the fact that it exists in the default suggests endorsement because it says that if you do not choose to exclude God from your oath, then the government will choose for you to include Him, indicating a preference. On the other hand, the government has not chosen for students and teachers to attend school on Sundays when Christian worship takes place, but only during the week when classes are in session, which means that the government is actually endorsing education, not the establishment of a religious ceremony which may be attended by people even outside of the school district, i.e., beyond the establishment of the government. Finally, the courts themselves still use Christian Bibles when swearing in witnesses. Whether or not this is an option for witnesses — I confess, I do not know — remains a moot point; it is the default, the choice of the government, and therefore may be reasonably perceived to be an endorsement of the Christian faith by the courts because it implies that swearing on the Christian holy book is more consequential than swearing on any other book.

The court, though, has dodged all of these criticisms by saying that it is not the expression of religion on government settings that is prohibited, but specifically religious worship. The argument, again, is that the activity of religious worship includes religious expression, but the expressions themselves do not necessarily constitute worship services, which are exclusive, and therefore might violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. I should think, however, that most Christians would disagree with the idea that the forms of religious expression protected by the law do not constitute worship, and since it seems that “worship” more than “services” is what the government takes issue with, I think this is an important point. While I may not conduct a worship “service” in my home when I pray, prayer is most certainly an act of “worship,” as are the acts of singing hymns, reading and teaching Scripture, etc. I cannot say unequivocally for other religions, but it seems to me that any time a person removes him- or herself from the secular in order to be engaged in the religious, it is an act of worship, not simply an expression of my faith. If I say that I believe in Jesus, I am expressing my religion, but once I begin to speak to Jesus, I am engaged in an act of worship, going far beyond a mere indication that I prefer Jesus to Mohammed, etc. Indeed, offers one definition of “worship” simply as, “to feel an adoring reverence or regard for (any person or thing).” By this definition, the court’s decision suggests that any time I set foot on government property, the government may be perceived as endorsing a religion because I am always feeling an adoring reverence and regard for my Creator, and therefore perpetually engaged in an act of worship.

The court also said that schools are perfectly within their right to prohibit the conducting of worship activities because such prohibitions do not effectively impede the expression of love or reverence for those activities. The court uses martial arts and horseback riding, among others, as non-religious examples. These activities may be rightfully prohibited on government property because such prohibition seeks “the objective of avoiding either harm to persons or property, or liability, or a mess, which those activities may produce.” (Bronx Household of Faith v. NYC Board of Education) But then the practice of religious worship would have to threaten either persons or property, risk liability for said persons or property, or threaten to create more of a mess than, say, a school cafeteria during lunchtime. How to quantify such things is beyond me, but it seems reasonable to deduce that a religious worship service would be, in no way, more dangerous or messy than a typical day at a school full of children or adolescents, and while activities such as horseback-riding are prone to significantly impair the forum before and after the event, church services are not. Further, the purpose of the forum — to educate children, which the Supreme Court found to also include moral instruction — is not impaired by a church’s activities conducted outside of the forum’s standard hours anymore than they would be if a prom were to be held on school grounds despite the fact that some students and parents may morally disagree with the practice of dancing.

If it has been deemed permitted and protected by the U.S. Constitution for individuals or groups who are lawfully occupying government premises to express religious views on those premises, including the singing of hymns, the reading of and instruction in Scripture, acts of prayer, and other individual components of worship, then it is contradictory and even hypocritical to prohibit the actual worship service itself since it consists of no more than the individual components for which the government makes allowance. If the mere existence of a worship service in a school building can be seen as the government making a law to establish religion, then so should be seen the use of religious language on government money or in government courts when swearing in witnesses or receiving new citizens. If the issue at hand is only to avoid giving individuals the perception that the government has established a religion, then we cannot rely on the First Amendment at all because it doesn’t address the perceptions of the public, but only the actions of the government, and specifically, the legislation. Since no law was passed establishing a religion, yet a law threatens to be passed prohibiting a specific expression of religion, it seems logical to deduce that the government actually finds itself much closer to a First Amendment violation now than it was when churches were merely indulging in that same Amendment’s provision for the free expression of religion.

The freedoms of speech and religion were enacted to prohibit religious persecution that resulted in oppression and death, not to shield the people of this country from any viewpoint, religious or otherwise, that might be in contrast to their own traditional family values or personal opinion. Such a shield would only reinstate the very same idealistic tyranny that the early Americans first opposed and denounced, thus infringing upon, rather than furthering, the luxury of freedom we tend to thoughtlessly take for granted today.

Front Porch, Back Porch

We proved our thesis quite by accident.  After a long day of hunting for our first house, we decided to drive by a couple of the homes we’d seen earlier in the day for another look.  As we drove up to the red house, I slowed the car to a crawl as my wife and I discussed the pros and cons, and renovations both possible and necessary.   That’s when we saw them.  I daresay they saw us first.  The owners of the house were on their front porch, viewing us suspiciously as we criticized their home from inside my car.  Our eyes met for a brief moment.  There came to my face a sudden blush, self-conscious for no particular reason.  Well, maybe not no reason: their house had been filthy inside.  I sped away as we continued our conversation.

As idyllic as the Real Simple-ready front porches may seem, they can become messy places, bringing our private lives into public view.

We’ve been searching for a house for a couple of months now.  Our geographical preferences and financial limits have focused our search to two primary neighborhoods.  The difference between the two neighborhoods is striking, though the houses in both are of similar size and luxury.  But the neighborhood in which we currently rent and would most like to stay has one feature that makes it more desirable to us: front porches.

The front porches of the Houston Heights are the key to its character as a neighborhood.  In a sprawling metropolis like Houston, which grew primarily in the latter half of the 20th century, pre-war neighborhoods like The Heights are a rarity.  They harken back to the grubby, tough city that grew up around a muddy bayou and a convenient port, before Houston made the leap from oil-rich to oil-wealthy.  These homes date to between 1910 and the early 1940’s, when air conditioning was advertised instead of expected, and their primary social spaces are those front porches.

It is here that I must admit that far more articulate, academically respectable examinations of the social language of front porches have already been made, most notably by Richard H. Thomas.  There even exists a conservative/libertarian blog based on a longing for lost porch culture called Front Porch Republic.  But I’m not trying to write a doctoral thesis or start a political movement.  I just want a house that my wife and I can call a home.

Certainly we could find a home in Oak Forest.  This post-war neighborhood is separated from the Heights by that most post-war of all talismans, an interstate highway.  The houses are adorable little ranches that lend themselves well to a funky Mid-Century Modern decorating language, and they sit on expansive lots.  More accurately, though, they sit further back on those lots.  And the front porches are small or non-existent, lost in favor of covered patios attached to the back of the house.

It’s here that we find ourselves with a decision to make.  The houses in the mid-century neighborhood are more affordable, and generally larger, making it possible for us to stay in our first house for longer.  The neighborhood itself has been a steady middle class enclave for its whole fifty-plus years of existence, and is only getting more valuable as time progresses and people retreat back from the suburbs to central neighborhoods.  Buying there would be a safe, smart decision.

However, our desire for a front porch is threatening to overrule safe, smart thinking.  We want to see our neighbors, and be seen by them.  Urban life can easily become isolating, and even the most close-knit communities rely on the active participation of their members.  So we want to consciously be part of the neighborhood in which we live, and work for its peace and prosperity.  In the parts of the Heights that we can afford, that might mean putting up with guys across the street who have a minivan bench seat on their front porch, and more than putting up with them: befriending them, being their neighbors.

As idyllic as the Real Simple-ready front porches may seem, they can become messy places, bringing our private lives into public view.  Many of these pre-war houses have a blessing of street-facing windows, and smaller front yards that put the living room uncomfortably close to the sidewalk.  Are we willing to be vulnerable like that?

In the post-war neighborhood, our neighbors would have to employ a telescope to peer into our dining room.  In fact, many of the living areas themselves migrate with the porch to the rear of the house.   These were homes built not only for the comfort of air conditioning, but for the entertainment of the television, yet another inward-facing social innovation.  When the neighbors are invited over, we congregate around the ‘tube or the back patio, taking in the grandeur of the back fence.

It’s also been pointed out that the post-war housing boom was automobile-centric, typified by suburbs within a reasonable driving distance of the business centers of town.  This, too, is reflected in our decision making: right now, I’m sitting at a coffee shop a scant two and a half blocks from our home, from which I can walk home.  The front porch houses we are looking at are also walking-friendly, with pubs, taquerias, and a particularly heavenly doughnut shop all within a comfortable distance.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t fun, local places near the other neighborhood, but they’d all require hopping in the car and winding past blocks of houses to get to the main drag where they’re found.  The other infrastructure and amenities are considerably better, though: the grocery stores are newer and nicer, the bank branch more convenient, and so on.  The front porch neighborhood is decidedly lacking in these luxuries.

What would you do?   Follow your heart or your checkbook?  God willing, this will be the house to which we bring home our first child at some point.   It’s where we’ll entertain friends and neighbors.  Many meals will be cooked, shared, and enjoyed there.  But we don’t want to pay such a steep premium that those meals mostly consist of pork and beans.  And we have several friends who live in the post-war neighborhood and love it.  It’s quiet and kid-friendly, they tell us.

But we want the front porch.  We want to see what’s happening on our street. We want to welcome our neighbors to join us on the porch for a pitcher of margaritas or a cup of hot tea.  We want to hear the gossip, the nattering pulse of the community.  We want to recognize the kids who ride their bikes down the street after school.  We want to pay the premium for this, if the right house comes around.  And we want to see the grey Mini Cooper that’s rolling by with two quizzical heads eyeing our house.  Then we’ll wave.

All Hail West Texas

I am from El Paso, Texas.

The rest of America’s hope settles in its dust. It comes blowing down from both sides and settles right there in the sand like many an American ideal barred by the border. Driving into El Paso on Interstate 10, it feels like the city may never come, until suddenly, after eight hours of a few ghostly railroad towns, oil rigs, and Dairy Queens, it finally happens. Not just seen from the road, it is felt—like a drink of water, it comes as a relief.

El Paso was planted at the base of the Franklin Mountains and watered by the Rio Grande. I suppose it remains to be settled whether the United States reaches its hand into Mexico or if Juarez is stretching its legs onto American soil.  Today a fence traces the line that river’s water once drew. Distance makes it easy to forget what El Paso lacks compared to its Texan sister cities, yet proximity makes its socio-economic dominance over Juarez blatant.

If something new and fresh comes their way, the people of El Paso will take it gladly, but there’s no telling if it will last as long as the traditions that make the city move, rambling and rumbling like a Ford truck on one of its ranch roads. True, in the last ten years the city has leaped in progress, but still this happens at the slow pace for which the city is famous.

El Pasoans share the in the pride Texans are infamous for, but distance from their fellow comrades imbues the pride with a simple-minded charm. It’s felt that “the stars at night are big and bright” and that the “sage in bloom is like perfume”, but not with the same fervor.

Nobody complains about the climate. For some  its consistency adds to El Paso’s charm. For others the pleasure of perfect weather is pacifying; sunny days run into each other, whole seasons passing without a change of shirt. When rain finally falls, it falls hard, breaking the parched ground open and forcing it to succumb.

It goes without saying: postcards from El Paso are sent with irony enclosed in the stamped envelope. Despite all of this, its unique offerings satisfy.

I was raised in this place.

A sporting goods salesman, my maternal grandfather worked Wilson’s southwestern territory,  eventually relocating his family from Chicago. A truck driver, my paternal grandfather cruised I-10 carting goods east from California also eventually pitching the Ritchey tent in El Paso. My parents met at the state university in town, got engaged three months later, and married three months after that.

I won’t forget our stucco house on Guthrie street. At dusk the light would catch Guthrie’s street sign, shooting glares through my bedroom window, affixing the memory of that sight at the front of my memory. Oakbridge and Rockwood didn’t puzzle me, but Guthrie, what was that?  I’ve never known how to shut my mind off when it settles into speculation, an unrelenting eagerness to question everything. I exhausted my parents with questions. But answers to the real questions, not why a brain freeze happens, or why the stop lights are red, yellow, and green, but the questions with consequences, those questions I sometimes wish went unasked. As for that Guthrie street sign, it’s fun to think of it as a signal from the “Dust Bowl Troubador” himself, picking me out early on, singing to me before I had answers that hurt the both of us.

To pass the time, my young family piled into our truck to take nighttime drives around the historic district, a hodgepodge of old ranch style outposts and mansions. Peeking in windows, I’d imagine how the owners traipsed around; with each lamp lit, a story unfolded in my mind. We’d conclude with a stop at St. Anthony’s Monastery, “set upon a hill to light the way,” but  the dark, gated grounds and towering cathedral paired with crumbling headstones at Concordia cemetery on the horizon terrified me. My infrequent mass attendance and minimal acquaintance with the sacraments didn’t help. Lunch time stories of First Holy Communions in white dresses left me keen to understand. A Swedish Lutheran in a place where most of my school friends were Catholic, it was difficult to situate myself in the crowd, but I learned and I was bolstered.

By the time I started high school, it seemed most of the girls had forgotten the feeling attached to those white gowns, that is, until it came time for them to put another on for their quincaneras, a young Hispanic woman’s entrance into womanhood. A quincanera is one occasion (of many) to gather friends and family for food and fun.

Life was leisurely. Everything began after schedule because there was no rush to be anywhere else. The expression “our door is always open” was well-lived, and when I crossed a doorstep, I was met with open arms. Truly, the hug was the handshake even between strangers.

Like most suburban cities, El Paso has its share of strip malls, a uniform assemblage in every subdivision. But because of its felt isolation and a hesitance from large chain stores to move in, these strip malls are packed with small locally-owned businesses. I had a favorite tiny taco joint, tamale joint, fajita joint, margarita joint and guacamole joint. For fifty years my grandparents have dined at Avilas’s, a family-owned Mexican restaurant. The fixtures remain unchanged: rod-iron lamps, bright upholstery, desert landscape paintings and heavy ceramic plates. You can expect it to stay that way if the last five decades are any indication.

These memories make me eager to defend it. Yet I was unwilling to commit. I was authenticated there, working to prove myself as much as the city works to make a mark on the map, and once I had, I went away. But when I come home, I’m a prodigal welcomed with a “Bienvenidos!” as if I’d never left.  It’s an unexpected return on an investment that ended the day I left.

A long absence hasn’t lessened my fervor. Ask me where I’m from and my heart swells with pride, pride in the mountains, the river, the sunsets, and even the grime that builds up from the hope that settles in the dust.

The Listening Room Speaks

The history of Richmond, Virginia, my beloved hometown, is not one of collaboration. If anything, our dark past has quieted us. We live honest lives of looking forward, never looking back. We have been branded with a forced forgetfulness of our history as the capital of the Confederacy, fearing our pride will disrespect. So over the past century the suburbs have crawled and crawled, scratching the long fingers of subdivisions over the hills, across the borders of the town. And the city ever so slowly passed away, as the ominous cloud of fear and regret swept over the blocks. Buildings vacated, trash uncollected, industry dissolved.

Birdie Busch performs at The Listening Room. Photo by Rob Jefferson.

Only over the past decade or so, has life returned to the city. Revitalization efforts bring cross-sections of the populace together for a common hope. A turn is happening in my city, one where not only the college students inhabit downtown, eat downtown, listen downtown. The divisions of the city are beginning to blur, lost in commonality and community; supported and purported by events and people that know no bounds.

One group of people in the city, named The Foundry, have formed to do just this– bring people back to appreciation of the independent music scene. This powerful, yet quiet, collaboration has created one event in particular, called The Listening Room, that has been drawing all corners of the city together. Every third Tuesday of the month the Foundry organizes a show, much like any other music show seen in any other town, except there is one very important rule: no talking during performances. Yes, you can talk before the performance, you can talk in between and after performances, but when the music is playing, there is silence, and there is respect.

Silence means, of course, that the audience is hushed. Unlike the background music wailing at a bar on Friday night, where the band is nothing more than a stage to young peoples’ plays of drunken fraternization, silence means listening. I believe it was the first grade when my meek elementary teacher extolled the purpose and necessity of active listening. “Really listening,” she would say, “is not just sitting silently.” And only now have I learned it is a process of intake, and also, digestion, and occasionally, explication.

So to be one of the listeners, you must uphold your charge with the utmost seriousness. We listen intently to three acts, each punctuated by a fifteen-minute break, where we mill about, sigh at the impressiveness of the previous performance, grab at quartered donuts, and pour the free coffee. Being a listener is exhausting. For the caliber of performers that play, your heart is placed on the whims of the artist. We swell in their joys, we cry in their sorrows. For the few minutes that each artist plays, we parallel their songs. We are a diverse audience, representing generations and upbringings incongruous with homogeneity. Yet together we are a whole, and an audience in the fullest sense of the word, attuning our very selves to roll with the undulations of their music.

It is the musicians, though, who hold the most difficult task. In a world where independent artists grasp at the elusive attentions of the apathetic bar folk screaming ‘Free Bird’ yet again, they are instead met with silence. With a crowd ranging anywhere from one to two hundred people, their very admiration and reverence weigh in the balance of the performance. The artist has much to lose. In this rare state, when respect actually can be won, where their message can be heard, when their style can pervade– the artist stands before the crowd. Usually with sweat on their brow, and a guitar slung across their shoulder, they stand making quaking jokes, fully understanding the severity of listening, even if they are before the most gracious of an audience.

The vulnerability required to play The Listening Room is a serious trial, and not to be demeaned. The audience can hear inauthenticity, just as they can hear a misplayed chord. Performers do not just muster their strength; they muster their humility. For without pretense, show, or guises, they have to be fully human. And the audience reciprocates, providing a happily supportive and safe fan base: individuals eager to hear and accept this artist as yet-another great.

In the end, The Listening Room is not just a musical venue. It is a concept that brings the vitality of music back to the musicians and the audience. It is a gathering that has breached gaps unprecedented by the people of Richmond. It represents something far greater than the sum of its parts. It reminds musicians and listeners alike that music does indeed have the power to weave lines of connection between hearts, span audience divisions, and foster a common culture where it did not first exist.

I now have a rhythm to my Tuesdays. A dinner with close friends before, then an early arrival through the doors, we briefly greet the welcomers, where my hand is stamped with an iconic imprint of a gramophone. I meet friends new and old, and I again witness a group of people giving their time and energy to create arts that matter– arts that change people, because they connect people.

The lighting is always low and warm, and the pastries are always soft. Souls slow down as they enter the room, dragged backwards in the irrelevance of worry or apprehension. You drift into the larger whole, a congregated body come to respect and support artists. You become an integral part in this momentous concept.

The Listening Room will go on, spurred only by donations and hope, as long as there are willing artists and quiet attendees. And not just for this city of fractured history, but for all people to remember the function and power of art, this type of gathering is absolutely necessary.

If you are ever in the area, we welcome anyone and everyone to join us on the third Tuesday of every month for The Listening Room.

A Sense of Place

These days, our culture appears more and more defined by a sense of rootlessness.  More than ever, people are packing up and moving away from the places they’ve grown up in, and staying away.  They are also moving from place to place within their own lifetimes, like American nomads.  Some people, like New York Times reporter Michael Powell, would observe that this sense of wanderlust has always been part of the American character and spirit.  Still, it can be observed that American character not withstanding, we are much more mobile than our ancestors were.

North Main Street, Fall River, Massachusetts.

My life has been the exact opposite of this trend.  I have lived in the city of Fall River, Massachusetts, for my entire life.  In fact, I still live in the same house that I was born in, which is also the house my father was born in and grew up in, and where his father grew up and died.  When my parents grow older, my siblings and I will likely inherit this same house, four generations after my great-grandparents bought it in the early 1900s.  The biggest move I’ve ever made was from the third floor of our house to the first floor.  In contrast, I have some friends who have moved up to 20 times in their lives.

I can’t say that I’ve always appreciated this fixity in one place.  In my late teens and early twenties, I was possessed with the desire to get away and live somewhere else for awhile.  I felt like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, stuck in a crummy little town, bursting to get out and see the world.  I pursued several opportunities to move away and live in another part of the country for a period.  None of those opportunities ever came to fruition.  So for awhile I felt trapped, stuck in my own version of Bedford Falls.

Within the past several years however, I have come to feel differently about my hometown.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a little older— although I’m certainly not in any midlife reflective stage.  Perhaps some of my youthful ambition and energy has already started to fade.  With that has come a reassessment of values.  Things like family and community and church have risen in my own sense of priorities.  For example, I’ve now finished graduate school for my master’s degree, and I am faced with the opportunity to pursue a PhD.  Many people would jump at the chance to go to a school somewhere else in the country, or in the world, to absorb the experience of a new place.  Several years ago, I probably would have felt the same way, but now I’d rather just find a school within the region that would allow me to stay close to the people I care about and the places I love.  Is my vision stunted?  Is my perspective of the world too small?  Am I just turning into some sort of hick?  I don’t really think so.  It’s not like I don’t want to see other parts of the world and even the country.  I’d love to travel to Europe, and I’d love to see other parts of America.  But after such adventures I’d want to come back home.

I guess perhaps I’ve become affected by what author Wendell Berry calls “a sense of place.”  What Berry means by that is more than simply “I know where I am geographically.”  As Wallace Stegner puts it, “He is talking about the kind of knowing that involves the senses, the memory, the history of a family or a tribe. He is talking about the knowledge of place that comes from working in it in all weathers, making a living from it, suffering from its catastrophes, loving its mornings or evenings or hot noons, valuing it for the profound investment of labor and feeling that you, your parents and grandparents, your all-but-unknown ancestors have put into it.”  Having lived in the same place for 27 years, I can appreciate Stenger’s assessment of Berry’s idea.  And yet I feel that I have barely begun to scratch the surface of my own sense of place.

This afternoon I visited Partners, a combination gift shop, bookstore, and cafe that sits in a house in Westport, Massachusetts, a town just outside the city. Partners contains a section of local books, and among these I found several booklets about the history of Fall River.  One of these was about the “Granite Block,” a building that existed in downtown Fall River from the 1930s-50s, and served as the central hub for a bustling city center.  As I started to read this history, I learned about the great fire of the winter of 1928, which decimated the center of the city, destroying many businesses and important buildings.  I learned how with determination and resolve the city rose from these ashes in just a year or two to rebuild this entire section even better than it was before.  I read about the Granite Block, and how it housed many local businesses that were pillars of the downtown community, where people who knew each other by name would hang out regularly, places like the Granite Block Spa, where high school kids would spend their holidays and weekends, where politicians would haggle over city politics, and where taxi drivers and mill workers would eat.

As I was reading, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the sense of missing something that I had never been a part of.  I wanted to go back to those roaring 40s, the golden age of downtown Fall River, where the streets and shops bustled with activity.  I wanted to see those Durfee high school football boys hanging out at the Spa with their girls after a Friday night movie.  I wanted to be on the streets with those eager young men hanging out in the front of the Granite Block, waiting to see what pretty girls might hop off the bus from the Fall River line.  I wanted to watch those city politicians wheeling and dealing in the haze of cigar smoke in the corner of the Spa.  I suddenly realized that the streets I walked on had layers upon layers of history, and if they could talk, might tell me so many stories of the places that I thought I knew so well.  I realized, and have been coming to the realization, that the place where I am, this city, has so much depth to it that I am not even aware of.  And yet this place, these generations, these stories, have brought me onto the world’s scene, and have shaped who I am.

I guess I have become so aware of our culture’s rootlessness and my aversion to it because my own fixed state in one place for so long has actually helped me come to realize, over time, my own rootedness.  For now, I feel this strong desire to know who I am, and where I have come from.  I feel a strong affection and attachment to my family and my community.  I am discovering new things about the places I have lived in all of my life.  What may have been a crummy little town is not so crummy, and I even wish to see some of its former greatness restored.  For now I am developing my sense of place, and that’s just fine, because there are plenty of adventures unfolding right in my own neighborhood.

New Anthems, Shanghai

Outside our apartment in Shanghai, China is a small triangle where 3 roads cross. In this small patch of grass no bigger than a little league infield, sit a few old men on benches around a statue of Tian Han (田汉). They’re all old enough to remember when his poem was picked in 1949 to become the national anthem of the new Communist China.

Most mornings at 8am we walk out of our low lying lane of three-story brick apartments and the chicken man is standing at one corner of the triangle.

In the winter he wears a thick coat, in the summer an old dirty blazer. No matter what the season he’s smoking a cigarette and leaning against one of the most complicated bicycles you’ve ever seen.

There’s a cage of chickens welded onto the back, and attached to the side is an oil drum of water heated by burning coals. For about 20元 (~$3) you can buy one of these chickens and watch him spring into action.

In a few flicks of his wrists he’ll have slit the throat, drained the blood into the gutter, plunged the (almost dead) carcass into hot water that makes the feather plucking easier, and then, he hands you tonight’s dinner. No registers or receipts, no shipments, and no watchful eyes of the FDA (or whatever the Chinese equivalent is). The blood slowly trickles towards the sewer in thin side- winding rivulets for minutes after the kill.

By 10am, when one of the four subway lines within 10 minutes of our front door has taken us to work, our neighbor, Mr. Zhu, will be sitting across the street from the chicken man, also smoking.

Mr. Zhu, also old enough to remember Tian Han’s poetry, grew up in this neighborhood. Though far older, far more dogmatic, and far simpler than his American neighbors, he’s not mad at us for gentrifying his block. In fact he and his wife are kind enough to bring over the occasional dinner of home- wrapped wonton dumplings, translucent and filled with fresh shrimp and spring onions. And when our toilet breaks, Mr. Zhu comes over immediately to fix it — a jerry rig using some twine and a fishing bobber because buying replacements parts would be an unnecessary expense. He surreptitiously smokes cigarettes in the bathroom while he works, stubbing them out when we return.

Back at the triangle, Mr. Zhu smokes and perhaps pulls out a pack of playing cards with his friend while behind him, ubiquitously scarved Europeans gather for authentic Mexican fare and noontime margaritas. Mr. Zhu sits, content, on the bench right in front of their window, almost as if he hasn’t noticed that in the past ten years foreign restauranteurs have taken over the street opposite his house, where the charge for a dinner probably matches a month of his rent.

Into the early afternoon, after the foreigners have left, the restaurants have slowed down, and Mr. Zhu has returned to our alley to work on some fix-it project for the housewife next door, the intersection seems to pause for an afternoon nap…

…until a careless cab comes through and catches a back bicycle wheel. A 30 year-old woman who’s dressed to the nines ends up on the street. Her dark tights, stiff up-do and painted nails haven’t kept her from the default transportation here. While she’s picking herself off the pavement, China shows off its one, universally unsurpassable quality — people, people, and more people.

Within seconds, 50+ have gathered around to watch this fiery woman give a confused and defensive cab driver an earful. Luckily the only casualties are her bent back tire, scuffed leather boots and Louis Vuitton handbag that now has only one usable hand strap. Fortunately the bag was a black market imitation and will be easily replaced.

After the sun sets and the street lights come on, we come back for dinner at a cheap hole-in-the-wall one the third side of the triangle, a spot we have affectionately dubbed ‘the dumpling place.’ Inside there are six tables that sit, at max, four a piece. And they’re always sitting four, because these are the best dumplings in the neighborhood.

The lady who runs the joint is curtly taking orders up front and shooing people out the minute they finish their last bite. Tonight we have two orders of the pork and chive dumplings dipped in a mix of crushed peppers, minced garlic and rice vinegar. No drinks available unless you order a warm beer, and tonight’s not that kind of night. So it turns out splendid – but rather savory – and we need something to balance it out.

This is where we start doing the math of rationalization. Since we spent a grand total of $3 for two heaping plates of dumplings, maybe we can spare twice that much for dessert.

We walk down the triangle over to a gelato place and enjoy three scoops of spicy chocolate, coconut, and crème caramel – all homemade recipes by the Italian owner. While we order he pokes fun at us foreigners who always order the coconut — “I can never make enough ko-coo-naut!” he grumbles — and then goes on to complain how the Chinese always order the green tea because all the other flavors are too sweet.

“I just don’t understand, ice cream should be sweet, no?” he’s still puzzling as we walk out the door.

We’re going to bed early tonight, and by the time we’re turning off the lights at 11pm, Shanghai’s nouveau riche are just lining up outside Club 88 back on the “foreign end” of the triangle. Clubs in Shanghai, an imported concept, still retain the techno, the strobe lights and the scantily clad hired stage dancers. But imagine all of that blaring in a room that, instead of a dance floor, has a crowded, Victorian style sitting parlor where groups of friends crowd around a dice game and pitchers of a lethal Tanqueray and green tea cocktail.

Outside, some Muslim street vendors have taken over the chicken man’s spot and they grill kebabs for the crowd that will make a mass exodus at closing time. A beggar sits on the bench that was Mr. Zhu’s afternoon spot, waiting for some change.

The last one standing is the granite Tian Han, surveying the triangle from his austere pedestal. Only years after his lyrics were selected for the Chinese anthem that is still sung today, the Cultural Revolution turned his countrymen against him, and he died alone in a prison cell.

This statue is perhaps an apology. Once accepted as a revolutionary for his fierce prose — Arise! All who refuse to be slaves! / Let our flesh and blood forge into our new Great Wall! / … Brave the enemy’s fire, March on! — the times changed on him as quickly as they are changing today.

Into the wee hours when the chicken man is already up and reloading his bicycle, the techno beats on, the new anthem of a neighborhood, a city, and a country still as fluid and as unpredictable as the one that once lauded, then silenced, then statued, Tian Han.

Re-examining the Suburbs

It’s a hot day in the middle of August and I’m speeding through suburban Philadelphia in a borrowed Honda. The windows are down, the sunroof is open, and the Rolling Stones are blasting on satellite radio. As I wind through Dresher, Abington, and Willow Grove, PA I hit tree-lined residential streets before turning onto a four-lane artery lined with aging strip malls. I pull into a parking spot in front of the bank and take some money out, get back in the car, drive down to the grocery store to pick up some things for dinner, and then hit the road again, easing a few minutes later into my parents’ Clinton-era town house development. It’s freeing to speed around in their car, and it feels like a return to my roots in suburban Mclean, VA. No crowds, no problems.

The suburbs are the default mode of American life, the place middle and upper middle class people live when they’re not consciously choosing to live somewhere else. As they have since the 1950’s, the suburbs appeal to Americans’ desire for space (for themselves and for their cars), local governmental control over their neighborhood public spaces and institutions (as opposed to the city-wide dispersion of tax dollars and land use decisions that characterize local governance in large cities), and the desire to have ownership not only of one’s living space but of a piece of land as well. Two generations of children have now grown up in the suburbs, and for most Americans life without driveways or drive-in windows is nearly inconceivable.

And yet something changed with the second generation of suburban natives, those of us who were born in the 70’s and 80’s and spent half our childhood watching the world go by from the back of a station wagon. For many of us who grew up during the Reagan or Clinton eras, the idea of driving less and walking more started to seem like a good idea. Seeking out a different way of life, recent college grads following in the footsteps of artists and other urban pioneers, bypassed the suburbs for a place in town. Eventually every city wanted its SoHo or Greenwich Village. A recent apartment posting on Craigslist captured the new urban ideal: “Imagine waking up in a cozy apartment home within walking distance to your favorite latte shop to grab a coffee and muffin.” The posting was for an apartment in Missoula, Montana.

This new embrace of urban life corresponded to an increasing dismissal of the suburbs as soulless and deadening, home to “cookie-cutter” housing developments and chain stores lacking in character. In the eyes of many, suburbs like Abington, Dresher, Willow Grove, and McLean were not places at all, just a few squares in the endless quilt of sprawl.

Of course, hating on the suburbs is nothing new. In 1961, after the first wave of post-war suburban flight, Jane Jacobs, patron saint of urban pioneers, wrote “each day, several thousand more acres of countryside are eaten by the bulldozers, covered by pavement, dotted with suburbanites who have killed the thing they thought they came to find.” In 1979, David Byrne sang of the suburbs, “I wouldn’t live there if they paid me to.”

But over the last couple of years, anti-suburbanism, perhaps bolstered by the ranks of young people re-inhabiting cities, has reached a fever pitch in popular culture. In a March 2009 article in the Atlantic, Richard Florida suggested that “suburbanization-and the sprawling growth it propelled-made sense of a time. But that was then; the economy is different now. A new geography is required.” Florida’s idea of a new geography is a return to the density of old cities, in short, “packing in more people.”

In Jonathan Franzen’s much-hyped new novel Freedom, an anti-sprawl advocate rails against suburban development and exalts in the density of New York City: “This is the way human beings are supposed to live! High density! High efficiency!” The Curator’s own Thomas Turner, referencing Danielle Dutton’s novel SPRAWL, suggested, “the end of the world is when all the world has become suburbia.”

The problem with such criticisms is that they are too often true. Of course, there are old, walkable suburbs like Wayne, PA outside Philadelphia, and Brookline, MA outside Boston; uniquely beautiful towns that are no less unique for being suburbs. But the suburban towns that were developed in the post-war years were built quickly and cheaply, in an era when walkability and access to mass transit were no longer necessary.

My own experience growing up in a post-war suburb was not altogether positive (I was prone to car sickness, for one thing). After graduating from high school I happily left the suburbs behind, eventually settling in Brooklyn, where I’ve lived since 2004. If I glory now in my drives through suburbia, it’s largely because the experience has become something of a novelty.

But just as anti-suburbanism is hitting its stride, I’m starting to wonder whether I can avoid ending up there again in a few years. As any perusal of apartment listings can attest, the newfound popularity of older, denser cities and inner-ring suburbs have made safe and desirable neighborhoods in the urban core unattainable for the average citizen. A tanking economy had a minimal effect on housing prices in gentrified urban neighborhoods, while freshly built developments on the exurban fringes were often the first to drop in value. This represented a clear reversal from the long post-war pattern of emptying cities and booming suburbs.

This isn’t necessarily bad for city-lovers like myself, and few people in New York or Washington or other rejuvenated cities are pining for the bad old days of the 1970’s, when apartments were cheap but muggings were the norm and regular street cleaning a pipe dream. But the new popularity of city living (and the corresponding rise in urban housing costs) demands new compromises from those of us with moderate incomes and children. The prospect of watching your children grow up in a cramped, rent-stabilized apartment you can never afford to move out of will change your perspective on urban living. And schooling is another problem; large cities from Washington to Chicago have been unable to rejuvenate troubled school systems, even as their middle and upper income tax base has grown.

Lacking a realistic alternative, it may be time for some of us to re-examine suburbia – with the hope of improving it. Retrofitting the newest batch of exurban subdivisions to resemble Wayne or Brookline is not possible. But as Thomas Turner noted in his Curator article, “there are people taking back the suburbs from the infestation of Hummers and fast food joints.” People working collectively in neighborhoods they feel invested in may yet have the power to overcome the bad urban design and the single-use zoning of low- density suburbs.

On a governmental level, the smaller size of municipal suburban governments creates more opportunities for community involvement and incremental change than would be possible in a large city. In my parents’ town of Dresher, PA, there is now a bike lane connecting their development to the nearest commuter rail station, suggesting the possibility (for the first time since the development was built) of a car-free commute to Philadelphia. This was the product of a small municipal government making a seemingly minor decision to paint some white lines on the street, but it represented a significant first step towards gradually reducing car dependence in their suburb. And reducing car dependence is arguably the first (and most difficult) step towards making a community more livable.

Cities are flawed in their own ways, of course, but there are solid lessons to be learned from urban revitalization. Access to alternate modes of transportation, a flowering of local businesses, and an acceptance of higher population density are elements of urban life that can translate to the suburbs. But to get there a new breed of suburban residents will have to become active in their community and support a new suburban aesthetic. It will take residents who have already experienced the benefits of biking for transportation and shopping at local businesses.

The good news for those of us who end up being grudgingly pushed out of urban neighborhoods is that more space really can be a good thing, backyards actually can be helpful when raising children, and speeding a Honda down a leafy street with the radio on is still a good time. The better news is that there’s strength in numbers, and as those of us who learned to hate the suburbs start to inhabit them, we can and should take the initiative to push them in a new direction.

Finders, Keepers

In Amsterdam there is a movement of objects that is unlike any other city in which I have lived. Every Sunday and Wednesday evening, the inhabitants of Amsterdam can place what they no longer need next to the trash disposal which is closest to their house. By midnight the streets become a display of various objects, placed there either because they cannot fit through the narrow slots of the trash cans, or because people intend to set them in motion. The latter is the most common reason why lonely chairs and tables are lined up along the sidewalks; one of the many unwritten rules of this old city is that once something is left on the street without supervision, it is free property that anybody can claim. It is easy to spot when someone is giving up their apartment because of the large accumulation of refused objects that has been piled up in front of a house. Such large accumulations of objects turn into complete showrooms of furniture and personal belongings. Unlike the IKEA showrooms that are carefully composed by a skillful interior designer and given the names of scandinavian nouns and verbs, the sidewalk showrooms consist of less organized compositions of unpredictable, random things– ranging anywhere on the scale between junk and treasures. These objects are more likely to be one of a kind, unnamed and unnumbered, and dependent on local serendipity to set them in motion.

The inhabitants of Amsterdam are quite accustomed to this tradition, so most people do not frown upon picking up things from the street. There are, of course, always people who prefer untouched objects that continue to smell of plastic foil and protective cardboard wrapping many months after they have unwrapped and assembled them. I, however, praise the system. Ever since I was a child I have had the tendency to look down and around in the search of objects that have been lost or deliberately misplaced by someone like-minded. Most children do this, and most children grow out of it at a certain age due to their parents’ overruling contempt for picking up things from the street. My parents never expressed any concerns or contempt regarding the matter, so I never grew out of the habit. Instead, I always keep my eyes open for the next finding.

The abandoned objects are of little danger; only once did I come across an abandoned collection of vinyl records that, once I held a sun-bleached Peter Gabriel album in my hand, I noticed smelled of urine. From that day on I promised myself to join the group of people who prefer objects in protective wrapping and foil. I avoided heaps and piles and junk for months, until the day that I passed a beautiful bookshelf on the corner of a small bridge in the northwest. I brought it home by balancing it between my shoulder and the back of the bike, happily reunited with my old hobby.

The quality of the objects, as well as the way they are displayed, depends on the region where they have been abandoned. Within the more wealthy areas of the city, I have found clothes smelling of fabric softener neatly folded, ironed and wrapped in exclusive designer paper-bags as if it was a service they provided. In other less fortunate areas of the city, I have seen enormous piles of worn rags and broken furniture all piled together in one big creation not knowing. But both polarities are equally important— one finds both junk and gold in most piles. The true value of the goods first becomes clear when you pursue the consequence of curiosity, to take a closer look. For those who care to do so, the activity becomes integrated in the gaze of the traveler within her route, whether she travels by car, foot or bike. This objective elongation of the gaze is, however, most convenient for those who are upon bike, which is the most common means of transportation in Amsterdam, both because of the heightened view of the situation, as well as the speed which allows you to pass through different areas within a short amount of time. After some years your selection criteria become quite strict. I have now stopped picking up chairs of any kind. However unique they might appear to be there is a certain limit to the amount of seating you can fit into a small space.

As well as the selective precaution, you also establish a sensitivity for what you can carry by bike or foot, and for how long you can endure their weight. Many times have I given up the transportation of an object for the sake of my own health (I once was in danger of falling in front of a large truck when balancing a small glass-top table in between the frame and the front of my bike at the peak of the rush hour). However, these failed attempts of transportation only contribute to the movement of the objects within the route they are to be found– their destiny is also altered by failure. When someone changes their mind and leaves the object behind somewhere along their route, it once again becomes free property. If such a garbage can is placed within the view from your apartment, you will notice the efficiency of this rotation. Here is a story from last Sunday:

Twenty to five in the afternoon a young girl places a plate of wood up against the side of the trash can. The plate has so far served the purpose of a basement door. Ten past five, a bearded man picks it up with the intention of using it as a desk in his new studio. He manages to bring it across town for about 3 km, until he finds a wider plate that is better suited for his way of working. He leaves the first finding in exchange for the second. The abandoned plate now rests there for approximately two hours until it is picked up by an old man who needs a table where he can place the electronic goods that he sells at the weekend market. The man carries it to his house, but forgets it out of fatigue, and it remains leaning against the wall next to his door overnight. The woman on second floor is the first person to see it the following morning as she goes out to fetch the newspaper. She assumes that it is deliberately abandoned and drags it up the staircase into her home. The board is given the function of covering up the side of her fence against the gaze of her neighbor. The plate has now come to an end in its travel of means and miles, until any given Sunday when things are once again set in motion.

Suburbs and Sprawl and Sidewalks! Oh My!

After teaching one Friday night, I made the mistake of putting in my ear buds and listening to The Suburbs, the latest album from Arcade Fire. As a bus led me away from Port Authority, the bright lights, and the skyscrapers reaching for the sky like villains in old westerns, I closed my eyes and listened.

Blistering critique clogged the noise of the bus’s engine as we exited the Lincoln Tunnel. I opened my eyes and looked out across the waters to the city lit up in glory, the moonlight and cloud reflections adding a touch of subtle brilliance to the halo effect. It sat there, beckoning, a city on an island. I glanced across the highway and saw the billboards cropping up and the never-ending expanse of streetlights that reach from Hoboken to Philadelphia. And I sighed.

The music was not helping. It was engrossing. It was true. It confirmed all the worries I had when I moved to New Jersey in the first place.

I moved for noble reasons. I got married. She was from New Jersey. I was from Maryland, but my parents moved away while I was in college. The roots had been pulled up, so off I went to New Jersey.

I’ve never been one for claustrophobia. I’m okay in elevators or subway cars packed like sardines. But when I first moved to New Jersey, I felt like the walls were closing in, I felt like I couldn’t breathe–like the world was always on top of my chest pressing down with loud music, high cost of living, and a lack of vegetation.

I yearned for green like a shipwrecked castaway yearns for fresh water. Day after day, I drove my car over concrete. The buildings were dull and full of concrete slabs and asphalt. Even the sky at night was an ethereal, bleached gray from the powerful lights of New York. I would drive twenty minutes to see trees or an uninterrupted patch of grass.

I couldn’t stand the people everywhere rushing, rushing, rushing, honking their horns at me, giving me the middle finger, yelling at me for being cordial on the roadway. The malls were a conflagration of people carrying out the pastime of the ‘burbs’: shopping in their sweatpants with [insert high school or college name] written on the butt.

It was so utterly different, moving to the hustle and bustle of the suburbs and actually trying to live there. The sheer lack of architectural diversity and amount of parking lots contributed to my feeling that suburban New Jersey is both omnipresent and a vacuum of nothingness, sprawled out onto the map in an endless maze of strip malls and pavement that signify nothing but empty progress.

The protagonist in Danielle Dutton’s novel S P R A W L says that the suburbs are a place of “apocalyptic foreboding.” We have seen the end of the world, and the end of the world is when all the earth has become suburbia.

There is hope, I think, in the realm of McMansions and manicured turf, the place where house cats are the leading predator. The place where sidewalks just decide to stop, as if to say why are you walking? These are the suburbs. Get in your car. It’s that the world was not always like this, and the suburbs don’t need to be like this either. Dutton’s protagonist also commented that the suburbs are “based on the idea that the past never existed,” but if we dig hard enough or talk to enough older folks, we can find that the way out of this mess is the past itself.

My mother-in-law grew up three blocks from our house, before the sprawl overwhelmed the region and turned it into a deforested area filled with giant houses on tiny lots. Much of the area was a farm. There were cows here once. It was a place where people knew each other. It was a neighborhood, in the sense that people were neighborly to each other, not just crowded around one another. It wasn’t the perfect place to live, by any means, but it was green, less busy, and nicer on the eye.

Towns are beginning to pull themselves away from the apocalyptic brink. They are unwinding the web of sprawl. Connecting the sidewalks, so to speak. It may be people are regaining common sense after our suburb-induced amnesia, and we’re beginning to remember our collective past, before cars allowed people to run away from the city or move away from the country. Or, what I think is more likely, the recession has made us question the crown jewel of the American economy: the suburb.

Tysons Corner, Virginia.

Indeed, there is hope. There are people taking back the suburbs from the infestation of Hummers and fast food joints. There is community-supported agriculture on small lots. People are hiding chickens in their backyards. The number of people I see riding bicycles has tripled in the past year. Local businesses are popping up in strip malls that were once the bastion of franchises. Even whole towns are getting in on the action. Tysons Corner, Virginia has formalized a plan to actually desprawl their town and make it denser. With density, the town can walk and bike to local businesses instead of driving and parking at big box stores. They no longer want to be a town that is 1,700 acres in size with 900 acres of parking lots. They want to be different.

The suburbs look bleak. A nihilistic attitude is hard to ignore. Arcade Fire’s Suburbs tells us that “when all of the walls that they built in the 70’s finally fall, and all of the houses they built in the 70’s finally fall . . . it meant nothing.” Fortunately, there is a way for the suburbs to mean something, and that’s through the stories of the past and anticipating a future that deconstructs the suburbs into something more real, more alive, and more green. A place that’s a neighborhood. A place that’s a home.

From the Stoops of the South Bronx

Our hunt for a home led us to the outer boroughs. We didn’t follow the footsteps of NYU art students fromWashington Square to Williamsburg, and we didn’t join the ranks of young professionals who nestled themselves closer to Studio Square. Instead, we went north to a land we knew little about: South Bronx.  Before anyone could say, “ Wait, isn’t the Bronx is burning?”,  we were “on the 6” like a couple of “Jennies from the block.”

A view of the South Bronx from Manhattan.

Anyone who has ever driven into Manhattan from LaGuardia airport has seen Mott Haven from the Triborough Bridge; the famous History Channel sign acts as a signpost in this oft-forgotten place. Some fifty years ago,  city planning czar Robert Moses plowed multiple  freeways through the borough, so drivers on the  Bruckner Expressway heading towards Westchester see it in peeks out the window.  If you’ve been to a Yankees game or the New York Botanical Gardens, you’ve torpedoed through the subway tunnels underneath Mott Haven.

But we stopped and stayed here in Mott Haven on Alexander Avenue.

While the most eye-catching buildings are the countless high-rise housing projects, there are three historic districts in Mott Haven with about fifty landmarked brownstones; my block,  Alexander Avenue is the central linchpin of one such district. During the tumult of the 1970s, many houses were torn down or burned by landlords who collected insurance money for arson. Some of the houses are still vacant (except for clowders of feral cats) and in disrepair, but others have been renovated and make for a spacious alternative to the closets in the Village. Entire families, or in my case, ten friends, comfortably share a home.  At least half of the residents on my block are homeowners, which makes this place unique for a here-a-lease, there-a-lease New York City. This has a noticeable effect on the care taken to maintain each home, and it also builds a sense of camaraderie; they’re sticking it out for the long haul.

Mrs. Joseph, a domino- playing diva and the matriarch of Alexander Avenue lives next door. Michael & Corrine are our neighborhood Helmsman; they organize community outreach events.  Sean & Tony, the most committed porters you’ll ever find, play the watchmen.  But Rudy, the king of the Mott Haven stoops, (who actually hails from another hood) teaches the best running ethnography of this place. According to him, the immigrant influxes went like this:  first there were the English landowners who then sold  large swaths of land to the neighborhood’s namesake Jordan Mott. Mott used the terrain along the Harlem River for his foundry and iron works factory. This led to an influx of industrial and shipping companies which were manned by Irish & Italian immigrants. Generations later the Irish & Italians moved out to the suburbs. Their vacancies were filled by African- American, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Haitian families who are still here. In the last few decades, there has been an increasing number of immigrants from Central America too.  And then there are the few recent graduates and young families who’ve come to the Bronx for its proximity to Manhattan, lower rents, and charm.

My neighbors paint a better picture of what the South Bronx was and their feelings about what it is becoming are far more qualified than my own, but I’ll share what I’ve watched.

Good news: the Bronx isn’t burning anymore. Today  factories like Jordan Mott’s either sit empty or have been refashioned into artists lofts. Every once and a while a gallery will spring up. Some make it; others don’t.  The neighborhood made headlines with the ” Go Greeners!” when word spread about Sustainable South Bronx. Green Roofs are growing with funding from groups like SSBx and Habitat for Humanity. A few cafes and restaurants serve New American fare, and they do a great job, but the taquerias still trump them.

But most things are still grimy.  Once considered the Champs-Élysées of New York, the The Grand Concourse wouldn’t conjure up any such comparison for today’s Parisian. While the broad avenue is still adorned with the best art-deco buildings,  the storefronts are patterned: bodega, barber shop, fried chicken & pizza store, laundromat, Caribbean restaurant, iglesia, florist, pharmacy, and then the whole thing sort of repeats itself. Rightly, it is populated by purveyors the pedestrian has demanded; this is what ought to be expected.  The hustle and bustle is good and invigorating, but it does have the tired look of  the main drag in the city’s poorest borough.

Given all this,  it would be tempting to drop the GENTRIFICATION label on my cohort and me, but it’s not that simple.We stay in Mott Haven because we love Mott Haven, not because of what we presume it will become.  Sure, the prospect of familiar downtown amenities opening closer to home is attractive, but imagining a Western Beef as a Whole Foods is horrible. There aren’t mommies wearing Moby’s or Toms wearing Tom’s up here, and there won’t be for a very long time. Fingers crossed.

All joking aside, we understand the real economic effects of higher wage earners moving into low income areas, and we are glad we haven’t seen a rise in costs. We’re especially glad for our neighbors who’d be burdened by those increases. I wish I didn’t have to hop on a train to work everyday, but unfortunately, I commute. It is a barrier; it separates me from the pulse of this place for twelve hours a day. Of that my neighbors and I are keenly aware.

Regarding the Garden State

For most of my life I have delighted in my identity as a New Englander. At different stages, this meant different things. When I was very young it meant I came from the place in America where the history was made. I remember feeling prepubescent pride as my Cub Scout troop traveled to Plymouth, Massachusetts to see the Mayflower and Plymouth Plantation, a replica of the pilgrims’ settlement there. In my backyard I dug for what I hoped would be arrowheads from Native American tribes, and even created short stories about the history of my hometown.

There is life on the other side of the Hudson.

As I got a bit older I loved being from the same place as John F. Kennedy. I loved that my name referenced his. I was proud of my part-Italian, part-Irish ancestry and fancied myself the very embodiment of a Bostonian — not the Boston Brahman type, of course, but the working class, fresh-off-the-boat-and-now-we-own-this-town kind of Bostonian.

In college I moved further north of Boston and claimed the beaches, the rocky cliffs, the wooded forests, and open fields as my own. In autumn there was apple-picking; sledding in the winter. The spring couldn’t be appreciated, I was sure, without having lived through a Nor’easter or two, and the summer brought with it boiled lobster dinners and night walks on the beach.

When my wife and I moved to New York City (well, Jersey City, really) over two years ago, I felt strongly about bringing New England here with us. We proudly told visiting friends as we toured them around the city that our favorite places were those that most reminded us of Boston. And in the summer and fall we made near-weekly trips back to our former home so as to not miss what we loved best.

Recently, though, a change is beginning to take place in my perception of my identity. It’s not that I’m becoming a New Yorker. No, in fact I probably have a stronger aversion to that word now then I ever did while living in Boston. I could never feel pride in being a New Yorker as, it seems to me, I could never truly be a New Yorker. None of us transplants can. The only New Yorkers are those people who were born and raised here. But those aren’t the people who like to tell everyone that they’re New Yorkers. Rather, it’s the transplants who so perpetually self-identify. They come to the city, spend a few years dressing up and going to work, before returning home, back to the South or Midwest to live out the rest of their days reminiscing about when they were New Yorkers.

I could never be a New Yorker. Rather, there’s something about living in New Jersey. There’s something about living in a place that is always the brunt of a joke — a punch line — that really grows on you. I’m tempted to say that this effect is particularly felt by a former self-deprecating Bostonian, but I see it taking hold in all kinds of people that move here from all over the country. I never cared much for Springsteen, but I love him now. My wife and I admire the raw and unexpected beauty of the rows and rows of those shipping cranes that hunch over Newark Bay as we drive south down the New Jersey Turnpike.

There’s a dull shine to the people who were born and raised here, like brushed metal. They’ve heard all the jokes but, at the end of the day, they love living in a place that has easy access to New York City and Philadelphia, the Shore and the Poconos. Mock all you want, they say to the rest of the country; it is your aversion that keeps us pure.

Here in Jersey City this “Jersey-ness” manifests itself in not quite a chip on the shoulder, but an understanding: we are all here for the same reason. We don’t need to feel cool. We want more space. We love to have a good time, but want it quiet where we sleep. And, most importantly, we’re here for the long run. People in Jersey City aren’t here to fulfill a life-long dream of living the city life, or, if they were, they’ve changed their mind. You don’t have access to any of the superficial benefits of living in New York City. If someone asks you where you live and you say New York, you’re lying. If you say New York City, you’re within your rights (I say I grew up in Boston though I grew up ten minutes outside the city), but the follow-up question is always “What part?” and Jersey City is never the right answer. If you live here, it’s not for the cool factor.

And yet, there’s plenty to feel cool about. Read Junot Diaz or marvel at the way life-long Garden State resident John McPhee describes his home state. Listen and identify with any of the angsty Jersey performers, from the original, Frank Sinatra, to Springsteen, to the punks like The Misfits or Patti Smith, the Fugees to The Gaslight Anthem. Hell, if angst ain’t your thing, Jersey even gave us the Jonas Brothers.

But none of that is really the point for Jersey residents. You can see this in the way they welcome newcomers. I’ve heard stories of how people never fully integrate into some states, Maine for example. I used to try to convince my wife that we should move to Portland, Maine until a friend who grew up there advised against it. “They’d never accept you,” he assured us. Jersey residents, on the other hand, have this subtle kind of welcome. It says, “Okay, you’re here now. Don’t make a big thing of it.” This is precisely why we hate “Jersey Shore.” We get it. People come from all over to vacation on the shore — just be quiet about it.

Eventually, my wife and I often think, we’ll head back to our beloved New England, back to Massachusetts. That is, after all, where our families live, where our roots are. But I can say with a hint of certainty: if, by some chance two years ago, we hadn’t made the decision to forego Brooklyn, Manhattan, or Queens, if we had spent these past couple of years trying, fruitlessly, to convince ourselves that we were New Yorkers, we would’ve packed up and moved home by now. Instead, we find ourselves identifying with the families more and more that have made Jersey City their permanent home; we visit open houses “just to see” and spend lazy afternoons browsing real estate websites, thinking, We could start our family here, maybe.

Rudyard Kipling Sings Another Prairie Tune

I come from Medicine Hat.

If you’ve never been to Canada, you might not know of the place and even if you happen to be Canadian, you may never have heard of it. The Canadian band, The Guess Who, did some name-dropping on “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon,” their song that paid homage to all things homegrown. But of course one doesn’t remember a place by seeing it pinpointed on a map or by hearing it referenced by Burton Cummings.

Saamis Teepee

The knowing is in the being. And if you have ever found yourself trucking across the prairies along the Trans-Canada Highway, that ribbon of pavement uniting the Dominion from east to west, you’ll have passed through my city. Even without stopping, you’ll probably have a vague memory of its intriguing name and the monolithic metal structure that resembles a tepee towering south of the highway.

As the Trans-Canada Highway is some 8,000 kilometres long, I can’t speak for very many stretches of that paved strip, but I do know that when you are west of Swift Current and east of Calgary, there is nary a tree in sight. At the summer’s end, fields of wheat await the harvest. Plain Jane pastureland stretches to the horizon, as cattle graze and laze. Farmers swath the hay in the ditches between the twinned highway, leaving behind neatly piled rows for the baler to coil up. But mostly, all you can see is sky. Then you pass through that jewel on the prairie, as welcome as a sprig of parsley garnishing your baked potato: welcome to Medicine Hat, the Gas City.

Like all Hatters, I was always aware that my city had an unusual moniker. Moving away from home gave me the chance to revel in the name’s rarity and has given me opportunity to tell the story of the place.

Near the end of the 19th century, the tracks of the Canadian Pacific Railway — that romantic prelude to the Trans-Canada — edged ever westward; settlements followed. Cradled in an arm of the South Saskatchewan River, Medicine Hat soon grew from tent town to small city.

The place derived its name from the Blackfoot saamis, meaning “eagle tail headdress.” The most common tale told amongst locals today is that the Blackfoot and the Cree First Nations were at war, with the South Saskatchewan River acting as a territorial boundary. Here, the details get a little fuzzy. As in any battle, somebody won and somebody lost. What is significant is that the medicine man lost his hat. Other variant stories abound, but these relate to geographical features of the area that nobody can quite identify, or are much too full of mysticism and sacrifice, with which nobody is very comfortable.

It turns out that today’s curious motorists on the Trans-Canada are in good company. In 1907, Rudyard Kipling trekked across the country on the Canadian Pacific Railway, spouting witty aphorisms as the train blew steam.  Kipling, the poet of the Empire and author of The Jungle Book, taught me the pourquoi of the camel and its hump and the rhinoceros and its skin in his Just So Stories. I was enraptured by the animated version, narrated by Jack Nicholson (and still, it would seem, only available on VHS). In a roundabout way, Kipling also gave the residents of Medicine Hat a pourquoi story of their own. This tiny town had the good fortune of springing up atop oil and natural gas reserves. Kipling wrote, “This part of the country seems to have all hell for a basement, and the only trap door appears to be in Medicine Hat.” And his train rolled on.

Then in 1910, some people on the city council thought about rebranding the city’s title. Something less strange, something more comfortable, and more determinant of enterprise. Something that might attract the attractive. Something like Smithville. Or even better, Leopoldville. A name that would entice land buyers and promote commerce. Concerned citizens had no course of action but to call upon Rudyard Kipling, who had been so friendly to the city during his visit just a few years prior. Even busy with his affairs in Sussex, England, Kipling wasted no time in responding at length:

To my mind, the name of Medicine Hat echoes the old Cree and Blackfoot tradition of red mystery and romance that once filled the prairies. Also it hints at the magic that underlies the city in the shape of your natural gas. Believe me, the very name is an asset, and as years go on will become more and more of an asset. It has no duplicate in the world; it makes men ask questions . . . and draws the feet of the young towards it; it has the qualities of uniqueness, individuality, assertion and power. Above all, it is the lawful, original, sweat-and-dust-won name of the city and to change it would be to risk the luck of the city, to disgust and dishearten old-timers, not in the city alone, but the world over, and to advertise abroad the city’s lack of faith in itself.

A friend in need is a friend indeed. Kipling couldn’t have played better to the marketing minded — that Medicine Hat should remain Medicine Hat became a matter of international importance. And thus it has remained: an exceptionality to those just passing through and a source of pride for those born and raised in Medicine Hat.

Detroit: The Resilient City

Detroit is not the easiest place to live but that’s part of its charm. It asks a lot of you at times, but it is unlike any city I have encountered in the freedom it offers, the deep community it necessitates, and the creative responses it provokes.

I moved to Detroit a year ago to start graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art and quickly began to feel like it was a place I was supposed to live for a long time. I think you truly get to know a place as you get to know its people, and I was lucky to meet a phenomenal community of artists and musicians soon after moving here. My love for this place rises directly out of my relationships with my friends. They are the ones who have shown me this city, and it is through being near their love for it that I have come to love it as well.

Over the past year, I have come to appreciate the strange expansiveness and unexpected beauty of Detroit’s landscape. Being one of the only cars on a wide street often leaves me feeling quietly exposed yet defiantly independent as I move about the city. There is something strangely peaceful yet empowering about coming to a traffic light that is no longer working. And although it is sad at times to be surrounded by physical manifestations of decay on a daily basis, it is also inspiring to see waist-high grasses and wildflowers reclaiming once occupied buildings that are no longer needed. Seeing the wildflowers change every few weeks this summer has kept me primed to the constant cycles of life and death happening around us and helped me appreciate the opportunities for new growth that accompany loss.

I have also been baffled by the intimacy and strength of community that exists in Detroit. Community is strong here out of necessity. When you can’t ride your bike home alone at night, you have to leave with a friend. When you live in one of a few homes occupied on a block, you have to really get to know your neighbors and look out for each other. People are also incredibly supportive of each others’ artistic and entrepreneurial work because cooperation is essential for building a critical mass of support in a city this size. The small scale of the arts community here also makes it likely that you’ve had the opportunity to really get to know people working in similar ways…and when you really get to know people, it’s hard not to want to support them.

I have been inspired by the fierce ingenuity and resourcefulness of Detroiters as they creatively respond to specific problems in their neighborhoods and communities. From farmers to artists, builders to social entrepreneurs, residents are responding to local needs with an urgency that often leads them to work collaboratively across disciplines. As an artist, I feel deeply grateful to have the opportunity to come alongside and work with people who are experimenting with new alternatives and unexpected, creative approaches for how to solve local problems and grow as a city.

Over the past year, living in Detroit has taught me deep things about how failure gives rise to freedom and need provokes creativity. With no local coffeehouse to write in, you write in bars. With little functioning public transportation, you ride bikes with your friends. With not one chain grocery store in the city limits, you plant a garden and grow your own food. I’ve also simply had a lot of lot of fun getting to know some of the most creative, passionate people I have ever met. Detroit is complex city with many deep problems, but it is also a resilient city that has offered me the freedom to make new things that are actually needed with people I really care about.

Birmingham: a Homecoming

If you care to notice, in May, the honeysuckle and gardenias mix to form a cocktail of intoxicating aromas. They are everywhere. You can stand on 2nd Avenue North downtown; even there the smell will be overwhelming. The whole metro area taken over by the scent of spring, making its last call, and summer, bursting onto the scene.

Living in this place seems significant. ‘Place’ had never been important before. As a pastor, such a thing seemed trivial and only to be enjoyed by those who were not pastors. It was a luxury I could not afford to care much about. I was to care for the people and shepherd them the best I could, but where I was, well, that was only significant in what it offered in the way of diversion. But not here. Here is home. I was born here. I was schooled here. I grew to be a man here. I met my wife here and I married her here. We spent our first night together here.

Now, the grass is green everywhere, and all the trees are full enough to give the shade necessary to survive a summer in Birmingham. It is June. It is hot. There is a collective longing for fall that is not due entirely to the coming football season. There are three months left of this heat, and though the nights are for the most part cool enough to enjoy, we know what is coming in the form of August.

I moved my family on top of Shades Mountain just a few weeks ago. Our house sits almost as high as is possible. The Native Americans used to travel along the crest, fearing the darkness of the valley not far from where I sit, looking into the thick growth of Shades Valley. Their preferred travel routes and settlements were atop Red, Shades, and Ruffner Mountains. Now, Shades Valley is one of the most preferred areas in the region.

Shades Valley, Alabama

We shop here. We eat and get coffee here. Sometimes, my wife says, “We live here now.” Often, when we’ve just hit the crest of a mountain road or dusk has settled on the horizon framed by tree-bejeweled peaks, I say the same thing back to her.

We moved back 7 months ago. Having never been difficult while we were away, living in other Southern and Midwestern cities,but now in retrospect, it is hard. Our time away was no exile, but for nine years, we were gone from the town we called “home” since the time the word had any meaning beyond bricks and mortar.

I can remember the front yard of my childhood full of lightning bugs. I would do all sorts of unkind things to them, but mostly, I just remember watching them light up the yard. As a child, this was the closest thing to magic I saw. Now, they cover our front yard. In fact, the front yard would be dark if not for the moon and the lightening bugs. And though my children are supposed to be in bed by eight, we allow them to stay up and catch a few.

In our time away, did we “miss out” on something never expecting that to be the case?

In fact, we never expected to move back. The idea of “missing out” was not even on the table. We had left never to return. But we did return, and though this is our city, the city did not wait on us. It kept growing and heaving and progressing, which doesn’t take away from the joy we have in being back. Nevertheless, it is hard to have been away. I hope it will not always be so. The roads I drive, full of curves, hills, and vales are now so familiar, I can foresee a time when it will seem as if we never left. One can hope.

The mountain views are what we notice the most now. We had grown up here, taking these hills, valleys, mountains, and dales for granted. We had forgotten the singular beauty of winding roads canopied in firm-rooted oak and towering pine. Now, all of this takes our breath away. Once, the familiarity of it all bred contempt and we were glad to leave it all behind. Now, we never want to leave. Taking it for granted would be a kind of leaving, which we would like to avoid.

Actually, I cannot even tell if Birmingham is a beautiful place or not anymore; it could be nostalgia and experience playing on my affections. Perhaps because it is home in a way no other place could ever be, I am incapable of evaluating my city. I do want it to be beautiful, but I am reconciled to my bias, and I am alright with not knowing. I just don’t want to lose the feelings – the emotion of being back for good– not just a visit through town to drop off the grandkids.

“We live here now.” This is home.

A Place for Stories: The Annapolis Bookstore

I discovered the Annapolis Bookstore two years ago, when a friend and I were ambling through the narrow, cobbled streets of downtown Annapolis, Maryland, taking in the ocean smell of the Chesapeake Bay. As we turned off State Circle onto Maryland Avenue, we came upon baskets of used books lying out in the sun by the stoop of an old house. A large bay window revealed a leather armchair, a world globe, and a side table with a stack of books.

A bookworm at heart, I needed no further invitation, but little did I know that I had stumbled into a rabbit hole that day– a world complete with its own bookstore mouse, traveling pussycat, and rumors of a secret passageway.

Inside, the ocean air gave way to the musty smell of yellowing pages. Books—mostly old, but some new—spilled from floor-to-ceiling shelves onto chairs, mantels, countertops, and stepladders. Like many of the boutique shops in downtown Annapolis, this one is run out of a historic Georgian-style house, likely dating back to colonial times, when Annapolis briefly served as the nation’s capital.

Surrounded by the low ceiling, framed artwork, and walls of bookcases, I felt as if I were browsing through someone’s carefully culled personal collection. And in a way, I was. Despite the overflowing shelves, this isn’t the kind of store where you sift through piles just to find something of interest. The owners, Mary and Janice, handpick the books from estate sales, their own travels, and boxes brought in by neighborhood readers.

I learned the bookstore also hosts readings, book discussion groups, concerts, a citywide Great Annapolis Treasure Hunt fundraiser, and even an annual read-in-bed-a-thon. This last event involves replacing the usual armchair in the front window display with an actual bed, where people take turns curling up with a book under a patchwork quilt to while away the cold months.

Making my way through the shelves in the front room that day, a dusty blue wall in the back suddenly caught my eye, luring me away from the brightly lit storefront into the back corners of the house. In this pirate’s den of treasures, I found a cozy reading corner with a carved wooden chair leaning against a tree strung with lights. This children’s section was filled with beautifully illustrated hardcovers, including The Annotated Alice, Gulliver’s Travels, The Wind in the Willows, and other children’s classics. But there were newer books I hadn’t heard of too, like The Librarian of Basra, which tells the true story of a librarian in Iraq who single-handedly transported an entire library of books to safety in the homes of civilians during the war.

I settled into a dim corner to read, ignoring the tornado warning in the region that day. As shelves loomed high above me and thunder rumbled outside, I couldn’t help thinking there must be many worse ways to die than under an avalanche of books, here in this enchanted place.

What seemed like hours later, when I was finally ready to check out with my selection of books—which included a faded red, Blue Ribbon illustrated edition of The Arabian Nights—Mary pointed me to a mouse hole at the side of the counter.

“Have you met Copernicus?” she asked.

Perhaps if I were several feet shorter and many years younger, I might have discovered it myself, but as it were, Mary had to direct my 27-year-old self to the two knee-level windows carved into the counter. Delighted, I picked up the large wooden magnifying glass sitting next to the mouse hole and peeked into what looked like a fully furnished mini-apartment filled with its own volumes of books and a framed picture of a sailboat with tall masts. But where was the mouse himself?

“Oh, he’s off sailing around the world!” Mary told me. “With Bob the cat. You can follow their adventures on their blog!

Bob, it turns out, really is traveling around the world. As it happens, Annapolis is a big sailing town, and Bob’s owner has brought both cat and mouse along on a circumnavigation of the globe aboard the Sylph, searching for icebergs, open seas, and high adventure.

“Bob the cat is real, right?” I later asked Janice, just to make sure.

“Oh, everything’s real!” Janice responded with a chuckle. “But, yes, Bob the cat is, by any definition, real.”

When I asked how they came up with the idea for Copernicus the mouse, Janice mentioned her love for how children respond to the world. “As children mature and begin to discern what’s real and not real, sometimes there’s disappointment,” she said. “There are things [that] I’ve come to accept are not as magical as I’d want them to be. So I try to cultivate something of a magical quality here.”

Copernicus’s story grew out of an old tradition. “In most stories,” Janice said, “there’s the hero, there’s the teacher—like Merlin or Yoda—and there’s also someone who has to witness the hero’s journey. Copernicus is just one of a whole line of small, unique characters tasked with witnessing all those acts of heroism people do all the time.”

Just as an entire world lies between the covers of a book, Janice explained, they wanted to create a world within the walls of the bookstore, and within the bookstore, a window to yet another world through Copernicus’s home, each with its own story.

The Annapolis Bookstore itself has developed a rich history of its own and an interesting cast of characters. Five years ago, Mary Adams—a direct descendant of the second president, John Adams—found a spot down by the City Dock and thought it would make a perfect old bookshop selling “used, new, rare, and always remarkable books.” Several months into the venture, her friend Janice Holmes lost her husband and was searching for a project she could throw herself into. Mary invited Janice to join her, and thus, a business partnership was born. But more than that, a spark was ignited.

Inspired by Ray Oldenburg’s philosophy of the “third place,” Mary and Janice wanted their bookstore to serve as a communal space—a sphere beyond the private home (“the first place”) and the formal workplace (“the second place”).

“We wanted to evoke a sort of community life that people long for, that has the quality one might expect from an earlier era, when communities were more local,” Janice said.

The shop’s first location was tiny, barely 200 square feet. “It was a jewel box,” Janice reminisced, “jam-packed with books.” But the small space didn’t stop people from coming, and the owners soon found that running a bookstore was a lot like having a neighborhood bar.

“Everyone wants to come in and tell their stories,” Janice said. “Most of the time it’s even better because people are sober—but not necessarily!”

Over time, it became a place where people could get lost in stories—ancient stories, new stories, each other’s stories. Sometimes the stories happened right before their eyes, as when a marriage proposal took place within those very walls.

As word about the bookstore spread, Mary and Janice found that they just didn’t have the room for what people wanted to do, like share music, read poetry, or have book signings. So, they moved to a house at 68 Maryland Avenue, which is where I found them.

Here, the shop has been able to expand. There’s even room for an old secretary desk that opens up to reveal a piano keyboard. Mary bought it at an estate sale a while back and, on my first visit, she urged me to give it a try.

As if charmed by my surroundings, I found my normally shy self gamely picking up a book of Beethoven sonatas. I flipped to a slow movement I had once learned and made out the notes. Mary opened up the front door to let the music drift out to the street.

Since that day, I’ve returned to the bookstore every so often, sometimes bringing my out-of-town guests to meet Copernicus themselves (but he’s always, it seems, out on some adventure or another). Because I live in DC, it’s not often I’m able to visit. But the few times that I have, Mary’s eyes have lit up with recognition, and when I called her recently to say I wanted to write about the bookstore, I was touched that she still remembered me.

This past month, Mary and Janice have been busy transplanting the Annapolis Bookstore to its third location at 35 Maryland Avenue, just one block from its last home. When it opens on July 1, loyal customers will have a bigger house to explore, with two stories, a spiral staircase, and a secret garden in the back. There will be a fairy in the garden, and she’ll have a little home that people will be able to stumble upon, much like Copernicus’s now. Janice is working on a backstory for the fairy as well. They also plan to open a coffee shop inside to further build the community experience.

When I asked if there are still plans for a secret passageway, Janice mentioned a hidden entryway in the works, leading down to the basement and then winding back up to a different part of the shop.

Unlike the usual bookstore experience, the Annapolis Bookstore is more than a place for books—it’s a place for stories. And the best way to be part of that story, I’ve discovered, is to come with a spirit of adventure, letting yourself stumble upon something new. You might even stumble right into a secret passageway.

The Annapolis Bookstore

35 Maryland Ave.

Annapolis, Maryland 21401

(410) 280-2339

Readers: We Need Your Hometown

Glowing Bar City Street Night Lights
Image by via Flickr

Nearly two years ago, The Curator published its first issue with an audacious goal: to uncover and celebrate great culture, and to grapple with the zeitgeist. Nearly a hundred editions later, we’re still doing that every week.

One area we’ve addressed is cities and neighborhoods – how people live in them, how we get around in them, how they develop, how residents can make a difference. We’ve talked about “agriburbia” and the boutique city conundrum. We’ve celebrated pizza in Atlanta, an after-school program in Chicago, and a park in Manhattan. We’ve had not one, but two odes to Houston, a photo tour of Inverkip, Scotland, a guide to London, and a recent tour of a Toronto neighborhood. We’ve even contemplated how to leave the city.

Clearly, our writers are passionate about places. And while some people probably settle into an area by default, we’d like to think our readers are savvier – that they live in their town, city, neighborhood, suburb, or rural area because they love it, or have come to love it.

And now, we want you to share that love with us.

In the next several months, we’d like to run articles by readers about what makes their place worth living in. What places do you frequent – and why? Is your local cheesemonger awesome? Does the park down the street reflect the values of your community in a fascinating way? Where’s your favorite place to while away a rainy afternoon?

Write about 600 words (you can get longer, but don’t go past 1200 words). Include links and pictures, if you’d like. And send it all to

A Tree Grows in Leslieville

View of Toronto skyline from Toronto Harbour. ...
Image via Wikipedia

An erroneous lead on an apartment first brought me to Leslieville. As a newcomer to Toronto, I had heard rumors of this chilled out haven in an otherwise jumping metropolis. People called it “Toronto’s Brooklyn.” And while my “bright, spacious two-bedroom loft” turned out to be a dingy partitioned attic, the neighborhood did not disappoint.

Labeled by the press as Toronto’s “next big thing,” I’m convinced Leslieville has already arrived. It was originally an industrial neighborhood that housed mostly blue-collar factory workers. It still has some of its Depression-era charm, but is now the subject of gradual gentrification.

While Toronto is mostly known to Canadians as the nation’s fashion and culture capitol, Leslieville is decidedly sleepier. In fact, it’s the closest thing this Vancouver girl has found to a West Coast vibe since moving to Ontario’s capital city in February.

This is where Toronto hipsters come to roost when they are through with the West End art scene. You’ll see them shopping for mid-century finds to fill their turn-of-the-century fixer-upper, towing their well-shod tots in Radio Flyer wagons (designer strollers are for the Midtown set) and eschewing downtown clubs and cocktails for backyard patios and microbrews.

Leslieville’s main thoroughfare is a 2km (1.24 mile) stretch along Queen Street East, just a 10 minute street car ride (or 25 minute walk) from downtown Toronto. Blink when you pass the dingy TV repair shops and landmark peeler bar, Jilly’s, and you’ll discover a quietly hip enclave of gastronomic treats, art, and a hearty sprinkling of antiques.

Here are my top picks for a perfect day in Leslieville*:

1091 Queen Street East
Leslieville is one big trove of mid-century finds, but Ethel is a perfectly curated collection of vintage lamps, clocks, Pyrex, telephone tables, and fondue pots. You’ll feel like you’ve walked into a Mad Men set, so it’s no surprise many of these items are rented out as props for television and movies. Owner and former interior designer Shauntelle LeBlanc is happy to chat vintage and modern design with any keen shopper, and stocks a great line of made-in-Toronto cards, alongside her retro wares.

1142 Queen Street East
If you haven’t had your fill at Ethel or prefer your vintage finds without a side of kitsch, pop over to GUFF (Good Used Furniture Finds) for pristine mid-century pieces. Plan to have a van at your immediate disposal because it’s hard to pass up the perfect teak console, Danish modern dining set, or industrial table you are sure to find at GUFF’s new Queen East space.

The Purple Purl
1162 Queen Street East
Toronto’s answer to New York knitting boutique Purl Soho, The Purple Purl is its own community within the community. On any given Tuesday night the lit-up windows reveal women of all ages sitting in a circle of cozy chairs, knitting socks and spinning yarns. On the main floor you’ll find three technicolor dream walls stocked with high quality wool, while the basement hosts knitting and crocheting classes for eager novices like me. Even if you’re not into knitting, it’s worth stopping in for the herbal teas and homemade ginger cookies.

Nathalie-Roze & Co.
1015 Queen Street East
Though Toronto’s fashion scene is ruled by the trendy West End, Nathalie-Roze is an East End gem, worth a trip in its own right. The boutique-slash-craft studio features dozens of local designers and their mostly handmade wares including jewelry, men’s ties, and baby goods. I’m a sucker for the custom onesies made out of old souvenir t-shirts.

Ed’s Real Scoop
920 Queen Street East
Ed’s serves up the best gelato in Toronto, and possibly the best in Canada. They’ve been making their own gelato for a decade, but the Leslieville shop is relatively new. Not that you’d know it by the queue out the door on sunny days. If that crowd doesn’t tip you off, the smell of freshly made sugar cones will let you know you’re in the right place. Take advantage of Ed’s liberal sampling policy, and then take home a tub (because one cone isn’t enough). I can’t get enough of the passion fruit gelato and am counting down the months until I get to try their seasonal eggnog ice cream.

Bonjour Brioche
812 Queen Street East
Bonjour Brioche is a little taste of Quebec in Toronto—slightly pompous waiters and all. This cash-only brunch spot is a Leslieville mainstay. The weekend lineup is killer, but well worth the wait. If you’re short on time, just grab a freshly made croissant or baguette to nibble on the road. If you have more time, however, the croque madame (fried egg, gruyere, and ham on a perfectly puffy slice of brioche) is amazing. Bonus, for ’80s TV fans, it’s on the corner of Degrassi Street. Yes, THAT Degrassi Street.

Leslie Jones
This unassuming restaurant is easy to locate between its two namesake streets, Leslie and Jones. When you spot a giant “Hello my name is…” sign hovering over a doorway you’ll know you’re in the right place. Leslie Jones is a perfect extension of both the neighborhood’s vintage vibe and gastro-obsession. The Italian-inspired menu is always changing, as are the records, spinning mellow tunes on a turntable at the back of the restaurant. As Leslieville becomes an increasingly popular foodie destination, it’s hard to find dinner and drinks for two south of $50. It’s also hard to find restaurants that don’t overcook their risotto, but here it’s flawlessly al dente and conveniently affordable. The patio out back is strewn with lights, perfect for Toronto’s famously hot summers.

Dark Horse Espresso
682 Queen Street East
Leslievillers are spoiled for choice when it comes to independent coffee shops. With nearly one per block it’s hard to narrow down, but this gem on the western edge of Leslieville is my favorite place to while away a Saturday morning. Ever-changing art on the walls and in my latte foam make each visit an adventure. The giant communal table is a great place to meet locals, and the super friendly staff are more than happy to chat while they work. Take advantage of free wifi (no password required) and truly delicious scones.

*Note: Don’t plan to visit over a Monday when most of the shops and many restaurants are closed.

Notes on Leaving the City

new york city evening.
Image by matt.hintsa via Flickr

Everyone can tell you how to move to New York, how to dress, where to shop, where to get a cocktail. But almost no one will tell you how to leave. Leaving the city is a very particular shame that is never mentioned, except with a small sigh of pity, of longing, until the subject changes. The Johnsons got pregnant and moved to New Rochelle. I hear they’re well, but we haven’t really kept in touch.

Preparing to leave, then, is a daunting and lonely task. When I moved to New York several years ago, there were slaps on the back, congratulations (as though I’d already accomplished something noteworthy), and advice. Even when I went back to Colorado, where I grew up, for Christmas each year, my mother and father would introduce me differently. This is our son Casey, who lives in NEW YORK CITY.

The world is proud of you for coming here, but less sure what to think when you leave. Search in any bookstore, and there are dozens of books on how to live in the city. And every uncle, friend, and passerby has something to offer. Make sure you try Grimaldi’s Pizza in Brooklyn, it’s the only pizza in New York I’d eat. Or, don’t buy your suits at Bloomingdales – you can find the same thing at Century 21, though you’ll have to fight the crowds. Every corner or detail of the city is claimed by someone, somewhere, as their own.

The only reliable voice I have ever found on leaving the city came from Joan Didion in her 1967 essay Goodbye to All That, which begins: “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” I remember when New York began for me, several years ago. I had moved out to stay with a friend for a few weeks before beginning my job working for an NGO at the United Nations. The size of everything was astounding, and so were the prices. I remember getting lost trying to find my way to the headquarters of the organization where I would work, and calling them trying to explain why I was late, but being too embarrassed to say and making something up. I had confused west for east, and thus Riverside Park for Central Park, and the Hudson River for the Jackie O Reservoir. I realized my mistake and took a bus across the park, arriving at the office an hour late. I was briefed by my future boss, after which I hurried to the nearest Duane Reade and bought a pack of cigarettes, my first in years, and smoked three to calm down. It seemed like a city where nothing less than perfection would be tolerated. Was anyone ever so young?

As the months passed by I grew used to the pace, and no longer confused west for east, rivers for reservoirs. Everyone who has moved to New York remembers the first time someone stops them on the street to ask for directions and they are able to give them. With time I felt the deep satisfaction of ritual, familiar rumble of the subway under my feet as I walked down Lexington with my morning coffee, the late night rowdy crowds that would gather at JG Melons on Fridays, just down the street. I came to expect the flowers on Park to magically appear one day in April as though constructed by a team of elves in the night. I found a favorite coffee shop, a favorite hipster bar, the best cheap museums and free events for Saturday nights.

I got used to the late night parties, the blend of red wine or bourbon and cigarette smoke. And someone would usually have access to the rooftop, and so we would make our way up and point out the buildings we knew and watch the city lights reflecting on the river. Or if it was cold we would stay inside and pour another round of gin and tonics, the clinking glasses mixing with chatter of names of friends who we were all supposed to know but who had gone off to study medicine at Harvard or taken that job in London. They always went to Harvard or to London, never to Rutgers or Kansas City. And this just added to the surreality of the city. These weren’t real people, and these aren’t real places.

This seems to be a permanent fixture of New York. That it is a mirage more than a life, at least for those of us who have come from somewhere else. Didion mentions the surreal quality:

You see I was in a curious position in New York: it never occurred to me that I was living a real life there. In my imagination I was always there for just another few months, just until Christmas or Easter or the first warm day in May. For that reason I was most comfortable with the company of Southerners. They seemed to be in New York as I was, on some indefinitely extended leave from wherever they belonged, disciplined to consider the future, temporary exiles who always knew when the flights left for New Orleans or Memphis or Richmond or, in my case, California.

In my case, Colorado.

But New York, more so than other places, is a city of extremes. The ups are high and the downs are low – and they come upon you suddenly. Not too long after I got here, Lehman Brothers collapsed, and then Fanny and Freddy. Friends from Colorado called to ask if people were jumping off tall buildings on Wall Street. I expected they were. And all those earnest and confident young men and women, filling their crisp suits and their sleek offices, began to disappear. First those in finance filtered out of the city, and then the architects and the real estate workers, then the lawyers. Familiar faces at events and parties would be noticeably absent. Suddenly people were going to Rutgers and Kansas City. Elizabeth moved back to Houston to live with her parents. Jimmy lost his apartment and is staying with his uncle in Delaware. NYU Law got a record number of applications this year so Tommy didn’t get in. He took a job at a restaurant in Queens.

Suddenly we weren’t quite so young or quite so entitled. Suddenly the paradise of New York was preparing to cast many of us out. Were we unworthy? Where did we go wrong? This was something that no one had prepared us for.

And I am still not prepared to leave, now that my job has ended, my lease expiring in two weeks, my next job starting in a different city, a different world. Where does one go after living in such a place? No one seems to know. Didion decided one day that she had stayed too long at the fair, and simply left. Perhaps, one day or another, that is what it is like for us all.

Perhaps the best advice on leaving the city came from a friend of mine (we’ll call him John) who has recently left himself. John had a prestigious job with Citigroup until the financial disaster, when they shed a number of high level positions, including his. He stayed in the city, applying for a number of different jobs, interviewing at dozens of places but getting no offers. Eventually he lost his apartment. He moved back to his family’s home upstate, and I didn’t see or hear much from him for about 6 months. His was the fearsome sort of story we only whispered about.

But in those months he started taking classes toward his M.B.A. and is now working on starting a small business. Several months ago he proposed to his longtime girlfriend. It seemed that his job at Citi, his large apartment, and his ambition had been the things keeping him from doing so. Last Saturday, they were married.

The wedding took place at the Union Club on the Upper East Side. I sat at a table with a crisp, white table cloth and more tiers of silverware than I had any idea what to do with. The evening was presided over by the portraits of former presidents who’d been members of the club hanging on the walls. I clinked my glass with that famous movie director and writer, the one who writes such witty dialogue about detachable collars. Everyone wore immaculate clothes and talked about their important friends who do interesting things. It was one of those evenings that can only happen in New York, the kind you dream about when you learn you are coming to the city.

And yet I could not help but think about something John had said to me several months ago, when he had just gotten engaged. While we nursed our bourbons, he warned me about believing the fairy tale of New York, as he had done for so many years. There is the pressure to succeed, to have the right job and the right clothes, to have the right person on your arm, he said. And as much as I want those things, there is a difference between the demands of this city, and my actual life. And getting my life in order has made me see that those demands are kind of silly by comparison.

And so, surrounded by the portraits and the champagne in the crystal glasses and the suits and bowties and gowns, we all got up to dance. It was a scene meant to make an impression. But John was not impressed. Like Didion, he had finally seen that all the pomp and society was really just an illusion, a Xanadu where one does not live, one merely visits. He began to dance with his wife knowing that none of this was real. Except for her.

The Lost City of Z

In New York, run-down and gutted buildings are often considered an eyesore and, unless they have someone like Jane Jacobs to defend them, are torn down and replaced with newer, taller, and more modern structures. But this is not the case in much of the world, and in the western states, where I was raised, there are a good number of ruins – still-standing remnants from the mining and early industrial booms that have fallen into disrepair and were eventually abandoned. The cities grew up around them, but they stand as a testament an older era and the people who came before us who, through these structures, are still somehow among us.

In our restless teenage years, my friends and I would sneak out at night, employing a tool set consisting of ropes, flashlights, crow bars, and camouflage outfits complete with blackface, and break into the old ruins in and around Colorado Springs to see what treasures lay hidden there. Very early one morning our exploration team pried open the door of an abandoned stone school building, built around the turn of the century and abandoned for decades. We explored the ruin from top to bottom, searching for any artifacts that might tell us who had attended this school and why it had closed. We stalked from room to room in the pitch darkness, stumbling across tottering old stairways, the remnants of classrooms, a battered gymnasium replete with basketball lines on the floor, locker rooms with rows of smashed porcelain toilets along one wall, student dormitories.

The building was mostly cleared out, but I remember coming across the seat of a child-sized desk in a basement boiler room sitting in six inches of black standing water. Illuminating it with my flashlight, I noticed the name Alexander carved into the back of the chair with a sharp object. A message, I thought, from some small boy a hundred years ago. I was here once, it seemed to say. Where you now stand. Now I am gone and this place is changed. Whether you know it now, you will someday follow after me.

It may well have been messages like these, connections to people long gone who have left their impression on the places they passed through, that kept us exploring. Or it may have been something inside of us, some drive to uncover the hidden past that lived among us, and thus find something of what was hidden in ourselves. Doubtless, the urges that led us to explore are impulses that have been felt by all people who live among ruins.

Around the same time that Alexander was scratching his name into his desk, another explorer was preparing a trip into the deepest reaches of the Amazon to find what he believed was the source of the legend of El Dorado. He referred to the lost city only as Z. The man was a legendary British explorer and hero of World War I named Percy Harrison Fawcett, and his journey is the subject of a recent book by David Grann called The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. In 1925, Fawcett, his son Jack, and a family friend named Raleigh Rimmell departed into the jungle in the hopes of discovering the legendary city. They were never heard from again. Ninety-five years later, the mystery of their fate still remains unsolved.

The Lost City of Z is part memoir, part detective novel, part biography, and part historical inquiry. Drawing on extensive research from British, American, and Brazilian records, including many of Fawcett’s own personal writings, Grann (a staff writer for the New Yorker) weaves a story of several strands: Fawcett and his search for Z, the history of exploration in South America and specifically the Amazon, an overview of the age of exploration, the work of the Royal Geographical Society of London, and even Grann’s own quest to uncover what actually happened to Fawcett, which was a task nearly as daunting as finding Z itself.


“Ever since Francisco Orellana and his army of Spanish Conquistadores descended the Amazon River, in 1542, perhaps no place on the planet had so ignited the imagination—or lured men to their deaths,” Grann writes of the South American jungle. To this day much of the forest remains unexplored and unmapped, and the Brazilian government estimates that there are still dozens of indigenous tribes of people living there who have never been contacted by the outside world. The Amazon has also always exerted a particularly powerful influence on the European imagination. As stories began to filter back from the New World about cannibals who shrunk their enemies’ heads, snakes as long and thick as tree trunks, rodents the size of sheep, electric eels, piranhas, river dolphins and other incredible sights, explorers from Europe began to swarm into the thick, uncharted jungle to have a look for themselves. The most compelling tales, of course, were about El Dorado. In 1592, Sir Walter Raleigh wrote that the natives had told him of a vast kingdom where men wore gold powder on their skin, and had constructed roadways and structures to rival those of the Romans. Apparently their capital city floated on a lake deep in the jungle, and was surrounded by treasures and sights the likes of which were scarcely imaginable. Raleigh also sent home accounts of men “with their eyes in their shoulders, and their mouths in the middle of their breasts.”

Grann documents some of the literally hundreds of expeditions who set out into the Amazon in search of the great city, from the conquistadores to the colonial English armies, even on to modern Brazilian and American archaeologists. Most of the expeditions ended similarly—in catastrophe. Explorers died of yellow fever, infection, strange tropical viruses, parasites, starvation, drowning; they were murdered by natives, were eaten by snakes or piranhas, or simply went insane. Some turned to cannibalism. Still, El Dorado remained undiscovered.

And yet Percy Fawcett was undeterred. Fawcett cut his teeth in the Imperial army in Sri Lanka, and then worked as a spy for the English intelligence. Later in his life he became a decorated veteran of World War I, an honored member of the Royal Geographical Society of London, and a world famous explorer. He first ventured into Brazil working for the RGS in 1912, contributing his part to their massive groundbreaking project: the mapping the entire earth. From his first foray into the jungle, Fawcett began to feel its lure. No other place on earth provided such a wealth of new perceptions and discoveries. No other place demanded as much physically and mentally of a person either. Yet the more expeditions Fawcett led into the Amazon, the more convinced he became that it had once been (or still was) the center of a vast, highly advanced civilization.

Even as each of his expeditions to find Z became frustrated by circumstances, sickness, run-ins with hostile natives and even massive starvation among his men, Fawcett continued in his pursuit. He used as evidence shards of pottery that he found on remote Amazonian plateaus where there were signs of ancient roads and causeways, as well as accounts from conquistadores that detailed coming upon villages of natives that numbered in the thousands and that even described roads and buildings deep in the jungle. Even as each successive expedition, and those of his rivals, failed to uncover more evidence of such a city, he became increasingly obsessed with the search, justifying Z’s existence on ever more strained evidence and rationale. All of this led to his fateful 1925 expedition, from which neither he, nor any evidence of his party’s fate, ever emerged.

Fawcett’s disappearance launched its own series of expeditions, first to rescue the missing men, and finally, to try to reclaim their remains. Grann himself describes the temptation to become swept into the mystery of Z and Fawcett’s fortunes. This temptation leads him on his own journey deep into the Brazilian jungle. It also leads him to write an incredibly compelling work of non-fiction.

From time to time while following Fawcett’s journey into the deepest unknown parts of the world and Grann’s journey to find out what happened to him, I thought about myself as a young man, venturing out into abandoned schools, hotels, factories, mine shafts, graveyards and numerous other archaeological gems. What about those relics from the past reaches out to grab hold of men and women, and draw them to come after it? What connection did I share with Alexander, or did Grann share with Fawcett and Fawcett with the conquistadores before him and even the inhabitants of that invisible lost city? Why are so compelled to follow them? The answer to this is written on our hearts, and yet may still be as hidden to us as the golden city, lost and floating out somewhere in the wilderness.

The Lessons of Place – A Quest for Restoration

When is the last time you walked into a place and breathed out a nice, long “ahhh?” Was it a coffee shop? Maybe your favorite restaurant? A corner bookstore or local club?

One of my favorite spots is a little local restaurant on the coast of North Carolina that serves up top-notch gourmet food and excellent dining advice from its well-educated staff. The windows are elegantly draped with white curtains and the lighting is low. Only a handful of folks can fit into the restaurant at a time and large groups are rarely found in the somewhat-tight quarters. Those who dine in this space sometimes linger for hours over crème brulee and a cup of coffee, simply enjoying one another’s company. I fondly recall early college visits there with my grandparents, savoring succulent meals and wonderful conversation.

I am fascinated by the concept of place, what places can do to us, and how they mold and shape our perceptions of reality, our hopes, and our dreams. Further, I am intrigued by how the homes we build, the spots we visit, and the towns where we do our bidding, end up making us a certain kind of people. In some form or fashion, the places where we live and the places that we visit, influence the way that we choose to engage the world around us. They can also serve as an outpouring of our inner longings.

Photo: Rebecca Horton

Back when I lived in the D.C. metro area, I was a frequent visitor at the United States Botanic Garden, located just on the edge of the National Mall. I’d often wander over on a Saturday morning after a particularly tough week at work or if I just needed to think through some things for a while. Entering into this massive building with huge translucent walls, I was always mesmerized by the succulent aromas and enraptured by the spectacular “decor.” At every turn of the head, there were patches of rich green foliage, brilliantly colored florae, and intricately patterned plants.  As I moved from room to room, the cares of my week would melt away in the beauty that surrounded me, and I would find my restless heart brought to a place of stillness and awe. A small pond with bright green lily pads would beckon me to delight and enjoy. And a towering balcony in an immense rainforest-like room, featuring creeping greenery and bursting buds, encouraged me to watch and wonder. This place simultaneously invigorated and calmed my spirit, and in the process touched some of my deepest parts. In many ways it was, and still is, a breathing thesis of how a well-designed space can stir the human spirit.

On another note, there was also a space located in the D.C. suburbs that I often longed to see made over. Just down the block from my old townhouse, it was right on the edge of Old Town Alexandria, about a ten-minute walk from the metro. This particular building was located in what many residents still considered a “transitional area.” Only a few years ago, the surrounding street was home to rampant violence and drug-dealing. Quite rapidly, though, young families and retirees have bought up its houses and flipped them. Here, backyard piles of dust and weeds were being dug up and turned into patio spaces for winter firepit gatherings and late-summer tapas tete-a-tetes. In the process, Alexandria was gentrifying, a change that in some ways one can view as both good and bad. The old was going, the new was coming – a process that always involves a give and take.

The place that always caught my eye was this little shop on the end of my block. A prime location for a great local coffee shop or café, with big windows and a double-corner view, it was only blocks from the heart of King Street. Abandoned by an owner who was not yet prepared to part with it, this space was a reminder of the old habits of the area’s prior community that was hesitant to catch up with the coming changes. This shop stood as a reminder of the not-so-ancient past that in many ways the city’s new residents would rather forget than reclaim. Per the neighborhood chatter, although the owner regularly put money into making minor improvements, he was still not willing to sell his shop to the swarm of incoming developers, hanging on to it perhaps for a golden deal or maybe for the sake of bittersweet memory.

As I think back to this space now, I realize that the process of re-cultivating a place and infusing it with new life is not always easy or well-received, and it is sometimes long and arduous. Often those who come in the name of progress would do well to learn the stories of the spaces that they purchase before bulldozing them to build the next big thing. Simultaneously, the world longs to see old things made new, and the revitalization of urban landscapes can be a powerful means of exhibiting beauty and grace.

Daily we are touched by both the ugliness and the beauty of the places that surround us. And yet, the process of understanding and interpreting a place and making it rich and welcoming is often easier said than done. As we come to grips with this notion of place, the words of Alain de Botton encourage me to go deeper and keep probing:

It is in dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value. Acquaintance with grief turns out to be one of the more unusual prerequisites of architectural appreciation. We might, quite aside from all other requirements, need to be a little sad before buildings can properly touch us.

To one effect, the world that surrounds us is crumbling, even as we run our fingertips across its surfaces. To another, it is constantly being renewed by the work of designers, artisans, and architects who share a vision for restoration through expressions of beauty. Perhaps in some ways by knowing the ugly, we have a new appreciation for beauty. But in knowing the beauty, we long to behold what is not yet fully realized.

The Two-Wheeled Commute

On an unseasonably warm day in Brooklyn last December, a bike lane on Bedford Avenue was sandblasted into oblivion, its bright white lanes buffed down into near-invisibility. It wasn’t a particularly newsworthy event if you weren’t a cyclist in Brooklyn, but in New York bike lanes are taken very seriously by a small but vocal contingent of cyclists. Though most bike lanes only consist of two painted lines on one side of the street, they improve safety, but also give cyclists a sense of belonging – an understanding (hopefully shared by motorists) that bikes have as much right to the street as motor vehicles.

So when the Bedford lane was removed, rumors swirled as to why the city had stripped it away. The most common story floating around was that upon re-election, Mayor Bloomberg had a cut a deal with the Hasidic Jewish community that lives on Bedford to remove the lane. The community was said to be upset about scantily clad women riding through the neighborhood, though no one was sure just who had expressed that complaint.

A bicycle lane on Manhattan's East 91st Street

Protests were held and others, including a naked bike ride through the neighborhood, were planned but never materialized. Cyclists were outraged. A few cycling activists even attempted to confront Bloomberg in Copenhagen when he traveled there for the UN conference on climate change. All because two strips of white paint had been removed by the same agency – the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) – that chose to put them there in the first place. As of this writing, the DOT has yet to provide an explanation.

As the fury over Bedford Avenue refuses to die down, and angry fixed-gear riders threaten to take their pants off and ride through Brooklyn in protest, it’s important to remember just how far New York and other large cities have come in their transportation planning. In the 1950s and 60s, planners were looking for ways to bring more motor vehicles into cities and to speed their travel once they got there – a movement that led to a long period of expressway construction in American cities, often requiring the bull-dozing of entire neighborhoods. It wasn’t until the 1990s that city officials began looking for ways to minimize the presence of the automobiles in cities, hoping to improve the flow of pedestrians, mass transit systems and, increasingly, bicycles. Embracing this change in planning philosophy, Janette Sadik-Kahn, the commissioner of the NYC DOT since 2007, has installed over 200 miles of new bikes lanes on New York City streets, laying down the best bike lane network in the country this side of Portland.

I started biking in New York around the start of Sadik-Kahn’s tenure. For me and for many others who previously viewed cycling as too dangerous to be a legitimate means of transport, biking was a revelation. Liberated from crowded subways and the restrictions of mass transportation, the bike allowed me to move freely through the city for the first time, without checking a system map or bus schedule. I discovered parts of the city I had only traveled through underground. Entire neighborhoods that would have required two transfers to reach on mass transit were now a breezy 25-minute bike ride away.

Riding through the city is transportation but also sport, a physical and mental challenge with an inherent risk (bike lane or no, you are still sharing space with two-ton vehicles) that can make arriving to work feel like something of an achievement. A half-century after Robert Moses tried to carve New York City into a series of interlocking expressways, Janette Sadik-Kahn was inviting claustrophobic subway commuters up onto the street and telling us to pedal our way to work down special lanes painted just for us. Taking notice, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, and many other cities initiated their own plans for carving out space for bikes, leading the writer Jeff Mapes to author a book declaring a Pedaling Revolution.

This is great news for those of us who love our bikes, but is a pedaling revolution really underway? Despite the nationwide movement towards urban sustainability (a buzz word used to describe an ever-widening set of initiatives) and the role the bicycle plays in that movement, a sustained swell of bike commuters is still needed to fill those new lanes. If that doesn’t happen, transportation commissioners will inevitably begin to listen to city dwellers who’ve yet to get religion and just want a place to park their car.

As progressive as Sadik-Kahn may be, she is still a city commissioner with the power to enforce policy decisions as she (and the mayor) see fit. If Bedford can disappear, so can the whole bike lane network, if cycling advocates and city officials can’t convince more commuters to get on a bike. And to stand on many of the newly painted lanes in New York, or the new lanes along Pine or Spruce Streets in Philadelphia, is to see a steady stream of cars and merely a trickle of bikes – a reality that is not lost on a growing body of opponents.

“Undemocratic, hippie, Disneyland schemes, the pipe dreams of DOT hipsters with degrees in urban planning who really would prefer to live in Copenhagen or Portland,” was how one commenter on the news blog described the new DOT agenda. At a community board meeting I attended in Greenwich Village, a large NYU auditorium was filled to capacity with residents angrily complaining about a new bike lane on Carmine Street. Variations on the question, “Why should we give up parking when nobody even bikes down the bike lane?” were shouted again and again at a DOT representative.

Again, cycling in large cities is, for all its merits, a challenge. Sucking down exhaust fumes as you maneuver around a city bus or a double-parked delivery truck is not everyone’s idea of a fun, healthy commute. And where planners are choosing to place new bike lanes often reflects the assumption that only younger and more affluent residents will be biking regularly. In New York, a large percentage of the new bike lanes have been placed in the high-income or gentrifying neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Manhattan; in Philadelphia the newest lanes connect the high-rent districts of Society Hill and Rittenhouse Square. If you feel like everyone you know rides a bike, there’s a fair chance you live in Park Slope, Jamaica Plain, Queen Village or a similarly youthful, hipster- or yuppie-filled neighborhood where the average resident has some time and money to burn. It’s not surprising that “Bicycles” ended up on the Stuff White People Like blog, not far down the list from “Gentrification.” And even within those neighborhoods, a disproportionate number of men are riding; for whatever reason, women have been slower to embrace the bicycle as a means of transport.

This has the unfortunate effect of allowing some politicians to claim a populist stance in opposing bike lanes. Speaking in Chinatown during his campaign against Bloomberg, mayoral hopeful Bill Thompson denounced “bike lanes that are doing damage to local businesses” and suggested that the Grand Street lane in Chinatown had been put in “without speaking to the community.” Watching a Democratic mayoral candidate depict bike lanes as an elitist tool causing harm to the common man is a conflicting experience for the urban cyclist, who may like to think of himself and his chosen form of transportation as progressive (I know I do). But until the new cycling movement develops a broader appeal, the pedaling revolution runs the risk of petering out before it has a chance to develop into a real paradigm shift in urban transportation. If urban highway building could fall out of fashion despite having widespread support for nearly two decades, how much faster could poorly-used bike lanes disappear?

Time will tell, and for now, what matters most is that – minus Bedford Avenue – the bike lanes are out there and beckoning us all to ride. And in spite of the risks, in spite of the aggravation of trying to maneuver around colossal SUVs that seem better suited to desert warfare than urban transportation, I’ll continue to take full advantage of bike lanes, and my hope is that a growing and diverse body of city dwellers across the country will start to do the same. Maybe it’s a bit early to call it a pedaling revolution, but it’s a lot more fun than expressways.

Making a Difference in the 21st Century

We live in a world of complex problems – perhaps more complex than ever before – but we also live in an age of immense possibility. We often take this reality far too lightly. Not too long ago, we feared as the swine flu virus began spreading rapidly around the world; less than a year later, and the dread of a major global outbreak has largely subsided due to the marvels of modern medicine. Amidst the Black Death of the 1300s, no one would have dreamed that such a thing was possible.

The global warming doomsayers report that glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, and “Bombs Over Baghdad” is hardly just the name of a song. With tremendous problems looming, it can be easy to grow cynical, depressed, or disenchanted. And yet, there is much to be hopeful for, and there are many things that the average person can do. In his 2009 commencement address at The University of Portland, Paul Hawken said, “Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider.” What follows is an account of my own journey in coming to understand and appreciate the words of men like Hawken.

Not too many years ago, a college professor kicked off my college senior-year Public Policy practicum course with a single book and a simple objective. The book: Design Like You Give a Damn, an inspiration source for those thinking up innovative ways to address humanitarian crises. The objective: It is time to take your ideas out of the classroom and into the real world; we have talked public policy for quite some time, and now it is time to live it. Fingers tingling with anticipation after hearing what waited ahead, I never could have imagined what might result from such a curriculum, and perhaps neither could my classmates. Sparking an endless curiosity for the concept of public innovation, a simple class planted the seeds for a drastic re-shifting of my own priorities.

Prior to this course, my two great interests – the public good and the arts – had always seemed at odds. Two loves (it appeared then) that ne’er the twain should meet. At the time, I was finishing up dual majors in political science and public policy. My political inclinations were clearly winning out. The logic seemed simple enough: “If you want to make a difference, you go into politics.” And there was little surrounding me in a twenty-first century liberal arts university to dispute this claim, particularly as my studies focused upon reading, essay-writing, and honing my understanding of the democratic process.

But, as someone who was just as likely to have her head in an interior design magazine as in Plato’s Republic – and perhaps not one more than the other – I often wondered why I had been so unfortunately gifted with competing interests. It seemed that if I went the art/design route, I would be giving up my concern for issues related to the common good and settling for a more materialistic way of life. Seeping with an overdose of asceticism, my train of thought went something like this: planning outfits, decorating for events, drawing pictures, how can these be good? Meanwhile, as I pushed off in the other direction, my soul hungered to be plugged into the creative arts despite my misguided ideals.

Later, during that odd semester spent regularly commuting from the classroom to Durham’s public housing neighborhoods, I began to dream with my classmates and local community members about what could be through the implementation of community gardens in local neighborhoods. In the process, I discovered that my two chief passions were not opposed, but could coexist quite happily.

My four months of practicum led me on a rather curious adventure where I learned of things like Food From the Hood, a public gardens project developed by students in Los Angeles to rebuild a downtrodden part of their community. Food From the Hood launched in the aftermath of L.A.’s race riots, as an attempt to empower youth and provide an educational resource for non-traditional learners. Once envisioned as a community-building exercise, the garden has morphed well beyond its original aims. With ingredients from the garden, students now produce and market salad dressing, learning business management skills in a real-world context. Today, the fruits of the students’ labors sell at high-end grocers like Whole Foods and have landed them in quite a few news media reports. Perhaps more significantly, though, the program has given inner city youth the tools and the courage to step out in the marketplace and their own community to have an impact.

A few years later, my head still spins with ideas as I browse the pages of Studio At Large, a book documenting the journey of several University of Washington architecture students using their craft to make a difference in the Pacific Northwest and around the globe. Students and faculty at UW’s Building Sustainable Communities (BASIC) Initiative are responsible for reimagining and re-envisioning place and space with the input of community members. They have built schools in rural areas with no transportation access, developed innovative migrant housing solutions in Eastern Washington on a minimal budget, and improved access to a community garden for a Seattle neighborhood’s elderly Asian population. Like Food From the Hood and my own hands-on learning experience, UW’s program encourages students to see themselves as global actors as they realize the impact that their work can have in creating a better world. These architects, artists, and planners work with whatever tools and resources they are given, within the context in which they are placed, to produce lasting results. Consequently, their lessons remind us all that social change does not start in Washington – it starts in our neighborhoods, our communities, our places of business.

While once upon a time my dreams made little sense, today they come together with ever-increasing clarity. Making a difference does not necessarily mean lobbying for the next act of Congress, although that too is important. Instead, it means living uniquely into the talents, opportunities, and needs placed before us day by day. I now realize that design is about so much more than coveted objects and high-end labels. Things like advertising, fashion, and fine arts are, in fact, professions that can be used for the public good; and many design-minded folk like urban designers are living that reality day by day. And furthermore, changing the world does not start over there; it starts here in our own backyards.

“Agriburbia”: Friend or Foe?

Over the past five years, there has been a general scraping for ideas about how to reinvent the suburbs. The suburbs are there. They are not going away. We have already paved over the land. But after a sub-prime mortgage crisis, who is going to live there?

Moreover, many American city infrastructures are built to coexist with a suburban ideal. We built highways, not train tracks. Malls, not mainstreets. Mega-churches, not parishes.

All of these are glaringly obvious realities. They have been exhaustively discussed and criticized by film documentarians, city-dwelling snobs, and environmentalists. Yet none have viably answered the question: What do you do with a paved living space that has outgrown its resources?

A 2008 article from The Atlantic Monthly (that warrants important reading for anyone interested in the future of urban planning) posits that suburbia could become the next slum.

If gasoline and heating costs continue to rise, conventional suburban living may not be much of a bargain in the future. And as more Americans, particularly affluent Americans, move into urban communities, families may find that some of the suburbs’ other big advantages-better schools and safer communities-have eroded. Schooling and safety are likely to improve in urban areas, as those areas continue to gentrify; they may worsen in many suburbs if the tax base-often highly dependent on house values and new development-deteriorates. Many of the fringe counties in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, for instance, are projecting big budget deficits in 2008. Only Washington itself is expecting a large surplus. Fifteen years ago, this budget situation was reversed.

It goes on to state some dizzying statistics:

In the first half of last year, residential burglaries rose by 35 percent and robberies by 58 percent in suburban Lee County, Florida, where one in four houses stands empty. Charlotte’s crime rates have stayed flat overall in recent years-but from 2003 to 2006, in the 10 suburbs of the city that have experienced the highest foreclosure rates, crime rose 33 percent. Civic organizations in some suburbs have begun to mow the lawns around empty houses to keep up the appearance of stability. Police departments are mapping foreclosures in an effort to identify emerging criminal hot spots.

We have a problem on our hands, and the number of people with the money and ideas to fix it is shrinking. Since there is no sound solution quite yet, it’s important to not only consider what we can do to solve it, but the philosophy with which it ought to be approached.

In terms of environmentalism and sustainability in recent years, the city has won. More people are flocking to urban centers. We have identified an enemy in over-consuming. Green is hip. On this account we should take hope, as the idea of an urban center is once again kindly greeted.

But the problem still stands, what do we do with the suburbs?

A recent article in the Denver Post profiles a developer on the Front Range who is attempting to do some good in this area.The development is called “agriburbia” and sets out to build suburban sub developments where backyards are turned into small farms. TSR Group, the creators of agriburbia, have over 3,000 acres of land in the process of becoming agriburbian communities. But will it work?

The article describes TSR Group’s efforts as threefold:

First, their TSR Group works with homeowners with less than an acre, designing an “edible landscape” that not only provides food for the family but also contributes to the group’s network of restaurants.

The Redmonds [TSR Group] also work with landowners sitting on their property and waiting for the economic revival when they can begin building and selling. The Redmonds manage those empty parcels as “steward lots” that feed local restaurants and deliver cash to the landowner.

And thirdly, the Redmonds are trying to develop farm-cultured communities like Platte River Village in Milliken. Homes surrounding farms already are planned for the middle of Littleton and Boulder, using small spaces to grow organic produce.

“Agriburbia” is not alone in its efforts to make better use of the land upon which we’ve sprawled. Similar agricultural sustainability projects have sprouted (pun intended) all over, in places like Vermont, Idaho, and the Chicago suburbs.

All of this is done with good intentions. But is it getting to the root of the problem?

Imagine waking up in a large suburban home and walking out to your backyard to pick a few fruits and vegetables to eat for the day, all in the name of easing the environmental cost of shipping food. Then you hop in your car to commute 40 miles to work.

It’s like building a garden bed on top of your Hummer.

What’s curious about this development is that it’s a prime example of an increasing sensibility that treats sustainability as merely a salve for our environmental guilt, as opposed to a practical way to solve a big problem. But sustainability is not attained through a feeling.

The idea that sustainability is a penance paid simply through intelligent purchasing is innocently nearsighted, but more problematic is the idea to return to the autonomous indulgences of a sprawl design that’s wrapped in recycled newspaper, claiming that the sum of your repentant emotions is good enough.

There needs to be a focus adjustment. Wouldn’t building more sprawling suburban developments-agriculturally friendly or not-just exacerbate the problem at hand? Isn’t it the idea of a sprawled neighborhood that got us into this mess?

Of course, any efforts toward more sustainable modes of living are, in most cases, a net positive development. But when you go to rehab, they don’t say, “Addicted to heroine? Let’s take it down a notch and put you on cocaine for a while.”

By this standard, our focus on greener cars would be misplaced as well. Whether or not a car is green, the users of the car are still transporting, using energy over large expanses of space, requiring funds for roads that are no longer there. And until someone invents a new, radical, green means of transportation (like, say, the transporter from Star Trek), we will still consume at an unsustainable pace.

Some might argue that curbing the consumerist habit is an acceptable compromise to kicking it. Possibly, yes. But what is more important is not treating the major problems (sprawl, autonomy) like merely pesky items that can be swept underneath the locally made hemp rug that sits in the foyer of our 3,000 square foot McMansion. What needs to happen seems to be a cultural shift that investigates why we want the things we buy.

How do we shift the culture? Live with people. Live closer to them. Community and density are not only tools for sustainability but also tools for economic growth. Where there is density there are ideas, where there are ideas there is commerce, where there is commerce there is work, where there is art, where there is culture, where there is renewal. (Not to oversimplify things.)

A dense urban center is also a farmer’s best friend – that is to say, urban density promotes agriculture by saying that the majority of the earth should be used for a farmer’s cultivation. (In these terms, its important to realize that a dense urban center is not qualified by population, but by space. In other words, a small town is more like a big, dense city than it is a sprawling suburb. This means that suburbia didn’t start as a spread out small town but rather a unique experiment, never before attempted, that outgrew our resources to maintain it.)

I have no answer for what to do with vacant suburbs. But there are slippery slopes and old idols to avoid in brainstorming for solutions, as well as certain practical steps to take in discerning what to do with a failed piece of urban planning.

Our focus should be centered on establishing close-knit, walkable communities, not just reducing personal carbon footprints. We need to view sustainability not as the starry-eyed goal for a greener planet, but as a means for human flourishing. If this happens, then the environmental problems spurred by consumerism will be trounced through a creative social sustainability and a radical, ancient concept that historians have termed “sharing.” To see the big picture means focusing on people as much as innovation; density’s greatest asset is the prospect for creativity in togetherness.

For Further Reading:
The Denver Post: “‘Agriburbia’ sprouts on Colorado’s Front Range”

The Atlantic Monthly: “The Next Slum?”

The Atlantic Monthly: “Towards a New Urbanism”

“My Other Car is a Bright Green City”

The New York Times: “Can We Uninvent Suburbia?”

Dead Malls

My Favorite Tree In Houston


Less than a football field from the esteemed Menil stands my tree. It’s a post oak, a hardy variety common to south Texas, known for a cheerful willingness to endure our tropical summers without complaint. Its lowest branches are quite low indeed, giving it a posture that beckons to be climbed.

It was in connecting with my inner seven-year-old and taking up the tree on its offer that it became my favorite. I know the routes by heart: take one generous step to the crevice formed by the separation of three huge trunks, and from there choose your path: further up to the solitude of a Y-shaped nook perfect for reading or writing, or out to the left, to one of the long, low branches, perfectly designed as a lover’s perch, just sturdy enough for two.

Houston is a city quite literally built upon a swamp, growing out of a trading post on the banks of a muddy tributary that only wishes it was a river. However, along with the mosquitoes, humidity, and hurricanes worthy of a swamp comes a blessing of beautiful trees, like this one. It first caught my eye three years ago when I was living nearby and frequently walking to a coffee shop down the road to escape the cabin fever of working at home; one pleasant day demanded that I finish my hazelnut cinnamon coffee with haste rather than linger, and my outdoor excursion brought me to the foot of the post oak.

A few months later, on a sticky summer night at the same coffee shop, a young lady unwittingly set the bait for a pursuit in which the tree would be an even more unwitting accomplice. As I became more smitten with this young lady, I would escape to the tree more frequently, writing letters, listening to loads of Brit pop rock on my iPod, and wishing that she hadn’t just moved twelve hundred miles away.

Circumstance led me to leave the tree’s neighborhood, but fate always drew me back. As a kid, I wasn’t much of a tree climber, owing to an embarrassing fear of heights, but having found in adulthood a tree low-slung enough to climb with ease, I wasn’t about to abandon it. So I would hop in my car at my new apartment and drive over for periodic visits, to clear my head or rendezvous with the girl whose heart was beginning to warm to me.

It was on these latter visits (usually with to-go cups of coffee in hand) that we discovered the inviting proportions of the lowest branch. I also discovered that when it comes to climbing trees, she’s as adept as a lemur, which makes me look slightly more skilled than a manatee. This perch turned out to be a great vantage point for people-watching, allowing us to gawk at other couples in various states of woo and listen to the occasional impromptu banjo-led jam sessions.

My trips to the tree became less frequent as busyness took over and priorities shifted. Houston’s summer has a way of discouraging even the most incidental trips outside as people huddle inside in the cool before dashing to their oven-like cars, desperately praying that the a/c will become cold before the water that composes sixty percent of our bodies evaporates. The idea of going outside for the purpose of contemplation and relaxation is not unlike attending a Sigur Ros concert with the intent to crowd surf.

The Houston summer isn’t all bad, though: it also encourages visitors and residents alike to explore the cultural richness that surrounds them, from world-class art museums to the array of restaurants combining the diverse cultures that surround the Texas Gulf Coast: Cajun, Mexican, Vietnamese, German, Greek, and, of course, the crown jewel of Texan cuisine, barbeque. With these distractions and others, the second summer of writing love notes in tree branches went by the wayside. Not that I really noticed; I was far too occupied in trying to secure a ring and screw up the confidence to propose. It was a perfect storm of neglect for my place of refuge.

Soon after that proposal was accepted, a much more literal storm was brewing. Absent earthquakes or volcanoes and located in the armpit of Gulf of Mexico, Houston is a prime target for hurricanes. Fortunately, we’d been spared a direct hit for more than twenty years, the previous major hurricane having made landfall just weeks after my younger brother (now a father himself) was born. But Ike was coming, and unlike past storms, it neither weakened or changed course. Having learned the lessons of Katrina, people either evacuated or hunkered; I chose to hunker, though not at my vulnerable-to-flooding apartment, but at my parents’ house in the suburbs.

In a city blessed with a wealth of trees, one of the most immediate things you notice in the aftermath of a hurricane are leaves – everywhere, in the streets, on the lawns, and, of course, attached to the downed branches that sever power lines, turn driveways into junkyards, and shut down thoroughfares more surely than rush hour. Watching a city of three million souls retreat, shut down, re-emerge and return, and begin to rebuild is like a passion play performed en masse, cycling through despair and darkness to hope and light, with a fantastic work of regeneration at its core.

The city lost a lot of old trees in the storm, but my oak held fast. It’s a little more sparse, like a head of gently thinning hair; fortunately, this hair will regrow. The city returned to normal, and my life did as well. The stress of planning a wedding replaced the stress of planning an engagement, but before the meetings with caterers and shopping for that perfect black tie could begin in earnest, it was time to return to the scene of the crime.

With the sky a brilliant autumn blue and the weather the kind of seventy-degree perfection that comes paired with the appreciation that it won’t be hot again this year, she and I posed and cavorted around the park next to the Menil for a set of engagement photos. As the light began to retreat, the photographers asked if we had any other places we’d like to include.

We looked at each other, smiled, and walked to the tree.

The Diaries of Dennis, A Hipster

“This summer the unvarying male uniform in the precincts of Brooklyn cool has been a pair of shorts cut at knickers length, a V-neck Hanes T-shirt, a pair of generic slip-on sneakers and a straw fedora. Add a leather cuff bracelet if the coolster is gay.
In truth this get-up was pretty much the unvarying male uniform last summer also, but this year an unexpected element has been added to the look, and that is a burgeoning potbelly one might term the Ralph Kramden.
Too pronounced to be blamed on the slouchy cut of a T-shirt, too modest in size to be termed a proper beer gut, developed too young to come under the heading of a paunch, the Ralph Kramden is everywhere to be seen lately, or at least it is in the vicinity of the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene, the McCarren Park Greenmarket and pretty much any place one is apt to encounter fans of Grizzly Bear.”

The New York Times, August 12th, 2009.

My name is Dennis. And I am a hipster. At least I thought I was.

For the majority of my twenties, which seems like an eternity at five years now, I have done everything I can to avoid being cool in order to get people to notice me. I have failed miserably.

It’s getting harder and harder to stay ironic. And I feel like just giving up.

I have worn chain wallets and women’s pants, had beards and moustaches, and have made the switch to macrobiotics and raw food diets. The amount of money I’ve spent on overpriced second-hand flannel has put me severely in debt. My head has seen more hairstyles in the last five years than a Glamour Shots in Peoria, Illinois.

Photo: Joel Bedford

Photo: Joel Bedford

And now, just when I thought I was up to date on what is not cool but actually cool as long as you don’t call it that, this whole fat thing comes around. Apparently, being slightly overweight is now what I have to do in order to look like I don’t care.

So with all my might, I will develop a potbelly, a baby bump, and portray it by wearing a T-shirt that is slightly too small, so that my Buddha belly pokes out above my waist line and is just barely visible to those I am trying to act like I don’t want to notice me.

If this doesn’t work, it’s over. If I fail this time, and don’t achieve true apathetic bliss, I will give in to my massive desire to wear a polo and a crisp pair of slacks. This I vow to you.

For the next few weeks I will share my journal with you, so that you can see my process, and so someone can publish it in my biography some day after I achieve fame and die in a plane crash.

Dropped the whole vegan thing. That’ll never work if I want to develop the roundness I’m looking for. Have changed my diet to Popeye’s Chicken and Hometown Buffet. Had a small ethical crisis for my once strongly held stance on “what one should put in their body,” but quickly extinguished it with a third helping of spare ribs. I’m off craft beers, and back on copious amounts of PBR, 20 of which cost the price of one craft beer. I think beer might be the key.

Nice small gut, but nowhere close to where I want to be. If a flannel-clad lumberjack was my previous style informant, then is a pregnant mom early in her second trimester my current inspiration? This is all so confusing.

Looking good, but I’m having a much harder time getting up the stairs to my apartment. Have reignited my childhood love for Mountain Dew.

Hope acne is in, because I sure have a lot of it. The cost of establishing a positive self-image is priceless. I’ve heard of a few guys who are shaving their potbellies to give the look a nice gleam. Think I’ll try that.

I cut the hell out of my stomach when I was shaving it last week. That sucked. Remember the Pregnant Man from a little while back? I look like that guy if he got shivved in prison. But I really think I’m making an impression in public.

Have a great looking gut but have fallen behind the curve. Let me drop some knowledge: Summer trends, like the potbelly, seem to be based on indulgence and bright colors, whereas fall is more introspective and brings in beiges and browns and muted yellows. Apparently there is a new trend that is sweeping the Borough and parts of Portland and quickly supplanting the potbelly. That trend? Jaundice. I ran into some people who were saying they saw some band “all yellowed-out and jaundiced” and that they were “brilliantly ironic.” This is all a little strange to me because I thought jaundice was a disease. And I looked it up and it is. It’s a disease. It’s a disease where you turn yellow. So I’m not really sure what to think of that but apparently you can get it through cirrhosis of the liver.

Two ways to get cirrhosis of the liver: 1) genes, 2) binge drinking. I’m hoping for a combo of both, and I’ve already got the drinking thing going with the beer so I’ll just keep that up.

Done with the potbelly and attempting to achieve an authentic yet responsible case of jaundice. Maybe I’ll luck out and get some liver spots in the process.

OK, so first its like “cholesterol is so hot right now” and then its like “jaundice is the only way to be relevant” and then its like “you’re nobody if you don’t have smoker’s cough” and I’m all like “what the hell?” You know? How am I supposed to feel about all this?

Good week. I’ve got a great gut, a nice full beard, and a good yellowish hue going on. I’m in a sort of existential funk, though. I can’t really seem to form a lucid thought and I feel really weak. I thought that a little transcendentalism might fix that and considered going camping but then quickly realized that I don’t know how to set up a tent. And I don’t know where you’d go camping around here. I’m from the suburbs of Milwaukee and we never really went camping. Decided to listen to a bunch of Nick Drake instead.

Some teenage girls saw me and freaked out and then giggled and called me a zombie the other day on the street. It felt nice to be noticed for a while but it stirred more questions than answers.

WEEK 10:
Hospice care is nice, but boy, it sure would be nice to have an English-speaking nurse. Guess I’ll lay off the “latest trend following” until I’m healthy again. But I’ll definitely stick with it for the long run. Giving up the battle to remain ironic would mean selling out, and that’s one thing I swore I’d never do unless it paid well.

If I learned anything through this experience, it’s that if you’re trying to be cool by not being cool, or at least subconsciously attempting to not be cool, or pretending to be not cool in order to be cool, it would be cool to at least act like you are unaware of all that is cool but at some level have a deep obsession for that which could be considered cool, just in case someone asks you to become famous.

It is this potentiality for cool that makes one cooler. And of course this can only be found within your perfect-inner-famous-self. At least this is what you will tell yourself while you secretly look outward, with your eyes, and develop an idea of what is cool through the world around you. Just push away the objectivity of your inner confusion. Ignorance is bliss and can come off as totally hip. Especially when it doesn’t take a shower in order to preserve bed head.

The Liturgy of a Neighborhood

When my husband and I started to discuss where to look for a house, our preferences did not quite align. Johnny leaned toward the affordable suburbs of Katy, and I presented an unrealistic argument for a pricey, historic bungalow in one chamber of the heart of Houston – the Woodland Heights, our church’s neighborhood.

My husband’s practical wisdom prevailed, and walking into the two-story house in which we now live, we experienced the surprisingly truthful cliché: We just knew. I made it my mission to see the suburbs as I now see everything: to seek out what is rehumanizing right here, chain stores and all. Our neighborhood is very walkable, most of our neighbors are friendly, and we consider Cedar’s Mediterranean Grill & Market “our place,” offering the best hummus, hookahs, and Arabic music videos on the TV. We now feel as if the ‘burbs are home sweet home. However, if we won the lottery, we might be persuaded to move to one of those bungalows. Until that improbable day, my urban aesthetics are assuaged by driving to church every Sunday through the absence of notorious Houston traffic – it’s like God’s gift to the faithful.

As creatures of ritual and pleasure, our Sabbaths consist of a geographical trinity to which we migrate like birds to their homeland. We both work from home, so Sunday is our earliest day of the week. I am not a morning person. But, gratefully, Antidote Coffee is our first stop, its atmosphere just buzzed enough to gently wake fellow grumpy, slow risers. Cheery, multi-colored patio furniture awaits outside, and eclectic vintage furniture inside. Red brick walls sport local art and photography. The menu offers organic and fair trade coffee roasted in Marfa, Texas; organic artisanal tea, beer, wine, homemade baked goods, watermelon gazpacho, red bean hummus, and other delights. Happy hour includes spirits, of course, but also $1.00 espresso shots. The Beach Boys, The Kinks, and Old Country play overhead. They spin bad music at times, too, but at least it’s obscure bad music. The staff is attentive and kind – by now they know that Johnny takes his cappuccino wet with organic milk; they wait patiently as I rummage through the tea selection indecisively.

It’s a small, intimate space. I can’t help but eavesdrop on most conversations as they bounce off the stained concrete floor. And there’s no finding a secret, introverted nook in which to work or read. As I select a small wooden table or a velvet couch, I often have to ask a person, “Is this seat taken?” One afternoon, I poured my teapot of organic breakfast and spilled some of it in the process – very characteristically of me. A soft-spoken man chuckled in sympathy and asked what I was drinking, or spilling. I asked the same of him (Sencha green) and we oohed and ahhed over varieties of white tea, as well as our mutual preference for dark roast and chicory coffees. I discovered that he was born in France, adopted by an American family, and is now part of both families – he visits the French countryside regularly. I shared that my mom was adopted; her biological family is from Louisiana, and she, too, is part of both families. And when I said that just that morning, Johnny and I daydreamed of visiting Paris, the man said, “Oh, you should – there’s still a lot of magic in that city.” I marveled at this conversation with a kindred spirit-stranger.

Kaboom Books is right next door, a brilliant pairing. More rainbow-hued tables and chairs adorn the storefront, encouraging the enjoyment of coffee and used books here or there. The second Kaboom location is a little bigger and five minutes away, and our church is situated in the middle. The owners are a good-natured married couple, transplants from New Orleans after Katrina. We met the spunky red-haired wife, newly a Houston resident, and to our delight and surprise, she reported that they love their new hometown and neighbors.

I am not above a Barnes & Noble/Starbucks combo, but I do have a special place in my heart for the unshakable independents in our culture, and for the smell of old books. Kaboom’s tall, crude wooden shelves hold more mystery than a polished new store. Their selection musters up a literary faith in the face of uncertainty. Lately, I believe that I will find Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter on that high shelf with the B’s, though I cannot yet see it. Like the old bungalows in the neighborhood, these books spin yarns and tall tales to complement the story their pages hold. The front page might bear a reader’s name written with pencil or ink, provoking a sort of reverence in me as I flip through the pages, as if that long-lost soul is loaning it to me. Kaboom opens later than Antidote on a Sunday morning, so I wistfully peek into my dusty little sanctuary until I can step inside again. Sometimes we do so after church, or during the week. Our liturgy of the neighborhood is not just for the Sabbath, you see.

We hop in the car with to-go cups of caffeine and weave down Euclid Street for two minutes toward church. This neighborhood provides something suburbanites should cultivate: a deeper sense of community and beauty, which naturally pours into my soul as I spy porch swings, rocking chairs, hammocks, wind chimes, lush gardens bright with flowers, protective oak trees, and quirky art sculptures planted in front yards. The amicability also speaks from the bungalow architecture itself, with most homes boasting wide front porches that make hospitality visual. Friends drink wine on those shady havens in the evening, or sleepy-eyed fathers enjoy breakfast in solitude the next morning. History resides in these streets as well – old, tattered bungalows sit alongside newer models, but the Woodland Heights is committed to preserving “a hometown near downtown since 1907” and beautiful American Craftsman design. Change is good at the right time, but I still admire this small town within the big city, one determined to conserve historical architecture which tells a large part of Houston’s story.

The impetus for our Sabbath migration sits on the corner of Beauchamp and Byrne: Church of the Holy Trinity, a small Anglican parish. “Worship is primary theology. It is also home, which, as the saying goes, is the place where they have to take you in” (Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace). I grew up with Baptist mega-church roots, and so our little liturgical church feels exactly like our second family (after in-laws) with differences, squabbles, hugs, laughter, shared tears and joy, and all the rest. I actually know my priest – a far cry from a distant pastoral association, with a stage and bright lights. Fr. Doug loves local coffee shops, whiskey, good tobacco, the Coen Brothers, John Donne, Wendell Berry, and slow food, just for starters.

The liturgy suits people like me and Johnny, and many in the congregation – the artful-minded, craving visuals and symbols. We walk in the door to dip our fingertips in cold, holy water; trace a cross from our forehead to our chest; light a candle cupped in red glass to symbolize prayers weighing heavy on our hearts. I take a wooden pew under the St. Catherine of Alexandria stained glass. There is a still, sweet reverence under the wooden nave which looks like an upturned ark, drying out from a tragic flood. As we do “the people’s work,” peaceful repetition – kneeling, bowing, crossing – we embed Scripture and worship into our souls and movements. Liturgy is found in the pages of Genesis, the 1st century early church, and onward until now – more history rooted within a bustling, modern city. The music is both traditional hymns and new songs on guitar, piano, and djembe. Candles light the altar; incense tickles our noses and represents our collective prayers. When we walk out the door and gather on the patio, some smoke a cigar and others grab a Shiner (on tap in the kitchen). We adults sweat in a Houston summer, and the kids run helter-skelter on the playground. We take our worship back out into the old-and-new-bungalowed neighborhood – as they welcome us, we hope to welcome them into our home the next week, signaled by church bells sounding through the ‘hood.

Urbanites seek refuge from the traffic and workweek cacophony, and our activities are almost unconscious liturgical repetitions. We work with our hands in our home or in an office, completing similar tasks over and over again. We frequent our favorite places to eat, drink, and refuel. We are created to gravitate to rhythm, order, beauty, and our incarnational five senses. Or perhaps we rebel against these forces, our fallen dance.

But we are to live within our culture, our eyes roving for what is true, good, and beautiful – such as the Menil neighborhood, houses of art which continue to nourish and protect me. But even more nourishing and protective are our church, Antidote’s small town hospitality, and Kaboom’s cozy inspiration – making the Woodland Heights our second neighborhood. It’s like Isaiah said: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” And so we drink coffee & tea, read, and worship; return to our suburban neighborhood, rest, repeat – revisiting the rhythm of our Bayou City Sabbath after Sabbath, a world that ought to be, without end, amen.

The Hunt for the Real Autumn

Each year around this time, without fail, New York City is abuzz with the residents’ autumnal alacrity, having had had quite enough of the sweaty summer season. Enthusiastic praise is given first to the colors, then to the smells, eventually the tastes, and finally to the sensation of a crisp breeze wafting through city streets. With warm smiles anticipating the romance of a fairy tale, friends look at me with shining eyes and ask, “Don’t you just love the fall?”

Immediately, suspicion wells up within me. “Where are you from?” I ask, already knowing the answer to be one of three American states.

“California,” the majority of them say, though a few hail from Texas or Tennessee.

“That figures,” I mutter, sometimes under my breath, sometimes loud enough to be certain I’ve been heard. My response is always followed with the question: What is that supposed to mean?

It means this: I grew up in New England. What’s that supposed to mean, you ask? It means that generally, when it comes to autumn anywhere else, I’m emphatically not impressed. The mediocre color splotches available in Central Park plummet far below the standards of “fall foliage;” I’ve never even seen a pumpkin in the concrete jungle; and on the rare and coincidental occasion that I’ve caught a whiff of anything remotely resembling freshly-baked-pie-goodness, it has rapidly been followed by the smell of two-week-old-baked-goodness-tossed-in-the-garbage-pail, which – in case this part wasn’t clear – spoils the mood entirely.

Oh, yes, I love fall. But expecting me to love it anywhere except New England (with the possible exception of the real England) is like expecting a second-grader to like an uninspired apple over the sugary bliss of the candy kind; the very thought embodies futility.

Fortunately, New England isn’t far from New York City, and you need not burrow deeply into the northernmost parts of the region to experience some of that fairy-tale-fall that has warmed my heart for so many years. If you’re in the neighborhood, and you are up for a far-north frolicking or just a day-long getaway, here are a few spots to visit to make your autumnal adventures far more magical than any other place America has to offer. (With apologies to the rest of America.)

Gillette Castle, East Haddam, CT – Perched high above the Connecticut River, Gillette Castle, originally known as Seven Sisters, was the residence of actor William Gillette, famous for his stage portrayals of Sherlock Holmes. One only has to spend a few seconds on the property to understand why Gillette fell in love with it. From the garden, the view stretches for miles, trees splashed in every color of autumn clustered close together and running along both sides of the Connecticut River all the way to the horizon. For a bird’s-eye view of the fall season, there are few options superior and none quite as convenient. An added bonus is the mysterious nature of a castle fashioned with secret passages, spy-holes, and even its own personal underground railway. Pack a picnic lunch to eat amidst the leaves fallen on the grounds below the castle, or make a night of it camping at the foot of the mountain.

Northeast Kingdom, VT – The furthest of the fun times, the scenic drive alone merits mention, let alone all the quaint comforts of cozy New England offered in the Northeast Kingdom.Unlike some of the more densely populated parts of southern New England, the Northeast Kingdom boasts full-length hayrides through the grassy plains of the least commercialized farmlands in the region, foliage paddles along on the Clyde River, harvest fairs, hiking through the crisp forests of the Burke Mountains, and the New England autumn signature Great Vermont Corn Maze. To satisfy your taste buds, stop off for some quality unfiltered ale samplings at the Trout River Brewery in Lyndonville or hit up the Cow Palace in Derby for their famous elk burgers. (For those overly-zealous carnivores, you can even “meet the meat” in the backyard, posing for pictures with someone’s future lunch if the elk are unsuspecting enough to approach you. No sudden movements, people.) Best of all, at least for earth-conscious New Yorkers, it doesn’t get greener than the Northeast Kingdom, and thanks to a geotourism program being developed in conjunction with National Geographic, your presence there will actually help to sustain the region’s natural environment.

Hudson Highland/Fjord, Cold Spring, NY– Okay. Technically, it’s not New England, but lest my regional snobbery paint me to be too exclusive for my own good, let it be known that upstate New York offers most of the same nostalgic delicacies as the rest of New England. The Hudson Highland and Hudson Fjord provide an all-encompassing experience of autumn’s natural beauty, only a couple of hours north of the suffocating faux-fall of New York City. Offering views from far above the Hudson River as well as the unique experience of a glacier-carved valley between the highland mountains, few sites in the northeast have such a robust selection of scenery. After a sojourn across the Bear Mountain Bridge, visit some of the town’s antique structures, go kayaking along the river (don’t forget your wetsuit), picnic at Little Stony Point State Park, or, if you’ve had quite enough of nature, visit Main Street for the best small-town shopping along the Hudson.

Natural Bridge State Park, North Adams, MA – Home to the only naturally formed white marble “bridge” in North America, the park offers, amidst a kaleidoscope of colors, a 13,000 year old bedrock marble bridge formed by eons of glacial movements. Visit Hudson’s Cave, made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne in An American Notebook, or just watch the Hudson Brook bubble through the park’s naturally formed gorge. For nearby nature adventures in North Adams, visit the stunning Berkshire Mountain trails, two other state parks, and vibrant local waterfalls. If town tourism is your fancy, make sure to check out Mass MoCA for a healthy dose of contemporary visual and performing arts.

Lyman Orchards, Middlefield, CT – What would autumn be without apples? Whether you pick your own or buy from the fresh piles inside, Lyman Orchards boasts some of the finest fall fruit in the country. Running the ninth-oldest family-operated business in American, the Lymans remain dedicated to preserving their land and homegrown produce for generations to come. After lunch on the beautiful patio deck overlooking the orchards, get lost in the yellow glow of the unique sunflower maze, stay traditional with the classic corn maze out front, or tromp through the pumpkin patch and find yourself the perfect piece for jack-o-lanterns, rich pumpkin bread, sugary pie, and roasted seeds. Don’t forget your golf clubs!

For a list of the best places to see foliage throughout the season, check out Yankee Foliage’s peak map.

No matter what your New England autumn adventure looks like, be assured that when you return to your humble home, you will scoff heartily at the question, “Don’t you just love the fall?”

“Oh, yes,” you’ll say. “I do love the fall. And I guess this is pretty nice, too.”

Nevermind the Gap

I was 16 when I first visited London for a whirl of a wind, five-hour tour during a Heathrow layover. I remember only snapshots revealed as I emerged from subterranean escalators: Piccadilly’s hypnotic lights, Buckingham Palace’s wedding cake font, and Big Ben watching over all the bustle like some staid judge. It was big and disjointed and, in my mind, the only thing that held these wondrous bits together was the vast network of trains rumbling underfoot – the Underground.

The Tube was a masterpiece to my suburban sensibilities – swiftly zipping London’s well-dressed from stylish abode to streamlined office to Soho gallery and back again. Armed with a pair of souvenir Tube-map socks and a Mind the Gap T-shirt, I resolved to one day join their ranks, and 12 years later I did just that.

Two months into an editing gig in central London, the romance had waned. Sure, the sheen wears off every big city dream at some point, but this was a short-lived loved affair by any standard.

London was meant to be fashion (!) and art (!) and history (!), but so far all I’d managed to see between home and work were miles of subway-tiles. I could never determine east from west or figure out where Bloomsbury was in relation to Chelsea. On the iciest of days I still arrived at work in a sweat after sharing an unventilated subway car with, it seemed, the rest of London, and my new city-chic heels were taking a beating on escalators and endless underground walkways. All this at a cost equivalent to $8 per journey*! The root of my discomfort was the very infrastructure in which I’d placed so much hope.

I loathed the Tube.

Then one fateful day the north/south running Jubilee Line was closed (as it often is) and it marked one inconvenience too many. Taking an alternate route meant dashing for two different connections in ridiculously stylish shoes. It was a time for last resorts. I caught a bus.

Up to this point, the Underground’s demerits were obvious (hot, cramped, overpriced, unexplained stops in dark tunnels, long walks between platforms, closes at midnight) but the merits of bus travel were still unknown. In the suburbs where I grew up, buses were the domain of grannies and crazies. They were slow and indirect, idling at rural stops for minutes at a time. This stigma had kept me off London’s iconic double-deckers. I see it in many of my North American visitors as well. The only bus they’ll brave is the open-top tourist variety. Over dinner with five other expats recently, each of them admitted to never taking the London bus, generally because they expect it to be confusing and they’ll miss their stop.

And here our plot takes a drastic turn, courtesy of Deus ex machina – God from the machine that issued forth my bus ticket after charging a mere pound. In the movie version of my London life, a beam of light shines down from heaven in this moment; I ascend to the upper deck and I am a convert. This is my revelation: in London, bus travel is not only cheap as chips, it is a cinematic experience – one I have since repeated at every possible opportunity.

From the upper deck, crossing the Thames equals any visit to the IMAX, and from the bottom deck, a drive along Oxford Street rivals a front row seat at London Fashion Week. In traffic I read the blue plaques on buildings around town, which denote which famous Brit lived where (Winston Churchill! Alfred Hitchcock! Charles Dickens!) and have a prime view of London’s celebrated street art. It is people-watching, history-marking, city-touring heaven. There are no drastic temperature changes; there is a greater likelihood and securing a seat; and when there’s a holdup, I know exactly why.

Those North American fears of missing a stop and winding up in an squalid no man’s land are entirely unfounded thanks to an automated voice that calls out each stop as it approaches. In keeping with London’s penchant for good design, easy-to-read maps at each bus stand show you where to catch your bus and every single stop it makes along the way.

The more I speak to seasoned Londoners, the more I discover that I’m not the only one with a passion for the bus. These insiders know that the bus is often more direct and rarely takes longer than the Tube.

Lindsey Clarke, editor of London’s authoritative city blog,, and a fellow bus enthusiast, tells me the top deck of a London bus is her preferred spot for city viewing and daydreaming. She lets me in on a handy tip: “If you’re nifty,” she says, “you can bus-hop across town in a very cunning manner – all the way to Zone 6 and back if you wish.”

Every rider has a favourite route. I like catching the 24 bus in the shadow of Big Ben and passing Trafalgar Square and the theatre district en route to quirky Camden Town and tranquil Hampstead Heath. Ms. Clarke has a particular soft spot for the 341 bus which connects trendy north London to the arsty south bank. “The 341 is a comfy double-decker that links Islington to Waterloo in 30 minutes or less, crossing the Thames at Waterloo Bridge with stunning views, handy for the City or the West End. And it runs 24 hours.”

Now, more than a year into my London life, I’ve yet to ride the bus without some fresh new revelation about the lay of the land. And ironically, my bus rides have proved just how walkable this city is. What was a 15-minute tube ride is often revealed to be a really pleasant 25 minute stroll; and if you get lost, handy maps at every bus stop will help you get your bearings as you move on to the next history-steeped spot, enjoying every site along the way.

Note for visitors:
– For riding the bus or the Tube, it is well worth buying a pre-loaded Oyster card which gives you big savings on pay-as-you go travel. It caps out at a daily max, so you get a day’s unlimited bus travel in all zones for ¬£3.30 or Tube travel for ¬£6.70 in zones 1 & 2.

Best routes:
– Route 10 is best for fashion-lovers, taking you from the Royal Albert Hall and Kensington Palace to the luxury of Harrod’s department store and the excess of Oxford Street.
– Route 24 is great tourist route, passing by Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square through the famous West End, and finally to infamous Camden and giant park Hampstead Heath.
– Routes 9 and 15 are heritage routes which let you ride original Routemaster double deckers for regular bus card fares. Route 15 passes tourist must-sees like the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, publishing mecca, the Strand and Trafalgar Square.

*£4 when paying per journey without an Oyster card.

Eyewitness News

I walk through Times Square. Red, blue, purple, yellow flash and wink. Faces blur. Lights pulse: on, off, on, off. Someone sings a pop song I don’t recognize, revving up those passing by. Times Square. Me, passing through.

Breathing sultry air, I witness the moment: on, off, on, off. I feel my arms in motion, my feet hitting the pavement. Buildings rise, old, connecting me to a past I cannot really touch. Billboards change rapid-fire and signs rotate. In just a few short minutes I witness Mary Poppins, Bubba Gump, race cars speeding.

In the midst of this are offers to come and go – somewhere, but I’m not sure of destinations. The bus stop. Theater tickets starting at $31.50. A giant beer bottle rising up golden, then disappearing.

“I will write as soon as I get to New York,” said Father Byles. I saw his words, bigger than life, white against amber, just an hour ago in the exhibit for Titanic. I will write as soon as never came. Still, the words are hanging somewhere near Times Square, in a dark hall where you can touch a piece of sunken ship, buy a fragment of coal that powered black and white promise (virtually unsinkable! they said). My daughter reached into the touch case – a fragile child’s hand traced remains of wreckage. We passed on the coal purchase, refusing to buy tragedy.

Mary Poppins floats skyward, clinging to her black umbrella. I watch her go and wish for my own umbrella against time. And a red dress. I could use a red dress, singing past tragedy.

Rick Steves, Travel Guru

If you’ve ever been browsing PBS during random afternoon hours or late at night, you might have come across an awkward khaki-pantsed northwesterner with a Minnesotan accent stumbling through basic phrases in Finnish whilst trying to buy a herring in Helsinki. This man is Rick Steves. His program is Rick Steves’ Europe, and to the elation of millions, it is now on Hulu.

This may sound like paltry news to some, but I take it as a sign of a fascinating monopoly on a very large tourism industry. Or at the very least, a sign of Rick Steves’ rapid rise to geek-chic popularity.

Rick Steves’ Europe is a travel program centered on a philosophy of traveling “through the back door.” Steves has traveled to Europe and beyond for 30 years, providing readers and audiences with something other than large tour groups, stuff-your-face cruises, and the out-of-reach extravagancies that you usually find on the nostalgically opulent Travel Channel.

Steves’ philosophy is that “globe-trotting destroys ethnocentricity,” and he makes no bones about it: his efforts in educating you as a traveler are intended not only to give you a better travel experience, but also to build a better reputation for the U.S. in the minds of the rest of the world.

It is this philosophy that has popularized Rick Steves – not his glitzy production value (there isn’t any), nor his jaw-dropping excursions (he’s never been on one), and definitely not his fashionable appearance (he wears the same thing for his entire trip: khaki pants and a button-up short sleeve shirt, usually with a very plain backpack slung over one shoulder).

No, Rick Steves has built an empire on being awkward. Or rather, he has built an empire on being okay with being awkward, especially in foreign countries.

Why is all of this important? Because his guidebooks often sell out to preorders before making it to the shelves. His is by far the best-selling travel guidebook in America.

This is saying something. A few years ago, it seemed like the best options for traversing Europe were to a) backpack it, staying in grimy hostiles, showing up in places where you had little idea of how to see the sites, or b) join a massive tour group.

For those wanting to take a European vacation that was thrifty and adventurous, yet broadened your cultural horizons, there were few books or television shows that could show you the way.

If you purchased your standard travel guide, it came along with a healthy speculation of what was being recommended, always making you wonder if someone was getting a kickback at your expense. But Steves’ has eliminated this concern. He has no endorsements, and he declines the extravagant event invitations offered to him by tourism boards. He is interested in traveling as most people must travel: on a strict budget. As he states in his philosophy:

“In many ways, spending more money only builds a thicker wall between you and what you came to see. Europe is a cultural carnival, and, time after time, you’ll find that its best acts are free and the best seats are the cheap ones.

A tight budget forces you to travel close to the ground, meeting and communicating with the people, not relying on service with a purchased smile… Simply enjoy the local-style alternatives to expensive hotels and restaurants.”

Steves encourages lodging with the grandma who happens to have a spare room and plenty of fresh scones as opposed to the lavish hotel with a bellboy who is eager for his tip. And he tells you where that grandma lives and gives you her phone number.

Instead of leaving you to pay for guided tours that might inevitably end in various gift shops, Rick Steves provides informational tours for you via downloadable MP3s. In Rome, for example, he has designed a “night walk” that includes large amounts of history and the best gelato places in town.

Steves has written an excellent book called Europe 101: History and Art for the Traveler to give you a wider perspective before diving into the overwhelming amount of history you can encounter in Europe.

He emphasizes the art of picnicking in France to save money, and lets you know the name of the bartender at a hidden pub/bicycle shop in Ireland.

As evidenced by a number of awkward exchanges on his TV show, all of this comes at Rick’s expense, as he puts himself out there. He knows that to reap to biggest benefits from traveling, you must “become a temporary local,” and that often means going outside your comfort zone. But he emphasizes doing this with a polite yet curious attitude, not a snooping loud one.

What is remarkable is that Rick knows one language: English. After 30 years of traveling around Europe, he has made a point of learning how to creatively communicate with locals for the sake of his audience.

So, what does all of Steves’ awkward fame mean? It seems backward to equate a lack of coolness to a better cultural perspective, but then again, that might not be so far off the mark. Steves is transforming what it means to have a good vacation. He values cultural engagement more than comfortable hotels. He values history and education more than making the funniest face next to the Buckingham Palace Guard. He makes the Ugly American a nerd.

Steves’ philosophy is restoring a spirit of courtesy and politeness to what has become the image of American tourists: generally, a bully. He humanizes that which is foreign through a willingness to be uncomfortable. He’s endlessly curious about what shaped him, about his cultural roots.

What he has done with his books and programs is taken these values, very wisely assumed that they mattered to millions of other Americans, and monopolized a portion of the travel industry through the application of this very hopeful philosophy.

His approach intelligently upholds a respect for the truest desire of his audience: to understand themselves and others more fully by traveling. He has created a wiser consumer by assuming that his audience values being culturally savvy. In my mind, that makes good business sense.

Steves’ competitors are surely taking notice of his uncomfortable savoir-faire. Let’s see if the rest of the travel industry is willing to get a little awkward along with him.

The Boutique City Conundrum

Everyone in America wants their town to hit the list of the top five places to live in the U.S. – with clean streets, amazing mixed-use housing, and an easy walk to the corner grocery – but what many developers are not asking in the process is, “At what cost?”

A few days ago, I watched a special on Portland’s city planning process from the past several decades. Portland’s government has used something called an “urban growth boundary” to foster development within the city’s existing limits, rather than encouraging ever greater sprawl and suburbanization. Outside the boundary, local farms can flourish off the nutrient-rich land and sell their products to eager city residents. The boundary guarantees that these farmers are staying put, as it protects both the land and well-being of these rural entities. Portland’s model is focused upon a belief that both the urban dweller and the farmer are essential for the flourishing of local culture, and that undercutting the value of healthy land and healthy farms will undercut the city itself. The model is increasingly trendy, but still quite rare.

In a typical metropolitan growth pattern, as cities expand past their original boundaries, farmers are often the first pushed out. Developers see farmland as ready ground for new housing, strip malls, or major roads and are willing to offer high stakes to obtain it. Cities and their surrounding suburbs can span for hours of driving time.

For example, take Washington, D.C., with its surrounding suburbs in northern Virginia and Maryland, or Los Angeles and its expansive outskirts. To support these models, intricate highway systems, high speed transit, and massive infrastructure are necessary. Commuters may spend hours driving to work and returning home each day, and often those who work within the actual city’s boundaries have little concern for the city’s well-being, and certainly no say in its government.

Meanwhile, with an urban growth boundary, urban and rural do not mix. Beyond the boundary, one will find farms, along with forested and other “protected” lands. Inside the boundary, one will find urban development-buildings, homes, sewer and water systems, power lines, and industrial complexes. Cities with urban growth boundaries exist as single units rather than suburban centers, and often have much more dense populations than other metropolitan models. Rather than encouraging outward growth, urban growth boundaries encourage cities to grow deeper and more concentrated. With this model in play, things like freestanding single family housing and mall-style shopping become rare and unsustainable. So the restaurants get better, the apartments more beautiful, and the wares more exciting. Meanwhile, prices per square foot of space and even the cost of commodities can grow substantially with increased demand and competition.

Portland’s urban growth model is an interesting one, and certainly the city has transformed from disorganized and disconnected to upscale and appealing. Over the past few decades, Portland has transformed into a bustling boutique city of sorts, enabling its citizens easy access to high-end amenities and great local wares. Today Portland is often considered one of the best places to live in the country, and boasts an amazing waterfront park. However, this model can come at a steep price.

While the urban economy is booming and business couldn’t be better, many low and mid-income residents claim that for them, the growth is unsustainable. The hour-long television special on Portland also featured a woman who had moved several times in the last decade due to rising housing prices, and was now considering yet another move as her current landlord was demanding an additional hundred dollars per month.

While to some a little bit more money might not be a big deal, to others it means tapping fictitious bank accounts. Gentrification, while often of little concern to those with padded bank accounts or posh jobs, is a real concern for many city residents. As families are forced out of their homes, they must choose new neighborhoods further from transportation routes, good schools, and the very vibrant local culture that claims ability to uplift and empower them and their children. Planning expert Joel Kotkin’s writing captures these concerns quite well in his 2006 article “Urban Legend” (PDF download):

Boutique cities, like a high-end specialty merchandiser, have little use for the general run of the working and middle class, whose needs are assigned to the domain of Target, Wal-Mart and other suburban merchandisers. Indeed, if the makers of the boutique city worry about anything besides themselves, it is usually not the disappearance of this hardworking middle class, but how to deal with the potential threat represented by the alienated underclass, with its potential for lethal mayhem. Many denizens of these environments do not see the city as a place that holds their commitments, but only one locale that, for a period of time or a particular season, seizes their fancy.

Kotkin’s article comes with a bite – especially for anti-suburbia advocates like me. His work suggests that easy answers, “let’s uplift the poor by making cities vibrant places to live” urban renewal is often easier said than done. We need to make fewer global generalizations and focus more upon sustainable local outcomes. Kotkin’s piece suggests that truly refining and renewing America’s cities, or any country’s cities for that matter, in a way that is sustainable involves a long hard look at cities’ populations, and their specific needs and attributes. While one model might work for New York, that same model is not necessarily going to (and probably will not) work for Chicago. Similarly, a push for a trendier, greener, smarter city – the barking chant of today’s planning elites – might not appeal to the urban dweller who is barely feeding his/her children, balancing major credit debt, and managing multiple jobs.

A sustainable approach to urban development will view cities less as economic engines and more as communities, taking into account the interests of all, rather than a select few. It will consider how people, environment, business, and infrastructure all work together to build a comprehensive whole.

Author Wendell Berry captures these tensions and concerns of community in his essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community“:

A healthy community is like an ecosystem, and it includes – or it makes itself harmoniously a part of – its local ecosystem. It is also like a household; it is the household of its place, and it includes the households of many families, human and nonhuman. And to extend Saint Paul’s famous metaphor by only a little, a healthy community is like a body, for its members mutually support and serve one another.

As Berry suggests, communities only work when people start living for something much greater than themselves.

The High Line –
Manhattan’s Newest Public Park

In the movie Wall-E, the opening sequence is a vision of a post-human American city. It’s a landfill where once gleaming steel structures are overrun by drifts of plastic. The vision served as a beautifully comical cautionary tale that restored a genuine heart to an otherwise machine of a movie company. If Wall-E is a cautionary tale, then New York’s newest public park, The High Line, is an unlikely fairy tale.

The High Line, which opened its first stage to the public on June 9, is an elevated public park that sits 30 feet in the sky atop a set of dilapidated train tracks that were abandoned 30 years ago. Designed by James Corner Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio & Renfro, it runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District up to West 20th Street, and will eventually make its way up to 34th Street, spanning an incredible 23 blocks.

The tracks were once used for herding cattle to meat processing plants, but were overrun in the 70’s and 80’s by highway development. It has been the pillar of a crummy side of town for years, and only with some pesky, ardent supporters of its preservation, 155 million dollars (44 million of which was raised by donors), and a team of urban visionaries has it been restored to the coolest thing in town.

After climbing three stories of stairs to this surprise party of a public space, what you see is an astonishing achievement of nature restoring industrial decay. Aside from the sturdy, dark blue steel pillars that support this mysterious landmark, the park is completely hidden. This effect gives the park a sort of speakeasy feel, as if lying atop the dingy tracks were some sort of secret club.

Once in the park, you can see stretches of the city and the Hudson River rarely seen by New Yorkers. At dusk you can watch the sunset on the Hudson as boats go by. The trains have been replaced by lavish promenades interspersed with the sort of plants you might see in New York if it hadn’t been paved over hundreds of years ago. Prairie grass, berried bushes, and spruce trees abound in a bizarre and exciting way. The gardens all stand tall and animated, like pets energized to see their keepers after weeks at the kennel.

Photo: Makoto Fujimura

Looking down, you feel superior and transcendent to the pesky traffic below. It feels good to be justifiably condescending towards the loud metal boxes that don’t have nearly as good of a view and are bound by traffic lights. You can lose your way quite easily on The High Line, as the amount of traffic signal-free strolling you can do is alien to your typical city dweller.

The walkways are made of a concrete that doesn’t feel like concrete, but rather a composite material of finely smoothed particles. This adds to the wonder of the space. When you’re outside in New York and your feet hit something that doesn’t feel like concrete, it’s a memorable experience.

Wild grass shoots up through slats in the walkways as if to blur the barriers between human innovation and natural beauty. Chairs and loungers rise out of the ground and blend into wood structures, making any sitting or laying space feel connected to the nature that the designers have imposed and creates a flowing wave-like effect that adds to the tranquility of the space.

At 17th street there is a massive tiered, amphitheater-like structure that ends with a giant glass window, making the expansive 10th Avenue an unlikely and fascinating stage for pedestrians to ogle. The rows of wooden benches are a series of ramps that make the sitting area a veritable playground suspended above a busy street.

The materials throughout are thoughtful and polished. The lighting is subdued, highlighting only the plants and sleek structures. And the views of the surrounding neighborhoods are new. You’re not as high up as a skyscraper’s observation deck, but you are close enough to get a true vibe of the area.

And the area is transforming. Once a dilapidated ruin of warehouses, meatpacking plants, and streets riddled with crime, this neighborhood is now a burgeoning zone for new commerce and living. Architects across the globe have been chomping at the bit to get a building in the newfound “High Line District,” and a few great ones have succeeded. The posh new buildings include an apartment building that has an entrance onto the actual park and a hip new hotel that straddles the south end of the tracks.

In the short time since its opening, The High Line has achieved a bevy of excited residents, thrilled to see the neighborhood transform. Patty Heffley, a cabaret performer, has lived to see the High Line through many stages. When the tracks were unused and weeds began to grow, Heffley wanted to plant flowers. She would try and throw water balloons with seeds in them, but her efforts were fruitless. Now Heffley has started performing for park-goers from her fourth-story fire escape in a show called High Line Park’s Renegade Cabaret.

The High Line has become wildly popular amidst artists as well. There are already a countless number of fashion and commercial photographers and film crews shooting and snapping amidst the sea of strolling park-goers.

Though the neighborhood is slowly being restored and gaining a more stylish status, the park stays true to the grittiness of its past. Throughout the promenade are signs of what once was, as train tracks jut through gardens and graffiti lines some surrounding buildings. You never get the idea that you have left a city and entered a bucolic respite (a very wise choice on the designers’ behalf), but you feel as if the city’s attractive elements have been amplified with ruggedly wild gardening and spatial intelligence.

New York City is renowned for always looking forward without being tethered to the past. This philosophy has made for some dangerous progress and violent renovations, but in the end has always been a net-positive ideology for the largest city in America. But with this audacious public space, the city seems to have achieved both a deep regard for its history and a bright glimpse of hope for its future.

Photo: Makoto Fujimura

The designers of The High Line built the space with the idea of there being “romance in the ruins” and they achieved just that. It is prophetic in nature, steering the town’s aesthetic towards one of profound respect for its story and groundbreaking ideas for its future.

Equally important is that The High Line serves as a role model: it’s the biggest recycling project in New York City’s history.

Is it too much to say that the park is New York’s brightest example of how to restore a city? Head up the stairs on Gansevoort and Washington Streets and decide for yourself – before it’s overrun by tourists.

In Praise of Bryant Park

In the darkest depths of winter, when my new-transplant-to-New York roommates and I feared that the cold and gray of January would never lift, we had an unfortunate and depressing tendency to chronicle all the things we would not miss about New York if we were to move and return to our respective southern homelands. A few selections from the list: people who don’t move all the way down the car on the subway, schlepping our groceries up three flights of stairs, frigid gusts of wind that take your breath away, subway vomit-ers. I could go on.

Finally, the bravest and least cold of us declared a new list-making game: things we would miss if we left New York. This game was infinitely more fun and celebratory than the first, and had the added benefit of reminding us in ways big and small of why the heck we were in New York in the first place.

At the top of my list: lunches at Bryant Park. Without a doubt, the best reason to take a job in midtown Manhattan – other than the obvious, “Hey! It’s a job! I need one of those” – is the promise of spring and summer lunches spent in that urban oasis of green. Sure, Central Park gets all the hype (despite the glamorous distinction of hosting New York’s Fashion Week, I have yet to see a Bryant Park magnet for sale in Chinatown) but I would argue that Bryant Park is better suited to the daily needs of the city dweller.

I refuse to concede that this is simply a product of my life-long prejudice in favor of the overlooked or under-appreciated; for me, Central Park is too much of an ordeal – too vast and overwhelming – to host a practical break in the middle of the day. To spend time in “The Park,” one has to really commit to it – there are often picnic blankets involved, not to mention all the carriage traffic to be dodged – and to be honest, I usually want my park-visits to be more like a comma than an out-loud reading of the genealogy of Christ. I need a moment to catch my breath in the middle of the day, not lose my breath trying to get to the memorable part. Frankly, I don’t have time for that.

I do have time for smelling the grass, eating my lunch under the shade of a London plane tree, watching old men perform tai chi, wondering if one of my co-workers would want to play chess one afternoon, browsing in the HSBC reading room and thinking about joining one of the free yoga classes – all of which I can actually do at Bryant Park without abandoning my workday attire or fighting with a heel stuck in the grass. The beauty of Bryant Park is that I can participate in the world of whimsy outside the office in a way that fits into my life. And for the full three-quarters of an hour that I’m there, it’s my life again.

The restorers of Bryant Park not only have provided amenities that I can actually characterize with the word “whimsy” – and that without mentioning the carousel, skating rink, or ping-pong tables – but they respect my layout sensibilities so much that I, park-going peon that I am, can place my hunter green folding chair wherever I see fit. Even on a day when there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between the effort and intent I put into my work, and the result (or lack thereof), I can actively shape and participate in the life of a public space. The simple gift of movable chairs is, in actuality, a gift of agency and empowerment to the thousands of people who eat their lunch in the shade of those lush trees. I am reminded that my actions do have consequences, that I can tangibly affect my world – even if, for today, that is only in the orientation of a Bryant Park chair.

Besides redeeming my lunch hour, the park’s own history is a compelling tale of urban life re-emerging from a symbol of urban decay. Like many parks in New York City, Bryant Park began as a potter’s field before the city grew out to meet it and the park’s interred inhabitants were relocated to Ward’s Island. As recently as the ’70s, some dubbed it “Needle Park,” and I’m pretty sure this wasn’t a prescient reference to the handiwork of the Project Runway finalists. It wasn’t until the vision of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation was realized in the early ’90s that Bryant Park became the outdoor cafeteria and breath of fresh air that New Yorkers now know. A plot of land once characterized by poverty, death, and crime is now breathing life into its retail neighbors as well as its human neighbors.

In comparison to Central Park, Bryant is tiny – barely even visible from the top of nearby Rockefeller Center – but its size is precisely why it succeeds. Perfectly proportioned to give the passing pedestrian or lunching office drone a substantial drink of nature without being large enough to significantly obstruct traffic patterns, Bryant Park works beautifully with the pace of urban life. The green space between Fifth and Sixth Avenues interrupts just enough to give the city dweller the breath of air she needs to keep up her frantic pace, but not enough to symbolize (or for that matter, actualize) retreat. It’s compact – like my new apartment and my new standard of personal space. It knows its precise place as complement to the built environment, imagining itself as contiguous with the offices and commercial interests around it – even making space for kiosks aplenty – rather than trying to make visitors forget they are in one of the busiest commercial districts in the world. Bryant Park is a lesson in efficient relaxation; stepping in and out of that leisure zone is as easy as can be.

With a lunch break this idyllic and fuss-free, who needs a long weekend at the country house? Thoreau – Keep your Walden! Like Goldilocks, I’ve found my place and it fits just right.