Saturday, December 5, 2009

December 5th in the Urbanist's Calendar

On December 1st, 1995, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, a watershed moment in the modern Civil Rights movement. Protests up that point were important but small: Freedom Riders on a bus, for example, or protesters at a lunch counter. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a mass movement, in which 50,000 people boycotted the bus system for more than a year, until integration was achieved. The mass movement actually started on Monday December 5th. People who were leaders of the movement all described what it was like to wait for the first buses that Monday morning, wondering if the masses of black people would agree to boycott. It was thrilling when the buses started to roll past empty! That night, in the first mass meeting of the Montgomery protest, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., stepped forward to lead the movement. In film of that night, we can see him hesitate for second, knowing that he is changing the course of history and of his own life. He steps forward humbly to do his part. December 5th, then, is an important day in the urbanist's calendar. A quirky aspect of the day in the New York Metropolitan area is that December 5th marks an abrupt shift in the weather, from fall to winter. There is usually a storm on that day. This has frustrated our efforts to have December 5th parties, I can assure you. Just as we know that the first weekend in June is likely to be fine for our Hike the Heights party, we know that December 5th will be blustery for whatever we have planned. In these uncertain times, I found today's snowflakes reassuring. Happy December 5th to one and all!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Main Street Shopping

Main Streets, like every part of our commercial sector, are trying to get a piece of the holiday shopping action. In Orange, the Urban Enterprise Zone has hung signs telling people to come "Home for the Holidays." In Hoboken flyers have been announcing that there will be entertainment this week during special evening hours at participating boutiques. In Jersey City, which is also an urban enterprise zone, the mayor has been on television urging people to shop locally and save on taxes. I like these campaigns and intend to do my shopping on Main Streets. It will be a fun time for meeting friends and family, and taking in the sights and sounds of the neighborhoods. But more important, I can find out what's up in America. What will the people be doing? How are they managing? There's no place like Main Street to find out what's up with "Main Street." As we face the expansion of another terrible war, more bad news about the economy, and the strains of the cold and flu season, I want to know what my fellow Americans are feeling.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Creating a plan for the Heart of Orange

I have been participating in a team that is developing a plan for the center of Orange, NJ, an area we nicknamed the "Heart of Orange." When I was growing up in Orange, that area was divided into an east side ghetto for black people and a west side ghetto for Italians, each equipped with a Y and a housing project. When I was a teenager, the building of Interstate 280 added a north/south divide, cutting off the more working class north side from the wealthier south. The "Heart of Orange" addresses these divides, posing the question, "Can we create ONE ORANGE?" At the end of March, Michel Cantal-Dupart came to consult with us. Cantal-Dupart, who is chair of the department of urbanism and the environment at the National Conservatory of Arts and Trades in Paris, France, pointed out the ways in which both the railroad and the highway cut the city, neither injury to the urban tissue treated in the elegant manner that would create unity in the city. Furthermore, the train, the city's trump card for the 21st century, was treated as a stepchild. He pointed to the dismal lot that greets people arriving from New York and Newark and asked us, "Is this a welcome?" Shamefacedly we all had to admit it was not. "Organize a day," he urged, "and clean the litter. Plant trees. Play music from all the world. In no time at all, this will be such a beautiful urban center that people will have a new image of Orange. They will say what a great place to go for fun!" As we worked on the Heart of Orange plan, Cantal-Dupart's words rang in our ears, reminding us to think forward into the 21st century, as we clean up of the messes left by history. We'd appreciate comments on the Heart of Orange plan. It can be found at the University of Orange website.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

When sidewalks rule

In Northern New Jersey, this Halloween was sensational, thanks to its being on a Saturday and having warm weather. People were outside all day, ohhing over princesses and ahhing over superdogs. In Jersey City, where I live, people sat on the stoops with bowls of candy for passing sprites. Crowds in costumes congregated in the small front yards. I took granddaughter Lily to Hoboken where she went trick-or-treating. The usually difficult streets were impassable, clogged in the afternoon with small batmen and in the evening with slutty nurses. Lily rushed home to weigh her candy and was thrilled to have 8 pounds of the stuff. One of her classmates--an even more aggressive hunter-gatherer--ended up with 25 pounds of candy. Lily said, "People in Hoboken are so rich they just put out bowls of candy and we all took a lot." The pleasure of this was insane, and eclipsed all the Halloweens she'd observed to date. In the milling and giving and smiling and admiring, the cities I passed through--Englewood, Hoboken and Jersey City--celebrated with great style the urbanists' holiday, the day when sidewalks rule.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Nobody" goes there

I had a wonderful visit to Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. In addition to spending time on the lovely campus, I got to poke around in the city, enjoying Historic Allentown especially. I walked on the Main Street, Hamilton Street, and took pictures as I do everywhere I go. In front of the city's tallest building a guard warned me that it was forbidden to photograph that location. There were no signs announcing this, but he insisted that if I were spotted on the cameras, the police would be called and they would take my camera away. My attachment to my camera is profound and this antagonized me, though I tried to remain civil. "I'm just telling you," he said in a tone that was none too friendly, which provoked me further. I looked around at their all-too-empty street, and thought, "That's why nobody's here: you lot don't trust people." This, of course, was a snap judgement based on annoyance and not information, but sometimes bad judgements provoke closer inspection and help us get closer to the truth. This was such a time.

As I walked along, the people of Allentown set out to disprove my unfair idea about their friendliness. I was taking a picture of the New Museum when a passerby smiled and pointed out the Indian Store, which she said she loved and she showed me the ring she'd gotten there. She also showed me two lovely bracelets she'd gotten at the dollar store. A young man, wearing a dollar store uniform, walked by and smiled and said hello in a very friendly manner. I laughed at a bit of urban collage made by someone who had the bright idea to add two stickers of eyes to a piece of abstract art on the wall of a very ugly building. The silly eyes humanized the whole thing, and seemed to saying, "It's OK!" Then a woman blowing leaves as part of the Hamilton Street Crew said that she was making a pile and I could jump in in a minute. She laughed and so did I.

By this time, I was in a much better mood. I climbed up on the Civil War Monument to get a picture down the length of the street. I expected the police to arrest me as the forbidden building was looming on the horizon and I got it in my photo, but I got clean away. I stopped to admire the ruins of an old bridge that crossed the rushing Jordan Creek, and which was beautifully decorated with a graffiti refrain that read Jesus Saves. "Is spray-painting a religious slogan a sin?" I asked myself, still a bit stuck on crime and punishment.

At the college a bit later that morning, one of the students described Main Street in her hometown and said that there's a lot of violence on Main Street so "nobody" goes there. This, of course, raised a paradox: if nobody goes there, who is doing the violence? Anyway, in that case violence was keeping people away, while in Allentown I was wondering if repression were the cause.

With so many questions in my head, I figured I should go the Visitors' Center and get some information. The woman who ran the place was very helpful, and I learned that there was an outstanding regional art museum, just 3 blocks away. I immediately went over, and was rewarded handsomely by the chance to see an outstanding exhibit of artists who had funded by the Julius Rosenwald Fund to do work on Black life in the 1930s and 40s. I knew a few of the paintings, but not most, and the sculpture and dance were entirely new to me.

As I exited the museum, uplifted by the chance to imagine the world in a new way, I was struck by a block-long paved plaza across the street in front of the museum. It was bounded to the north by a large bronze horse that flanked the Art School, to the east by a mural with a wonderful trompe l'oeil, and to the south by a historic county building. The plaza was not empty: people were having lunch, walking to and fro, chatting, enjoying the beautiful fall day. It was a place anybody would go.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Civil Rights on Main Street

I went to Raleigh, NC, a while back, and to Birmingham last week. The two cities have this in common: they have a black Main Street parallel to the white Main Street. In decades past these were flourishing streets, home to an array of businesses and cultural institutions. Much of the strength has drained away, as commerce has shifted to other sites. But the streets remain a vital part of the history, including the history of the struggle for civil rights. My visit to Birmingham was led by two veterans of the civil rights movement there. As young people, they had faced the fire hoses and been to jail. They remembered the police coming down black Main Street and every spot in the days of confrontation. "We were having a ball," remembered one. His sister had more somber reflections. She pointed to a photograph of one of the girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and said, "That was my best friend." The others who died were also part of her world, and the seriousness of her experience weighed in her voice. The struggle to undo segregation was essential for survival, and it meant that the side-by-side Main Streets would face a new future. Desegregating the lunch counters, the movie theaters, and the clothes stores eliminated the need for redundancy which fell hardest on the black side. But that it did was a failure of the commercial sector -- the Chamber of Commerce and City Hall -- to envision how to reorganize and repurpose existing stores and experienced business people. This is a sad pattern in our nation's economy. White Main Street faced a similar crisis when malls drew commerce from downtowns. The current downsizing is revisiting that problem, albeit that China is taking over, not white Main Street. How does that which is redundant by one yardstick come to have new usefulness by another? This is a fundamental question that we should ask and answer throughout our nation.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Homesteading on the urban prairie

The large spaces in cities weigh heavily on urban function. They are evidence of really really bad policies carried out in the past. They cry out for really really good interventions in the future. Ecologist Rodrick Wallace, co-author of A Plague on Your Houses, has pointed out the policies that led to the burning down of New York, Newark, Detroit and other cities replaced urban renewal when that program became the target of citizen protest. The replacement policy -- planned shrinkage -- itself went out of vogue, but has had a recrudescence lately. Politicians and policy makers have proposed planned shrinkage for Youngstown, Flint, Detroit and other cities with substantial amounts of vacant land. The proponents of planned shrinkage argue that the best thing to do is to consolidate functions in the best developed parts of the city and let the semi-deserted places be bulldozed, and left fallow for later development.

Walking past a very large empty block in Newark, NJ, I considered this proposition. What is left unsaid in the paens to planned shrinkage is that such upheaval is the cause of social disruption and disease which is impossible to control. Indeed, the fallout of planned shrinkage in New York includes a chilling list of epidemics that includes AIDS, crack, violence, asthma and obesity, as well as associated social problems like high rates of infant and maternal mortality, school failure, and delinquency. What sane society would choose such a self-destructive path?

What is the sane alterative? I have seen glimpses of it in cities all over the US, where people are working to restore the urban ecosystem, using a combination of tools designed for careful recovery. They must restore the space, protecting what exists and rebuilding where needed. At the same time, they must get people excited about the possibilities for their own living in the restored space.

I saw this two-pronged approach come alive this weekend at the Valley Arts District Open Studio Stroll in Orange and West Orange, NJ. The Valley was an industrial center, but its big factories are now silent, and much of the area abandoned. Out of years of community planning came a vision for making the Valley an Arts District. For several years this plan has been pursued by builders building, artists creating their works, and organizers gathering people. In "don't you love it when a plan comes together" fashion, the places were finally open, the art ready for display and the people eager to come. The joy and excitement were palpable, the experience fulfilling, the possibilities for more development nearly endless.

The existence of large spaces in cities is unnatural and intimidating, but it should not automatically lead us to think, "Oh let's bulldoze the whole thing." We can reknit cities, restoring the urban ecosystem, by systematic application of the principles of careful recovery.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Main Street Lunch

A full-service Main Street is many things to many people, but certainly one of them is a place to have lunch. Broadway in New York is one of the great Main Streets of the world, and I had lunch today with Dr. Mark Boutros just off Broadway. In American culture, which views work in a very Puritan fashion, lunch is not work. But in many parts of the world with productivity superior to that in US, lunch is understood to be a crucial part of work. Lunch is a pause, during which we reflect, we connect to others, we integrate work and play, and we recharge for the afternoon's duties. Many working people were lunching in the area: construction workers, office workers, finance and real estate workers, and researchers like us. Their comings and goings were marked by discussions of golf, getting a good deal at Duane Reade, finding the best soup, and hope for the weather. Many found a place to sit in a pocket park, relaxing and people-watching. Mark's brain works at super speed, and he makes connections that open new windows on the subjects under discussion. I returned with a whole new mind, as Daniel Pink might tell us. By sending a researcher back to work with new ideas, Main Street lunch demonstrated the way in which it benefits society. More to come...

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Music on the Street

The Grove Street Path Station in Jersey City was not a place of any particular distinction or attraction until a recent renovation created a public square around the entrance. The square has become a center of civic life. On Friday nights, an arts scene has blossomed. Last night, Con Vivo, a chamber music group that plays in outdoor venues all over Jersey City, was playing as part of the regular Friday evening arts and crafts market. It was not an ideal setup as even the loudest pieces they were playing could not compete with the traffic and the fall temperatures were better suited for walking than serious attention to music. Yet it was a stunning place to be on a Friday night, after work. The joyous spirit of the musicians seemed to feed off the ever-changing street scene. They laughed when the wind blew over their music stands, and they chased the single sheets of music before they blew off. It reminded me what pleasure there is to be had in taking the world just as it is, loud, blustery, and full of tired people straining to hear anyway.

Monday, September 21, 2009

[murmur] Orange

Yesterday I attended a wonderful party celebrating the launch of [murmur] Orange, a new project telling stories of the city in the words of its citizens. Over the summer, teenagers collected and edited stories about places. These were edited and posted on the web. Then organizers installed signs at the spots, informing passersby that they could hear a story by calling a number and entering the location's code.

At the party, the youth talked about their experience of doing the project. They agreed that they had gotten to know their city in a whole new way. The stories helped them understand and take pride in their hometown. They hope that people who listen to the stories will share this new awareness of the city.

To that end, the [murmur] organizers -- Shawn Micallef and Robin Elliott of Toronto -- proposed that we all go out on an algorithmic psychogeographic walk. This is a pretty random walk through a city, governed by directions like "Walk two blocks, turn right, walk two blocks turn right, walk one block, turn left." My team and I wandered around the Valley's old industrial sites. We stopped by the great local restaurant, Bella Italia, which is one of the [murmur] sites. We didn't immediately see the small green ear which is the [murmur] signature sign, so we asked at the restaurant. The maitre d' said we'd find on the side, and we did. We called the number, and heard a story about a young man who celebrated his eighth grade graduation at the restaurant and won the prize for best dressed. He won a hat covered with glitter. "I have a love/hate relationship with that hat," he chuckled.

Molly Rose Kaufman, community organizer, and Khemani Gibson, one of the youths involved in the project, shared their enthusiasm in an interview on public radio. The stories and the storytellers reveal a complex and dynamic little city, willing to share its hopes and scars through this new medium of digital storytelling. For more info on the project, check out the Star-Ledger article, which appeared on September 29, 2009.

ps--I'm one of the people interviewed and I tell a story about growing up in the historic Unitarian Universalist Church on Ben Jones Street.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Downtown living

Much has been written about the benefits of downtown living: it's fun, it offers great convenience and saves on car travel, and, at high densities, people can pool their resources more effectively. After one month of downtown living, I think that the pundits understate two things. The first is what I will call the "hard factor": noise and concrete everywhere. I live on a pretty busy street that leads to a hospital. The sudden, blaring noises in the middle of the night are quite terrifying for one used to nothing louder or sharper than cicadas. The noises are interesting, penetrating, and a challenge to the suburbanite. The concrete, too, presses on nerves used to soothing presence of grass. Grass, it is true, is overdone in the American suburb, but it is still deliciously gentle to eyes, feet, and hands; concrete, not so much.

The second understated aspect of downtown living is what I'd like to call the "did-I-just-see-that? factor." Walking down the street is series of collisions with the worlds of others, people who are muttering to themselves, hotly debating with their walking partner, or cajoling their dogs. Strangers are comfortably in their own space, though on the sidewalk with me, and therefore slices of their lives are suddenly open for my inspection and, I must say, entertainment. A walk in the suburbs offered little more of interest than which of my neighbors' shrubs was in bloom. A walk downtown is a visit to the circus. A walk in the suburbs was simply a stroll out and back along one or two set routes. A walk downtown has an endless number of destinations and an enormous number of options of how to get there. It is even true that sometimes I am part of the circus. One day, the young ladies of my family were practicing a new dance step, and a man driving past took the time to offer his compliments, which threw them into gales of laughter.

With Main Street at my doorstep, I am primed for an even deeper understanding of what these streets mean in our daily commerce. I also plan to have an office on a commercial street, Central Avenue in Orange. It is not Main Street, but just nearby. The building where I hope to rent boasts a new Daily Soup cafe, and it shares a corner with Rita's Deli and White Castle. So, many observations to come!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Paddling the Bronx River

Yesterday I had the remarkable treat of going canoeing on the Bronx River with colleagues from Montefiore Hospital who are celebrating the recovery of the borough. The Bronx was badly damaged in the 1970s by the civic policy of planned shrinkage, which had the horrific unintended consequence of spreading the AIDS epidemic, and unleashing drug epidemics that in turn created overwhelming violence with all its accompanying illnesses. Montefiore has been one of the hospitals at Ground Zero of this succession of catastrophes, leading the treatment and research endeavors for all these problems. Like other organizations it has soldiered along doing what it could for recovery. The Bronx River Alliance is another example of an organization committed to the recovery of the Bronx, and doing the slow, considered work that I've come to call "careful recovery." Since the 1970s the Alliance has been cleaning the river and bringing people to the river so that it might function as a "Main Street" of recreation and community life. They have removed 70 cars and 12,000 tires, and fought for better caretaking by upstream communities which still dump on the river. They hope to make the river swimmable, and they are nearing that goal -- what a wonderful gift that will be to the Bronx! What makes this "careful recovery" are the following characteristics: they haven't gone for a quick fix, indeed, they know there isn't one; they are aware of and seek to understand all the complexities of life along the river, its ecosystem; they teach others to love the river as they do; and they reach out to all the communities that might help. Careful recovery helps all the injured parts of the ecosystem -- animal, vegetable and mineral.

The river I visited yesterday was sparkling in the sun, and its clear bottom was free of debris. People were gathered at its edges, longing to get in, which some had done though the probably to their peril -- it's not that clean just yet. The river plays peek-a-boo with the city. At one point we got stuck on a sand bar just under a bridge. A man on the bridge helped us get our canoe going the right way, just as he would have helped us get our car off a patch of ice. Another time we heard a man singing, though we couldn't see him. My granddaughter Lily shouted, "You sound great!" "I think it's important to compliment people," she said to Greg and me, her fellow paddlers. What was the man thinking to hear a voice come out of nowhere? There are so few paddlers on the river, he might not have thought to look for the voice there.

When we arrived at the Bronx Zoo, we entered a small lake created by dams built hundreds of years ago to power small factories. There insects hovered over the water and water birds collected, including an egret, a duck, and a seagull. Dart Westphal, who had organized our trip, said that a beaver had been spotted on the river, the first since the dams were built in the 1700s. When he heard about the beaver he went out and bought a beaver tie and gave beaver toys to all his friends: that is how careful recovery works, I thought to myself, celebrating small victories on the road to Recreation Main Street.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The services of Main Street

Cities are complex systems, and each arises as part of a larger system of cities. Cities are internally organized and connected to and concerned with the rural areas that give them sustenance. They are decorated with monumental buildings that embody the ideals and structure of the local culture. They are centers of human living, energized with exchange. The Main Streets of our era play a crucial role in organizing cities along all of these dimensions. A way to begin to look at Main Streets is to consider the way in which the street serves these many functions. Is it connecting the parts of the city? Does it connect to other cities and to the countryside? Does it display the city's monuments? Does it help to energize interpersonal exchange? Is it serving the whole population of the city, or only part? Does it carry out its duties with panache? These questions, drawn from research on the history of cities, offer us an excellent metric for thinking about the cities to be visited in this project.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Urban festivals make cities fun

In the spectacular film about the diaspora after Hurricane Katrina "Axe in the Attic" there is a woman who was displaced to Florida. She remembered that everyone there went to the mall on the weekends. "I said, 'Don't you people have a fest? Don't you have a jazz fest, a river fest, any kind of fest?'"

What is a city without a fest? I think festivals are a modern version of the market fair, which would create centers of exchange, energy and imagination in times when cities were smaller and travel much harder. A few years ago I spent a delightful few days in a city near Avignon which was the site of one of the largest medieval markets in Europe, and I was very interested to learn how such markets worked. I think that today's festivals follow in the footsteps of those long ago events. A city without a fest is a city without a way of quickening its heartbeat and stimulating its methods of exchange.

So far this summer, I've been to Moosefest in Bennington, Vermont, with my medical school classmate, Dr. Martha Stittelman, and Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally in Binghamton, NY with my college classmate, Dr. Francine Rainone. Moosefest is an art installation on and around Main Street in Bennington. The moose are large and fabulous, big enough to stop traffic and interesting enough to provoke conversation. Martha asked the useful question, "How does art stimulate the urban economy?" Happily for me, we could see it at work as we walked around: people were walking on Main Street to see the moose (plural: moose), and that meant that all kinds of other things were happening, beginning with two young girls who were playing violin to raise money for the local animal shelter. People gathered around to hear them play, smiled at each other, gave money, left feeling better about the world and their place in it and voila! we have a better economy because of art. Martha, who rarely goes to Main Street, was proud to show it to me, and I enjoyed seeing it. My favorite moose: Camping Moose.

Binghamton's Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally was celebrating its 25th year. "Spiedie" are Italian skewered meat, a version of shish kebab, started no one knows when or how. This is only in Binghamton, so it is very local treat. Spiedie Fest is a community festival held in a local park, which becomes Main Street for the weekend. As such, it sets a fine example of what all Main Streets should be: it has rides, crafts, a vintage car show, music, and, of course, spiedies. I loved SpiedieFest because it was simple and real -- the crafts were actual things people had made, not tube socks. A special highlight was that the New York State Comptroller's Office had a tent there and Francine and I both found that we were owed money! Free money, good crafts, tasty food! If every Main Street had those things, people would be pouring in the way they were pouring in to Spiedie Fest! Food for thought...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Main Street, the East End and the Wooly Adelgid

In February I visited Asheville, North Carolina. The week before I'd been in Raleigh and spring was swelling in the bushes. I was sure that I'd have the joys of early spring during my trip. I was there as part of a celebration of Asheville history as captured in the photographs of Andrea Clark, which were on exhibit at the public library. I was enthralled by her remarkable photos of a lost place, destroyed for road widening. While there, the newspapers reported on two topics that also caught my eye: the plans for Downtown Asheville and the wooly adelgid, which is attacking the hemlock forests which dominate the mountainsides. Thinking about Clark's photographs, downtown planning and ecological disaster helped me to grasp a point that my urbanism teacher, Michel Cantal-Dupart, has made many times. Cities are complex ecological systems, and demand that we consider questions from the perspective of history, our hopes for the future and the current ecological realities. I was delighted that my thoughts on this topic were recently published in Asheville's Urban News.

I had gone to Asheville expecting early spring, but forgetting that spring is notoriously unstable, hot one day and cold the next. And even, as in this case, snowing. A snowstorm hit, and absent plows and sanders, the snow shut the city and its airport down. I was delighted to find that Bistro 1896, which was a couple of blocks from my hotel, was open for lunch and dinner through the storm and its aftermath. The restaurant had a delicious menu, light, flavorful, and fun. It is a place that captures the charm and friendliness of the region. I highly recommend it, should you happen to find yourself in Asheville.

Overdevelopment and underdevelopment

Monday night, July 20th, I attended a birthday party for contractor Mark Miller and developer Patrick Morrissy. It was held at an old industrial building that Morrissy's organization, HANDS, Inc., is redeveloping into a restaurant, apartment, and artist studios. The party was held in the unfinished artist studios, with their roof still open to the sky and trees. The sound and hearty core of the building is still visible. Coquelle's Bakery used to occupy the site, and Jeannie Morrissy shared memories of what a lively place it was, and what delicious brownies they made there. Miller and Morrissy are giving new life to the building and to the corner of Scotland Road and Central Avenue, which looks down on its luck. That perception will change this week when Anthony Wood, the proprietor of Daily Soup, opens for business. He has a keen sense of fun and a bright, spacious restaurant which shades from casual in the front to more formal in the rear. Last night he delighted the partygoers with frozen yogurt mixed with outrageous toppings. The young Morrissys, Claire and Tim, promised to try all the combinations of three and write about their findings in their food blog. Food is fun in Orange, and the air is full of possibility. This photo of me withmy daughter Molly and mother Maggie was taken by Herb Way, who graduated with me from Orange High School back in 1967.

Today -- the 21st -- I had lunch on Palisades Avenue with Bob Stern, who lived in Englewood for many years before moving to Montauk. When asked what he was up to, he confessed, rather sheepishly, that he was the president of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk and was fighting developers who want to do irresponsible building. As this is exactly what he was doing in Englewood, he wanted to be the first to admit "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose"!

Bob believes in democracy and makes it work by doing his part to hold people accountable to the larger society. He recounted lots of stories of confronting people who's irresponsible building poses a threat to the area's charm and sustainability. In listening to his stories of fighting of developers and their money, I was reminded of how hard Morrissy and his colleagues work to bring investors' dollars to Orange. In a reasonable world, the dollars that are poised to destroy Montauk would be redirected to Orange. Overdevelopment will wreck one beautiful and precious natural treasure, while underdevelopment is ruining a charming and creative little city. But the struggles of the two places are not yet linked, however much they need to be. Overdevelopment and underdevelopment are two sides of one coin: making a fast buck in real estate. Can we ease the greed and create places for people?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Paterson's Main Street

Karen Washington is a garden designer who has helped me transform my yard. This summer I have been enjoying the pleasures of the new design. I have been sitting in the yard to write while listening to the birds and watching the castor bean grow (it's a Jack-in-the-Beanstalk plant and grows right in front of your eyes). I wanted to thank her for this wonderful transformation in my space so I proposed dinner in Paterson. I found two Turkish restaurants online and I printed out the directions, in one case from Google and in the other from Yahoo. We started off following the directions, and just couldn't find the connections we were supposed to make. That's when it became apparent I hadn't printed out either the names or the phone numbers. I remembered one name -- sort of -- and we called for directions. We couldn't find those connections either, but at this point we decided to follow the signs which got us to Paterson. In Paterson we stopped a young woman coming out of a laundromat and asked how to get to Main Street. "Main Street?" she said, with what I thought was worry in her voice. "You go here and turn before the school, and go all the way down the hill and by the Falls and then to the bottom of the Falls by Burger King and then you make a left, and go to Main Street." At the part where she advised turning "before the school" my heart sank. But Karen got a big smile. "OK!" she said, thanking the woman. We headed off and sure enough, Karen knew exactly how to decipher "before the school," "by the Falls" and "left at Burger King." In no time at all we were on Main Street, heading towards we weren't exactly sure what. Suddenly, I saw a sign for "Alaturk" Turkish restaurant. I had seen this reviewed on the internet. We parked across the street, as advised in the window, and went in. I was a little intimidated, but a smiling young woman came forward and made us feel very welcome. We explained we didn't really know much about Turkish food. She immediately took an interest in introducing us to her cuisine and a feast of yummy dishes started to arrive from the kitchen, all fresh, delicately spiced and wonderfully fun to eat. The most spectacular was Turkish pizza, with a very thin crust and about two feet long, covered with chopped meat. She placed this on the latest edition of the Turkish news. We loved it. She explained that her family had just taken over the restaurant two weeks before. Her husband was the chef and he came out to say hello and we were delighted to tell him how much we enjoyed the food. They have great hopes for the restaurant which has a lovely space for a garden. When I explained that Karen was a garden designer, they asked for her card and took her back to see their yard. She immediately had visions of trees and arbors. I started thinking about grapes and how my own yard, transformed by her alchemy, is now such a wonderful place to pass the hours. When it was time to go, we asked for directions, got on the highway immediately and were home in less time than it takes to tell. I promised Karen that next time she goes on an outing with me, I'll take a map, the name of the restaurant, and the telephone number. She laughed.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Broadway, New York's Main Street

I am reading Jason Goodwin's detective series, set in Istanbul. This has inspired me to go to Turkey. As part of my travel preparation, my friend and co-worker, Lourdes Hernandez-Cordero and I set out for lunch at Turkuaz, a Turkish restaurant on Broadway at 100th Street. The food was wonderful: very fresh, delicately seasoned, and reminiscent of the meals prepared by Yashim, the star of Goodwin's novels. We went to the ladies' room prior to leaving and there was a painting of women at the hamam. Lourdes and I love to go to the hamam at the Great Mosque in Paris, and we were lamenting the lack of public baths here in New York. There are some, but they tend to be expensive and not the neighborhood affairs that one can find in other countries. The painting also made us think of bra shopping, and we reflected that there must be a great bra store on Broadway, one of those great places where the saleswomen can tell your size by glancing at you as you walk in. We could have just strolled down Broadway -- and in the beautiful weather it was tempting -- but we decided to see what we could learn by phone. She called her friend, who knew of a store on Madison and 90th Street, but we didn't want to leave Broadway. I called my daughter, Molly Rose Kaufman, who immediately went on line and located a place at 77th. A quick cab ride and there we were at Bra Smyth, which was a revelation for me. A short time later, better fitted, dazzled by the wonders of Broadway, and happy with our fieldwork, we headed back uptown to tend to matters at the office.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Naming "Benjamin F. Jones Place - In Honorarium"

Benjamin F. Jones (see post 4/1/08) was the first African-American elected to City Council in Orange, NJ. Yesterday, the City of Orange Township named a part of Cleveland Street in his honor. Asked to speak at the ceremony, I reflected on a story he loved to tell of a confrontation with my father, Ernest Thompson. Ben was not active in politics, though he was an accomplished professional. My father thought he should be, and would harangue him when they met at the Harmony Bar. One day Ben got tired of this. He threw some money down on the bar and told the bartender, "Set my man up with drinks, I'm out of here." My father ordered him to come back. "Ben, never walk out on Black folks like that. Furthermore, I don't need your money or your liquor without you." For Ben, this was not simply a dispute in a bar, but a deep moment of truth, as if God had spoken to him through Ernie Thompson, sitting on a stool in the Harmony Bar. From that day on, Ben accepted that he had responsibilities to the community that had raised him. He became a student of politics, adding to his innate sense of diplomacy new skills in campaigning, negotiating, developing program and delivering for his constituency. Ben became a man of honor, worthy of having a street named for him, and worthy of being remembered in the annals of Orange.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Making the Just and Beautiful City

The University of Orange is a free people's university on the web and in Orange, NJ. The University opened in October 2008 and held its first graduation yesterday at the historic Orange Public Library. The graduating class is pictured here on the Main Street steps. It was a busy first year, with courses on AIDS, making a Christmas stocking, displacement, and urban design, among others. In addition to attending courses, students were required to vote (all elections count!), attend a city meeting, volunteer and recreate with neighbors. One student reported that being part of UofO had inspired her. "I've lived in Orange for 22 years, but I've never been as involved as I have been this year." In addition to conferring the degree of "Be Free" two inspiring people were awarded the Doctor of Freedom, the university's honorary degree. Margaret B. Thompson helped to start the fight for school desegregation in the 1950s. Benjamin Franklin Jones served as a councilman in Orange from 1963-1982. They were the oldest graduates of the day. A'Lelia Johnson, at 13, was the youngest.
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Friday, June 19, 2009

Jury Duty on Main Street

Last Tuesday I reported for jury duty to Room 404, the Bergen County Justice Center, 10 Main Street, in Hackensack. A step-by-step video instructed us in what to expect and then we got to get coffee. As we flocked to the little cafeteria, a staff member hollered, "The bus is here!" and then chuckled. Ha ha, make that joke every day. Coffee was excellent, and I took it with me to the quiet room. I read the NY Times inch by inch and finished it all. Then turned to The Baltimore Book, and had finished that when my name got called for a jury pool. We were led to the court of Judge Lisa Firko. She explained that her trial was short, she had air conditioning and it was, therefore, a good way to do our civic duty. I reflected on this, and decided to go with it. The jury selection process followed the video almost to a tee. First we all filled out a questionnaire. Then the judge asked potential jurors to come to the sidebar where she reviewed the questionnaire with the two lawyers listening. Some jurors had a reason they couldn't serve, and therefore were excused. Finally seven people were seated in the jury box, and Judge Firko said, "I'm going to ask a series of questions so we can all get to know a little bit about you." One of the questions was, "Do you have any bumper stickers on your car that aren't about politics?" I was surprised that nobody did -- it seemed to me there were more "Proud to have an honor student at ___" around than that, but maybe I was just noticing those stickers because I have one. Back to business. After we got to know everyone, the lawyers were allowed to exercise their peremptory challenges, those they can exercise without giving a reason. The case related to an injury as a result of a car accident. The first lawyer challenged two people with only high school education. Ah ha, I thought, a complex medical issue is involved, and the lawyer wants people who can handle the science -- I'm a shoe-in if I get called (although I do have that bumper sticker -- I wasn't clear how that would play...). On the other hand, I reasoned, the lawyer might not want a doctor. It was not always clear why the lawyers were challenging -- probably notes they took during the earlier sidebar conversations. After each of the challenges, a new person was called, and the process of sidebar-conversation-getting-to-know-you-conversation was repeated. A couple of times the new juror was challenged, and it all started again. Before we were had managed to pick seven people, lunch recess had arrived. I had never spent much time on the south end of Main Street, where the Justice Center is located. I got lunch at Limon Fine Foods, which has a delightful hot/cold salad bar and nice tables in a bright window. Then I strolled down the street to Hackensack Riverkeeper, where I got pamphlets on nature trails and other activities. The photos were so lovely that I wanted to walk right over to the river and sit and watch birds, but jury duty is serious business. I went back to Judge Firko's courtroom, where we finished jury selection. I was quite disappointed not to be picked, when all was said and done. We went back to Room 404 and I settled into my old seat in the quiet room until we got dismissed. Bergen County is a "one day, one trial" county, so having served my day, I am done for now. I can now spell peremptory, know a new meaning for sidebar, and have a book of nature walks in the glove compartment of my car: a good day, I say.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Festival on the Main Street of the Valley

Orange, NJ and West Orange, NJ meet in the Valley. An area of dense settlement and heavy industry, it developed its own Main Street, Valley Street, sometimes known as Valley Road. This Main Street has sagged with deindustrialization and disinvestment in the area, but it has not given up. On Saturday, June 13, the street was host to the Valley Arts, Music and Poetry Festival, sponsored by Valley Arts, the City of Orange and HANDS, Inc. There was an on-again-off-again rain falling which moved people in and out of the open, the bands, for example, moved under an overhang at Ricci's, a soon-to-be-reopened restaurant. One vendor had the idea to sell toys, bubble machines and yo-yos and Spiderman balloons, which meant that the rain was full of sparkly bubbles. In the middle of the afternoon several fire trucks arrived and firemen gathered for a short ceremony. The City of Orange is mourning the sudden and unexpected death of its fire Chief, Martin DeMarzo, who died during a routine hernia operation. He was 50 years old. He grew up in the Valley, attended Our Lady of the Valley High School, and loved the area. He was a great supporter of the growing arts district, which is helping to revitalize the area. Karen Wells, one of the organizers of the festival, led a ceremony to plant a bush of bright red roses by the Catholic Veterans Monument. The firemen joined in shoveling the dirt, with smiles and good hearts. Indeed, Marty's whole family was soldiering on, Hallie Bondy reported in the Star Ledger. "Marty would have wanted us to go on," said his brother, Eugene DeMarzo. Valley Street/Road will be a good home for Marty's Roses.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Middle East Baltimore Stories

In June 2005, I had the opportunity to tour East Baltimore with leaders of Save Middle East Action Committee, SMEAC, a group challenging impoverishment of the neighborhood by development-induced displacement. At that time, the project, proposed by Johns Hopkins Medical Center and led by the East Baltimore Development Corporation, was preparing to level the first phase of the project, a 20-block area adjacent to the medical center. during the tour, I had the opportunity to see the project area, and to talk to some local children who were playing in a fire hydrant. "We're having fun," one boy assured me. SMEAC's approach was to fight for relocation benefits that would actually be sufficient to support relocation; the right to return to the area; and protection from environmental hazards during the demolition. It was a true David-and-Goliath story: Giant Johns Hopkins literally towered over the battered neighborhood, which had suffered grievously from disinvestment.

On a second visit a few years later, I drove by and the children's play area had been torn up and all the houses were gone.

On this visit, I had the opportunity to tour with Leslie Lewis, one of the displaced residents and a leader of SMEAC. Leslie explained the long fight SMEAC had waged, still struggling on issues identified years ago, but also confronting others that had come up in the course of the fight. For example, SMEAC was aware of environmental hazards of demolition, but had not been as cognizant of the effects nearby construction would have on old brick houses. As the displacement played out, SMEAC was becoming more and more aware of what was at stake: the costs of moving, the difficulty in maintaining connections, the problems people faced in getting established elsewhere, and the possibilities that existed in other neighborhoods.

The change in the area was dramatic. Some of the glossy new buildings had gone up in place of the old houses. A very large grassy area stood vacant. Signs were everywhere, proclaiming the "New East Baltimore" was a place of vitality and culture. I didn't know all that much about the neighborhood, but I thought the signs bordered on insulting the old East Baltimore -- wasn't THAT a place of vitality and culture? I was to discover the answer on East Monument Street.

Leslie, Pam -- another SMEAC activist and area residents -- and I stopped for lunch at Northeast Market there. This market has been rated the "best public market" by City Paper, which prized its genuine atmosphere. I was thrilled to tour the place with local peoplewho could explain the food and the scene. Pam said her mother, who lived in the neighborhood, had been in earlier that day. Northeast Market is a crossroads of the neighborhood, a place of good cheer and connection. Peopl were greeting friends and neighbors on all sides. It is sometimes difficult for an outsider to appreciate the reasons for clinging to a neighborhood that has suffered disinvestment as serious as that facing East Baltimore. I instantly understood that the marker, with its lively and humorous vibe, provided a better insight than anything else I had encountered. Who wouldn't want to live near there?

East Monument Street is one of the Main Streets in Baltimore's Main Street Program. It is festooned with Main Street Banners, and is a very lively shopping district. The Main Street website orients the visitor to think of that Main Street as connected to Johns Hopkins and the new biotech center. But the reality is that it is the thriving center of the black community that took root there 50 years ago and which today is still active and devoted to the area.

My sense of that local connection was deepened by the opportunity to attend the launch of the book, Middle East Baltimore Stories: Images and Words from a Displaced Community, a book created by Art on Purpose with support from the Annie E. Casy Foundation. This event, held in the beautiful Reginald F. Lewis of Maryland African American History, celebrated the lives of people whose homes lie in the redevelopment area. The 240 people who came to the event were deeply committed to affirming the vital history of their neighborhood. In a time of contested images, I appreciated Beth Barbush's photographs of people posed in vacant lots holding pictures of their houses which had once stood there. You can listen to an hour of the stories on Marc Steiner Show, WEAA-FM. You can order a copy of the book by sending a check for $20 per copy (shipping included) to: SMEAC, 2111 Ashland Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21205.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day 2009

Main Street, as the center of town, is an important site for observing holidays. Memorial Day may be the best of them all. In Englewood, where I live, Palisades Avenue is cleared of parked cars. The War Monument at the west end of the street becomes the center for a ceremony honoring local veterans. The parade participants gather in their assigned spots.

An appropriately patriotic set of words are delivered. The Mayor has created a plaque to honor the Tuskegee Airmen, one whom lived in Englewood. Other elderly veterans are there. The names of those lost are read, and one of the veterans comments that these were his classmates in high school. It helps to remind us how personal this all is. A young man reads "In Flanders Field," and another reads Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address." Through it all, a few listeners are attentive, while the young people gossip. A microscopic sound system is partly to blame: what are they thinking, there city officials? Haven't they been to Central Park for a concert lately? The ceremony closes with a the Englewood Fire Department's bagpipe player doing "Amazing Grace." It is a long set of cliches, but it supposed to be. People in uniform from today's armed forces, and those in the costumes of earlier wars, remind us that this is Memorial Day: the "ultimate" sacrifice is death.

The parade starts, and the sound is suddenly audible. The kids in drum corps know how to make some noise. The karate school wakes everyone up by breaking boards in mid air and performing spectacular tumbles. The Korean drum band is equally determined to get the crowds' attention, in their case attracting attention with sound and the most beautiful costumes. A group of young people in uniform march by. The 10-year-old boy I am standing next to says wistfully, "I'd like to be in the army."

"It's dangerous," I say.

"I'd like to do something for my country," he replies simply. On his return from the Army, he plans to help the President. "I saw President Obama and I'd like to protect him," he informs me. On another note, a steel drum band passes, playing "This land is your land."

Not that long a distance, not that many parts, but what a glimpse of America in this moment.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Walker Evans’ Postcards of Main Street

Walker Evans, the great American photographer, was an avid collector of postcards, and his collection is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Of the 9,000 postcards in his collection, 700 are on display. As noted by Roberta Smith in the New York Times, "The show opens with a bank of postcards that offer plunging views down the middle of scores of American Main Streets, an almost scary tribute to the country’s can-do spirit, can-doing it again and again.” There are – David Chapin and I counted – 312 postcards of Main Street. This astounding display invited our study. David pointed out that most use one-point perspective that meets the horizon at one-fourth the way up the image. I noted the number of trolley tracks, and my reaction, like that of Smith, was a certain awe of the enthusiasm for urban development – and even inter-urban connection, David noted – among US citizens 100 years ago. It reminded me of the story of General Motors’ systematic attack on the trolleys which opened the way for the triumph of private cars. This kind of privatization of course continues apace, currently moving into private computers and personal phones. While Main Street represents a centripetal force pulling us together for social and economic exchange, our economy runs on incredible centrifugal forces. The result for our cities can be troublesome, as noted by Jane Jacobs: “Probably everyone is aware of certain dependencies by a city on its heart. When a city heart stagnates or disintegrates, a city as a social neighborhood of the whole begins to suffer. People who ought to get together, by means of central activities that are failing, fail to get together. Ideas and money that ought to meet, and do so often only by happenstance in a place of central vitality, fail to meet. The networks of city public life develop gaps they cannot afford. Without a strong and inclusive central heart, a city tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another. It falters at producing something greater, socially, culturally and economically, than the sum of its separated parts.” (from The Death and Life of Great American Cities, p. 215)
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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

7 AM Eastern Winter Time

I go to Palisades Avenue in Englewood nearly every morning at 7 AM. I have come to expect it to be dark and dreary. Much to my surprise, this week I arrived to find that it was considerably brighter. What a relief! Winter is far from over -- snow is expected today in fact -- but nights are getting shorter and the days are getting longer so Spring cannot be far behind. All of this made me think about seasons on Main Street. Main Streets are tenaciously busy: the tracks in the snow are mute testimony to the many comings and goings throughout the day and night. But the ways of moving are tempered by weather. People walk quickly and rush inside on cold winter days. They linger over their coffee cups looking out the window with dreams in their eyes. In the summer they don't want to go in and they drink ice coffee while delighting in the patterns of the sidewalk ballet. In an urbanized world with cars and indoor heating we tend to keep going no matter what. We can lose sight of the cycles of the natural world, as I did in thinking it would always be dark at 7 AM. Yet if we look more closely, we find Copernicus was right and Main Street, like the rest of the Earth, revolves around the sun.
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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

My old stompin' grounds

Professor Hirofumi Minami, an environmental psychologist from Japan, was in town for a visit just before Christmas. David Chapin, an architect on the faculty at CUNY Graduate Center, had hosted Hiro during a year-long stay that began in September 2001. For Hiro, whose research has focused on the recovery of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb attack in 1945, that was a remarkable time to be in New York. The three of us collaborated in an effort called "NYC RECOVERS," an alliance of organizations concerned with the social and emotional recovery of NYC after the attack on the Twin Towers. Hiro's knowledge of the recovery of Hiroshima was very inspiring to us. He pointed out that, in Buddhist tradition, the seventh year after a loss is a very important point in recovery. So, reconnecting in this seventh year after 9/11 was a great experience for the three of us. After much discussion, we decided to visit Hoboken, NJ, where I used to live. Both Hiro and David had read about my life there in my book, House of Joshua: Meditations on Family and Place. On Christmas Eve we set out to see three parts of Hoboken: the light rail stop at 2nd street, the new riverside park, and Washington Street. I proposed the light rail stop because the station is surrounded by a fence that cuts off access from the housing projects. We got the light rail at the Hoboken rail station, an elegant place with historic connections to the river and the world. We had a great ride on light rail and appreciated its speed and simplicity. While you might think that you would most want poor people to be able to access public transit, that does not appear to be the case in this instance. The fence at the 2nd Street station was a shock to my friends, as I thought it would be. Indeed, I was shocked myself, seeing it again. Why not put in a gate? We got back on the light rail, thinking to go back to the rail station, but instead ended up at Newport Mall. The crowds getting on and off there made it clear that the light rail is big help in the local system of movement. Another train took us back to Hoboken, and we walked over to the riverside park which is just next door. David pointed out that the park was deserted. Although there were a lot of people out, there was not much to do by the river on a rainy day and people were staying away in droves. About this time I got a call from my daughter Molly asking if I could get some yarn for a present. She quickly googled yarn and found out there was a store on 4th Street. Hiro and David were happy to go with me. We found Patricia's Yarns easily. Its warm display of yarn and the fortuitous presence of some happy young knitters inspired us all to buy yarn. Outside, David pointed out an empty store which used to be a unisex salon, a term he dated to the 1970s. Patricia's Yarns, by contrast, was definitely Hoboken now. We walked north on Washington Street, which Molly believes to be the best place in New Jersey to do Christmas shopping. David and Hiro were happy to stop again at Big Fun Toys for more last minute purchases for my grandchildren. David got interested in the absence of war toys which led to lovely conversation with the store personnel. Hiro and David agreed that doing a bit of shopping was an excellent way to get past the facade of a town and start to feel a part of its rhythms. I have found that having lunch also helps to get a sense of Main Street wherever you are. I proposed the Elysian Cafe. the Cafe is housed in space that has been a Hoboken eatery for more than a hundred years. Lovingly restored by Joyce and Eugene Flinn, the cafe has a Paris Bistro menu and feel. It was calm by the time we got there for a late lunch. Over lunch, we talked about cities. Hiro explained to us about urbanization in Japan, which began with his parents' generation and has continued in his. Managing the farms is becoming a pressing question, he told us. David spends his summers in farming country in Ohio and had much to add ab0ut the development of ex-urbs. As our time together drew to a close, we agreed that we should meet again soon and share visits to other cities in the US and Japan. (photo: Mindy Fullilove and David Chapin walking on Washington Street, taken by Hirofumi Minami)
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