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!