Archive for the ‘cities’ Category

…and the city

February 16, 2009

Every so often I spend (waste) a few hours watching my old Sex and the City DVDs.  I knit and remind myself of every detail in those shows…which I kind of know by heart and am generally very embarrassed about.

But this isn’t about that.

Watching a few episodes today reminded me about something that I think usually gets lost as background: the city.

I know the show did some great things for tourism in New York City in particular.  In a sea of cop shows, it was one of the few truly positive portrayals of the city on television.  But it did more than make New York accessible to masses of women. It portrayed this fantastic lifestyle of walking to meet your friends at some interesting new restaurant or bar or gallery, having countless interesting new people to meet, and having so many exciting amenities at your fingertips.

Kind of like how I think many people view college.

But then something happens and many of us let those completely desirable things go when we graduate as though it’s to be grouped with other college activities that probably should be left behind…like binge drinking.  And we move to soulless places and live insular lives.  I don’t want that statement to be confused with living in suburban places.  I’ve seen some suburban places (all older suburbs, though) that are pretty nice and very different from the cul-de-sac ridden, completely unwalkable, and demographically homogenous suburbia in which I was raised.

My ultimate point is that I hope Sex and the City does more than make New York City a great place to visit.  The city was a real and significant character in the show.  And it seems clear that this should be the case for all of us.  The places we live should be real and significant characters in our lives.  They should excite us in some way and relate to us so that they are not just meaningless collections of roads we must drive on to get some buildings we must go to.  I currently live in a city and probably will live in one for the rest of my life if I’m lucky, but I don’t think this only need apply to cities–which I understand don’t work for everyone.  The problem is I see the great things about cities being touted as luxuries, as though in order for homes to be affordable, we have to grit our teeth through hours of congestion, zero public spaces and even no sidewalks.

Maybe a buyer’s market is our time to ask for places that engage us.  Maybe cranes halted by a bad economy and kept from creating more far off islands of not-actually-affordable housing are an opportunity to rethink what we’re doing with the land in and around our cities.

While New York was definitely more exciting than my current home of DC, the city and I do have a relationship.  It’s not always good–but it’s engaging and interesting.  It has a personality, whether the city and I are meant to be or not.

Or maybe all of this is just a sad indication that this nerdy lady watches Sex and the City and misses the whole sex thing in favor of the whole city thing…

Advertisements

Virginia is for Vegans.

June 23, 2008

When I met my boyfriend we were living in New York City, a city that is literally heaven in my eyes to such a degree that I was blind to the idea that others could possibly feel differently. How could you not be satisfied in the city that houses the pinnacle of what humanity has to offer in just about every realm. And not only that, but despite the stereotypes, I thought people were friendly and approachable unlike the city I had moved there from, DC (the at-least-once-voted “coldest” city, cold people not cold weather). But. Not only did he feel differently about New York, he felt that way about Richmond, Virginia.

Come on now, there is no comparing the two. That’s just ridiculous.

And I was right, there is no comparing the two–they are vastly different cities. But one could conceivably compare my current home, Washington DC, and Richmond…and in my falsely humble opinion, Richmond wins out easily for the simple fact that it has two incredibly important elements that DC and probably most cities don’t:

1. A wealth of some of the tastiest vegan/vegetarian food you’ll ever eat

2. A natural body of water in the middle of the city that is clean and pleasant enough to want to swim in. All summer long.

To be perfectly clear, DC sucks for vegetarians. There are a few places and even a website and printed guide for vegetarians in the city, but most of what you’ll get is horribly mediocre. This is especially true if you’re carless and at the mercy of the metrorail geography. There’s one upscale veggie place, Vegetate, which I think is pretty good, but it’s nothing–and I mean nothing–when compared with Ipanema in Richmond.

We actually zipcar to Richmond instead of taking the train or bus just so we don’t have to leave before Ipanema opens to make the last train or bus. This place is that good. It’s a small, dark little room that is legitimately charming (almost dive-y) with a fantastically creative menu chalked onto a board (the only menu there is) and pleasantly laid back waiters. The ambiance is perfect, but is a distant, almost invisible second to the food, which manages to surprise me with its flavor, interesting ingredient combos, and HUGE portions (I’ll be eating my leftovers for lunch today, thus allowing me to relive the excitement all over again). Last night I had a minty pea risotto topped with a portabello stuffed with snowpeas, zucchini, and some other tastiness I don’t remember. It’s at 917 W. Grace Street, in the Fan section of Richmond.

Now the thing is, Ipanema isn’t all there is. In fact, when we go to Richmond, the day is organized around eating, since there are so many tasty veggie offerings. Even the grocery store is better there–Elwood Thompson’s, where we got some soy nuggets that may have us going back to Richmond more than usual to get our fix. We bought half a pound of them, got back to the car, each ate one, and looked at each other with eyes so wide you would have thought something truly remarkable happened. For us it did. They were amazing. I immediately went back to buy another half-pound. I have this vision of us eating in Richmond, like two starved dogs that are used to eating dirt and cardboard…I think it may border on pathetic. New York does this to us as well though–meals are always planned out because we have to squeeze so much goodness in. Some places inevitably get left out, but we try. I realize that I’m making DC sound like a wasteland for vegetarians, but by comparison it kind of is. There are choices, but they are far from stellar.

So onto the second leg-up Richmond has. The River. The gorgeous, rocky James River. This is something that I haven’t quite found anywhere else in the US (though I qualify that by saying my intra-US travels have been limited). The James runs right through Richmond and is actually clean enough to swim in with a high degree of confidence (or so I’ve been told…). In the center is Belle Isle, connected on either side by pedestrian bridges over the river. It’s a lovely park, with bike and hiking trails, and provides direct access to to the river, where you can hop rocks across the river to explore different swimming spots. There are also places to rent rafts and kayaks I believe.

The view from our rock.

I even got some knitting in while the sun warmed me a little before getting in the water. The great thing about having a swimmable river is that the water is generally warm, especially when you’re used to ocean water. I spent a few months on the Amazon a few years ago and that was the same with exclusive regard to swimming in a luke-warm, bath-like body of water. Of course, the Amazon is so large it actually looks like the ocean since you can’t see the other side of the river. Trippy, to say the least.

I’d still take NYC over Richmond any day, but I’ll take a Sunday in Richmond over one in DC for certain.

Car-free in NYC.

June 17, 2008

For all my New York City friends and those that may be visiting the city in August here is some great news from the Gotham Gazette:

Car-Free Summer Streets
On three Saturdays in August, the city will create a car-free zone stretching 6.9 miles from the Brooklyn Bridge to 72nd Street on the Upper East Side. Motor vehicles will be banned along much of Lafayette Street and Park Avenue from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on August 9, 16, and 23. Fitness classes, bike rental and repair, and outdoor meeting places will be set up along the route. Download a map of the route (in pdf format).

The idea of a car-free city used to be my dream…and then somewhere along the lines that idea got lost, maybe some cynical practicality seeped in. But recently the idea returned to where it belonged, at the forefront of my urban dreams. I was biking home, dodging cars and death, and it dawned on me: DC should just be car-free! Everyone can park in garages outside of the city and then take trains or buses in. The city could be one of pedestrians, cyclists, streetcars, and other short distance circulatory mass transit. I know this is unlikely to say the least, but steps could be taken to get us in that direction by cutting driving within the city. For instance, I’ve heard something about turning Bedford Ave in Brooklyn into a pedestrian street with some green space in the center. There may not be any truth to that but it’s definitely an attractive idea.

In any case the step that NYC is taking to promote car-free streets is fantastic, even if it’s just for a short time.

A little NYC in my DC

May 14, 2008

(A good reference map for actual DC neighborhoods is here.)

This idea came to me when a coworker likened Brooklyn to Arlington.

My immediate reaction was shock and horror. Brooklyn is not Arlington. Arlington is Jersey.

This map comes with a million caveats and here are just a few:

DC neighborhoods and NYC neighborhoods are only VERY loosely comparable.

The comparisons I make are based on either urban form, architecture, demographics, history, institutions in the neighborhood or a combination of the above.

I thought about giving you the complete rationale for each neighborhood comparison, but I thought I’d let it stand on its own first. If the rationale is desired it can be provided. I welcome any disagreements, agreements (obviously), or suggestions for other hoods.

One thing I will explain is that in DC most immigrant communities (with all that tasty ethnic food) is spread around the suburbs instead of in the urban core. So the suburbs is Queens. Speaking of Queens, if you want the best Indian food not made by someone in my family (yes, I’m biased) go to Jackson Diner in Jackson Heights. I’m one picky Indian and that food is goooooood.

Here are the initial neighborhood comparisons:

Chevy Chase = Upper East Side

Rock Creek Park = Central Park (though RCP isn’t so central)

Mount Pleasant = Carroll Gardens

Adams Morgan = East Village

Connecticut corridor (North Dupont to Cleveland Park-ish) = Upper West Side

Columbia Heights = Spanish Harlem

Trinidad = Crown Heights

Eastern Market = Park Slope

SW Waterfront = Battery Park City

Chinatown = Times Square

K Street Corridor = Wall St

Georgetown (around M St) = SoHo

Georgetown north (around the University) = West Village/NYU

Dupont Circle/Logan Circle = Chelsea

All of Anacostia = All of the Bronx

Shaw/Ledroit Park = Harlem

Potomac River = Hudson River

Anacostia River = East River

There were a few neighborhoods that couldn’t be applied to DC like (to name just a few) Nolita, Dumbo, and Williamsburg…which I tried to apply to Columbia Heights, but having moved from Williamsburg to Columbia Heights I knew it was too much of a stretch. Hipsters aren’t concentrated enough in DC anywhere…their little population seems to be pretty diffuse.

Friday is for Bicycle

May 9, 2008

Actually May is for bicycle. It’s National Bicycle Month.

The League of American Bicyclists has a great “50 ways to celebrate bike month” (pdf). My favorite is “wear spandex to your next board meeting”. I personally think board meetings should be like costume parties…but I guess the type As wouldn’t be so into that.

So with rising gas prices and a generally stagnating economy, bicycles have really been making it into the news lately and I thought I would share some of what I’ve been reading every once in a while.

The Chicago Sun Times has a great article about saving money with bicycles, highlighting one man that traded in the second car for a collection of old bikes that he’s fixed up — none of which were acquired for more than $10.

“My wife gets frustrated,” he said. “She’d rather have a second car. But the kids seamlessly just kind of bought into this lifestyle because that’s how we go to the park, to the Beverly Arts Center for classes like violin classes, to the local grocery store to pick up things. That’s how we go to the pool all summer, and so for them, it’s just a lifestyle that they kind of were just swept into.”

Raising your kids this way is possibly the best way to ensure we get that “lifestyle change” that is so essential to combat global warming. It may be hard to get to the baby boomers, but the new kids (including my own generation) are still malleable enough to convince of the responsibility and myriad benefits that come with a “low-carbon” lifestyle. Living without insane excess and prioritizing our health again — I hope this is the wave of the future.

Another comes from NECN.com, a New England news site, where the spotlight is also on those that are able to save money and reduce their carbon footprint by biking to work.

This one is rather interesting from Seattle, where a man actually was taken in for psychiatric evaluation after riding his bike down Interstate 5 in Seattle. I found this hilarious at first that we actually have started committing people for riding on highways, but it turns out he had other, more severe issues…

And a great one from the LA Times about the rising use of bicycles as a mode of transport in New York City, despite the often treacherous conditions (potholes, taxis, traffic). I actually never biked in New York except for fun because I felt like it was too stressful. But the article offers a lot of promise:

The number of bicyclists has grown by 75% during the last seven years, according to the city’s count. Soon an ambitious city plan will make it possible for riders to traverse Manhattan via dedicated bike lanes and circumnavigate the island along the waterfront. Sheltered bicycle parking and thousands of new public bike racks are already in place.

New York is, afterall, the greenest city in America. It’s great to see it getting better every day. I heard one city official once say that every new person that New York gains as a resident is a win for sustainability. I plan to be one of them again someday.

In my own news, I’ve decided it’s time to really connect green craft with bicycle. So there’s a project in the works that I’ll share soon…if it makes that transition from my brain to my hands. And doesn’t suck.

Car Commercials Suck

April 22, 2008

So I know that I should expect nothing from car commercials.  I know that they always depict cars as super fun and liberating by having someone drive really fast on a magical open road where no other cars seem to be.  Never mind the fact that congestion is rising insanely fast around the nation making a car more of a prison than some fantasical freedom device.  I heard an interesting statistic that in the London center the average speed is 3 mph (!!!).  In 1890 it was also 3mph.  Hooray for progress.

But this Dodge video really gets me.  In this stupid commercial the car somehow is supposed to get you this lifestyle that ironically is wholly dependent on there being no cars to run you over while you play with your friends in the street.  

Maybe it’s because it’s in an urban setting, making it even more unrealistic.  But it promotes this fun, spontaneous lifestyle, where you can play with your friends and neighbors, all of whom are around in big crowds in an expanse of central public open space.  You can do this by driving to the magic place (otherwise known as a city) with your big SUV, but keep in mind this fantasy is only possible if you’re the only one on earth allowed to drive your car.  So good luck with that. 

Endearing DC

April 19, 2008

Lately with the coming of warmer weather I’ve been moving beyond my negative feeling of enduring DC to appreciating the endearing DC.  The city in spring is beautiful, with perfectly landscaped beds of tulips framing the clean, classic Roman architecture of federal downtown.

Today was especially nice.  It seems summer is coming quickly (as it does down here in the swamp).  I woke up to a lovely breeze coming through my open bedroom windows.

The regular hot nights, when the windows are never closed (except when I break down and turn the AC unit on every once in a while) is what I can’t wait for.  Today was a preview, almost 90 degrees, and thus a perfect day for a 30 mile bike ride up through Rock Creek Park into Maryland and back down again through Bethesda and Georgetown.

On the way back we happened upon this little gem:

Not only do we get free museums (for the most part) but we get a Tulip Library.  All I need to do now is relocate the Costume Institute from the Met to DC and I’m set (not really true).  I have beautiful memories associated with tulips.  When I was a child, my mother planted beds of them every year before spring.  I figure either tulips are an easy flower to get right (unlike orchids), or my mother put a fair amount of love into them, because those tulips never disappointed us.  They were huge and bright and smelled delicious.  They even made the suburban vinyl siding look ok…

I’m pretty sure she would have really been into the Tulip Library.  There were some flowers in there I never would have thought were actually tulips with fluttery petals or deep, black hues, which I was particularly attracted to.

And some traditional tulips:

I often find DC to be a difficult place to live.  It’s a beautiful city, but it can be a tough nut to crack.  It’s frequently voted in magazine polls to have the coldest people of any city, making it hard to form meaningful relationships.  Many say it’s because people are so transient here, but I think it’s a vicious circle where people want to leave after coming here because it can be so lonely.

It looks like in a few weeks this tulip will have some friends, and maybe that’s promising for Washingtonians.  But it certainly is a test of patience.  As for me, hooray for the few lovely folks I do have here in DC — I am eternally grateful.

Where’s my pocket park?

April 16, 2008

Last weekend I went to my very first stitch and bitch.  It was pretty amazing.  It was a small group of intelligent, talented women: mostly sewer/quilters, involved in the same professional field, all congregated in one house with food, sewing machines, fabric, yarn, and pizza.  The result was some pretty fascinating and lovely conversation.  My favorite nuggets were some recounts of one woman’s experience with some folks that hadn’t heard of gender equality, or respect for women for that matter.  Years ago when she was in her 20s, before she was married, she went to a doctor to see about migraines she still suffers from.  He told her it was simply stress and she should just get married.  That apparently would alleviate all the stress a young, unmarried woman could possibly have.  Who knew the solution was looking me right in the face all these years.  Then I can have a baby and get rid of all those breast cancer fears while I’m at it…

So after being shocked and awed by the experiences of these women and enjoying some amazing, intelligent, female company, later that weekend I also enjoyed some male company with my lovely partner and strolled through DC to get dinner at the only upscale vegetarian restaurant in the city: Vegetate.  We walked a few miles from our cozy home in Capitol Hill to the U St/Shaw area.  On the way I got to thinking about the urban form in DC and how there are some little things that could really use improvement.

In keeping with my theme of taking the good ideas from New York and applying them to DC, I introduce the concept of the ubiquitous pocket park.  Almost exactly a year ago, on Earth Day, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled an ambitious program, PlaNYC, which outlines some great goals for the city across virtually every sector (energy, housing, water quality, transportation, etc).  One thing that I loved was a goal for every New Yorker to live within a 10 minute WALK of a park. While this is a goal in New York, the truth is parks are virtually everywhere there already–some are very small, but they serve as usable spaces where the public can sit, talk, generally congregate, whatever.

The idea of common open space is something grossly missing from many DC neighborhoods.  It seems we get the national mall and that’s it.  My part of Capitol Hill is actually quite special in having a few outstanding parks: Lincoln, Stanton, and Garfield to name a few.  But the rest of DC is hurting…

Walking through even my neck of the woods, I came across some pieces of land that NYC would certainly have already jumped on.

These two small tracts of land (either corners or triangles formed from stupid, huge avenues cutting through) are perfect examples of underutilized land.  A tree buffer, a wrought iron fence maybe, and some benches and this thing is totally in business. I would for sure buy a cupcake and sit in there and eat it.  But right now my dog can pee in it.  And that’s about it.  And I don’t even have a dog, sadly.

The second photo is of an area that I’m pretty sure is even meant to be public space because there are sidewalks cutting through.  But it’s clearly not public friendly, and neither is this place:

Now this is a lovely space with all sorts of landscaping and fancy stones and bricks and all that.  But what am I supposed to do here?  Stand around?  Ride around in circles on my bicycle?  Do a dance in the center? Where are the benches? Or trash cans even?  What the hell?

The argument has been mentioned time after time that if we have parks and benches they’ll just be overtaken by homeless people.

Well, awesome.

Let’s just keep people homeless (with no benches to sleep on) and perpetuate the notion that people have to move to soulless suburbs to have any decent (though completely fake and manipulated) open space. Poo on that. I want my pocket park!

Hi, I’m an angry urban biker.

March 14, 2008

I bike to work everyday. I’m not one of those hard core bikers…I do bike most places, but it’s mainly because in DC I think it’s the fastest way to get around and DC is also pretty good with bike lanes. My transportation choices for getting to work are a <10 minute bike ride, a 20-30 minute bus ride (including waiting for the bus, since it doesn’t always come on time), or a 30 minute walk. The bike ride is clearly the best choice.

The problem is that while there are bike lanes for most of the ride, someone in a big fat car tries to kill me almost everyday. People on their phones. People talking. People numb and oblivious to traffic laws because DC police don’t bother enforcing them. People trying to get to the red light up ahead faster than anyone else. People who don’t think bikes belong on the road–when it’s written in law (in DC at least) that bikes do in fact belong on the roads and NOT the sidewalks. And people who just don’t notice bikes or think to look out for them…even when or especially when there’s a bike lane.

I can’t tell you how many times someone has made a right turn through a bike lane without bothering to look and see that I was right there…luckily I’ve gotten pretty defensive in my riding and can sometimes tell when this will happen. I’ve also developed cat-like reflexes. Or my favorite is 9th street (I think) going through Chinatown…there’s a full-size lane dedicated to buses and bikes. It says it huge right on the lane. Over and over again. Buses Only (with a picture of a bike as well). Yet it’s the most dangerous place to bike. Because people get all frustrated with their traffic (which I have no sympathy for since there are plenty of transit choices for getting into and around the city) and suddenly swerve into that lane, bikers (and I guess buses) be damned.  I end up riding down the lane yelling the mantra: Buses-and-Bikes-ONLY while I angrily point to the painted words on the road.  I’m that crazy woman.

The worst is when people honk at me just for being on the road or when cars run red lights or stop signs and then yell at me for almost being hit by them.  Now I know bikers can bike dangerously sometimes–I’m guilty of this sometimes.  But I think there’s more responsibility with operating a car.  It’s not likely I would kill a pedestrian or another biker just with my bike.  It’s the motor vehicle that does that.

Anyway.  The point is–being almost killed regularly has made me an angry biker.  I yell obscenities at people when they try and kill me now.  The other day someone ran a red light while looking me right in the face as he almost hit me.  I sped up to his car later with my middle finger blazing and the F yous flying.  He actually tried to flirt with me and when I got even more pissed he started yelling back:  “I’d kick your ass if you were a man.”

That actually made me laugh…which overall made me feel better.

But this kind of exchange happens like once a week…with less involved confrontations happening more often.

Sometimes I hate people.  Sorry, but it’s true.

For the most part I enjoy biking to work, or anywhere…but the stress seeps in sometimes, which has to diminish the health benefits of riding.

Actually, one thing I was wondering about is whether my urban biking is actually bad for me in balance.  While I’m getting exercise and staying healthy and fit, I’m breathing in lots of fumes, carcinogenic ones no less.

Is it a wash? Am I healthier for it or am I getting cancer for sure?

Buona Sera

February 29, 2008

This was my favorite thing to hear in Italy…the sing-songy and warm way in which it was said was so lovely to hear.
I just recently returned from a trip to Delhi, Rome and Venice.
I was in Delhi for my cousin’s wedding, which as I predicted was absolutely exhausting. From a combination of the jetlag, the traveling from the bride’s city to my cousin’s home city twice, and all of the many long ceremonies, I must have gotten 10 hours of sleep the entire week. No joke.

The real fun was when I met my man in Italy and traveled around Rome and Venice.
Rome may be my new favorite city. The architectural beauty was something I always heard about and after 5 years of high school Latin, the ancient city was something else that I knew was a draw.

But there were other things I found fantastic:

1. The urban form
I’m an urban planner and the fact that everyone drove smart cars or walked was so amazing to see. This was what I thought was great about Venice too–nothing motorized off the water. It was a complete pedestrian city.
I love that this was an actual street with it’s own name in Venice:

I have to say that I wasn’t completely enamored with Venice. I thought it was unbelievably beautiful, but it seemed like Disneyland…something that continues to run to feed tourists and has fallen victim to the more and more common urban transformation into a shopping mall. My perception softened a little on Friday: trash day, where small motor boats move through the canals picking up trash from actual households. It was nice to see a normal function of a real city in action and to see it in the truly unique Venetian fashion.

2. Attention to Detail
While Italy seems to be filled with gorgeous details like micro-mosaics (which are incredible), gilded ceilings, and massive sculptures, there were other little details I thought were so cool:


This isn’t the best picture, but in Rome (and possibly elsewhere in Italy) they actually take the time and resources to paint the building facade onto the scaffolding when a building is having work done…

My favorite detail was this:

The little girl on the sign has a bow in her hair. And look how happy they are!!  Yay, we crossing the street to go to school! Weeee!
I love Rome.

I’ll have more to come on this trip. Such as, in Venice, I happened upon a yarn store and bought some gorgeous cotton/silk/viscose Italian yarn for my dress version of Nora Gaughan’s Anais. I haven’t made enough progress to share yet though.

Check out my flickr page for more photos of my trip.