The city we’re all looking for

From The Golden Age by Kenneth Grahame:

ALL the roads of our neighbourhood were cheerful and friendly, having each of them pleasant qualities of their own; but this one seemed different from the others in its masterful suggestion of a serious purpose, speeding you along with a strange uplifting of the heart. The others tempted chiefly with their treasures of hedge and ditch; the rapt surprise of the first lords-and-ladies, the rustle of a field-mouse, splash of a frog; while cool noses of brother-beasts were pushed at you through gate or gap. A loiterer you had need to be, did you choose one of them,—so many were the tiny hands thrust out to detain you, from this side and that. But this other was of a sterner sort, and even in its shedding off of bank and hedgerow as it marched straight and full for the open downs, it seemed to declare its contempt for adventitious trappings to catch the shallow-pated. When the sense of injustice or disappointment was heavy on me, and things were very black within, as on this particular day, the road of character was my choice for that solitary ramble, when I turned my back for an afternoon on a world that had unaccountably declared itself against me.

“The Knights’ Road,” we children had named it, from a sort of feeling that, if from any quarter at all, it would be down this track we might some day see Lancelot and his peers come pacing on their great war-horses,—supposing that any of the stout band still survived, in nooks and unexplored places. Grown-up people sometimes spoke of it as the “Pilgrims’ Way”; but I didn’t know much about pilgrims,—except Walter in the Horselberg story. Him I sometimes saw, breaking with haggard eyes out of yonder copse, and calling to the pilgrims as they hurried along on their desperate march to the Holy City, where peace and pardon were awaiting them. “All roads lead to Rome,” I had once heard somebody say; and I had taken the remark very seriously, of course, and puzzled over it many days. There must have been some mistake, I concluded at last; but of one road at least I intuitively felt it to be true. And my belief was clinched by something that fell from Miss Smedley during a history lesson, about a strange road that ran right down the middle of England till it reached the coast, and then began again in France, just opposite, and so on undeviating, through city and vineyard, right from the misty Highlands to the Eternal City. Uncorroborated, any statement of Miss Smedley’s usually fell on incredulous ears; but here, with the road itself in evidence, she seemed, once, in a way, to have strayed into truth.

Rome! It was fascinating to think that it lay at the other end of this white ribbon that rolled itself off from my feet over the distant downs. I was not quite so uninstructed as to imagine l could reach it that afternoon; but some day, I thought, if things went on being as unpleasant as they were now,—some day, when Aunt Eliza had gone on a visit,—we would see.

I tried to imagine what it would be like when I got there. The Coliseum I knew, of course, from a woodcut in the history-book: so to begin with I plumped that down in the middle. The rest had to be patched up from the little grey market-town where twice a year we went to have our hair cut; hence, in the result, Vespasian’s amphitheatre was approached by muddy little streets, wherein the Red Lion and the Blue Boar, with Somebody’s Entire along their front, and “Commercial Room” on their windows; the doctor’s house, of substantial red-brick; and the facade of the New Wesleyan Chapel, which we thought very fine, were the chief architectural ornaments: while the Roman populace pottered about in smocks and corduroys, twisting the tails of Roman calves and inviting each other to beer in musical Wessex. From Rome I drifted on to other cities, dimly heard of—Damascus, Brighton (Aunt Eliza’s ideal), Athens, and Glasgow, whose glories the gardener sang; but there was a certain sameness in my conception of all of them: that Wesleyan chapel would keep cropping up everywhere. It was easier to go a-building among those dream-cities where no limitations were imposed, and one was sole architect, with a free hand. Down a delectable street of cloud-built palaces I was mentally pacing, when I happened upon the Artist.

He was seated at work by the roadside, at a point whence the cool large spaces of the downs, juniper-studded, swept grandly westwards. His attributes proclaimed him of the artist tribe: besides, he wore knickerbockers like myself,—a garb confined, I was aware, to boys and artists. I knew I was not to bother him with questions, nor look over his shoulder and breathe in his ear—they didn’t like it, this genus irritabile; but there was nothing about staring in my code of instructions, the point having somehow been overlooked: so, squatting down on the grass, I devoted myself to a passionate absorbing of every detail. At the end of five minutes there was not a button on him that I could not have passed an examination in; and the wearer himself of that homespun suit was probably less familiar with its pattern and texture than I was. Once he looked up, nodded, half held out his tobacco pouch,—mechanically, as it were,—then, returning it to his pocket, resumed his work, and I my mental photography.

After another five minutes or so had passed he remarked, without looking my way: “Fine afternoon we’re having: going far to-day?”

“No, I’m not going any farther than this,” I replied; “I WAS thinking of going on to Rome but I’ve put it off.”

“Pleasant place, Rome,” he murmured; “you’ll like it.” It was some minutes later that he added: “But I wouldn’t go just now, if I were you,—too jolly hot.”

“YOU haven’t been to Rome, have you?” I inquired.

“Rather,” he replied, briefly; “I live there.”

This was too much, and my jaw dropped as I struggled to grasp the fact that I was sitting there talking to a fellow who lived in Rome. Speech was out of the question: besides, I had other things to do. Ten solid minutes had I already spent in an examination of him as a mere stranger and artist; and now the whole thing had to be done over again, from the changed point of view. So I began afresh, at the crown of his soft hat, and worked down to his solid British shoes, this time investing everything with the new Roman halo; and at last I managed to get out: “But you don’t really live there, do you?” never doubting the fact, but wanting to hear it repeated.

“Well,” he said, good-naturedly overlooking the slight rudeness of my query, “I live there as much as l live anywhere,—about half the year sometimes. I’ve got a sort of a shanty there. You must come and see it some day.”

“But do you live anywhere else as well?” I went on, feeling the forbidden tide of questions surging up within me.

“O yes, all over the place,” was his vague reply. “And I’ve got a diggings somewhere off Piccadilly.”

“Where’s that?” I inquired.

“Where’s what?” said he. “Oh, Piccadilly! It’s in London.”

“Have you a large garden?” I asked; “and how many pigs have you got?”

“I’ve no garden at all,” he replied, sadly, “and they don’t allow me to keep pigs, though I’d like to, awfully. It’s very hard.”

“But what do you do all day, then,” I cried, “and where do you go and play, without any garden, or pigs, or things?”

“When I want to play,” he said, gravely, “I have to go and play in the street; but it’s poor fun, I grant you. There’s a goat, though, not far off, and sometimes I talk to him when I’m feeling lonely; but he’s very proud.”

“Goats ARE proud,” I admitted. “There’s one lives near here, and if you say anything to him at all, he hits you in the wind with his head. You know what it feels like when a fellow hits you in the wind?”

“I do, well,” he replied, in a tone of proper melancholy, and painted on.

“And have you been to any other places,” I began again, presently, “besides Rome and Piccy-what’s-his-name?”

“Heaps,” he said. “I’m a sort of Ulysses—seen men and cities, you know. In fact, about the only place I never got to was the Fortunate Island.”

I began to like this man. He answered your questions briefly and to the point, and never tried to be funny. I felt I could be confidential with him.

“Wouldn’t you like,” I inquired, “to find a city without any people in it at all?”

He looked puzzled. “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand,” said he.

“I mean,” I went on eagerly, “a city where you walk in at the gates, and the shops are all full of beautiful things, and the houses furnished as grand as can be, and there isn’t anybody there whatever! And you go into the shops, and take anything you want—chocolates and magic lanterns and injirubber balls—and there’s nothing to pay; and you choose your own house and live there and do just as you like, and never go to bed unless you want to!”

The artist laid down his brush. “That WOULD be a nice city,” he said. “Better than Rome. You can’t do that sort of thing in Rome,—or in Piccadilly either. But I fear it’s one of the places I’ve never been to.”

“And you’d ask your friends,” I went on, warming to my subject,—”only those you really like, of course,—and they’d each have a house to themselves,—there’d be lots of houses,—and no relations at all, unless they promised they’d be pleasant, and if they weren’t they’d have to go.”

“So you wouldn’t have any relations?” said the artist. “Well, perhaps you’re right. We have tastes in common, I see.”

“I’d have Harold,” I said, reflectively, “and Charlotte. They’d like it awfully. The others are getting too old. Oh, and Martha—I’d have Martha, to cook and wash up and do things. You’d like Martha. She’s ever so much nicer than Aunt Eliza. She’s my idea of a real lady.”

“Then I’m sure I should like her,” he replied, heartily, “and when I come to—what do you call this city of yours? Nephelo—something, did you say?”

“I—I don’t know,” I replied, timidly. “I’m afraid it hasn’t got a name—yet.”

The artist gazed out over the downs. “‘The poet says, dear city of Cecrops;’” he said, softly, to himself, “‘and wilt not thou say, dear city of Zeus?’ That’s from Marcus Aurelius,” he went on, turning again to his work. “You don’t know him, I suppose; you will some day.”

“Who’s he?” I inquired.

“Oh, just another fellow who lived in Rome,” he replied, dabbing away.

“O dear!” I cried, disconsolately. “What a lot of people seem to live at Rome, and I’ve never even been there! But I think I’d like MY city best.”

“And so would I,” he replied with unction. “But Marcus Aurelius wouldn’t, you know.”

“Then we won’t invite him,” I said, “will we?”

I won’t if you won’t,” said he. And that point being settled, we were silent for a while.

“Do you know,” he said, presently, “I’ve met one or two fellows from time to time who have been to a city like yours,—perhaps it was the same one. They won’t talk much about it—only broken hints, now and then; but they’ve been there sure enough. They don’t seem to care about anything in particular—and every thing’s the same to them, rough or smooth; and sooner or later they slip off and disappear; and you never see them again. Gone back, I suppose.”

“Of course,” said I. “Don’t see what they ever came away for; I wouldn’t,—to be told you’ve broken things when you haven’t, and stopped having tea with the servants in the kitchen, and not allowed to have a dog to sleep with you. But I’ve known people, too, who’ve gone there.”

The artist stared, but without incivility.

“Well, there’s Lancelot,” I went on. “The book says he died, but it never seemed to read right, somehow. He just went away, like Arthur. And Crusoe, when he got tired of wearing clothes and being respectable. And all the nice men in the stones who don’t marry the Princess, ‘cos only one man ever gets married in a book, you know. They’ll be there!”

“And the men who never come off,” he said, “who try like the rest, but get knocked out, or somehow miss,—or break down or get bowled over in the melee,—and get no Princess, nor even a second-class kingdom,—some of them’ll be there, I hope?”

“Yes, if you like,” I replied, not quite understanding him; “if they’re friends of yours, we’ll ask ‘em, of course.”

“What a time we shall have!” said the artist, reflectively; “and how shocked old Marcus Aurelius will be!”

The shadows had lengthened uncannily, a tide of golden haze was flooding the grey-green surface of the downs, and the artist began to put his traps together, preparatory to a move. I felt very low; we would have to part, it seemed, just as we were getting on so well together. Then he stood up, and he was very straight and tall, and the sunset was in his hair and beard as he stood there, high over me. He took my hand like an equal. “I’ve enjoyed our conversation very much,” he said. “That was an interesting subject you started, and we haven’t half exhausted it. We shall meet again, I hope.”

“Of course we shall,” I replied, surprised that there should be any doubt about it.

“In Rome, perhaps?” said he.

“Yes, in Rome,” I answered, “or Piccy-the-other-place, or somewhere.”

“Or else,” said he, “in that other city,—when we’ve found the way there. And I’ll look out for you, and you’ll sing out as soon as you see me. And we’ll go down the street arm-in-arm, and into all the shops, and then I’ll choose my house, and you’ll choose your house, and we’ll live there like princes and good fellows.”

“Oh, but you’ll stay in my house, won’t you?” I cried; “wouldn’t ask everybody; but I’ll ask YOU.”

He affected to consider a moment; then “Right!” he said: “I believe you mean it, and I WILL come and stay with you. I won’t go to anybody else, if they ask me ever so much. And I’ll stay quite a long time, too, and I won’t be any trouble.”

Upon this compact we parted, and I went down-heartedly from the man who understood me, back to the house where I never could do anything right. How was it that everything seemed natural and sensible to him, which these uncles, vicars, and other grown-up men took for the merest tomfoolery? Well, he would explain this, and many another thing, when we met again. The Knights’ Road! How it always brought consolation! Was he possibly one of those vanished knights I had been looking for so long? Perhaps he would be in armour next time,—why not? He would look well in armour, I thought. And I would take care to get there first, and see the sunlight flash and play on his helmet and shield, as he rode up the High Street of the Golden City.

Meantime, there only remained the finding it,—an easy matter.

 

 

The Turmoil

Just finished The Turmoil, a fierce roar from a hardened lamb named Booth Tarkington who with it attempted to to take down the American heartland of 1914 and very nearly succeeded. For us transpo dorks, it contains fascinating descriptions of a society coming to grips with its recent surrender of safety, community and sanity to its new overlord automobile:

There was a heavy town-fog that afternoon, a smoke-mist, densest in the sanctuary of the temple. The people went about in it, busy and dirty, thickening their outside and inside linings of coal-tar, asphalt, sulphurous acid, oil of vitriol, and the other familiar things the men liked to breathe and to have upon their skins and garments and upon their wives and babies and sweethearts. The growth of the city was visible in the smoke and the noise and the rush. There was more smoke than there had been this day of February a year earlier; there was more noise; and the crowds were thicker – yet quicker in spite of that. The traffic policemen had a hard time, for the people were independent – they retained some habits of the old market-town period, and would cross the street anywhere and anyhow, which not only got them killed more frequently than if they clung to the legal crossings, but kept the motormen, the chauffeurs, and the truck-drivers in a stew of profane nervousness. So the traffic policemen led harried lives; they themselves were killed, of course, with a certain periodicity, but their main trouble was that they could not make the citizens realize that it was actually and mortally perilous to go about their city…

There’s something sort of naive and juvenile in his determination to make this charging, heaving, American machine take a breath and a look in the mirror, but he does it with a passion that’s charming. Worth a read.

ps he’s the guy who wrote The Magnificent Ambersons, which Orson Welles later filmified.

Walkable City

The great tragedy of urban planning is that its practitioners, constantly challenged by their arch nemeses the civil engineers, feel compelled to discuss it as though it were a science. Confusion here is understandable, both because it’s common practice in the radically libertarian United States to consign all planning tasks to the engineering office (or alternately in the radically corporatist United States to the economic development office), and because, as a bureaucratic practice, planning comes with a plethora of codes, ordinances, regulations, and complicated maps.

Planning is not a science anymore than music, with its galaxy of modes, notations, and technologies, is a science. Just like there is no one song for every situation (well, maybe MacArthur Park), there is no one planning technique for every situation. Even worse, there is no one set of proscriptions that apply to a given set of conditions. In other words, urban planning doesn’t have an instruction manual, it can’t have an instruction manual, it can only be done well by someone with an eye who takes time to know a subject location intimately.

But if urban planning did have an instruction manual, Walkable City by Jeff Speck would comprise an important chapter. As you might guess, I see that both as a strength and a weakness. On the strength side, it’s probably the most complete and readable compendium of the current state of urbanist thinking (the urbanists being the faction that dominates discussion in the planning field, if not practice) on urban design. Speck does a great job organizing what is in reality a complex set of tools and approaches into 10 comprehensible categories. An example is the chapter Make Friendly and Unique Faces, which I’d summarize as the need to front public space (e.g. parks and streets) with permeable or at least interesting building frontages. Speck of course goes deeper than that, to cite just two examples: demanding parking ramps have first floor retail or be hidden on the interior of blocks, and recommending right-sized parks that facilitate recreation but don’t cut neighborhoods off from each other. These two topics could have been covered in a chapter about parking ramps and a chapter about open space, respectively, but by instead organizing them according to their effect, rather than their mere form, Speck guides the reader to the next level. This approach is a means of understanding the components that make up a place not just as a collection of Dungeons and Dragons characters with their various powers and differing attribute points, but as a collection of unique individuals that don’t always fit into categories and come together with unpredictable results. This approach is an artistic one.

Unfortunately it is not found consistently through the book. Speck too often falls in the engineeringist trap of absolute declarations. One that rubs me the wrong way is his insistence that on-street parking is always a good thing for a street. Certainly, in a place with high parking demand on-street parking will act as a buffer for pedestrians against the motorized traffic in the roadway. But even this is only beneficial if the parking also has the effect of making the roadway feel narrower for moving traffic, resulting in reduced speed – too often (Lake St in Uptown is a local example) roadways are designed with 12′ traffic lanes and 12′ parking lanes, in which case the parking is also a mental buffer for motorists, who can speed through their expressway without having to draw their attention to the human life in the margins. And on-street parking can have a significant downside at intersections if not paired with bump-outs or at least significant clear zones, since parked cars can often obscure any traffic using crosswalks to a turning motorist. Finally, on-street parking is only a buffer if it’s used. Empty parking spaces, as can be seen locally on 38th St, are just a psychological widening of the roadway, predictably increasing top speeds of cars and degrading the walking experience. For all the buffer that on-street parking can provide, a well-landscaped and ample boulevard is just as good a buffer, as can be experienced on Chicago’s State Street or even in places on our own Hennepin Ave. My point, of course, isn’t that on-street parking is always a bad buffer, but rather that it’s one of many tools in the toolbox and shouldn’t be universally prescribed as Speck seems to do at a couple points in his book.

But such absolutist moments are the exception, which is itself exceptional. The best ever book on urban planning – Death and Life of course – took an artistic approach as well, famously describing cities as a sidewalk ballet that couldn’t be taken apart and rebuilt as so many interchangeable or even reliably specialized lego blocks. Unfortunately, Jane Jacobs didn’t win the 20th century, the engineers did. And so engineeringese has predominated in too much of the planning discussion, which wastes vast quantities of hot air attempting to prove that because such and such a signal timing or so and so code phrasing worked in Town A, it’ll do the same thing in City B. While not perfect, Walkable City is a step in the right direction towards a discourse that acknowledges that cities are not perfect either, and as such there is no perfect approach to urban planning.

Binge Traveling: Phoenix, or The Worst City

A possible test for the presence of even minute traces of ecological awareness in an individual is to ask whether he or she feels a disconnect when golfing in a desert

A couple months ago when I posted about my plans to travel from Minneapolis to Phoenix to transport my grandmother, I was waaaaaay too easy on Phoenix.  Just because I happen to be a pretentious snob doesn’t mean Phoenix doesn’t deserve the scorn I heap upon it, which I should have known thanks to my having visited the town far too many times.  But wrapped up in my own white middle-class critiques, I also wasn’t aware of just how terrible Phoenix is.

It all came flooding back when we arrived, coming from the east on the enormous Beeline Hwy that mysteriously carries heavy traffic through deserted mountains, and then stopping and starting through 15 miles of thick suburbia on 8-lane Shea Blvd, somehow congested at midday on a Monday.  Sure, Phoenix is one of the most auto-dependent cities in the country, and I took pictures of endless parking lots with views of dessicated peaks, and even worse, the serpentine sidewalks that constantly meander around turn lanes and curb cuts.  But I had no idea how truly bad Phoenix was until I read, upon my return to relatively green Minnesota, Bird On Fire.

I wasn’t expecting much from this book, to be honest.  Being from flyoverland, I get defensive when a guy from NYC writes a book about a city that’s not on the coast without even moving there.  And as someone who has gone to somewhat ridiculous lengths to avoid flying to or from Phoenix, I scoffed at how often he had to commute to Phoenix by plane in order to write a book about how damaging to the environment Phoenix is.

South Phoenix Industrial Hellscape

But to tell the truth, I ate it up.  The guy knows his narrative journalism, and peppers the book with characters that have analogues to Minneapolis:  the urban-pioneering artist, the hippie farmer, the vaguely green mayor.  But things started getting heavy when I read the chapter on environmental injustice in South Phoenix, which is home to 85040 or what the author calls “the nation’s dirtiest zip code.”  I’m going to reproduce a few paragraphs that make me feel a little douchey for complaining that someone refused to yield to me in a crosswalk:

CRSP [a coalition of South Phoenix resident organizations] was formed in 1992 after fire gutted a circuit-board manufacturing facility (Quality Printed Circuits) in a South Phoenix neighborhood not far from the riverbed.  In the aftermath of the 12-hour fire, which burned off several thousand pounds of sulfuric acid and hydrogen fluoride, residents complained of a wide range of illnesses… City Hall, it transpired, had granted the company a permit to rebuild in the same neighborhood after a smaller but similar kind of fire burned down its former facility in 1989, and the new permit actually included an exemption for installing overhead sprinklers.  After the 1992 fire, tests of selected homes conducted by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) found evidence of elevated fluoride and zinc concentrations, but the agency concluded that no adverse health impacts would result.  Several years later, more systematic EPA tests found statistically significant levels of these chemicals that were consistent with the symptoms.  Residents had been living for several years with poisons and toxics circulating through the air ducts of homes that lay downwind from the fire.  Many of the houses were subsequently demolished, but lax, or nonexistent, ADEZ inspections of other facilities in South Phoenix all but guaranteed that other fires would break out.

In August 2000, the area saw one of its worst airborne toxic catastrophes when the main warehouse of Central Garden, the Valley’s largest supplier of pool and lawn chemicals, exploded and caught fire.  “It was like the Fourth of July,” recalled Pops [founder of CRSP].  Firemen, motorists, and residents were captured vomiting in the streets on nightly news footage as the blackened fumes billowed far and wide.  The fire burned for two days, hundredes ended up in the hospital, and many died or suffered debilitating ailments in the years following.  Emergency responders had no idea what chemicals they were dealing with, and to this day, no adequate inventeory of the warehouse contents has been compiled.  ADEZ only tested air quality for standard hydrocarbon releases and, five days after the fire, announced that there was no “public health concern” to the residents of South Phoenix.  Yet, a month later, the agency’s water tests, not announced to the public, showed arsenic at 100 times the maximum level allowable for drinking water.  In the fire’s aftermath, community pressure stepped up to legislate electronic reporting of the hazardous contents of facilities.

Something funny in the water, from Bird on Fire

Inspired by the high degree of citizen involvement after the 1992 fire, Pops’s organization looked to other sites that needed preemptive action.  The area’s hazardous waste management facilities (five of the city’s seven were located in South Phoenix) were an obvious target, and one in particular, operated by Innovative Waste Utilization, stood out as a threat to the entire neighborhood.  The former owner of the site, which had several contaminated areas, including one from a significant arsenic spill, had operated for seventeen years without a permanent permit and had been allowed by the ADEZ to store hazardous waste (including DDT and lead) exported from California.  When the new owner applied for an expansion of the facility in 1999, Pops and other activists responded with a civil rights complaint aimed at the ADEQ’s long-term complicity in allowing toxic waste facilities to cluster in their neighborhoods.  The expansion permit process was arrested, but the agency still approved a permit to store hazardous waste.  The company subsequently contracted with the state of California to accept toxic waste collected in West Coast methampetamine busts.  Pops recalled that “the stench in the neighborhood was so vile that we accused the city and county of burning animals in incinerators.”  Over time, employees took to selling the seized chemicals to local meth labs, and the facility was raided in 2003.  “The odor,” Pops reported, “stopped immediately when the place was busted” and then shut down by the ADEZ.  The state legislature, outraged that the agency had finally found some regulatory teeth, debated whether to abolish it.

A state with leaders so dedicated to free markets that they threaten to shut down an agency that infringes on the community’s narcoentrepreneurs is a good indication of what Phoenix is about:  growth.  But is that so different from the Twin Cities?  Minneapolis’ last comp plan was dedicated in the title to delivering growth, which modified by that adjective ‘sustainable’ may mean that the City wants to sustain growth indefinitely.  St Paul’s last mayor, Randy Kelly, had a focus on population growth that was only matched by his dedication to the reelection of George W. Bush.  And those are just the two cities in the metro area that aren’t actually growing.

The Twin Cities don’t necessarily measure well against Phoenix on “green” living.  Their light rail system is around 7 miles longer, with a bus system that provides much better coverage for local routes, if their frequency is comparatively pathetic.  Minneapolis may out-brag Phoenix when it comes to biking, and I’m not sure of either metro’s total mileage, but Phoenix claims 500 miles of bikeways (including routes, signed or unsigned), and based on maps I’d guess they’re fairly comparable.  Phoenix is a truly terrible place to walk, but the Twin Cities are pretty bad themselves, outside of maybe a few core neighborhoods.

So our superiority complex will have to rest on the damaged lungs and carcinogenic water of South Phoenix.  While not without environmental justice issues, the Twin Cities have nothing on the scale of South Phoenix, the dumping ground for all their heavy industry.  Phoenix is notorious for its sprawling form, but it has the framework for a multimodal paradise:  the bones of transit and cycling systems and, as noted in Bird on Fire, vacant land totaling 40% of the land area on which to add dense infill.  The trickier issue will likely be a history of pervasive environmental injustice that’s poisoned relations between different socioeconomic groups as much as it’s poisoned neighborhoods.

Oh yeah, and their primary water source is a river more than 300 miles away.

The humid desert air

Departing Barmi, next stop San Rafael

Barmi in the 6th century, from Jordi Ballonga's website

For better or for worse, children are the future, and that’s why it’s important to get them started thinking about cities now.  Just like many children are unaware that meat comes from animals, many children are unaware that suburbs come from cities, or that many cities were once suburbs, or of numerous other urban paradoxes that seem to perplex even many adults.

My interest in cities was kindled in my youth by a series of books primarily written by a professor at the University of Barcelona, Xavier Hernandez, and primarily illustrated by Jordi Ballonga, “a specialist in the illustration of urban subjects”.  Barmi and Lebek tell the story of two cities in southern and northern Europe respectively from their founding to the present (well, the late 20th century anyway).  Measuring a good 9″x12″, the books depict every phase in the development of these cities in an amazingly detailed birds-eye perspective splashed over two pages.  You will never see Barmi and Lebek on an e-reader.

A detail of a cathedral in Barmi from Jordi Ballonga's website (alas the book is black and white)

As a child, I spent hours following the two cities on their journeys through time, with each era illustrated in such incredible detail that I seemed to never run out of new unnoticed details.  (Reopening the books many years later, I see that I apparently added my own details in the form of pencil-marked walls or buildings in places.)  Perhaps less linger-worthy but no less fascinating were the pages between the birds-eyes, which gave a narrative history of the era depicted and had detailed cut-away drawings of specific buildings or infrastructure, such as cathedrals, skyscrapers, or subways.

Barmi was the first book I got, and today it is the most yellow, worn and pencil-marked.  Sometime later I got Lebek, but I never was able to find the third book in the series, San Rafael, which tells the story of a fictional city somewhere “in the region that lies south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and north of Guatemala’s Sierra de las Minas, an area that includes the Mexican state of Chiapas, Guatemala’s central region, southern Belize, and western Honduras.”  Finally I got around to digging in the children’s nonfiction stacks at the Minneapolis Central Library, where San Rafael lay waiting for me after all these years.

Uaxacmal thrives in the 4th century

While the Central American city obviously represents a history far removed from those of the earlier two books, it has the same familiar format, including the gorgeous two-page birds-eyes alternating with narrative history and details of certain buildings.  San Rafael’s story begins in 1000 BC, when a small village of corn farmers cut into the jungle on the banks of a large river, and continues through the late 20th century, by which time the small village has been replaced by a sprawling metropolis centered on a Spanish colonial center and a cultural park of preserved Mayan ruins and ringed by factories, housing projects and slums.

The writing in San Rafael is concise and unadorned enough to avoid overwhelming younger readers, but not too dumbed-down or simplistic for adults (at least this adult) to enjoy.  Hernandez doesn’t shy away from more complex topics such as class conflict or religious persecution, but perhaps could have spent a bit more time on them.  But it’s not surprising that the focus is on the physical characteristics of the city that are so brilliantly depicted by Ballonga (with the assistance of Josep Escofet for this venture).

"The game of pelota has fascinated Central America's diverse peoples for centuries."

The depictions of Mayan life are probably the most interesting parts of the book to me as a result of my unfamiliarity with the topic, and so the lack of a bibliography is probably the most obnoxious intrusion of the characteristics of children’s literature.  Scenes of villagers in the act of constructing the famous pyramidal temples – “Stonemasons squared blocks with hammers fashioned from stone.” – will excite any adult with even a remnant of imagination.  The stimulating scenes continue through the Spanish military colonization and the American corporate colonization – I just can’t emphasize enough what a jewel this book – as well as the previous two – is to anyone with an interest in cities or history or human culture or life itself.

In the course of writing this blog post, I’ve found a fourth book in the series – Umm El Madayan, which apparently depicts a North African city and is not primarily written by Xavier Hernandez or illustrated by Jordi Ballonga.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to the library to check that book out.  I promise to read it quickly – I don’t want to interfere with any younger readers who may stumble upon it, kindling their imagination and stoking a lifelong love of cities.

Cross-posted to streets.mn

Reviewing Politics and Freeways

I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted to track down the parties responsible for some dunderheaded planning decision and ask them what they were thinking.  In more violent moods, I confess to wanting to track them down and do more than ask them more than a question.

That’s why the premise of Patricia Cavanaugh’s Politics and Freeways was so intriguing to me:  the book aims to be an oral history of the contruction of the Interstates in the Twin Cities, as told by the engineers and policymakers giving birth to them, and the activist groups intending to abort.  Sensibly but frustratingly, the persons interviewed for the book were kept anonymous, probably for reasons like the second sentence of this blog post.

Mysteriously, the book never really picks up its mission, and relies more heavily on newspaper articles and government documents than the dozens of interviews the author conducted.  While that move gives Politics and Freeways more legitimacy as a history, it robs the book of the personal touch that would have made it a more compelling story.  At a slim 125 pages, I think the book could have incorporated more of those personal perspectives and emerged perhaps a bit more frayed but  not overly long.  At the very least, an appendix with transcripts of the interviews would have been valuable.

Politics and Freeways is still a good read for anyone interested in local history or the influence of politics on infrastructure.  The coverage of the early era of Interstate construction, that of I-35 and I-94, is a bit short, but still summarizes the action and provides useful details.  For example, the route of I-94 originally followed the design of City Planning Engineer Hermann Olson through the Seward neighborhood, crossing the river around 26th Street, but was detoured to its present route through the mechanations of the wealthy and connected downtown business interests.  Cavanaugh seems to mostly take her interviewee’s word for it, crediting the efficacy of citizen advocacy for burying the planned elevated segments of I-94 through St Paul, when really the generous layer of topsoil in the Twin Cities made a sunken construction cost-competitive with the extensive framework of an elevated freeway.  In a final dubious detail, Cavanaugh cites a Minneapolis Star article pricing the 9-odd miles of I-94 built in the 60s at $80m, which would be around $490m today.  Excuse my skepticism that a project that purchased and destroyed some 80 blocks of fully-developed urban fabric cost around the same as I-394, which was built largely on existing right-of-way.

I’m not as interested as Cavanaugh in the era from the 70s to the 90s, in which freeway construction was delayed and eventually forced to incorporate (or at least appear to consider) the opinions of neighbors.  This era saw the cancellation of I-335, the planned segment that leveled several blocks of Old St Anthony so commuters from New Brighton would be able to shave off a minute or two of their drive. Cavanaugh does a good job of describing the debate that occurred in this era, and how the cancellation of this segment was as much due to the development of the I-394 downtown spur as a replacement as due to the efforts of city activists to stave off more destruction.  I wish the author had devoted as many words to the earlier era as she did to this one.

Ultimately the historical documentation in Politics and Freeways succumbs to Cavanaugh’s academic interest in creating lessons out of the events she describes.  While the latter is valuable, what we really need is the former.  The Interstates impact most of us every day to some degree, and most of us have never lived a life without them, but it is important to imagine what life was like before they were built and the process that led to their construction if we are to truly understand our options in future transportation decisions.  To that end, Patricia Cavanaugh does us a great service with her book.  If you have wasted any time reading my blog, I urge you to spend it more wisely in the future by reading Politics and Freeways.