Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Next Round of Suburban Thought versus Boston

Downtown Crossing, Boston's once-vibrant central shopping district, is a resounding failure. Long-vacant storefronts line the sidewalks, and new stores seem to fail regularly. Lonely pushcart vendors never appear to sell anything. There is always a disturbingly high police presence. And by seven p.m., seven nights a week, twelve months a year, the heart of Downtown Boston is totally abandoned, a lonely and uninviting concrete tomb.

But the Globe has a solution: in the words of Universal Hub's Adam Gaffin, "turn Downtown Crossing into a parking lot."

That's right. Who needs a pedestrian mall to serve the shopping needs of city residents, when we can create a vehicular pipeline for suburbanites? We can safely assume that many city residents don't have cars--and the ones who do own cars are already using them to shop in the suburbs. The people who visit Downtown Crossing today are that strange breed of transit-using citizen, the uncanny mix of the working poor and the car-free by choice (the latter group includes me). The Globe seems to suggest that replacing these people with, yes, suburbanites, would make it all better. Never mind the tens of thousands of suburbanites who work blocks away but avoid the shops of Downtown Crossing at all costs, lured away by the malls of home.

Let's go ahead and reopen Downtown Crossing to vehicular traffic. We can then judge Downtown Crossing's success not by the tax revenue it generates or the quality of life offered there but by the number of suburbanites parking on the streets, dooring bikers, and standing in the middle of the sidewalks in large numbers. Or, once it's reopened to auto traffic, we can pretend that Washington Street is just another silent downtown street and put the failure of Downtown Crossing behind us.

I think the blight of Downtown Crossing is a real problem. After staying in the neighborhood during a conference, several of my colleagues vowed never to return to Boston again. Downtown Crossing has to do better, but the bottom line is that trying to compete with or emulate the suburbs is not going to make the city center work better. We need less suburban thought, and fewer bad ideas, from our elected officials and our newspapers.
Now, here's a good idea. Back in 2005, I wrote about a Globe article comparing the number of Business Improvement Districts in Boston (zero) to the number in New York (over 50). In New York, these ideas really work, by helping local businesses invest in everything from neighborhood beautification to hiring the employees who beautify, maintain, and provide security on the streets. BIDs turn neighborhoods like Downtown Flushing in Queens and Fordham Road in the Bronx into tremendously successful shopping districts. Amazingly, Boston can't pull this off in the middle of downtown. But it's not like anyone's trying. It's all talk and millions of dollars spent on consultants.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008


From the looks of this town, people must live in their cars and sleep in their homes. I got lost on a dead end street that ran behind some strip malls and found a crumbling, white, plantation-looking house at the end of the road. Weird. I don't think I will meet any nice girls here, unless they are downstairs at the Holiday Inn bar (closes at 10).

P.S. I hit up Carolina Bar-B-Q in Statesville and would post photos if I had a USB cable. I need a break from the Michigan stuff.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Economic Punishment for Inefficient Cabbies

NY Taxi drivers are complaining about gas prices and demanding a fuel surcharge. But more than 90% of them drive the Ford Crown Victoria, basically a V8, rear wheel drive tractor with seats. Let's take a look at the Crown Victoria's fuel efficiency at

2008 Ford Crown Victoria FFV 8 cyl, 4.6 L, Automatic 4-spd
15 mpg city; 23 mpg highway

Not very good. Not very good at all. What about the Hybrid Escape, also by Ford, that has become popular in NY and is starting to pop up in Boston?

2008 Ford Escape Hybrid FWD
34 mpg city; 30 highway

The 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid is also up there: 34 city/33 highway.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance is quoted in the linked NY1 article above stating that the average cab burns 20 gallons of gasoline per shift. Maybe it's time to invest in some more efficient vehicles.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Economic Punishment for the Ignorant

*[Tulsa] Guy comments that he never takes the bus because he isn't poor. I tell him his attitude is emblematic of a third-rate city and needs rethinking.
--From the Bulleted Summary of the KC Siege.

And, nearly a year later, CNN carries a story on how Tulsa and Oklahoma City were rated second-to-last and last in a survey by NGO Common Current of "Major U.S. City Preparedness for an Oil Crisis."

And now the researchers and the transit authority and the citizens are shocked that "urban professionals" are entering mass transit vehicles of their own free will. I wonder if buses in Oklahoma even have air conditioning yet.

In the article, OK City Manager Jim Couch points out that his hometown has 627 square miles. That's more than twice the land mass of New York City. Wikipedia puts the population of OKC at 1.2 million (bigger than I thought) and NYC at 8.2 million. What's wrong with this picture?

Unless we develop better ways to power these overprivileged sprawl cities, they're going to become the ghost towns of the 21st century. One plus may be that their low population densities will help them be reclaimed by nature, while the New Yorks and San Franciscos of the country continue to thrive.

These cities can't say they didn't see it coming, and they did nothing to equip themselves for the reality they were doomed to face.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Autocentrism Visualized

A link from Rob Lott: how construction of I-295 has destroyed neighborhoods and cut part of Southeast Washington DC off from the rest of the city. (We took some photos there a few weeks ago).

Google map showing intersection location.

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Check out their series on 21st Century Cities, including this piece on Ghost Cities by former stripper Elisabeth Eaves.*

*NOTE: The sentence above carries no political (read: sexist) weight; rather it represents nearly chronologically a series of Google searches that resulted from discovering this Forbes series via Gmail Web Clip. Thank you.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Abandoned Richmond

You are cordially invited to view my Abandoned Richmond photo slideshow by clicking this link.

Highlights include:

N.B. I am fully aware that it is 3am. I just got home from Minneapolis/Mankato, Amarillo (via Houston, twice), D.C., and Richmond. I am happy to say that I nabbed 200+ shots on this trip, a handful of which are decent.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Full Circle in Flushing

I've been blogging about Downtown Flushing becoming New York's next downtown for years. Now, a great article in a nonprofit magazine called The Next American City has done a great job of summarizing the goals and challenges that will need to be met for that to happen.

I found out about this via, a real estate blog that asked to use my aerial photo in its own post about the Next American City article.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

No Maps of Urban Boston?

It's amazing that there are no maps on the web showing the ring of smaller (but very urban) cities that ring Boston--like Cambridge, Somerville, Everett, Quincy, Chelsea, Revere, Brookline, etc.--in their proper context.

I'm not looking for a map of "Greater Boston," which includes all the suburbs clear to New Hampshire and Worcester, or a map of "Boston Proper," which includes only neighborhoods in the smallish municipality of Boston.

The municipality of Boston has about 600,000 people, but when you add up the populations of the ringing cities, you find that the urban agglomeration has about 1.2 million people.

However, with no centralized government, planning suffers. And there are no maps on the web that I can use to show my brother neighborhoods he might want to live in.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

BBQ, The Great Unifier, at work in Denver

Last night I dined at Wolfe's Barbecue in Denver, right across from the state capitol in a neighborhood that seemed unusually seedy. Wolfe's is like the dingy Chinese restaurant of the barbecue world, a one-man operation in a small storefront. [Read all about it here.] I had the address written down and walked right past the place on my first attempt.

Wolfe himself seems like a real character. He's a short, white-bearded dude in an apron. He charges $.50 for use of a credit card, $2 to make change for non-customers, and he gets free web hosting out of his Sam's Club business membership.

His BBQ, however, cuts no corners. To attain surprisingly authentic flavor, he uses a hickory/charcoal combo to smoke his meat. I tried the three-course dinner: brisket, pork, and beef sausage were my meat selections. The brisket was thin-sliced and a little dry, with a faint, smoky flavor. The edges were also a bit fatty. The pork turned out to be big, delicious, and smoky chunks--not pulled or chopped, and thus dippable in Wolfe's sauce. The sausage was the real surprise. The "all beef" links had the perfect blend of flavor and heat.

"It's made for me, using my own recipe," Wolfe told me. "No nitrites or preservatives."

For my two sides, I chose BBQ beans and slaw. The slaw was tasty, though not extremely fresh. The beans were delicious--probably store-bought, then doctored with ketchup, spice, and pork. I went up for seconds. Wolfe said I could pay "a buck or a buck and a nickel." I gave him a ten dollar bill, and he scoffed, audibly, at having to make change.

As I doused my dinner roll in hot, house recipe barbecue sauce, over-under-dressed hipsters with bad tattoos ordered bbq tofu sandwiches and discussed having their bands play together. State house types in suits came in and got some cue to power them through a boring night of research. And proprietors of other East Colfax businesses also came in to pick up dinner.

An anomaly like this deserves to last. I only wish I had heard about the lemon pie before leaving town.

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