Randomly Wednesday

Random stuff for my first weekday at home in quite a while:

Got to read five chapters before class tonight. Tomorrow’s excitement: PHP maintenance on many sites.

Could my life get any more exciting?

“Urban” and “Dense” Are Not Always Synonymous

I suppose you could say that my main hobby is studying how the built environment of urban areas has developed and changed over the past century. I’m more aware than most of the terrible things that have been done to the urban form in order to accommodate automobiles. Between urban freeway construction, “urban renewal,”  and the resulting demolition of blocks and blocks of otherwise viable buildings just to create surface parking lots and widen streets, most American urban centers have areas of blight, decay, and sheer blandness that resemble London after the Blitz. Overemphasis on the automobile and its needs has been disastrous for most American cities. I challenge anyone to look at before and after photos of Pittsburgh’s East Liberty district, for example, and to determine that any aspect of the “after” looks like an improvement over the “before.”

And yet, these things did happen. These pockmarked areas, “missing teeth”,  and sometimes bizarre street layouts are now part of the urban fabric. They’re part of the history of cities, just like the new façades that were given to Victorian buildings in the 1940s and 1950s as well as the generally useless pedestrian plazas of the 1960s and 1970s. Like them or not they’re texture, which to me is the very definition of “urban.” And I have to admit that I often find them almost as fascinating as disturbing. It’s my inner archaeologist, I guess, but I like trying to piece together how these areas were before they were rebuilt, and how they came to have their current configuration — even if I don’t find the actual current configuration to be particularly appealing.

And sometimes, I actually do find the automobile-based accommodations appealing. One of the things I most like about Chicago, for example, is the way you can be driving through a relatively dense urban neighborhood and all of a sudden find a 1960s supermarket or a 1970s fast food joint (or even an entire shopping center) with a small parking lot in mid-block. I understand that it horrifies many traditional urbanists and sends preservationists into wheezing fits when the streetscape is “broken,” but I often find sites like these to be  little unexpected surprises that break up the monotony and demonstrate (a) how cities adapt and change over time, and (b) that the neighborhood remained vital enough to merit that sort of investment even as urban areas were supposedly “dying.”

So where is this going and how does it relate to the title above? There is considerable pressure now in many cities to obliterate anything that isn’t sufficiently “dense,” apparently based on some arbitrary definition of how dense something must be in order to officially be “urban.” I don’t have a problem with making cities more dense and less car-dependent; I’m generally in favor of it, although I think it’s a battle that will never be won in some places. I do, however, have a problem with the idea that every block of every neighborhood within a city must have pretty much the exact same (high) level of density as every other one. And I very much have a problem with the idea of accomplishing this through wholesale clearance of the existing environment (“all at once and right now, dammit”) particularly when that environment may already be quite viable and even quite urban in its own way.

That’s the point I’m making with the title; the fact that a development has very high density does not make it particularly interesting nor urban in character. And sometimes, low-rise commercial (and even relatively low-density) commercial areas are among the most interesting places in a city. I’ll take San Francisco’s  Richmond or Sunset districts over Mission Bay or South Beach or the Financial District any day of the week.

Take, for example, Richmond’s Cary Town.  It’s a classic streetcar suburb, with mostly one- and two-story storefronts on the main street and houses — some of them rowhouses and some detached — on the side streets. Many blocks have only on-street parking, but there are some lots. One of the earliest shopping centers in the county is right in the middle of it all, and some newer ones are at the western edge. All in all, it’s a lively and exiting place.

What would they have if they “impoved” it by bulldozing all that low-density development dating from the first half of the twentieth century and replaced it with a wall of high-density housing (with, of course, discreetly hidden parking garages and mandatory street-level retail)? For a start, they would most likely lose all the small, independent merchants, who would no longer be able to afford the rent. They would most likely lose most of the pedestrian appeal as well. In the end, what they’d have would be the South Boulevard corridor in Charlotte’s Dilworth, a former streetcar strip which now rivals any suburb for sheer blandness and soullessness. By god, it’s dense, though. Interestingly, in Charlotte, the auto-centered strips from the 1950s are some of the most urban areas in town, probably because most of the streetcar strips are either gone or are in the process of being “densified.”

Obviously big developments surrounded by vast seas of parking are generally not appropriate in urban areas and should be discouraged. Some of the existing ones should probably be replaced. But trying to fill every urban block with the maximum density possible (and particularly doing so all at once with massive projects) is not the way to go either. In fact, a lot of the “densification” trend, with its huge urban building projects looks just about as misguided as the car-oriented development it purports to “correct.” Wholesale clearance of urban environments is generally never a good idea, no matter how hard to love some of those environments may be. And eliminating all traces of earlier development, misguided as some of it may have been, robs us of some important evidence of our urban history.

“Commodity Cities” and “Brand Name Cities”

So I finally got around to reading this really great piece in its entirety (by way of the hubby, who added some good commentary as well). It’s pretty much spot on.

For more than twenty years (and two separate residences there), I’ve been listening to people babble on and on about how they don’t want Charlotte “to become another Atlanta.” My friends in Sacramento and Fresno have no doubt heard similar fears (or perhaps even hopes) expressed about their hometowns mutating into “another Los Angeles” or “another San Francisco.” Here’s a clue: it’s not going to happen. If Sacramento were to sprout three million extra people overnight — or even over thirty years — it would still be nothing whatsoever like Los Angeles. Ditto for Charlotte and Atlanta.  What makes Atlanta different from Charlotte, or what makes San Francisco more appealing to some people than Fresno, is a product of history, not just of simple population or a few surface amenities. A sudden influx of people (or malls, or certain retailers, or sports facilities) cannot change a century of history and urban development, and magically transform a rather ordinary mid-size city into a diverse and exciting urban area overnight. Or even at all, in most cases.

And what the powers that be in these mid-size cities like Charlotte and Raleigh and Tulsa need to learn is that that’s not a bad thing. Not everyone wants to live in a big city with major league baseball, an “arts district,” or an “upscale shopping destination” downtown. And most of the people who do want these things want the real version, not some half-assed imitation that was thrown up as a subsidized marketing gimmick rather than as the result of actual demand by the local population. People who want an “urban lifestyle” are ultimately not going to be satisfied with Charlotte’s (or Sacramento’s, or Phoenix’s) version, all of which was built last week and none of which developed organically. These smaller cities are focusing on surface elements — staged and stucco-covered facsimiles of urban texture and variety, many of which have the added “benefit” of obliterating any real trace of texture that may have bulldozed for their construction.

What smaller cities can do is focus on things that appeal to the kind of people who overwhelmingly choose to live in smaller cities, and by that, I mean working people with families who want low taxes, good housing value, top notch schools, and the sorts of jobs that allow them to spend time with their families. They can focus on the things that they do well and economically, rather than on the things that other cities do well. By leaving the flashy amenities to the “brand name cities” that are uniquely equipped for it to begin with, these “commodity cities” may actually be able to hold their own in a competitive environment. By spending all their energy on boutique projects, though, smaller cities waste money and alienate the core base of residents thay are actually capable of attracting and maintaining. They’re chasing after a demographic they will never fully succeed in obtaining. It’s wasteful, and it’s also a bad business strategy that’s already failed such retailers as Kinko’s and Winn-Dixie, who  lost sight of who their bread and butter customers were — or never knew to begin with.

Pardon the two urban sermons in one week and the overemphasis on emphasis. I’ll try to find a good video to post or some new idiot to write about tomorrow.

Randomly Friday

Randomly Friday:

  • Farewell to archiectural photographer Julius Shulman, who is responsibile for much of the way we think of Los Angeles.
  • Speaking of architecture, here’s an intersting post on Greensboro and brutalism.  I’ve never really thought that adding doodads after the fact was a particularly effective way of repurposing unfashionable buildings or of giving  a nod to historic preservation, but that’s just me.
  • Speaking of Greensboro, if you don’t vote for him, this guy will cut you. While I’m at it, why do all gangs (and, ironically, the Klan) have such stupid fucking names for their subgroups and leaders? North Carolina Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation? Please. Who’s in charge? The grand exalted cyclops or the kleagle?

Better TV Through Splitters and Loops


I ran across this oddity from thirty years ago while scanning things for work yesterday, and thought it might be entertaining in light of the recent DTV switch. In 1979, the Triad got its first commercial UHF station (there had been a PBS station on channel 26 for some time, but apparently no one cared) and they placed ads showing the uninformed masses how to get the signal. Sound familiar?

I love strange old technologies like these, especially when they’re suddenly back in demand. Those UHF loop antennae are hot items again, since most TV stations in the digital era are broadcasting in the UHF band, even though their “virtual” channel numbers have not changed.

It’s Less Than Two Grand, At Least

I always wondered how much my old apartment in San Francisco would go for once I finally moved my rent controlled ass out of it. And now I know. It astonishes me that anyone would pay that kind of rent for a small and rather drafty apartment of less than five hundred square feet. But at least it has a garbage disposal now.

I’m happy for my old landlord and all, but jeez…

Fedex Orifice Revisited


It’s been over a year now, and FedEx Kinko’s is clearly not FedEx Office yet, no matter what these cheap cardboard posters at the front door of every branch say. As far as I can tell, not a single permanent sign on a single building has yet been changed. I can’t help but think it doesn’t bode well for my former employer that they can’t (or won’t) implement this name change, no matter how stupid an idea it was to begin with.

Losing My Religion

I went to a Christian elementary school and it made me an atheist.

OK, that’s not entirely true, but it is where the seeds were planted. I came of age just as crosstown busing arrived in Greensboro NC. Whether it’s true or not, I prefer to believe that my parents were less worried about integration than about the specific school I was going to be integrated into. Just like many parents of that era around these parts, they promptly shipped me off to this institute of lower learning. Most of the “Christian schools” that spouted in the early 1970s claimed not to be segregated, at least not officially, but none of them had black students, and I assure you there was no outreach to the black community. Interestingly enough, my parents were (and are) not terribly religious. They’re vaguely Christian, and my mom would occasionally decide to take in a Sunday service once in a great while, but I can’t recall ever hearing my father discuss religion at all. Anyway, it’s safe to assume that they sent me to Vandalia Christian for the small class sizes and the education rather than for that whole “god thing.”

In fact, I got a good primary education there. They were, as you might expect, strong on the basics. I read, I wrote, and I arithmeticed (artithmetized?). There were also Bible classes. I did well in the Bible classes. In fact, to this day, I stake my knowledge of the Bible against many of the most vocal members of the Christian right, who seem never to have read the damned thing. I have read it and I know what it says. And what it doesn’t say. But that’s another story.

Unfortunately, the folks at Vandalia Christian were also big on indoctrination. We went to “chapel” a few days a week, and prayed in class, as I recall, multiple times every day. The “chapel” sessions could be pretty intense. The whole school went together, grades 1-12, and the theology was sometimes a bit advanced for the youngsters. I very vividly remember those “personal decision” moments, or whatever they called them, where we all bowed out heads and closed our eyes and were supposed to raise our hands if we were unsure of our faith or weren’t completely committed to Jesus. Of course, kids being kids, you just knew everyone was peeking to see which poor hell-bound souls were raising their hands so they’d know who to stay away from later on the playground.

Hell was big at Vandalia Christian. I remember once in chapel they showed us a movie called The Burning Hell.  It was terrifying — too terrifying, some (like my mom, who did) might say, for seven- and eight-year-olds. it had the maggots and the pit of fire and everything hell offered to the young sinner. Apparently, pretty much everything could get you there, too, wretched individual that you were. Everything was a sin: dancing, going to the movies, having long hair (if you were a boy), wearing skirts that were too short (if you were a girl or a boy, presumably), questioning any aspect of God’s law as imparted to the right reverend Oates, complaining about the microwave sandwiches that constituted the “hot lunch” program, etc. And if it weren’t rough enough that everything short of breathing could send you straight to the fiery eternity, you were also told that even thinking about doing bad things was a sin. I used to lie awake nights contemplating unspeakable evil (ah, how I coveted Converse All-Stars and “Dark Shadows” comic books) and praying for forgiveness, especially as I got closer to puberty and comic books were the least of my worries.

Of course, realizing that I was eight years old and not quite ready to deal with the stress of such lofty metaphysical questions, my mom and dad told me to take most of what the folks at Vandalia Christian said with a grain of salt. And I really love them for that. Separating the truth from the bullshit (OK, it was mostly bullshit) was difficult, but it taught me valuable critical thinking skills at a very young age, and I’ve been skeptical of any sort of dogma ever since. I’m sure critical thinking skills were exactly what Reverend Oates and company were trying to avoid, but they blew it in my case. I will admit, though, that I was rather devout (and probably very irritating) at about age ten. Imagine that: a ten-year-old fundamentalist walking around damning to hell every heathen I met,  which, of course, meant almost everyone I met. Is that sad, or what?

Second in importance to to fearing God (“you should fear him, but never be afraid of him”, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean) was patriotism, apparently a uniquely Christian trait. We pledged allegiance to the American flag and to the Christian flag every morning. We used civil defense manuals in health class so we’d know how to care for each other when the Russians launched the inevitable nuclear attack. Gender roles, as you might guess, were absolutely rigid–pun intended. Boys were to excel at sports “to the glory of God” and to do any less was an insult to his holy name. Girls had options; they were allowed not to play sports, although they could do so if they chose to and were willing to wear knee-length shorts. Mainly, though, they were expected to be supportive cheerleaders who would grow into supportive housewives.

By age twelve, I’d had enough. My mom and dad had considered moving me back into public school the year before. We waited until the eighth grade, though, so the transaction could be even more awkward due to my late arrival in junior high. To say that I had a hard time fitting in would be an understatement, but I was used to it. I’d never fit in at Vandalia Christian, either. The folks there had only one social skills textbook and it didn’t allow for anyone who might be a little marginal.

I’d already pretty much given up on going to church at this point, and after a while, my mom stopped bothering to wake me up on Sunday to ask me if I wanted to go. The only religion I got was when I spent the occasional Saturday night at my grandmother’s house and went to her church (the Salvation Army, as it happens, but that’s a whole other story, too). Despite this, I still assumed I was a Christian. I prayed (usually to ask forgiveness for lusting after other boys) and I believed in God. I didn’t make a big deal of it, though, and the fundamentalist part had pretty much worn off.

There was no real moment of clarity for me, no specific time when I realized there was no God. I remember spending some time, maybe in high school, trying to reconcile the idea of loving and respecting some omniscient supreme being who apparently created the whole world just as sort of a little game (“Woo hoo. Let’s see who gets to go to hell and who gets to go to heaven.”) God started to seem awfully passive-aggressive to me, and also rather manipulative.  Christianity struck me as a big game of chance: as long as you repent your sins before you die, even if you only make it by a few seconds, you go to heaven, no matter what you’ve done. Otherwise, you’re screwed. I didn’t much care for the odds, and preferred the concept of accountability. Again, these were not things I really thought about very often; I don’t consider myself a “spiritual” person in any way. Eventually, I just realized the whole thing was over for me, sort of like drinking, or San Francisco, or any other unsatisfying relationship.

I never lost any sleep over losing my religion. It just happened. And now that it has, I didn’t feel any antipathy toward people who do have more of a spiritual orientation, not do I operate under the assumption that all Christians are like the wackos I dealt with at Vandalia Christian (toward whom, I must admit feeling at least some antipathy). It’s just not for me.  And I’m comfortable with that.

Ever so slightly inspired by…


My friend Duncan sent me this a while back, and I forgot to post it here.

That kind of says it all for me. I really don’t like Facebook. Mind you, I like it a damn sight more than I ever liked MySpace, but I hate an environment where (a) I can’t do much to change the annoying interface, and (b) I don’t own and have control over my own published content. I’m also not wild about some of the freaks that I hated in high school who have come out of the woodwork via Facebook wanting a “friendship” that we never had before and that I see no reason to initiate now, even if it is just virtual.

I’ve had an account for more than a year (I had to set it up as a class project), and I’ve averaged looking at it maybe once or twice a month since its inception. However, I find that I have several friends (and I use that term in the real sense rather than the social networking site sense) who are only found on Facebook. Thus, I’ve been making an effort for the past week or so to play nice so that I can keep up with them. That said, rationale (b) above tells you why this website will continue to be the place where I post most of my own stuff. As in 99.5% of it.

I’m comfortable with the fact that some people will miss out on things due to this fact.

Randomly Friday

Miscellany for a Friday morning:

  • I really hope this project turns into a big website some day.
  • This lead amuses me: “The advertising world is all atwitter about Twitter. A majority of the public at large, by contrast, hasn’t even gotten sufficiently interested in Twitter to have a disparaging opinion about it.”
  • I’ve been reading this site lately for its take on the questionable practice of cites demolishing their ways out of urban decay.
  • Happily, I realize that I don’t know my classic rock very well at all, thanks.

All I Ever Wanted

After a very hectic weekend, I’ve just now finished my last paper for the intense summer session class. Even though I have two more days of work and one more class tomorrow night, I am now officially declaring myself on vacation.

Yes, it helps my mood that I actually slept last night for a change.

And yes, vacation will be in Pittsburgh (where I’ll still be doing some work and where my hubby will also be visiting me), but it will also involve as yet undisclosed side trips.


So I’m a little obsessed with the panoramic feature on my new digital camera. I know everyone else was probably bored with it three years ago, but it’s pretty cool for those of us whose favorite things to shoot are streetscapes (and who don’t mind a slightly surreal perspective). The “stitching” is obviously not perfect, but still…

Out my front door:


Tate Street near UNCG:



Greene Street and Carolina Theatre, downtown Greensboro:



Interesting post from Popdose that more or less precisely covers my high school years. I wouldn’t say that the majority of this stuff is good, per se (although some of it is) but it definitely has that “I haven’t heard that song in a long time, which may or may not be a good thing” quality about it.

This is someone who probably wasn’t listening to the top 40 station in town. You see, in those days, we had something called “AOR”, which stood for “album-oriented rock.” What that meant was dinosaur rock, surrounded by newer bands who sounded like dinosaur rock, with a sprinkling of just enough new and offbeat stuff to make it seem kind of cool, in a plaid shirt and Levi’s corduroys sort of way. The term stemmed from the fact that these stations “dug deep” and played songs off the album other than the hit single, although that usually meant they were just playing what would be released as the next single.

Maybe I’ll put together my own version one of these days. I have strong opinions on the subject of 1979, but my version might have some of the same stuff. Probably minus the Rainbow.