Parking Crisis

Interesting feature in yesterday’s SF Weekly. Its suggestion, more or less, is that the best solution to San Francisco’s “parking crisis” is to do absolutely nothing about it.

I couldn’t agree more.

The last thing San Francisco needs is more parking. The very idea of making the city more comfortable for cars is ludicrous. San Francisco is an amazing, pedestrian-scaled place for one reason: the fact that it’s damned near impossible to drive or park in most of the city. This is what sets us apart from LA, Sacramento, or San Jose; San Francisco is a dense, urban area which more closely resemebles New York or Boston than other places in California.

And I say this as someone who lives in the city and owns a car. Early on, I realized that, in San Francisco, my car has two main purposes: to get me to the supermarket and to get me out of the city on a moment’s notice. I haven’t used it for commuting in years, and there are very few places I drive within the city anymore. Rather than bitching about the parking in, say, Chinatown or the Financial District, I make the bold step of NOT TRYING TO DRIVE THERE.

It’s amazing how simple this is. Strangely enough, most of the areas with the worst traffic problems also happen to be some of the best-served by transit.

Frankly, I think that anyone who voluntarily drives to a job in downtown San Francisco during rush hour is a flaming idiot who deserves whatever inconvenience he or she has to face in the process. And guess what? Building even more parking spaces (which will encourage even more cars) will make it even worse.

It’s amazing how quickly the “parking crisis” diappears when you finally realize that you can avoid it simply by, well, avoiding it…

Off to Fresno

Took a road trip this weekend and didn’t even take the camera. It was kind of nice for a change, although taking the camera wasn’t really an option anyway, since I haven’t gotten it fixed yet.

I just love Fresno, and I’ve yet to find anyone who really agrees with me on this one. It’s such a strange place, physically and psychologically.

I’ll restate the basics first: Fresno is (I believe) the largest American city not served by an Interstate or US highway. There are no VHF television stations there. Test marketing and surveys are often done here because Fresno is apparently one of the most typically American cities to be found.

Which is surprising to me, simply because I find Fresno so very odd. While progress has moved northward, the southern and middle sections of the city has remained virtually unchanged physically (although the demographics have changed considerably). Fresno is like a lab, possibly the best place around to study the history of urban development since the 1950s.

Downtown Fresno was deserted by traditional business decades ago, but Fulton Street bustles with local, largely Latino-owned shops and restaurants. Old department stores have been transformed into bazaars selling electronics and counterfeit Nikes. The former Safeway on Ventura Street looks exactly as it did in 1965 (avocado, orange, and purple interior intact), the only changes being a new sign out front and a large map of Mexico above the meat department.

Old shopping centers from the 1950s flank the wide boulevards, set at approximately one-mile intervals. These centers often house some of the same stores they did on opening day. The clientele has changed, but the stores opted to adapt rather than to flee.

The economic malaise which has gripped Fresno and much of the Central Valley over the past few decades has allowed much of the inner city to look just the way I remember cities looking when I was a kid. Malls and “big box” stores are not in evidence (although they do exist in the northern part of town). The Baskin-Robbins in the dying Manchester Center still has simulated wood paneling. There are still local supermarket chains and drug stores.

Sadly, I must admit, too many of the Denny’s have been converted into the terrifically annoying faux 1950s “Denny’s Diner” concept, which looks like some sort of “laverne and Shirley”-inspired nightmare. We are not amused.

Maybe it’s just comforting in a strange way. More tomorrow, including queer bars, strange radio stations, and the drive-in I finally managed to eat at over five trips and six years…

Historic (P)reservation

Historic preservation. Just what does it mean? To far too many “historic preservationists”, it means creating a Disneyland version of someone’s idea of what a given street (or city) looked like during one specific week in 1895, without any attention to the fact that a place changes over time, sometimes for the better.

Case in point: Old Salem in Winston Salem NC. This is essentially the remnants of an old Southern town dating from the 1700s. A fairly large city grew around it. Fortunately, a lot of the old village survived and was eventually made into a park. Problem is, new buildings had also been constructed over time. A few years back, there was a debate about one of these “new” buildings, a huge landmark house from the mid-1800s. It was determined that this very significant building was of the wrong vintage and had to be removed so as not to clash with all the tri-cornered hats. This is what I define as an absolute bastardization of “historic preservation”.

Ever seen pictures of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s, before it was Disney-fied? When people were actually still using the buildings and it was still a living place? I think I liked it better before they made it cute.

The last few years of my grandmother’s life were made miserable by a “historic district commission” which told her what color she could paint her house, where air conditioners could be located, and more. In recent years, these “presevationists” have given her old middle class nighborhood an aesthetic makover and appearance it never had in the actual past. Too often, “preservation” essentially means “gentrification”.

But now, on to San Francisco, where the current controversy is over a 1960s-era sign at the former Doggie Diner on Sloat Boulevard. Think what you like about the property rights of the owner, etc. I’m not even getting into that here becuse I have mixed feelings myself. What bothers me is the tone of the debate over the sign. Over and over, people who should know better say this pop culture icon (featured in Zippy the Pinhead and elsewhere) is “not at all significant” and that recognizing it would “have trivialized the whole concept of declaring a landmark”.

Bullshit. A unique artifact like the Doggie Diner sign is at least as worthy of attention as one of thousands of look-alike Victorians in the Haight or the Western Addition. Why must historic preservation be limited to the long past and to grand “public” structures most people have never entered? Why are the commercial icons which shaped our daily lives (supermarkets, diners, giant advertising signs, etc.) not worth saving as well? Ultimately, these are the places people remember and discuss and miss.

Why would preserving the Doggie Diner (or the Camera Obscura, or the grand arched 1960s Safeway stores, or even Tad’s Steaks) be a “mockery”. Because they were commercial establishments? Because they were lowbrow popular places? Because they’re not “old enough”?

Or is it just because they’re not cute enough and don’t inspire memories of gas lit streets and hanson cabs? God knows, San Francisco has plenty of “cute”. Most “historic preservationists” seem not so much interested in history as they are obsessed with creating movie sets depicting some wet dream of a past which never really existed.

It’s the every day things which matter, not just the massive ones. It’s the unique things which people remember, and not just century-old ones. And it’s a fact that history, like it or not, did not end in 1895.

Related Note:

For good examples of groups which “get it” and realize that history didn’t end fifty years ago, visit:

Randomly Thursday

Tuesday’s urgent plea about ATM Deluxe produced not one, but two replies from Planet SOMA readers at Adobe. Oh, the power of the Internet. Now, if I could just develop a fan base among people who work at RAM factories…

I like Verdana today. Maybe you could tell by its proliferation on the front page. I think I’ll be changing all those “arial,helvetica,geneva” tags to “verdana, arial,geneva” soon. I also started liking today’s journal entry on the evils of historic preservation so much that I made it into its own page.

And now I have nothing much else to say. Actually, I have plenty to say. I’m just too damned tired to say any of it. Seems I’m tired a lot lately. Probably because I’m working a lot and (more recently) because I’m infatuated with the new computer. The complete lack of exercise might play a part as well.

Damn. There’s the garbage men. Back in a second.

OK. Trash dutifully discarded.

Strange. I’ve been living in the same apartment and sleeping in the same bedroom since 1992 and I just now noticed that my bedroom window is about an inch out of plumb from top to bottom. It’s not a problem (nor a big surprise given a wood frame building in earthquake country). It’s just odd that I never noticed before.

Twenty-two minutes ’til the Simpsons. I’m out of creative ideas. I’m tired. But I keep typing. Most likely, this is because I just hate it when the left column is significantly longer than the right one. I’m very anal about balance. My mom says it’s because she passed her Libra blood on to me. I don’t buy it, though.

Anyway, link du jour should fill out the page:

G’night…

The Ghost Mall

In 1976, Carolina Circle Mall opened in the northeast corner of Greensboro, North Carolina. At over 750,000 square feet, it qualified as a regional mall, with three major anchors — Belk, Montgomery Ward, and Ivey’s (now Dillard’s) — as well as theaters and an ice skating rink. It was designed to create a real estate boom in the northeast corner of the city.

Twenty-three years later, Belk is gone. Dillard’s is gone. The theaters are closed. Montgomery Ward has the same lime green and burnt orange carpet it had in 1976, which seem to give it a remarkable staying power. Most stores are vacant; many of them were never occupied at any time in the past two decades. The county is seriously considering converting the mall into offices and a community college campus.

This is the definition of a ghost mall. Maybe this is why I’m so fascinated with ghost malls. I grew up going to Carolina Circle Mall pretty regularly. And during my early 20’s, I spent a year working in this mall.

 

Some would say Carolina Circle was doomed from the start. Its design was so outlandishly “70s modern” that the whole place looked out of date within two years of its construction. The neighborhood was not great and got worse over time; Greensboro’s wealth and population have always clustered to the west. On top of that, the site was plagued by an intense stench for its first few years due to a nearby waste treatment plant.

When I worked in the mall in 1985, rumors of its demise were already at hand. Over a third of the space was vacant even then and the remaining stores were vacating at an alarming pace. No one was updating; most chain stores were museum pieces already. The store I managed made its retreat shortly after I left in early 1986.

 

It was already very troubled. The few customers who braved the mall were redneck mall rats who came mainly to play pinball and buy drugs, and project kids who hung out by the skating rink. Unlike the malls of today which are designed to discourage teenagers, Carolina Circle was designed to attract them. Maybe this was one of the biggest mistakes its developers made.

 

A complete internal renovation late in the 1980s slowed the pace, and some chain stores actually came back…briefly. Ward’s attempted to mask their screaming orange exterior tiles, but didn’t bother to replace some of the original 1970s lime green shag carpet inside. In keeping with the fashion of the time, the interior of the mall was very blue, and (once again) looked rather dated only a year or two later.

After a few years, the renovated mall was even more like a ghost town than before. There was just no one there and no stores for them to go to. It was just plain creepy…

Chronology of Carolina Circle Mall:

Greensboro News & Record
Sunday, July 28, 1996

1958: Developer Joe Koury starts talking about building a shopping center in southwest Greensboro. He expands his plans several times during the 1960s but doesn’t start the project. While he waits, other developers make plans of their own.

1972: Alpert Investment Corp. of Atlanta proposes building a mall off U.S. 29 in northeast Greensboro. Then, in October, Koury’s Imperial Corp. breaks ground on Four Seasons Mall.

April 1974: Alpert breaks ground on the Carolina Circle Mall in the city’s northeastern outskirts. The owners figure the location will attract shoppers from Reidsville,Eden, Burlington and even southern Virginia. The site is difficult to reach by car, but Mayor Jim Melvin and other city leaders push successfully for public money for street improvements.

February 1975: Koury’s Four Seasons Mall opens off High Point Road. The two-level mall features about 95 stores and 900,000 square feet of retail space. It’s the city’s first enclosed mall.

February 5, 1976: Belk opens at Carolina Circle. It’s the mall’s first store.

June 1976: The mall’s ice skating ring opens.

July 30, 1976: The mall sponsors a gala ball benefiting the Carolina Theatre. More than 1,200 people dance to Glenn Miller and other Big Band music. There’s talk of making the ball an annual event.

Aug. 4, 1976: The mall holds its grand opening. Mall manager Ray Brantley says the special features like the ice rink will appeal to children much as Ronald McDonald and McDonald’s playgrounds help sell hamburgers. “The housewife spends most of the disposable income in the family,” he says. “And who controls the housewife? The kids. It’s true. We want this to be a pleasant place for kids to be.” Twenty-two stores opened, with another 50 to follow within a few months. Visitors also notice the smell of the city’s nearby sewage treatment plant. Equipment is later added to the plant to reduce the smell.

November 1976: Piccadilly’s cafeteria and the mall’s six-screen cinema open.

December 4, 1977: At 10:30 on a Sunday morning, three deer,apparently startled by cleaning equipment churning through the mall parking lot, panic and run through two plate glass windows. The deer then fall 18 feet to the mall floor, near the ice rink. One doe breaks its neck and dies. The other two are captured and released. Deer are a common site near the mall, which is still on the outskirts of town at this time.

August 1986: An Australian firm buys Carolina Circle through its U.S. subsidiary, Sunshine Properties Inc. of Dallas. The new owner promises to renovate the mall to keep up with Four Seasons. At the time, Carolina Circle’s vacancy rate is 10 percent, compared to 1 percent at Four Seasons. Shopper traffic is sagging.

April 9, 1987: Four Seasons opens its new third floor after 18 months of construction. That brings the mall’s repertoire to 200 stores.

June 1988: A $6 million renovation project is completed and Strouse Greenberg unveils the new Carolina Circle Mall.Changes include a new logo, brighter lighting, and a $250,000 custom-built carousel. The owners eliminate the mall’s most distinctive feature: the ice rink. Merchants and skaters are incensed. It was the only ice rink in Greensboro.

Jan. 15, 1991: Robbers shoot and wound a 54-year-old man while he walks out of the mall’s Montgomery Ward store with his two daughters. The incident fuels a perception that the mall is dangerous.

Sept. 11, 1992: Greensboro police open a satellite station at the mall. The city pays $1 a year for the space. City leaders say they hope the station will make shoppers feel more secure. Some Carolina Circle merchants complain that having a police station is a bad thing because it gives visitors the impression that the mall needs a police station.

Sept. 30, 1993: George D. Zamias Developer, buys the mall for $16 million in cash and agrees to take over the $21.17 million mortgage. Company president George D. Zamias promises to market the mall aggressively.

February 1994: The U.S. Postal Service signs a 10-year lease to put a mail facility in the first floor of the Carolina Circle Belk’s department store. Belk keeps the top floor open as a store.

July 1996: Some of the mall’s bread-and-butter stores -Camelot records and Waldenbooks, for instance – already are gone as Piccadilly Cafeteria says it will close its doors at the end of the month. A few days later Radio Shack says it, too, will move soon. Remaining merchants worry about how they’ll survive.

Updates:

1998: Belk and Dillard’s finally close their stores, leaving Montgomery Ward as the sole anchor.

Fall 1999: Guilford County has tentative plans to purchase the mall and convert in to offices and a community college campus.

January 2002: Carolina Circle Mall is now pretty much completely deserted. All the retailers have moved out, and the plan is that the center will eventually be converted into a new sports and retailing facility. I have my doubts…

 

July 2003: There is a sports center, of sorts. Several parking lots are now tennis courts and soccer field. Many of the surrouding banks and other buildings have been converted to storefront churches. The mall building is in a rather sad state of decay.

July 2004: Carolina Circle Mall is to be demolished and replaced with an entirely new retail development anchored by a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Fall 2006: All traces of the mall, except for one or two outbuildings, are gone. A new Wal-Mart Supercenter occupies the space, and other stores are under construction.

My Old Store:

“Texas Jeans” was the name given to mall locations of the “Cheap Joe’s Jean and T-shirt Stores” chain. Malls preferred not have stores with “cheap” in their names at this time. I think there were a total of five Texas Jeans stores (Greensboro, High Point, Columbia SC, and two others) among the fifty or so Cheap Joe’s units. Cheap Joes was a fairly well-known NC chain, selling cheap “youth” clothing, knock-off T-shirts, and its own brand of jeans (Texas Jeans) modelled after Levi’s.

In 1986, the Texas Jeans stores were remodeled and rebranded as “The Exchange” to associate them with the “Surfers Exchange” surf and skate shops the chain had opened in Myrtle Beach and Charlotte.

The Carolina Circle branch was on the lower level next to Hardees and across from the food court and skating rink. The space had formerly been a resturant of some sort, and had a really large back room in what had apparently been the former restaurant’s kitchen. This extra space was used as storage for fixtures and other items for the whole chain.

I’m not sure when this branch opened. It was probably the early 1980s. It closed about 1987 or 1988. The whole company was gone by 1990. I was assistant manager here in 1985, and managed the store for several months in 1986 before moving to Myrtle Beach and then managing the Charlotte Surfer’s Exchange store from 1986 to 1989.

Photos are from 1985-1986:

080185 100185-06 100185-07
100185-08 100185-09 030186-1
030186-2

Related:

Carolina Circle mall City: A tribute to the late mall.

East to West

Sunburned again. And it seemed so damned overcast when I started. I went on another one of those urban mega-hikes on Monday afternoon. This time, I accomplished something I’d never done before: I crossed the entire width of the city, from the bay to the ocean, on foot.

I didn’t really plan it this way. I just started walking. And I kept walking and walking. Past Union Square and the Civic Center and onward through the Western Addition projects. I crossed Divisadero, where the honey-baked ham store sits across the street from the Jewish mortuary. I wandered past the old Sears store at Geary and Masonic and into the Richmond District.

By the time I hit Green Apple Books at 6th and Clement, I knew I wasn’t going to stop until I hit the Pacific. And I didn’t. I finally came to rest atop a hill amidst the ruins of Adolph Sutro’s mansion overlooking the sea.

Then I got on a bus and came home. I’ve spent the rest of the evening recovering.

Why do I do this? Mainly, because I can. Having a walkable city is one of the biggest benefits associated with living in San Francisco, even for a diehard road tripper like myself. Long-distance walks allow you to see things you don’t notice from a car or a bus. Seemingly dull areas develop unexpected nuances and textures.

I recommend it, even though eight miles may be a bit much. Maybe it was jut frustration from not getting laid this weekend…

Winston-Salem

 

I stayed an extra day because the flights were tight and because there were one or two more relatives to visit. Instead of the relatives, though, we took the back road to Winston-Salem (NC’s own Route 66) to see some urban decay and a mall.

 

Mall first. We shopped. We looked around. I watched more scary redneck kids. Security stopped me (with Mom and Dad) and told me I was not allowed to videotape in the mall. I told the rent-a-cop that was fine because I was through anyway. She didn’t look pleased. I didn’t look like I cared. We left. See the “concept shots” which so threatened the sanctity of the mall above.

Then we headed downtown to the factory district. This was the area where R.J. Reynolds used to make Winstons and Salems and Camels, until they moved to a new plant on the edge of town. The area is threatening to develop into a high-tech office and loft condo area, but a major fire a few months ago delayed some of the plans.

 

Parts of this area resemble Detroit. Lots of abandoned and boarded-up buildings are surrounded by large open areas, the result of unsuccessful urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. If I lived in Winston-Salem, this would be my neighborhood.

Winston-Salem is kind of an interesting place. As one might guess, it was formed when the towns of Winston and Salem merged. Until the 1920s, it was North Carolina’s largest city, and it still retains an older and more urban feel than Greensboro, even though Greensboro is now a much larger city.

Minneapolis

Bob Vila remained at home today while Bil and I toured the wilds of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, missing no White Castle, neon motel, nor thrift store which crossed our path. This was one of those mindless driving days, with no particular destination in mind. I love those.

 

We hit the ghost mall in Saint Paul (not as ghostly as it was a few years back, apparently). We visited this strange surplus store with funny signs. Bil bought used toys at the thrift store, so we went to K-mart for batteries. And then we ventured to the State Fair. Of course there was no fair in progress, so the crowds were a bit sparse, but the gopher was there in all his (her?) glory.

 

Monday night brought crappy pizza and Goth/Industrial Night at the Saloon. The Saloon was better. The Minneapolis version of this scene is not nearly as annoying as the versions on the coasts. These people actually seem to have senses of humor. And personalities. And lives. I even got hit on. Sort of.

More late food at the rock and roll Mexican place.

Minneapolis and Northfield

 

Headed to Northfield in the afternoon to pick up Carroll and bring her back to Minneapolis. This was the first time we’d seen each other in seven or eight years, but (as usual) we were able to pick up as if no time at all had passed. You can do this with your best friends and not even be surpised by it. This is a good thing.

Back in the city, Carroll checked into the Marriott and did some shopping while I napped on her bed. And then drinking ensued…good old-fashioned hotel room drinking, with eight years worth of collected conversation and an incredible view. Afterward, we fought our way through the strange collection of corridors connecting the hotel, the skyway mall, and the parking garage (oops…I mean parking RAMP).

 

Dinner at The King and I, a surprisingly good Thai place. Afterward, a little Mastercard-financed Telnetting at the hotel kiosk (Carroll and I having become major nerds since last encounter) and home to bed.

 

Milwaukee WI to Madison WI

Odometer: 87217

  

A mildly hungover moring in Milwaukee, cured by a big lunch at a great old-school Italian restaurant. This place was really incredible, with the kind of Italian food I grew up eating (in other words, none of your foofy “light trendy pasta of the month” bullshit…). The host was a classic “mama” of the sort who pinches your cheeks at the table and asks why you didn’t finish everything. Great.

 

In addition to a tour of the city, I met the neighbor kid, a very out 14-year-old queer who was about to give a class presentation on Truman Capote. I saw the “Laverne and Shirley” building. I saw what used to be the Schlitz brewery. We drove by some Milwaukee resident’s own personal version of the Cadillac Ranch. Pretty interesting place. Milwaukee. I should have given it more time.

It was almost 4:00 by the time I left. I was worn out from too little sleep and too much lasagne. It was starting to rain. I was offered crash space for the night, but I was determined to make it to Minneapolis, so I hit the road.

I got as far as Madison. That big indention in my butt was the result of kicking myself (hard) for being so stupid.

I didn’t even go out in Madison. I checked into the Motel 6 from hell (this place was REALLY bad), got dinner from the sub shop across the street and settled in for some strange voodoo incest movie on HBO, followed by a PBS documentary on the history of the ACLU. All in all, I guess it was a pretty good low-impact rest break. All in all, that’s a pretty good descrition of Madison in general.