Anti-Trump march through North Philly neighborhood was more than therapeutic

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Surprised North Philly residents watch Anti-Trump march from window

Wednesday 9 November 2016 was surreal and terrifying.  After a day of struggling to focus at work, I felt the joyous relief of taking to the streets with more than a thousand Millennials of seemingly every race – chanting, smiling, blocking vehicle traffic.

Collectively asserting our First Amendment right was therapeutic.  But watching the joy spread to bystanders – including many of the blocked motorists – was electrifying.

After marching on Broad Street past Lehigh Avenue, we entered the narrow residential streets of North Philadelphia. The boisterous crowd that had filled Broad Street was now squeezed into 16th Street (near Huntingdon Ave).

Nearly half of the homes were boarded up or missing all together.  The other homes – on the contrary – were alive with smiling, cheering residents standing in doorways, watching from 2nd story windows, taking videos, holding children.

The children gave me an incredible feeling.  I imagined parents struggling all day to explain to concerned kids that it will be OK, or that they were harassed at school.  But for the moment, the children looked elated.

In showing support for this community, we directed our outrage toward the building up of solidarity – the opposite of violence.  For the marchers and for the residents, I believe, the experience sparked a kernel of much needed hope.

*If anyone has a better picture or video, hit me up at @RTRustBelt

Harrisburg PA is actually really awesome

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Harrisburg, PA as viewed from City Island

To the extent that Harrisburg has a reputation throughout Pennsylvania, its known as the home of the state’s oversized legislature and intractable politics.  It is known to cross-state travelers as a drive-past, fly-over, sleep-through (Amtrak) city.  To less curious Harrisburg-area residents, its thought of as a crime-filled hell hole they would hardly drive through.  To Donald “Chicken” Trump, Harrisburg is a “war zone.”

But the reality is – as I discovered over the course of many months working, exploring, and dining in Harrisburg – Pennsylvania’s capital and 11th most populous city is, actually, really awesome.

In this non-comprehensive account, I’ll note the city’s architecture and scenic surroundings, its outstanding small-business Third Places, its abundance of locally-sourced humane food eateries, and some of the benefits of life in a small city (albeit, a small city with frequent high-speed rail access and decent economic opportunities).

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Wildwood Lake Park and its spillway

Of course Harrisburg – like virtually every city on earth – is laden with problems.  The most significant and obvious of which are racial segregation and the fact that almost half of the city’s residents are impoverished.  But because these facts are par for American cities, and because they’re hardly inherent features, they shouldn’t be counted against Harrisburg.

How I got to know The Burg

My window into life in Pennsylvania’s capital was opened on two occasions.  The first was weekly commuting to Harrisburg over nine months in 2013-2014 while I was a Pittsburgh resident. (The joys of regular-ism on Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian and the amazing utility of folding bicycles are subjects for another post.)  During this stint I got a feel for the city and became a regular at Home 231 and the Midtown Scholar, and a reader of The Burg (Harrisburg’s “city paper”.)

More recently, a SEPTA colleague and myself stayed in Harrisburg for a two week PennDOT course (NBIS bridge inspection certification).  My current stint is revealing a different angle on the city because I’m (bike) commuting to a different location, and because multiple new and positive developments took place in the past two years (discussed later).

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Terrain and bike trail map of Harrisburg.  Red dots give a sense of my respective commutes.  Capital Greenbelt visible as trail segments encircling “Harrisburg”.  Mountain ridge (and Susquehanna gap) upper left.  Wildwood Lake Park is the lake near “WORK” (Credit Google Maps)

Natural & Architectural Beauty

Harrisburg (and its suburbs) are surrounded by the lush greenery of central Pennsylvania.  The elongated peaks of the Appalachian Mountains are within view of downtown and other vantage points.  (The Appalachian Trail crosses the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg.)

A defining feature of the city’s geography is the wide, shallow Susquehanna River.  Harrisburg’s easy-to-use bridges and stately waterfront architecture are a function of the apparent non-navigability of the Susquehanna as a shipping waterway.

GOOD USE

Iso view of Harrisburg – City Island in middle of river.  Neighborhoods at waterfront, industry to the east.  Reservoir Park in the upper right. (Credit Google Maps)

Although its possible to walk across the river in spots, at least seven bridges cross the Susquehanna close to or within the city.  Ranging from 100+ year old stone arches to 1950’s steel crossings to a modern segmental concrete box girder (the Turnpike), these bridges share similar characteristics (many short spans, and deck elevations on-level with landed roadways, railways, walkways).

The effects of this are: a pleasing visual motif, ease of walking or biking across, and less disruption to neighborhoods (except, of course, for the I-81 and I-83 highway bridges which feature divisive approaches and do not serve people on foot).

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Two concrete arch railroad bridges over the Susquehanna

The industrial disutility of the Susquehanna also made for an attractive waterfront.  Despite the Harrisburg area’s rich industrial past, little of it appears to have occurred on the Susquehanna, as evidenced by vintage architecture and old-growth trees lining Front Street and the riverfront park.  (Industry appears to have been concentrated along the railroad yards behind the historic city, and the remnants of the Pennsylvania Canal, and in Steelton, south of Harrisburg.)

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Riverfront park with double pathway, old trees, historic architecture.

Passing through the linear park – covering nearly five miles of the Susquehanna riverfront – is a well-used recreational pathway.  This is a segment of the Capital Area Greenbelt, a 20-mile loop through and around Harrisburg.  Significant portions of the greenbelt are biking/walking trails.  Other parts use low-traffic neighborhood streets.  (A few areas remain awkward and dangerous.)  Navigating the trail is easy due to abundant directional signage.

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Viewing Amtrak from the Greenbelt

Complimenting Harrisburg’s natural scenery is the city’s rich and diverse historic architecture.  Perhaps because Harrisburg never expanded at the rate of Philadelphia, there’s less repetition among the housing stock.  Varied and interesting homes and buildings, as well as successive eras of city growth can be appreciated by walking on Green Street from downtown (to the wall that is I-81).

There is of course the grand government architecture of the Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex, and the historic and cosmic streetscapes projecting west and east (respectively) from the Capitol building.  (For now, we’ll overlook the significant volume of downtown buildings serving no other purpose than to store motor vehicles.)

 

Amazing Third Places

I’m enamored with the quality of Harrisburg’s eateries, café, coffee shops, bars, and other Third Places (a term coined by Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place).

My favorite joint is the Midtown Scholar, an extensive bookstore-café fronting 3rd Street (in the Midtown neighborhood).  Housed in an old timber industrial building, the establishment’s main room serves as a community multi-purpose venue for all kinds of events.  The collection, housed mostly in the basement and spilling out onto the street, includes endless vintage volumes, locally-specific titles, and much else.  Crucially, the Scholar is open until 9 PM weeknights.  (It’s tough to find any café with decent evening hours in Center City Philly or anywhere in Pittsburgh.)  As far as I can tell, neither city contains a Third Place quite like the Midtown Scholar.

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Midtown Scholar fronting 3rd Street

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Midtown Scholar pano view

Then there’s Little Amps Coffee Roasters, a straightforward, thoughtful coffee shop with down-to-earth baristas and delicious coffee.  Spawning out of their original location in the charming Uptown neighborhood, they also occupy the corner of 2nd and State Street near the Capitol.  At Little Amps is where (as an out-of-towner) I was readily clued into local goings on including 3rd In The Burg (monthly Friday art crawls), and good live music at HMAC.

Upon my return to Harrisburg this month, there were new places and things to do, partly because I had a colleague with whom to enjoy the city (and the Greenbelt trail), and because a few very positive developments had taken place.

These happy new components of Harrisburg’s Third Place prowess include Little Amps Coffee Roasters’ new Strawberry Square location, the new Sawyer’s beer garden on 2nd Street downtown, and the massive expansion of Midtown Arts Center (HMAC) music venue into a huge bar with a front porch on 3rd Street.

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New Little Amps shop in downtown’s mall-like Strawberry Square

But most significant is The Millworks in Midtown.  Recommended by multiple people, Millworks is a combination brewery / rooftop bar / locally-sourced restaurant / art gallery and studio.  (They began serving their own beer last Tuesday.)  I don’t know of an equal in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.

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Rooftop bar at Millworks

Other places I frequented and/or appreciated during my Harrisburg escapades are too many to discuss (but are listed here for effect).

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Pano view of the Senators vs. the Erie SeaWolves

Small City with Big Advantages

From my perspective, having lived in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Harrisburg would be a great place to live.  Philadelphia and Pittsburgh deservedly get more attention (both being large metropoles) but not everyone who’s interested in city life is enthused about big city life.

What Harrisburg lacks in the way of big city amenities (principally, multiplicity of choice), it makes up for in affordability, access to the outdoors, excellent Third Places, and a depth of public life that is possible only within a small-to-midsize community of people.

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A father and son bike on the riverfront near Market Street Bridge

Indeed, Harrisburg enjoys unique and meaningful advantages over similarly-sized central Pennsylvania cities (like Wilkes-Barre, State College) including the economic and political opportunities relating to State government, and frequent, comfortable, high-speed (by US standards) trains to Philadelphia and New York.  (Within the United States, this level of inter-city rail service is a rarity.)

So – if you’re itching for a local, low-cost getaway in which to explore civics, history, urbanism, and the outdoors; or if you’re in search of a great small city to call home with good opportunities (and easy access to big cities), Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is more than worth a closer look.

ESCAPE TO THE GREENBELT – 1952 Ford Advert

The American Road VIII

Captions: ON HOT COBBLESTONES, a brief spray of cool water; then the brooding heat settled in again. – BEYOND THE CITY, OUT TO THE COOL TRANQUILITY OF THE SUBURBS, WENT CITY DWELLERS, SEEKING LIGHT AND AIR AND SPACE.

The people moved out when the auto drove beyond the city limits

This post parrots a 1952 Ford advertisement in Life Magazine.  The above image is a photo of an 11×17 given to me in political science class at Lehigh University, taught by Rep. Robert Freeman of Easton, PA.  While I’m amazed at the effectiveness of Motordom’s effort to reframe American perceptions, I’m equally intrigued with the written length of the ad (461 words).    

“All the firemen had hairy arms, and wore bright red suspenders.  Most boys liked the longest hook-and-ladder truck the best, but some chose the “Chemical” as their favorite – the “Chemical” was shaped like a big iron milk bottle and puffed great clouds of black smoke as the white horses pulled it down the street like a chariot, sparks flying as the horseshoes crashed down on the cobbles.

“On the hottest days the firemen might remember you and trundle the hose cart around to the hydrant; you danced around on the hot pavement, your teeth chattering as the fierce cold spray hit you.  But after they had gone it was deadly hot again, and if you were a city kid in those days, back around the turn of the century, there wasn’t much left to do.  Maybe you got into trouble.

“Trouble breeds easily in slums, or letdown neighborhoods – wherever children are bored, and walled in.  Then trouble comes as sure as Saturday night, when the patrol wagon parks, waiting for its first load.

“It was the automobile that started to change the cramped old way of life, the invisible walls that bound people to their environment.  The first little Fords, bouncing lightly on their bicycle-tires, began to chug around Detroit – then thousands of cars, then millions, pushed roads out from the cities like thrusting fingers, until the whole nation is spiderwebbed with the tremendous network of good roads that is now 3,332,000 miles long.  Thus the American automobile broke through the old-fashioned city limits, letting the people out of town into the great green world beyond.

“The whole population, according to the census, is in a great exodus from the stone-and-steel core of the city, bound for the fresh air, the light, the trees and living space of the suburbs.  This is the escape to the greenbelt, one of the greatest changes that is taking place in this half-century.  The United States is a nation in motion; to be an American is to move.  Each twenty-four hours, Americans travel more than a billion miles on auto wheels; the way they travel is the American Road.

“To that road Ford Motor Company has contributed more than 36,000,000 cars and trucks for almost 50 years.  We believe in that road.  We hope to continue to keep the wheels rolling endlessly ahead toward a better life for everyone.

– For Motor Company

“FORD – LINCOLN – MERCURY CARS – FORD TRUCKS AND TRACTORS”

 

Here’s why I bought a home in Camden, NJ

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Point Street in October 2015

“No, I never dreamed how rich I could become in the poorest city in America.”

– Rocky Wilson, poet and Cooper-Grant resident

Development is booming in Old City Philadelphia.  Affordability is being pushed farther and farther from Center City.  Although we have yet to see Philadelphians crossing the Delaware River en masse to live in Camden, I am one particle to have reached escape velocity.  In this article I will try to answer the questions: why Camden? what is it like living here? what are the financials? and why it was a smart decision.

Over my years renting apartments in New York, Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., and Philly neighborhoods including Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and the Gayborhood, I hardly expected to sign my first mortgage in Camden, NJ – a city of 77,000 people, notorious for urban disintegration.  Many Philadelphians love to hate Camden – as if the city’s poorest neighborhoods are much different from huge swaths of Philadelphia (see poverty map below).

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Poverty map of Philadelphia and Camden – densely shaded areas are lower income (NY Times).

I came to know Camden over two years working as a construction inspector on the Ben Franklin Bridge (the Bridge).  Via bicycle, I explored neighborhoods including Cramer Hill, East Camden, Fairview, Parkside, and traced the Camden Greenway along the Cooper River.

The idea of renting in Camden crossed my mind in 2014 in light of Philly’s increasing prices and 24/7 service on the PATCO High-Speed Line (subway).  But when it came time to buy a home, the pull of Cooper-Grant overpowered my inclination toward similarly-priced neighborhoods in Philadelphia, like lower Passyunk and Kensington.

Why Camden?

My first consideration in choosing a place to live is location and commuting.  Knowing I wanted easy walking/biking/transit access to Center City (for work and much else), downtown Camden beat out Philly locales because:

  1. The price
  2. The Bridge walkways are beautiful, and separated from cars for 1.5 miles, and
  3. PATCO runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with good frequency and reliability, (and wifi at stations).

Both PATCO and the Bridge are within minutes walking from my house.  If I need to drive somewhere, Zipcars “live” one block away at Victor Lofts.  If heading to New York, I walk one block and board the NJ Transit River Line (a diesel-powered tram connecting Camden to Trenton Transit Center).

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Map of downtown Camden

Unfortunately the Bridge walkways close at 9 PM daily (8 PM in the winter) – but we can work on that – and DRPA is planning to replace the existing stairway with an accessible bicycle and pedestrian ramp.

In looking for a home near the Bridge and PATCO, I found one in Cooper-Grant, the landmarked neighborhood bounded by Rutgers University, Victor Lofts, Campbell’s Field, and the Bridge.  The Delaware River is three blocks (and 4,000,000 parking spaces) from my stoop.

During Camden’s industrial boom, Cooper-Grant was home to both working and wealthy people, as well as Campbell’s Soup production ops.  Nowadays it is one of a few neighborhoods to have been renovated with newly paved streets, wide brick sidewalks, and street trees.

While the housing stock is limited, Cooper-Grant’s  collection of historic architecture is complimented by new homes designed to blend with the old.  Residents include seniors who’ve remained since birth, newbies like me, families, a puppet-wielding bicycling poet (Rocky), and a few too many Rutgers students.

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The former Cooper Library in Johnson Park

To reiterate, my criterion was proximity to PATCO and the Bridge; it was not an elegant, relatively well-to-do waterfront neighborhood.  I would be pleased to live on a street having yet to be renovated.  Such places gain the most from each new community-oriented owner-occupier, and from any amount of increased foot traffic.

Important footnote: Cooper-Grant and its cousin Lanning Square are outliers – pockets of stability in a city suffering from decades of systemic racism, political corruption, neoliberal globalization, and persistent poverty.  For me personally, part of Camden’s appeal is the opportunity to engage with and try to understand the needs of people living in third-world conditions, right here in America.

What is it like living in downtown Camden?

As for crime, so far college students have been the principal threat in my neighborhood.  But I go all over Camden, and my first-hand experience differs from the common stereotypes, built on partial truths, drummed into our collective psyche by the corporate mass-media.

I can hardly discern between Camden and Philadelphia with respect to safety.  Either place can be dangerous, especially if you’re trying to score drugs, or if you don’t happen to be a white, straight male.

My location is walkable – in that there are sidewalks – but there could be more to walk to.  I took a 25-point hit on Walkscore.com in moving from Washington Square West (98) to Cooper-Grant (73).  But the price was right, I’m OK with bicycle dependence, and the center of the 5th most populous US city is minutes away, 24/7.

Car traffic through my neighborhood is low.  In Downtown Camden traffic is minimal outside of rush hour, when workers pour in from (and later flee to) the suburbs.

Downtown Camden has great lunch joints – Friends Café, New York Pizza, Latin American Restaurant, and Black Eyed Susan’s food truck, to name a few – but the quality of bar-restaurants leads me to assume their managers never experienced Philadelphia’s food scene.

Other than The Victor’s Pub, downtown nightlife is scant – hence the importance of 24/7 PATCO service.

For sustenance I rely on farmers’ markets and grocery stores in Philly, Collingswood, Westmont, and Haddonfield.  Although, I recently discovered an exceptional grocery store in the vibrant Federal Street commercial district (revitalized by Hispanic immigrants over the past decade).

There are positive developments downtown.  Third Thursdays is the year-round art gallery crawl.  Cooper River Distillers at 4th and Market – Camden’s hippest joint – hosts a lively happy hour every Friday (one block from PATCO City Hall station).

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The waterfront near Adventure Aquarium

Most importantly, Camden is home to great people.  I’ve come to know and befriend long-time residents and newcomers having as much integrity, sincerity, creativity, and generosity as anyone else I know.  The powerful stories of an array of Camden residents are brought forth in the 2005 book Camden After the Fall by Howard Gillette.

One handful of Camden’s great people includes my girlfriend – a Rutgers employee, alumnus, and Lanning Square resident – and her family, who immigrated here from Honduras in the 1990’s.

The Financials

In moving from Center City to Camden, the cost of living (in my case buying a home) was a major impetus to crossing the Delaware.  As a bicycle commuter, I was hard-pressed to find a similar value in Philadelphia that didn’t force me to ride longer distances on car-choked streets without serious bike facilities.

For example, I could have spent $24,900 more to live in the ugly house pictured below – albeit in a spectacular neighborhood – traveling a similar distance to work, but with 1.5 additional miles subjected to Philly drivers, while paying Philly wage tax in full, and missing my street trees.

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A South Philly home I saw on the market last year

The housing stock in Cooper-Grant being limited and turnover low, finding comparable sales was tricky.  Adding to this, the area’s been plagued by low-appraisals, including in my case, in which the appraiser agreed to increase $18,000 after another home sold for what I perceived to be market value.  (So much for professional judgment.)

I ended up with a monthly payment of $755 for a two-bedroom, two-story, 1,060 square foot brick row home in great condition, including:

  • Mortgage principal and interest
  • Property taxes (about $2,000/year)
  • Home owner’s insurance premium ($550/year)
  • Flood insurance premium ($975/year)

(I am pleased to recommend Trident Mortgage, Trident Land Transfer, and my agent Cindy Stanzilis (Berkshire Hathaway)).

Watch out for flood zones.  Thanks to parking lots and runoff-generating development upstream in the Delaware watershed, our 100-year flood zone is as shown below, according to FEMA.  In my case it wasn’t a deal breaker.

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FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Map (blue is 100-year flood zone)

Happily, there is a tax advantage for New Jersey residents working in Philadelphia.  Due to a PA-NJ reciprocal agreement, I claim a credit for wage tax paid to the city of Philadelphia (3.47% for non-residents).

Moral of the financial story: in my case buying a home was a no-brainer.  And in my case – not minding a degree of dependence on a bicycle, PATCO, and the Bridge (as opposed to walking 5-minutes for everything) – buying the home I wanted in Cooper-Grant was an easy decision.

Why buying in Camden was a smart decision

Accounting for the practical, emotional, and financial rationale already described, my decision to buy and live in downtown Camden wasn’t as smart as it was rational.  Perhaps there’s achievement in seeing through the propaganda dogging the city.  After all, negative ideas commonly held about Camden (justified or not) probably result in a lower home prices than similar quality-of-life neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

On average, American downtowns are beginning to rebound from devastating post-WWII decline.  Many Rust Belt cities have seen their 60-year population losses slow down or reverse in the past decade.  More and more Americans are seeking walkable communities, and the physical bones of central cities are best equipped to support them.  We Millennials – now the US’s largest and youngest adult generation – are flocking to central cities and downtowns.

Here in Camden, a number of developments are in the pipeline.  To mention only three “in my backyard”:

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A Third Thursday party in the Ruby Match Factory

The massive Liberty Trust project is exciting and will probably increase the financial value of homes in my neighborhood, but observers of recent history shouldn’t expect the benefits of a new “campus” to trickle into Camden’s mostly poor population.

Nevertheless, there is more opportunity for a superb quality-of-life in Camden than most area residents are led to believe.  As walkability-seeking Philadelphians become less able to afford living in places like University City, Fairmount, Fishtown, and Passyunk, moving to Camden will become an increasingly popular alternative.

Downtown Camden does have a long way to go before reaching a critical mass of residents and amenities; but 24/7 mass-transit service, skyline views of Philadelphia, recent development plans, and gut instinct suggest to me that central Camden is moving towards being to Philadelphia what Hoboken is to Manhattan.

The indignity of biking in South Philadelphia

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A woman bikes on 13th Street

People who choose to cycle in American cities are chronically subjected to physical intimidation (purposeful or otherwise) on the part of others driving large, heavy, fast motor vehicles.  Our current legal-spatial-cultural system of city street use transforms what would otherwise be a pleasurable, useful activity into a stressful and dangerous experience.

Reoccurring conflict

Last Friday after crossing the Delaware River by ferry into Philadelphia, I began my 2.2 mile bicycle ride from Spruce Street Harbor Park to a friend’s birthday at Pep Bowl (at the corner of Broad and Federal Street) in South Philadelphia.

Spruce Street, having a buffered bike lane, was fine (notwithstanding potholes).  I was lucky going south on 6th Street.  Then, after turning onto Federal Street, the conflict began.  Riding in the center of the lane – predictably and in full compliance with the “rules of the road” on a narrow street – I felt the presence of a car approaching to my rear.

The driver didn’t honk or break the law, but the way she palpated the engine signaled her impatience with my speed (at my comfortable pace, say 13 mph, I had no obligation to speed up).  My heart rate increased as the sense of joy and freedom of cycling on a summer evening in Philadelphia disappeared.

I could have ended it right away by pulling off the street, but I didn’t because I have a right to cycle on the street as a dignified human being.  I could have also ended it by moving to the right – into the door zone – and letting her pass.

Most cyclists do this – so drivers come to expect it.  But it is extremely unsafe to pass a cyclist with cars parked on both sides of a narrow street (each row having a 3-foot door zone).  And it is illegal (according to Pennsylvania’s 4-foot passing law).

So I held my ground, continuing west on Federal Street as if I wasn’t being tailed by an irritated person, operating a 3,500 lb machine, having the capacity to kill me at any moment.  For seven blocks riding at my normal pace, there was never an occasion to let her pass without going out of my way.  Even if she did pass me, it would have been for naught, since I would have likely caught up to her at the next light (the paradox of “fast” cars using gridded streets).

By the time we reached Broad Street, the two women in the car shouted “fuck you”.

Crowding out choice

The point of this story is not about me, but rather the indignity suffered every day by all the people who cycle in Philadelphia including women, senior citizens, children, parents, and those who bike out of economic necessity.  Regardless of their choice – to hold their ground or pull aside – they lose either way.

They suffer this indignity because of the spatial arrangement of streets, in which the storage of motor vehicles crowds out places for safe, comfortable biking.  They suffer because of a legal regime in which rules for cars are awkwardly misapplied to bicycles, and in which drivers are often not held accountable for killing and injuring other people.  And they suffer because of a cultural system wherein those operating motor vehicles are taught to believe they’re entitled to drive fast through city neighborhoods.

The feeling of chronically being in the way of automobiles violates human dignity everywhere.  However, the tragedy is compounded in South Philly where the bicycle – given the district’s scale, density, variety, topography – should be an elegant tool of freedom and economic efficiency.

Instead, the anxious movement and frenzied storage of motor vehicles crowds out most other uses of street space.  As a consequence, South Philadelphians, their visitors, and their customers, are robbed of even the choice of exploiting the bicycle’s sweet spot.

What are we to do? 

Long-term solutions, though politically difficult, are obvious, because they’re already established in cities around the world.  In the short term, we can protect ourselves and others by holding our ground – taking the full lane, staying visible, out of the door zone – and training drivers to expect it.

It may feel uncomfortable to inhibit a car from passing you, but on a narrow one-way street, it is the only safe and dignified response.  Remember the law (cited earlier) is on your side, and in this particular case, it is sensible.

Also remember you are doing no harm – more so the opposite.  There is hardly a reason to drive faster than a bicycle through a compact gridded neighborhood.  Usually doing so won’t get you to a destination any sooner.  Furthermore, to reduce the danger, noise, and pollution created by speeding cars, motorists should drive slow through our communities.

So, South Philadelphians: be confident, ride at your pace in the middle of the lane, and hold on to your dignity.

 

 

Fast-moving vehicles – not people walking – are the hazard in Pittsburgh

 

better bikeways

A vision for a safer Forbes Avenue

A recent Post-Gazette article by Ed Blazina – Viewing Oakland through the windshield of a Port Authority bus driver – propagates the same car-centric worldview that’s bred acceptance of senseless death on American streets since the 1920’s.  Despite the fact automobiles kill more than 90 people daily in the US – including Pittsburgh’s recent victims – its people on foot who “create the greatest hazard”, according a Port Authority bus driver.

Disregard the overwhelming number of heavy machines (cars) with non-professional drivers holding smart phones, speeding dangerously on Forbes and Fifth.  Forget the Public Works Department, the Port Authority, and PennDOT who’ve thus far neglected – grossly – to create alternatives to driving through the busy corridor.  Don’t blame the universities for failing to institute and enforce a slow school zone through Oakland, where thousands of people cross the streets during rush hour.

No, the problem – the “hazard” – is all those damn people.  This is classic Orwellian Doublethink.

Omission and Emphasis

Blazina explains recent deaths on Pittsburgh’s streets from the “windshield” perspective:

Traffic through Oakland has been at the forefront since last month after a bicyclist was killed in a chain-reaction crash on Forbes Avenue and a Wilkinsburg couple died after getting off a bus near Petersen Events Center.

Missing here is the fact motor vehicles killed these people.  Because of course, the threat is people walking and biking.

The same events recounted by others (emphasis added):

The death of cyclist Susan Hicks in Oakland on Oct. 23, crushed between two cars while she was properly waiting at a Forbes Avenue red light on her ride home from work…

Brian O’Neill, Post-Gazette

Hicks was struck by a vehicle that had been hit by another car and pushed into a third vehicle as they waited in traffic at the intersection of Forbes Avenue and Bellefield Street.

David Conti, Tribune Review

Susan Hicks was riding home from work in Oakland when she was killed by driver [sic] at the corner of Forbes and Bellefield.

Bike Pittsburgh

Henry Walker, 73, and Carol Christine Williamson, 68, killed after being hit by SUV [sic] and ran over by bus [sic]…

Accident Data Center

These victims were not killed by people wearing headphones or riding bicycles.  Susan Hicks, Henry Walker, and Christine Williamson were killed by fast, heavy, powerful, clumsy machines.

Propagating the Windshield Perspective

In light of history, the following is absurd:

“Lights aren’t taken very seriously by pedestrians,” [the bus driver] said. “If they see a break in the action, they go.” …

Pedestrian signals, which show how much time a person has to cross the street, and fences to force pedestrians to use crosswalks have helped, the drivers say, but not enough. …

Mr. Bream said he favors stronger enforcement of jaywalking laws, which was the case when he lived in the Los Angeles area.

People walked all over city streets for thousands of years before heavy, fast machines became dominant.  Traffic signals emerged to address conflicts created by heavy, fast machines.  Why then is it surprising humans instinctively disregard electronic signs which “show how much time a person has to cross the street”, especially when the street is obviously clear?

We’ve instituted “fences to force pedestrians to use the crosswalks.”  Why not zones of traffic calming and enforcement to force people driving cars to stop killing everyone?

Furthermore “Jaywalking” is a term invented in the 1920’s by the automobile industry.  And in terms of street life and walkability, Los Angeles is not a place Pittsburgh should emulate.

Efficient Disobedience

And those people riding bicycles – two feet wide – who “create their own lane” between vehicles clogging the street.  How scary it must be for motorists!

Forget about the fact each single-occupant car is 6 feet wide.  Forget about the negligence of the City and PennDOT to allocate street space for people who’ve chosen to require less of it for equal purposes.

No.  Speeding and stationary machines are the most important consideration.  God forbid anyone would choose to become lighter, more narrow, travel the same average speed as cars, and “freely go” through Oakland.

Orwellian Doublethink

In the end, if life in Oakland is threatened by the presence of people walking and biking, then Pittsburgh’s river trails, used exclusively by these worst-of-the-worst,  are death zones.

If these perils of the traffic nightmare in Oakland make professional Port Authority bus drivers nervous, imagine what those conditions can do to regular motorists.

Blazina has it backwards.  People driving motor vehicles – having the unique capacity to kill – ought to be nervous.  They should be concerned about killing someone if they don’t slow down and pay attention.

Instead, the family, friends, and colleagues of Susan Hicks are paying for the gross negligence of those blocking an immediate reconfigure of Fifth and Forbes through Oakland.

We can thank Ed Blazina for feeding the windshield worldview that enables city, state, and university officials to sit on their bloody hands.

 

 

 

Why PopenStreets was so powerful

A child cycles on 10th Street

A child cycles on 10th Street

Friends walk on Sansom Street

Central Philadelphia became an unexpected happy experiment during the Papal visit.  Not only was the public realm free of the noise, pollution, frustration, and danger of motor vehicles, it was well-used by smiling people of all shapes and sizes, many of whom rode bicycles.

By allowing people to experience human-oriented streets, the sudden and widespread freedom from cars had an effect no amount of logic, graphics, advocacy, or public meetings could achieve.

It is unclear to what extent the people-centered utopia was anticipated.  The doomsday-like media coverage probably scared thousands out of town – and hurt small businesses.  But Alexandria Schneider, a Philly cyclist had the foresight to plan Pope Ride, a mass bike ride to take advantage of security-mandated Open Streets.

The Pope Ride was lots of fun, and likely increased the number of bicycles, but what struck me as extraordinary was the sheer mass of city streets and intersections being used exclusively by people.

The traffic box produced something radically new.  Never before had people reigned car-free over as large an area, for that much time, on streets made of smooth pavement mostly free of horse dung and trolley tracks, riding modern bicycles, some pulling trailers with toddlers, each person having the ability to capture photographs and share in distributed media platforms.

Open Streets on steroids

More and more cities are holding Open Streets events, in which an isolated street is temporarily closed to vehicles – and opened to people – but the papal security plan inadvertently triggered Open City.  The area in which people reigned free of cars was massive.  And it lasted for more than two days, far longer than the few hours typically allotted for Open Streets.

The sheer amount of space and time over which we enjoyed people-oriented streets was unprecedented.  At first it was strange, but we got used to simultaneous quietude and vibrancy.  Moving vehicles were so uncommon that we keenly noticed the few that did move.

One of the greatest displeasures was seeing cars again at borders like South Street.  A woman from the Pennsylvania National Guard playfully foresaw our disappointment at 38th Street in West Philly.

Experiential advocacy

Open Streets is one of an innovative set of approaches known as Tactical Urbanism (also the name of a book by Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia).  Originally borne of the first Open Streets in Miami, Tactical Urbanism seeks to short circuit preconceived notions and bureaucratic planning by allowing people to experience low-cost changes on a temporary basis before committing to permanent conversions.

When people feel the immediate benefits of a curb bump-out made of orange cones, a protected bike lane made of flower pots, or a crosswalk painted by vigilantes, they and their elected representatives are much more likely to buy-in to permanent changes than they otherwise would be if the improvement was described verbally or graphically.

The same is true for restricting automobiles on city streets.  Most well-meaning Americans can hardly imagine such a thing.  For all who visited Center City this weekend, however, imagination is no longer necessary.

Thousands of adults and children walked, biked, and played in the streets and intersections.  The often spoken consensus was that it was wonderful.  It felt as natural and instinctive as it should have for a species that walked freely on city streets for thousands of years.

More Open City

Thousands of people experienced something new and positive during the Papal visit.  It follows that the net level of support for enhanced public space, active transportation, and Open Streets is greater than pre-Popenstreets levels.

Cities like Paris, Madrid, and New York are restricting automobiles in significant parts of their centralities.  Philadelphia just proved that massively restricting cars in a car-dominated American city is not only possible, it can be transformative.

There is little reason not to repeat this exercise regularly at varying scales, without any need to restrict highways, major bridges, or transit systems, or to deploy secret service, national guard, or miles of fencing.  Rather than scaring people away, Open City should be about welcoming people to Philadelphia and its businesses.

PopenStreets withdrawal

 Pope Francis speaks a message of social, economic, and environmental equality, but he is likely unaware of the blanket of civilized justice he bestowed on the streets of Philadelphia just by showing up.

By Monday afternoon street life in the city returned to the reality that is automobile dominance.  We felt some level of PopenStreets withdrawal, being forced back onto the sidewalk by the powerful momentum of cars and car culture.  But the seeds were planted in our brains of what an Open City feels like, and that too is powerful.

Why doesn’t Manhattan have alleys?

An alley, Philadelphia (photo by author)

An alley, Philadelphia (photo by author)

Did you ever wonder why piles of garbage bags are a staple on New York City sidewalks?  Neither did I, throughout my 2008 stint in the UWS, until a stranger in Chicago pointed to a striking fact: there are no alleys in Manhattan.*

Given the important functions alleys serve, this is a glaring omission by the planners of the city’s famous, massive grid.  It probably wouldn’t keep me from choosing to live there again, but I believe the deficiency accounts for much of New York’s perceived harshness and uncleanliness.

What is Manhattan really lacking?  Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck, in their 2000 book Suburban Nation, explain the purpose of alleys:

The alley is often criticized for its lack of neatness, but that is its essence: it’s where all the messy stuff goes.  From garage doors to trash containers, transformers, electrical meters, and telephone equipment, the alley takes them out of public view…

New York still has the messy stuff, and the result in parts of Manhattan: every other street tends to act like an alley.

For instance, 34th Street – home to the Empire State Building – is a main thoroughfare filled with retail and throngs of tourists.  33rd and 35th streets, on the other hand, are lined with loading docks, dumpsters, garages, and rear entry to 34th Street properties.

Elsewhere in Manhattan (notably the LES) facades of most older buildings are covered with unsightly fire escape stairways.

There are so few (if any) alleys in New York that even Jane Jacobs, in her 1961 landmark book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, doesn’t mention alleys – except in Philadelphia to contrast Manhattan’s too-long blocks:

…in the Rittenhouse Square district of Philadelphia…what were once back alleys down the centers of blocks have become streets with buildings fronting on them, and users using them like streets.  … The standard Philadelphia block is 400 feet square (halved by the alleys-become-streets where the city is most successful).

Interestingly, Jacobs doesn’t point out the charming fact that alleys in Philadelphia have sidewalks (or that I happen to live on Panama alley-become-street).

And so, why doesn’t Manhattan have alleys?  How could the planners of New York’s main grid omit an essential component of the basic city block, then repeat it thousands of times?

For now the answer to this quandary is beyond my research capacity.**  If you have any insight, do share.

*This is true insofar as that which appears consistently in every other American city I visited appears hardly at all in Manhattan.  

*Despite my limiting discussion to Manhattan, I can’t recall seeing alleys in any of the five boroughs I visited.

**This in-depth source does not use the word “alley”.  This forum contains an unsubstantiated explanation and mentions a few places which can only be called alleys in name.

Low car speeds – not lines of paint – promote safety in North Park

North Park Lake and its spillway

North Park Lake, its spillway, and valve house (20 June 2015)

North Park Lake, a suburban oasis 10 miles from Pittsburgh and a product of the New Deal, is ringed by a 5 mile system of enhanced roadway shoulders, heavily-used by people walking, running, and biking (almost exclusively for recreation).  While PennDOT and Allegheny County recently widened Ingomar Road in an attempted safety upgrade (photos below), the unexpected willingness of people to walk, run, and bike directly adjacent to vehicular traffic is much less a function of roadway design, and is instead a result of strictly enforced speed limits. 

(I do mean road in this case, not street – and thankfully – not stroad.)

North Park Lake and surrounding on-road lake loop (credit Google Maps)

Since childhood I’ve enjoyed the lake loop on foot and bicycle, as have most other people I know in the area.  Until recently, the facility consisted of a roadway shoulder – a mere painted line (like Pierce Mill Road pictured below).  There was no spatial or physical separation between people and motorized traffic, no delineation between people walking and biking,  no bike markings, no off-street trail or path, and no protected bike lane.  Yet the common perception was of a safe place to walk and bike with children – in stark contrast to the broad assumption that biking close to moving cars is too dangerous for most people.

I believe the explanation is McCandless Township’s strict enforcement of a 25 mph speed limit, which has been in effect as long as I (and my parents) can remember.

Since I was old enough to drive (say 14 years old – wink), I was keenly aware of the speed limit along Ingomar Road.  The reason for driving slow was obvious, having experienced the road outside of a car.  Although Ingomar Road does not incorporate design features known to naturally induce lower speeds (e.g. narrower vehicular lanes), the McCandless Police have made speed enforcement a priority in the area.  I estimate 85% of drivers on Ingomar Road do not exceed 25 mph.

That ordinary people feel comfortable walking and biking with children on Ingomar Road speaks to the value of slowing down cars (outside of limited access freeways).  Education and design treatments are crucial for encouraging people to walk and bike for transportation in cities and suburbs, but effectively slowing down cars generates instant life- and money-saving benefits for people walking, biking, driving, and paying taxes.  

The County and Township should be commended for taking engineering and enforcement measures to promote the health and safety of people circling North Park Lake.  But hold your applause.  The township’s recent projects and future plans don’t even attempt to ameliorate car dependence, preserve undeveloped land, strengthen the local economy, orient development around existing (surprisingly rapid) transit to downtown Pittsburgh, or take seriously biking and walking as beneficial forms of transportation.

So as not to strain your reading endurance, I’ll make necessary technical points in bullet form:

  • 25 mph is certainly better than 35, but a 20 mph vehicular design speed is ideal wherever people are to be found.  Twenty is plenty” however advocates in New York City settled for a 25 mph city-wide default speed limit, which took effect November 7th, 2014. 
  • Despite being frequently referred to as the “North Park Lake Trail”, the facility is not a trail (see triblive.com, post-gazette.com, and the 2012 North Park Lake Area Master Plan by GAI Consultants).  Trails are widely understood to be off-street and/or physically separated from traffic.  No cars or on-street facilities are visible in the first 100 images returned by searching “trail” or “recreational trail” in Google. 
  • Although 25% of park users “get to North Park” on a bicycle and 12% walk, according to survey results in the 2012 master plan, GAI made no recommendation to improve bike and pedestrian safety on roads leading to North Park.
  • Allegheny County aspired to widen Ingomar Road for “at least two decades” according to Ron Schipani, Capital Projects Manager with the Allegheny County Parks Foundation.  Apparently re-striping Ingomar Road with narrower 10 foot vehicular lanes – thereby creating four feet from the existing 12 foot lanes and slowing traffic – was never considered.  This despite the fact that the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) encourages the use of 10 foot lanes for lower-speed roadways.  #facepalm

New arrangement on Ingomar Road with delineated bike/pedestrian space.  Speed-inducing 12-foot car/truck lanes remain.

New arrangement on Ingomar Road with delineated bike/pedestrian spaces. Speed-inducing 12-foot car/truck lanes remain.  No physical or spatial separation (buffer) from traffic was considered.


Despite heavy vehicles passing with no physical barrier, slower speeds enable my father to bike comfortably

Despite heavy vehicles passing and no physical barrier, slower speeds enable my father to bike comfortably.


The scenic Lake Shore Drive was similarly upgraded and reduced to one vehicular lane a few years ago, after a pedestrian death.

The scenic Lake Shore Drive was similarly upgraded a few years ago, and reduced to one vehicular lane, after a person walking was killed by a motorist.


Pierce Mill Road, where people willingly walk, run, and bike in the shoulder.  Ingomar Road was identically configured until this year.

Pearce Mill Road, where people willingly walk, run, and bike in the shoulder (because cars move slowly). Ingomar Road was identically configured until this year.


Babcock Boulevard (on the earthen dam) was given a bike lane a couple years ago.  Cars move faster on this stretch.

Babcock Boulevard (on top of an earthen dam) was given a bike lane a couple years ago. Cars move faster on this stretch.


Ingomar Road just outside of the park loop is poorly configured for bike/pedestrian access, let alone safety.

Ingomar Road just outside of the park loop is poorly configured for bike/pedestrian access, let alone safety.

Perceptions of American streets before and after the Dawn of the Motor Age

In his 2008 book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter Norton documents thoroughly the shift in popular perception of what city streets are for.  Drawing on sources cited in 113 pages of footnotes, Norton brings forth the voices of children, parents, pedestrians, police officers, motorists, engineers, politicians, and automobile tycoons of the years surrounding the 1920’s – the decade the Motor Age dawned. 

Norton’s central claim is that before American cities were physically reconstructed for the Motor Age, they first were socially reconstructed.  Prior to the 1920’s, the prevailing social construction of city streets was public space between buildings; by 1930, it was motor thoroughfares.  My purpose here is to communicate prevailing social perceptions before and after the 1920’s by quoting a few of Norton’s paragraphs.  For the story of the revolution in perception, read the book.  It significantly enhanced my understanding of why American city streets – and prevailing notions about them – came to be the way they are today.

12th and Market Streets, Philadelphia, in 1894 (Image credit: PhillyHistory.org)

12th and Market Street, Philadelphia, in 1894 (Image credit: PhillyHistory.org)

Before the 1920’s (pg. 16):

“Centuries-old cultural and legal legacies led to answers unfavorable to automobiles in cities.  In 1920 the city street was considered a public amenity for uses considered public, such as street railway service, [children at play,] and walking.  As a public good, the street was to be regulated by experts in the name of the public interest.  Automobiles were individual, private property.  Motorists were tolerated when they did not endanger or impede other users, but wherever congestion or accidents took their toll the automobile bore most of the legal responsibility and most of the popular blame.  In the city street of 1920 the automobile was a nuisance, even an intruder.  Automobiles were extravagant in their use of scarce space, they were dangerous (especially to non-motorists), they had to be parked, and they served only a small minority of city people.  Cities, using police power delegated to them by the states, strictly regulated motorists on the ground that automobiles were newcomers that moved few people at a heavy cost to street capacity.”

16th and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, Philadelphia, 2015 (photo by author)

16th and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, Philadelphia, in 2015 (photo by author)

After the 1920’s (pg. 254):

“As a symbol of the transformation of the American city for the sake of the automobile, the 1956 highway act was far more prominent than any report of the Hoover traffic conferences 30 years before.  But perhaps it was less important.  The Model Municipal Traffic Ordinance of 1927 codified a new social construction of the city street.  Once a public space for mixed uses and ruled by informal customs, the street was then becoming a motor thoroughfare for the near exclusive use of fast vehicles – especially automobiles.  The Hover conferences, and especially the model traffic ordinance, recognized, legitimized, and promoted a revolution in the perception of the city street.  Though old perceptions persisted, thenceforward most streets were chiefly motor thoroughfares.  As such, streets were suddenly woefully inadequate in a new way.  They were too narrow and too poorly paved, with too many points of access, conflicting paths, and grade intersections – and too many non-automotive users.  Under this new social construction of the city street, the physical reconstruction of a new kind of urban thoroughfare that addressed all these problems was striking, but not revolutionary.”

Norton’s concluding chapter relates the story to his broader field of study: the social construction of technology, and offers a hopeful fact. (pg.256) 

“The incompatibility of different constructions of a shared technology raises the stakes for relevant social groups.  In a shared system [such as city streets], when a new construction becomes dominant, one group cannot easily secede from the prevailing denomination into a dissenter group where the minority construction prevails.” … “Thomas Hughes’s work on electrification showed how such systems tend to develop a ‘momentum’ that is hard to divert.” … “In recent decades, policymakers seeking to promote alternatives to driving alone find that decades of physical and social infrastructure make their task almost hopeless.  As we have seen, however, the long-standing construction of the street as a public space was diverted, despite tremendous momentum.  The case of American city streets can therefore help us see how substantial momentum can be overcome so that interpretive flexibility is reintroduced.”

Perhaps today’s advocates for safe streets and livable cities – and the Bike Lobby – have something to learn from the overwhelming success of 1920’s Motordom.