Monday, July 28, 2014

CNU 22: The Redemption of Ebenezer Howard

A couple of posts back, in my effort to educate a commenter about the breadth of urbanist study, I noted that Ebenezer Howard was a difficult person to place in the history of urbanism.  Although never a professional planner, Howard nonetheless made significant contributions.  But at the same time, he became known, at least in some circles, as the father of suburbia.  He’s a contradictory figure who deserves a closer look.

My initial introduction to Howard was largely negative.  It may be that my early readings about urbanism, perhaps highlighted by James Howard Kunstler, weren’t in the mainstream, but my initial impressions of Howard and his book “Garden Cities of To-morrow: Experiments in Urban Planning” were derogatory.  But over time, I learned that the reality was more complex.

Howard (1850-1928) was career stenographer who spent much of his leisure time considering the problems of the city.  As did others of the same era, he decided that the urban problems were insurmountable.

In place of city life, he proposed mixed demographic towns a train ride away from the urban cores.  His towns were to be moderately dense, walkable communities, permanently separated from the city by dedicated agricultural preserves.  He believed that his garden cities would be healthier places for people to live, largely because of a renewed connection to nature.

Initially, his ideas were implemented much as he had envisioned.  Hampstead Heath, north of London, was developed in line with the concepts he laid out, as were many of the streetcar suburbs in the U.S.  (I have a cousin who recently lived contentedly in Hampstead Heath for several years.  I regret that I was unable to visit her during those years.)

But with the end of World War II, nearly two decades after Howard’s death, his concepts began to be distorted.  Levittown on Long Island is generally considered the death knell for Howard’s garden cities, with Levittown’s absence of walkability, transit orientation, and agricultural buffers.  Despite the lack of historical precedent (the fact that causes StrongTowns to describe suburbia as an “experiment”), the Levittown configuration quickly spread and became the default land-use form for much of the U.S.

And with that spread, the reputation of Ebenezer Howard declined, at least among the authors with whom I began my urbanist readings.

My first hint that Howard’s reputation might not be beyond redemption came in Ross Chapin’s book “Pocket Neighborhoods”.  Chapin made a good argument that his small, clustered homes with common grounds and communal buildings were consistent, albeit on a small scale, with Howard’s ideal.

But it was at CNU 22, the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism held in Buffalo in early June, that the reputation of Ebenezer Howard was fully expunged of guilt for Levittown and its spawn. 

First, Andres Duany, in partnership with Professor Emily Talen, proposed a unified theory of urbanism based on Howard’s “Garden Cities of To-morrow”.  He also noted that Howard’s masterwork, unlike any other book on urbanism of which Duany knew, has never been out of print since its initial publishing.

I’m still not sure I accept the Duany/Talen unified theory.  In particular, the effort to align it with a unified theory of economics seems a dubious pairing.  I’d like to think that urbanism deserves a better partner than the “dismal science”.   But it was nonetheless significant that Duany and Talen harkened all the way back to Howard to find a complete urbanist strategy that they found worth of emulation.

An even more significant endorsement of Howard at CNU 22 came from architect Robert A.M. Stern who used the conference to launch his most recent book “Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City”.  (It was an odd book to push at a conference.  At 14 pounds, it was presumably of interest only to the attendees who didn’t need to check bags on their way home.)

Stern and his co-authors trace the garden suburb concept throughout history, including Howard in the lineage, and try to prove that the garden suburb still has a role in the modern world, particularly if configured more along the Howard lines than the Levittown model.

Ultimately, it was my personal knowledge of organizations that gave me a framework for grasping Howard.  As many of us know who have worked with organizations, whether public, private, or non-profit, sometimes we toss out proposals that seem inspired and on-point, only to have others, well-intended but confused, distort the implementation until we regret having raised the idea.  It’s the nature of organizations.

My final decision is to view Howard in that light.  He was truly concerned about the urban form and put forth ideas that were worthy and have stood the test of time.   Perhaps we can criticize him for his naivetĂ© for failing to foresee that his ideas might be corrupted into a less-beneficent form, but that’s a criticism that can, with equal justification, be leveled at many of us.

At the bottom line, Howard was a dilettante, but a dilettante who put forth ideas that have stood the test of time.  I can only wish that some of us do as half as well.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Nourishing the Seed of Civic Individualism

A couple of posts back, I mentioned that I was in the final stages of an annual trip with a pair of good friends.  Each year, we pick a different part of the country in which to spend a week moseying about, enjoying the minor league baseball and cuisine of the region.  This year, we visited New Mexico.

Being a moderately observant traveler who views the world through urbanist spectacles, I see stuff to share with my readers.  Today will be the first of several posts in which New Mexico and the tip of west Texas offer urbanist insights.

Scheduling a trip around the vagaries of minor league baseball schedules is an annual challenge, one that I’ve described as an adult jigsaw puzzle for travelers.  This year, the schedules demanded that we begin and end our trip in El Paso, a few miles south of the New Mexico border.  But that was great because El Paso has a fine new ballpark, well-located in the urban grid and with grand views of the scenic beauty of El Paso.

Given our daily routine of travel, noshing, and evening baseball, we often found ourselves looking for a final snack after a ballgame.  On this trip, we twice cruised the streets of El Paso after ballgames, looking for late evening nourishment.

In the course of those searches, we found that El Paso has a surprising level of late evening activity.  And I don’t mean drinking and carousing, but families out and about, enjoying the relative cool of the evening hours.

Some may hypothesize that the Hispanic segment of the population, building on a tradition of evening promenades, is responsible for the evening socializing.  But my observation was that the people on the streets as the midnight hour approached generally matched the demographic mix of El Paso.  From my few data points, I’d argue that the primary cause of the eventide activity is the desire to get outside after a day of remaining indoors to avoid the heat.

Whatever the cause, one evening we ate pancakes at an 24-hour IHOP which had a nearly full parking lot when we arrived at 11:00pm and in which a large meeting, perhaps a Bible study group, was still going strong when we departed near midnight.

Another evening, we had appetizers at a Village Inn which had a good crowd of families, including babies sleeping in carriers, despite the late hour.  As we left, the parking lot had amorous couples embracing in goodbyes, requiring the use of the back-up camera on our rental vehicle to ensure that we didn’t bump any of the oblivious lovers.  The restaurant was going to remain open until 3am.

Some may wonder if IHOP and Village Inn were really the preferred destinations of three middle-aged guys looking for evening refreshments.  And the answer is no.  One evening in particular, we went looking for a Chili’s only to find that it had closed at 11pm.

In a town with a surprising number of people out and about in the late evening hours looking for quiet refreshment, a restaurant well-suited to meet that need had inexplicably closed early.  The three of us scratched our heads and decided that a blanket corporate policy was the only possible explanation.

And that’s the point I want to make in this post.  Cities develop unique characteristics, whether the late night ramblings of El Paso, the fine dining of Napa, or the neighborhood meeting places of Petaluma.

And while we generally cherish those characteristics, with city halls often touting them as a reason for businesses to relocate to their communities, most cities simultaneously try to bury those characteristics under mounds of paper and plastic.

The paper is the zoning codes that, despite the best efforts of over-worked city staffs, often mimic the zoning codes of other communities, draining away local uniqueness.

And the plastic is the national chains that bring the same merchandise and menu selections to every town, overwhelming local character.

It’s not easy maintaining local character against those twin forces, but it is nonetheless a goal of urbanism, even if only to convince Chili’s to remain open until 2am to accommodate local social patterns.  Defining and maintaining local character is a topic to which I’ll return.

Before closing, I should return to a point on which some may be puzzling, which is why an urbanist is writing about national chains like IHOP, Village Inn, and Chili’s when I should be celebrating single-location establishments like Ray’s in Petaluma.  The answer is that late evenings in an unfamiliar big city is perhaps the one time when the safety of a national chain is a reasonable choice.

But at all other times during the trip, we aggressively sought out unique restaurants and pubs.  As a result, we had some marvelous meals.  I’ll summarize a few highlights in an upcoming post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

There was a Time When Even the Royal Society May Have Been Considered Zealots

A challenging comment was made in response to the post I wrote about Petaluma Urban Chat looking at the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.  Although his tone was somewhat aggressive, the commenter raised a thoughtful question.

The comment was made on one of the several sites on which I co-publish and the comment is now several weeks old.  Rather than responding under a post that is retreating in the rearview mirror of time, I copied the comment below so the concern and my response can reach a wider audience.

(I’ve edited the comment slightly to remove extraneous material, while preserving the commenter`s key issue.)

“I love to bellyache about your blog and the beginning of this one capsulizes it perfectly.  Your urbanist group acts like a book club in which members select different urbanist books to read?!  How limiting.  How zealous.  How closed.  I have an idea.  Let's all study only our own religious texts of choice and then try to have a discussion about the nature of God and the universe with everybody else.  Are you so tied to the concept of urbanism that you have no need to consider anything else? . . . Or worse, that you ignore or discount its ill effects? Religious zealotry!”

Obviously, I disagree with him.  More importantly, I believe that he’s working under several fundamental misunderstandings.  However, I can understand how he and I have failed to communicate.  I also suspect that how I’ve written this blog may have been complicit in his misunderstandings.

I’ll expand below, but the key points of my response will be that urbanism as a topic of study is far broader than the commenter understands, that there is no credible alternative side to the discussion, and that those on cutting edge are often described as zealots.

To begin, this blog has often used two definitions of “urbanism”.  Both definitions below are from my head, not from a dictionary or other reference source, but I believe that most students of land-use would accept both.

The first definition of urbanism is “(1) the study of the land-use patterns of human civilization, considering the social, economic, and environmental impacts of the alternatives”.

The second is “(2) the advocacy of the insights and conclusions that result from (1).”

This blog moves between the two definitions, sometimes studying our current land-use paradigm, along with the implications of possible alternatives, and sometimes arguing for actions that are identified by that study.   I believe my use of both definitions is an effective, perhaps essential, form of communication, but appreciate how some readers might not understand the different but related topics of analysis and advocacy.

The commenter, if I correctly interpret his perspective, fails to understand the all-encompassing nature of (1).  He assumes that any study is restricted to a limited number of sources and that advocacy of (2) thereby becomes faith-based advocacy based on those limited texts.

But he’s wrong.  Under the first definition, urbanism is the study of the totality of human land-use, from the city layout of Babylonia to the configuration of the cities of the Roman Empire to the grid of Mexico City under the Aztecs to the city, suburbs, and rural towns of today.  I can’t claim exhaustive expertise in any of those eras, but have bumped against all of them during my urbanist reading and am proud to be part of a group whose vision is so all-encompassing.

The commenter also seems to believe that there are alternative resources that offer equally persuasive arguments and conclusions that run counter to the solutions usually advocated under the second definition.

I concur with him to the extent that we should be open to multiple perspectives on any issue.  On my reading table right now are books that take very different views on climate change.  I consider it the obligation of a citizen to research alternative perspectives   before engaging in public discussion.

But when I turn to land-use, there is an astounding paucity of credible material that defends suburbia as currently configured in most places.

That isn’t to say that there is no material at all that supports suburbia.  Indeed, there are a great many documents, but none of them reach the analytical standards of good urbanist study.  Instead, I’d put the suburbia documents into three classes.

There are paeans to suburbia extolling the freedom of the motorist and the family fun of the expansive backyard among other supposed suburban virtues.

There are how-to manuals on inducing folks to visit the latest strip mall or to buy a home in a new low-density subdivision.

And there are the financial analyses that argue, against seventy years of counter-examples, that one more big-box retailer or one more sprawling subdivision will assure prosperity.  (StrongTowns is particularly astute at exploding the flawed and often laughable assumptions of these analyses.)

But when it comes to serious analysis of the long-term sustainability and resilience of land-use, the defenders of suburbia all retreat to the sidelines, leaving the field to the proponents of walkable urbanism and similar solutions.

Indeed, the field of urbanism is filled with folks who began their study with considerations of how to make suburbia work better, only to realize that much of suburbia is a dead-end.  Author Leigh Gallagher, who began to write a book about how quickly the suburbs would rebound from the economic slump and ended up writing “The End of the Suburbs”, is only one recent example.

Readers of a logical bent may raise an objection here, suggesting that I’m engaging in circular logic.  If I reject as insufficiently rigorous every argument that defends suburbia and then reject suburbia because there are no good defenses of it, I might seem to be chasing my logical tail.

Unfortunately, in this short space, I can’t make an effective rebuttal to that argument.  I can only suggest that anyone who wishes to effectively engage in land-use discussions devote themselves to a dedicated program of open-minded reading and pondering.  Read Jane Jacobs, suburban general plans, StrongTowns, municipal budgets, James Howard Kunstler, the financial justifications put forth by mail developers, and Jeff Speck.  At the end of six months, you will not only understand that my argument isn’t circular, you’ll also be an urbanist.

(Nor should it be assumed that the analyses done under urbanist study result in groupthink.  Diligent students of land-use may identify different answers and advocate for their own solutions, although most answers would contain some elements of walkable urbanism.  All of these students would be engaged in urbanism and would capable of having meaningful conversations about their alternative conclusions.  Indeed, Petaluma Urban Chat often consists of exactly that type of exchange.)

Which brings us back to the question of zealotry.  Allow me to offer a parallel.  Someone who lived in England in the middle of the 17th century may well have had a lingering belief in alchemy.  Some people today believe that Isaac Newton dabbled with alchemical experiments between his scientific discoveries.  And if Newton retained an interest in alchemy, it’s likely that much of the population felt the same.

Against that background, the Royal Society, in their decision to focus on scientific work to the exclusion of alchemy, might well have been accused of zealotry.  And from the perspective of a contemporary non-scientific layperson, the charge may have seemed reasonable.  The scientific revolution and the lingering faith in turning lead into gold may have seemed alternative hypotheses, equally worthy of consideration.

It was only from the rigorous perspective of the Royal Society that the falsehoods of alchemy were evident.  And posterity has judged their perspective valid.  I suggest that posterity will similarly judge the false contest that some may propose between urbanism and the alchemy of drivable suburbia.

(I’m not suggesting that I belong anywhere near Sir Newton or even the Royal Society.  I may occasionally hang out in the same room with folks who might reasonably be called the Royal Society of land use, but I remain a lowly, back-row acolyte.)

Lest anyone think that I’m calling much of the population alchemists, I should clarify.  Instead, most of the population believes in suburbia mostly because it is the land-use paradigm with which they grew up and remain most comfortable.  That doesn’t make them alchemists.

But there are alchemists among us.  They are the developers, economists, and economic development directors who have spent enough time in their field that the flaws of suburbia should be fully evident and yet they continue to push their failed philosophy in order to keep the paychecks rolling.

I’m confident that the truths now being expounded by urbanists will form the basis of land-use planning a century from now, much as the 17th century efforts of Newton, Halley, Hook, and Leibnitz formed the basis of much of the science that was to come.  Perhaps there will be missteps, but the general direction will be proven valid.

And if I must be occasionally accused of zealotry to order to point the way toward a more informed future, so be it.

(P.S.  As a footnote of irony, it’s yet remains conceivable that contemporary suburbia has a sustainable and resilient future.  That future may well include deliveries by drones as suggested by Amazon, driverless cars as pioneered by Google, and improved tax structures so that suburbia doesn’t rely on subsidies from the general population, downtown residents, or future generations.  And that new configuration of suburbia, if it is to exist, will likely be found by those building on the urbanist studies of today, which is yet more proof that my first definition of “urbanism” is all-encompassing.)

(P.P.S. Also, diligent urbanists may be wondering where Ebenezer Howard, the urbanist who laid a key step in the path to suburbia, fits within the discussion.  Coincidentally, Howard was a frequent topic of conversation at CNU 22.  I’ll be writing about him in the near future.)

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Clinging to the Past

As I publish this, I’m in the final days of a vacation.  Every year, I meet friends for a week of minor league baseball, regional food, and enjoyable beverages.  (The friends also humor me by agreeing to look at cool downtowns and walkable neighborhoods.)

This year, we traveled to New Mexico where most of the professional baseball teams are in the independent Pecos League.  The week of independent baseball caused me to think back upon my years in independent ball.  In particular, I recalled a story that illustrated an urbanist moral.

We had a season-ticket holder whom I’ll call Bridget.  (The actual woman was in her 70s and in failing health when I knew her nearly twenty years ago, so has likely passed away.  But I’ll let her rest in peace by using a pseudonym.  Otherwise, the story is fully true.)

Bridget was the kind of season-ticket holder who is important to lower level minor league ballclubs.  She could barely scratch together the cost of her season ticket and never patronized the concession stands, so she didn’t make much of an impact on club finances.  But she was eager to help the club in other ways.  In particular, she often undertook sewing tasks such as stitching commemorative patches onto jerseys and mending torn uniforms.

Her mending duties led to a conversation that illustrated a bit of her character.

We had a center-fielder, Marco, who was a player, in every sense of the word, both on the field and off.  One evening, Marco tore his baseball pants, requiring overnight repairs.  About twenty minutes after the game ended, with the primary stadium lights turned off and all but a few fans long gone, I spied Bridgett waiting in the shadows near the clubhouse.

Not knowing about the mending task that we’d asked of her, I asked her if she needed help.  She replied, “I waiting to get Marco out of his pants.”

“Bridget, I’m shocked!”

She shook her white hair, pursed her thin lips, and admonished me, “You know what I mean!”  But she couldn’t hide the small hint of a grin at the naughty suggestion that she might still have something to offer a 24-year-old athlete.

But Bridget really showed her colors on the Star-Spangled Banner.  Like many ballclubs, we had a choice of playing the same scratchy recording of the Star-Spangled Banner for 45 games each season or inviting local musicians to audition for a chance to play at one of the games.

Of course, we choose the latter.  Not only did we hope to sell tickets and concessions to the friends and family of the musicians, but we hoped some of them would enjoy the experience enough to return for another game.  (It may sound mercenary, but balancing the books in independent ball, not to make a profit but just to keep the gates open,  requires being mercenary.)

As might be expected, with 45 local musicians for 45 games, some of the musicians weren’t particularly good, or had renditions that diverged substantially from traditional, or both.

Several times a season, after a particularly inventive version, Bridget would feel obligated to berate the owners for the sacrilege.  As she slowly worked her way down through the stands, the other owners would find refuge in the press box or think of urgent cell phone calls that had to be made at that moment.  But I was often willing to chat with her.

“That was wrong!  The Star-Spangled Banner needs to be played as it was written.”

“What do you mean, Bridget?  The words were written as a poem.  Do you mean that we should recite the poem?”

“No!  You know what I mean.  The music should be played the way it was written.”

“But the melody was written as a drinking song for a London social club.  Do you mean we should import slightly inebriated Brits to sing the song?”

“No!  It should be played the way it was when I was a girl, when my daddy first brought me to this ballpark.”

“And when was that, Bridget?”

“1936.”

“So, in the entire history of the Star-Spangled Banner, the way it was played in this ballpark in 1936 was the only way it should ever be played?”

“Yes!”

“Okay, I’ll advise the general manager.”

“You do that.”  And she would stomp back to her seat while the fans within earshot tried to stifle smiles.

I t appreciated Bridget’s passion and her commitment to the ballclub.  But her insistence that 1936 was the apogee of the Star-Spangled Banner was silly.

However, her contention, as ridiculous as it may have seemed to those in earshot, is unfortunately similar to the attitudes that many take toward land use.  And it’s an attitude that’s ultimately harmful to our future.

Trying to preserve the 1980s form of land use is a bad idea, particularly because of what we now know about the financial and environmental impacts of that land use configuration.  But trying to preserve the 1890s land-use pattern is just as bad.  We’re a different people now, with different lifestyles, and our land use needs to reflect that.

Some try to disparage urbanism by claiming that it’s a foolish attempt to recapture the past.  But that’s a strawman argument, falsely attributing a characteristic just so it can be criticized.

No, urbanism is about taking the best of all past practices (admittedly, there were more good ideas before World War II than after) and applying those ideas to who we are today.  Urbanism isn’t about walking around in top hats; it’s about walking around in cargo pants, using our phones to navigate through a city that is environmentally and financially sustainable.

I still appreciate what Bridget did for the ballclub two decades ago.  And if she wanted to complain about the occasional electric guitar riff in the middle of the Star-Spangled Banner, then I was willing to listen to her in good humor.  But if she, or anyone else, were to take the same rigid attitude toward land use planning, then I’d be unhappy.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Quarterly quirks

Urbanism doesn’t necessarily lend itself to practical jokes.  However, as in most realms of human endeavor, it has potential for quirkiness and whimsy.  That’s close enough for me to offer a quarterly urbanist celebration of April Fool’s Day.

I try to schedule these posts for right around the first days of January, April, July, and October, but this one slipped away from me.  I was so distracted by the block party twists and turns that I lost track of time.  Perhaps the April Fool’s joke was on me.

In this post, I’ll look at the world’s largest game of Tetris, art based on the sky as seen between urban buildings, street fun that makes block parties look tame, a light show using shipyard cranes, and an imperfect and illegal use of transit.

Set aside a few minutes for this post.  There are videos you need to see.

Tetris: I know that watching others play video games has become a major source of entertainment for younger generations.  I don’t quite understand it, but I’ll admit that watching geeks play Tetris on a Philadelphia skyscraper was compelling.  I found myself as intrigued by the play as if I was playing the game myself.  And I was disappointed that the video was barely more than a minute long.

Sky Art: Most of us catch a glimpse of a bluebird sky between tall buildings and are pleased that we won’t need umbrellas.  French artist Thomas Lamadieu sees the sky as a blank canvas for elaborate doodlesMy favorite is the three artists inventing the cosmos in the second picture from the bottom.  It’s the new creation myth for our time.

Ultimate Water Slide: I was pleased to see water slides at Petaluma block parties.   Artist Luke Jerram blew right past inflatable water slides with a 300-foot water slide down a steep street in Bristol, England.  The allure of sliding for a city block on a thin film of water and soap was sufficiently alluring that tickets were allocated by lottery.

Lighting up the Shipyard: The Croatian city of Pula was considering removal of obsolete shipyard cranes to create a tourist center.  But lighting designed Dean Skira saw an opportunity to turn idea on its head by converting the cranes into a tourist attraction.  Normally I’m not a big fan of synchronized music and lights, finding the concept forced and unconvincing.  But about two minutes into this video, when the music turned to the theme from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, I was captivated.

A Bad Use of Transit: I’m a member of the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee.  One of our goals is to boost ridership for Petaluma Transit.  However, one group we’ve never marketed is bank robbers looking to make their getaways on city buses.  Based on this historical review by Eric Jaffe of City Labs, our decision was probably wise.  Robbers making getaways don’t seem a particular well-behaved ridership group, nor are they likely to become repeat riders.  I particularly like the robber who had to use the proceeds from his robbery to buy a transit pass because he’d failed to do so before the robbery.

In my next post, I’ll tell a tale from my baseball past that has a moral for our cities’ futures.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Community Tables

A few years ago, I had a free afternoon in Boston.  I took the subway to Cambridge to wander the Harvard campus.  Hungry from my walk, I found a burger place across Massachusetts Avenue from the campus.  Although I didn’t recognize the name at the time, I’ve since learned that Mr. Bartley’s has been an institution to generations of Harvard students.  (For the fellow graduates of my alma mater, Mr. Bartley’s is to Harvard what Top Dog is to Cal.)

I ordered one of their signature burgers and looked for a place to sit.  The smaller tables were all occupied.  There were open chairs at the central community table, but I wasn’t sure that I would be comfortable at a community table that was half-filled with Harvard students.  My concern wasn’t about the relative standing of Harvard and Cal, the two schools compare well, but more about being a fifty-something tourist sharing a space with a group of twenty-something college students.  So I found a place at a counter and ate my burger in solitude,

Over my life, I’ve made a lot of decisions, some of which didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped and some of which I truly regret.  But few seem as completely clueless as passing on the chance to sit at a community table across the street from the Harvard campus.

There was a chance that I might have found common ground with someone at the community table.  Admittedly, it’s more likely that I would have eaten my lunch in silence, but by choosing a spot at a counter, I assured a silent lunch.  I traded a small chance of a memorable lunch for zero chance.  And that was a remarkably dumb decision.  Community tables offer a chance of serendipitous connections and should be embraced.

 I don’t recall community tables in the restaurants of my youth.  They seem to be a recent re-entry into the restaurant scene.  But they’re a welcome addition.  From an urbanist perspective, they’re a fine addition to city life.  By allowing more flexibility in the accommodation of different sized dining groups, they allow space to be used more efficiently, always a key element of an urban setting.  Also, they open the door to possible fortuitous meetings among people who otherwise wouldn’t have met, the possibility that I mistakenly eschewed.

I’m beginning to see enough community tables in the North Bay that I won’t attempt to list all of them here.  I’d be slighting a restaurant that I should be praising.  But I’ll offer a few examples.

Ray’s, about which I wrote in my last post, has a couple of elegant natural wood slab community tables (pictured above).

The La Dolce Vita wine bar in Petaluma’s Theatre Square has a community table that I’ve occasionally shared with others.

The Aqus CafĂ© in Petaluma, where Urban Chat meets, doesn’t have a specific community table, but have a multitude of small, easily movable tables that are often configured into a community table.

When you find yourself in a restaurant with a community table, recognize that you’re dining at a place with an urbanist flavor.  And if circumstances permit, don’t be afraid to sit at the community table and to say hello to a stranger.

For those who may be wondering, the burger at Mr. Bartley’s was fine.  I hope to return someday.  And to sit at the community table.

In my next post, I’ll offer another quarterly summary of urban oddities and quirks.  I try to write on this topic at the three-month anniversaries of April Fool’s Day, but I’m about two weeks late this quarter.  I became so wrapped up in block parties that time slipped away.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Monday, July 14, 2014

Fitting a Meeting Place into a Neighborhood

Many years ago, my wife and I took an anniversary trip to London.  Planning for a stay of nearly two weeks and unwilling to pay hotel prices for that many nights, I looked for a flat to rent.  I found one a few blocks south of St. James Park.  It was a fine location from which to explore London with the St. James Tube station only a block away.

Between the flat and the Tube station was a small pub.  Most of the week, it was a sleepy place.  As I recall, my wife and I ate pub fare there one evening and I might have tipped a pint there on another occasion.  The place was usually more than half empty.

But on Friday evenings, it boomed.  All the nearby office workers stopped in for a pint or two before jumping onto the Tube to begin their weekends.  There were more patrons than the establishment could contain, so they spilled onto the sidewalk.  And when the sidewalk was full, they moved into the street, still holding their beer mugs.  (Alcohol control is different in England than in California.)

Eventually, the pub patrons filled enough of the street that the two-way traffic had to take alternating turns using the only lane that remained open and pedestrians had to work their way around the edge of the crowd.  But no horns were honked and no one complained.  Everyone seemed to give a free pass to good-natured Friday evening drinking.

Although I had no interest in braving the Friday evening mob for a pint of my own, I enjoyed the scene, all the while doubting that I would see the equivalent in California.

Adjusting for the fact that California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control would never allow drinkers to congregate off the sidewalk blocking a traffic lane, I wrong.  Within the posts and chains that limit the area of alcohol consumption, Ray’s Delicatessen and Tavern on the west side of Petaluma is much like that London pub.

And even outside of the posts and chains, Ray’s non-drinking customers tend to congregate on the sidewalks and in the first few feet of the crosswalks, occasionally causing traffic to slow.  Only a few drivers show annoyance.

It’s a friendly, comfortable, non-pretentious place that seems to expand and contract to conform to the number of patrons.

In fact, one can argue that Ray’s beats the London pub on a couple of points.  In place of English pub fare, Ray’s deli serves sandwiches and salads that beat pub fare any day.

And more importantly to urbanism, Ray’s is tucked within a residential neighborhood.  Having a friendly, comfortable place for good food and beverage somewhere in town is a good thing.  Having it a walkable distance from home is even better.  (I live a long block from Ray’s.)

Ray’s and its small group of westside brethren, a picturing framing shop next door, a convenience market, barbershop, and lighting shop a short distance down Western Avenue, and the DeSchmire restaurant on Bodega Avenue, have the distinction of being the most isolated businesses in Petaluma, furthest from any other commercial  establishment.  (If I’ve missed other candidates, let me know.)

And those westside stores are fine additions to the community.  Every bit of business that can be conducted on foot is one less car on the road.

One of the founding fathers of urbanism, Andres Duany, regularly makes a point about Charleston, South Carolina.  He loves the city and uses it to judge zoning codes.  In his phrase, “If you can’t build Charleston under a proposed zoning code, then the zoning code is no good.”

I’d make the same argument about Ray’s.  If your zoning code wouldn’t allow you to build another Ray’s anywhere in the community, then your zoning code isn’t good enough.  And very few zoning codes meet that test.

Drop by Ray’s one day for lunch and ask yourself if you’d want a Ray’s within a walkable distance of your home.  If so, congratulations, you’re an urbanist.  And I know a London pub you’d really enjoy.

In my next post, I’ll build on a theme related to Ray’s, community tables.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)