Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Using Transit for More than Work and Shopping

Using transit for work and shopping is great.  But the world really opens up when transit can be used for the full range of life.

For my first post-college job, I lived in the East Bay and commuted by BART into San Francisco, walking a few blocks from the Montgomery Street station into the South of Market neighborhood, before SOMA was cool.

I loved beginning my day on a BART train.  (Okay, weekends were even better, but if one must work, a rail commute beats the heck out of a car commute.)  I enjoyed reading Herb Caen and the Sporting Green on my way into the City in the morning.  And on the way home, I’d often ride with a coworker, talking about ongoing projects and new marketing prospects.  I deplored the occasional day when I had to drive my car to work.  It was a lousy way to begin a day.

But even better than the daily BART commute was when I could use BART in the evening hours.  It seemed almost magical how I could find ways to organize my social and recreational life around BART.

Many evenings, my coworkers and I would play city league volleyball or softball.  Perhaps we’d unwind afterwards with beer and pizza and I’d then catch BART home.  Other times, I met friends for the symphony or theatre before ending my day on a BART train.

But perhaps my favorite BART outing was a Chinese New Year when a friend invited several of us to watch the parade from the balcony of his North Beach apartment while sipping wine.  Afterwards, we walked through the deserted financial district to catch one of the last BART trains home.  It was a fine evening that would have been much less fun if we’d had to worry about traffic, parking, and designating a driver.

These days, my use of transit is more limited.  The North Bay doesn’t offer the rich transit opportunities of elsewhere in the Bay Area.  But I still fondly remember the time in my life when transit was an integral part of my world.

These days, I also sit on the Transit Advisory Committee for the City of Petaluma.  In that role, I’ve often pushed to expand service beyond the current 6am to 7pm schedule.  However, I understood that the funding realities of transit limited our opportunities.

But a grant has come to Petaluma Transit that may allow us to dip our toes into evening service.  Perhaps not “ride home after Chinese New Year parade” service, but at least “ride home after an early evening movie” service.

Nor is the grant big enough to ensure that the service extension will be permanent.  Funding may only stretch for a couple of years.  It’ll be up the community to embrace the service, with sufficient ridership that fares plus possible future grants will allow the evening service to continue past 2016.

And that’s the question Petaluma Transit staff and the Transit Advisory Committee is now pondering.  How do we attract enough riders to make evening service successful?

Personally, I’m intrigued by the thought of high school students heading downtown for 6pm movies, exploring the limits of their world without adult oversight.  It’s an opportunity that I wish I’d had when I was their age.

But perhaps there are other demographic segments that can make even better use of evening bus service.

If you have thoughts to share, or are interested in getting more information, Petaluma Transit will host several meetings about evening service.  On Wednesday, April 23, transit staff will host community outreach sessions at two locations.  From 10am to noon, they’ll be at the Senior Center.  Then they’ll move across the lake and host outreach at the Petaluma Community Center from 1pm to 7pm.  If April 23 isn’t convenient for some, both sessions will be repeated, same times and places, on Tuesday, May 6.

Evening services won’t be the only topic to be discussed at the outreach meetings.  A fare increase will also be offered for public input.

Under state law, a test is applied to the ratio of fare box revenue to operating revenue.   If the standard isn’t met, some state funds may be redirected away from the transit agency.

Petaluma Transit is complies with the fare box recovery standard.  The recent boost from 150,000 riders per year to over 350,000 per year has assisted.  But operating costs have risen to support the higher ridership and will continue to rise due to inflation. 

A fare increase would position Petaluma Transit relative to the fare box standard such that another fare increase wouldn’t be needed for years.

Also, other North Bay communities have increased transit fares in recent years, leaving Petaluma among the lowest fares.  Even with the modest fare increase under discussion, Petaluma Transit fares would remain among the lowest fares in the North Bay and the greater Bay Area.

Petaluma Transit has been doing well.  Evening services and a fare increase would set it up to do even better in the future.  Please come on April 23 or May 6 and be part of the conversation.  I’ll attend portions of several of the sessions and would be pleased to chat.

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

Are We Fooling Ourselves about Parks?

I’ve previously written that one of the fuels of drivable suburbia is self-myths, stories about ourselves that we’d like to believe to be true, but aren’t.

Although it’s declining as a demographic segment, let me use the nuclear family as an example.  Mom fantasizes about serving drinks in a formal living room while wearing a black cocktail dress.  Dad thinks he’ll become a barbecue master with the right set-up and a bit of practice.  And both parents picture their children playing in a backyard pool before settling in to do homework in their study cubbyholes.

 But the reality is that Mom doesn’t even own a black cocktail dress, the last time Dad grilled anything other than hot dogs he needed a fire extinguisher to douse the flames, the pool is filled with moldering leaves, and the children haven’t done homework in months and will be lucky to get C’s.

But meanwhile the family found a home to support their myths, a four-bedroom house on a quarter-acre lot, surrounded by other four-bedroom houses on quarter-acre lots, and everyone drives everywhere because the low density can’t support walkability.  Meanwhile, no one is happy because the failure to conform to their myths weighs on them and because their suburban setting doesn’t meet their psychological needs.

(I suspect that the happiest folks are those who’re honest and insightful about how they live their lives and find homes that accommodate those lives.  But that’s a topic for another time.)

Today, I’ll offer another myth to add to the story.  The parents expect that their children will happily spend their Sunday afternoons gamboling in the grassy sward of a neighborhood park, perhaps romping with other children.  But the apparent reality is the children have no interest in neighborhood parks.  Nonetheless, because everyone from parents to zoning code authors to planning staffs to city councils believed that the neighborhood parks are needed, many exist, often empty but sucking up municipal funds.

This tentative conclusion is based on recent observations I’ve been making.  Twice before, I’ve written about the number of park users that I found around Petaluma on sunny Sunday afternoons.  I recently took another trip around town to collect a third set of data points.

There are five neighborhood parks at which I’m asked to make periodic observations in my role on the Petaluma Recreation, Music, and Parks Commission.  During my first springtime visit, I found 32 folks using the five parks.  Disheartened, I hoped for more during my next visit.  Instead the total had declined to 20.

Nor did the trend improve during my third springtime visit.  Again counting heads near midday on a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon, I found a total of eight people in my five parks.  Seven of them were clustered in a single park, with three of my parks completely empty.

Even more telling, every group of people that I spied was adult-led.  There wasn’t a single instance of a child or a group of children coming to a park on their own.  The myth of children going to a neighbor park without adult encouragement and supervision was apparently dead, at least on this Sunday afternoon in Petaluma.

That doesn’t mean that all Petaluma parks were underused on that day.  I continued onward to Leghorn Park, where I’d found had found over 100 park users on my previous visit.  This time, perhaps there wasn’t a Little League game being contested, the count was down to about 75, but good use was still being made of the broader range of park amenities.  And there was again a flow of people between the park and the adjoining Parkway Plaza shopping center.

However, I found only two people at Eagle Park, a park close to Leghorn and similar in size, but without the breadth of amenities or the retail proximity.  At least it was an improvement over the empty park that I’d found on my previous visit.

Lastly, I swung by McNear Park.  In response to a previous post, a reader suggested the McNear was the westside equivalent of Leghorn.  It was a good comment.  When I dropped by, there were about 50 people engaged in a variety of activities.  McNear lacks the breadth of facilities, the well-integrated design, and the retail proximity of Leghorn, but it stands far above the neighborhood parks on my checklist.

As I’ve written before, three Sundays of observations doesn’t prove anything.  There are people who spent years studying how parks are used and their insights should be rated far above mine.  However, among those people are writers such as William Whyte and Jan Gehl whose findings seemingly support my observations.

If my Sunday observations and broader studies with which they’re consistent are valid, what direction does that set for parks?

To begin, neighborhood parks, especially if all they include is a swath of grass, a few benches and a play structure, are badly underutilized and probably unneeded in their current form.

That isn’t to say that neighborhood parks can’t have a function.  In “Happy City”, author Charles Montgomery offers a supported argument that people are happier when they have a daily interaction with nature, even if the interaction is at a distance.  So, neighborhood parks, even if underused, may still function as a backdrop for relatively more contented lives.  So the challenge may be to reconfigure neighborhood parks toward the “biophilia” function and away from the mythical childhood play function, perhaps saving a few municipal dollars in the process.

Also, the decline of neighborhood parks doesn’t mean that parks in general are a failing idea.  I can name at least four other types of parks that are doing well.  Those types, with Petaluma examples, are:

·         Multi-faceted parks that attract a variety of users, reaching a critical mass where people show up to watch the people who are already there.  Petaluma examples: Leghorn and McNear Parks.

·         Parks for organized sports.  Petaluma examples: Lucchesi, Princeton, and the upcoming East Washington Park.

·         Native parks for hiking and biking.  Petaluma example: Helen Putnam Park.

·         Downtown plazas.  Petaluma examples: Putnam Plaza and, to a lesser extent, Walnut Park.

It’s an interesting time to be a parks commissioner.  I look forward to my continuing duties, especially if it means breaking down further myths.

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, April 14, 2014

Meddling with “Free Markets”

An opinion piece about plastic grocery store bags was published last week in the Argus Courier, Petaluma’s weekly paper.  The author, Trevor Smith, argued that charging for plastic bags in grocery stores was an unwarranted interference in the free market.

I don’t agree with him.  But I’m more interested in a couple of the propositions that are implicit in his argument.  He proposes that we have now is a free market system.  And he proposes that local interference with an existing market system is usually unjustified.

I’ll explore both propositions because they bear directly on urbanism.

I believe in of minimizing the fetters on marketplaces.  I believe there’s a huge amount of creativity that can bubble up in a relatively free market, creativity that would improve our world.  But I also believe that a completely free market is a near impossibility and almost always undesirable.

Do you believe that car dealers should be responsible if they sell a car that requires an exorbitant number of repairs?  Do you believe that clothing manufacturers should be barred from selling flammable pajamas?  Do you believe that farmers shouldn’t use pesticides that could harm the health of consumers? 

I expect that most of us say “yes” to all three of those questions.  This means that we endorse regulations on a free market.  Good for us.

The result is libraries full of rule books governing everything from cars, pajamas, and farming to the generation of electrical power and the structural strength of 2-by-4s.  And in case the regulations aren’t enough, we add multiple volumes of a tax code intended to encourage some behaviors and discourage others.

Like most, I wish we can find a more efficient, and less voluminous, way to manage the marketplace.  But I absolutely believe that markets must be regulated.

Based on that understanding of our marketplace, can it be appropriate to impose local adjustments on the marketplace?  To pluck an example from above, imagine that a clothing manufacturer found a way around the flammable pajama regulations and began selling pajamas that could easily catch fire.  Further imagine that Washington, D.C. became tangled in partisan strife and was unable to close the loophole.  (Admittedly, not much imagination is required on that point.)  Would the North Bay cities and counties be justified in banning the sale of the pajamas?

Perhaps Mr. Smith would argue otherwise, but I believe that it is a duty of local government to correct egregious mistakes in marketplace regulation, so a ban on the sale of flammable pajamas is fully justified.  I hope that most agree.

Turning now to the question of plastic bags, many, I among them, argue the costs of plastics haven’t been sufficiently internalized, that the geopolitical costs of oil extraction, the air quality costs of plastics manufacturing, and the environmental costs of waste should be shifted away from citizens and governments and toward manufacturers and users.

Presumably the primary lesson learned from Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is the ease in which a giant machine and 239 people can disappear, even in a world that many feel is over monitored.  But right behind that is the lesson learned from the extended search, the lesson that there is a lot of garbage floating around in the ocean, much of it plastic, even when far from shorelines and shipping lanes.  And that’s only one aspect of the plastics industry.

If a community, such as Petaluma, is convinced that the Washington, D.C. legislative and regulatory processes on plastics have broken down, with one result being that too many plastic bags ending up in our waterways and oceans, does the Petaluma City Council have the right to impose rules to impede that flow of plastic?  I argue that they have that right.  Indeed, they have the moral imperative.

Having covered flammable pajamas and plastic bags, let’s turn the final milepost and hit the homestretch, the question of urbanism.

On a number of points which have often been delineated in this blog, drivable suburban development has been granted a huge market advantage over walkable suburban development.  Some of the advantages are the reduced price of gas which allows travel to suburbs, subsidized roads, subsidized parking, preferential mortgage treatment, and construction litigation law that favors single-family construction.

There are a number of programs that have tried to push back against the marketplace advantages, most notably redevelopment.  But redevelopment was largely co-opted by drivable suburbia before it was terminated.  And the remaining programs are like a row of traffic cones in front of the steamroller that is the marketplace-advantaged drivable suburbia. 

If a city looks at the overall marketplace and decides that the market decreed by Washington, D.C.  isn’t giving it the type of city that it needs to be successful in the future, does it have the right to modify local regulations to give it the shape of city it believes it needs?  In the same way that it can ban flammable pajamas or free plastic bags, it certainly can.  And I believe that it should.

None of us are smart enough to know what our cities and towns would look like today if we hadn’t surrendered to the automobile a century ago.  If we continued to promote walking and transit riding as the equals of car driving.  If we hadn’t put free parking on a pedestal.  If we had internalized more of the environmental costs of gas when they began to be evident.

But it’s clear that our cities and towns wouldn’t look as they do now.  And it’s likely they’d be better configured for future sustainability and success.  Perhaps the distorted marketplace has its roots in Washington. D.C, but we’re justified in pushing for regulatory changes in Sacramento and in our local town halls to begin getting us back on track.

During the time I’ve been writing this blog, numerous folks have challenged me to “Let the free market make land use decisions.”  I have a ready response.  “That sounds great and I’m glad you agree with me.  How should we go about restoring the correct gasoline price, removing parking subsidies, changing mortgage regulations, etc.?”

Yes, I know I’m mocking them, but it’s fun to watch them get flustered.  And maybe it gives them something to think about.

It turns out that plastic bags, flammable pajamas, and urbanism have something in common.

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, April 11, 2014

Public Plazas in Springtime

It was about a year ago when the finish line of the Boston Marathon was disrupted by domestic terrorism.  In the days that followed, there were many who spoke about a fear of public places and an unwillingness to return to them.

In response, I wrote that interaction in public places was a necessary component of a free society.  While a respite from plazas and parks was understandable, we owed it to our neighbors and to ourselves to return to the public realm as soon as possible.

And we did so, although surely more because of our ability to put bad times into context rather than because of any eloquence I brought to the topic.  Last weekend, my wife met a group of girlfriends for brunch in a restaurant fronting a downtown plaza.  For days afterward, she recalled with delight the scenes of people walking dogs, sipping coffee, and enjoying the sociability of a warm Saturday morning.

Public plazas are an essential place of public interaction and discourse, which must be protected and enhanced for societies to be free.

Luckily for us, our North Bay plazas are generally peaceable places.  But that isn’t true elsewhere in the world.  Public places are where civil dissent against authoritarian rule ferments.  Most recently, this was true of Independence Square in Kiev where Ukrainians gathered to argue for a more European style of government.  The movement eventually pushed President Viktor Yanukovych into exile, a story of which the final chapters are still being written.

Independence Square was only the most recent example of public places as a site of civil dissent, a list that also includes Tahrir Square in Cairo, Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and even the Parisian boulevards of the 19th century.

Writing in Atlantic Cities, Matt Ford offers a brief history of the role of public plazas in dictatorships, both in overturning dictators and in the design of public places to suppress dissent.  (I don’t find that Ford reaches any overarching conclusions, but the historical review is worthwhile.)

On a more domestic front, former New York City Planning Director Amanda Burden recently spoke to a TED gathering about public places in New York City.  Burden has appeared in this blog previously when I described her in my review of the movie “Urbanized” as “an over-dressed, role-playing drone.” 

Unfortunately, she doesn’t come off much better in the TED video.  Her insights about public places could have come directly from college textbooks.  But, however vapid and derivative her insights and ideas, she used the position of New York City Planning Director to accomplish good things for her city, for which she deserves credit.

But even more important than articles and videos about public plazas, it’s springtime and a weekend approaches.  Whatever else may be in your plans, you owe it to yourself and to your community to visit a public plaza this weekend.  Perhaps I’ll see you there.

And if you live in a community that lacks a plaza such as Healdsburg Town Square, Sonoma Plaza, Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa, or even Putnam Plaza in Petaluma, perhaps you can also take a few minutes to email your city council about your disappointment in the deficiency.  I’d be on your side as would most believers in democracy and the freedom of assembly.

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, April 9, 2014

Laguna West: Failed Execution

In recent weeks, I’ve written about a daytrip I took to several Northern California cities.  I was looking for urbanism insights to be gleaned during quick visits.  Today I’ll write about my last stop.  After the big box misdirection in Woodland, the ill-conceived environmental priorities in North Highlands, and the misallocation of resources in Carmichael, I thought I’d seen the worst.  I was wrong.  Failed execution on a large scale is even more painful.

Laguna West was among early darlings of the new urbanism movement.  Conceived in 1990, it was intended to show the world that urbanist principles could be met even in a post-World War II world that directed all of its incentives toward drivable sprawl.

With a conceptual plan that was developed by Peter Calthorpe and his fledgling Calthorpe Associates, a firm that was to have a long and illustrious history in urbanist theorizing, Laguna West could have become a model for later urbanists to meet and to exceed.

But the plan went awry.

It’s not completely clear what happened.  Although barely two decades old, the fall of Laguna West came before the full blossoming of the internet which documents so many of our missteps and miscalculations.  So we’re left to interpret from the shadows on the wall.

Perhaps Calthorpe was still refining his thinking.  Perhaps it was the reduced involvement of Calthorpe during execution of the plan.  Perhaps it was the influence of financiers who were uncomfortable with new ideas.  Perhaps it was the decision by regional authorities to not extend light rail into Laguna West.  Perhaps it was a combination of all of those factors.  But the result is a project that looks different than its neighbors, but not nearly as different as it could have and should have. 

The use of alleys and the resulting absence of driveways is probably the most striking difference.  But the weakness of the public realm failed to create an active life on the streets.  Some of the streets have creative street tree placements, softening the hard lines of the streets, but the rights-of-way are lined by concrete block walls, sucking any attraction from the setting.  Many of the homes appear well-built, but some neighborhoods are prematurely showing their age.  Overall, Laguna West failed to have the spark that good urbanism should display.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of the shortfall was the sterile and unattractive retail area at the north end of
Laguna West.  It lacks vitality and is far beyond a comfortable walk for most residents.

My perception of Laguna West was further tainted by the route I took to reach it.  The development lies on the north end of Elk Grove, between Highway 99 and I-5.  Not knowing any better, I took 99 to reach it.  Indeed, the exit from 99 is called Laguna Boulevard after the project.  But Laguna Boulevard has been corrupted by the drivable suburban mode that has swallowed the comfortable small-town Elk Grove that I remember from youth.  The street is six car-dedicated lanes of mind-numbing service to every big box and chain restaurant ever conceived.

The failure of Laguna West has had repercussions.  Opponents of new urbanism have used it as an example of why urbanism doesn’t work.  Their arguments are flawed, failing to recognize that the urbanist ideals of Laguna West were derailed before construction, but they nonetheless use the project as a talking point.

The initial developer of Laguna West, during a later run for California governor, was criticized for the failings of Laguna West, attacks that were probably unfair but still left an impression.

In a 2006 San Francisco article, reprinted on the Calthorpe Associates website, Calthorpe acknowledged the failing of Laguna West, but tried to put a positive spin on it.  “His optimistic take is that progress is a gradual thing. Developers and buyers are more comfortable now with a type of suburbia that is different from the 1950s norm.

"’There's no such thing as instant community, but you can build the right foundation,’ he argued at breakfast. "’What we're seeing is way better than the template it replaced. Given time it will be as rich and diverse and complex as all the places we love.’"

I agree that Laguna West was a step in the right direction, but it was a halting, stumbling step when a bold, confident step would have better served our future.  I’m not assigning blame.  I don’t think there was a villain.  Instead, it was a combination of failed vision and business-as-usual that undermined what could have been a milestone.

My disheartening tour of Laguna West complete, I was ready to head home.  My Northern California tour was done.  Suisun City remained the only highlight.  It was a somber drive home to the North Bay.  This urbanism thing seems so logical and right, but is so easily led astray.

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, April 7, 2014

Are We Happy Yet?

I’m not good at book reviews.  A good reviewer should finish the book, cogitate upon the full extent of the thesis being argued, and then write about the complete book.

But I can’t finish a book before beginning my cogitation.  I come across a chapter, a paragraph, or even a single idea that captures my attention and I want to write about it and to expand upon it.  And if there are no chapters, paragraphs, or ideas that capture my attention, then I may never finish the book.

Perhaps this book review deficiency is a character flaw.  But I don’t care.  I like being excited by ideas.  And I like sharing that excitement.  And if that means that I share my thoughts about a thought-provoking land use book at a half-dozen different times and places, I’ll live with that.  I’d rather have enthusiasm than good form.

Earlier in the history of this blog, I wrote book reviews about entire books.  “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, “The Power Broker”, “Wrestling with Moses”, “Pocket Neighborhoods”, and “The Geography of Nowhere”.   I think all were perfectly competent book reviews, but none had the passion of taking a single element from a “Walkable City”, such as pedestrian interest, and expounding upon it.  So that’s how I’ll write about books from here onward.

And that’s how I’ll write about “Happy City” by Charles Montgomery.  I first introduced “Happy City” a little more than a month ago.  Since then, I’ve read and reread much of it.  Today, I want to focus on a single argument that Montgomery makes particularly well and that’s key to the thesis that he puts forth.

Montgomery argues that our ideas of happiness are understandable from an evolutionary perspective, but nonetheless flawed in our contemporary world, undermining our happiness, our financial wealth, and even the health of our planet.

As Montgomery writes, there was an evolutionary benefit to acquisition.  The hunter who wasn’t happy with killing a saber-toothed tiger, but instead continued to hunt for a mastodon, was more likely to survive and to procreate.  Even if the hunter was goaded into further hunting by watching a nearby hunter stalk a mastodon, the evolutionary advantage was still secured.  So we’re born with “keeping up with the Jones” hard-wired into us.

That hard-wiring presents itself as the sense that we’ll be “happy” with the next big acquisition, whether it’s a new luxury car or a bigger suburban house.  But the first problem is that our perception of happiness, to the extent that happiness is based on material possessions, is affected by what others around us possess.  So if we move into a new upscale neighborhood, thinking that we’ll be happy, all we’ve done is to put ourselves among people who own more things than we do, moving the threshold of “happiness” further away.

And so we chase better cars and bigger homes all the way to the urban fringe and beyond, pursuing a phantom dream.

Even worse, not only do we not find happiness in suburbia, we often find the reverse.  Personal happiness correlates adversely with length of commute.  And the children that we think will benefit from bigger bedrooms and backyards often find suburbia boring, turning to alcohol, drugs, and law-breaking for excitement.

A prevalent school of political thought is based on the concept of the “invisible hand” as first suggested by philosopher John Locke.  The argument is that our world is best served if we all seek our individual well-being, with the collective result representing the best possible set of rules.  The problem is that we, in our rush to suburbia, have been making poor decision regarding our happiness.  And if we can’t make good individual decisions, then the “invisible hand” is clumsy and ineffective.  Perhaps we can even say that it’s slapping us upside the head.

To add two final layers of misery to our false path, we struggle to maintain the infrastructure needed to maintain our far-flung world, putting further stress on our personal and government finances.  And the energy needed to sustain our sprawling places adds momentum to the growing spectre of climate change.

Our obsolete evolutionary path to happiness has led us to a perfect storm of discontent and pending despair.

Is it possible to turn around on the path?  Perhaps.  Certainly some communities and countries have shown paths to happiness that aren’t based on unbridled acquisition.  It’s where Montgomery goes next in “Happy City”.  And it’s where I’ll be following him in future posts.

Perhaps I’ll never provide a single, comprehensive review of “Happy City”.  But I can say unequivocally that it’s an important book which is worthy of your attention.

Schedule Note

If the above subject intrigues or excites you, you should participate in Petaluma Urban Chat.

As previously noted, Urban Chat will get together this week.  We’ll meet at the Aqus CafĂ© at 2nd and H Streets in Petaluma on Tuesday, April 8.  We’ll convene for conversation at 5:30, with the discussion beginning at 5:45.  The first five chapters of “Happy City” will be our topic of discussion.

Even if you haven’t yet read the book, you should find the conversation engaging.  Hopefully sufficiently engaging that you’ll findH a copy of the book and read along.

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, April 4, 2014

Combining Baseball and Downtowns in 2014

I intend to fully celebrate the connection of baseball and urbanism in 2014.  I hope readers can join me for a game or two.

Every spring I struggle with how I feel about baseball versus urbanism.  On one hand, baseball takes up a lot of space for a small number of participants, unlike let’s say basketball.  And low density isn’t good for urbanism.  On the other hand, baseball can be played most days, so doesn’t leave a neighborhood bereft of pedestrians for weeks on end, unlike let’s say football.

For me, it comes down to roots.  Baseball evolved on the grassy open spaces of New York City, not far from where the famous Flatiron Building now stands.  The first recorded game was played directly across the Hudson River in Hoboken.  And I still thrill to the reports of city dwellers congregating in the streets of the early 20th century, awaiting reports on how their team was faring in the World Series.  And those facts are enough to make baseball an urban game.

(Cooperstown is a lovely village, but its connection to the origins of baseball is nothing but a fairy tale told by a xenophobic old man who refused to believe that baseball could have evolved from a European game.)

Luckily for us, there are many opportunities to combine the enjoyment of baseball and urban settings here in the North Bay and nearby.

Through the spring, the local high schools provide entertaining options.  (I’m often tempted to stop at the high school ballfield in my neighborhood.  The sound of bat meeting ball is a persuasive seductress.)  Sonoma State and Santa Rosa Junior College also provide opportunities to dawdle away warm spring afternoons, as do youth baseball programs.

But the real stars of the baseball universe are the teams that allow us to lean back and enjoy a ballgame on a summer evening, surrounded by the sound of infield chatter and the aromas of popcorn and grilled hot dogs.

A year ago, I wrote about the San Rafael Pacifics and Vallejo Admirals of the independent Pacific Association.  This year, those two teams have been joined by the Sonoma Stompers and Pittsburg Mettle.  Rather than flying to Hawaii for some games as the Pacifics and Admirals did in 2013, the four teams will play a summer-long round-robin in the North and East Bays, offering a pair of games on most nights.

(Note: For four years, I was the part-owner of a team in an independent league, so have a particular affection for that level of play.  It doesn’t offer the skill one would find on a Major League diamond, but there is something compelling about young men so attached to the game of baseball that they’ll devote another summer or two of their post-college days to chasing the dream, even after they weren’t drafted by a big league club.)

In the same post of a year ago, I mentioned the college summer league clubs in Walnut Creek and Alameda.  Although in a different league, the Healdsburg Prune Packers also play college summer baseball.

For 2014, I’m committed to attending home games for all seven of those baseball teams.  And I’ll schedule my outings to include time to wander around the downtowns of San Rafael, Vallejo, Sonoma, Pittsburg, Walnut Creek, Alameda, and Healdsburg.

I had hoped to provide dates for all seven ballpark visits in this post.  However, some of the ballclub schedules haven’t yet been posted.  Within a couple of weeks, I’ll announce the seven dates.  I hope that many readers will be able to join me for a game or two.

Readers may note that I haven’t yet mentioned either of the Bay Area Major League ballclubs.  I have nothing against Major League Baseball.  Most evenings, I have a Major League ballgame playing in the background as I work on a blog post or other task.  And I’ve been enjoying outings to Major League ballparks for more than a half century.

But I’ve had even more fun at minor league and amateur games.  At this time, including the outings describedabove, I’m scheduled to attend 29 ballgames this summer.  And not one is a Major League game.  I’ll watch several games in downtown Stockton, within a community struggling through its municipal bankruptcy, and another handful of games in downtown Reno, surrounded by casinos and music venues.

I’ll see games at the new ballpark in downtown El Paso, home of the newly-named Chihuahuas.  I’ll see a couple of games in Taos, New Mexico, home of the Blizzard in the independent Pecos League.  (Is there a more evocative league name than the Pecos League?  It sounds like cowboys will stop by with herds of cattle enroute to market.)

If I end up in O.Co Coliseum or AT&T Park, that’d be fine.  I’m sure I’d have a good time.  But I expect to have better times in Alamagordo, Albuquerque, and Healdsburg.

Downtowns and minor league baseball is a tough combination to beat.  I hope you’ll agree with me before the summer is over.


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