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Archive for February, 2008

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Last week, we attended a lunch meeting to hear Prof. Stephen Fuller report on the region’s current and future economy. Steve is a Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, and Director of their Center for Regional Analysis. We try and tune in to Steve’s prognostications every year – he is kind of the Chief Weatherman for matters economic in the metropolitan area. His outlook for the months ahead: not much. We won’t take the dive that other parts of the country might face, mostly due to the Federal presence, soaring procurement, defense contractors, and so on. But we’ll see very little growth in the region’s $370 billion economy.

At the end of his talk, there was time for Q&A. I asked him what he thought would happen as gas prices continued to rise – what would Washingtonians do with $5 or $6 a gallon gas prices. I was hoping he would say that we would instantly build streetcars…

But like a good economist, he said we would follow the Theory of Substitutions: “Consumers, faced with a constant level of income, change purchasing decisions in the wake of price changes.”

Then last night on the news, we heard a report on how locals are dealing with rising gas prices. A woman, shown while she was driving her car somewhere said: “I can’t afford to buy food – I have to buy gas.”

Hmm. Tasty choices ahead.

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Other Lost Cities Found

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Photo by Richard Nickel 

I have had the great pleasure in the last few days of reviewing the manuscript for a soon to be published book by an old Chicago friend, and former client. He’s the writer Ed Zotti, and his book, “The Barn House: Confessions of an Urban Rehabber” comes out in September, published by New American Library/Penguin. It is the story of his rehab of a wonderful old Queen Anne house in a north side Chicago neighborhood. I played a small role in his story – we were the architects for his rehab. Ed and his wife Mary worked on the house for over a dozen years, from their original encampment in a barely heated shell with their kids, to final fit-out and finishes many, many years later.

Ed writes quite hilariously about their trials and suffering – amazing the man could keep his very sharp sense of humor after all they went through. Anyone who has rehabbed an old house will more than appreciate his tale.

But not only does Ed talk about the restoration or recreation of his house. He talks about the restoration of Chicago – its revival and reawakening as a robust and vital place. He calls it the maturation of the city. His discussion of cities, their lives, their arcs of change, their growth and decline and revival, and about what it takes to turn things around, is really a wonderful part of the book.

When he and Mary started into their project, their neighborhood was part of a disappearing city, a layer in Chicago’s life that, more than a dozen years later, has pretty much totally vanished. Thinking back, I remember how sketchy things were then – empty lots, abandoned buildings, crime, lots of messiness. That part of north side Chicago is gone.

The image at the top of the page is from another book about Chicago. It’s called “Richard Nickel’s Chicago: Photographs of a Lost City,” and it’s by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams. Nickel’s photos in this book depict a different, but equally vanished, Chicago. And because he was such a master, they are all very powerful images.

It’s been a nice few days, getting in touch with one of my own lost cities, a city vivid in my memory, and now invisible.

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A Quiet Sunday Morning

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This morning we read a review in the Post of a new collection of short stories by one of our favorite authors, Steven Millhauser. The collection is entitled “Dangerous Laughter,” and we will immediately look for it on the shelves of our Northeast Library.

The reviewer, Jeff Turrentine, quotes from a short story in the book entitled “Here at the Historical Society,” in which a local museum alters its mission to address what the narrator calls the “New Past.”

The revamped museum now has staffers “who count the needles of every fir tree and the specks of mica in every roof shingle, others who study the patterns of grass blades flying up behind a power mower and settling onto the cut grass. We record the sounds of dishes and silverware in the kitchens of our town, the exact fall of the shadows of fence posts and street signs. We investigate the bend in a blue rubber band wrapped around a morning newspaper lying on a sun-striped porch.”

Nice.

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Proposed International Terminal, Wellington, New Zealand 

This is a real proposed building. I did not make this up, I did not find it in The Onion, and it seems to really be headed toward construction. When I discovered it this afternoon, I started laughing – this is so horrific and abysmal that it’s comedic. But when I read the article that accompanied the image, I realized that both client and designer actually are serious, and have seriously convinced themselves of the value of torturing the rest of the world by building this symbol of the abject hopelessness of contemporary culture.

Listen to this: Wellington’s Mayor, Kerry Prendergast, said yesterday, “I don’t think they look like pumpkins, I think they look like rocks.” (Sorry, Mr. Mayor, they look like pumpkins. And here I was thinking that International Terminals were supposed to look like eggplants). Lead architect Nick Barratt-Boyes said he believes the International Terminal will be “New Zealand’s newest iconic building.” Nick also said of the building: “It’s a haven…a secure place…anchored to the ground.”  Just for the record, the building was designed by a collaboration of Studio Pacific Architecture and Warren and Mahoney.

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Proposed Wellington International Terminal, Interior

I believe that architecture and design transmits messages about who we think we are, and what we believe is important. This object says: do whatever you feel like doing, for whatever reason you feel like doing it, and then rationalize it by saying that the quality of what you have done, and the more bizarre the better, resides in its ability to shock, to be singular at all cost, to be ‘self-expressive’ even if that expression is complete gibberish.

After Frank Gehry designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the subsequent positive economic impact that a piece of architecture can have on a city as a tourist destination became known as the ‘Bilbao Effect.’ Many cities then began commissioning all manner of weird buildings by superstar architects in the hope that their communities, too, would benefit as Bilbao did. Most of these buildings are grotesque, or, unfortunately, like the proposed Wellington International Terminal, worse.

I take some solace in this: in a readers survey, nearly half of all respondents classified the building as “hideous, truly hideous,” and 40% said they thought the building to be “ripe for parody.”

Again I refer you to the words of philosopher Alain de Botton: “The notion of buildings that speak helps us to place at the very centre of our architectural conundrums the question of the values we want to live by – rather than merely of how we want things to look.”

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Library of Congress photo 

Sometimes there are moments when layers of city stories reconverge, or loop back on one another. I got to thinking about this when I was daydreaming about the streetcar that used to run on our street, with a stop just steps from our front porch. So I took a moment to snoop around to see how the next city, and the lost city, might make contact with one another.

The story of streetcars in Washington is much like the story of streetcars in every U.S. city. Many transit companies operating independently in the 19th century — horse drawn power to cable power to electric power — consolidation of transit companies in the early 20th century, stagnating ridership in the 20s and 30s as the car and and bus take over, a bit of a blip in ridership during WWII with gas rationing (I will say that again: gas rationing), and then the end. The last streetcar run in DC was on January 28th, 1962.

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DC streetcar map, 1888

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DC streetcar map, 1908

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DC streetcar map, 1958

Many of the cars were sold to Saravejo, where they remained in operation until the war in the 90s. One still runs there, as a kind of trace element of a young boy’s memory of riding down our street in Washington in a streetcar in the late 1920s, getting off in front of our house, and coming up our steps to his house, young Master Harrison, the son of the first owners of our house. Full circle.

Today we are about to see the reintroduction of streetcars in Washington. Some of us are rooting hard for this to happen and the first line should start to appear yet this year. Very limited at first, there will be a whole bunch of lines of streetcars once construction is complete.

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DC streetcar map, 201?

While the streetcar won’t roll down our street, it will run up and down H Street, a mere 4 blocks away. And the first line is due to be H Street. In a city with some of the worst traffic, and worst air pollution, in the country, this simply cannot happen soon enough.

I am reminded of yesterday’s post, and the childhood memories Amy and I shared with a visitor, once a local. His favorite childhood haunt: the shops lining then-prosperous H Street. Once the new streetcar runs down H Street, it will be a significant instrument in that corridor’s revival. Again, full circle, from the lost city to the next city.

Of course it won’t be easy. The pesky Federal government has mandated that no overhead wires can appear in the Monumental Core of the city (the Mall and its surrounds). This means that when the streecar runs across the Mall, it must be powered by some alternate means. Fortunately, hybrid powered systems have already been constructed in Germany and Britain. So the DC streetcar can run on overhead electricity, and then switch to a fuel cell, or a battery powered motor, for trips across the Federal zone.

Fifty years after we ripped out the rails, we now put them back. (Actually, they’re still under the pavement out in front of our house. All we’d need to do is a little light excavation…). What’s old is new again, I guess.

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Stories in Cities

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I am paraphrasing something I read years ago: the best cities are those that can support the richest variety of narratives and memories. I suppose this is a kind of tony way of saying: “There are 8 million stories in the naked city…”

Perhaps the best example of this is Italo Calvino’s wonderful little book, “Invisible Cities,” in which merchant Marco Polo describes 100 fabulous cities to Emperor Kublai Khan, all derived from and versions of one place: Venice. Venice is a great city because Venice can inspire such a richness of memories and stories. There are so many different and yet real Venices for Polo to recall, and relate to the Emperor. 

I am musing about this because yesterday Amy and I spent some time chatting with a fellow who is a bit older than we are, who grew up just a couple of blocks away. He told us stories of riding the streetcar, which used to run outside our front door, of going in awe to Union Station (a place that still instills awe, in my opinion), of shopping on the now dilapidated though reviving H Street, which was then one of DC’s most important retail streets. I realized that he was describing a city we don’t really know. And yet as he said, just a chance aroma will take him back to his favorite H Street bike shop, in the city in his memory that is real, though invisible to us.

His narratives of the city, and ours, are so very different. But when we carefully listen to all of these different stories a whole city begins to emerge. I can only imagine how many millions of Washingtons have piled one on another across time. The more we examine these layers of memory, and listen to each of these stories, the closer we come to the actual city.

When we moved to Washington a colleague here, historian Pam Scott, told us that if we really wanted to understand Capitol Hill, we needed to walk in the alleys. What she meant, I think, is that the alleys were a good place to gain access to the widest array of city stories – alley housing and segregation, waves of development, gentrification, horses becoming cars, workers next door to plutocrats. Here the mundane, the crass, the sad, the vivid, the messy, the outlandish are easiest to uncover.

So over the years we have strolled the alleys as instructed, and she is correct. They are so vividly different from the neat rows of facades along the streets. Capitol Hill’s alleys tell us an enormous variety of stories: architectural, social, cultural, historic. That’s why I started making paintings like these.

Perhaps these quiet alleys are not the best place to find the next city, but they are great places to gain access to a host of last cities, lost cities, and now not so invisible cities.

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Walking in the city this beautiful Saturday, Amy and I wandered over to Eastern Market, which is just beyond our 1/2 mile radius, but a lovely walk nonetheless. The historic market, which burned last spring, is being restored at a good pace, and the temporary market, open since last August across the street, is booming.

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Since the old market is being restored and the temporary market is across the street, officials have closed 7th Street, and a slew of stalls has sprung up – mostly crafts, but today we got some amazing locally made salsa and chips for our pre-dinner snack.

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Adjacent to the temporary market is the flea market, which runs on weekends. Some real nuggets…

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Yum! Cities are great, and should always be tasty in as many ways as possible.

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