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Posts Tagged ‘infrastructure’

My brother Doug and I got into a discussion of blocks and alleys and urbanism on this Thanksgiving Day. He writes quite wonderfully about his neighborhood in Portland, Oregon: Alameda. You can find his work here: www.alamedahistory.org.

He said: “‘I am also working on something about alleys here in northeast Portland. The earlier neighborhoods (before 1911) have alleys. South of Prescott, we don’t have any. What changed, I wonder, to move away from alleys? Was this a national movement that coincided with the car? Hmm. Insights?”

Well, of course he is exactly correct. As the incidence of car ownership rose – and it did so really fast – the alley disappeared, developers platted lots back-to-back, and the American city block became just a bit poorer for the change. Here in Rochester we had 4,000 cars in about 1912, and 40,000 cars less than 10 years later. Simultaneously as the 19 teens unfolded, we had 250′ deep blocks, some of which ran/run on for over 1,500′ as the nascent city took shape.. A real urban mess.

Why a mess? Well long thin blocks means less access, of course less walkability and permeability, eventually less security, and certainly a crimp in urban mobility, whatever your means of locomotion.

Interestingly, it is not that hard to find developers saying, in the early years of the century of the car, that automobiles belonged in front of the house, not at the rear, like horses and carriages. Harrumph.

The gold standard for the American city block form, in my view, is the Chicago block (okay, I am a Chicagoan, but still….). 660′ long, and 350′ deep, from the center of the rights-of-way. This gives you 125’ deep lots, a nice alley, and useable streets.

Decker Typical Block (3).jpg

But similar conventional urban forms can be found in other cities. Even where the urban block form is very large – Salt Lake City comes to mind – there are internal means of movement, which if not alleys, are at least byways that promote some kind of porosity.

salt-lake-block

Salt Lake City block.

All of this left me wondering. I know that there are comparative typologies that examine the city block in American cities. One looks like this:

American_Grid_Comparison

By Isomorphism3000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23516392

Not sure what they were looking at when they did Chicago (it was probably the Loop, where the block form is anomalous), but this is a pretty good summary. In the end though, the sketches, and this entire conversation, beg a few really simple questions: where did the alley come from anyway, how did it work in various urban morphologies, when did it go away (always in the 1910s?), and what were the consequences?

I would have thought that someone would have written a history of the American city block, and the alley. Not so, that I can find.

Maybe you can suggest sources. Any ideas?

 

 

 

 

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Other things are percolating here, but while they brew, here are some peeks at something I’ve had some fun doing: my urban infrastructure lexicon. The project began during a visit to Cutler City, Oregon, to have an art weekend with my dearest and ever-inspiring artist sister.  With her egging me on, I started by sketching the alphabet, like this:

028 (2)

029 (2)

Here are a few of the results. In order, we have “H,”

h

And then “M,”

m

And then “N,”

n

And “O,” (maybe this is “Q”)

o

And finally, “U.”

u

Four bridges and a subway.

I have picked this up again and the ones I am puzzling about at the moment are “G” and “R.” Hmm. We’ll see what happens.

 

 

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The narratives – the stories – that any place has to offer us often occur in multiple chapters. We need to find ways to keep listening as these stories slowly unfold before us. So it is with Carthage – another installment.

1817 was quite a year in this part of the world. For example, in 1811, Nathaniel Rochester began laying out the streets and lots of Rochesterville, his town, and by 1817 the population had soared to nearly 1,500. In that same year, Colonel Rochester sought to ensure the future of his burgeoning community by sitting on a committee that was petitioning the state to bring the Erie Canal to Rochester via a northern route from the Hudson. As we know, he would succeed.

Meanwhile Elisha Strong was busy in Carthage. Even though this part of the Genesee River gorge was thick with bears and wolves and wildcats, and home to rattlesnakes “as thick as a man’s arm,” he and his fellow attorney (and later judge) Elisha Beach were undaunted.

And now enter the third Elisha: Elisha Johnson.

1940.332.13256.tif
Nice looking guy. Dickens’ Bumble the Beadle perhaps?

Johnson, like his friend and colleague Strong, was a Canandaiguan. An engineer, Johnson owned land upstream (south), adjacent to Colonel Rochester, and in the year 1817- yup – he gave 80 acres of land to Rochesterville (the city didn’t become Rochester until 1834) that would become Washington Square Park – our city’s central urban space.

scm08851 1909

Washington Square Park, Memorial Day, 1909

scm03292

President Taft and the GAR parade at Washington Square Park, 1911

In 1817, Carthage looked like this, in a plat map created by Elisha Johnson:

Map of Carthage 1817 Elisha Johnson

This was a bit ambitious…. Carthage was tiny, and about to become home to a huge bridge construction project, and then a gigantic collapse, as we’ve learned. Maximum population in Carthage could be measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Interestingly the later development of Rochester proceeded much as Johnson outlined in his map of 1817.

In the 1830s Johnson, ever the entrepreneurial engineer, would build a horse railroad from Rochesterville to Carthage that hauled freight to an inclined plane that allowed cargo to reach the river from its eastern banks. The railroad carried passengers too, in two carriages. One was named Grieg, the other Duncan. The railroad, one of the first of its kind in the nation, would become a model for later streetcars. And shortly thereafter, Carthage was annexed by Rochester.

carthage_rr_coach

I don’t know if this is Grieg or Duncan

Meanwhile, in 1817, Rochesterville looked like this:

1817 mapNorth is, oddly, to the right in this image – a map not made by either Colonel Rochester or Johnson. A couple of years later, Colonel Rochester’s ambitious plan for his nascent city looked like this:

1820%20map

Of course the place didn’t look quite like this plat: the population in 1820 was 1,502. Here is a view from a bit earlier, 1812, to give you a sense of the difference between the hype of the maps and the reality on the ground.

rochester-1812

Main Street and the Genesee River (soon to become the heart of downtown Rochester) looked like this in 1812:

mainstbridge1812e

The bridge at Main Street and the river, looking west

But the Canal was headed toward reality, and once it arrived, the city exploded. Herewith, below, a lovely map of Rochester from 1827, by none other than Elisha Johnson. The population? About 9,000. Note the presence of the canal.

Johnson-1827

Washington Square Park, marked with the letter M, is between the larger letters F and O in the word Fourth, in the lower right

So there you have it.

In 1838, Elisha Johnson became the fifth mayor of Rochester. He fought on the wrong side of the Civil War while living in Tennessee with his brother Ebenezer (a former mayor of Buffalo….), was pardoned by Sherman, moved back north to Ithaca, and died there in 1866.

So our cities are made, Elisha by Elisha.

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Cities contain us. Cities hold our stories, our dreams, what we wanted to be, what we failed to become, the way we lived, what we built and why. A good city has swarms of stories, and a best city is a city in which the most narratives remain legible for the longest possible time.

Stories of people. And in even modest sized cities, this means millions and millions of stories. For which we can and should give endless thanks.

Herewith, one pretty interesting story about our place. Get comfy: we’re going to Carthage.

In 1809, at a place that is now called St. Paul and Norton Streets in Rochester, and which is also the home of the Lower Falls on the Genesee River, a few folks settled on the east bank of the river and called their little spot Carthage.

Lower Falls (2)

Photo by Sheridan Vincent. Carthage would be near the green tank and the bad modern building.

Carthage was below the lower falls on the river, so if you had goods to ship, you could take them to Carthage, and from there they could go out onto Lake Ontario and into the wide, wide world.

A few years passed and in 1816 a couple of rich Rochester guys, the two Elisha’s (Strong and Beach), bought 1,000 acres of land that included Carthage. By 1818 there were 40 buildings there.

But there was a problem. Isn’t there always a problem? Carthage was on the east banks of the River, and so if you were coming from the west, you could not get there to ship your stuff. The entrepreneurial Elishas decided to build a bridge across the river so everybody could come to Carthage, and by 1817 they had amassed $16,000 in state and local funds to do the deed.

The bridge was completed in 1819. It was over 700 feet long, and stood 200 feet above the river. Some described it as the eighth wonder of the world. (Have you ever wondered how many eighth wonders there must be? I have….)

Carthage bridge

Unfortunately, the bridge fell down in 1820.

And by 1825 the Erie Canal was here, and Carthage was doubly obsolete. Poof.

Enter our intrepid Rochester hero, Albert Stone. In 1908 he made this photo:

Carthage monument 1908

 

The monument was a column, a vent for sewer gas, a watering trough for local horses, and the holder of a plaque to the memory – the stories – of Carthage.

The column lasted quite a while. It is visible on a whole host of plat maps until sometime between 1925 and 1936.

I bumped into Mr. Stone’s picture this afternoon, and kept pulling on its threads until Carthage had fully emerged.

Good stories in good cities last a very long time.

Turn the page.

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I have been spending a fair amount of time recently trying to understand the streetcar city we once had. Say in 1929 or so.

Why, you might ask? Well, for a couple of reasons. First, the routing of the streetcars of so long ago is nearly identical to the routing of today’s bus system. This may seem counterintuitive to some who realize how much this place has changed in the last 80 years or so – sprawl has emptied the city, changed where we live and work, vaporized downtown retail and entirely changed our patterns of urban life. But the routes, right down to the route numbers for many routes, are intact. More about this later.

And then I got to wondering about how it was to move around the city in those days. In 1929 we had subway, streetcar, bus, and trackless trolley (electric buses running on power from overhead lines) in addition to interurbans and long distance passenger rail. Today we have bus. And our cars, endlessly our cars.

Anyway, I found a map of the streetcar, bus, and subway routes from about that date, and I have been puzzling over it for some time. Here’s the map:

The solid lines are streetcars, the dashed lines are buses, and the subway is a doubled line with dashes inside. There were something like 10 bus lines and about 15 or more trolley lines.

Remember this: in those days the city was nearly twice as populous in nearly half the land. There was not yet a large non-city population (regional population). Downtown was, well, downtown: bustling, filled with jobs and retail and entertainment – the destination. The map shows so many routes going there because that’s where everyone wanted, and needed, to go.

The fare was a dime – about $1.25 today – and there were transfers so that you could change streetcars, or change modes, from streetcar to bus to trackless trolley. (Today there are no transfers – it’s a buck a ride, and another buck on the bus you have to transfer to).

In fact the streetcar transfer was invented here, by a man named John H. Stedman, 1843 – 1922, in 1892. Notably, Stedman also invented the fuzzy pipe cleaner. He’s buried here in Mt. Hope Cemetery.

I digress. There were also weekly passes. For a buck, you could ride anywhere anytime, all week.

The streetcars were pretty comfy, actually. We know this because Mr. Stone photographed their interiors in 1918, as they were disinfected during the influenza epidemic. Take a look.

In the winter, the cars were heated by coal-fired stoves. During WWI coal was rationed, so the railway system positioned coal stations across the city where a conductor could get a handful of coal lumps to keep the home fires burning.
This guy looks like he is having a real ball.

Perhaps I have digressed again.

In the 20s, the streetcars ran from 6:00am to 12:00pm – 18 hours a day. But here’s where the comparison to today starts to get a bit, well, revealing.

At peak, the headway – the distance between trains – was about 5 minutes. The longest headways were in the evenings, and were about 15 minutes.

Today, the bus system runs about 20 minute headways at peak, and off-peak headways sag to about an hour or more.

And if you were inclined, there was an interurban between Rochester and Syracuse that ran every 30 minutes.

So over 80 years ago, you could move around our city almost as quickly on the streetcar/subway/trolley/bus system as in your car today. Maybe we’re not as smart as we think we are.

And you could get to Syracuse, downtown to downtown, from here as fast or faster than you can get there today, in your car. Hmmm.

Now, a short glimpse at today’s bus system. Here are a couple of images of the bus routes today. I have taken these from the RGRTA website. They offer a 14mb image of the system map that is pretty nearly impossible to use – slow to download, gigantic, and cumbersome, at best. Come on guys – the 1929 map is a snap to use.

First, the overall system:

Looks kind of familiar, yes?

And now a snapshot of the system in downtown:

So in 1929, you could get downtown (you wanted to go downtown) quickly, and transfer easily to other parts of the city.

Today you have to go downtown (you may want to go there, or you may want to go elsewhere, but you have no choice), usually pay a second fare to transfer to another bus, and go out of downtown to your destination.

Lots has changed in our region in the last 80 years. As I said at the outset, we no longer live, work, shop, or loiter in the same places we did then. But here’s the thing: it was a 20 minute city then, and it’s a 20 minute city today. Except that in those times, it was 20 minutes using transit. Today, you are in your car.

Is this progress? Maybe. Maybe not.

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The three optional pigs, all with lipstick.

Last night the RGRTA (Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority) held another public meeting to present the latest plans for the ill-considered Mortimer Street Bus Terminal, about which I have written at some length previously.

This facility is unnecessary. If our bus company (not really a transportation authority – all the transit is gone from our city save for a bad bus system) ran the system properly, a centralized downtown facility would not be needed. At all.

And if the facility, or some kind of transit transfer station, were to be planned intelligently, it would be located near other transit modes – like the intercity  buses and trains at the Amtrak facility a few blocks away. Seems like the least the RGRTA should do.

As it is we are about to spend $50m on a building and facility that we will have a good long time to regret (that’s an unbelievable $750 per square foot). I can only hope that it will be possible to repurpose the building once the bus system operates as it should.

The plan is dreadful, over and above the fact that it shouldn’t even be considered in the first place. Things are in the wrong place, the traffic simulation is terrifying as pods of buses pulse from the proposed  building at every cycle of the traffic lights, pedestrians are going to have to sprint to keep from getting flattened, the open space is in the wrong place, the curbside stop for the longer articulated buses (you know – the ones that won’t fit inside the proposed building….) is in the wrong place, and in general the whole project is most unfortunate.

Many of us expressed our opinions last night, as we have before. Nothing changed from the last go-round, and I suspect nothing will change after this iteration. The boss at RGRTA, who is about to leave, seems hell-bent on getting this ridiculous project built. What a waste.

I guess we just get to add this to the list of projects in our litany of bad city making here. Pretty sad.

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Herewith, the text of a second communique to City Council members urging that they oppose the downtown bus facility. I keep trying….

We’re coming down to the wire now, with the Planning Commission hearing the issue this evening, and the City Council slated to hear the proposal tomorrow evening. I guess I know where I will be for the next couple of nights. Wasn’t it Firesign Theater who said, years ago, that what we need now is a really good futile gesture?

The plan.

Council members, I want to share a few more thoughts on the plan for a downtown bus transfer facility in advance of this evening’s Planning Commission hearing. In addition to my earlier communication to you, in which I offered a series of reasons why you should oppose this project, I offer a few further thoughts.

1. The largest buses with the highest capacity, articulated buses, are to be located curbside on Mortimer Street. At this location there will be no shelter, so transit patrons using these vehicles will be forced to stand outdoors in inclement weather, and they will have to cross an active lane of traffic in order to transfer to other buses inside the facility.

Accommodation of these larger vehicles inside the facility is not be possible due to the tightness of the site – the facility itself cannot accommodate their length and wider turning radius.

Why would the city approve a building that cannot serve its function properly? On an alternate site, a building could be conceived that will not leave some of the most important transit vehicles outside the facility.

2. The building now is planned to accommodate 26 buses at a time. This is a very large number of vehicles in a very limited space. One of the consequences of this decision is that buses will be forced to move in reverse to leave their bays, and as they do so, they will block other vehicular movement inside the building. What does this mean? Slower movement of vehicles, and increases in bus dwell times and headways.

3. The plan of the building makes flexible, rapid movement of buses very difficult. If RGRTA replans its routing at some future time (as I have suggested previously), and the need for 26 bays inside the facility is reduced, the building itself will prevent a more appropriate and timely movement of vehicles. Reconstruction and replanning will be necessary in order to create a facility that will be able to respond to these modified operational requirements.

Whether this facility is considered from the perspective of urban design, or from the perspective of transit architecture, the current plan is deeply flawed. It will be a mistake of substantial proportion to approve this, a mistake that Rochesterians will regret for generations to come. I continue to urge you to oppose this proposal.

Stay tuned, Town Square visitors, for news of the outcome.

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