Saturday, October 23, 2004

It Looks Like a Big City, But It's Really 100 Small Towns Thrown Together

I have noticed of late that I now regularly run into people who have moved to Philadelphia from somewhere else and are pleasantly surprised by what they find here. And these people aren't rubes from the T-Zone or farmers from the Great Flyover, but people who have been exposed to city life already somewhere else--often as part of a collegiate experience.

This I take as a hopeful sign for the city's future. It confirms something I already know about the city--that it has finally become comfortable with its own urbanity and has shed enough of its traditional modesty to let its hair down and enjoy itself--though not enough of it yet to display the self-confidence it ought to have by now.

The outsiders also appear to be pleasantly surprised by one old Philadelphia quality the city hasn't shed: its small-town feel at the neighborhood level. Even in the heart of the city, it seems, one can settle into a community of people where everyone not only knows everyone else, but everyone else's business too, much as the denizens of Harper Valley and Peyton Place did.

This strikes me as an unusual quality for a large city, though it may just well be that I haven't spent enough time in other cities' neighborhoods. Certainly there are neighborhoods in Boston that are as close-knit and insular as Philadelphia's Fishtown, for instance. But here, the insularity and close-knittedness can be found even in those parts of the city where you would least expect to see it--my own "Gayborhood," for example.

I would think that such a quality would make this city somewhat intimidating for outsiders. I guess I'm wrong about that.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Why Some People Are Heading Back to the City

I had an interesting conversation last Wednesday with a woman who just might be an unwitting poster girl for the back-to-the-city trend.

At a wine-and-cheese party at a City Line Avenue hotel, I wound up talking with a couple of older women who live in Levittown. One of them, an energetic 74-year-old, told me that she enjoys getting out and going places. "I hop on the train and go into Philadelphia all the time," she said. "I take the Phlash bus around town. I like to visit the museums and go to the shops."

Without my asking why, she explained, "I come into Philadelphia because there's no place to go in Levittown."

In that sentence she captured the central flaw with the Auto Age suburb--it was designed as a new urban form, but without all the necessary urban functions. The people who built places like Levittown all over America had a certain model of suburban life in mind. That model can be summed up with the phrase "a good place to raise your kids." The ample yards and quiet residential streets of these large subdivisions guaranteed families ample space for their children to play without having to walk to a park or schoolyard. Schools were located near the center of neighborhoods to put them in easy walking (or bus) distance of all the students. Shopping centers on the edges of the developments provided most basic needs--and some extra ones, if they were large enough.

All this was just fine as long as the parents were working and the children young. The model did not work so well once the children reached adolescence or the parents retired, and the reason why turned out to be the same for both retirees and children: There were few diversions these people could easily reach, especially without a car. No corner taverns or eateries. No art galleries or promenades. No place to be in public, casually interacting or simply sharing experiences with one's fellow citizens.

If that Levittowner's comment can be taken as an example, there is still a need even in our privatized Auto Age suburban landscape for public places that serve recreational, cultural and entertainment functions. Many older interwar suburbs have such places in their central business districts, and their siting makes them reachable by a variety of means. Retrofitting such places into our newer suburbs seems a bit more difficult, but that hasn't stopped towns like Schaumburg, Ill., from trying. The movement of empty-nesters back into in-town neighborhoods is one way some Americans are trying to reconnect to the communal realm; it's quite likely that as the decades pass, our newer suburbs will, like Schaumburg, attempt to construct this realm in their midst from scratch.

Why The Press Did Not Out Jim McGreevey

This is a topic of a front-of-the-book article in the October issue of Philadelphia magazine, and after reading it, I believe the author--and Philadelphia's readers -- would have been better served if they had read one of Michelangelo Signorile's explanations of why some politicians
deserved to be outed and others not in the Advocate.

As it is, the article is competent enough: the point it makes is that nobody in the Trenton press corps felt that McGreevey's being gay was story enough in and of itself to devote throwing investigative resources at in a big way. Reporters did repeatedly ask the governor about rumors he was gay, which were routinely denied, and when the news of Golan Cipel's appointment to a post he was apparently not qualified for broke, the angle became more relevant and was pursued by more media outlets. But still nothing appeared in print or on air stating definitively that Gov. McGreevey was gay, and nothing would have had McGreevey not outed himself in his resignation announcement.

Of course, McGreevey outed himself mainly as a means of diverting attention from yet another unsavory tale of corruption; such tales have been staples of his term in office. But nothing else he did made his being gay relevant to anything else.

Which brings me to the reason why Signorile might have been a better person to answer that question. As the article fails to note, just about every politician who has been outed was kicked out of the closet by the gay press or gay activists bent on exposing their hypocrisy in supporting legislation or other state action that was hostile to the notion of equal treatment for gays. As McGreevey did no such thing, there was no real reason to reveal his sexuality against his wishes except in the context of some scandal where it might have influenced his decisions, as was the case with the Cipel appointment.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

The View from the Handlebars

For the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to experience Philadelphia on two wheels, since a friend with a bicycle took up residence here. Besides good exercise, it's given me an opportunity to roam a little further beyond my home neighborhood and see just how easy--or difficult--it is for bicycles and motor vehicles to co-exist.

My first observation on that latter topic is this: Bicyclists have a built-in advantage in much of the city, thanks to the narrowness of the streets--a legacy of the original 1682 city plan, which was extended into much of North and South Philadelphia. Narrow streets--especially when they have parked cars on both sides, as they do almost everywhere outside Center City--force motorists to slow down and be more cognizant of the environment through which they are driving. On some of the most crowded streets in Center City, I find I can actually keep pace with the cars and trucks.

My second observation is this: Bike lanes provide a false sense of security. Even though motorists do observe lane discipline, and by and large stay out of the marked bike lanes, there are inevitable conflicts by dint of their traditional location at the right edge of the travel space. If there is a parking lane to the right, bicyclists still run the risk of running into car doors that open suddenly. Motorists attempting to turn right must cross the lane to do so, and often, they will not look to see if they are cutting off a bike in the bike lane; if a bicyclist is traveling in a mixed traffic lane, this does not happen, as the motorist must pay attention to the bike just ahead of him in the same lane. And what happens when it's time for the bicyclist to make a left turn? There is still at least one lane--and usually more than one--of mixed traffic to cross. If motorists are not used to encountering bicyclists in the regular lanes, they will soon completely forget to pay attention to them.

Philadelphia's Streets Department has been very good about posting "Share the Road" signs on city thoroughfares, even those with marked bike lanes. Judging from the behavior of the drivers around me as I travel through the city, the message must have soaked in. Education, not segregation, is the key to making sure two- and four-wheeled conveyances can get along together on city streets.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

On Google as a Method of Self-Validation

So, here I am, jotting down comments on urban development and idly surfing Blogger as a way not to dwell too much on a job interview this afternoon, and I stumble across the fact that Blogger is now a subsidiary of Google.

Of course, Google has been much in the news lately, having raised a ton of money by selling shares to the public. Its proprietary cataloging and page ranking technology, which relies in part on the Internet equivalent of word-of-mouth references, is also much discussed and widely admired.

One of the beauties of the method is that it is much more difficult for an individual or company to game its way to the top of the list. A site or page rises to the top because other sites or pages point to it, which is a way of implying that people find the page useful or worthwhile.

For businesses or companies, this sort of implicit endorsement can be quite valuable. But what does it mean for individuals?

I've been pondering this a bit ever since I lost my position at the top of a Google page ranking. Prior to April of this year, if you were to enter the name "sandy smith" into Google and click on "I'm Feeling Lucky," you would have gone directly to my home page on This, I imagined, is because back when the Internet was just beginning to turn from in-group plaything to mass-market phenomenon, I put up a personal site that listed some of my interests, web pages of acquaintances, a capsule bio and links to transit agencies around the world (connected to another of my interests). Since I participated in a bunch of Usenet newsgroups, what probably happened is that other Usenetters put links to my page onto their pages and thus bumped up its "usefulness" according to the Google taxonomy.

When I lost my job at Penn, I lost my web site too. Now, Googling "sandy smith" first takes you to the "home for lost pages" of a Web developer in Washington, D.C. But as I scanned down the list of "sandy smith" sites, there at position number 5 was my own profile on Blogger.

Why would this be? I only created this blog last month, and a little over a month went by between post number 1 and post number 2. According to the traffic stats, I've probably had as many visitors to my blog as a Rolls-Royce dealership in Mississippi would get in the same time span.

Which once again, leads me to wonder: Who wants to know more about me? Is my life that interesting? My thoughts? Who is reading, and why? Unfortunately, these questions Google cannot answer. All it can tell me is that, among the tens of thousands of Sandy Smiths out there in cyberspace, I must be interesting or intriguing to at least a large handful of friends, acquaintances and total strangers.

Maybe you can clue me in on why.

Just what is blight, anyway?

If you live in or around Philly, as I do, you are probably familiar with the chain of communities collectively known as the Main Line. These are all older, affluent suburbs, with charming, eclectic business districts that usually center on the train stations of the Pennsylvania Railroad route that gave the area its name.

Some of these, such as Ardmore, are struggling to remain vibrant in the face of competition from regional malls and trendy districts such as Wayne and Manayunk. Some of their shops are vacant, and some of their buildings could use a little sprucing up.

But I doubt that anyone, upon seeing them, would judge them blighted.

And yet that is exactly what officials in Ardmore--and in the northern suburb of Jenkintown--are calling them. All so they can take advantage of a decades-old state law promoting urban redevelopment.

The law, passed in 1943, gives municipalities expanded powers of condemnation in order to remove blight and redevelop rundown neighborhoods. Ardmore officials would like to construct a new retail complex and train station along historic Lancaster Avenue in order to keep people strolling the street and better connect the district to the equally historic Suburban Square shopping center across the tracks. In Jenkintown, borough officials want the designation so they can purchase fading properties and offer them to developers willing to either rehabilitate them or build new structures.

All of this may be desirable, even beneficial for neighboring merchants. But it seems a bit too heavy-handed a use of government power. And to get that power, the governments in question have to, in effect, disparage their own communities by declaring them in worse shape than they really are.

That our big cities engaged in the same sort of behavior in the urban renewal era of the 1950s and 1960s does not make it any more right or justified today.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

stumbling into this weird universe...

I feel like the person who went out to the store to get a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk and returned with sirloin steaks and sparkling water, but no milk and bread.

All this started when I tried to post a response to Robert Cote's blog. Turns out that Blogger won't let you post replies without a user name. So the next thing you know, I'm going through the account setup process and I now have a blog! Sneaky how they do this, isn't it?

Very well, then. Now that I too am among the millions of one-person publishers, I may as well offer content. You will find here from time to time my thoughts on politics, the state of the world, culture, history, cities, transportation, architecture and whatever else may happen to strike my fancy at the time. This blog may be the equivalent of the tree falling in the forest with no one hearing it; if so, at least I've had some fun posting to it. If not, I hope you will share your thoughts and responses.