Monday, April 17, 2017

The Mitten at Large

I've always considered myself a consummate Michigander, but in the course of life events it happens that I'll be moving to New Haven, Connecticut in June. With that big shift taking place in June and some west coast wanderings taking up much of May, it seems my roots are being carefully extracted - with plenty of soil to keep them intact. Thus the title change - I'll be the Mitten at Large for the next five years, bringing Midwestern carrot topped urban oddity to the Atlantic seaboard.

But my heart is eternally rusty, and I'm sure in due time I'll find myself back in the mitten - again!

Til then I'll be bringing tales of my time in New Haven - a city that from my brief visit appears full of contradiction and collision of worlds. Aggressive drivers, rugged bluffs, pinkish soil, absurdly abundant pizza, hoity toity architecture, fast food Indian, public housing, rapidfire Spanish - it's all new and set against the perfect cherry blossoms of springtime starting up. So, here I go.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Sickly Urbanist

Tiny carbon footprint. Huge facial tissue footprint.

------

You really get the chance to contemplate your life while sick with a gnarly headcold. Far too much of a chance. If you're like me this takes place on the tissue-strewn couch between a nap and another episode of Wild China (you are very concerned about megafauna right now). You ponder your role in the universe (miniscule), your ability to change troubling world events (nonexistent), and your record of making life better for others (dubious).

Still, in one way you're clearly better for the world today: no drive to work, no using finite oil resources and releasing carbon into the environment. You pat your shoulder, which triggers a bout of coughing. Best to stay in a neutral position.

Urbanists walk and bicycle, and so would you if it were not a snowy windstorm out there. If your body had chosen to rebel on a balmy day in June, you could walk to a park, relax on a bench, and engage in friendly ballet-of-the-sidewalk conversation with passersby. You could walk to the library and continue your brave expedition through the New Books section. You could bicycle to the ice cream shop and, if your budgeting app approves, purchase a cone. You may even compel your spouse to engage in a gentle game of frisbee on that lot whose sign has declared an impending development for years but is functionally a dog park. If it were warm, and if you had a charming porch swing or hammock, you could watch the sun set on it, kleenex box in hand, as the children scramble to get in before the blink of the streetlights.

But alas, people like you get sick in winter, when bicycling is an extreme sport, walking requires an additional penumbra of insulated clothing, parks are vacant and littered with snowdrift detritus, ice cream unthinkable, frisbee laughable, and porch swings both unappetizing and requiring a porch. Oh, and your block is home to maybe two children, who certainly aren't on the schedule of the streetlights that were installed five months ago.

The library, though, that's still on the table. You ponder the extent to which your sick day delayed global warming and pile on your warm outerwear. No viral infection can hold this urbanist back!

Monday, April 4, 2016

Still driving


Not-so-distant future?

 
So there I was, traversing the metropolitan area as I so frequently do in my soccer mom van (I am neither a mom nor a soccer player). What was my itinerary this fine Saturday? From our home in Detroit to drop SO off in Novi for wedding business, then to Macomb for a wedding shower (two separate weddings), then even farther north for a work event. Luckily the omnipresent Uber gods gave SO a hasty ride home from the hinterlands of southeast Oakland County, so I was left to traipse home from the edge of exurbia on the great river of I-75.

And of course, it was snowing in April.

The freeway jammed up from an accident that I hope was not serious people-wise and I sat there, completely surrounded by people as far as I could see but oh so isolated in my own metal box. The thing is, I drive forty minutes each way all the rest of the week to get to and from work. And as the snow floated so romantically onto all of our dashboards, my planner self-pity began to get the best of me. I used to think I was one of those people who would escape all this. Either move a place where (heaven forbid!) more people share my value of investing in public infrastructure, or be the ultimate living and working in Detroit, bicycling everywhere, growing my own food, condemning capitalism in coffee shops kind of girl. Instead, somewhere between my desire to be a regional planner and to maintain the important relationships in my life, I landed in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-75.
I’m telling you, as a sad song came on the radio and I took in the wintry ambience, I started to tear up.

Why? Because Alternate Universe Carolyn was reading Jane Jacobs on a bus in Seattle. Because regional work causes so many planners I know to lead lives the exact opposite of what they’re working for, spending huge parts of their day traversing the petty municipal borders in carbon-emitting personal bubbles. And because I was stressed out from social events and work and nobody likes a traffic jam anyhow.

But then the eternity passed, I arrived home and, as I so frequently do, thanked the universe for the things that make my life awesome and make me work to improve it every day. The cozy apartment, the SO full of excitement about his latest research project, the cats full of meows anticipating their next meal. This is why I do it, and it’s better than being on a bus OR a bicycle. I assume that someday I’ll get a break from the road (whether here or in some other metro region) but until then, at least I have CBC Radio 2.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Car Dependency and Safety Nets



Last week, my old car kicked the bucket in annoyingly dramatic fashion. I was headed down the highway at 6:30 am, commuting to gym + work, when that damn automobile just stopped accelerating, despite the best efforts of my right foot. Arggghhh! I said, as I moved towards the rightmost lane. By the time I reached the shoulder, it was smoking inside and out and I truly believed it would explode. I leaped out the passenger side and stood on the grassy berm beside the freeway, watching the smoke mix with billowing steam in the degree weather, and calling the fire department.

My car did not explode, yay. It was most definitely incapacitated, though. If I were living in an unfamiliar town and didn't have a strong social network, things would have started getting real hard right there. I would have had to decide whether to pay for cab fare to and from work or just take the taxi home and risk missing the day. So early in the morning I can also tell you I didn't feel particularly safe or warm standing by the side of the road, though it wasn't an issue because the super nice guys from the fire department gave me a lift to the nearest coffee shop (the one cool part of the situation - getting to ride in a fire truck).

Sadly, Sebastian the trusty Ford Focus is no longer. His engine was kaput and not worth replacing, so he has been consigned to the junkyard for the ages. So once again - if I didn't have parents to help me out with juggling vehicles and carpooling, I would have been in rough shape. A day of work lost for every day you don't have the wherewithal to buy a new car!

Because I live in Detroit and work in Brighton - so there is no way in hell I'm getting there by public transit. (Believe me, I've googlemapped the options to no end, including bus to Novi area and then bike the rest of the way...?)

Not everybody has strong and flexible safety nets. An incident like mine can ruin somebody's life in a region so car-dependent as ours. Who wants to bet everything on a finicky machine? So, this is all to say that a vote on funding the Regional Transit Authority is coming up this fall, and it's the chance you have this year to participate in reshaping the region . Let's make it happen!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Gas Leak

There's a musty-smelling room in the basement of my apartment building where we go to do our laundry, push rent through a slot in the wall, and haphazardly store our bikes. Like everything in the building it's imperfect, but functional laundry machines and relatively secure bicycle storage is all I can ask for, really.

Last week I woke up early Sunday morning, intending to go to church. But when I opened the metal door leading to the basement the smell that greeted me was not must, it was gas. Very strong gas. I held my breath while extricating my bike and pulling it up the stairs. Noticed briefly that the dryers appeared to be pulled away from the wall. Gasped the fresh air once back outside!

Once in an over-occupied student house in Ann Arbor I thought we had a gas leak, woke up all my housemates, and called the fire department as we sat on the porch eating cereal. Their truck blocked the traffic on our one-lane street while they informed us that actually, our refrigerator had suffered a mini explosion. This crossed my mind as my fiance and I called the fire department and DTE. I'd feel pretty stupid if that happened again.

We first guessed that someone had walked into the room before me, smelled the gas leak, and then decided too unplug the dryers and call it good. Maddeningly irresponsible but not sinister. But the firefighters noticed something I had not - the glass punched in on the inner door to the room, just big enough to slip in a hand and turn the lock. Their first guess, which seriously freaked me out, was that somebody with a grudge had cut the line on purpose - perhaps intending to blow us up. I knew if that were the case we would move. Immediately. Pay two rents, live at my parents' - anything to get out of a targeted building.

But then they noticed that the coin boxes had been torn out, all the quarters gone. I don't think they're really ever emptied, so with $3 per resident per week that could have been a lot of cash. The new narrative that emerged was of serial thieves who target laundry rooms in beat-up looking apartments everywhere, who took the coins and then were in the process of stealing the appliances when something scared them off - maybe even the gas leak itself.

It still doesn't make me feel super comfortable, but at least it wasn't purely malicious and at least no one entered our personal apartment space. On the up side, the landlord  has been shocked into doing some landscaping to make this place look occupied. On the down side, who knows when we'll have laundry again? I don't know whether we'll keep living here after our lease is up. I'm mostly just happy they didn't take our bikes.

Has anybody else had this particular experience? Or gone through other property crimes that didn't directly affect your safety but made you feel squirmy nonetheless?

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Pious Prius Effect


Every day that I ride my bike I get rudely tailed/cut off/nearly run over by at least one car. It's something a cyclist expects and artfully maneuvers around. It occurred to me one day, though, that a number of those incidents have involved the drivers of Priuses, which is funny since ownership of such a vehicle is supposed to indicate moral superiority and a respect for the creatures of the earth. Granted, my sample is not random, since I've spend much time in Ann Arbor, the Prius capitol of the Midwest. But it got me thinking, why does that happen?

Maybe that sense of self-righteousness that comes from sinking into the energy-efficient seats makes drivers think they've somehow magicked away all the negative consequences of driving. And while they may have decreased some of those, they're still driving a vehicle that can kill, operating within and contributing to a system that allows some people freedom of movement and denies it to others.

I actually did drive a Prius once, when I had to grab a last-minute Zipcar.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The best laid master plans

We have some really amazing municipal plans in this region. So why do we have such crappy municipal planning?

As part of my job I've been reading the master plans for several of the region's townships and cities (I have the coolest job), and I had to do some double takes when I first ran into talk of sustainability and New Urbanism and multimodal transportation. Was this the same metro Detroit that I live in, where I take my life into my hands every time I ride a bike and have to drive forty minutes to and from work every day? Exurb after exurb after exurb, master plans expressed desires to preserve open space and protect natural features, to work collaboratively with regional governments, and to invest in nonmotorized transportation infrastructure - even occasionally in public transit. A couple weeks of this led me to the original question: if the plans are cool, why does reality still stink?

I'm open to answers. Here's what I've thought of so far: