Needed: Better Bagels

I've been meaning to comment on Scott Reitz's City Paper cover story for a while now. If you haven't read it yet, the gist of the article is that there are restaurants in DC going to absurd lengths to bring city (or even country) specific food products into their restaurants.

I'm sure there's great bread being baked in Philadelphia. I know there are good bagels made daily in New York City. But I can't get behind the idea that breads and bagels equally as good can't be made here in DC, or any other city, for that matter.

(from natala007 on Flickr)

I have a simple litmus test for bagel quality - the everything bagel. Bakeries and bagel shops can make all kinds of fancy bagels with jalapenos and cheese and chocolate chips baked into them, but to me, the quality of the everything bagel tells me all I need to know about a bagel shop.

The bagel with cream cheese is a staple for people on tight budgets. It's cheap, it's delicious and it's filling. I ate bagels nearly every day my last year of college. Trouble is, once you've gotten accustomed to great bagels, it's really hard to go back to bagels that are just good.

I know that great bagels can be made outside of New York because I've had them. DC has some good bagel shops, it just doesn't have a lot of great bagel places. Still I don't think it's impossible, nor do I think it's necessary to drive in bagels from out of town. Eventually, I hope, someone will figure out a way to make it work.
Jim Griffioen has a really fantastic article over The Urbanophile tackling the talking point that Detroit has no grocery stores. It really puts to shame the writers and journalists who have, for years, been perpetuating the myth that Detroit is so ravaged that there isn't a single retailer in the whole city that sells fresh food.

(from Dig Downtown Detroit on Flickr)

Does Detroit have food desert problems? Absolutely - as do many big cities, even cities that are otherwise doing very well. The thing that really bothers me is how quick people are to judge cities, even if they've never stepped foot in a city.

I get this a lot, of course. I was frustrated by Cleveland's many many problems when I lived there; but I knew the city wasn't about to collapse into total ruins. Yet, I still have far too many conversations with people, who've never visited Cleveland, and who believe it's a terrible place not worthy of living in or visiting for any reason. Worse, because they've built up a narrative in their minds about how awful the city is, they're probably never going put themselves in a position to actually judge for themselves.

Of course, I get it. Someone who's taking a long weekend wants to spend it visiting Chicago, not Detroit. I'm not suggesting that all cities are amazing getaways, though I've written before that sometimes the best cities to visit are the ones that aren't on everybody's radar.

What I'm really hoping is that if you've never been to a city, or have a solid foundation for believing something about it, that you don't go around talking about it as if you do. I believe fact that the Detroit grocery claim has become so widespread is because too many people were looking for confirmation for their beliefs about the city, rather than taking a step back and thinking about what it really means.

On Gourmet Burgers

We Love DC has a nice rundown of the many gourmet burger restaurants that exist around the Washington area. As I was reading through the post, I realized that I've only been to two of the places on the list - Five Guys and the Good Stuff Eatery - despite the fact that I really like hamburgers.

(from EricRi on Flickr)

A hamburger is one of the few foods that I really believe I can cook well, on my own, on the backyard grill. I'm often willing to pay for a good meal at a restaurant, but moreso when it's food that I can't easily make by myself. There's a sushi premium, because it's really hard to make good sushi at home; that's not so much the case when it comes to burgers.

I also think there's a ceiling to how good a burger can really be. When I ate at Michael Symon's burger joint, B-Spot, I thought they served very good burgers. I also thought it would be one of the less respectable items on the menu at one of his other restaurants. When you start loading up a burger with fancy cheeses and obscure toppings, how much of what you're eating is the burger itself, versus everything else?

Many of the places that make We Love DC's post are restaurants that I'd like to check out, if for no other reason than to see if there really is a burger that can blow me away.

The Automobile Equilibrium

I've found that a lot of urbanists struggle to convey ideas about taking cars off the road. I tend to believe that most cities would be better if fewer cars clogged their roadways everyday. That doesn't mean I think every single person ought to stop driving, give up their car, or bike long and unreasonable differences, of course.

(from notcub on Flickr)

Unfortunately, that's often how these debates play out. One person says, "our city would be better if it were more pedestrian and bike friendly." Another person responds, "oh, so you want to start a war on drivers?!"

I think Steve Berg makes some good points over at MinnPost in his attempt to point out that not all urbanists hate cars. It's true, there's a lot that's inherently wrong with the machine that is a car. What's problematic is that we've designed many of our cities and suburbs to accommodate cars exclusively, which has led to less-than-livable places that are difficult to get around by any means other than private vehicle.

I've often been curious about the people who drive in Manhattan. Who does that? Apparently a lot of people, because the streets are always packed with vehicles. There are also a lot of people who walk and get around by other means. In New York, it's not that you can't drive, it's that there are typically better options.

A lot of cities would benefit from small reductions in the number of cars on the road, especially those with bad traffic problems. So let's say I think a city would be better if it had a 25% reduction of the number of people driving around it. Does that mean I think every single person ought to sell their car? Of course not.

I wish the discourse could move beyond this black and white view that life can only be lived by one extreme or another. At the same time, some of the burden lies with urbanists who would benefit from better strategy for communicating their ideas.

The Intercity Bus

Are buses becoming the transportation mode of choice for intercity travel? Jonna McKone has a good post over at The City Fix that explores a few trends that help answer this question. Intercity bus service is something I've been thinking about for a while, and I expressed some initial opinions back in the summer. Since that time, I had a pretty terrible experience that has really soured how I view the industry.

(from timailius on Flickr)

Earlier this month I rode Megabus from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC. The trip was problematic from the beginning. The bus was over a half-hour late arriving in Pittsburgh and nearly 45 minutes late departing.

Approximately 30 miles south of Breezewood, our bus broke down on the side of I-70. The driver made several calls, and eventually told us that the only vehicle Megabus had available to send was all the way back in Pittsburgh. Someone would have to drive it the entire route we'd just covered. This meant we were stuck sitting on the side of I-70 for no less than 4 hours.

We arrived at DC after midnight. I can't say it was a pleasant trip.

While we were stuck, our driver told us some interesting things about Megabus and how poorly the company is managed. He complained that mechanics cut corners when it comes to maintenance and buses fail far more often than they should.

To me, it seems like the Megabus system is stretched way too thin. The company keeps adding service, even when it doesn't have sufficient resources to handle new capacity. Stiff competition means they must keep costs low, even at the expense of customer service and providing reliable transportation.

I understand the appeal of intercity bus travel, especially when price is taken into consideration. But it's an apples to oranges comparison when bus providers aren't able to offer a level of service compatible to flying or riding the rails (both of which, I know, are hardly perfect). Ultimately, consumers will have to decide if paying a little more is worth it for the peace of mind that buses will get them where they need to go. Unless something changes in the meantime, I'll be avoiding Megabus for intercity travel.

Money Money Money

This American Life is probably the single best hour of radio every week, and the Planet Money team is a group of journalists that I respect greatly. That said, the "The Invention of Money" episode of TAL, which aired earlier this month, is not one of my favorites.

Ira glass sums up the topic with this line: “The most stoner question we’ve ever posed on the show – what is money?”

(from bredgur on Flickr)

It's not that it's a bad episode or that it's poorly produced or researched. I'm just amazed that, so many years after the start of the financial crisis, we're still asking simple questions about what money is and where it comes from.

One of the best courses I took during college was Money and Banking. It was an upper-level economics course taught by two retired guys who were incredibly knowledgeable on the topic. I probably learned more useful material in that course than any other.

It doesn't matter what you studied in college, or even whether you went to college. There's nothing more universal to a society than money. Everyone needs money and most people want money. Yet, unless you take an upper-level economics course in college, chances are good that you have virtually no idea what money actually is.

To me, this says one of two things. Either a) the money and banking system is so complicated that most people simply wouldn't get it, even if they tried, or b) our educational system has seriously misplaced priorities when it comes to what people take away from their educational experience.

This American Life and Planet Money did the best job they could to help people understand how this stuff all works. Ultimately though, most people will go their entire lives without truly knowing what money is.

Urban Canada

Like I previously mentioned, Montreal has never really been a city that was on my radar, which is a bit of a shame, because as far as cities go, it's pretty awesome.

(from manumilou from Flickr)

Unfortunately, the limited time I spent in the city means my observations are limited to what I saw downtown. I stayed in a hotel near McGill University, and ventured up and down Rue St. Catherine, but otherwise, wasn't able to explore any neighborhoods outside of the core. Even so, downtown provided me with more than enough observations about Urbanism in Montreal.

A True 24-Hour City?
The truth is, most places are not 24-hour cities; which is a shame, because there's something almost magical about a city that has something going on all the time. Remember when I mentioned my unexpected attraction to the movie Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist? Deep down, I know it's because I want to experience New York in a similar way that they did.

But back to the point... I saw at least two 24-hour Second Cup coffee shops in downtown Montreal. Maybe they're the only two in the city, maybe there's more. I don't know. But that's still two more 24-hour coffee shops than most cities have. I wasn't actually awake past midnight, but I did notice decent pedestrian traffic around downtown, even at 11pm.

I don't want to jump the gun and declare Montreal a true 24-hour city, because I simply didn't see enough of it to honestly draw that conclusion, but at least it's a city that's busy and open for business after dark. That's something I definitely appreciate.

Language Politics

Some people are skilled with languages. Unfortunately, I am not one of them.

When I was in high school, I took 4 years of Latin courses and remember almost none of them. During college I took Beginner's Italian, which taught me a bit, but hardly enough to get by if I ever travel by myself to Italy.

Before I left for Montreal last week, I was a little anxious about the language situation. I don't know any French, aside from the dozen or so common words that I memorized in the days before the trip. It turned out not to matter, since Montreal is a truly bilingual city.

Not only is French the official language in Quebec, it also seemed to be the preferred language. Menus, for example, are typically in French. At coffee shops, I was able to figure out most of the menu, through a combination of my general knowledge of coffee menus and a few words that look familiar to what I'd learned in Italian.

(from chrisinphilly5448 on Flickr)

Of course, I didn't go to a single restaurant, bar, coffee shop or store where the person serving or helping me didn't speak perfect English, which actually made me feel kind of guilty, because I was incapable of having a conversation in French, even though everyone else was capable of having a conversation in English.

It really made me consider how we approach language in the U.S. Even as the country becomes increasingly diversified with foreign speakers, how many right-wing pundits and even politicians think there ought to be one official language? How many truly believe that it's the responsibility of anyone who comes to America to learn English? And if they don't, they shouldn't be accommodated?

In some ways, it makes me feel intellectually depressed. For all the years that I've spent in school and despite the fact that I have a college degree, I can only communicate in a single language. Americans' desire to learn new languages usually stems from wanting to live or travel overseas. If the Canadians in Quebec can make English-speakers feel so welcome when they visit, why can't we reciprocate for our visitors?

Bonjour Montreal

Last week I traveled north of the border for a work-related function. I spent about 48 hours in Montreal - 18 of which I was working, 16 of which I slept, and the few remaining hours I spent seeing a small slice of a big city.

(from slack12 on Flickr)

I sat down to write this post over the weekend, but decided that, for as little time as I was able spend in Montreal, I couldn't fit all of my thoughts neatly into a single post. So I split everything into three posts, which will appear this week.

Montreal has never been a city I've had on my radar. For that matter, I've never really given any of the Canadian cities the attention that they probably deserve. With so many places in the U.S. still left for me to visit, plus the many historic urban places in Europe where I've never been; it's easy to forget that there's so much going on in our neighbor to the north.

Now, I can say that Canada's three big cities are all places I definitely will add to my travel list, though preferably, I'd like to go during the summer, if possible. As far as Montreal goes, you'll find my initial observations below.

Jacob Goldstein has a post over at Planet Money about the IPO of a chain of stores called Crumbs Bake Shop. I'm familiar with Crumbs - they just opened a new store about a mile from my house. I ride past it every day on my way to work. I've never visited, but I understand that their primary business is selling gourmet cupcakes.

(from jaywood_uk on Flickr)

A few months ago, Goldstein wondered if cupcakes were in the midst of a soon-to-pop bubble. I commented on that post at the time. He's cautiously sticking to his guns, but pointing out that, even if he's right eventually, it doesn't mean the cupcake industry is going to crash and burn tomorrow.

I think what's really going on here (and I'm reluctant to use this term) is a dose of east-coast elitism. Cupcakes have been around in New York and DC for a long time. Long enough that plenty of people are completely sick of them; but that doesn't mean that the rest of America feels the same way.

From a business executive's perspective, all these places in the middle of America that haven't had cupcakes shoved down their throats are prime markets for growth. It seems entirely plausible that cupcake sales could continue to grow, possibly even for years, before the trend might even start to reverse.
I recently got a chance to see Exit Through the Gift Shop - a pretty solid film, as far as documentaries go. The first half is mostly about the street art movement that’s taking place around the world. The second half is mostly about Thierry Guetta, a man who originally obsessively videotaped street artists doing their work, and later became a contemporary artist himself. That’s really all I’m going to say about the film, so don’t worry, there are no spoilers below.

(from wallyg on Flickr)

Even hough it’s not really covered in the film, I kept thinking about the impact that graffiti and street art have on cities and urbanism and urban design. Is it good? Is it bad? Is the term "street art" too broad to really mean anything at all?

Street art comes in many different forms, from the typical spray-paint on a wall, to the more recently popular gluing a large illustration on something, to more 3-dimensional, like the pop-up characters made from old plastic bags installed on the tops of subway grates.

The broken windows theory takes a pretty hard stance against any type of graffiti. The belief holds that when a place becomes covered in graffiti or garbage or is otherwise neglected, it doesn’t look like a place that anybody cares about. Criminals will feel comfortable in these places, because they don’t think that anyone has a vested interest in protecting them.

So the question is: does street art breed crime? Is it a harm to society?

A lot of smart people believe that the cornerstone of the turnaround in New York City can be attributed to cleaning up graffiti on the streets, on the subway and in other public places. By making public spaces look like somebody cares about them, the city was telling criminals that they weren't welcome. Safer streets brought more affluence, which in turn made the streets even safer until eventually we have what is Manhattan today.

At the same time, some of today’s street art really is quite interesting. And it's definitely possible for a place to become "too pristine" and have no character. Nobody wants to live in or visit a neighborhood that's outright dangerous, but there's still an appeal to places that feel gritty or edgy. Street art, by itself, seems harmless. Knowing whether that's actually true is a lot harder.
I'm not much of a video gamer, to be honest. It's probably been about 10-15 years since the last time I played Sim City. Back then we played Sim City 2000 and it ran on Windows 95.

A few weeks ago I saw that there was a new version of the game for the iPad called SimCity Deluxe. For 99-cents, I figured it was worth a try.

Overall, the game is fun and it's an easy way to waste a few hours on a plane or during a road trip or if you really want to procrastinate. As an urbanist, though, there are a lot of things about this game that get under my skin. Yes, I understand that it's only a game. There are limitations as far as how close it can get to real city planning. Unfortunately, the game seems pretty strongly biased toward outdated ideas about how cities work and how they ought to be designed.

The Nail in Radio's Coffin

A few years ago, I bought a car stereo unit with a CD player, 3.5mm jack and a removable faceplate. At the time, it seemed pretty advanced. Mashable has a post about a new Pioneer car stereo unit that integrates with social media, including Pandora radio.

(from Andresael on Flickr)

There's not doubt, radio has been in bad shape for years, and every new technology just seems to keep driving the nail deeper into the coffin. But this is probably also bad news for satellite radio, when you think about it. Why pay for commercial free music stations when you can get virtually the same service from Pandora at no-cost?

I'd be willing to argue that the only place most Americans listen to the radio anymore is in the car. Millions drive, some for very long distances, and they're a captive audience. Yet the more alternatives that exist to radio, the fewer people are going to use it. Pandora is already a pretty amazing concept. It delivers (mostly) advertisement-free music, and it's music with a good probability that the listener will enjoy.

I think there might be one exception to this: public radio. Even in radio's dark days, NPR and other public radio providers have had a record number of listeners. Personally, I'm OK with that. There isn't much that's currently on the radio that I would be upset to see disappear. But when it comes to news, I rely on public radio more than just about anyone else.
Continuing with the "observations from my home for the holidays travel" theme, I was recently thinking about another aspect of transportation that living on the east coast can lead you to take for granted: moving about nearby major cities.

(from kitby on Flickr)

From DC, I have options when it comes to travel between Baltimore, Philly, New York, Boston and the places in between. I can fly, I can drive, or I can ride a train or take a bus. Generally, all of these modes offer decent service and good enough frequencies. The mode I choose will depend on the situation, but the point is that I have options available.

To get around between a lot of the Great Lakes cities... Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Akron, Toledo, Erie, there is essentially a single option: drive.

Aside from Greyhound (which is hardly the way anyone wants to travel), there is no rail line connecting Pittsburgh to Detroit, or Cleveland to Columbus, nor will there be thanks to Ohio's new governor. Pittsburgh does connect to Cleveland via Amtrak's Capitol Limited, once per day, and in the middle of the night.

The implication is more than just my inability to take day-trips during my visits home. The real problem is that, for all the talk of megaregions and cooperative metro areas, how can it be truly successful if cities that are so close to each other are so disconnected?

Imagine if there were no long distance transportation options between Washington and Philadelphia, or New York and Boston. These cities are roughly the same distance from each other as Cleveland and Pittsburgh, but the transportation options are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

The Bicyclist's Contract

David Alpert has a really good post over at GGW proposing a "social contract" that bicyclists should follow. For what it's worth, I've always found DC and Arlington to be a very easy place to ride a bike; at least compared to other cities where I've lived. Sure, there are challenges, but I don't think it's nearly as treacherous as it's sometimes made out to be.

(from Mulad on Flickr)

One concept I have a hard time with is the idea that people can be grouped neatly into buckets like "bicyclist" or "motorist". Aside from the fact that many people often take on multiple roles, the truth is that not all motorists and not all bicyclists behave the same way as each other.

Everyone I've met that rides a bike has a unique riding style. When I commute to work, I stop at every red light I hit and wait through the cycle. But there are people who don't, and it drives me nuts when someone on a bike pulls up to the intersection and does the "C maneuver", as David Alpert calls it. It's something I never do, but when someone sees a bicyclist doing it, it's really easy for them to lose respect for everyone else on a bike.

Similarly, for every motorist who does something irresponsible or obnoxious, there are 99 who behave perfectly fine. To me, the idea that there is conflict between groups like motorists and bicyclists is over-inflated by the fact that entire groups are being judged by the bad behavior of a few.

Really, there are responsibilities that people should follow, no matter how they get around. No one is necessarily better than anyone else. But when someone misbehaves, it's the person that's misbehaving, not the entire group of people like them, and it often goes overlooked.

Mastering Pub Trivia

I think my favorite new thing since moving to DC is team trivia at the neighborhood bars. It’s a popular yet simple game. Of course, that’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an easy game.

(from gmahender on Flickr)

To be good at trivia, you don’t have to be “smart” the way that we often think of people as smart. You have to be a generalist. You need to possess an up-to-date knowledge on an incredibly broad range of topics. A NASA scientist may be a complete genius when it comes to aerospace engineering. A tax lawyer probably knows every detail of the tax code. These people are both incredibly smart, but might be terrible at trivia.

Inevitably, trivia games will have questions about literature or celebrities or sports, and if you can’t answer these questions, you can’t expect to do well.

Thus, the key to succeeding at team trivia is putting together a team with people who can perform well in certain categories. A team of specialists might be able to do very well, so long as they've got all of the topics covered.
If you haven’t yet read Lydia DePillis’s WCP cover story on DC’s Height Act, it’s worth a look. She makes some good arguments in favor of ending the Act, though probably none that a person versed on the topic hasn’t already come across.

(from Rob Shenk on Flickr)

I wasn’t initially going to blog about it because I’ve already said my piece on the topic, but then I unfortunately started looking at the comments at the bottom of Lydia’s article. Many of them are frustrating, because so much of this debate is emotional and boils down to an argument about personal preference rather than a discussion about what would be best, in aggregate, for the city.

For example, one of the primary arguments against the Height Act can be summed up like this:
Short buildings are what make Washington, our nation’s capital, a truly unique city. If you want skyscrapers, go live in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. People love iconic views of the capital, and tall buildings will cast shadows over neighborhoods and make DC just like any other big American city. People don’t want that
Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine a city that’s going through a really tough time. Unemployment is high and companies and jobs are leaving for greener pastures. There is a really outdated law on the books that forbids the local government from attracting jobs. But people like the status quo too much, so they say “high unemployment is what makes our city unique. If you want jobs, go move to Dallas or Houston or some other city that has them.”

Seems absurd, right?

When it comes to the Height Act, it’s really difficult to think about cause and effect, because so much of it is speculative and counter-factual. Do people like nice views of the Capitol dome? Sure. Do people like paying absurd prices for housing? I doubt it. These considerations don’t exist independently in vacuums. What we do about one will have an impact on the other. But it's hard, if not impossible, to know exactly how.

I’ll admit, I love the character of neighborhoods like Georgetown and Capitol Hill. They’re beautiful, dense, lively, vibrant, and entirely without tall buildings. Yet, it also makes me sad to think about how expensive these places have become, and how out-of-reach they are for many of even the city’s professionals. It makes me think that there’s got to be a better way.
A few months ago I commented on the degree to which Washingtonians seem to complain about Metro. The way some people talk about it, sometimes it seems like a miracle that the system even opens every morning. But having spent the past week in a city with a true transit crisis that nobody is talking about, I have to admit that I'm actually glad people in DC complain about Metro.

(from dnewman8 on Flickr)

I've been making noise about the downfall of Cleveland's RTA for years. I thought things were bad when I left in June, and unfortunately, it seems like things have only gotten worse.

Looking at timetables while I was home for the holidays, I saw hour-long headways on far too many routes, weekend service eliminated from many, and 20-minute headways on some of the city's historically busiest routes. The line that runs past my parents house, which I rode for nearly 10 years, no longer has evening or weekend service. The line I relied on when I lived in University Heights is down to 30-minute peak headways and even less service off-peak.

As far as poor service goes, Clevelanders have a lot to complain about. Yet, I heard virtually no discussion and few complaints. Apparently the service has gotten so bad that just about everyone has simply given up on it.

Yes, it's a shame that Metro provides a level of service that people in DC are so adamant about criticizing and complaining about, but at least these people haven't given up yet. Honestly, I don't know how much hope will be left once enough people simply give up.