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Showing posts from January, 2011

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 ba…

Don't Judge a City You Don't Know

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&#…

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 loadi…

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 a…

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-…

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…

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…

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, ba…

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, t…

What Drives Cupcake Popularity?

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 exe…

Street Art, Graffiti or Something Else?

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…

Playing with Sim City on the iPad

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 m…

When Major Cities Get Disconnected

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. Pit…

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 th…

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…

Debating the Height Act Gets Emotional

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 a…

When Transit is Truly Terrible

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 do…