Thursday, July 31, 2014

ON THE AVENUES is on vacation.

Instead of a rerun, enjoy the view of Duluth and Lake Superior from the Enger Tower.

Northern Road Trip, Day 7: Duluth lakeshore walking ... and walking ... and walking.

It proved to be about 3.5 miles from our airbnb residence in Duluth to the city center. On Thursday, we decided to walk into Duluth. First we wandered the grounds of Glensheen Mansion (the historic Congdon estate), and then explored the Rose Garden at Leif Erickson Park, before returning to the lakeside pedway.

The ruin known locally as Uncle Harvey's Mausoleum was an object of interest.

The next stop was Canal Park Brewing Company for restorative pints, and fine ones at that.

Having consumed scant grocery store sandwiches earlier, and sufficed a liquid lunch, a palpable hunger began to set in. Thus we arrived at the Dubh Linn Irish Brew Pub, located downtown on Superior Street. My curiosity was piqued by an Irish pub of the traditional American model that has chosen to brew on premise as well as serve the usual Irish fare (another, Carmody's, is down the street, though we did not make it there).

These would appear to be differing business models, but the Dubh Linn's brewing system is strictly "nano," meaning very small, and manned by a visiting brewer. The Guinness hegemony really isn't being threatened. However, the beers were solid, and the burger filling. That's why we have Irish pubs, right?

And here is where it gets hazy, and not so much owing to my sampler tray of beer. Usually after eating a big meal, I'll sit for a bit and let it settle. In this instance, I'd packed it in, secure in the knowledge that we'd be calling a cab or taking the bus. Somehow, it was decided to walk back to our room ... another 3.5 miles, in late afternoon, with temps in the 80s and a long, steady uphill incline. I'm in reasonably good walking condition, and yet it was a trek. An hour later, snores filled the air as we indulged in an hour-long power nap. According to our Fitbits, we both recorded record days in terms of mileage.

Luckily, sleep eventually dissipated, and with dusk shaping up wonderfully, we drove to the Enger Park Tower. It stands atop the ridgeline, with a commanding view in all directions. It was lovely on July 31; probably not as much in January when the winds are coming off the lake. The view is north, east and south.

Just like here, this development is anything but.

Over and over again, local governments tell us public investment in and making exceptions for chain stores and larger out-of-state businesses is the only way to develop a town or city. New Albany is no different. But it doesn't work and we know it doesn't work. Cities just keep doing it anyway, pouring money into no and low return "investments" while others do the public heavy lifting for less.

Posting examples repeatedly gets tiring but, for the sake of sport, here's another.
The Taco John's of Buffalo by Jordan Then (Strong Towns)  
As you can see, the older buildings have a value 212% higher per square foot than the new Walgreens. The city collects $51,284 dollars in property tax on the older buildings compared to $26,013 from the new Walgreens. The older buildings also contain 15 businesses and an unknown number of second story apartments, which enhance the overall walkability of the neighborhood, while the blank wall of the Walgreens provides nothing for pedestrians.

Given the innumerable examples - what some may call "evidence" - it's at least somewhat heartening to see an analyst, in this case Aaron Renn, taking the question to those who tend not to like them.
Do Cities Really Want Economic Development? by Aaron M. Renn (Governing)
A poor economy and all the problems that come with it actually benefit some people, giving powerful players less incentive to improve the status quo for the rest. 
Jane Jacobs took it even further. As she noted in The Economy of Cities, “Economic development, whenever and wherever it occurs, is profoundly subversive of the status quo.” And it isn’t hard to figure out that even in cities and states with serious problems, many people inside the system are benefiting from the status quo. 
They have political power, an inside track on government contracts, a nice gig at a civic organization or nonprofit, and so on. All of these people, who are disproportionately in the power broker class of most places, potentially stand to lose if economic decline is reversed. That’s not to say they are evil, but they all have an interest to protect.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Northern Road Trip, Day 6: Introduction to Duluth.

The first time I can recall seeing a timber wolf, it wasn't Kevin Love cleaning the boards. Rather, it was a real wolf, bounding across a highway that looked like this ...

 ... and missing the car by a few feet. It was that close, and shocked me so badly that later, I was compelled to drink beer at Fitger's.

At any rate, we made the two-hour drive from Minneapolis to Duluth on Wednesday morning, July 30, having elected to navigate the back roads rather than the interstate. It was uneventful apart from the close encounter with a timber wolf. For those interested in Northwoods history, outdoor recreation, honest food and great beer, Duluth and adjoining Superior, Wisconsin have much to offer.

Around the year 1900, Duluth had more millionaires per capita than any other American city. The reason was shipping. There was iron ore and timber to be sent across Lake Superior to fuel the Gilded Age, and the middlemen and ship owners made considerable bank. Their homes and commercial buildings remain largely intact. Today Duluth is more than a lake port; it's a bona fide seaport, because ocean-going vessels can reach it via the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Appropriately, we boarded the Vista Star for an afternoon tour of the harbor, and learned that last winter's harshness as yet is causing delays to Great Lakes shipping schedules, as the catch-up game continues into August.

Our airbnb hosts noted that while 30-below days always are to be expected in Duluth, the past winter featured day after day of bitter cold, making the city's 3.5 miles of climate-controlled skywalks even more essential. Our hosts were young and delightful, and a Bengal cat named Leo to die for.

Like other ports from Vladivostok to San Francisco, Duluth clings to a ridge facing the water. It is a long and narrow city. on the north side of downtown, easily walked from Canal Park via the lakeside pedway, is the old Fitger's brewery building. Think of it as the Falls City of Duluth, and like Louisville's Falls City, there also is a newer, exemplary Fitger's brewing company. It operates on multiple levels of the 19th-century premises, which also contains shops and a hotel. Of the following images, the lakefront panorama of the Fitger's building and the label are borrowed images.

That's right: Buy a pre-filled growler of Fitger's beer, but first, you must decide whether you'd like glass, plastic or aluminum. We returned to Fitger's later, and my salad of greens, Minnesota wild rice and smoked local trout was superb.

On Thursday, we planned to leave the car at our residence and go walking. It turned out to be quite a lot of steps.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Northern Road Trip, Day 5.2: Sculpture Garden and the Stone Arch Bridge.

On the morning of the 29th, prior to our Hmong House afternoon, we took the Green Line into Minneapolis and debarked at the new Vikings stadium site for a walk across the Stone Arch Bridge and the Mississippi River.

This is the epicenter of the old factory 'n' mill Minneapolis. Nearby is Nicollet Island (we'd walked there the previous day) and a familiar symbol of olden brewing times, now revived as a throwback budget beer brand.

The preceding three photos are from the 28th. The ones that follow are from the Stone Arch Bridge walk on the 29th. First is some heavy adaptive reuse under way at an old flour mill:

Then, the view back toward downtown. The Stone Arch Bridge is the oldest Mississippi span in Minneapolis. The area is now criss-crossed with recreational trails for bikers and walkers, as well as boasting numerous eateries and watering holes for refueling.

Then a city bus (they're fully efficient, too) took us 10 blocks or more south, to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, adjacent to the Walker Art Center. The place became packed as it got closer to lunchtime.

The chairs are for sitting, but there was no time for dawdling. We hiked back to the Green Line through yet another green space, and returned to the Bobbin House Studio to pick up the car, and begin the day's Hmong cultural instruction.

"Nudist, beach-like freedom is not what it used to be."

(there is no illustration, so I can dodge charges of sexism or what not)

I arrived by train in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1987.

After securing a room at the hostel, my first stop was a small shop, where salami, bread and a few bottles of beer were purchased. It was noon, and a walk of a couple hundred yards to the lake on a brilliant, warm late spring day. Lots of office workers were headed the same direction.

By coincidence, I was a few paces behind an attractive brunette, perhaps my age (27 at the time), or a bit younger. When we got to the public area by the water, she pulled a blanket from her bag, threw it on the ground, and slipped out of her work clothes, all in one speedy practiced motion. She wore a bikini bottom and nothing else.

It was all so nonchalant and meaningless. She had a half hour to sunbathe, and got right down to it. No big deal at all. Only an American hick like me, raised in the hinterland amid humorless cornfed religious personages, could possibly see any significance in an act of simple nothingness.

But I decided to sit elsewhere and drink my beer, lest I dwell for too long on the shortcomings of my homeland, because once you get started, where to stop?

The real reason French women have stopped sunbathing topless at The Guardian's "Fashion Blog"

... "Globalisation and Americanisation of women's portrayal and sexiness in France has pushed away gentle (and generally harmless) French eroticism towards porno, frontal, hyper-sexualised consciousness," she says. "Nudist, beach-like freedom is not what it used to be ... breasts no longer feel innocent or temporarily asexual."

Northern Road Trip, Day 5.1: Hmong House ... food and culture in North St. Paul.

This 2013 review of the Hmong House in North St. Paul, Minnesota, perfectly captures the ambience of this restaurant, event hall and community center.

Hmong House, by Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl (

North St. Paul’s new Hmong House is finally the Hmong restaurant Minnesota has been waiting for—with appetizers, beer, and a credit card machine

Diana studied Hmong culture in graduate school, and we made it a point to learn more about the Hmong people while in St. Paul.

To oversimplify for the sake of brevity, the Hmong originated in China, and various migrations took some of them to other locales in Southeast Asia. Among these areas were mountainous regions of Laos, where the Hmong chose the losing side in two wars, first fighting with the French colonizers against the Communists, and later for the Americans during our Vietnam War era.

Consequently, many Hmong were compelled to seek an escape amid genocidal retribution from the victorious Communist authorities in Laos, who only recently have "opened up" sufficiently to invite the Hmong diaspora to return to what is one of the most economically challenged countries in the world. They're being asked to bring their wallets, and many are.

Quite a number of Hmong refugees came to the Twin Cities, where the community is estimated to number more than 100,000. This, then, is the great cause and passion of Pa See and Kay Yang, the power couple who run the Hmong House. In these photos, you'll notice an absence of customers for lunch on a Tuesday afternoon in late July. That's because the Hmong House is packed on weekends for weddings and Hmong social functions. Other paying customers are squeezed inside if there is available space.

We were allowed to order from the dinner menu, and the Yangs threw in a gratis entree (Five-Spice Sweet Braised Pork) as part of the bargain.

The reviewer quoted above describes Hmong food:

For any old hand with Asian restaurants, one of the issues with Hmong food is that you immediately try to identify what’s Thai and what’s Chinese—don’t do that. After a few years of eating Hmong, my best advice is to think about it the way you would Alsatian food. Hmong has an adjacency—some similarities and some differences—to the other southeast Asian cuisines in the same way that Alsatian food has many similarities, many overlaps, and some differences from French food.

Indeed. We had Papaya salad and a delicious Pho, personally spiced by Mr. Yang at the table.

As for my entree, how could I pass on the offer of crispy fried pig intestines ... or as you may know them, chittlins (chitterlings).

They were absolutely fabulous.

At meal's conclusion, we followed the host's directions to the Hmong Village near Lake Phalen, where a former lumber warehouse has been converted into a Hmong multi-vendor market mall, with stalls selling prepared food, bulk food items, vegetables, non-alcoholic drinks, musical CDs, Hmong DVDs, books and virtually anything else an American supermarket would provide.

The Yangs were incredibly giving of their time, and I intend to read a book called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which Diana read in school. It describes the difficulties in assimilation faced by the Hmong people who've come to America. Mr. Yang, whose earliest memories are of a refugee camp in Thailand, told us that he hopes to be able to retire to Laos. It is my hope to keep in touch with the Yangs, and perhaps find a way to help.

A pop-up Hmong kitchen at BSB?

The Big Four Bridge is rather Dutch, as we all should be.

Given the level of equity afforded multiple transportation modes on Dutch streets, the Netherlands is often used by NAC and many others as an example of more sensible urban planning and design. Just as often, even those who recognize the practical value of such planning and design lament that, though it's a good idea, it just can't be done here. It's as if we believe the Dutch are somehow inherently superior and thus managed to avoid the negative impact of car-centric design altogether via some sort of secret, a priori knowledge passed genetically from mother to daughter. That sort of "can't do it here" pronouncement, however, says far more about us than it ever did about the Dutch.

Indeed, the Netherlands, like cities and countries around the world and certainly our own, initially pursued auto-centric design in its recovery and rebuilding from World War II. Below is a 1960s street scene from Assen, a small city of 67,000 in the northeastern Netherlands. It may as well be New Albany.

It was around the time of this photo that the Dutch began comprehending the problems they had inadvertently created for themselves, the same problems encountered in New Albany and the Louisville metro every day. What started as localized response in several towns and cities - they moved household furniture into the streets to reclaim them for people in some places - in the 70s became a national movement perhaps best exemplified by the name of a prominent activist group: Stop the Child Murder.

By the time I first visited some 20 years later in the mid-90s, the Netherlands to which we now point had largely already been coaxed from what some there, too, had believed to be streets too far gone. Below is a shot of the same street in 2007, where approximately 9,000 bicycles per day pass through.

I was reminded of this very recent history as a practical rather than miraculous matter while strolling with a childhood friend (and hundreds of others) across the Big Four Bridge last Thursday. It's arguably the most significant piece of public infrastructure in our metro area in decades, again proving that if you simply provide people a reasonable pedestrian and cycling alternative, they will use it here just like in the Netherlands and pretty much everywhere else. Safer, more sustainable, and more vibrant streets and street life - and stronger, more resilient communities - are possible and even probable if we would just approach transportation pragmatically. Acknowledge mistakes and move on.

Though there are design gems aplenty owing to a few decades of experience, the Netherlands is best used not as an example of a very specific planning strategy but as a more general mindset. The infrastructure in the latter photo is more functional, less expensive, and easier to build and maintain than that of the earlier one and, as always, thinking is free. We have more than enough talent and money. We just have to decide that people deserve a chance to adapt and thrive.

More comparison photos and information about "Assen Verandert - Oude en Nieuwe Stadsgezichten" (translates as "Assen Changes - Old and New City Sights"), the book from which they were taken, can be found here.

Monday, July 28, 2014

"The biggest illusion, of course, was that victory would be quick and easy."

It has been 16 years since Adam Hochschild's gripping King Leopold's Ghost, which tells a story none of us know, but should.

King Leopold's Ghost (1998) is a best-selling popular history book by Adam Hochschildthat explores the exploitation of the Congo Free State by King Leopold II of Belgium between 1885 and 1908, as well as the atrocities that were committed during that period.[1]
The book aims to increase public awareness of crimes committed by European colonial rulers in Africa. It was refused by nine of the ten U.S. publishing houses to which an outline was submitted, but became an unexpected bestseller and won the prestigious Mark Lynton History Prize for literary style. It also won the 1999 Duff Cooper Prize. By 2013, more than 600,000 copies were in print in a dozen languages.

Ironically, Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality in 1914 brought England into the Great War, which began when Austria-Hungary armies invaded Serbia ... and as we'd say in these parts, had their asses handed to them, at least at first. Hochschild later wrote about the people who opposed the conflagration.

"To End All Wars" redux.

In short: It was a hundred years ago today. We really ought to know and remember these things.

Colonial Folly, European Suicide, by Adam Hochschild (NYT)

TURNER, Me. — ONE hundred years ago today, Austro-Hungarian artillery and gunboats on the Danube began shelling Serbia — the first shots of the great cataclysm that over the next four and a half years would remake our world for the worse, in every conceivable way. We think of the First World War as having its causes in Europe, where the greatest bloodshed and destruction would take place. But several of the illusions that propelled the major powers so swiftly into war had their roots in far corners of the world.

Northern Road Trip, Day 4: St. Paul and some really Great Waters.

The Bobbin House Studio, our airbnb base in Minneapolis, lies astride the Green Line light rail at a point roughly between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Conceding that the population of the Twin Cities metropolitan area is 2.5 times larger than Louisville's, it's almost as though we had not one but two cities the size of The Ville to choose from, depending on whether the Green Line took us east or west.

On Monday morning, our second day without needing the car, we opted for "east" and exited the Green Line at the state capital complex above St. Paul. A short walk away is St. Paul (duh), a St. Peters-lookalike cathedral perched seemingly on the highest point in the city. Acknowledging the museums and state apparatchik offices on both sides of the grand boulevard linking the two, the scene conjured old memories of various former Eastern Europe principalities.

Trust me: When the church is on a hill higher than the royal palace's, it's time to begin worrying about the veracity if secular governance.

Just past the cathedral is Summit Avenue (simple two-way street grid with bike lanes pictured above, sans multi-million dollar medians), a mind-blowing collection of historic monied architecture extending as far as the eye can see, or aching feet can carry you. Cupola fatigue claimed us after a few blocks, and we began searching for a place to rest. We'd been told that nearby Grand Avenue was the place to go for indie ambience, but we found far too many chains (why do so many places take this gift-card-mall approach?), and so reversed field and walked all the way downtown, where the Great Waters Brewing Company welcomed us for lunch.

The server was a polite, bearded music school student who had not been on the job for long but did a good job with the beer program. He shared with us that his hometown of Le Roy, down by the Iowa border, was largely without opportunity, and that farming wasn't easy with most agricultural careers in the hands of multinational agribusiness.

We rested, rehydrated and grazed on appetizers, Rasta Wings and a tuna wrap. The brewery's cask-conditioned, session-strength ales were excellent ... and I even bought the t-shirt. The Green Line's St. Paul terminus is close by the brewpub, and we boarded there for a return trip past our residence to Minneapolis, and a stroll to the Mississippi's downtown passage.

Oddly, this scene in St. Paul will stay with me.

It's a skywalk, temporarily disconnected pending the construction of a new building. Some sweet day, there'll be (re)closure.

Another memory of St. Paul is a reminder of swill daze past.

Clinging to the Same Stories.

"America's seismic demographic shift is upending life in our suburbs, cities and our popular culture. So why are we still clinging to the same stories to make sense of these changes?"

Maybe it's encroaching middle age, a broader mix of world events, or just another car driving the right way on a wrong way street, but that last bit about clinging has been a theme of late. Preexisting frames are tough to beat. Not beating them, though, means you are beat.

When Our Kids Own America, By Gene Demby (NPR) 

Brooklyn Park, Minn., which sits just to the northwest of Minneapolis and hugs the Mississippi River, was once the quintessential American suburb: Pretty sleepy. Midwestern. Mostly white. Jesse Ventura, the garrulous former Minnesota governor and pro wrestler, used to be the city's mayor. It was the childhood stomping grounds of a young Garrison Keillor of A Prairie Home Companion. The city’s annual festival is called “Tater Daze,” a nod to its potato farm origins. 

The Wonder Years could have been set in Brooklyn Park. 

Over the past two decades, though, the city has undergone the kind of transformation that’s changing life in so many American suburbs. In 1990, around nine in 10 people in Brooklyn Park were white. By 2010, nearly half the town’s residents were people of color. People in the surrounding area started referring derisively to the town as “Brooklyn Dark.” 

Many longtime — mostly white — residents were either moving out or resisting the tide of newcomers. As the shift got underway in the mid-’90s, a white local bar owner spoke up at a City Council hearing: "If you come from a different perspective or a different place, don't bring those standards to Brooklyn Park.” A different perspective. Lurking just beneath those words is an unspoken stake of ownership: this place is ours

This pattern seems familiar by now: “they” invade, there’s tension, many of “us” leave, whether it’s white folks gentrifying a brown community or brown folks ethno-fying a white one. And as long as the dichotomy was just that stark — as long as white folks and people of color could reliably play the roles of “we” and “they” — the pattern was easy to understand. But what’s happening to the “quintessential American suburb” echoes what’s happening to our classic “Chocolate Cities” like Oakland, Calif., Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Ga., and what’s happening in hip-hop and pop music. That old story is starting to get complicated.

Satisfaction in Europe.

You want to know what's crazy about this poll? Rostock and Leipzig both are located in the former East Germany. In 1989, it is doubtful either would have topped such a list.

This means there is hope yet for New Albany. The only question is whether the 25 years have started already ... because if they haven't, I'm looking at the age of 78 before this starts making sense.

Which is the most satisfied city in Europe? (Guardian)

Residents of 79 cities were polled on what they thought about various aspects of their lives. Our interactive chart shows how many were satisfied with their city's healthcare, cleanliness, noise levels and more

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Northern Road Trip, Day 3: Twin Cities, Twins game, twin transit.

The last time I witnessed a Minnesota Twins home game, Reggie Jackson was playing for the visiting Baltimore Orioles.

For students of baseball, this carbon-dates me; specifically, back to the age of almost 16 in 1976, when the Twins played at Metropolitan Stadium. Now, after more than two decades trapped in the mercifully demolished Metrodome (currently the spot where the new Vikings football stadium is being constructed), the team has a gleaming new park called Target Field, located in downtown Minneapolis.

It is open-air and quite nice, combining the expected retro touches with space age technology, like stations where you can fill your own overpriced mass-market beer. Fortunately, craft beer is freely available, if not free, and there are numerous contemporary food options. For adventurous sorts, there also are actual games, and ours resulted in a Twins win over the White Sox.

However, the best thing about a game at Target Field is that with adept advance planning, one needn't drive a car to reach it.

In fact, a light rail station is attached to Target Field. We drove into Minneapolis from Madison on Sunday morning, a few minutes after 11:00 a.m. and checked in with our airbnb hosts at the Bobbin House Studio. A Green Line light rail station is located three walking minutes away on University Avenue. Twenty minutes later, for a couple bucks each in round-trip tickets, we were at Target Field, prepared to forage in advance of the 1:10 p.m. game time.

After the game was over, we decided to walk to Black Sheep, a delicious coal-fired pizzeria situated in the revitalizing warehouse district just west of downtown. The walk took us past Fulton Brewery, which functions now as I belatedly wish Bank Street Brewhouse would have all along.

Back at the Bobbin House via the Green Line, a brief respite yielded to a walk through the tidy left-leaning neighborhood, which in turn led to the left bank of the Mississippi River.

And there sat the car, in the driveway throughout.