An Urbanist Walks Into a Bar…

“Has anyone ever told you that you look like Jane Jacobs?”

This is probably the first and last time anyone has used that line to greet a stranger in a bar. But today, during my break from gathering data at the train station in East Point, Georgia, it was an exceptionally adequate greeting.

My new friend, Michelle, is a regular at Chairs Upstairs, a local bar on Main Street. In her fifty something years of life, most of which she’s lived in East Point, she’s witnessed the town gradually change to become the place it is today.

Jane Jacobs, the mother of the Public Life study. Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Bike Fed: http://www.bfw.org/2016/05/10/happy-birthday-jane-jacobs/

East Point is a working class town roughly 9 miles south of Downtown Atlanta.1 Its dense downtown contains several locally owned businesses, a post office, a CVS pharmacy, and a Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) train station. The train station has been my focus for the last two weeks while I’ve collected data about pedestrian movement and stationary activities and watching and listening closely. Very often, I am the only white person at the station.2

Meeting Michelle tonight was so special, because while I’ve been in East Point, I’ve felt very much like an outsider. We chatted about her favorite karaoke music to sing (“Fire and Rain” by James Taylor), how East Point has changed since the MARTA station was built, and the trials and tribulations of living without a car, which she’s done for ten years. She recounted being mugged while walking to the bar from Chick-Fil-A, what it was like growing up in the South during integration3 and our mutual frustration with MARTA’s lackluster level of service. Though she was a perfect stranger, I think our conversation was one of the most meaningful and personal I’ve had since leaving Chapel Hill in May.

I am glad there are perfect strangers in the world like Michelle. They have stories to tell. Just listen.


 

Atlanta is Thriving

Atlanta is a city at center stage in a defining moment in its history. Will it continue to be defined by its sprawled metropolitan form, or be known instead as a poster child for sustainable infill urbanization?

Today was an indication that the latter vision is alive and well among the citizens of this city and region. Atlanta Streets Alive, an initiative spearheaded by the city’s Bicycle Coalition, closed 4 miles of Marietta Street and Howell Mill Road to car traffic. The result was a festive day of cycling, human scale street activity, and a series of inspiring talks with a central theme of the role of community among Atlanta’s cyclists. I was very glad that I happened to move to Atlanta for a two week stay on the day of Atlanta Street Alive. It was a resounding celebration of public space.

Below are some assorted photos and videos of the event.

eyes on the street
street seats hosted by Atlanta’s Planning Department
details of a pop up pit stop
mural

Day 1: Observations

There are places in Charlotte far more interesting than 3rd St. Convention and Archdale. But they are still places that thousands experience every day, and so perhaps that makes them worthy of study. I can tell Charlotte feels as small as Chapel Hill because I saw people riding LYNX on my trip back to Uptown who rode south with me. One carried a bag of groceries from Dollar Tree. The transit-dependent use LYNX in Charlotte, you just have to go south of South End to recognize this.

At 3rd St., I rode past a group of people whom Jan Gehl would describe as a “social activity” in Life Between Buildings. “He ain’t tryin’ to cuff me, nigga” a white woman standing among a group of all Black men said audibly enough for any passerby to hear. The suits kept their headphones in. I wonder what Gehl has to say about the meaning of public life in a world in which we can be mentally removed from a space while listening to an album or podcast.

I think the process I used to choose stations is ultimately flawed. Based on passive observation, there is clearly more public life unfolding in South End (namely at East/West, New Bern, and Bland). On first impression, 3rd Street is not a place I would want to spend very much time. In a way, it reminded me of a mini-version of where I transferred on the El in Chicago (Randolph/Wabash?). Lots of folks crammed on a platform, suspended above a busy street, peering at their smartphones. But I saw very few POC there, and I was one of very few white people boarding at Archdale.

Archdale resembles every gridded, arterial-centered single-family neighborhood I’ve ever seen in the American South. A place of manicured lawns, speeding yellow school buses, and garden apartments. It is very clearly a more culturally diverse place than South End, transit-dependent folks waiting on buses, Latin American restaurants. There was also a man sitting under one of the flyover columns, guitar in hand (not playing), who was there when I departed to explore and boarded again (3:45-5:00; 90 minutes?) After visiting Ashford Place (apartment complex ¼ mile walk from front to station, I’m curious how much foot traffic I’ll observe at morning rush hour from that direction. There, children on their way to play pick-up soccer, and a blind man walking along the edge of the curvilinear street into the complex (that would be a cumbersome walk for a blind person to make daily). Altogether, the most typical garden apartment complex, clearly built before LRT anticipated (true of all development at Archdale). Most noteable from the perspective of built environment/human use was crossing mid-block, mostly observed on Old Pineville in front of bus depot and on Archdale across planted median.  I will go after dark settles, but I’m not looking forward to it after reading this message board.

Uptown Charlotte is one way streets and chain restaurants that don’t resemble sprawl’s version of similar institutions. “The Green” is chock full of literary motifs and a sign showing where the nearest Charlottes are (1100 miles to Charlotte, Maine). Its fountain was the site of the most public life I saw today, social activity and silly interactions (*which fountain spout will squirt the tourists unexpectedly?) 3rd Street is immediately bordered by surface parking lot, an empty green lot (potential), a 4 lane separated one-way (so many 1 way streets!), and the Hilton. At 3rd Street, I am very curious to know if folks commuting to South End will recognize one another or will continue to peer at their phones. Station area is half contained under the Hilton, and half “covered” by artistic green and orange pieces. Probably provide as much refuge as bus shelter on DeKalb and Wilson did that night in Brooklyn. Immediately considered that elevation of station is the most clear limitation to public life here.

Bike ride this morning started in NoDa along Davidson Street. Howie Acres Park united two streets that otherwise end, only one curb ADA compliant. This neighborhood will likely see more change than Archdale did with light rail. Steel Gardens Apartments will be sought after once light rail arrives. Great street grid with neighborhood life even at 2pm on a Monday. “From the 100s” yet all of these listings are 250+. Asked a man commuting by bike to his job at Harris Teeter for directions. Neighborhood signs in Villa Heights were a wonderful wayfinding investment.

Conclusion: Cities are legible without smartphones.

Puddles and Connectedness

Yesterday was my first day in Charlotte, one city I’ll be studying this summer for my research project. To get acclimated to the city, I decided to go for a run. I left the Airbnb, a beautiful cottage built in the earlier 20th century when this neighborhood was a mill village. The run was refreshing, and helped me to gain my bearings in this new place. I braved the pouring rain, bringing my smartphone in case I got lost.

About halfway through my run, I passed a man wearing jeans and a polo shirt.

“Can I run with you?” he called out to me. At first, I thought he was joking, but soon enough he was matching me stride for stride.

My new companion was on a mission to pick up gas station beer for his friends. Just as I was telling him I didn’t know where the nearest gas station was, that despite my neighborhood running garb I didn’t know what street we were on, *SPLASH*. My knees scraped across the semi-paved gap next to the train tracks. I had managed to take a nice bath in Charlotte’s largest sidewalk puddle.

Though my pride was damaged, I trudged on, reaching home about twenty minutes later. Foolishly, I immediately plugged in my phone after drying it with a towel. I was perplexed when it didn’t immediately begin to charge. An hour later, coming to the frustrating realization that it had something to do with the train track puddle bath, I googled “iPhone water damage”.

The most important thing people forget is to not use the device when it gets wet. They get impatient and try and turn it on.

Shit.

Right now, my phone is sitting in a rice bowl, and I’m praying the last 8 months of photos, videos, and audio recordings I’ve made are not lost forever (yeah, I haven’t backed up the data on my computer since September). But if nothing else comes of this silly accident, I hope I can at least observe this city with a more interesting perspective given my lack of access to ubiquitous information, geographic and otherwise. Perhaps, as my girlfriend wisely imparted when I explained what happened.

“Maybe you’ll gain a unique perspective on the urban form, without all the noise.”