Sunday, September 25, 2016

On "After Zombies" by Robert Garner McBrearty (646 words) ***

Being a successful writer, it seems at times, is simply about catching the next wave--or rather, being the first to get there. That's the schtick in this short piece, which dashes out several ideas that inevitably seem to have already been tried. I don't know if there really are any new ideas. Read the story here at Lowestoft Chronicle.

On "Great Streets" by Allan B. Jacobs *****

Jacobs is interested in why some streets are better than others--why we return to certain streets more than others regardless of what's on them. The issue, of course, in trying to define such things is that a street's greatness is always defined within a context. What exactly does a person need the street for? That's going to make a large difference in the definition of "great street."

Jacobs, thus, lays out several criteria. Great streets do the follow:

1. Great streets contribute to (a feeling of) community.
2. Great streets are safe and comfortable.
3. Great streets encourage participation.
4. Great streets are memorable.
5. Great streets are representative.

I can see the object of points 1-4, though I'm a bit less taken in by point 5. But definition really does affect our criteria here. A highway can be a great street in terms of its function when it works well, but that is not the kind of street Jacobs is talking of here--a street that is only really meant to be a conduit for getting us from one place to the other in the quickest and most direct way. Jacobs is talking more about streets in which people linger--or want to.

After the initial criteria is laid out, he begins discussing specific streets--a short residential street in Pittsburgh that has very dense population and nothing by street parking; a few streets going back to medieval times, with their attendant winding and narrowing and widening; wide boulevards with trees and separate parklike areas for pedestrians, the Grand Canal of Venice.

Jacobs makes me contemplate what I would consider a great street--among places I've visited or lived. In terms of large boulevards, I am reminded of the Beacon Hill area of Boston, where I stayed for a week, with its occasional street-level businesses, its three or so stories of dense living space, its wide sidewalk, its park running down the center, and its termination at the Commons. It was a wonderful street. Is it a street that would foster community or participation? That, I can't say, not having lived there.

The streets I most remember in towns where I've lived, I find, tend to have been those in downtown areas--it's really the downtown that I remember, more than the street. For me, a great street is an area conducive to walking--great sidewalk, lots to look at and see, many people around. In Pasadena, most of the major shopping areas are located on Colorado or Lake, meaning that these are the streets I most walked on and that I focus on when thinking of great streets. But sidewalks were almost everywhere, so the town was really conducive to walking no matter what street one was on. Colorado and Lake, however, offered the most in terms of people milling around. Lake died after six p.m., however, meaning that Colorado (and specifically the Old Pasadena section of it) was really the only one for people watching at night. What made this road successful, however, was that there was a nightlife. At the time in which I was growing up, the Hastings Ranch area, which is essentially a large strip mall (parking lots surrounding various outdoor shops and eateries), was not pretty, but it was actually a place where one could venture for an evening and leave the car mostly behind--there were theaters, a bowling alley, lots of restaurants, and some shopping. I would not describe the streets around these places as great, however. Why not? Perhaps because the streets themselves were merely byways--ways to get to the parking lot. Businesses did not abut the streets. And yet, not too far from where I grew up was Washington, which in parts have such abutting buildings and quite a few businesses. Really, it has potential to be charming, but there were few pedestrians and traffic whizzed by as if on a highway. I think ultimately it is that people make for a great street.

In Oxford, Mississippi, walking was more difficult. Some older streets made for a pleasant ambiance, but they were short, the town small. Mostly, it was the downtown square and its few immediate blocks around it that I remember most. In Fort Worth, again, the downtown Sundance Square is most memorable. The streets in other parts of downtown (south and east) should have been memorable--they had the same makings of those near the "square" (which was mostly just a parking lot)--but fewer pedestrians ventured out to those parts of downtown, especially at night. In Athens, Georgia, it is again downtown that is most memorable. That said, for walking, I used to like Lumpkin, Milledge, and Prince, when I lived closer to those areas. They featured occasional pedestrians as well, and old buildings, most of which were not set back from the street by parking lots (though quite a few might have yards or gardens of a sort). And what made these streets special? In part, it was the possibility of seeing or meeting someone I know. It was the feeling of neighborliness.

Even among residential areas, the ones I like best are great for walking, but even more for watching. The street I grew up on had wonderful sidewalks, and some large porches. It had the makings of a good street, but again, few walked it. Those porches sat sadly empty virtually all the time. Compare this to Adams Street in Oxford, which also featured some large porches but which, being close to downtown, featured more pedestrians--people greeted each other from the porch. It too had the makings of a good street, but it lacked a sidewalk, which meant that people could not linger. In fact, few residential neighborhoods really feature many people milling around. And in a way, that too is right--in context. I mean, when I go home, part of me wants to be alone, with my family. Part of me. Part of me likes that constant possibility of social interaction. It depends on my mood.

But as far as defining great streets, perhaps his strongest examples are those of streets which used to be great. Sometimes, seeing what is wrong, what is not working, is more useful in terms of diagnosing what "great" means. His examples include the Champs-Elysees. This one still has retail businesses on it and a good deal of pedestrian traffic, but it is not as great as it once was. Why? Because, Jacobs contends, the trees have been pruned too much and temporary buildings have been allowed to invade the wide sidewalk, creating dead space along the pedestrian portion of the street on each side, as people are forced out away from the other buildings. Ironically, many of these types of changes have been brought about by the businesses that have suffered--demanding smaller trees so that their signage is more evident, more space to sell wares. His next example of a street gone bad is Via del Corso, which suffers, he says, from being too long. Plazas mark the beginning and end of the street, but they're too far away to see. The narrowness couples with the height of the buildings makes for some parts of the street that almost never see sun. And while the street no doubt was once great, in the centuries since it came into being, many other great streets have come into being also, making it no longer stand out. (Oddly, this street, in his description, seems very robust even today, which would suggest to me quite the opposite: that this still is a great street, though admittedly I've been been a huge fan of those corridors of shadow that some streets are.) His last example is Market Street in San Francisco, which in its heyday was full of people and streetcars. But modernism has done away with much of that--the streetcars have been turned into subway stops (and that, only four); the people don't come as much because the buildings lining the streets have gone from big to bigger. Modern skyscrapers often don't have street-side retail--they demand that you go in, and when you do, you get the lobby for, say, a bank, which is hardly a large public draw. The windows are not individualized, so you can't tell how many stories there are from the outside or where the people are--the street, in its modern incarnation, lacks the feeling of the personal and the communal.

Throughout the various accounts of great streets, certain themes seem to emerge. Buildings tend to be of similar design or at least of similar height so that everything fits together. There are windows on the first floor; if it is a business district, shops and restaurants appear on that first floor. Windows and architecture ensure that we know that these are individual lived spaces. There is room for pedestrians on the sidewalk. There are usually trees providing ample shade. Often, traffic is kept to a moderate pace.

In his discussion of great residential boulevards, for which he uses Monument Avenue, in Richmond, as his case study, he makes a shoutout to Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena, which I'm well familiar with. I didn't mention it among talk of Washington, Colorado, and Lake. I can see the street's appeal, most especially on the west side before the road turns from north-south to an east-west direction. There, the street is lined with those ample trees, and there is a large sidewalk, and the homes are large and imposing and beautiful (Millionaire's Row, they were once called). But traffic along that part of the street is very busy; when I was a kid, I knew of someone from church who was run over while mowing a lawn on that street. Turn the corner, and the street loses identity in my mind (close to where the Rose Parade switches from Orange Grove to Colorado)--until it gets further east and hits my childhood neighborhood. There, the homes were more middle class, and the wide street was wonderful in some ways (my dad always commented on how all streets should be so wide), but at least in my mind, there was also trouble with such a wide street, especially as one got toward Allen Avenue. The trouble was the trees. They just weren't large enough to cover such width, which made for difficult and hot walks. (Further east still, there was a nice park along the street at least that I remember enjoying.) Certainly, the sidewalk was large enough to allow for many pedestrians, but there rarely were not many as one got further east. It was the north-south section of the boulevard that to me offered the most excitement and pleasure for a walk or a job, but it was also an area that I knew I would never live on, as it was pricy (unless one found an apartment on the far south end). Are great streets always expensive in terms of adjoining land?

Later, in a second section, Jacobs focuses on specific streets in diagrams and short bulletted lists of features, with the streets gathered together by category (e.g., residential boulevards, commercial districts, etc.). There, Orange Grove makes its full appearance. He notes that the curve at Colorado is the most intriguing area, which I find a bit of a surprise, since there's not much there at that corner (large parking lot), though the Norton Simon Museum is close by as well as the old Ambassador Gardens, though I suspect that the latter is mostly defunct now. Reviewing the street on Google maps, I realize that I've forgotten what much of it looks like--and that it has changed a lot since I was a kid. I suspect that one thing Jacobs likes about it is how it does twist and turn all along the way. He notes that it's a more compelling street to drive than to walk, and I would agree.

Also featured in that second section is Main Street in Disneyland. He notes how this little piece of land shows how an urban feel can be pushed into a small space. Main Street's main problem? It doesn't know whether it's a semblance of a big city or a small town. In other words, it's idealized but also obviously fake.

One of the more interesting failures that Jacobs features is the Ringstrasse, Vienna. It is a road that rings around a section of town. The drawings of it look beautiful--full of trees and wide spaces to walk. However, buildings are kept off at a distance, and the most direct path to anything you want is to go through the ring, not around on it. Hence, the Ringstrasse, while potentially a nice place to walk, is not a compelling street because it serves little real function.

A startling success occurs is Motomachi in Yokohama. Confined to a small space, the street actually burls through buildings of a sort. What I mean is that the base of the buildings is smaller than the buildings as they appear above--the buildings overhang the roadway, leaving room for cars and people at the bottom to wind their way through them. (I am left wondering, however, how much shadow would potentially make this area seem dreary, which Jacobs doesn't indicate.)

Next, in the third section, Jacobs compares city grids. Now, streets are placed in a context. Each grid is presented at the same size so that the size of the streets and blocks is evident in comparison to other city grids. What became evident to me quickly was that cities that developed later, after the advent of the automobile, feature larger streets and blocks--in other words, they appear to be less pedestrian friendly. American cities tend more toward square grid patterns, where no street stands out from another (or sadly, in some newer town with subdivisions, dead ends). Some older cities around the world have very small streets, and it is in these cities that you are more likely to encounter grand streets as well, in comparison to those small ones.

As cities, like Boston, have aged, however, many have imposed more modern grids--larger blocks and streets (merging blocks, widening streets)--so there are fewer intersections. This, in turn, affects wealth, power, and real estate distribution and pricing. Larger blocks tend to encourage wealthier landholders, so in a sense then, the commoner has become less and less powerful as streets have been modernized. Downtown belongs to the rich landholder, the corporation or billionaire.

Finally, Jacobs begins to summarize his findings. What makes a good street? A good street will have these characteristics: (1) It will be walkable. (Sidewalks play a big role here, but streets without sidewalks can still be walkable if that lack forces cars to flow at pedestrian speed. Trees and curbs can also bring a sense of safety to walkers by separating them from cars. The main thing is being able to walk securely at a leisurely pace, with not so many people around that one can't stay on the road and not so few that you feel alone while walking.) (2) It is comfortable--relatively sheltered from the elements (warm in the winter, cool in the summer, not too windy). (3) It will have definition. You can tell where the sides of the street are and often where the street begins and ends. A street that is too wide is seemingly not a street at all. A human-scale street allows you to interact with people--to recognize people from the other side. The scale of buildings is generally small (three stories or less), though taller is possible as long as the buildings don't begin to seem oppressive (comfort fits in here--too tall can mean too cold because of shadows or can create a wind tunnel). Monuments can make up for streets that might be wider than usual, providing focal points and definition; trees can do the same in terms of establishing borders. Finally, there needs to be a fair amount of density. A street with buildings too far apart and nothing else to establish a border, meaning that one can see across the block into backyards and other streets, will seem like less of a street. (4) It will be visually compelling. There have to be things to look at. Shadow plays a role--and the complexity of building faces. A completely smooth building face does not provide as many opportunities for different ways to light to play off of it as a face that has lots of juttings out and cornices and other fixtures on the façade. The movement of people and of leaves can be interesting. Things have to change. (5) Things have to be transparent at the street's edges. Windows must provide views into the buildings. Or there must be a suggestion that something is beyond the building or wall, like overhanging tree limbs, encouraging people to move into the space. (He gives as a counterexample a building on Colorado Boulevard in my hometown made of black glass. I don't remember the building, so it is likely the kind of black hole he references. I'm thinking it's one of the two or so office buildings splitting the One Colorado area from the Old Pasadena area, making that portion of the street, which is only a couple of blocks, seem desolate and long, even though the two areas on either side are not that far apart.) (6) Complementarity is essential. Buildings must be of a similar style; they must seem like they belong together. Similar heights help. Great buildings might occasionally stand out--but it is the otherwise mostly uniform type of building that makes such buildings stand out. (7) Great streets must be well maintained. (8) Great streets must have quality workmanship. (This is one reason most section 8 districts don't feel like great streets. Their buildings usually have a single, simple box design that is repeated over and over and feel as if they were put up quickly and cheaply.)

Beyond the requirements above, Jacobs notes, great streets often have the following (though they aren't as essential): (1) trees; (2) starts and finishes; (3) lots of buildings (which provides for variety of sight and of use); (4) ornaments, as in gates, benches, fountains, fancy streetlights, and signs; (5) occasional breaks (these are open spaces on longer streets--squares, piazzas, parks); (6) accessibility (you must be able to get to the street with ease); (7) density (streets need people); (8) diversity; (9) relative shortness (long streets lose their appeal over the long haul); (10) incline (completely flat streets are boring); (10) less than enough parking (too much parking, Jacobs contends, actually takes away from the street's character--usually, one is best off with minimal on-street parking and no parking lots; lots behind the buildings are not a solution, as these will tend to funnel people to the back instead of to the street; people must find parking elsewhere, on a different nongreat street, perhaps in a garage not on the main/great street); (11) contrast (different from other streets); (12) historicity (though the author then seems to contradict this by saying a great street can be from any time period).

In the end, Jacobs says, what a great street has is magic. And that, in itself, is undefinable. But the hope is that his book will help designers come closer to it when creating new streets.

The book itself is very well done, full of wonderful drawings of the streets and sketches of the streets in the context of other streets in the town, all drawn to the same scale. It's definitely well worth a look, as this summary does little to give the full feeling of the book.

Monday, September 12, 2016

On “Calamity” by Daphne Kalotay (4248 words) *****

"Calamity," one of the better stories in the collection of the same name, focuses Rhea's flight to the aforementioned wedding. The plane turns out to have mechanical difficulties, for which Rhea's seat mate blames herself (because she is a jinx with regard to everything). Rhea and the woman become fast friends, however, after Rhea announces to the plane how the woman beside her is responsible. They discuss regrets and secrets, and Rhea learns that her former propriety is because she is a woman, which means she's learned to be quiet in the face of things that demand saying something. Read the story here at Agni.

On "Calamity and Other Stories" by Daphne Kalotay ***

A collection of twelve mostly loosely interrelated tales involving characters headed ultimately to a wedding, Kalotay does a good job of presenting middle-class life and concerns. These are well-written pieces that I am not surprised to see in print. They tell contemporary stories well, but they don't revolutionize the form or do anything else that might make them differ from other polished work.

"Serenade" recounts a girl's experiences with her piano teacher, who her next-door neighbor best friend also has for tutoring. The teacher is an artist of sorts, an effete musician, who appreciates all things beautiful, most especially women, in a somewhat lecherous way. But there's more going on than initially meets the eye, and not all of it involves the teacher, who essentially plays the part of a voyeur.

"A Brand New You" concerns a woman who meets her ex-husband (from eight years before) and ends up bedding him, even as she is trying to change her life, to become someone better than she used to be. What she finds, however, is a man who himself is on the decline, his good looks--his main attraction when a younger man--fading. There's certain poignancy in this story, the way this woman recognizes in the man weaknesses and sorrows that she hadn't seen before, ones that mirror some of her own.

Many of Kalotay's stories end on something of a subtle twist. That's the case with "All Life's Grandeur," which focuses on a teen forced to spend the summer with his father and his father's new love--and with an eleven-year-old girl whose devotion and friendship the teen dismisses and dislikes. There's a lot of sorrow in this story, wisely delivered.

That quiet despair is also part of "Prom Season," in which boys are told they must bring dates to the prom, and one, Mack, learns that there are things more important than getting the girl you want, things that can cause you to lose all you set out to accomplish.

The next several stories didn't hold my interest as much, as if having hit her stride, Kalotay was simply skating along traditional themes. The last and weakest of these, “Anniversary," focuses on women getting together for drinks to talk about a son's impending wedding to the "wrong girl." This was the first time I got the sense that the characters in these stories might be linked, as the name of a dropped girlfriend corresponded to the name of the woman in the previous story, and the name of the son corresponded to the boy in "Prom Season." The two women talk of love, and one of them thinks a lot about a dead husband. Thematically the story fit in well with the tales in this section of the collection, but I didn't feel like this piece really went anywhere. The main topic of the son Mack is almost completely dropped by the story's end as the piece changes focus to the dead husband.

"Snapshots" involves a wife's complaints about a house that her husband likes for its views and location. At times, there are wonderful moments in the marriage, like snapshots, but we get the sense that the marriage is ultimately doomed. A next-door neighbor holds much curiosity for the couple--the husband tries to figure out where the neighbor works, the wife goes with the neighbor into his house (the husband suspects there might be an affair occurring). The neighbor builds a tunnel into a closet in the couple's house, where he hides from time to time from the law. I thought this story, as odd as it was, seemed a good, realistic summary of a couple's relationship.

"Difficult Thoughts" does an intriguing thing insofar as Kalotay does not follow the usual script for a work that involves a majorly otherworldly detail. Most of the time, the story would focus on the odd turn of event that occurs in the tale; instead, Kalotay uses the event to bring the story to a close, leaving us uncertain to an extent as to its reality. The tale itself is about a woman student (Rhea, of "Allston Electric," among others) in Italy who falls for a pair of brothers who turn out to be playboys of a sort. Are they to be believed?

"Rehearsal Dinner" ruminates on love and breaking up and on how essential it is to have a significant other. It does so through a focus on Geoff, who a year earlier dropped a girl and who has been avoiding relationships since and how he comes to see a couple who pick him up on his visit into town and how natural they seem to fit together.

The title story, “Calamity,” is one of the better ones in the collection and sets up well the last, "Wedding at Rockport," which brings the characters from the various stories together, which proves an interesting way to construct the book. Knowing the background of the various peoples at the wedding makes for a different reading than one would make without the eleven stories preceding. A drunk maid of honor, for instance, is much more sympathetic when one knows the experience through which she's just passed. And that is really what is the most redeeming part of this collection, which does what great story cycles do--it builds little by little something much greater than the sum of its parts. It gives us a sense of a community of characters.