Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What Happens to the (Holyoke) Mall?

Today I visited Western Massachusetts' foremost shopping center, the Holyoke Mall at Ingleside.  I went to this regional mall countless times growing up.  If the nearby one-story Eastfield Mall didn't have what you wanted, or you really wanted to make shopping an activity rather than a task, you went to the Holyoke Mall.  Built in 1979, this retail behemoth dealt the killer blow to our downtown department stores.  (Chances are good that if you grew up in suburban or rural Western Massachusetts, you probably weren't even aware as a child that Holyoke had a real city center with brick and stone multi-story buildings).  Climate-controlled, easily accessible by the automobile, and offering all the stores you could want in one location, the mall has been the retail venue of choice since its inception.

Thing is, I don't like malls much.  Like many others, I've learned that they're built upon the unsustainable foundation of cheap oil.  Patrons of the Holyoke Mall don't drive there just from Springfield (8 miles away), they come from places like my suburban-rural hometown of Wilbraham (20 mi), Greenfield (32 mi), and no doubt well into Vermont (more than 50 mi).  Over the past half-century, we have consolidated and centralized our retail centers into huge shopping centers only accessible by automobile and paltry bus service shunned by white, middle-class customers.  As a result, malls have a huge carbon footprint.

So what's the answer?  Today's urban planners, many of whom subscribe to the theory of New Urbanism, would like to see a resurgence of our traditional mixed-use city centers.  Shops on the ground level, offices and housing above.  Currently, Northampton has the only lively downtown with stores lining the street.  The shops are cute and many do pretty well, but they're just little boutiques.  What if you want to buy a pair of socks?

Holyoke and Springfield find themselves in quite a conundrum.  One answer would be to move the mall downtown, where it would be closer to where people actually live.  That won't work at the Holyoke Mall's current scale, nor anything close to it, because the mall depends on attracting customers from an entire region--not just a city.  Today, there's no way for most people to reach the center of Springfield or Holyoke except by automobile.  So you could move the parking downtown, but how would the city streets handle all that traffic?  The Holyoke Mall depends on two interstate highways (I-90 and I-91) and the six-lane Holyoke Street to feed it.  Basically, the Holyoke Mall is a monster.  It is unsustainable not just in its location but in its size.

For those of you who wonder what my work might be as an urban planner, this is a prime example of one of the huge problems people of my profession have been tasked to solve.

What's my ideal vision for shopping in Western Massachusetts?  The anchor stores (Macy's, Sears, Target, Best Buy) would embrace urban store designs for Main Street in Springfield and High Street in Holyoke.  (Some chains are showing that they're willing to adopt an urban format, but at this point only in large cities).  The real estate is certainly available in Holyoke in many sizes and forms.  The stores would have to be smaller and more efficient with their use of space.  If the cost of gasoline rises to $5 or above, the PVTA might consider light rail in the region.  Those who cannot travel to downtown Springfield or Holyoke by foot, bicycle, or bus would do so by tram or train.

Then there's the question of how to get those suburbanites to fill abandoned buildings and construct on vacant land in the city.  And what do we do with the mall, which apparently has some significant period-significant details like that UFO-style lighting, the geodesic dome, the wooden benches and planters?  Perhaps someday it can be transformed into a new town center.  The answers aren't all there yet, but in challenges such as these I see great opportunity.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Review of Bill O'Reilly's Memoir

After returning from our Christmas season trip to visit the extended family in New Jersey, my stepmom handed me a copy of Bill O'Reilly's memoir, A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity.  This hand-off may or may not have been related to the moment when she asked what I was reading in the car and I flashed No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process.

The book was OK.  I'm sure my dad and stepmom enjoyed it a lot more.  First of all, it was hard for me to relate because I'm not a baby boomer.  None of his stories about growing up in Levittown, NY conjure up images of my childhood.  For me, Levittown represents the beginning of suburban sprawl, the car-centric planning that literally tore this nation apart.

O'Reilly feels a lot less threatening in written form.  Sure, he comes across as a bit of a wise ass, but that's sort of the point of the book ("Bold Fresh").  He clearly likes to think of himself as clever.  Most of the stories involve him rebelling against authority figures or manipulating the rules.  O'Reilly also wants you to believe he has a strong working-class background.  I was pretty convinced.  He also loves America, but he's not overly forward about this--I appreciated that.  His religion is mostly personal, and he's not overly keen on the establishment of the Catholic Church, although he recognizes what it did for him during his schooling.  Oh, and he also has a lot of fun, even if he's not successful with women.

The host of the Factor wants to be seen as strongly independent.  O'Reilly is what we call in political science a populist--conservative social values but also supportive of the working-class.  In America, populism does make you a sort of independent, since both parties have strong ties with the corporate powers-at-be.

The book didn't make me very angry.  The one real "WTF?" moment came when he said, "Some think an asteroid or something caused the natural order.  Wow.  Talk about blind faith!" (75).  Aside from that paragraph, I didn't have any strong emotional reactions to his words.  He clearly dislikes people like me (he calls us "secular-progressives"--accurate), but fights that battle in his other book, Culture Wars.  His portrayal of the liberal political view is a little skewed, but probably no more so than the liberal portrayal of the conservative viewpoint.

O'Reilly says that liberal thought focuses on the quest for individual gratification and self-expression at the expense of responsibility to others, and that decline of traditional marriages has led to the decline of families and subsequently enormous social problems (142).  It's true that liberals generally value the individual more than the family--that goes along with a core belief in strong individual social freedoms.   Liberals believe that a comprehensive social safety net for everyone rather than a strong, supportive family for a privileged few best benefits the whole population.  O'Reilly asserts that traditionalists should point to the poverty of single-parent families in order to crush liberal arguments against the traditional family unit.  He's right that we don't want families to be poor, but there are two solutions to the problem.

First, strong social welfare: make sure that the single mother has an individual or group to support her and teach her how to care for her baby.  Also, provide her with subsidized or free childcare so that she can still work and be a productive member of society.  Make sure that the child has a good school to attend and all the health care services he or she needs.  Second, make abortions safe and available, and subsidize them or provide them for free.  If the mother knows that she will be unable to take care of a child, or she's unwilling to care for a child, give her the choice.

There were two cases where O'Reilly impressed me.  I did not know that he had visited over 70 countries.  He decided America was the best.  While I disagree, at least he's seen some of the alternatives.  It angers me when an American defends his or her nation unconditionally and insists on its exceptionalism but has never visited another country.  The other case was the section where he described his two years as a high school teacher.  It sounds like he actually did a substantial amount of good for some at-risk teens in Miami.  Perhaps he's a decent person after all, even with his huge ego.

Anyway, now I get to read something more interesting and soothing to my little liberal heart: Looking Backward: 2000-1887, a utopian novel by Edward Bellamy of Chicopee Falls, Western Mass.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Identification Cards

Between semesters and without a job in Western Mass, I have a lot of free time at home.  I thought I could use some of the down time to read some books that have been on my mind for a while.  So after looking up what was available, I made a list of what to borrow and searched through my wallet for my library card.  Not there.  I checked the stack of cards on my bureau.  Not there either.  Then I realized that because my card only works in Western and Central Mass, I took it out and left it in my desk drawer at Brandeis.  Great.  My Mom let me borrow her card and I thought everything was great.

I walked across town (Longmeadow is blessed with great sidewalks), arrived at the Storrs Memorial Library, found the books, and went down to the checkout desk.  Problem: Mom owes $12 from some videos that my 7-year-old sister brought back late, so I can't check anything out.  I ask the librarian if she can look up my account.  No can-do.  Apparently they've had issues (fraud?).  I need to plead my case with the reference desk.  I explained my situation and was very polite.  I presented my MA driver's license so they could confirm my identity.  They were kind and made an exception for me.  However, one of the librarians said "Your library card is the most important card to carry with you."  That sort of bothered me, but it also got me thinking.

Wouldn't it make a lot more sense to consolidate our forms of identification?  European countries do this.  When I went to Denmark, the government assigned me something called a CPR number, which entitled me to both universal healthcare services and access to the nation's library system.  These are just two examples of the government services received with the CPR number.

Many people in the USA have a fear of ID systems.  In many minds, it conjures up thoughts of checkpoints in military dictatorships and invasions of privacy by totalitarian states.  A few of years ago, Congress passed the controversial REAL ID Act in order to establish federal standards for identification, but half of the states have refused to participate in the program.

I opposed the REAL ID Act when it was in Congress, but I'm just not that afraid anymore.  Americans' distrust of government goes back hundreds of years, from the beginning of our invasion of the continent.  I'm not convinced that our culture will ever change to embrace a consolidated form of identification.

But gosh, it sure would make it easier to go to the library.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Disposable Architecture

This post is part of a series on the blog called 'Building Blunders of Brandeis.' It addresses the physical aspects of the Brandeis campus, specifically the history and the current state of Brandeis University architecture and planning.

One of society's ongoing problems is what to do with old buildings.  Do we demolish them and build something new?  Do we renovate and re-purpose them?  If they're particularly special, we might even restore them to their original state.  Brandeis is no more immune to this problem than any city or town.  In fact, college campuses may feel the pressures to demolish old buildings stronger than any other communities.  Colleges depend on large donors to renew their facilities, and large donors want their names on fashionable new buildings.

Demolition of the Friedland Life Science Building
Demolition of the Friedland Life Science Building
For several weeks now, crews have been working at demolishing the Friedland Life Science building and the Kalman Pre-Medical Building.  To my best knowledge, no one has made a fuss.  I'm not a science student, but I've visited both of these buildings.  Friedland was actually pretty quirky and interesting, with large white panels covering much of the exterior and short windows at the top of each floor, creating glass divisions between its five stories.  I believe it was designed by firm of Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson, and Abbott, which had some very famous founders.

Friedland Life Science Building. Architects: Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson & Abbott. Built 1956-58.
Friedland Life Science Building. Architects: Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson & Abbott. Built 1956-58.
Should we really treat buildings such as Friedland as disposable?  I don't think so.  Sure, they're not very much in style today, but someday we may come to regret losing them.  Harvard's now-loved Memorial Hall once faced the wrecking ball because 50-or-so years late it had fallen out of style.  Sure, Friedland isn't so grand, nor was it probably constructed so well, but it's so... well, modern.  It was of the era of the Space Race, and in my opinion it showed it.
Friedland isn't the only building with a funky, modern style.  Goldman-Schwartz?  East?  Spingold?  Schwartz and Brown?  All of these buildings have been deeply neglected over the years.  Under the right conditions, any of these buildings could receive its death sentence.  At Brandeis, we take the attitude that after a building goes up, it's okay to leave it to decay forever.  I urge Brandeis to treat its buildings with greater respect.
If you need reinforcement for what our '50s and '60s-era buildings could look like, visit the lobby of Gryzmish across from the campus center.  Without  daily wear from students, the interior has stayed fairly well preserved.  Really, take a look.  Once the examples of that style are destroyed, they will never come back in quite the same form.

Winter Sun Sets Over Friedland
Winter Sun Sets Over Friedland

Friday, December 11, 2009

Color is Better: A look at transit maps

Here in the Boston area we have what is, by American standards, a good commuter rail system.  It runs on weekends and holidays, it has a decent on-time performance, it can work for reverse commuting (trains run out of the city in the morning and in to the city in the evening, and it runs at off-peak hours for non-work related trips.  It's also really big.  I don't think its size is appreciated enough.  Why does this matter?  I believe it can affect ridership, even if only a little bit.  It's also a matter of pride and ownership.  If Boston area residents have pride in their rail system as a valued and vital resource linking their communities, then I believe they will be more likely to invest in it.  What's my suggestion?  Re-work the maps.

Here we have the standard MBTA system map.  Each purple line is a commuter rail line, running in and out of Boston through either North or South Station.  The thin, colored lines are the subway and light rail lines.  You can see how the lines relate to the bay, but the other three sides of the map might as well lead to an empty abyss.  Why not include an inset map showing how the MBTA Commuter Rail provides service to a large piece of the state?

Here we have a map of the commuter rail system from Wikipedia.  It shows the lines in purple and the area the MBTA services in pink.  The core city is a darker shade and the closer suburbs are in a middle shade.  It's not essential to the traveler, but it gives the viewer a better idea of the area the trains service.  Add a few major cities and it might give people a good impression of the system's size and all the people it can potentially service. 

This is the Copenhagen metro area transit map.  The subway lines are the thick yellow and green lines.  The regional trains are the gray lines, and the local trains are dark blue.  The most colorful lines on the map represent the S-Tog lines, the suburban train system most comparable to the Boston's Commuter Rail.  In my opinion, the spectrum of color gives you a better sense of the number of lines and their distance.

You could argue that the MBTA Commuter Rail lines shouldn't be colored because they're part of a secondary system of lesser quality than the "T" subway lines.  It's true that the S-Tog trains run every 20 minutes all day, except for peak-hours when they run every 10.  It's also true that the S-Tog is all-electric (no nasty diesel fumes).  Still, my hypothesis is that change can work differently.  Instead of using colors to show the investments we've made, use colors to increase support for investment.

Here's an MBTA Commuter Rail system diagram in many colors, created by a Wikipedia user.  It's not a map, but it shows the lines and stations.  Doesn't it make the system seem larger?  Look at all those lines and stations!  As a Brandeis student, my station isn't just some place on a purple web.  It's a station on the red rail line.  I can look at the map and better identify the stops along my line (aka all the places the train can take me).  It's unique, it's my line.

For a fair comparison, I've provided the closest official example I could find, the MBTA zone diagram.

Couple coloring the lines with thickening them (make them look important, like the primary means of getting around) and you've got a better map, in my opinion.  Include some more lines to show the trains that don't run the full lines (e.g. North Station to South Acton rather than Fitchburg) and it's even better.

The colors will have a different psychological effect on each person, but I believe that one thing most everyone could take from it is a greater appreciation for the wonderful resource we have in Eastern Massachusetts known as the MBTA Commuter Rail.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

2nd Annual Boston Bikes Report

Tonight I attended Boston's second annual Boston Bikes Report.  More than once Boston has been rated the worst biking city in the country, but King Mayor Menino has made a new pledge to bicycles.  He hired Nicole Freedman, former Olympic bicycle racer, to lead the effort toward making Boston a "world-class bicycling city."  While she used to race and she says she'll ride on any highway, it's not the hardcore bicyclists that Nicole is looking to target.  No, Nicole wants to see everyday people on bikes, which is how it should be.  After spending four months in Copenhagen, where more than half of all trips are done by bicycle, I'm quite critical of Boston and other North American cities for their very poor bicycle infrastructure.  In two years Boston has gone from less than one-half mile of bicycle lanes to more than 15 miles.  It's still pretty sad, but a huge improvement.  We rank #1 in the U.S. for improvement in the number of trips over 2008--63%.  The big news was that by July 2010 we're going to have a bike-sharing program with 2,000 bikes at 85 stations across the city.  Overall the presentation was great, and gave me a little relief from my frustration as U.S. cities look to catch up where cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam have been excelling for years.

Thanks Nicole for your work, and I look forward to much, much more.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

David Byrne's "True Stories"

Last night, on the recommendation of a friend, I watched the 1986 film "True Stories" by Talking Heads frontman and noted urban design and cycling advocate David Byrne.  It had some great commentary on fossil fuel age transportation, including this great quote from Byrne as he drives past the soaring elevated sections of a highway junction (clip):
"Well, I suppose these freeways made this town and a lot of others like it possible.  'They're the cathedrals of our time,' someone said.  Not me."
Bryne also comments facetiously on the bland, garage-fronted, person-less suburban landscape, calling it beautiful, and recognizes the featureless, modular, inexpensive metal building as "the dream modern architects had at the beginning of this century finally come true, but they themselves don't realize it."  He addresses the issues of suburban sprawl and excessive consumer culture and links the two quite well through scenes at the mall and in the home of a women who never leaves her bed.

The most prophetic moment moment of the film comes from a monologue given by the founder of the town's largest company, a computer manufacturer named Varicorp.  He predicts the rise of the creative class, a group of people who work independently of large corporations, live without separate concepts of work and home life, the weekday and the weekend, and working not for a living or for a place in heaven but "working and inventing because they like it."  This really struck me.  Twenty-three years later we have the live-work suite, the most popular unit in new development, and a mixing of uses (residential and commercial) as the primary means to creating high-quality urban environments.  Check out the monologue in this YouTube clip.  it's something you need to see.  Like my friend Matt, I highly recommend the film to any urbanist.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Critical Mass Boston

This past Friday evening I participated in an event called Critical Mass, with the purpose to celebrate cycling and assert cyclists' right to the road.  In Boston, bicyclists hold a ride on a last Friday of every month, starting at Copley Square in the Back Bay.  There are no organizers.  I heard about the event from some fellow Brandeisians through Facebook.  I'd never done any real urban riding before, so naturally I felt anxious as I sat with my Schwinn on the Commuter Rail, waiting to arrive in Boston.  Since I work at WalkBoston Fridays, I rode the bike over to Old City Hall and locked it up outside the office.  Making it from North Station without incident felt like quite an accomplishment! 

After work when it came time to ride over to Copley, I realized how disoriented I felt bicycling rather than walking around the city.  Suddenly I had to deal with a bunch of one-way streets and I lacked the time to think about my direction at each intersection.  When I arrived at Copley Square there were already a number of cyclists, many with single-gear or fixie bikes, others with modified road cycles, and a whole bunch of people in costume for Halloween.  I felt silly with my mountain bike.  I ran into a fellow I met at the HONK!Fest and we chatted for a bit.  Again, no one was in charge, so we just had to wait until someone started riding and then follow. 

With over 100 cyclists, we took over the streets of downtown Boston.  It was simply amazing and brought a huge grin to my face.  Instead of being pushed to the margins, we owned the road.  Collective action gave us the right to ride in freedom.  Instead of thinking about the car behind me or the intersection ahead, I could actually take in the sights and lights of the city.  And the pavement--so smooth!  The automobiles have it so good.  We blew through the red lights, with people physically blocking the cars along the way.  It was brilliant, and sooo satisfying to stick it to the faceless, polluting cars.  Still, the whole thing was rather self-indulgent.  We made it nearly impossible for pedestrians to cross the streets, and that brought on a little guilt.  While it's not right to act as the automobile drivers do and selfishly take up the entire street, I don't think it really hurts anyone to do it for an hour or two once a month.  I'll be sure to participate again.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Could you see Boston making changes like these?

Expanding on the last post about the conservatism in urban design in the Commonwealth, I found this video about shared streets in Auckland, New Zealand.  They're based on successful designs in Denmark by Gehl Architects.  I had the amazing privilege to learn from two architects of that firm last semester. Perhaps someday I could bring streets like these to Holyoke or Cambridge, but not to Boston.

Massachusetts: Too Conservative?

Sure, Massachusetts leads when it comes to civil rights or protecting the environment, but I've learned during my time as a planner-in-training that when it comes to transportation, the Commonwealth is quite conservative.

Yesterday at work, I spoke with a colleague about the state and possible reconstruction of Longfellow Bridge, also known as the Salt-and-Pepper-Shaker Bridge due to the shape of its central towers, between Boston and Cambridge.  The current configuration of the bridge, the cross-section of which you can view here, includes the MBTA Red Line running in 27' down the middle, two vehicle travel lanes on each side taking up between 48' and 51'8", a 3'-3'6" shoulders doubling as bicycle lanes, and a sidewalk of 10' on one side and 6' on the other.

The first problem is the narrower sidewalk, which while at some points has 6 feet of width, narrows down to about 2 feet at one point with a light pole right in the middle.  The second problem relates to the cars.  The bridge, considering its location, carries very few cars.  Around twice as many people pass over the bridge using mass transit than private automobiles.  This begs the question, why are there four vehicle travel lanes?  Not only is such a mix unsustainable, it's also unnecessary.  I understand that there needs to be enough room for one vehicle to pass another in emergencies, but that does not necessitate another whole travel lane.

Make less room for cars and what do you get?  Fewer cars.  Longfellow desperately needs to be reconstructed, so let's transform Longfellow Bridge into a 21st century travel way, with one vehicle travel lane each way, wide bicycle lanes and wide sidewalks.  None of the proposed alternatives include closing vehicle lanes permanently.  However, as my co-worker pointed out, vehicle travel will be reduced to one lane each way for prolonged periods during construction--why not just leave it like that?

The Red Line will also require shifting during the rebuild, which will be very expensive.  Instead of shifting the tracks multiple times to get it back in its original position, shift them just once or twice and use the opportunity to  change the configuration.  Change one side of the bridge into a dedicated way for pedestrians and bicyclists and leave the other side for cars.  The Longfellow already offers the best view of Boston--you'd even be able to turn it into a tourist attraction!  Unfortunately the City of Boston and the Massachusetts Highway Department lack the vision to make the change.  It makes me wonder whether I could do transportation planning in the Commonwealth without becoming horribly frustrated in trying to fight the culture. 

Other examples of conservative transportation planning: PVTA won't consider light rail, the MBTA insists on bus rapid transit instead of new subways and won't electrify the commuter rail, and the legislature won't consider raising the gas tax.  Boston still lags on bicycle policy & action, and I'm not sure that the idea occurs to a single public official to substitute street parking for real bicycle lanes or even to restructure street parking pricing.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Bicycling to the Grocery Store, Take II

Today I made my second fossil fuel-free grocery-getting trip using my bicycle. I'd like to give five reasons why doing my shopping by bicycle is working and five reasons why it isn't working.

How it works:
  1. It's great for the environment. Bicycling is the most efficient mode of transportation humans have ever invented.
  2. It contributes to better physical health and makes me feel good.
  3. Round trip, it's only 2.2 miles and mostly flat.
  4. Hannaford, the supermarket I frequent, is located on Main Street in Waltham, so I can stop at CVS and other local businesses in the same trip.
  5. The busiest road I take (South St) is wide enough and the traffic goes slowly enough that I feel fairly comfortable bicycling.
How it doesn't work:
  1. I can only carry one (large reusable) bag of groceries on my rear rack. Even with just the one bag, the situation is rather precarious because it fits into a cardboard box I rigged onto the rack.
  2. My rear rack is attached only to my seat post and not the rear hub. Under the weight of all the groceries, the bottom of the rack rubs the rear tire on even the smallest bumps in the road.
  3. South St, while having relatively slow-going traffic, does not have bicycle lanes or even a marked shoulder. Drivers feel like they own the entire road.
  4. The weather is great now (70 degrees and sunny), but in a month or two the conditions won't be so great for bicycling.
  5. Most times when it occurs to me that I need to shop for groceries I'm at least a little hungry. It's not so great bicycling on an empty stomach.

Friday, August 28, 2009

My Gas Tax Donation

This June, out of frustration over that sad state of public transit in America, I decided to charge myself $0.50 on every gallon of gasoline I bought for the summer and donate the money to a pro-transit organization. At the time I wrote:

Do you think America needs better public transportation? Me too, but our local, state, and federal governments lack the vision to plan it and the political will to fund it. I'm not talking about maintaining current service levels during the recession, nor am I referring to a 10 or 20 percent increase in funding. I'm talking about investment in the system we need for our future. Currently the federal gas tax is 18.4 cents, a figure which hasn't risen since 1993. Massachusetts adds an additional 41.9 cents. In Europe, taxes can amount to over 70% of the cost of fuel, but in America they make up only around 25% of the cost. Unless we pay more at the pump, we cannot reduce the collective miles we drive, nor can we afford bicycle lanes, trams, trolley buses, or trains.

In light of my representatives' inaction, I have created my own gas tax. For every gallon of gasoline I buy, I will contribute 50 cents--nearly doubling the taxes I currently pay--to an organization that promotes more sustainable transportation options. I haven't chosen the group yet, but I am thinking of Reconnecting America, the National Complete Streets Coalition, and the LivableStreets Alliance. I invite you to join me in my small effort towards creating a more sustainable and liveable America.

The summer has now ended, and I saved $49.18 for my cause. I decided to round that up to an even $50 and donate the money to the LivableStreets Alliance. It was at the top of my list along with WalkBoston for Massachusetts-based organizations promoting more sustainable transportation. I'm working for WalkBoston starting this September, so it seemed to make more sense to donate to LivableStreets.

From the LivableStreets Alliance website:

LivableStreets Alliance is a non-profit organization that believes urban transportation has the power to make Metro Boston more connected — and more livable. We challenge people to think differently and to demand a system that balances transit, walking, and biking with automobiles. We promote safe, convenient, and affordable transportation for all users in urban Boston. Streets that are enjoyable to use will better support neighborhoods and business districts.

Now that's an organization worthy of the money from my gas tax. Hopefully in the future we can get our elected representatives to raise the state and federal gas taxes to benefit our public transportation agencies directly.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Obama and Sebelius 'Ready to Drop the Public Option'

I am absolutely outraged over the news that HHS Secretary Sebelius is ready to drop the public option. I called Representative Neal's office a few weeks ago to tell him that Healthcare reform with no public option is no healthcare reform at all, and I stand by that belief. My health will not be for sale. I called the White House just now but they're not answering the phone (it's Sunday), so I will call tomorrow. The number is 202-456-1111 and the HHS is 202-619-0257. I'll call Rep Neal again and likely Senator Kerry (as useless as he is).

I'm willing to live without single-payer healthcare, but to live in the only country without universal healthcare and some kind of government option? It's embarrassing. I keep my Danish health insurance card as a reminder of what I once had: access to high quality, single-payer health insurance, paid for by progressive taxes, where my coverage was no different than that of any other fellow human being in the country.

Here again are the numbers:
White House Comments 202-456-1111
Health and Human Services 202-619-0257
Representative Neal 202-225-5601 or 413-785-0325
Senator Kerry 202-224-2742 or 413-785-4610

Make the calls. You, the 47 million uninsured, and all other Americans deserve better.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Saab Returns

I'd say it was about due. I hadn't paid for a costly repair on my Saab for two years. Last Friday it overheated and blew a coolant hose with a big "POP!" in my lucky spot--right across from the AIC campus in Springfield. It spewed green coolant all over the road and the engine compartment. Although I won the Model Congress competition on the campus, on the opposite side (State St) I was robbed and nearly carjacked three and a half years ago. I should probably avoid that area in the future. My friend Emily was visiting me, too, so it was rather embarrassing. At least it happened during the day, because the abandoned house at the spot where I pulled over was marked on the sidewalk with "CRIPS" and the 6-pointed star. Oh, Springfield... Thankfully my folks pay for AAA membership, so I had a free tow.

After a few days with Walts Brothers Auto in West Springfield, the Saab is back with me! I really do love my car... I just wish I could live without it. I've owned it since I was 16, when it gave me my freedom from suburbia. I have a special emotional bond to my Saab (her name is Suzy). There's nothing like turning a corner and hitting the accelerator at 25mph in second gear for a huge boost from the turbo, making a shot for 50. I doubt that you could find a car of the same age (14 years) that's just as much fun and still gets 32mpg on the highway. Despite my strong bond with Suzy Swede and all of the fun she gives me, owning a car is still a big headache. It's also not environmentally-friendly. I dream of living car-free in a truly walkable neighborhood, where I can walk to everything including my job. For any place not within walking distance, I want to be able to ride my bike or take the train. I talk a lot about selling my car. I might actually do it when I go to grad school. Still, I face the emotional dilemma of most any other American who might want to give up their car because of the money, the hassle, the environment, or any other reason but has a hard time going through with it because in our culture we love our cars.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Holyoke, City of Dreams?

Yesterday I had an awesome tour of Holyoke, a planned industrial city in the Pioneer Valley. I connected with Brendan Ciecko online, a Holyoke native and young entrepreneur, and he offered a tour to me and my friend Emily. His knowledge of the city's buildings and its history was outstanding. I'm very grateful that he took an hour and a half out of his day to show us around! Thing is, it will probably pay off. He cares deeply about his city and wants to see it rise to its former glory in a post-industrial age. After that tour, (excuse the double negative) I can't see how my future couldn't include working for that city. I am a serious fan of late 19th century downtown buildings and in Holyoke there are beautiful examples everywhere. Many of them are unoccupied and in dire need of renovation. One eight-story building at 400 High Street, built in 1880, featuring outstanding facade detail and a 360 degree view of the valley on the upper floors, is for sale for just $125,000. Brendan described it as more of a liability than an asset, needing a complete gut-rehab. Still, it's just one example of the city's potential.

From what I saw, Holyoke is on the way up. The downtown is full of life, mostly from the large Latino community. Walking around you see people of all ages socializing, relaxing in the parks, listening to music with a great beat, and just going about their business. The city hall is gorgeous and in good shape. In 2006, the Holyoke Health Center opened in a building restored with marble floors, tin ceilings, and a beautiful reconstructed balustrade as the cornice. Open Square, a series of former mills on the canals summing 685,000 square feet and producing far more electricity from the dams than it can use, offers affordable space for offices, retail, artists, live/work lofts and more.

One day after leaving the city, I find myself dreaming about making a living by saving and restoring the historic buildings downtown. I won't claim to know a lot about business, but at such low prices, I don't think the barriers to entry for historic rehabilitation work could be much lower anywhere else. For now it's a dream, but someday soon I hope I can call it a goal.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

First Post

I had a pretty good blog going while I was abroad and although now I’m home in Western Mass, I still have plenty to say! Let’s see how this goes…