Monday, December 12, 2011

On the Radio: The Illusion of Rural Independence

My first-ever radio piece broadcast on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network last week. Have a listen:

A transcript lives here.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Bayside Sentinel

The north half of the downtown block bounded by Forest Ave., Cumberland, and Casco is a "telco hotel" owned by Fairpoint - a complex of large buildings filled with telecommunications equipment and servers. I don't think that the microwave tower on top has an official name, but it's a local landmark and deserves to be called something. The Bayside Brainmelter? The Dishrack? Please leave suggestions in the comments.

Inspired by Burrito Justice's animated GIF of the Sutro Tower.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Ranked Choice Voting Game

This November, voters in Portland, Maine will elect their new mayor using a ranked-choice ballot. Voters will be able to rank as many as 15 candidates in their order of preference.

The ranked choice system will provide a lot of advantages over traditional elections, where you can only choose one candidate. No longer will we have to worry about the "spoiler effect" of third-party candidates: now, we can vote for Ralph Nader AND Al Gore.

Nevertheless, with fifteen candidates (and up to fifteen possible rankings to choose), the novelty of the ranked choice system is causing some confusion for local voters. It's difficult to explain the dynamics of a ranked-choice election in prose, and some attempts have been downright misleading.

So (and I'm puffing my chest out as I write this, because this represents my first substantial foray into practical programming) I've written a Ranked Choice Election simulation game to let people experience firsthand how a ranked choice election will work.

Fill out up to 50 different ballots as though they were coming from different voters. The program will then run through the Instant Runoff counting process, sequentially eliminating last-place contenders and explaining the process of reallocating the ballots along the way, until one winner crosses the crucial 50% threshold.

It may not look like much, but I spent many, many hours working on this over the summer and fall, so please consider leaving a tip if you find it useful (or, click often on our fossil fuel propagandist advertisers). I've tried my best to debug it across various browsers but it'll work best on Chrome, Safari, or Firefox, and don't bother if you're on a phone.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Fundraising Drive!

After publishing the last post, which attempted to line my pockets at the expense of the dirty coal industries and their duplicitous PR efforts, my ad revenues spiked by $15 in a day - a nice little sum from my good friends at America's filthy fuel industries.

This seems like a promising way for folks to support this blog in a small way. Thanks, readers!

However, a number of you reported seeing only ads for solar panels, or hydraulic pipes. You're welcome to click those ads if you're interested in them, but I'm really trying to vindictively leverage the desperate advertising efforts of the coal and oil industries against them. Making money on advertising is one thing, but making money at the expense of the Corporate Enemies of Life on Earth is much better.

So I'm trying another tack. Google will also give me commissions if you click on ads from searches that originate here on this blog. Searches give you much more control over what kinds of ads you might see, which in turn gives you better choices among propaganda efforts you can drain financially, $2 or $3 at a time, through the simple click of a mouse.

So, for instance, if you were to search in the box below for "clean coal america's power", and click on the ad for the Pro-Asthma-and-Lung-Cancer advocacy group, then the coal industry would generously sacrifice a couple bucks to me for giving them the opportunity to make their case to you. I'm pretty confident that they won't fool you, so give it a try:

Or say you'd like to get back at Chevron for the $20 you sent to Chevron the last time you filled up your gas tank. Just try searching for "oil safe energy technology", click the ad that pops up on the top of the results, and repeat 8-9 times:
Or learn all about how fracking for natural gas is definitely not poisoning water supplies or raising greenhouse gas emissions by searching here for "safe natural gas fracking safe" (wink, wink):
If enough of you click on Coal and Oil propaganda ads to extract $100 from their PR budgets into my pockets, then I will personally buy a round of beers at Awful Annie's for any of you who care to join me in Portland. It'd be nice to meet more readers in person, and nicer still to drink at the coal and oil companies' expense.

Thanks again to our advertisers!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Coal: (undermining) America's Power

Here's a funny thing. If I write a blog post about coal, the medieval energy technology that gives us cancer and bakes our atmosphere to the point of incurring massive extinctions, etcetera, you will probably see, at the very end of the post, some kind of ad that promotes "Fossil Fuels Part of a Cleaner Energy Future" or some such B.S. that anyone who reads this isn't going to fall for.

However. If you were to click on those ads, and submit your eyes to Clean Coal America's Power facts about keeping energy cheap and old-fashioned, the funny thing is that you'd then be forcing the Fossil Fuels and Clean Coal public relations machines to spend some of their money on me, who hosts this advertising space, and on Google, which places those ads and also invests the revenue into efforts to make fossil fuel industries obsolete through clean tech venture capital investments.

I think that this is kind of a delicious irony. So please support our advertisers, below and at right, and learn all about how CLEAN and AMERICAN it is for us to take a deep hit of coal and mainline its juices into our nation's sclerotic arteries of commerce.

Monday, October 03, 2011

The Economist Rends A Hole In the Very Fabric of the Space-Time-Economic Continuum

There's an old joke about the economist who walks over the $20 bill on the sidewalk without picking it up because, if the $20 were really there, someone else would have already picked it up, so therefore, the $20 bill does not really exist, Q.E.D.

Here's a more detailed explanation of the joke if you don't get it, but don't worry too much about it, as it is not funny. Instead of calling it a joke it might be better to call it a basic illustration of the Efficient Market Hypothesis, one of the cornerstones of classical economics.

Just like classical economics itself, the Efficient Market Hypothesis is really more of a gross oversimplification that makes messy economics easier for the dimwitted than something you'd actually want to apply to real life, lest you end up denying the existence of free money lying on the ground. Nevertheless, some poor saps do take it seriously.

One of the places I've seen the Efficient Market Hypothesis occasionally spouted as a real-world Theory is in the Economist, where you'll still find, every now and then, a journalist whose undergraduate econ coursework resurfaces in ill-advised editorializing on behalf of Classical economic silliness.

So, here's a question for the remaining acolytes of Milton Friedman who remain at large in the newsroom of my favorite weekly newspaper:

SIR - Please explain how these two separate subscription offers came to be delivered to the exact same address (mine) on the exact same day from your enterprise, which, like all enterprises, must be classically efficient?

Because, SIR, to me it looks as though The Economist has simultaneously entreated me to buy the same product for $51 or $69 - my choice. Which is kind like finding an unexpected $18 in my mailbox.

And yet, according to the Efficient Market Hypothesis, that $18 couldn't possibly exist there because if it did, The Economist would have picked it up and pocketed it before the ink was even dry on the mailing label, and saved itself the postage to boot. Or, conversely, if it actually wanted me to have the $18, it would have saved itself the trouble of sending me the second mailing, right?

It would appear that The Economist has inadvertently created a dangerous paradox - A PARADOX THAT MAY WELL THREATEN THE VERY FABRIC OF THE ECONOMIC SYSTEM. I hope they'll stop diddling around with the Euro crisis long enough to address this urgent matter.

Footnote: It's funny how the "BEST RATE" renewal offer kind of pales next to the less-impressive-sounding "RETURNING SUBSCRIBER DISCOUNT". Economist subscribers, take note: it pays to let your subscriptions lapse, and make them beg to take you back.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Creative Destruction

"The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises..."

"New York, you're perfect
Don't please don't change a thing

Your mild billionaire mayor's
Now convinced he's a king

So the boring collect
I mean all disrespect

In the neighborhood bars
I'd once dreamt I would drink."

- LCD Soundsystem, "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down"

We live in a nation that no longer makes things, and maybe that's why we're so foggy-headed when it comes to discussions of wealth, class, or even of basic entrepreneurial instinct. How can we hope to understand wealth when "luxury" is pitched to us as a shoddily-built McMansion, and twenty years' worth of retirement savings can disappear in a stock market crash? What does it mean to speak of labor when work is a mind-numbing interval in a cubicle?

Maybe this economic existentialism is also why it's so popular to talk about the "creative economy" these days. Creative industries hold the last vestiges of America's tangible economic output - our last chance to make anything for ourselves.

Like many other cities, my hometown of Portland, Maine is gung-ho about its "creative economy," even though they haven't even finished building the "Biotechnology Park" left over from the last economic development fad.

On the surface, this seems like a positive thing - who wouldn't want more creativity? After chasing smokestacks for decades, City Hall is bringing a long-overdue focus on the small businesses and vibrant neighborhoods that really make our cities welcoming and attractive.

And yet (if the fad comment hasn't already tipped you off) it's beginning to feel like a lot of bullshit to me.

The germ of my ambivalence came from a real estate development proposal in my neighborhood. A billionaire hedge fund manager (and the husband of our congresswoman) owns a pied-à-terre apartment a few blocks away from us, and wants to transform several of the area's working-class tenement buildings that are in his portfolio into a newly renovated cluster of live-work spaces for quote-necessitated-because-I-don't-really-trust-a-billionaire-hedge-fund-manager's-use-of-the-word-unquote "artists".

So. I have some issues with said hedge fund manager's imposition of his aesthetic values on the landscape of our neighborhood, and on the creative output of local artists vis-a-vis the terms of their rental agreements. That's one thing and it might be entirely unjustified.

But I feel more nervous - and more certainly justified in this unease - about how the hedge funded artist colony is going to affect the larger creative environment of the city at large.

His proposed development is located on one of the last working-class neighborhoods of the city. It was part of Portland's Little Italy, and it's one of the few immigrant neighborhoods that wasn't demolished during the urban renewal purges of the 1960s and 1970s.

At one end of the street is the city's friendliest dive bar; at the other end is a day labor agency. It happens to be a pretty great place for artists to live and work right now, as it is. But it's also a great place where teachers, hotel workers, office cleaners, and dozens of other working-class families can still afford to live, within walking distance of downtown's jobs and services. Why would we want to kick those people out?

Simultaneously (and potentially relatedly), a number of the city's economic development professionals and business leaders have recruited ArtSpace, a nonprofit developer of affordable buildings for artists, to investigate the possibility of their developing a project in Portland (possibly on Hampshire Street, and possibly elsewhere).

It may seem counter-intuitive, but even if we did create a walled garden for artists here - and it matters little whether it's built by a hedge fund manager or a nonprofit institution - the experiences of numerous other cities and neighborhoods before us forebodes that the wealth it brings in pursuit of "creative" entertainments will jeopardize the neighborhood's affordability and diversity, and thus undermine the fertile conditions that generate the very creativity we value.

Look at New York City: wealth drove out artists first from SoHo into the Lower East Side, then into Williamsburg, and now deep into Bed-Stuy. If the southeastward exile continues, in thirty more years all the artists will be drowned in the waters of Jamaica Bay.

Forty years ago, Donald Judd tried to escape it by moving from Manhattan to live among ranchers in a miniscule town in west Texas. Today, even that miniscule town is itself losing its identity with the influx of more and more wealth.

The Marfa Prada, a half-joking commentary on "Judd-effect gentrification", on the plains outside of Marfa, Texas. Photo via

And I saw it happen firsthand in Portland, Oregon, at the turn of this century:
In 1999, I set off to go to college in Portland, Oregon — then known only as a rainy mid-sized city with scenic parks. In the five years I spent out there, I saw the city morph into a self-satisfied model of progressive hedonism. But, as I found after graduation in 2003, and as thousands of other young people have found since then, it’s awfully hard to land a decent job there, and it’s getting harder all the time to find an affordable place to live. (source)
A creative economy requires creative people, and creative people seek out the frisson of affordable, diverse city neighborhoods, where it's easy to discover and interact with new ideas and with people who possess a diversity of cultural and economic backgrounds.

Creative people also require capital: they need affordable places where they can live and create things. But creativity, after all, is fun to be around: it attracts wealth, which ends up competing for the same resources that the creative people need. Thus, to paraphrase Marx, the accumulation of creative capital sows the seeds of its own destruction.

Sure, you can create protected islands of creativity amidst the sterile ruins of luxury condos and fusion restaurants. That's what the hedge fund manager and Artspace want to do, and I suppose that in some circumstances that might be the best option. But how creative can such a place really be, in its isolation? And aren't we declaring defeat prematurely by pursuing that option so soon, while our neighborhoods are still fairly egalitarian and diverse and functional just the way they are?

More importantly, is the exile of creative people from the neighborhoods they make great inevitable? Is the "creative economy" just the post-industrial manifestation of Marx's inevitable creative destruction?

Admittedly, the track record from places like New York isn't great. But I think there are two reasons to be optimistic.

I often think of Houston, where I lived for a year, as one of the most creative places I've lived (it certainly had Portland, Oregon beat). Sure, miles and miles of the city were dead zones of strip malls and cul de sacs. But for every time someone bulldozed a historic edifice to build a Wal Mart, someone else was doing something amazing in a vacant rice factory or shotgun house they bought for dirt cheap. That city thrived on constant change. From the outside, the city might look monstrous, constantly consuming itself and spreading out larger and larger. But on the ground, there was always something new.

If we lose Hampshire Street to a bunch of navel-gazing painters who are condemned to mediocrity because they never meet anyone or anything that challenges their assumptions, then I'll be sad, not least because that's my very own neighborhood that will become a more boring place.

But we live in a city, and cities are meant to change. Creative destruction, after all, is still creative. If one neighborhood becomes boring, another will become interesting. House shows will spring up in unexpected places; empty warehouses or abandoned big-box stores will become artists' squats. If we, as a city, embrace change (and Portland, to own the truth, has some issues with this, a few hang-ups with its nostalgia for the status-quo), then creativity has a way of surviving.

Still, I'd still rather let it thrive. And that brings me to a second reason to have some hope, because here we have a billionaire who wants to do right by downtrodden artists, and it seems churlish to complain about his methods when the impulse carries so much possibility.

If I ever had the chance to meet my billionaire neighbor, this is what I would tell him.

Portland's neighborhoods aren't ruined yet - they're still by and large egalitarian, and affordable, and authentically creative. Even better, a lot of the wealth that might threaten those neighborhoods' creativity is possessed by people who actively want to support a creative environment.

You and the other creative economy boosters want to do the right thing by carving out a refuge for artists - but you haven't yet considered the consequences of how that kind of project could exile dozens of other people who may not make art per se but are nevertheless vital to maintaining the conditions of a creative city.

May I suggest instead diverting your considerable resources toward finding ideas and investments that make the city more equitable and affordable to all people, not just for "artists"? If we can accomplish that, then the entire city stands a better chance of fostering the ideal conditions that generate more and more creative places.

Instead of relying on an institution to build us one Artspace, we could build hundred of Artspaces for ourselves, on our own terms, to our own standards. Sounds good - am I right?

Postscript: I've started writing a biweekly column in a small local paper, the Portland Daily Sun, and I wrote on this subject last week. But 800 words wasn't enough to fit in all the nuances of my mixed feelings about the "creative economy" business, hence this elaboration.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I've been slacking on blog updates in order to work on various other projects and today I'm happy to report that one of them is ready to publicize.

After six years of blogging for free, I've graduated into the realm of paid analog publishing, with the printing and preliminary distribution of the first-ever Portland Maine Bike Map (!).

My first venture into for-profit cartography covers bike routes, lanes, and paths from Falmouth to Scarborough, Casco Bay to Westbrook - almost everything you can comfortably reach in an easy hour's ride from downtown Portland.

It's retailing for $6, currently at all of our locally-owned bike shops in Portland (I'm still negotiating the purchasing departments of the chain stores), plus Longfellow Books in Monument Square, Art Mart on Congress Street, Pinecone and Chickadee on Free Street, any of the three Portland Coffee By Design shops, Green Hand Books, and Bathra's Market in Willard Square.

Thanks to Sean Wilkinson of Might & Main for making it look so sharp (he designed the cover and advised on typography and colors).

If you own or work at a greater Portland business that might be interested in selling a few of these, please get in touch with me. If you'd like to bulk-purchase more than 10 at our wholesale rate for your workplace's commuting and parking management programs, your should also get in touch with me.

Did I mention that 10% of our proceeds, after covering our costs, will benefit the Bicycle Coalition of Maine and Portland Trails? Well yes, I just mentioned that.

But first I have to cover my costs and I am deeply in the hole for the time being. Not that I'm a charity case but almost I am. Please buy my map.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Supposedly Fun Thing Invades Portland

From midsummer until the end of fall foliage season in late October, cruise ships like the one pictured below dock at the Maine State Pier in downtown Portland, Maine. When they're in port, they loom over the small city's skyline and disgorge thousands of well-fed passengers onto our downtown city streets.

The cruise ships that arrive here are taller than most of the city's modest high-rises, and with 2500-3500 passengers, their arrival increases the city's population by about 5%. They have a certain looming effect on the city's landscape, and not just from their striking physical resemblance to the alien mother ships that blot out the sun above human cities in movies like Independence Day and District 9 (see below at right). They flood the city's streets with a certain breed of well-fed, middle-aged idler, toting cameras and stylized cartoon maps of the downtown district.

The effect isn't limited to the infusion of strangers - it also changes the behavior of the city's native residents.

When a ship's in town, improvised kiosks selling lighthouse paintings, secondhand junk, and items marketed as "redneck wallets" proliferate near the ferry terminal. "The Screamer" and other familiar victims of the state's social service cuts become mysteriously absent, while there's a marked increase in downtown police cruisers. Slow, rubber tired omnibuses roam the downtown area behind incongruous teams of draft horses, a bizarre, segregated, and for-profit public transportation system for tourists.

In short, the cruise ships, while they may look innocuous, also seem to beam advanced psychoactive waves into the city's brains to stimulate desperate entrepreneurial pandering. There's money to be made if we behave like a quaint second-world outpost replete with cheap handmade crafts and sweating, shitting modes of transport.

An acquaintance today remarked that the city's transformation reminded him of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, the concept of quantum physics that tells us how the observation of certain properties of a particle limits our knowledge of other physical properties.* Or, to put it another way, that the simple act of observing something, and your choice of what to observe and how to observe it, can change various properties of that thing's essential nature.

This elegantly applies to tourism, especially the mass-market variety of tour buses and cruise ships. An entertaining thought experiment: how would Portland (both the physical landscape of the city and its citizenry) change if the hundreds of thousands of tourists who came here every summer instead arrived as undocumented migrant laborers? How would the city look if those thousands became occupiers of an imperialist army?

And which of those two landscapes - the city of cheap labor, or the occupied city - is more foreign from the city we know today?**

The idea that we occupy a different, parallel universe from the one that our tourists reside in - and that I, as a tourist anywhere, am unlikely to know the true essence of the places I visit - feels as lonely to me as an insomniac night on a cruise ship at sea, "when all the ship's structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased."

But then again, shouldn't the possibility of changing the city you know with a shift in perception also offer us new frontiers to explore without leaving at all? And doesn't the uncertainty principle also apply in all sorts of other ways - not just in how we perceive places, but also people and things? We hear rumors of a scandal and a trusted person becomes repulsive to us; make eye contact two or three times across a crowded room, and a stranger becomes an object of fixation.

So even when you live in a small city that's frequently colonized by tourist hordes, there's no need for us to get discouraged when we perceive ourselves in a rut, in an absence of strangeness and possibility.

There's an infinity of alternative cities available to us, all similar to this one and different in significant ways, every time we seek a new way of seeing things.

*Credit for this insight goes to Dan, who's highly versed in the idea of how shifts in our perceptions can affect our lifestyle.

**Personally, I think that our wealthy tourists and our customer-service-oriented culture make us a lot closer to the empire/colony dynamic than we are to being a land of opportunity - then again, that's just the product of my own observations.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Back to the land... in outer space!

The peak of the American suburban impulse may well have been the year 1975, the year a group of earnest technocrats and back-to-the-land hippies converged to make the case for orbiting shopping plazas and ranch-style homes in deep space.

When I was a kid obsessed with astronomy, I spent hours staring at paintings by Don Davis, an American artist best known for his sci-fi illustrations. The works that I remember most vividly were his depictions of the space colonies advocated by Princeton physicist Gerard O'Neill in the mid-1970s, which were brought to my attention recently by a recent blog post on The Atlantic's technology blog.

These paintings were, and still are, utterly bewildering. To simulate gravity by centrifugal force, the theoretical colonies generally had a cyclindrical or toroidal design, which meant that landscapes didn't recede to a vanishing point on a horizon, but instead curved up and overhead. Meanwhile, mirrors and shades on the exterior controlled night and day cycles, and blended scenes of clouds with the starry dark of deep space. All in all, trying to figure out the logic of perspective in these paintings is like puzzling through a complicated Escher print.

But even weirder than all that were the pastoral scenes depicted, floating around in tubes through the vacuum of space. The picture above was intended to simulate the northern Californian coast, according to an autobiographical statement on Davis's website:
"It was painted this way under the direction of Gerard O'Neill himself, who related a recent impression of the vantage point from Sausalito being an excellent scale reference for a possible setting inside a later model cylindrical colony... I deliberately wanted to imply the challenge of trying to transplant a workable ecosystem to a giant terrarium in Space."
Many of these paintings came out of a NASA-sponsored summer camp for space theorists held at Ames research center in 1975. In that same year, Stewart Brand, the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, gave O'Neill several pages to make the case for space colonies in his new publication, the CoEvolution Quarterly.

It's easy to ridicule these space suburbs now, with the benefit of hindsight. In 1975, though, the brand-new Space Shuttle was being designed and promoted as our cargo utility truck to the heavens, and the idea of space colonies resonated with at least a few back-to-the-land hippies (like Stewart Brand) who dreamed of a new frontier in which to escape the Earthbound troubles of energy shortages, nuclear war, and the decline of American cities.

Big-name environmentalists of the era mostly ridiculed the idea of space colonies - but they still took the idea seriously enough to send in responses to the idea for Brand's magazine, something that would be hard to imagine today.

Some, like Buckminster Fuller and Carl Sagan, doubled down on their faith in high technology and fully endorsed the concept. But most of Stewart Brand's readers and contemporaries were more skeptical. Steve Baer, a designer of off-grid houses, had this critique, which reads like a purloined passage from J. G. Ballard or Don Delillo:
"I don't see the landscape of Carmel by the Sea as Gerard O'Neill suggests... Instead, I see acres of air-conditioned Greyhound bus interior, glinting slightly greasy railings, old rivet heads needing paint - I don't hear the surf at Carmel and smell the ocean - I hear piped music and smell chewing gum. I anticipate a continuous vague low-key "airplane fear."
And Gary Snyder, the beat poet who practiced Zen Buddhism in the rural suburbs of the Sierra Nevada foothills, bemusedly shrugs off Brand's enthusiasm:
"Thanks for the invitation to comment on O'Neill's space colony. I'm sure you already suspect that I consider such projects frivolous, in the all-purpose light of Occam's Razor my big question about such notions is "why bother?" when there are so many things that can and should be done right here on earth. Like Confucius said, 'Don't ask me about life after death, I don't understand enough about life yet.' Anyway. I'm hopelessly backwards, I'm stuck in the Pleistocene. That is, seriously... I'm still mucking around in the paleo-ethno botany, which is a kind of zazen."

While I agree with the substance of what Snyder and Baer say, I find their commentary ironic in light of the back-to-the-land lifestyles they practiced and advocated. Baer, after all, made his living by designing off-the-grid homes for communes like Drop City - space stations for the deserts of the southwest, in other words. And while I admire much of what Snyder wrote, I also regret that his political and environmental activism suffered from his self-imposed suburban exile in the Californian foothills. When he writes "there are so many things to be done right here on Earth," I want to shake him out of his meditation long enough to point out the racial and social iniquities in his own backyard.

In the end, isn't an idyllic sylvan landscape millions of miles away from the nearest city the logical extreme of the back-to-the-land movement that Baer, Snyder, and a million other Whole Earth Catalog readers dreamed of? Lewis Mumford, the famous champion of closely-knit urban neighborhoods, is a more reliable critic of space suburbs, and sure enough, his critique was the sharpest and most succinct of the bunch:
"I regard Space Colonies as another pathological manifestation of the culture that has spent all of its resources on expanding the nuclear means for exterminating the human race. Such proposals are only technological disguises for infantile fantasies."
Simply replace "Space Colonies" with "shopping centers" or "subprime mortgages", and it can still apply today in our post-space age.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Burning Oil to Stay Cool

As the summer's first heat wave sets in on the Northeast, and millions of A/C units start cranking in synchrony, the east coast's electric utilities are firing up every power plant they have at their disposal in order to meet demand.

That includes some of our dirtiest, oldest, most inefficient power plants, smoke-belching relics that are only used on days like these when there's absolutely no better alternative available to keep the lights on.

We're beating the heat by incinerating vast amounts of fuel in thousand-degree infernos. And to make matters worse, forecasters are also expecting unhealthy levels of ozone and particulate air pollution all along the eastern seaboard today.

Wyman Station, a 1970s-era oil-burning power plant on Cousins Island in Casco Bay.
Photo by Bryan Bruchman.

The upshot of this is that any conservation efforts will make a bigger difference today than any other time of year. If a few of us shut down our workstations for the lunch hour and find some unplugged work to do during the hottest part of the day, then they'll burn fewer BTUs at the power plants and send less smoke into our hot, haze-saturated atmosphere.

Side bonus: your office will also be cooler with fewer machines generating heat indoors.

Alternatively, immersing yourself in 65 degree ocean water at the beach is another good way to not burn fossil fuels today. It's bad business for me to say so, but it just isn't a good day to read blogs.

Related: Hot Days Incinerate Oil, from July 7, 2010.

Friday, July 08, 2011

End of the Space Age

The Space Shuttle Atlantis rides off into the sunset (photo from 2006, courtesy of NASA).

Two weeks before I was born, in April, 1981, the first Space Shuttle mission went into orbit over Cape Canaveral.

Now, thirty years later, the Space Shuttle will soon make its final landing, never to rise again. Earthbound, at the beginning of my thirties, I'm left with a strange feelings of nostalgia for my old childhood expectations of the twenty-first century.

I feel like I've outlived the future.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Where not to go swimming in Casco Bay

Tonight, Portland's City Council will vote on a 25-year plan to reduce the amount of sewage that gets dumped into Casco Bay during wet weather.

The green warning signs like the one pictured above (located next to the city's cruise ship dock) mark the locations of Portland's combined sewer overflow outlets. During wet weather, when millions of gallons of rainwater flow into storm drains and overwhelm sewer pipes, these outlets keep sewerage from backing up into the streets, by dumping it into local waterways instead (read all the details here).

These combined sewer outlets can be found in surprising places: there are three in the heart of the Old Port, the city's tourism district, including one right next to the outdoor dining area of the Portland Lobster Company, another at the busy ferry terminal, and a third next to the city's cruise ship berth. Along with a few more further down the waterfront, these outlets collectively dump 145 million gallons of sewage into Portland Harbor in a typical year.

Seventeen more outlets ringing Baxter Boulevard, a popular city park, dump over 400 million gallons of mixed sewage into the shallow, stagnant waters of Back Cove. By way of comparison, last year's BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico dumped about 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.

Nearly twenty years into the city's efforts to separate storm drains from toilet flushings, the city has managed to shut down ten CSO outlets, including the one located nearest to the city's East End Beach, as well as most of the outlets that had dumped into Capisic Brook in the city's western suburbs. But dozens of overflow outlets still remain. The map below shows where they all are (the handful of star icons represent former outlets that have been closed):

As disgusting as this problem is, solving it won't be cheap, quick, or easy. The City is looking at a range of strategies, from building new green infastructure that can absorb rainwater into the ground before it flows into storm drains, to building huge underground storage tanks that can expand the system's capacity to hold sewage without spewing it out into the harbor.

Altogether, the recommended projects will cost the city $170 million - about $2,500 for every individual resident of the city - over the course of 25 years. That would roughly double our sewer bills, and not even then would we have a sewer system that avoids dumping sewage into Casco Bay altogether (the engineers estimate that we'd still dump 87 million gallons a year, an 88% reduction over current levels).

A fair and effective way to pay this bill would ask property owners who contribute the most to the city's sewer overflows to pay a greater share, by charging a fee in proportion to the amount of sewage and stormwater their properties send into the pipes. A one-inch rainstorm on an acre of pavement sends 26,000 gallons of oil-soaked stormwater (the equivalent of 15,000 toilet flushes) down the drains, so the owner of a large parking lot ought to pay substantially more to fix our sewers than an apartment dweller or a homeowner with a rain-absorbing garden.

This wouldn't just be a fairer way to pay for the city's sewer upgrades - it would also encourage property owners to make their own small efforts to help relieve the amount of stormwater flowing into our sewers, whether by tearing up some pavement to install a rain garden, or by fitting in more housing units on smaller lots. Small efforts multiplied thousands of times across the city's watersheds could substantially reduce the impacts of Portland's sewer problems, and the costs of fixing them.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Psychosis and the Suburb

I just finished reading J. G. Ballard's novel Super-Cannes, a scary psychological thriller that runs its gruesome course in the Silicon Valley of the Euro zone, the high-tech suburban office parks in the hills above the French Riviera.

Ballard convincingly asserts that the suburban office park is the architectural manifestation of nihilism. "Thousands of people live and work here without making a single decision about right and wrong," writes Ballard. "The moral order is engineered into their lives along with the speed limits and the security systems."

In Super-Cannes, the absence of moral agency drives executives into bouts of managed psychosis, employed to advance the greater good of executive productivity and shareholder value. As the novel advances, the degree of this executives' violence, sexual predation, and racist xenophobia become more and more intense and unnerving, but Ballard anchors it all in realism by name-dropping familiar corporations (a next-door neighbor who clubs Arabs by night is a Mitsubishi executive by day, a gruesome gunfight takes place on the roof of the Siemens carpark) - and mundane descriptions of the familiar office park landscape.

It's like a right-wing Fight Club, where repressed men band together to enforce corporate power instead of taking it down. And frankly, Ballard's vision - the Man sticking it to us with clubs, a private police force, and a hefty bribery budget to keep other authorities quiet - seems a lot more realistic than any of us sticking it to the Man.

Interestingly, right after I finished reading this, my wife had me listen to a recent This American Life podcast about psychopathy. In Act 2, Jon Ronson (author of the recent The Psychopath Test) interviews a successful business executive and finds that a lot of the traits he considers intrinsic to his success could also be interpreted as indicators of psychosis (actual doctors may find that a stretch, but the guy definitely has antisocial tendencies).

Also interestingly, there's been a flurry of articles this week about the decline of suburban office parks. A special report in Crain's Chicago Business declares that "Like the disco ball, the regional shopping mall and the McMansion, the suburban corporate headquarters campus is losing its charm," and goes on to profile several large corporations that are moving their headquarters offices back downtown.
"The whole corporate campus seems a little dated,” says Joe Mansueto, chairman and CEO of Morningstar... “We've always liked being in Chicago. It helps keep employees on the pulse of what's happening in our society. It keeps them current with cultural trends and possibly technological ones.”
Corporations moved their employees into the highly-controlled landscapes of office parks so that workers would be cloistered from competing job offers and isolated from social distractions for 60-hour work weeks. But maybe killing their workers' social connections and isolating them from creative ideas wasn't so good for profits, after all. Maybe there's still hope for sanity.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

A Self-Reliant Way to Walden

As noted last week, the preferred means of attaining transcendental enlightenment at Walden Pond is by burning petroleum to drive 70 miles per hour down the Concord Turnpike, just a few minutes past the corporate office parks of the 128 corridor.

Thoreau preferred to walk there, of course, from his family home and business in downtown Concord. But as Robert Sullivan discovered and reported in his book The Thoreau You Don't Know, most modern-day Concordians will tell you that it is now impossible to cover the 1.6 mile distance on foot, and will insist on giving you driving directions.

However, if you are lucky enough to have legs strong enough to withstand 30 minutes' worth of movement at an easy pace, it can be done! And so this post offers detailed walking and bicycling directions to Walden Pond from downtown Boston or Cambridge.

To go by foot, take the commuter rail line (which Thoreau rode frequently) from North Station to Concord village. Then head southwest on Thoreau Street, past the Starbucks and the strip mall parking lots. After 10 minutes, turn right on Walden Street, passing Concord High School (you're halfway there). Climb a short hill and wait for the walk signal to make your way safely across the four-lane Turnpike, then take the trail into the woods, past the site of Thoreau's cabin, to the shore of Walden Pond.

Alternatively, you could ride your bike, which makes for a great day trip and lets you take in a couple of good rest stops en route to Concord.

From downtown Boston, there are two good ways to bike to Walden Pond: via the Minuteman Bike Path, which roughly follows the course of the Battles of Concord and Lexington, or by way of Trapelo Road, which is a more direct route through Belmont, Waltham, and Lincoln, but also has more traffic and hills. Personally, I like to go out on Trapelo Road, stopping by the Gropius House on my way out, and come back in on the flat Minuteman Bikeway at the end of the day when my legs are tired.

Either way, you'll need to get through Cambridge first. If it's Sunday, you can weave footloose and fancy-free through the four lanes of Memorial Drive, which is closed to cars on summer Sundays until 7 pm between Western Avenue and Mt. Auburn Street.

At Mt. Auburn Street, either make your way north along the edge of Fresh Pond to get to the Minuteman, or grit your teeth a few blocks through heavy traffic to get to Belmont Street, which turns into Trapelo Road.

Belmont is "thickly settled."

On the other side of Route 128, Trapelo Road enters Lincoln, one of those fancy suburbs where abundant conservation lands clearly serve the dual purposes of maintaining a nice view for wealthy residents while also excluding the condo-dwelling hoi polloi from becoming their neighbors. Notwithstanding the elitism, it's a nice place to ride bikes on shady roads.

On the other side of Lincoln's main intersection, Trapelo Road turns into Sandy Pond Road. You'll pass by the Decordova Museum and Sculpture Park. If you enjoy your art in a setting of overwhelming privilege and cultural homogeneity, it's worth a stop. When we visited, though, we got passive-aggressively talked to for not paying the car-parking fee (because we were on bikes, a "problem" that the Decordova management apparently isn't accustomed to).

Performance art concept: get a crew together to visit the Decordova on foot or by bike, and see how long you can avoid then Gulf oil-funded security detail.

A better place to stop lies a mile or so further down the road. Passing by the Decordova, you'll take a left onto Baker Bridge Road, where, in an old orchard on the left side of the road, you'll pass Walter Gropius's house, now a publicly-accessible historic site owned and managed by Historic New England.

Gropius was the founder of the Bauhaus, and designed this house in 1938, when he came to Massachusetts to teach at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. It's a small and simple dwelling that fits in unassumingly with its rural surroundings (unlike most of its neighbors), and the home's caretakers have preserved the family's possessions, including a lot of original Bauhaus furniture. Tours run hourly until 4 pm, Wednesday through during the summer.

The Gropius house is just a mile away from the main park entrance to Walden Pond - Gropius probably walked there often, and it's interesting to think about the parallels between Walden and the Bauhaus philosophy (maybe a subject for a future post).

At the end of Baker Bridge Road, take a right on Concord Road, and after half a mile further, you're at Walden Pond.

With stops, the bike ride takes 2 to 2.5 hours. On the way back, continue northward on Concord Road to make the 1.5 mile trip into Concord village (where there's ice cream), then take the Reformatory Branch Trail towards the Minuteman in Bedford. With flatter terrain and fewer stoplights, the trip back to the Alewife T station takes about 90 minutes.

I swam in Walden Pond last weekend; the water was refreshing and not too cold. If you're in Boston, it's not hard to get there. Go visit!

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

From Skid Row to Starbucks

The alleged etymological origins of the term "skid row" are in the Pacific Northwest, in districts where lumbermen "skidded" logs down towards mills and ships lining the waterfront, and where disreputable trades served lumbermen who were eager to spend their earnings on vices after long and sober months in the woods.

One of the most famous skid rows is in the neighborhood around Seattle's Pioneer Square, centered around Henry Yesler's sawmill. The neighborhood followed a familiar skid row trajectory: first, the waterfront industry moved away. Then, urban renewal projects manifested the city's disrespect for the neighborhood by demolishing lots of buildings and leaving the rest to wither in the shadows of ugly, soot-soaked freeway viaducts. Under the traffic, intentionally hidden from view, strip clubs, drug vendors, and homeless agencies flourished.

And then, when developers realized how close these skid rows were to downtown, and how cheap the real estate still was, the skid rows quickly flipped into yuppie pleasure districts, from New York's Bowery to San Francisco's Tenderloin District. And Pioneer Square attained the ideal embodiment of this post-industrial destiny when Starbucks built its complex of corporate headquarters offices in the neighborhood.

By the time crews started excavating for the 4-level underground parking garage, they confirmed that the old age of logging was dead and buried. Literally.

Photo by Scott Durham, of

Instead of digging down into post-glacial gravel, backhoes found a morass of rotting timber instead: the discarded slash from the old mills, the century-old pilings of old wharves and railroads, and the miscellaneous debris that nineteenth-century land developers had tossed into the city's marshy waterfront to transform wetlands into dry quays above sea level.

This item came to my attention via hugeasscity, which noted that the city's plan to renovate the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct (the concrete urban renewal scar visible in the background of the photo above) calls for putting the freeway underground. Which sounds like a neat-o plan for a Tomorrowland version of Seattle, until you consider that the whole gleaming, modern Seattle waterfront district is actually built atop an unstable, sinking pile of wood. Plus an active fault line.

In the end, it doesn't matter how many lattes and condos you sell above ground: the roots of the city will always be in Skid Row.

PS- the bike tour to Walden post I'd promised yesterday is still coming - check back tomorrow! I'm going on a blogging tear this week to make up for lost time.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


While in Boston over the weekend, we took our first swim of the summer in Walden Pond, the famous suburban retreat where Henry David Thoreau lived for two years.

Walden was never a wilderness - even when he lived there 150 years ago, it was still within a 30 minute walk of Concord's busy downtown, where Thoreau managed the family's pencil-manufacturing factory. The commuter rail line that skirts the western edge of the pond today was still there in Thoreau's time (he'd often walk along it as a shortcut from his cabin to the town).

But, inspired in part by Thoreau's writings, people have changed the woods around Walden tremendously in the past century and a half. Americans following Henry David's suburban impulse ("I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself," Thoreau bragged in a chapter of Walden titled "Solitude") have transformed Concord from a small agricultural and manufacturing center into a convenient bedroom community halfway between Worcester and Boston.

Three miles east of Walden Pond, modernist cubicle farms for software and pharmaceutical companies crowd along the Route 128 corridor, surrounded by greenery designed to be enjoyed at 55 miles per hour.

From there, a four-lane expressway, the Concord Turnpike, runs within a hundred yards of Thoreau's homestead site. In the time it took him to make his daily 2-mile walk to Concord, modern Thoreauvians can drive themselves all the way to Logan Airport (albeit with less self-reliance).

The road goes two ways, of course, which means that Walden Pond has also become an extremely popular destination for anyone in the metro Boston region who wants to live deliberately and front only the essential facts of life for a few hours after a rough day of shopping at the nearby Burlington Mall.

The state has gradually tried to buy up the land around Walden Pond to turn it into a state reservation. Still, in doing so, the remaining privately-owned parcels nearby have become increasingly valuable as tourist traps and highway rest stops, making additional land conservation asymptotically difficult.

And as a public park, several acres of Walden's former Woods have been cleared to make way for parking lots, a replica of Thoreau's cabin, and the "Thoreau Society Shop" (Thoreau's famous quotation on poverty - "Do not trouble yourself to get new things, whether clothes or friends... Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. God will see that you do want society" - graces the shop's best-selling t-shirts).

A large bathhouse overlooks a tiny beach on the eastern end of the pond near the parking lots and souvenir shop. The spring-fed pond itself is facing serious erosion problems in the face of all the foot traffic and bootleg sunbathing clearings on every shore, and the state has built a long concrete wall to keep the land nearest the beach from sliding into the pond:

The pond's circumferential footpath in many places runs within inches of the water, compacting the forest soils and making it difficult for plants to take hold and establish their natural filtration functions.

Thankfully, the agency in charge is taking a more aggressive stand against erosion, and erecting fences that keep people from treading on every inch of shoreline. The conserved forestlands that surround Walden Pond do a good job of filtering out the oil- and pesticide-soaked runoff pollution from surrounding freeways, parking lots, and McMansion developments, and so Walden Pond itself is remarkably clean, in spite of its metropolitan surroundings. It's one of my favorite swimming holes anywhere - and I say this as a connoisseur who lives in a place with a bounty of swimming holes.

In a follow-up post tomorrow, I'll write about one of my favorite Boston bike rides: downtown to Walden Pond in about 2 hours, which makes for an ideal summer day trip.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Terrorism Survives

I'd had a nice weekend. A great weekend, even - one that made me feel grateful to live in Portland, Maine, with spring weather, sunny skies, and the company of good friends on my 30th birthday.

And then, on my bike ride to work this morning, I passed by our neighborhood mosque, just a few blocks from my house, and I saw this.

And, in addition to this, more graffiti that said "Long live the west" and "Go home."

I've been in a funk all day. The mosque is a nondescript building; there's nothing on the outside to indicate that it's a place of worship, which leads me to suspect that it was someone from our own neighborhood who did this. Somewhere in this city I love there is at least one cowardly neo-Nazi who has the disgusting gall to believe that religious persecution is somehow an American value.

Seeing this provided a visceral demonstration of how rage can beget more rage. I found myself wishing I'd had the presence of mind to head outside and check on our neighbors last night when I'd heard the news. With a baseball bat.

But what good would that really have done? This is just graffiti, and it's already been painted over. American Muslims, unfortunately, have suffered much worse. The real damage is the toxic, self-consuming hatred that still persists, not only in the bitter minds of those who did this, but even in the dim intellects of presumably "upstanding" members of our community. Let's not forget our daily newspaper's publisher, Richard Connor, the dimwit who apologized for running a front-page story about local Ramadan celebrations last September 11, and then humiliated himself and his city by broadcasting his racist cowardice on national radio.

Make no mistake: the fact that Americans among us could behave this way is much more of a threat to the American republic than Osama bin Laden ever was.

If Osama Bin Laden's death spurs cowardly, Klan-like hate crimes like this one, then there is nothing to celebrate today. The terrorists are still among us.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Tea Party Pity Party

Here's an entertaining story in today's Portland Press Herald:

PORTLAND - Eric Cianchette plans to sell the Maine Wharf on the city's central waterfront, saying he's tired of trying to come up with a mixed-use development plan that Portland officials will approve.

"I remember my father telling me, 'You can't just go through life saying what you don't want. At some point, you have to tell people what you do want,"' Cianchette said, and city officials "really don't want anything."
Eric is wrong - just like he was wrong about the inflated real-estate value of the wharf when he was suckered into buying it in 2004.

City officials most certainly do know what they want to have on our waterfront. They want successful marine-oriented businesses. They want a prosperous fishery. They want wharf buildings and businesses that take the fullest advantage of Portland's valuable deep-water harbor.

These kinds of businesses aren't easy to grow. They're challenging. They demand smart entrepreneurs who can think creatively.

By his own self-pitying words in this article, I can come to only one conclusion: Eric Cianchette isn't one of those creative businesspeople.

He bought a wharf. He proposed a formulaic, played-out business model instead of doing something challenging and entrepreneurial. And then he got fleeced when the real estate bubble popped. And now - he's blaming City Hall for his problems?


I'm not a hard-assed business guru, but if I were, I'd probably say that this guy needs to stop looking for sympathy, and start looking for success.

There's a lot in common between Eric Cianchette's super sad story and the whole Tea Party zeitgeist of economic frustration. They're all fond of blaming the government. But when I look at those guys, I see a whole lot of failures who are bitterly trying to pin their shortcomings on politicians, instead of owning up to the pathetic reality of their circumstances.

Take, for instance, T.P. Governor LePage's resigning PR flack, Dan Demeritt, a man who made hay by defending businesses against "government regulation," only to succumb to bigger businesses when banks foreclosed on a number of his rental properties earlier this month.

And the Tea Party isn't just failing in business: it's also failing in governance. Just like Eric Cianchette's luxury hotel, the Governor's proposals are going nowhere fast. And true to form, even though he's the Governor now, the government's chief executive, he is STILL blaming the government: "I went on vacation last week because I had nothing to do," the Governor said last week at a Chamber of Commerce speech reported by the Sun-Journal's Steve Mistler. "Because I'm waiting. I'm waiting for legislation. I cannot do anything until the Legislature acts."

These are your tax dollars at work: a vicious cycle of finger-pointing. Who needs leadership when you've got scapegoats?

These guys act as though they hate government. But they need the government more than anyone. If the government weren't there, whom could they blame for their failures? Nobody but themselves.

The bottom line is this: business in Maine can't thrive until losers like these guys get out of the way. But for the time being, at least Eric Cianchette is getting out of Portland's waterfront.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Factory Nostalgia

Photo courtesy of

Near the turn of the last century, Frederick Jackson Turner wrote his famous "frontier thesis": the idea that the frontier was what made Americans exceptional and unique - "the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines. And to study this advance, the men who grew up under these conditions, and the political, economic, and social results of it, is to study the really American part of our history."

As many colonialist and racist problems as there are with Turner's frontier fetish, the idea still resonated. And that's probably because so many ordinary people behaved as though they agreed with Turner, whether or not they'd actually heard of him. For the entire subsequent century, Americans flooded into new frontiers of their own making: into suburban communities, into "ranch" homes on half-acre lots, into the nation's newly-dedicated national parks and forests.

America didn't start celebrating the wild frontier in earnest until it was already gone.

And now, at the turn of another century, we finally have something new - and newly lost - about which we can wax nostalgic: our industries.

Photo by flickr user Kyota.

In Japan, an increasing number of charter bus tours and cruises are taking tourists on “kojo-moe” (工場萌え), or "factory love" tours of the country's remaining industrial areas. At a time when an intransigent recession and cheaper competition from developing nations are taking their inevitable toll on Japanese industry, tourist groups are kindling their nostalgia for the country's mid-century industrial boom, and getting sentimental over the steel and concrete landscapes that built their nation.

Yokkaichi oil refinery. Photo by flickr user Kyota.

And why should kojo-moe be limited to the Japanese? Isn't our cultural fascination with Detroit and all of its magnificent industrial ruins essentially the same thing? All the Japanese have done is come up with a name for it. "Factory love," the nostalgia that the 21st century feels for the 20th.

You can find many, many more "factory love" photos tagged on Flickr, here.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Vernal Pools of Portland

This evening I'll be giving a short talk about forest ecology at the Maine College of Art, as part of their FOREST show at the ICA. If you're in Portland, please come and save me from talking to an empty room.

To get ready, Jess and I took a bike ride on Sunday to explore the woods near the abandoned city dump, where there are several vernal pools at this time of year.

Above: a small vernal pool in the right-of-way of an unbuilt city street - that's a manhole in the background.

Vernal pools are temporary wetlands that fill up with snowmelt and spring rains and typically dry out by the midsummer. That important distinction keeps fish out and allows niche species - mostly amphibians - to breed and develop without competition from other wetland species.

This is another vernal pool closer to Ray Street. It's been a cold spring and so there wasn't much sign of life, but we did find what looked like some salamander jelly:

When a big rainstorm coincides with the first warmish evening of the spring, salamanders will come out of hibernation and venture down to breed in the same pools where they themselves had been born. Here in Portland, that probably happened last week or during Saturday night's drenching rains.

Male salamanders will deposit gelatinous packets of sperm on submerged sticks (like the one above), and later, females will deposit their eggs on top to fertilize them. Within the next few weeks, these will develop into tapioca-like sacs of salamander eggs.

Near "Stepping Stone Lane," a street name that tells you all you need to know about this neighborhood. You can actually make out some of the foreclosure boxes through the trees in the background here.

As the pools dry out in the summer, the amphibians they've nursed venture out into the surrounding woods as adults. These pools literally nurse the species near the bottom of the forest's food chain, providing food for critters in a wide radius.

These pools near Ray Street are just a 20 minute bike ride from downtown Portland - and there are similar pools located in the woods behind Evergreen Cemetery and in the uplands of the Fore River Sanctuary. No matter where you live in the northeastern U.S., there's probably a vernal pool not too far away. Finding them is half the fun.

At this time of year, they're neat places to visit: it's as though the entire forest's fecundity is concentrated here in these big puddles of water. It's also nice to take off your shoes and socks and wade into the water (which is still cool, but not cold) for the first time in months.

Monday, April 04, 2011

The Utopia Over the Freeway

The Bridge Apartments in Washington Heights. Photo used by permission from photographer Mario Burger,
Burger International, Inc.

Last fall, the Cooper Union hosted a show dedicated to Paul Rudolph's Lower Manhattan Expressway (or LOMEX) proposal - a design study intended to enamor New York City's modernist architectural elites with Robert Moses's freeway-building ambitions.

Rudolph was a genius draftsman, and he produced stunning drawings that manage to generate a sense of futuristic optimism and excitement around the idea of living above thousands of exhaust pipes stuck in traffic:

One of Paul Rudolph's LOMEX studies.

From at least the 1930s, when Moses was in charge of the Parks Department, New York's "Master Builder" wanted to build a freeway through lower Manhattan, connecting New Jersey to Brooklyn by way of the Holland Tunnel and the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges. Interestingly, Paul Rudolph's proposal came only during the Lower Manhattan Expressway's dying days, and only at the sponsorship of the Ford Foundation.*

Jane Jacobs had published The Death and Life of Great American Cities seven years previously, in 1961; a year after Rudolph began his study of the Expressway, in 1968, Governor Rockefeller would freeze Moses out of the city's transportation agencies. By the time Rudolph stopped working on this proposal in 1972, the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and grand building schemes like this one were relegated to the realm of fantasy. In a review on the Design Observer blogs, Mark Lamster wrote that Rudolph's was "an extraordinary vision, if not a practical one."

Rudolph's drawings are indeed amazing, especially the ones that compare the hugeness of his vision to existing landmarks (the red drawing above frames the towers of the Williamsburg Bridge, which is huge in its own right, in the center).

The show is powerful not just for its audacity, but for what we know now, forty years later, when the historic neighborhoods that Rudolph and Moses would have liked to have bulldozed are worth hundreds of billions of dollars. In hindsight, it's easy for us to say, "something like that could never actually happen."

Except for one thing: something like Rudolph's vision actually did happen. A few miles away, on the same island of Manhattan, urban renewalists and highway builders had actually finished a massive cross-island expressway, topped with apartment towers and a major transit hub, several years before Paul Rudolph started designing the LOMEX.

The new Trans-Manhattan Expressway seen from a tower of the George Washington Bridge. Photo from the LIFE Magazine archives.

This is the Trans-Manhattan Expressway, also known as I-95, the only Interstate highway that crosses Manhattan Island. It was opened in 1963, when a second deck was added to the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey. It crosses the island in Washington Heights, where the island is only one mile wide, but its construction still required the demolition and clearance of dozens of buildings on eight dense city blocks.
When the Expressway opened in 1963, Robert Moses, the freeway's champion, foreshadowed Paul Rudolph's work to come later in the decade:

"This is the first expressway to be built across Manhattan, and we hope that the Lower Manhattan and Mid-Manhattan expressways, both of which have been the victims of inordinate and inexcusable delays caused by intemperate opposition and consequent official hesitation, will follow. These crosstown facilities are indispensable to be effectiveness of the entire metropolitan arterial objective of removing traffic through congested city streets."

Of course, the scorn for opposition that Moses has on display in this quote was even then sowing the seeds of his downfall. And with the benefit of hindsight, it's easy for us to chuckle at the notion that building a fast and convenient route for cars and trucks to enter Manhattan would do anything to remove any traffic from New York's streets:

Photo by Zach K.

The Trans-Manhattan Expressway wasn't merely a freeway, though. It was a linear megastructure that stacked a complex of modernist transportation hubs and huge apartment blocks overhead. On the western end, Moses built a winged bus terminal that squatted over the freeway's entrance ramps:

Looking west towards New Jersey over the new Trans-Manhattan Expressway and the George Washington Bridge bus terminal. Photo courtesy of the Port Authority of NY-NJ.

George Washington Bridge bus terminal. Photo by

On the eastern end, the city sold development rights to private developers who built four enormous apartment towers, known today as the "Bridge Apartments." The New York Times did a story a few years ago called "Life on the Road," a chronicle of the apartments' history and what it's like to live there. "If the windows are open, the noise is most deafening on the middle floors, and people inside find that they need to raise their voices to hold a conversation or talk on the phone," writes reporter David Chen. "The winds carry vehicle exhaust upward, which is especially noticeable on the terraces. And on most floors, the vibrations of trucks can clearly be felt, along with those of any construction equipment."

Two of the four Bridge Apartment towers, which mark the path of the Trans-Manhattan Expressway beneath. Photo by Zach K.

The Bridge Apartments loom over Washington Heights like mother ships from a sci-fi movie. I remember catching sight of them from time to time when I worked as a park ranger in Inwood Hill Park, two miles away, and being startled by their incongruous appearance on the skyline. This in a city known for its tall buildings - but the four towers, lined up in a row and hulking over a major freeway, have an otherworldly quality to them (Mario Burger's photo at the top of this post is the best illustration of this feeling that I was able to find online).

In all the reviews I've seen of Rudolph's show, I'm surprised no one has mentioned the Trans-Manhattan Expressway. It was obviously a major precedent in Rudolph's mind and in his designs - when he began working on LOMEX, the Trans-Manhattan Expressway would have still felt new and futuristic, not yet dated and dingy with soot and exhaust as it is now.

And for those modernist romantics who wonder at the ambitions of people like Robert Moses and Paul Rudolph, and yearn for a future that might have been: the gritty reality is on plain view to all in Washington Heights.

*The Ford Foundation's involvement in promoting LOMEX was probably not a self-serving effort to get more New Yorkers into Fords, as I'd initially suspected. By the late 1960s, the Ford Foundation, most famous for sponsoring the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, was separating itself from the Ford Motor Company through stock divestiture and new members of its Board of Directors (source). Instead, the Foundation seems to have hired Rudolph in a well-meaning - if misguided - effort to promote "urban renewal" in what were then some of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods.