Real places, not displacement

Daniel Herriges just returned from a visit to New Orleans, and comes to the same realization that so many of us do intuitively when we visit historic towns and downtowns, namely that “we used to do this everywhere:”

I just got back from a few days in New Orleans, where I stayed—as most tourists to that city do—in the French Quarter. The name is actually a misnomer from the particular perspective of an urban planner: most of the historic architecture in the French quarter dates to a period of Spanish rule from 1763-1801, and much of the urban design suggests a strong Spanish influence.

The French Quarter is one of the North American continent’s most treasured tourist destinations. Tennessee Williams once said, “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” (Apologies to Cleveland, which I hear rocks.) The Quarter, to many visitors, feels as impeccably master-designed and curated as Disneyland. This perception is understandable but wrong.

It brings me to something I find North Americans in particular need to remind ourselves of. We’re accustomed to environments built at the scale of the automobile, and to places where everything about the buildings suggests impermanence. When we vacation somewhere like the French Quarter, many of us slip into the false belief that a place like this—oriented to the pedestrian, with lavish attention to detail in public spaces and an overwhelming sense of place—is by necessity a tourist destination. It’s a novelty. You visit it, you love it, but who would ever try to replicate it in the places we go about our everyday lives? Impractical, surely. Too expensive, surely. Pretentious, even.

That view says so much about where we’ve gone wrong in how we build—and maintain—our places. …

There’s something I think more of us than not genuinely do crave about a traditionally-developed city built at a human scale. James Kunstler famously observed that Disney theme parks more or less replicate this pattern. So do college campuses and, in their own way, malls.

And of course, countless millions vacation every year in New Orleans and Savannah and Charleston and Santa Fe and so forth. But these places’ historic districts represent a pattern of building that we’ve made so scarce that it is now mostly reserved for tourists, and the very wealthy who can live in such unique neighborhoods. In the vast majority of the places that used to be this way, we’ve torn down half or more of the buildings for parking lots, lost others to disuse, hollowed out the economy in the name of pop-up strip-mall growth on the edge of town.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Visit the French Quarter and marvel at it because it’s the exception. But walk away from it wondering why it isn’t the rule.

In “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry,” he reads from his poetry at one point (or maybe it’s only in the trailer, I’m not sure) that too much of modernity is characterized not by the human person in any particular place, but by dis-placement, literally un-placemaking as we transform the American countryside into derivative suburbia that has no center, no public square, and at its heart no shared life.

Wendell Berry has been a champion of the traditional life of the American farmer, and we need a champion of the traditional life of the American community—as a place defined by people and the life they share.

JUMP bike commute

I’m now heading downtown each morning to our new office near Dupont Circle. There’s no straightforward way to get from Georgetown to Dupont Circle by Metro, but there is by bike. When I left this morning, I opened Uber, pulled up the map of nearby JUMP bikes, and walked to P Street where I this bike was locked and ready for use.

JUMP Bike in Georgetown

This JUMP bike is one of the refreshed models, with a much simpler QR code-based reservation/unlocking process compared to the more cumbersome pin-code system of the JUMP bike I used last summer. I felt like a flew down P Street to Dupont Circle, and then Connecticut to the office. At 15 cents per minute, I ended up paying $1.75 after tax for the ten minute ride.

I’ll commute by JUMP bike as much as possible this summer, when I don’t walk.

Blue skies

I took this photo a few weeks ago while waiting for a Metrobus on M Street in Georgetown. A clear and resplendent sky, holding that plane aloft. What was its destination? Where are its passengers now? What triumphs and sorrows have they experienced since their time together in the skies?

To Allentown for a day

We left Washington early yesterday morning for Allentown, Pennsylvania to attend a friend’s wedding. We stopped along the way at the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where the first American saint lies.

We stayed downtown in Allentown for the wedding, which was happening about 20 minutes away at the Glasbern Inn in Fogelsville, Pennsylvania.

Walking the Key Bridge

I’ve crossed the Key Bridge from Washington to Arlington, Virginia most days since moving here in September, because our office has had its headquarters in Arlington. But we’re moving into Washington today, and on Monday my commute will change as I start heading near Dupont Circle in Washington, by the Cathedral of Matthew the Apostle. That means my Key Bridge crossings will diminish significantly.

When I left our Arlington office yesterday, a late afternoon shower had just passed and the sun was coming out, and I decided to enjoy a walk home.

A preaching that awakens

I’m at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle in Washington for a wedding. It’s a beautiful day for it, and appropriate for sharing this sort bit from Oscar Romero:

A preaching that awakens, a preaching that enlightens – as when a light turned on awakens and of course annoys a sleeper – that is the preaching of Christ, calling: Wake up! Be converted! That is the church’s authentic preaching. Naturally, such preaching must meet conflict, must spoil what is miscalled prestige, must disturb, must be persecuted. It cannot get along with the powers of darkness and sin.

Who’s responsible for a place like this?

I was in McLean, Virginia recently, specifically Tyson’s Corner, for a conference, and while I was stopped at a light at the head of a lane of traffic I looked out onto this:


I’ve probably absorbed a lot from Strong Towns at this point, and particularly their Strong Towns Strength Test, so I’d bet I see a scene like this differently now that I’m familiar with their way of thinking about American communities as either sustainable or unsustainable. A little stream of consciousness thinking that ended with the light turning green:

This little median, separating what is an incredibly wide road that would be impossible for all but the most fit to get across during a light change, is a sort of public mystery. No doubt there’s some public authority to repair/replace it from time to time, but at its heart it’s a public space that’s “out of reach” for anyone other than an unknowable bureaucracy to take care of. There are scores of places like this across America, presumably someone’s responsibility—but whose responsibility, precisely, is basically unknowable for the average person. We assume things are being properly managed, but when it’s not clear who’s really responsible for it, how do you have accountability? If someone asked me to tell them, “How much does this little median cost?” I would have no idea how to begin to even answer it.

Arlington Line

The Arlington Line” historical marker stands at a little intersection at Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, near Court House Metro station. I have walked past this historical marker basically every day for the past eight months in coming and going from my office. Today I stopped to read it for the first time.

“Arlington Line” historical marker

Here the Arlington Line constructed in August, 1861, crossed the Georgetown-Falls Church Road. 100 yards to the northwest stood Fort Morton, a lunette with a perimeter of 250 yards and emplacements for 17 guns; 200 yards to the southeast stood Fort Woodbury, a lunette with a perimeter of 275 yards and emplacements for 13 guns.

A defining feature of life

I’m in Dallas today, where I looked out my car window at one point while in traffic to see this:


It seems as if a majority of American suburbs are surrounded by the sort of strip malls and shopping centers I’m seeing as I’ve been driving along the highway. So maybe it’s only somewhat by chance that I came across Leo Babauta’s piece on purchasing as a response to uncertainty and insecurity:

We don’t like the feeling of uncertainty and insecurity – we try to get rid of it as soon as we can, get away from it, push it away. We have lots of habitual patterns we’ve built up over the years to deal with this uncertainty and insecurity … and buying things is one of the most common, other than procrastination.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t actually give us any certainty or security. We buy things and we’re not really more prepared, in control, or secure. We hope we will be, and yet the feelings of uncertainty and insecurity are still there. So we have to buy some more stuff.

We’re looking for the magical answer to give us control and security, but it doesn’t exist. Life is uncertain. Always. It’s the defining feature of life. Read the quote from Pema Chodron at the top — it says it all, we have to accept the uncertainty of life.

And in fact, this is the answer to our drive to buy too much stuff — if we lean into the uncertainty, embrace it, learn to become comfortable with it, we can stop buying so much.

We can learn to live with little, sitting with the uncertainty of it all.