Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Little Rant About City Planning

I'll be moving to a new apartment in April, and I've started the search now. One of the criteria I'm judging apartments on is their walkability - that is, how easy it is to walk to a grocery store, convenience store, restaurants, bars, parks, playgrounds, etc. I am hardly alone on this: according to a WSJ article, 88% of people in my age group want a walkable, urban setting.

Unfortunately, I live in Raleigh, where such things do not exist.

Come March 15, I will start work in the sprawling, low-density planning disaster known as Research Triangle Park, which is conveniently located some 15 miles from anything that could be reasonably called an "urban center." If I wanted true walkability - meaning I could walk to work every morning - I'd be screwed; the closest housing to my office, as far as I can tell, is located some two miles away. Not horrible - but there's nothing else anywhere near it. The reason for this is that RTP is set up as a collection of large corporate campuses - the closest one could put housing is on the edges of the Park. It'd be nice if RTP picked up and moved itself to either downtown Raleigh or downtown Durham, but that's not gonna happen. So if you want to live close to work, you have to live on the edge of the Park.

One development on the edge of the Park is called Brier Creek, located on the northeast edge of the Park and part of the city of Raleigh, and this is one of the neighborhoods I'm looking at. It is laid out along a two-mile stretch of Brier Creek Parkway. Apartments are at the south and north ends of Brier Creek Pkwy as well as along the west side; shopping is located east of the parkway. The neighborhood is split into three pieces by Glenwood Avenue and Lumley Road. There are two grocery stores, a standard Lowes Foods in the middle part and an Earth Fare in the southern third. There is a weirdly upscale Indian restaurant, a cool pizza place, and another entry in the Triangle's weird obsession with combining sushi and Thai restaurants* in the middle part. There's a great Irish pub and another Indian joint in the south part, and a sports bar in the more-useless northern part. There's an elementary school and a park at the extreme south end (complete with playground). In theory, this should be a fairly walkable neighborhood.

But as I noted earlier, residential areas are either south, north, or west of the main shopping area, meaning that to get to the central part of Brier Creek you have to cross a road. Which would be great, if the city of Raleigh had put so much as a crosswalk across either Glenwood or Lumley. It's not like these are roads you can just dart across, either - Glenwood is a six-lane highway, and Lumley is a four-lane freeway feeder. Crosswalks across the four-lane, relatively high-speed Brier Creek Parkway, for those who live on the west side, are also few and far-between.

So what kind of sadistic fuck puts together a reasonably walkable neighborhood, distance-wise, and then makes walking around it as inconvenient as possible? The only conclusion I can come to is that Raleigh's city planners, to paraphrase Kanye West, don't care about walking people.

It'd be one thing if this were limited to Brier Creek... but it's not. With the exception of Cameron Village, located just west of downtown, there's something about most Raleigh neighborhoods that prevents them from being completely walkable. Downtown Raleigh would be great, except that, for some unknown reason, there isn't a grocery store. North Hills is similarly split into three pieces, and while Lassiter Mill is easy to cross, Six Forks Road, which separates the grocery store and some residential areas from the rest of the neighborhood, isn't (it's a major four-lane road that's in the process of feeding onto the freeway at that point). Crabtree Valley has a big shopping mall, but not much in the way of residential, and there's no park. I'm also looking at Lynnwood, which has a nice neighborhood bar, a jazz club, and a locally managed movie theater, as well as a nearby park and grocery store... but the road to the grocery store is narrow and lacks a sidewalk, while the path to the park is a muddy, gooey mess.

Not all of this is the city's fault. The fact that a significant portion of the city's jobs are located on the city's outskirts immediately eliminates the feasibility of a high-density urban core around which everything is based. A multi-centric "Atlanta on steroids" model is probably inevitable at this point. Indeed, considering the location of the Park on the city's western edge, a higher-density, walkable "suburban downtown" in Brier Creek would be ideal from both a sustainability and convenience standpoint. (I've found that the two often go hand-in-hand.)

As such, though, Raleigh is doing a horrible job making outlying centers like Brier Creek look anything like compact, walkable neighborhoods that will attract young and mobile people to the area. I don't know of any plans for making pedestrian travel across Glenwood, Lumley, or Brier Creek Parkway any easier, for example. The rail plans on the city's comprehensive plan website completely ignores Crabtree Valley and Brier Creek, even though the Glenwood Avenue corridor seems like it would be an ideal one for rail transit. The city is to be commended for its work on downtown - however, if the city thinks that it can just keep developing downtown while ignoring density and convenience issues in the rest of the city, they're going to be stuck with sprawl and traffic-choked streets. As I mentioned earlier, the very existence of the Park makes a single-center model impossible.

Pedestrian bridges in Brier Creek, for example, would be ideal and would contribute to continued high-density growth in the neighborhood. Developing a park in Crabtree - there's some open space there - and expanding an existent greenway system in the area would help that neighborhood. Transit that hit all the main growth areas - the Glenwood corridor, the Capital Boulevard corridor, and West Raleigh - as well as the employment centers in the Park would also be great. (The current bus system has one bus line that ends in Brier Creek and peters out at Crabtree, only halfway to downtown. The city doesn't bus people into the Park, and the multi-city Triangle Transit Authority buses ignore Brier Creek altogether.)

But Raleigh seems stuck in the idea that everyone who doesn't live and work downtown is okay with driving everywhere. That's a shame. Many of the 88% of us who want high-density walkable neighborhoods are forced by circumstance to work - and thus, if we don't want twenty-minute drives every day, to live - in suburbia. It'd be nice if Raleigh would at least acknowledge our existence... and build some damn crosswalks and sidewalks for a change.

*Seriously, what the hell is up with that? Sushi and Thai food are not even remotely related, except that they both occasionally feature rice. The flavors and main ingredients are completely different. And yet the combination of the two is everywhere around here. I actually live across the street, right now, from a restaurant called Sushi-Thai. It's like going to Tokyo and finding a Cajun place that serves tacos.

Friday, January 14, 2011

In Which Astrology Fails Hilariously

So in the wake of the earth-shattering and Twitter-amusing news that the zodiac signs have changed in the 3000 years since astrology was invented, I figured I'd muck around with in the astrological world and see what I could find.

Incidentally, I went from being a Libra to being a Virgo. So I went from being diplomatic and graceful (har) to being analytical and observant. Wasn't aware those were mutually exclusive. Also, it cracks me up that Virgo's first weakness is being "skeptical." I guess that's a bad thing to astrologers.

(There's a group of people I do pity right now - those who believe in this stuff and suddenly find themselves in Ophiuchius. Ever seen a reading for Ophiuchius? Me neither. Fun to say though.)

Anyway, I decided I'd check on the January lunar astrology calendar and see what I could find. Here's what it says about January 3, 2011:
All traditions agree that this is an inauspicious day.
Well, if "all traditions agree," it can't be wrong!

So let's see, what happened on January 3, 2011... I went to work, came home, went to dinner with friends... what else... oh yeah, and I successfully defended my thesis and officially became a PhD. You know, definitely in the top 5 as far as days of my life are concerned.


Well, maybe other horoscopes were closer. Let's see what the specific sign readings say. Here's Libra:
Fear and indecision will cause you to shut down. The New Year starts you at a crossroads and you do not know which way to go. Indecision, confusion, and uncertainty are all catchwords for you this week. Things will not change much, nothing exciting will come your way.
Strike two.

Ok, wait, my sign isn't Libra anymore because of the Great Sign Shift, so let's look at Virgo:
This will be a very upsetting week for you. Unfortunately, disaster may have caught up to you. Be very careful during this week, do not take any foolish chances. Folly, misfortune, catastrophe are all very significant words for your week.
Crash. And. Burn.

But don't worry, stars. Sure, you suck at predicting things... but you're still really pretty to look at.

(Of course, the blind mouse does sometimes find the cheese: here's a Libra horoscope for February 2008 that says "I feel you will enjoy this month especially if your looking for love or want to have a child." My daughter was born on the 28th of that month... though I must note, grammatical expertise is clearly not a required skill for astrologers.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Invisibility Cloak Activated

I don't blog about Sarah Palin much here, mainly because I don't find her pronouncements all that interesting. But she let one go today that was very revealing about the way our culture views Jews - or doesn't, as the case may be. Here's the interesting part:
Vigorous and spirited public debates during elections are among our most cherished traditions. And after the election, we shake hands and get back to work, and often both sides find common ground back in D.C. and elsewhere. If you don’t like a person’s vision for the country, you’re free to debate that vision. If you don’t like their ideas, you’re free to propose better ideas. But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.
She is referencing, of course, the admittedly unfair criticism directed at her and other right-wingers blaming their rhetoric for contributing to the environment that allowed the attack to occur. In what has to be the definitive proof of the Blind Mouse/Cheese Principle, Palin is finally, for once, right to play the victim here.

But, um... blood libel? You do know what that actually means, right?

The term "blood libel" refers to the macabre and frighteningly common (at least in the Middle Ages) myth that Jews killed Christian children and used their blood to make matzah. Jews were killed by the dozens because of this myth - it even contributed to the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 (they weren't allowed back until 1655). Needless to say, unwarranted criticism of harsh political rhetoric doesn't really compare.

Truth be told, though, Sarah Palin probably doesn't know this. She's probably just got the term from Glenn Reynolds, who in turn probably isn't entirely certain about its meaning because it has been used erroneously before. The comparison of criticism of right-wingers to destructive lies about Jews is offensive to Jews, of course, as are ridiculous Holocaust comparisons. But what are the chances that Palin and Reynolds actually know this? There are few Jews in Alaska, and not a whole lot of Jews in Knoxville, either. Jewish history just isn't likely to come up in conversation for either of them.

This incident is a reminder that Jews are still a small minority in a country dominated by Christian culture. Jewish culture is visible only in the sense that we're funny, we like bagels, and we celebrate some weird holiday with candles around Christmastime. Some people know that we often wear tiny hats, that some of us have lots of facial hair, and that we celebrate the Sabbath a day early. Also we have rabbis, which are kinda like preachers or priests. Some scroll might be involved. And really, that's it, unless you're friends with Jewish people and you talk to them a lot about their religion and culture.

But part of being a small minority is that people don't think about you when they're saying or doing things on an everyday basis. For example, people don't understand that crosses don't work as a memorial for non-Christian soldiers. And that's okay; I don't expect everyone to know everything about Judaism or understand the specific sensitivities of Jewish culture. I expect that, living in a Christian-dominated culture, I'm going to be wearing a cloak of invisibility most of the time. This isn't an admonition, just an observation.

So we accept that Christians will inevitably say things that get on Jews' nerves without really realizing it. (The inverse is probably true too.) But we should still point those things out when they happen. What I wonder, though, is if people like Palin and Reynolds would be willing to understand their error when it is pointed out to them. Their history suggests otherwise.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Bang and Blame

Let the recriminations begin.

In the wake of the tragic assassination attempt and mass shooting in Tucson, everyone seems to want to play the blame game. We've blamed Sarah Palin. We've blamed violent rhetoric in general. We've blamed liberals and conservatives. We've blamed the state of Arizona. We've blamed anxious masculinity. We've even blamed pot.

So what was the real motive behind the shooter? Why did he start shooting people? If you ask him, he'll say... grammar. Or maybe getting blown off after asking a stupid question at a political rally.

Screw Sarah Palin. Let's all go blame Strunk and White. There was also something about dreaming and reality in there, so we should probably also blame Christopher Nolan.

There is something within us that does not like to accept senselessness. We want to think that there's something we could have done, something we could do, to stop things like this from happening. We don't want to turn over control of the universe to the fates, so we pretend that we have control over something. If only we were more civil. If only we got rid of drugs. If only, if only, if only.

But the truth is that we don't have that kind of power. All the civility in the world from the Glenn Becks and Keith Olbermanns of the world wouldn't have prevented this tragedy, and deep down we know it. One person - and one person only - had the power to stop this from happening: the killer himself.

The question the killer asked Rep. Giffords at the rally that one time was about how words have no meaning. It's an idiotic question to ask a politician. But it's ironic that the killers actions have set off a frantic search for meaning in an event that is inherently meaningless. Humans don't like meaninglessness or chaos - we seek to ascribe a meaning to everything. But the meaning of this event is not in what led up to it, since we will never fully understand what led to this shooting. We are constructing the meaning of this event now, as we speak. And that's what's going on with this blame game. We all know, deep down, that the shooter alone is to blame. But we want to use the event for something positive, because otherwise it's meaningless, and we can't handle that.

So if we're going to use this tragedy for something, let's figure out what the best thing to use it for would be. I think Friedersdorf is the closest right now - it doesn't make sense to get rid of anger and overwrought rhetoric, but we should make sure our political debate is based on actual facts. Birthers, "creeping Sharia" nutters, death-panel cranks: we're looking at you. A little toning down wouldn't hurt - things like Sharron Angle's "Second Amendment remedies" crack should never, ever, ever occur - but basing things on facts would, I think, make our debate a lot more civil by definition.

It'd be stupid to blame falsehood in politics for this tragedy. It's not our responsibility to place blame. But if the meaning we ascribe to this tragedy is that it was an impetus for returning rationality to our political debates, I don't think that's a bad meaning at all.

Oh, and if you want a heartwarming story of a community pulling together after a similar senseless tragedy, go here.