Monday, May 31, 2010

Pioneering waterfronts: extending the Indianapolis Canal Walk.

Approaching the end of the month, the blog is due for another photo-centered post, and this one is particularly telling because images are about all there is to offer. An Indianapolis revitalization initiative announced in 2007 had two primary goals: 1) intended to introduce streetscape improvements to the Martin Luther King Drive; 2) it proposed an extension of the Central Canal Towpath, carrying it southward from its current terminus near Riverside Park down to 16th Street. While it is possible that the sour economy stalled the plan, more likely than not it was just incubating, as leaders from the Martin Luther King Business Revitalization Association and the Department of Metropolitan Development finalized details to the design. At any rate, press coverage was scant, and even the Indianapolis Business Journal archived article only seems to survive through a reference by a suburban Indianapolis mayoral candidate’s webpage.

At any rate, the two-part proposal involved spending $3.8 million in proceeds from a TIF (Tax-Increment Financing) district that had been accruing funds since its establishment in 1997 by then-Mayor Bart Peterson. The structuring differed from the usual TIF district in that revenue accrued before the planning of any clear revitalization initiative—in most cases, the redevelopment or reinvestment transpires within the district before the revenue has been collected. At its most basic, the fundamental nature of a TIF is that the anticipated increase in revenue from improved property values and commerce helps to pay off the bonds issued for the initial development. But the project explored under this TIF district has clearly experienced delays since the initial announcement. At long last, city officials broke ground earlier this spring on the MLK improvements , covering about 10 blocks in one of the most densely populated portions of the corridor, running through the heart of the United Northwest Association’s neighborhood. The map below illustrates the series of plans proposed for the area:

The area outlined in blue indicates the streetscape improvements for Martin Luther King Drive, currently underway. The area in green indicates the proposed extension of the Central Canal Towpath from its current terminus at 30th Street to its new location at 16th Street, for which little information regarding the proposed extension seems to be available. My focus, however, with this photo montage is on neither of the aforementioned proposals. Rather, I wanted to explore the unresolved lacuna that will remain, even after the Canal Towpath benefits from an extension southward from 30th to 16th. That is, I hoped to explore the no-man’s land between 16th street and the current terminus of the Indianapolis Canal Walk, at 11th Street. I’ve featured several blog posts in the past on the Canal Walk, for which I am not entirely complimentary, but I generally can at least appreciate that the 11th Street terminus at the recently restored Buggs Temple (to the center-right in the below photo) offers some decent vistas and a handsome waterfront hardscape.

But a satellite view of that same area circled in red shows the immense challenges facing any attempt to revitalize or beautify the stretch of the Canal from between 11th and 16th Streets.

In short, the Canal isn’t there. It has been undergrounded to make way for the spaghetti junction of exit ramps at the point where Interstate 65 curves from an east-west trajectory to resume its typical north-south path. My goal with the photos below is to show the northernmost end of the Canal Walk, at the 11th Street locks, pressing northward to reveal the urban environment which has supplanted much of this segment of the Canal. Let’s start at the locks, which at this point are more of a decorative feature signaling the end of the Canal Walk than an actual instrument for regulating water levels.

Crossing 11th Street to stand underneath the Clarian People Mover, the gates to the locks are visible in the background.

Pivoting from this position, I have tried to scan with the camera the path that the Central Canal should take as it negotiates 11th Street.

Then it would continue alongside the interstate ramp, in the grassy area with trees in the photo below.

The gentle swale here most likely captures the former path of the canal, though it is impossible for me to tell exactly where it crosses the high-speed entrance ramp onto Interstate 65, but the third photo below captures the approximate location.

At some point, the culvertized, underground canal crosses under those ramps, buried beneath a series of high-speed lanes that look like this:

And the grassy swale continues on the other side behind a chain link fence.

The following photos are visible while traveling along Martin Luther King Drive, and they form the back yard to some puzzling condos that I blogged about last year.

At this point, the swale—the only remnant of the Canal—is plainly visible.

The bridge that is visible in the final of the three above photos leads directly to the intersection of 16th Street and Martin Luther King Drive, which at this point will comprise the southern terminus of the Canal Towpath extension, whenever it is completed. Judging from the photos below, the intersection only stands to benefit from the introduction of new pedestrian amenities.

Looking northward of the 16th Street/MLK intersection, one can see more of the grassy swale which, in this instance, will ideally be reverted to a canal with the towpath at some point. Clearly $3.8 million in TIF money would hardly cover the cost to unearth the canal and add a parallel trail, but at least the contours of the land already hint at an eventual vision of an uninterrupted canal. Here’s the view:

And just beyond the barrier seen in the distance here is the canal—a portion that remains exposed to the sun and generally ignored by the public.

(Note: The above photo series was taken in the late summer of 2009. Since that point, the Glick Eye Institute has experienced considerable construction progress at 16th and Martin Luther King, and will most likely engender some modest pedestrian improvements at the intersection.)

This crude sampling of urban archaeology effectively demonstrates the enormous investment that a City such as Indianapolis was willing to incur decades ago, when it decided that one mode of transportation (car/road) had unambiguously fostered the obsolescence of another (boat/canal). The Indianapolis Central Canal was never a success, and it nearly bankrupted the state when it was first implemented 150 years ago. But its curiosity lingers—so much that artists’ renderings have devised fanciful proposals that actually envision a daylighted canal and towpath, extending underneath the interstate to link 16th street with 11th. For example, the shelved “Circle Truss” proposal from a few years back clearly envisioned an uninterrupted Canal Walk passing under the interstate, manifested in the renderings here, from the Urbanophile’s web link.

Whether the public would ever support the phenomenal expense for this final leg—circles circled in red in my above maps—is anyone’s guess, but the fact that visions exist for such a plan shows the enduring power of introducing water to urban revitalization proposals. My own opinion is that the extension of a path along the canal easement to link 16th and 11th streets would be costly but feasible, and would elicit a high return on investment by creating an uninterrupted greenway that significantly enhances the pedestrian network for the city’s near north side. However, unearthing the buried canal in this stretch may prove far too challenging and troublesome to justify the enormous cost. But big-city redevelopment initiatives over the past thirty years prove that we venerate water much more than we did in the mid 19th Century—the era of urban interstates—so I would hardly rule anything out. Like the Canal Walk itself, improvements should be incremental and perpetual, avoiding any collective complacency that normally accompanies the sensation of having reached a long-awaited goal. Regardless of the outcome of the TIF initiatives on Indianapolis’ near northwest side, the investments will most likely prove but a small component of an unceasing work in progress.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


As public and private forces continuously try to repel the contaminants from despoiling the fragile coastline of my temporary adopted state of Louisiana, I can only reflect upon some house cleaning that could benefit this blog. Awkward analogies aside, I always hope to improve the scope of the blog, plumbing new depths through observations of the built and natural environment—simultaneously learning from others and teaching myself. The goal remains to divorce myself from partisanship as I look at things and simply ask, "What does it mean?" As American Dirt approaches its one year anniversary, I will set aside my goals for the blog’s impending toddlerhood:

1) Refinement of earlier posts. In a matter of weeks, you will see repeats of earlier essays—not out of laziness, though I most likely will time these re-runs for moments when I’m particularly busy. Rather, they will always be improvements of writing from before, whether it involves an interview, additional research, or recommendations/observations from the commenters.

2) Greater geographic diversity. I have had people ask if I will ever feature essays outside of the US. I deliberately wanted this to remain an American commentary, so I see that as highly unlikely—and the ground here in the States remains so fertile that I rarely if ever need to look overseas. I may reference observations from trips abroad, or from research that derives from foreign sources, but my goal is for this to remain an American blog. However, I do hope to show a greater geographic spread. Right now the American West is particularly underrepresented, which is more a product of having not traveled there much lately. I am bound to get a western blog post before too long. Indianapolis will remain the hub and will probably dominate the posts, though, as has been clear lately, I have strayed from Indy-based posts lately, mostly out of necessity.

3) Improved photography. This may be my biggest challenge. Clearly I’m not a pro photographer, nor do I have a state-of-the-art camera, and I’ve always wrestled with how much I want to instill artistry into my camera work. For truly distinctive urban photography, look no further than The Heidelberger Papers, whose blogger has also recently expanded his focus to cities well beyond Indianapolis. And Huston Street Racing deftly chronicles urban issues with a much more sophisticated lens than I can hope for. Photography is critical to my blog, but the blog will never elevate photography to the primary focus—as much as I try to improve photos through settings, shutter speed, and framing, far too many of my pics are taken spontaneously, often on the sly, and using an only moderately precise cell phone camera. I will let the readers of the blog know if I have a certain post that emphasizes photography first. And in spite of my often crude photos, I am already getting to the point where I have to be conscious of maxing out the available disc space for my blog. Chances are I will have to shrink the sizes of photos from my early posts, since they were inordinately large.

4) More clearly articulated themes. Aside from the “Terra Firma” sidebar, which is working pretty effectively, I want more of a rhythm to my posts, and I want them to be more obvious. Each month I try to do one photo montage but I don’t quite announce it. It should soon become clear. I may also soon start featuring guest posts, sometimes with a “Point-Counterpoint” approach. I will always make clear when, on occasion, I feature guest photographs, as I already have in the past.

5) More short posts. My early posts were monsters, sometimes totaling over 10,000 words. I was frustrated with so few responses, but I deserved it. Now if I have a long post I usually break it into parts, and I will try to feature many more brief posts as well, often with only one or two pics. (These may be the ones where the emphasis is the photography itself.) Most of my posts average about 1,200 words, and 2,000 has become the understood breaking point. I’ll try to make it abundantly clear whenever I have a mega-post and again will divide it into smaller parts.

Clearly the ultimate goal of all these refinements is to further foster discussion and feedback. I appreciate all the response in the past, and welcome your further recommendations for keeping this labor of love going strong. Thanks again.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

For economic development, is design the tail that wags the dog?

The blogosphere is filled with arguments and examples of how good design can add to the intrinsic value to a building. I’ve avoided such assertions myself, partially because I am not as well-versed in design as many others out there, and largely because I’ve never believed it to be true. So much of what comprises good design today is imbued with an exhaustive self-awareness: not just the designer’s personalized aesthetic language, but the overt references to whatever design tenets are en vogue. The cultural principles that underlie both of these aspirations will inevitably fall out of favor over time—and again, X years later, will most likely experience a resurgence in popularity when the vernacular evokes nostalgia for a particular time period. Such is the cyclical life of a region of individual taste. Thanks to its extreme consciousness of itself, architecture is virtually always meta-architecture—perpetually attuned to the cultural shifts upon which it cannot avoid commenting or outright defying.

So now is just as good of a time as any for me to capitulate—to welch on the design disinterestedness I’ve aspired to for so long in this blog. I have to face the facts. I just love the building in the photograph below!

The S.S. Pierce Building anchors one corner at the heart of Coolidge Corner, an old streetcar neighborhood within the larger City of Brookline, which is itself an affluent suburb just west of Boston. Built in 1897 to house retail and offices for a respected local grocer of the same name, the building is an unabashed example of Tudor Revival, and its organic warmth offers a distinctive contrast from the other structures at this intersection and the surrounding area, such as the Art Deco accents on the building directly across the street.

The comparative height of the building and its timber framing instill it with an unusual, somewhat paradoxical combination of assertiveness and warmth. View it from the façade along Beacon Street to witness how the pitched roof and organic framing material help to mitigate and soften its intended majesty.

Since nearly every other structure in the commercial heart of Coolidge Corner depends almost exclusively on stone or brick—but hardly ever both simultaneously—the S. S. Pierce Building stands out enough to function almost as a landmark. It comes closer than anything else to embodying Coolidge Corner. Whether the building passes muster among the most erudite design scholars is neither here nor there; the fact remains that it catches the attention and diminishes the implicit egalitarianism of a perpendicular intersection—this corner is by almost all metrics the most prominent of the four. It’s the implied center. Considering its stature within this already desirable, pedestrian friendly retail node, it should command an equally lucrative retail mix, right? Perhaps some multi-story department store of premier fashion?

Hardly. Its two first-floor tenants are run-of-the-mill discount national chains. Does this defy expected retail sensibilities? Maybe, if one adheres to the notion that prestigious design attracts prestigious tenants. But conventional retail patterns do not always abide by the ambitions of urban idealists. Corners are always particularly pricy real estate, for the obvious reason of visibility, so it isn’t surprising that national chains with deep pockets would more likely be able to afford the rents than an eclectic local name. Even the tenant one storefront away from the corner undoubtedly pays less for the lease, and in the photograph below it’s a mom-and-pop…

. . .which, incidentally, had closed. The fact remains that it is impossible to calibrate exactly what a structure will house simply through its external appearance. The enduring majesty of the structure might make seem to make it valuable, but the convenient location more than anything ensures that it will rarely confront vacancy. Imagine if the structure sat on a corner in the distressed Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, less than three miles away. It very well could be shuttered on the upper floors with a Payday loan store below; it may still have a Walgreen with significantly higher security; it may have been abandoned and demolished decades ago. My guess is the property manager of the S. S. Pierce Building is perfectly content with these two reliable tenants. A moneyed suburb like Brookline may hope for a slightly more interesting retail mix to reflect the high education and income levels of its consumer base, but when an intersection becomes too prominent, the big names are often the only ones that can afford it. Notice that the other corners also had major brands and franchises: AT&T, Quizno’s, Bank of America, the inevitable CVS (the ubiquitous war between Walgreens and CVS deserves an entirely different blog post). Smaller buildings along Beacon Street and Harvard Street still claim some local retail, but, the big-spending milieu greatly resembles Harvard Square in the nearby suburb of Cambridge (which I blogged about months ago). In both cases, the combination of foot traffic, major transit stops, pedestrian scaled architecture, and high incomes results in a economic development director’s Elysian fields—and a morass of retail volatility.

I’d be willing to venture that Radio Shack and Walgreens are among the most stable elements in Coolidge Corner, while many of the humbler tenants come and go every few years. All too often in the past I’ve witnessed community meetings in which planners lead the constituents to envision both the structures they’d like to see in their neighborhoods, as well as the tenants they hope to inhabit those structures. Aspirational dialogues stimulate creative juices and I would never discourage them, but Coolidge Corner is just one example of many where most or all of the carefully calibrated design elements have come into play marvelously, and the result is a continued demand for further calibration. The dog still wags its tail.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Even the cows can be crooked.

Across most cultures, the animals that comprise what we would call “livestock” remain remarkably similar. Chickens, turkeys, goats, pigs, sheep, cows, and horses are reliably visible in countries with widely variable climates and levels of industrialization. Some of this may be due to a commonly cultivated taste for the meat, milk, and eggs of these creatures, but I suspect this is a minor contributing factor. The truth is, humans domesticated the aforementioned ruminants and fowl because they proved extremely adaptable—not only to a variety of climates but to varying degrees of co-existence with humans. Centuries of livestock farming have proven that horses and pigs respond comfortably to an environment with a heavy human handprint; deer and moose and wolves do not.

So it shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did to see a small herd of cows in the setting captured in the photograph below, taken across the Mississippi River and downstream from Baton Rouge:

For those who live in states less dependent than Louisiana on a vast network of flood protection systems, the levee is essentially a magnified earthen berm that protects surrounding lands from a crest in the river. With the exception of bridges, views of the Mississippi in Louisiana are therefore relatively scarce. The quintessential River Roads that parallel the river’s trajectory in Louisiana generally offer this vista:

But cows on the levee? It provides a droll sight the first time around, and raises interesting questions regarding the ownership of these vast structures. Historically the Mississippi River was the lifeblood of agrarian commerce for the interior of the nation, with New Orleans serving as the urban gateway. The first wealthy landowners in southern Louisiana settled along the Mississippi, forming a concatenation of plantation properties with elevated homes that often fronted this mighty current, which of course was unprotected by levees at the time. Roads at this point were crude and inconsistent; the river provided the primary access to larger settlements such as New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Natchez. Despite the flood risk, settling by the river made sense because of its transportation role. The riverbanks also offered the only arable land for these Creole settlers; anything more than a few miles from the river often dipped below sea level into unusable swamps. The Mississippi River does not form a valley in south Louisiana—it’s the exact opposite. Essentially, the depositing of silt from the Mississippi has created a natural levee system that made settlements such as New Orleans feasible, since the riparian lands upon which the French Quarter and other neighborhoods rest are the highest points in the region. The Mississippi River is a peak, and everything else around it is low.

Now we have superimposed a manmade levee system on top of the one that Mother Nature provided; the most expensive and sophisticated of these come courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers, while FEMA provides the standards that allow a classification of floodplain status used for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). These elaborate protective barriers have amplified the complexity of levee property ownership, as the world became aware during the exhausting controversy of breached levees flooded New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Who owns these steeply sloped strips of land between the River Road and the river itself? It can be a federal agency, but it could also be a State-initiated water management district, a municipality, a district exclusively in charge of levees, or, as is often the case, a private landowner. Maintenance of the levees is always a public responsibility, and in the case of Louisiana the task typically belongs to one of the many levee districts run by each of the parishes (Louisiana’s equivalent of counties) that claims part of the river’s banks. Even if the land is privately owned, the stewards of the levee earned the right of access to the levee top through an easement—various segments of the levee have obliquely angled gravel roads to allow safe vehicular access in a fashion that will not damage the soil or weaken the berm. Some parts of the levee have dirt roads on top. Much of the levee tops in New Orleans and Baton Rouge have pedestrian and bike trails. In recent years, an organization has even sponsored an exhaustive Rouge-Orleans race that stretches the full 124-mile length of the river’s course between the state’s largest metro and its capital.

It’s amazing, considering all these interventions, that private landowners have still found a way to stake their claim on the lands. Clearly this specific one chose to use it as pasture land. Is it healthy for the cows to graze on such a heavy slope? Surely the dairy farms of Wisconsin and California aren’t perfectly flat, so that should not prove a major impediment. And it could very well imply a sort of mutual benefit agreement between the landowner and the levee district: while the district ideally maintains these structures that protect all the abutting lands from floods, the owner of these cattle has saved the district the trouble of using potentially destructive tractors to mow the levees. Why is it necessary to keep the levees mowed? An excellent question, to which I’m not certain I have an answer, though I suspect that a completely unkempt levee may impede access for vehicles that inspect the structure, and it may attract undesirable wildlife: muskrats and nutria are known to pull grasses by the roots that help stabilize the soil of Louisiana’s levees and wetlands. At any rate, whether a landowner, State agency, or levee district is doing the maintenance, a carefully manicured levee lawn remains the norm and not the exception. The landowner in this case seems to have a permanent operation with cows on the levee, as proven by the legitimate fencing and gates.

Perhaps this sight isn’t as rare as I am inclined to believe. A Flickr photo of a much more crowded levee/pasture provides some dialogue that suggests this is a common occurrence. A state institution such as the Hunt Correctional Institute (the women’s prison) may actually employ the cows principally as grazers for maintaining the portion of its property that fronts the river. At any rate, the cattle of sweaty south Louisiana seem as placidly adaptive to this unconventional milieu as they have to whatever climate, topography, or confinement method humans have subjected them. Levees may or may not be difficult on the ankle tendons of livestock, but considering the conditions of the modern industrial cattle farm, the steeply sloped banks of the Mississippi are a bucolic paradise.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Making it hot to be wired, Part III: When the cachet of cables is as lofty as their height above ground.

At long last I conclude a blog series that has proven among the most challenging of any of my essays yet. In the previous two posts, I identified the prevalence of overhead cables throughout the American urban landscape. While it is common practice for new suburban developments is to bury electric wires underground—and the majority of city centers boast a largely undergrounded electrical wire network—vast stretches of the inner city, suburban highways, and virtually all of rural America remain a tangle of wires hoisted by wooden poles and metal pylons. Compared to dense European settlements in countries such as Holland, America still has quite a few unburied electric wires. Among the larger cities, New Orleans may be the one where the greatest proportion of the electrical network stretches nakedly above the streets and sidewalks. Wires are everywhere in the Big Easy, often right up front with all the pedestrian traffic, such as this bustling stretch of Magazine Street.

While the older neighborhoods of most cities (at least those west of the Mississippi, where the majority of America’s comparatively old cities lie) feature unburied, overhead electric wires, in New Orleans they are particularly noticeable. The city may be at a topographic disadvantage: burying cables makes them less susceptible to high winds and fallen trees, but water intrusion poses a considerable problem, particularly in a city that is largely below sea level. Undergrounding of wires is costly no matter where it takes place, but in New Orleans it is particularly onerous and largely impractical. However, many other cities at least have attempted a discreet placement of the overhead wires; I noted in Part II that Chicago’s cables mostly rest in the back alleys, scarcely visible from the front side of residences and storefronts. But New Orleans overwhelmingly lacks alleys, and its concatenation of grids that meet at oblique angles makes it particularly difficult for any straight-line placement of infrastructure—the configuration of parcels within each street block is inconsistent, impeding the ability to integrate a dedicated utility easement at the line between two properties. The property lines for back yards are too jagged and irregular. The only remaining practical place for electric wires is out front above the sidewalks, so the poles and wires mingle with cars and pedestrians.
My apologies for this cliché, but New Orleans is stuck between a rock and a hard place, when it comes to reducing the clutter of its electric infrastructure. Investment costs for undergrounding wires is high, and it won’t necessarily pay off in improved electric service because underground wires still run a great risk of inundation in a city as flood-prone as New Orleans. And it can’t bury them in the back alleys the way Chicago does, because it doesn’t generally have alleys. If the common perception remains that undergrounding cables equates to modernization, how should the City that Care Forgot proceed in getting rid of all that old-fashioned clutter?

I’ve dropped more than hints. Largely out of virtue of necessity, the city’s leadership has eschewed any significant modernization of the electrical network. This benign neglect, though, has spread to other major infrastructural components and has elicited some serious problems. The Sewerage and Water Board has acknowledged that Hurricane Katrina exacerbated an already compromised network; over 50 million gallons of water are leaking each day. The conditions of the roads in the city are the stuff of legend. And though the importance of the levees extends far beyond the City (as does the political responsibility), the entire world is well aware of their precarious state. Compared to the rest of the infrastructure, the electric grid of New Orleans is small potatoes.

Virtually every major city in America suffers from deteriorating infrastructure to a certain degree. But in only a few are the conditions so bad that the awareness of the problem extends beyond the DPW. In New Orleans, the infrastructure consistently falls under public scrutiny: among the examples include the New Orleans Potholes Brass Band; the C’est Levee parade held by the Krewe de Vieux during the first Carnival season after Katrina; or the widely recognized design to the water meters: Reaffirming the centrality of the crescent-shaped bend in the Mississippi River, various civic groups have adopted this manhole cover’s star-and-moon pattern: The design also appears as screen prints on t-shirts, miniature pendants on necklaces, and tattoos on forearms. It is inevitable that, for a city in which copper, steel, and concrete simultaneously protect it from devastation while broadly signaling the selfsame vulnerability, the innards would achieve a greater recognition than in a city that does not depend so much on earth moving for basic operability. Rather than turning the city’s many civil engineering deficiencies into a collective jeremiad, New Orleanians have persistently celebrated or even romanticized the “guts” of the town. The design of a manhole cover evolves into a fashion accessory, much like the way trendy loft apartments leave the HVAC and water pipes exposed along the ceiling as a potential selling point. Can overhead electrical wires achieve the same mystique? New Orleanians, faced with power outages after many violent storms, would be far more likely to find a way than the residents of other cities. All it takes is a skilled artistic eye to capture and disseminate an accessible pattern. It could involve the hub-and-spoke configuration when wires stretch over the street from a single pole: Or a criss-cross at regular intervals like a musical staff: Or the way the cables link to the brackets of classic New Orleans shotguns: I’ve explored all of this imagery in earlier posts from this series. And this is the stuff of a college/high school literary magazine cover. A more skillful photographer could easily find a way to elevate this to a broadly consumable meme—an experience that is shared and even cherished by those voluntarily living amidst the shadows of wooden poles and wires along the sidewalks in front of their homes. Rather than being a nuisance, all those cables have become cool—even chic.

But the aestheticization of overhead cables is still only likely to attract a small contingent: the same type who can poeticize a manhole cover, who take pictures of abandoned rail yards, or who choose to live in the most forlorn urban landscape if the only alternative is the perceived sterility of a manicured suburb. This contingent does not comprise close to a majority, since nearly every demographic study shows that suburbs and exurbs—where the cables have been shoved underground—remain the fastest growing settlements across the country. Because overhead cables would never be broadly coveted in a landscape in which its designers aim for a new or contemporary look, the standard remains for developers in greenfields to bury them. The selling point then becomes what isn’t there.

Visible electric infrastructure also rarely appeals to the mass market of tourists, who typically expect postcard-quality photography to be free of wires—anything less would be like a model walking down the catwalk with the clothing tags showing. What if the timeless image of Jackson Square in the French Quarter was polluted with pylons or cell phone towers? Fortunately, this visual predicament also offers a far simpler solution than undergrounding. A perfect example is the view of Indianapolis from a bridge over the Central Canal, one of the most common vistas of the city used in promotional material: It conveniently doesn’t show up so powerfully here, but a zoom-in sure reveals a certain urban infelicity: I’ve circled the visible power lines and utility pole on West Street. Of course this is a minor criticism, since these are hardly visible from a distance. But a sophisticated camera is likely to pick up these overhead wires that fall just outside of the Mile Square of Indianapolis’ downtown—and for the city’s innards to appear on a prime vista is no better than seeing a radio transmitter on Mount Rushmore. So what’s the solution? It doesn’t take a great deal of media-savvy to at least sense the ubiquity of digitally altered photographs. The primary instigator of these manipulations, Adobe Photoshop, has labored to protect the legal trademark to its name, as it has become almost fully genericized—an American proprietary eponym. How does this work? Case in point: I Photoshopped this picture of downtown Indianapolis to remove the power lines. Perhaps this was just my sneaky way of demonstrating that I have reasonable Photoshop skills, but the truth of the matter is: 1) my skills aren’t that remarkable; 2) the Photoshop version I’m using is ancient; and 3) a fifteen minute lesson would endow anyone with the know-how to remove power lines from a streetscape. Whether to remove crow’s feet from a smiling ingénue or to strip away the unsightliness of overhead cables, tools such as Photoshop have proven so effective at hiding perceived flaws that they can weaken the argument for the actual investment in the physical change—whether it be a facelift or undergrounding.

The average American metropolitan area is lower density than practically any settlement in recorded history, across the globe. The marginal cost for servicing American homes with electricity would be higher too, if measured purely in terms of the placement of infrastructure across (or under) our vast sprawling lawns. Thus, the cost per person for burying cables in a city like Amsterdam will always be lower than New Orleans. And it might not even offer better electric service. The most powerful justification for burying cables remains an aesthetic one, and digital manipulation can easily eliminate the clutter from a static image at a fraction of the cost.

I have now arrived at the paradox in my deductive reasoning that has made this essay so difficult to write: in my analysis of the arguments favoring the undergrounding of electric cables, I have only revealed a solution in search of a problem. It is difficult if not impossible to extract political leverage out of the goal of removing overhead wires, because it simply isn’t a contentious enough issue. Perhaps, unconsciously, most of us realize that buried cables depend entirely on an aesthetic benefit that pales into comparison to the necessity of other infrastructural upgrades. (In New Orleans, those busy electric grids will always take a back seat to levees and pumping stations.) While the public generally appreciates when a utility or city agency removes some overhead cables, it doesn’t particularly despise their presence either, and soon it forgets that they’re even gone after they’ve been buried. Most civic projects involve the construction of a new building or structure. Burying cables involves one of the few streetscape improvements that subtracts from the environment. How can such an investment hope to elicit a return when there’s nothing to show for it—no proud physical form as a result of all that work?

If a city like New Orleans decided that it still has too many overhead wires, the best solution would be to concentrate undergrounding in small increments—such as a single city block at a time—but only when integrated with another public or private initiative, such as the resurfacing of roads, replacement stop lights, installation of storm sewers, or earth removal for a new development. Otherwise, it is hard to justify to the taxpayers that this is the best use of their dollars, when the primary goal is to remove something that nearly always remains part of the background. People wouldn’t notice what’s missing. It’s so much cheaper and easier to suppress people’s consciousness of overhead wires in the few situations when it does become obvious, such as the vistas within a prominent post card—just Photoshop the wires away! But neither New Orleans nor anywhere else is likely to confront the situation of undergrounding any more electric lines, precisely because the wires are omnipresent and ordinary—we hardly notice when they’re there and are no more likely to recognize it when they’re gone. Burying cables is the ultimate political stalemate—no single party cares enough to elevate it to a major platform. The Crescent City and a host of others are generally content with keeping those poles firmly in place, and just maybe some shrewd entrepreneur will find away to mythologize them—and then profit from it. Amsterdam can eat its heart out.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Interruptions and protrusions.

My apologies for both the delay between posts and the unexpected lapse between Part II and Part III of my Overhead Wire series. The collection and organization of photographs has proven far more challenging than I ever anticipated, but it will continue.

In order to counter the dry spell between posts, I wanted to offer a seemingly humdrum photo of Frankfort, the state capital of Kentucky, a community which offers far more interesting vistas than the one below:

However, this one offers a new configuration for the overhead wires, and the 26-story skyscraper in the background is worthy of note. It towers over and dwarfs this city of under 30,000, yet it is not the state house. It is the Capital Plaza Office Tower, which rests on one side of the valley that hugs the small city, while the official capital sits on the other:

Meanwhile, the oldest surviving state capital (active until around 1910) sits as a museum close to the historic downtown:

The strategic placement of the three structures across the hills of central Kentucky creates a jarring skyline. What better way to illustrate the succession of different architectural cultures over two centuries? And, at the start of a third century, a firm has recently recommended tearing the Office Tower down in order to integrate state government jobs into the downtown. Frankfort is worthy of an additional blog post, but this trinity of government buildings demonstrates an approach to monumentality in state capitol building that borrows loosely from Louisiana and Baton Rouge, while achieving entirely different aesthetic results.