Thursday, September 30, 2010

Butts in the loo.

In many ways, this study serves as a companion piece to the previous blog entry. Both articles explore a social phenomenon that has swept the nation, largely manifested through increasingly palpable policy justified by the goal of providing for the common defense or promoting the general welfare. The previous post, scrutinizing passenger screening at airports to prevent terrorist attacks (the common defense), examined how the laborious and increasingly invasive security procedures not only inconvenience passengers but the airports themselves, depriving the Roanoke Municipal Airport of an entire gate. And this article looks at a potential “pushback”—perhaps the funniest I can find—against the increasingly mainstream indoor smoking bans (the general welfare).

Though it may seem trite to assert that anti-smoking ordinances have taken the nation by storm, the fact remains that the laws in place today in virtually every state would have been unthinkable even thirty years ago. The Atlantic magazine recently chronicled some of the earliest bans, from the global Papal fiat of 1624 that banned tobacco because it prompted sneezing—which in turn resembled an orgasm—to the American temperance movement of the turn of the 20th century, in which crusades to abolish smoking (some successful) accompanied that of the more high-profile pursuit of alcohol prohibition. Adolf Hitler ostensibly labeled tobacco “the wrath of the Red Man against the White Man”, recalling how early settlers of the Americas foisted intoxicating liquors upon a genetically unprepared indigenous population. Anti-tobacco sentiment was embraced by the Nazi party. Few, if any, of these initiatives flourished to achieve widespread, long-term enforcement; successive governments repealed all of them.

Even though the US was long the cradle of the global tobacco market, it has also largely set the standards for the contemporary wave of anti-smoking legislation. Though several jurisdictions passed laws in the 1970s restricting smoking in restaurants to separate sections, the City of San Luis Obispo, California, first implemented a ban in all public places, including restaurants and bars—the first in the nation, and, purportedly, the world. What began as sundry municipal ordinances in the early 1990s expanded to a statewide anti-smoking campaign in 1995, which saw the first workplace smoking ban. Opposition from the tobacco industry pushed the ban’s effect on bars and nightclubs until January 1, 1998. Other states followed with their own bans (at varying levels of severity), to the point that, as of 2010, only 11 states have not enacted a ban—and the majority of these states still allow municipalities to create their own laws prohibiting smoking. Other countries have followed suit, and some—with a less decentralized system of governance than the US—have enacted California-style indoor smoking bans for restaurants, bars, and pubs across the entire national boundaries in a single fiat. Meanwhile, San Louis Obispo recently escalated its own smoking ban to include restrictions on city parking garages and lots, streets, sidewalks, stadia, playgrounds, and parks. The City isn’t quite the pioneer this time around; over twenty other cities in California preceded it in banning smoking in these new locations.

However, one institution has proven doggedly immune to this sweeping attack on the culture of cigarettes: casinos. Several states’ laws have stalled in the legislature because of appeals from the gaming lobby. Nine states that passed widespread smoking bans years ago have exempted casinos. Other states have exempted the hospitality industry altogether, while regulating most other workplaces. Even states with otherwise generally uncontested bans, such as New Jersey, have allowed smoking to continue in the robust gaming parlors of Atlantic City: after the Council passed a ban in 2008, it quickly rescinded it due to the casinos’ pressure, allowing smoking to remain on 25% of the floors. Other states that have not exempted casinos from the smoking bans have witnessed an impact: the Illinois Casino Gaming Association has experienced an over 30% drop in revenues from February 2007 to the same point in 2009, while comparable casinos in Northwest Indiana have only experienced single-digit declines amidst a punishing economy. Although hardly the only factor influencing Illinois casinos (the regulatory climate for gaming in the state is much stricter overall), casino operators easily predicted that plunge in revenues; many of them estimate that 70% of casino patrons smoke.

Regardless of the viability of those estimates, a quick trip to a casino not affected by anti-smoking legislation suggests that they milk what survives of the smoking culture for all it’s worth. Mississippi, for example, has no statewide ban (though over 20 municipalities in the state ban smoking in all workplaces). Casinos are not subject to any laws outside of municipal bans, and no city in the state with casinos would ever dare regulate them, for fear of driving them out of town. The smoke-friendliness of a Mississippi casino hotel is manifest within moments of walking through its doors: aside form the ashtrays at nearly every slot machine or poker table, smokers can criss-cross the parking garages, hallways and the main lobby without repercussions, cigarette in hand. Most casino hotels offer a bounty of smoker-friendly overnight accommodations, and even the elevators—where smoking is banned virtually everywhere else in the United States—apparently permit smoking.

But nothing shows smoker friendliness like a public restroom.

The men’s room at this Mississippi casino (to be left anonymous) even allows the more coordinated gentleman to have a smoke while taking a leak. Notice the ashtray to the upper left of the urinal.

And just in case he isn’t so great puffing and pissing simultaneously, it has a grooved spot to store the cigarette.

I particularly like the fact that the casino restroom accommodates the youthful or more vertically challenged smoker as well.

But my favorite element of all: the toilets let the men smoke during number two as well.

I’m not sure this ashtray acknowledges multitasking talent or a remarkable defiance of basic hygiene. Although it has become increasingly common knowledge that men wash after restroom use far less than women, thus perhaps explaining why men may be less fazed by putting a cigarette to their lips while nature is calling than women would, something tells me that this casino accommodates female smokers in their respective restroom as well. At this casino, even an institution like Starbucks remains remarkably tolerant of smoking.

Though the sign still proves that they prohibit smoking in the store’s premises within this casino, the establishment is completely open to the adjoining lobby where people may smoke freely. In fact, I have witnessed in another casino that people can stand one inch outside the premises or scoot a café chair to the hallway, while letting the smoke waft into the Starbucks. Virtually everywhere else in America, Starbucks has long been vehemently anti-smoking; they have increasingly started to impose smoking bans on their outdoor patios. Starbucks' regulatory rights do not extend into the hallways of a casino, but the java giant would hate to sacrifice its ability to supply caffeine to late-night denizens of the already notoriously windowless casinos. A huge number of Mississippi casinos have Starbucks in them.

Even as casinos are proving to be one of the biggest indoor environments that advocate for their right to accommodate smokers, more and more are falling prey to the bans. Iowa’s governor Chet Culver has recently considered expanding the state’s ban so that casinos are no longer exempt, and the Atlantic City moratorium on the casino smoking ban still falls under increased consideration. But if the gaming industry can continue to argue that its success depends on remaining a bastion for smokers, it is unlikely that too many more states will impose bans while the economy remains weak and casinos provide abundant jobs. Their infrastructure's subtlest details support smoking.

At the beginning of this essay, I compared this casino initiative to an earlier blog post in which another sweeping policy—that of heightened national security in airports—manifests itself with increasingly restrictive results, just as is the case in the relation between smoking bans and gaming. The similarities stop there though. The Transportation Security Administration and all of its rigorous screening standards have arisen, almost cumulatively, as a direct response to the terrorist attacks on September 11. Airport security was relatively unobtrusive prior to this event, which provoked a spike in regulating how people could board airplanes. Though some could argue that the intensity of smoking bans has spiked as well within the past five years, no single discernible cataclysm spawned it. It has arisen gradually over decades and with widely varying results across jurisdictions, while the federal government has implemented airport security standards with great uniformity. These striking differences may explain why one of the two initiatives has elicited far more chatter of controversy. While privacy advocates have objected to the intrusiveness of screening technology and airlines have said that the hassle detracts patrons from flying, the implementation of airport security has hardly divided the nation enough to arouse “breakaway” airport authorities; that would be illegal. By and large the public has voluntarily ceded this responsibility to the federal government. Conversely, smoking bans remain profoundly fragmented spatially and have suffered rejections in a number of municipalities where leaders have attempted them; the likelihood of the United States seeing a national ban akin to Ireland seems faint. In fact, by some metrics, it’s too late—Ireland passed the ban in 2004 as a national policy. Despite one of the most aggressively anti-smoking cultures in the world, the American public would never tolerate such a top-down approach for smoking, even as top-down was largely accepted as the ideal solution for airport security.

No doubt I’m engaging in some pretty vicious rhetorical gymnastics to analogize these two phenomena, but perhaps the crucial way of viewing them through the same lens involves their relation to the mundane. Even for the most frequent of fliers, air travel deviates from normal rhythms far more than, say, using the restroom. It is generally easier to shift public opinion in non-routine matters than those experienced by everyone. Smoking may hardly be a universally shared experience, but to the habitual smoker, it is as much a part of the day as a trip to the toilet when you get out of bed. I’m not trying to be an apologist for smoking/gaming nor a critic, but removing ashtrays from casinos has clearly generated more flak than installing body scanners in airports. Now only these questions remain: how did the public react when smoking was banned from flights, or what would happen if airports introduced gaming, as is the case in smoker-friendly Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The safety of objects.

The escalation of airport security after September 11th has unambiguously complicated air travel. Hardly a year has gone by since that tragic day without the introduction of a new major regulation, generally enforced by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). The use of small box-cutters to intimidate the passengers of the four hijacked airplanes prompted the FAA to expand its restrictions on knives—formerly permissible if the blades were less than four inches long—so that no blades of any sort were allowed. This new regulation became a mandate just a day after the attacks , and restrictions since then have been, for the most part, cumulative. The most significant initiative took place on November 19, 2001—in time for the busy holiday travel season—when Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which officially formed the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Although the breadth and intensity of control of the FAA (under the Department of Transportation) still transcends all other aviation-related authorities—after all, it was the FAA’s decision that halted all air travel for a few days after 9/11—passengers are far more likely to experience a regulatory onus through their more routine engagement with the TSA. (Though also initially under the authority of the Department of Transportation, the Administration saw its authority shift in 2003 to the Department of Homeland Security, which was also created as a direct consequence of the September 11th attacks, under the original name of the Office of Homeland Security.) The TSA radically transformed the implementation of airline security, beginning with a fundamental nationalization of the process, which, prior to 9/11, usually involved airport authorities contracting out the passenger screening task to private companies. Though some of the earliest regulations appear relatively subtle from the passengers’ perspectives—criminal background screenings on 750,000 airport employees, locked cockpit doors, reduced partitions between first class and business class passengers—the majority of them directly affect the customer base, because the passengers are the target of federal scrutiny. Almost anyone who has flown in the past decade is familiar with the regulatory additions: sophisticated metal and explosive detectors, x-rays, and lighting to determine authentic watermarks on drivers’ licenses or other personal ID. Many of the interventions have forced passengers to change their behavior: removing their shoes and belts, discarding all liquids bought from outside the airport, bagging personal toiletries under three ounces (anything larger is prohibited), undergoing far more frequent hand inspections of bags and even occasional frisking from TSA authorities. Enhanced security staffing has allowed the employment of body pattern recognition (BPR), so that passengers exhibiting suspicious behavior—excessive sweating, thick clothes on a warm day, use of pay phones—may undergo additional questioning. Following the failed attempt on Christmas Day 2009 by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear, the recent announcement that airports would expand the use and availability of full-body scanners was more remarkable by how little controversy it aroused, even as civil libertarians have criticized numerous initiatives since 9/11 for privacy violations.

To a large extent, Americans have adapted to these restrictions with unusual reticence, most likely interpreting them as necessary precautions in the interest of national security and the prevention of another attack at the magnitude of the destruction of the World Trade Center. The most obvious burden the restrictions have imposed is one of time—it is no longer possible to arrive at a flight 20 minutes prior to departure. The TSA screening process, at its smoothest, will usually still take at least 10 minutes, and depending on passenger traffic (which often varies during different times in a single day), can last approximately an hour. Even smaller airports often induce a significant queue, particularly since they engage in the more nationally regularized process with fewer TSA staff. Most airlines recommend arriving at an airport 75 to 90 minutes in advance of departure, while checking in at least 30 minutes in advance. In an effort to abide by the restrictions, airline revenues have floundered over the past decade, instigated at least in part by the crippling FAA suspension on all civilian air travel in the days immediately after the attack, though escalating oil prices and the economic downturn have subsequently contributed to the airline industry’s woes. To counter these rising costs, airlines have stripped away benefits such as on-flight meals while adding fees for checked luggage. Neither of these policies, of course, makes air travel any more appealing to customers, and they only add to the accumulation of annoyances originally induced by TSA’s demands during the security screening process. At the end of 2009, the chief executives of several major airlines many airlines have argued that consumers’ perceptions of the inconvenience of flying may have had more of an impact on the industry than travelers’ concerns about another hijacking or bombing attempt. Prospective passengers have undoubtedly weighed the advantages of air travel versus automobile, bus, or rail travel, in terms of additional embedded or elective fees, and on-trip amenities. But the biggest variable undoubtedly remains temporal: all of these inconveniences amount to more time a passenger must invest in a flight, to the extent that short-haul trips between major airports such as JFT to BOS may take longer than a car, train, or bus ride. Maneuvering through the safety gauntlet slows customers down enough that airlines lose their biggest advantage: speed of travel.

Time from A to B isn’t the only dimension to suffer in the wake of September 11th. These intensified security measures have exerted spatial implications as well, and airports can suffer profoundly. The new equipment, increased personnel, elongated queues, and partitions take up much more space than the “old-fashioned” passenger screening measures, and my guess is that the smaller airports, with far less available floor space, suffer the brunt of these initiatives. Woodrum Field, the regional airport of Roanoke, Virginia (ROA), shows what happens when the primary terminal is unprepared for radical changes:

This photo represents nearly the entirety of the airport’s one concourse, visible as soon as a passenger emerges from the TSA security station. It isn’t large, of course, but that’s not a surprise, considering the airport serves a metro area of only 300,000 persons.
Here’s the overhead sign which I was standing under in the first photo:

Notice that it lists six gates. Immediately to my left and slightly behind the point I was standing (back toward the airport’s entrance) is the busy Gate 2:

But if I look over to my right, what do I see? The glass partition separating me from the people who are still making it past the Transportation Security Administration. Far more telling is the label directly above the partition:

It would appear that the sprawling security configuration induced from 9/11 takes up an entire gate. The last two pictures demonstrate this more clearly:

Roanoke Regional Airport apparently had to sacrifice one of its six gates for enhanced security procedures. It’s possible that such a shift amounted to no more than an administrative blip for the Roanoke Airport Authority. After all, the Roanoke metro is only growing modestly, at less than 4% since 2000. And, the number of enplanements at ROA declined over 5% from CY 2008, falling below 300,000 in CY 2009. But if two days of universally suspended flights after September 11 was enough for some airlines to skirt bankruptcy, one can imagine how sensitive the entire aviation industry is toward minor changes, and removing 16.6% of an airport’s available gates is hardly minor. The results of this cut undoubtedly impacted the airlines’ ability to schedule flights, as well as the timing of liftoffs on ROA’s two runways. Airlines most likely had to reduce the number of flights available during the day, juggle the times at which flights could arrive at the airport, or compress the headways between flights for the ones with highest demand, resulting in a greater likelihood of delays due to less cushion time between flights. If things got too bad at ROA, some prospective passengers may opt for other airports in the region, such as Lynchburg Regional Airport down the road (LYH), particularly if the later airport had a design that didn’t need to cut a gate to make room for new TSA regulations. While nearly all airports across the country have suffered declining passenger volumes over the past couple years, it is possible that having six gates available would have at least mitigated some of Roanoake’s diminishing enplanements. Falling passenger numbers and fewer available gates could ultimately influence some of the City of Roanoke’s own economic development initiatives, since passenger volume numbers generally correlate heavily to a region’s sphere of economic influence.

This blog article does not intend to lambast the FAA, TSA, DHS or any of the other acronyms that have engendered the culture of aviation security we can observe today. The fact that attempted terrorist attacks on airplanes persist nearly a decade after the planes crashed into the Pentagon and WTC indicates that expansive and adaptive security measures are still worthwhile. But top-down initiatives elicit a bottom-up response that rarely meshes perfectly with the intended results. It is just as possible that other airports in the country had to make even greater spatial sacrifices in the interest of security; imagine what would have happened to an airport that had to sacrifice one of only two gates. Some safety measures incur the greatest cost at the point of installation, such as the square reflective devices embedded in streets that I blogged about earlier. Others have long-term implications. In the case of Roanoke Regional Airport, the culpability may rest on the TSA, or with the original aviation architects who failed to design a concourse that could adapt to changes. The wisest resolution would avoid ascribing blame and simply allow the airport authority and the airlines to continue collaborating to provide passengers with the most efficient mode of transit available, even if, someday, our TSA passenger screening stations require enough space to hold a passenger’s dressing rooms.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

MONTAGE: Animal and vegetable deserve a break today.

A spike in the workload has again slowed down much of my blogging progress (as well as an apparent server problem with Blogger and Google on Monday night), but I still have acres of fertile fields ahead of me left to sew, so even if the monthly output lags, I have every intention of committing myself to the new material. In the meantime, it has been awhile since I’ve added a real photo montage—I didn’t get one in last month—so the blog is due for one, especially since this entry features a topic that I’ve otherwise exhausted: handicapped access in urban settings. I don’t have much new to say, but this particular design predicament and its ensuing solution are interesting enough to merit a discussion. Thus, I will provide minimal “captions” to the photos below, taken close to my current home, from a McDonald’s near downtown Biloxi, Mississippi:

My apologies if some of the photos approve misty; my lens was apparently clouded over on a predictably humid morning. At any rate, the McDonald’s here on Beach Boulevard (US Highway 90) uses a sort of sandstone motif that seems to be a particularly popular design vernacular these days, giving clear indication that the structure post-dates Hurricane Katrina.

If that weren’t proof enough, the fact that it sits just a few hundred feet from the water should offer evidence to anyone familiar with the area that this is a new building. In Biloxi, virtually everything within a tenth of a mile of the shore was obliterated by Katrina’s storm surge. Just across US 90 from this McDonald’s is the completely refurbished Hard Rock Casino Hotel, and just beyond that is the Mississippi Sound.

For a historically spread-out city that is redeveloping after the hurricane with abundant parking, this McDonald’s squeezes its thirty spaces into a relatively small parcel, as outlined in red below.

Thanks to a huge hotel just across the street (and the even more colossal Beau Rivage just next door to the west), this stretch of Highway 90 enjoys a high enough density of visitors that the McDonald’s across the street could very well expect some foot traffic, even in an area in which the building configurations otherwise do not attempt to accommodate pedestrians. As the photos indicate, the McDonald’s is also elevated several feet above street level.

The ramp out front demonstrates a clear effort to provide wheelchair access. It runs from the sidewalk at the intersection—

—up to the parking lot.

Yet, interestingly, the sidewalk parallel to the city street does not offer this same convenience.

Pedestrians walking along Main Street toward downtown Biloxi will have to climb a few stairs, and then descend again after several feet.

The last two photos capture the bizarre site preparation decisions that the developers made here, presumably in negotiation with the City in order to obtain the building permit. This parcel incorporates three different grades: one at the level of the street and most of the sidewalk; one for the terrace hosting two expansive live oak trees and the elevated portion of the sidewalk; and one for the McDonald’s building itself. The decision behind elevating the McDonald’s is obvious: regardless of whether this complies with FEMA or the National Flood Insurance Program’s Base Flood Elevation standards, any sensible franchiser working with this parcel would want to elevate to reduce the chances of flooding in the event of another storm surge. But it would appear that the original elevation decision took place long ago, at the grade where the two live oak trees stand, both which clearly pre-date Hurricane Katrina, and thus survived its powerful winds. The earth around those trees needs to remain elevated to accommodate their expansive root systems; bringing the sidewalk down to street level at this point could have threatened their stability.

The question is how much the local ordinances dictated this unusual decision. If the City of Biloxi has both a sidewalk ordinance (which it apparently does—Section 23-14-7 in the Land Development Ordinance) and a tree protection ordinance (Section 23-16-11) this parcel would pose a difficult means of reconciling the two codes. It’s highly possible that the sidewalk predates the new McDonald’s as well as Hurricane Katrina, though, judging from the pavement’s new appearance, chances are that some entity installed new concrete to coincide with the construction taking place. If Biloxi’s sidewalk ordinance mandates that all new construction requires a sidewalk at any perimeter that directly abuts the streets, then the developer installed this segment by law. But how did he or she circumvent the Americans with Disabilities Act by building a portion of sidewalk that is clearly non-compliant? The two live oaks at a different grade quite possibly form the crux of an elaborate negotiation. Also, a wheelchair can avoid the stairs on the sidewalk with little difficulty: first by running up the ramp into the McDonald’s parking lot, then by circumscribing the building along the parking lot, and finally by taking the automobile exit ramp back around to the back of the structure, on the other side of the stairs to the sidewalk (to the left of the above photos). A seemingly mundane development that could take place anywhere manifests the collision of different well-intentioned policies, with results that accommodate the interests of both groups: those in wheelchairs and those seeking to save native tree growth. Though one could argue that both the trees’ root network and disabled persons are moderately inconvenienced by the resulting site plan, no one emerges a loser, demonstrating the potential for ingenuity in compromise.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Bucolic baristas.

The coffeehouse isn’t just a destination for the bohemians these days. Long a mainstay in big cities, coffeehouses are visible now across all types of settings, from urban street corners to suburban or small-town strip malls, from tiny kiosks in parking lots to the exits of interstate highways. They have joined the ranks of 24/7 fitness centers, tarot card readings, spas, check cashing stores, tanning salons, and pet salons. Among this motley crew of retailers, coffeehouses may reign supreme: all of the above outlets have transcended their niche markets to become popular in just about any setting, metropolitan or small town—but coffeehouses have enjoyed widespread popularity far longer than most of the others, suggesting that their current visibility is not some ephemeral fad. (The verdict isn’t out on 24/7 fitness centers.)

It’s difficult to determine how much beat culture really fueled the initial curiosity and eventual popularity of coffeehouses. My guess is the influence is small. Jack Keruoac may have claimed that coffee surpassed Benzedrine and everything else, for that matter, for “real power kicks” [at least according to Howard Cunnell’s introduction to On the Road: The Original Scroll (New York: Viking Penguin, 2007, p. 24)], but it would be a stretch to think that such a diverse array of Americans visit coffeehouses—or drink coffee, for that matter—in pursuit of an artistic or psychological high. No, Americans visit “coffee shops” (the preferred term on this side of the Atlantic) for their ability to govern space under new parameters, much the reason beat writers enjoyed them 40 years ago. Coffee shops offer an expansive flexibility for human socialization with few time constraints, either overtly or unconsciously, and they achieve this usually without the concomitant alcohol-induced raucousness one might usually find in a bar. You can pick up a drink to go and carry it legally down the street with you. Or you can sit inside and sip for hours. Quite simply, coffee shops allow people of all ages to engage in perfectly acceptable private activities a setting where they will consistently see other people and be seen. I’ve already mentioned their adaptability to a variety of urban forms. Most coffee shops exploit their own malleable milieu by offering other goods and services in conjunction with the coffee: some sell the original bean, some sell exotic roasts or blends, most sell sandwiches or at least pastries, some offer drive-through services, many host special events. But the key defining characteristic of a coffeehouse is the way it affords the power to appropriate private space under so few rules that the space assumes almost public, non-exclusionary characteristics. You can do just about whatever you want—provided that it’s already legal in public—in many of the most successful coffeehouses across the country.

It’s safe to venture that, in a good economy, a new locally owned coffee shop opens somewhere in the US at least once a week, if not much more. Websites like Indie Coffee Shops or Delocator even help travelers spot the most distinctive non-chain coffee purveyors. No matter what the size of a community is, at least one entrepreneur is likely to attempt to open a coffee shop at some point. Even an economically struggling jurisdiction is likely to see the occasional scrappy coffee house give its best shot amid high vacancies and inexpensive leases. They were virtually unheard of outside of the biggest metropolises as recently as 1990, until a certain humble retailer named Starbucks started gingerly trying its luck in metros outside of Seattle, and eventually, the rest of the world. Chain or independent, this non-alcoholic lounge environment has ascended to a proven retail typology, loosely akin to the big box or the drive-thru—it works across a variety of settings. One might have thought that, by this point, coffee houses would approach ubiquity—that they demonstrate such an enduring appeal that they can augur the economic growth of an area.

Yet many of these indie coffee shops break ground and then fold within a few years or even months. No doubt most of us witnessed it: that likable place with the fantastic blend that never has more than 3 or 4 patrons, yet you try to promote it as much as possible, because eventually it will catch on due to word of mouth….then it doesn’t. In no time, that storefront has a “FOR LEASE” sign out front. So how can an independently operated coffee house—a true newcomer—bolster its longevity in this era of Starbucks? This example below along a historic main street reveals an unremarkable effort—but highly indicative because of its ordinariness—to introduce java to an economically sluggish commercial area:

Pascagoula, Mississippi is a mid-sized city along the Gulf Coast, close to the Alabama border. It lacks the high profile of its bigger, flashier neighbors, Gulfport and Biloxi, both of which lured a number of large casinos to their waterfronts over the past twenty years, helping to elevate Mississippi among the top states for casino revenue—usually part of the trifecta that includes Nevada and New Jersey. (Many of the most prominent casinos rebuilt shortly after Hurricane Katrina.) Pascagoula, though, has remained considerably quieter, with an almost completely residential waterfront. This city of approximately 25,000 souls derives most of its economic base from Ingalls Shipbuilding, the shipyard which hosts Northrop Grumman, whose warship division here often serves as Mississippi’s largest private employer. All three of the aforementioned cities were badly devastated by the heavy winds and storm surge induced by Hurricane Katrina; the serene Pascagoula waterfront offers newly built homes on pilings alternating with concrete slabs where homes once stood and the owners have yet to rebuild.

Pascagoula’s main street falls under a completely different scenario:

Downtown Pascagoula seems far smaller than one might expect for a city of 25,000—much of this derives from the fact that, until 1950, it was a modest fishing village, and the Cold War demand for ships helped galvanize the population boom. Like the similarly scaled city of Dover, Delaware (and former blog subject), Pascagoula boomed after the proliferation of the automobile, so a disproportionately high amount of its building stock appears suburban and auto-oriented by today’s standards. (Truthfully, it’s just a smaller version of the same phenomenon plainly visible in post-automobile sunbelt cities like Atlanta, Houston, and Phoenix.) Delmas Avenue, the commercial main street of Pascagoula, appears fairly intact, without the vast stretches of emptiness that characterize Gulfport and Biloxi, both of which lost a considerable amount of their downtowns to Hurricane Katrina. Pascagoula’s downtown is further inland, buffering it from the worst of the storm surge; the city also sits farther away from the eye of the storm, so winds were most likely weaker. But the considerable investment in street beautification most likely post-dates Katrina, even if the source of the funds—HUD’s Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs) had nothing to do with disaster recovery itself.

I have long been skeptical that streetscape improvements achieve much in the way of revitalizing a main street, as I wrote about in an Indiana town much smaller than Pascagoula that attempted a similar initiative, essentially replicating the look of the popular suburban retail typology of the lifestyle center (i.e., malls without roofs). Many historic main streets with particularly unlovely sidewalks have soared. But I hardly want to criticize the instigators of these improvements on their efforts. Pascagoula’s main street is not dead: a few retailers making a go of it, and of course one of them is the featured coffee house.

The proprietors of Courthouse Coffee seem to understand the recipe for success with this kind of enterprise. While coffeehouses do not depend on urban environments to prosper, nearly every great walkable commercial main street harbors at least one independent coffee shop. The problem is, Delmas Avenue in Pascagoula is not flourishing: it is only about 50% occupied, at most. The sidewalks look fantastic, of course, but the building façades suffered the sort of mummification that only an era as hostile to urbanism as the 1960s and 70s could induce.

And much of the surrounding area is a sea of parking—not building slabs, as one sees in Biloxi and Gulfport—suggesting that any other historic architecture was demolished to service the industry visible in the background of the photo below.

This two-block portion of Delmas Avenue is actually a bit tough for the visitor to find among the spread-out civic buildings, churches, and a railroad depot, all of which constitute most of the rest of the downtown. Yet it may still be enough to herald a revitalization to downtown Pascagoula. Clearly a few smart preservationists saw the merit in this old firehouse building:

Despite the heavily modified façade, the spirited result seems to host the only other restaurant currently in business on the main street. But Courthouse Coffee still faces a great deal of challenges, manifested by the decals on the door:

Standard business hours are undoubtedly all that this place can hope for in a downtown that has very little attraction on evenings and weekends. But truncated operational times often equate to the death knell for a coffee shop. I know that remaining open 45 hours a week is hardly that limited, but people seek these establishments because they offer such a wide berth for congregation. Excluding the evenings—even if only until 7 pm—removes much of the client base that would seek such a business for leisure, rather than just its apparent breakfast or lunch offerings, its desserts, or its early morning brew. And, with all the pretty trees and flowers and decorative brick patterns, isn’t a recreational main street in large part what Pascagoula’s applicants for these Community Development Block Grants are probably seeking as the impetus for revitalization? No one should force Courthouse Coffee to stay in business after dark. (The poor coffee shop probably couldn’t sustain itself that way.) But since one would presume that these small business owners were hoping to “ride the wave” of a revitalized Delmas Avenue, wouldn’t they attempt to capture the sort of population seeking a coffee shop who might otherwise go home to relax, read a book, or surf the internet?

Coffeehouses may have been a destination unto themselves for Middle Eastern men 500 years ago and beat poets just 50, but they are hardly a silver bullet for revitalization of a commercial district suffering the doldrums. One could claim that they’re simply too small, they don’t have a sufficiently diverse enough, they don’t attract the big enough spenders, they’re only an accessory to some larger, anchoring activity going on down the street. But the fact is that nothing is a guaranteed economic bonanza for downtowns. Countless large cities in America have sports arenas near their city center, yet downtown remains moribund any time outside of the big game. A coffee shop like Courthouse may not single-handedly turn around a main street’s economic fortune—no single business ever does—but it can work with the level of ambition that took an aging fire station elsewhere on Delmas Avenue and turned it into a moderately priced restaurant. Perhaps Courthouse Coffee could stay open till sort of late (8 pm perhaps) just two nights a week—one Friday night and one weeknight. If a city like Pascagoula doesn’t have a big enough counterculture craving an after-dark destination, it just needs to think of the potential clientele it does have. Teenagers, typically not lacking in their free time, are always seeking places to congregate and spontaneously run into their peers. (This, of course, is the main reason they’re such denizens of suburban shopping malls.) Live music might be a draw, but staying open solely to host a club meeting, or a Bible study, or a poetry slam can also do the trick. After all, even the coffee shops in thriving urban districts often have to find some way to distinguish themselves. But the good ones would never dream of closing until well after it is dark outside.

Obviously I’ve just launched on a flight of fancy regarding an establishment that wasn’t even open on the Saturday I visited Pascagoula. No doubt I’ve only demonstrated my own bias and love of coffee shops in the process. But coffee shops are just as solid of a contributor to a downtown revitalization as the big-ticket items, since downtowns and main streets both revitalize by accretion, and a good coffeehouse scores a point the same way a new convention center might. The fact that the market for coffee shops has penetrated smaller communities in recent years is a testament to their versatility and democratizing impact, even if most of the small-town incarnations close after 36 months. Though I have yet to see a downtown that attributes its revival to a coffee shop, I would never rule out the possibility. All thriving coffee shops—even the suburban ones with a drive-thru (as long as that’s not all they have)—appeal to the same unconscious needs for human-to-human engagement that great downtowns do, in communities big and small.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

When light poles and steeples compete with the high rises.

A few months ago, I posted one of my longest articles to this blog: a three-part series on exposed overhead electric wires, focusing on the remarkable prevalence of this manner of electrical conduit in New Orleans. The Crescent City served as a backdrop for an exploration on the pros and cons of retaining airborne circuitry. New Orleans has long seemed distinctive to me because of the sheer density of its overhead wires. While some cities such as Chicago deftly conceal them in back alleys--and in most downtowns, the city’s public works or utilities departments have buried them altogether--the majority of the New Orleans sky remains sliced across by charcoal cables. Why doesn’t the city invest more in burying those wires and hiding the unsightly poles that hoist them? Upon closer analysis, this dominance of overhead wires makes sense in this particular environment: while undergrounding cables makes them less susceptible to high winds (problematic in hurricane-prone regions), they prove far more vulnerable when it comes to floodwater saturation. Also, although buried wires are less likely to suffer interruptions in the transmission of electric current—after all, trees won’t fall on them—a power outage on an underground wire is more costly or time consuming to find and repair than an overhead wire. It’s a stalemate: the pros and cons for burying electric cables neutralize one another. Thus, the argument over where the infrastructure should run—either up high or below ground—depends very little on the operational superiority of one approach over another.

But now I’m going to retract one of the fundamentals to my earlier argument—specifically, that New Orleans offers a particularly extreme example of overhead cables. All American cities have at least some exposed overhead wires here and there; many of them have only buried wires in the downtown, while the newer subdivisions out in the suburbs require it by law (or employ it because it is the only way for new developments to remain marketable). And now I have recently discovered that many smaller cities have not even buried all the cables in the heart of their downtowns. Take Lafayette, Louisiana, for example:

The map frames the central part of the city, while the photo captures the intersection contained within the blue circle. Here in the heart of downtown, the intersections are not only crisscrossed with wires, but the giant wooden poles that hoist them above the ground are clearly visible on every sidewalk. Another example just a block away, at the green circle on the map, is even more extreme:

Yet one more block further, all the wires have been buried, and the stop light design employs a different type of pole and mast—more distinctive than the conventional metallic ones visible in the wiry photos from above.

This street, outlined in purple in the map, comprises the clear original main street of Lafayette. It is also obviously the largest beneficiary of streetscape improvements. Jefferson Street in Lafayette boasts buried cables, signage in both English and French, and customized stop light masts. The city has spent more money on sprucing up this street than any other part of the downtown. Conversely, the infrastructure in much of the rest of the CBD looks a bit like the old chromolithographs from the early 20th century, when electricity was brand new: wires and light poles everywhere.

Is this a problem? The photos above, taken during the small city’s single biggest annual event, the Festival International de Louisiane, do not show any human engagement with the electric poles. Most of the people probably don’t even notice them. Advocates for buried electric wires often complain about the “clutter” of overhead utilities, but do visitors to a city appreciate buried cables? Does it even register in their consciousness? One could argue that buried cables make a streetscape look more modern, but does this practice enhance the attractiveness of a street to the point that businesses may consider relocating there? It’s hard to tell from my meager photos in Lafayette, but Jefferson Street with the buried cables has a vibrant retail presence. It has helped give this college town a visible identity, not just in terms of nightlife for students, but also for tourists attracted to this petrochemical boomtown for its centrality in Cajun culture. Did the streetscape improvements play any role in this corridor’s low commercial vacancies, or did it win out simply because it had the pre-existing main street architecture to support entrepreneurial retail? I'm skeptical that the buried cables had any impact. Aside from the fact that the City might have buried the cables long before Jefferson Street enjoyed its reawakening, many retail corridors thrive regardless of brick sidewalks, decorative signs, and buried electric wires. Conversely, scores of Main Street Associations have implemented those same streetscape improvements in small towns, to no avail.

I am increasingly of the belief that the arguments that favor undergrounding overhead wires are purely aesthetic. Since the burial of electric wire creates an environment where something is removed rather than added, the aesthetic merit of this potentially costly initiative seems increasingly doubtful. Why should a city shell out so much money when few people are going to care about the finished product, and it is nearly impossible to gauge fiscal impact? Lafayette does not sit in quite as serious of a floodplain as New Orleans, but it is just as vulnerable to hurricane force winds, so those two factors would at least push the argument in favor of undergrounding electric wires. But smaller southern cities the size of Lafayette often lack the tax base to implement these expensive improvements, and the result is that massive electric poles sprout up on downtown sidewalks in cities throughout the South. Therefore, I admit I was wrong in my earlier blog post: New Orleans is hardly the only city with lots of overhead wires. Look around and go to the downtown of southern cities smaller than the big, new ones like Atlanta. Overhead wires are everywhere. But my central claim from the previous blog post remains unchanged: I just have a wider array of evidence supporting the notion that arguments for burying wires depend more on aesthetics and individual taste than anything else. Judging from the busy wires that weave between the buildings on these downtown blocks, the leaders in both New Orleans and Lafayette wisely have bigger fish to fry than reducing overhead clutter. And in due time, I suspect the City of Lafayette plans to bury the wires visible in these first two featured photos. But virtually no one will notice when that happens either.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Meandering towards the Statehouse.

The meringue follows the meat. After so much time and attention devoted to Jewish settlements in the South, it’s time to move to a simpler, less weighty topic—more of an anecdote. Several weeks ago, I took the High Street exit ramp to enter downtown Jackson, Mississippi from Interstate 55. My first time in the area after several years, I noticed that this arterial leading into downtown had been expanded and upgraded considerably: widened, repaved, new streetlights, cables buried, new sidewalks. As a city with consistent rolling hills, Jackson offers many vistas like this one, leading directly to the State Capitol just beyond the horizon. But the streetscape from this vantage point is strangely asymmetrical:

The sidewalk on the left side of the road continues over the hill, but on the right side, it seems to stop abruptly. However, a closer view reveals what’s really going on:

The sidewalk is there—it just zigs and zags to make it easier to negotiate the steepest part of the incline, presumably as an aid to individuals in wheelchairs. (The small handicapped sign immediately to the left of the curb cut, where sidewalk meets the street, supports this postulate.) Approaching the design closer at least partially captures the paving technique.

The sidewalk meanders mostly at what seems like a series of 90-degree angles, though the first of the angles is much more acute, in order for the path to maneuver around a fire hydrant and electric meter.
At the vertex of each kink in the sidewalk is a concrete bay, just large enough to allow the wheelchair to shift directions.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with San Francisco should recognize how this loosely recalls the famous block of Lombard Street, otherwise known as the Crookedest Street for the series of hairpin curves compressed into a single block—the only way automobiles could safely manage the 27-degree incline over this portion of the street. Crookedest Street remains strictly one-way downhill for automobiles, as do the nearby Vermont Street (actually steeper than Lombard and greater sinuosity, but less picturesque and thus more difficult to find an online photo) or the sinuous Snake Alley in Burlington, Iowa. Jackson’s topography does not exactly rival that of San Francisco (nor does it rival that of Vicksburg, just 40 miles to the west), but one can hardly question the difficulties that wheeled vehicles have negotiating any steep hills: it requires considerable stamina or horsepower to climb them, while the inertia going downhill increases the dangerous likelihood of losing control of the machine.

Like an interior ramp at a school in West Virginia that I blogged about earlier, this portion of High Street in Jackson is attempting to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act’s Standards for Accessible Design. The manual states in Section A4.8 on “Ramps” that slopes of 1:16 to 1:20 are preferable, since anything as low as 1:12 (a rise of 1 foot across a run of 12 feet) would require considerable upper body strength and stamina for the wheelchair user, and would also pose difficulties for many ambulatory ramp users. I don’t have the tools to measure whether this sidewalk complies with ADA code (and even if I did have the tools, I wouldn’t know how to use them), but clearly the Public Works Department has taken advantage of a particularly generous easement—if this is not purely public space already—to accommodate wheelchairs along this stretch of the road. The sidewalk on this side of High Street would thus offer a level of safety and comfort to the wheelchair user, whereas the other side of the street would not:

At a basic utilitarian level, this is an admirable effort, but would it hold up to a cost-benefit analysis? Obviously many ambulatory pedestrians will save themselves the time of meandering by taking the other, more direct sidewalk, or they will bypass all of the kinks by walking in the grass. But it doesn’t appear as though too many people have done this:

Notice the grass appears completely unworn, so ambulatory pedestrians have not been carving out a desire path to give themselves a shortcut. In all likelihood, this sidewalk is rarely used. One could attribute this to the fact that, like most cities of the New South, Jackson is overwhelmingly automobile-oriented. This is true, and much of Jackson is lacking in sidewalks, so any pedestrian improvement is commendable. But the fact remains that this block sits on the edge of downtown, loosely connecting a residential neighborhood to the north, while providing a critical link to I-55 just a few blocks away, along with all the expected car-based restaurants, hotels, and services. The map below—with the “crookedest sidewalk” block circled in purple—proves this point:

Much of the downtown environment directly to the west of this block is appropriately scaled to pedestrians and is comparably hilly. But of course, the sidewalk width along city streets would never permit the level of zigzagging necessary to meet ADA Ramp Codes, and more than it would in San Francisco, where the steepest hills use decidedly non-wheelchair friendly stairways instead of sidewalks. The City of Jackson has installed a wheelchair and pedestrian amenity where it is unlikely to be used. The photo below, taken through a bug-splattered windshield right at the point where the interstate exit ramp meets High Street, reveals the typical land use pattern at this “Gateway” to downtown Jackson.

It’s enough to make the average urban planner throw a conniption fit. I’m not going to unleash any scorn on Jackson for this land use—most of it preceded the sidewalk improvements documented in this blog post. The effort aptly demonstrates that pedestrian amenities are often the window dressing to embellish—or, in many case, to whitewash—the core problems of undesirable or imperfect land use. I hardly want the perfect to be the enemy of the good: an interstate that sits close to downtown with out actually abutting it is likely to elicit motorist-oriented businesses and services at any basic exit. And the City of Jackson, with a long-shrinking tax base, no doubt saw the great potential for new hotels and restaurants along High Street many years ago. So instead, it's best to focus on how this good improvement can literally and figuratively pave the way for a grander but still realistic long-term vision.

Now the goal of planners should be for future development to fulfill the potential of this whimsically angled, wheelchair friendly sidewalk, by devising means of “recruiting” a built environment that provides a more attractive entrance to the city. Returning to the above map, the space just south of High Street and further south of Mississippi Street hosts the Mississippi State Fair each year, but it still offers a reasonable amount of vacant land, which it is clear to me from “Future Site Of…” signs has registered among civic leaders as a critical place for museums, visitors centers, or other structures that highlight the city and state. Like any massive city shaping process, this will happen over time and incrementally, and it doesn’t require Jackson to aspire toward San Francisco’s level of density to achieve efficacious results. But, at present, this sidewalk most likely doesn’t even fall into the radar of most Jacksonians, since everything to the east of it is so nondescript. Careful landscape design enhancements could make it attractive or even fun for pedestrians—particularly kids, who love this sort of thing. It may seem like a stretch, but the iconography behind this zigzag, with enough careful branding, could form part of the imagery that comprises the “Gateway to Jackson” itself. My biggest hope, though, is that someday, this pedestrian improvement, which engineers apparently installed because the land was available, will actually find users beyond the occasional detail-obsessed blogger.