Thursday, March 31, 2011

The greasy spoon straddles the Pacific.

As much as I’d like to commend the efforts of Lady Bird Johnson, I have to confess: I love billboards. Maybe I’ve spent too much time living in parts of the country where the landscapes offer relatively little variety, and the billboards help compensate for monotony. But I also love the flattest, most treeless stretches of the Midwest as much as New Hampshire’s White Mountains or Utah’s moonscape. When the topography is rugged, I like seeing where the billboard companies have coyly planted their signage on hillsides, in order to maximize visibility. Yes, I know, those tacky signs often mar the purity and majesty of their surroundings, but billboards routinely come and go, and the scar of chopped foliage needs continual maintenance to remain that way; trees will inevitably grow back when a billboard retires. Places that outlaw billboards—the entire state of Vermont comes to mind—often seem to be missing something, even for those who cherish what the state lacks. The absence of billboards is a low murmuring voice across the landscape forced permanently into mute, and perhaps that’s why I defend them: the connoted message of an unadorned environment where nature speaks differently to everyone combines with the (usually) unambiguous denotations of giant words on a sign. This dichotomy between the inferred (nature) and the declared (advertising/commerce) generates a skittish rhythm when traveling, a tense semantic energy that helps keep the drive from getting boring. Having no billboards sometimes seems as sterile as the scene from the movie Brazil where the landscape only consists of billboards. Vermont might be happy to squelch the homogenizing ambitions of Clear Channel and other corporations, but it also stifles a sort of folk culture generated by the advertisements for attractions and enterprises unique to an area. Federally funded highway signs can’t replace that vernacular. Ms. Lady Bird Johnson has plenty of successors, and I hope the battle against billboard blight continues, just as I wish for the companies to fight back. The push-and-pull between the two should help keep them both in check, while individual states can continue to let their constituents use their individual laboratories of democracy to decide what billboard quotient is right for them.

And, thankfully, most of the rest of this post’s analysis won’t be as academic as that first paragraph, because that opener is almost a non-sequitur. Perhaps it’s a good thing I come from a state that seems to like billboards as much as I do. As anyone knows who has driven through Indiana (which seems be just about everybody), it’s filled with them. The Crossroads of America—no wonder. In a given day, hundreds of thousands of eyes will glance at these massive roadside advertisements. So there’s no reason that the billboard below, from the stretch of I-65 between Indianapolis and Louisville, should stand out to its hundreds of thousands of viewers each day:

And, sure enough, it’s just an advertisement for a Motel 6, looking like any other. Except for that part about the Indian restaurant.

It doesn’t take a good pair of eyes to notice that, although the US has a sizable population that claims India as its country of origin, restaurants serving Indian food aren’t quite as commonplace as, say, Mexican or Chinese. You can expect to see Indian restaurants in affluent urban and suburban areas, downtowns of major cities, college towns, or neighborhoods with large concentrations of Indian immigrants—not off the side of a highway in rural Indiana. And not attached to a budget motel. It just hasn’t yet reached mainstream palates.

But that may only be indicative of a dormant trend. I investigated this particular motel/restaurant outside of the micropolitan area of Seymour, and I didn’t see any evidence of an Indian eatery from the outside appearance. I inquired with the manager on duty, and he said that the Indian restaurant had closed; in its place was a Mexican restaurant. So clearly this experiment in eclectic roadside cuisine failed. But I’m not convinced it was trying to appeal to the sort of traveler who typically patronizes Indian restaurants in fashionable areas of large cities or hip college towns. I think it was primarily attracting people who had grown up on the food—namely, Indian Americans and recent Indian immigrants.

I think two socioethnic phenomena are at play here in Seymour. No, this small southern Indiana city (pop. 18,000), though generally prosperous, is not suddenly attracting a large Indian immigrant community. I'd be surprised if there are more than two dozen persons of Indian descent in a thirty mile radius. But Seymour is a major pit stop for travelers, with an abundance of hotels, chain restaurants, and even an outlet mall (albeit not a very successful one). The concentration of hotels off the interstate should offer one clue: as I have noted in the past, the hotel industry has increasingly become dominated by Indian Americans, with nearly half of all hotels owned by persons of Indian descent, according to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association. While Indian ownership may still be uncommon among rural highway motels or downtown luxury suites, the budget franchise hotel—Sleep Inn, Days Inn, Super Eight, Motel 6—is dominated by Indian families, many of whom live on the premises. No doubt this Motel 6 in Seymour is within a stone's throw of another Indian-owned hotel, or two, or three. The entirety of the Indian population of Seymour may be tied to the hospitality industry.

But that doesn't explain the presence of an Indian restaurant, even if it's now defunct. The statistical odds that a traveler seeking lodgings in Seymour is an Indian American is still reasonably small, and you'd think that real estate around an interstate exit ramp would attract cuisine of a more common denominator. After all, most of the other restaurants you see around Seymour are the same ones you might find at any rural interstate exit in America: McDonald's, Arby's, Subway, Burger King. Even a Chipotle (Mexican) or Panda Express (Chinese) might be too eclectic. But the owner of this Indian restaurant/hotel clearly thought he or she had a large enough demographic from which to draw, perhaps through curiosity seekers that appreciate ethnic cuisine, or Indian American motorists.

As farfetched as it may seem, the Motel 6's proprietor took a reasonable gamble: not so far away, another roadside Indian restaurant is managing quite well. On the stretch of Interstate 70 in eastern Indiana, near the small town of Spiceland (about halfway between Indianapolis and Columbus OH), an Indian restaurant was fully operative when I visited in January of 2009. Apparently Taste of India/India Curry seems to have changed its name recently, but it was still in business as of last summer. It had the familiar smell of curry and various meats from the tandoor, but it didn't look like a plush Indian restaurant you might see in downtown Chicago, or the more middlebrow Indian offerings along Devon Avenue north of the city center. It didn't look like the sparsely decorated Indian restaurant you might see in a strip mall in the outskirts of Indianapolis, either. This Indian restaurant looked like a truck stop.

The above photo from the website Yelp makes it clearer: Taste of India really is a truck stop. And its principal clientele is truckers: Punjabi truckers. As referenced in the aforementioned blog post, a number of different immigrant groups have carved a niche within a certain profession. I have no doubt it started organically and grew from the first few successful entrepreneurs, but while many Indians from throughout this enormous polyglot eastern nation have cut their teeth in the hotel industry, Punjabi Indians—and Sikhs in particular—have made significant headway in trucking. The result, not so surprisingly, is a roadside economy that caters to a demographic that is only likely to grow in upcoming years—much the same way Indian-owned hotels have proliferated.

But this ethnic industry has left a visible fingerprint on the Midwest in more ways than just billboards. As itinerant as truckers may often be, they have to live somewhere, and it naturally follows that they would settle in cities with a robust logistics industry—more available jobs. Indianapolis in particular has asserted itself as a vast logistical hub, widely promoting its convergence of four interstate highways within the city limits. And, within the past decade, the very Middle American suburb of Greenwood, just south of Indianapolis, has become a bit of an enclave for Sikhs.

Two miles east of Greenwood’s main street, the suburbanization quickly reverts to cornfields, with newly emergent subdivisions interspersed between family farms. Although they are scattered across a number of new subdivisions in Greenwood, the Homecoming at University Park has attracted the highest concentration of Sikh families, outlined in purple on the map below:

Recent reports estimate that as many as 2500 Sikhs have moved to the southern suburbs of Indianapolis within the past five to seven years, often coming from California and attracted to Indiana by the low cost of housing and excellent school systems, among other things. It is possible that a particularly talented realtor who shares their cultural heritage has been instrumental in getting so many Sikh families to relocate; Ms. Siskand has retained on her website the Indianapolis Star article that first recognized the migration trends.

The attraction of Greenwood to Sikh families extends well beyond just the schools and housing, though. Notice that the Homecoming at University Park subdivision sits about a half mile east of Interstate 65. Immediately adjacent to the interstate—outlined in blue—the following businesses sprawl across former farmland.

This is one of many distribution centers in the Indianapolis metro, and one of the biggest in Greenwood. And there’s plenty of room for more:

Thus, the situation in Greenwood efficiently depicts a modern variant of the old work-home dichotomy, reconfigured at a lower density for the automobile age. As the pictures reveal, this layout isn’t really designed for walking to work, though there are quite a few sidewalks and the short distances would still make it feasible. And on the more urbanized western side of I-65, within the more established part of Greenwood city limits, tenants at the strip malls support this burgeoning demographic.

A mile north of these storefronts, just within the Indianapolis city limits, is a popular Indian restaurant, India Diner. And, since this is an ethnic group that largely defines itself by its shared religious background, it only follows that a house of worship would enter into the landscape. At the intersection of Graham Road and Allen Road (the red circle in the map) the local community has bought conventional private residence built in the 1980s and converted it into a gurdwara, the third Sikh house of worship in metro Indianapolis. The process of getting it approved by Greenwood Board of Zoning Appeals elicited a minor ripple a couple years ago, mostly because of fears of traffic along Graham, which at this point remains essentially a country road on the south side of its intersection with Allen Road. The BZA approved the request unanimously, no doubt taking into consideration the continued plans for the area to grow and urbanize, eventually necessitating an upgrade to Graham Road that will make the occasional traffic elicited by the gurdwara less of a problem.

While the Indian restaurant referenced in the Motel 6 billboard in Seymour is a thing of the past, I have no doubt that over time it will seem like less of a fluke, less a failed entrepreneurial endeavor, a one-shot deal. The successful Indian truck stop restaurant in Spiceland proves that such a seemingly unlikely venture can find a large enough clientele to succeed, even though the Indian population in rural Indiana will probably remain rarefied—isolated primarily to those economy hotels at the interstate exit ramp. Then again, like so many Indiana communities, Seymour, too, is home to a sizable logistical hub: a Wal-Mart distribution center stretches for what seems like miles on the other side of the interstate highway from the Motel 6. While it lacks the economic agglomeration power of a much larger city such as Indianapolis, Seymour does boast above-average representation in these two Indian dominated industries: trucking and hospitality. It may only be a matter of time before billboards advertising Indian truck stops are commonplace in Indiana (or elsewhere in the US), and it only foreshadows the steadily growing heterogeneity of the country that Indian cuisine may become as mainstream as it is in the UK—or as Chinese and Mexican already are. It would have been unthinkable to find these latter two cuisines fifty years anywhere outside of the largest American cities, and yet today a town can be a tenth the size of Seymour and still expect to have at least one of the two, if not both. Tandoori chicken may vie with country fried steak for trucker fare; they might even be served under the same roof.

Monday, March 14, 2011

When Disney's main street is the last man standing (without support).

I was hoping at this point to begin a new article on the effect the climate has on the soil here in Afghanistan. Mid-March being the peak of the rainy season here, I figured I’d come up with some demonstrative photos and explore the ramifications that rain has on human habitations here. But so far, Mother Nature has thwarted my efforts: we’ve had nothing but unexpectedly warm, sunny, and dry weather this entire March so far, so I have no photos to offer as proof. I’m not yet concerned. We’re bound to encounter a thunderstorm eventually, here at the northern edge of the Hindu Kush mountain range. The rainy season doesn’t usually end until mid-April. And when we do get that rain, I promise I’ll deliver an article analyzing impacts of precipitation on Afghan soil. Try to contain your excitement.

In the meantime, I return to the States to visit a familiar topic: the “artificial” removal of the vast majority of a structure while preserving the façade. I use the word “artificial” with some hesitation—thus the quotes—because this act, usually (clumsily) called façadectomy, has become so commonplace that it’s almost a natural part of many re-emerging historic urban environments. In most instances, the façade is propped up while the developer builds something else behind it—usually an entirely different building with a floor plan that meets modern demands. Thus, the process is predicated upon the notion that everything about the structure is obsolete except the way the front of it engaged with its surroundings (i.e., the street and adjacent buildings). And in many cases, it is. The entire building would have met the wrecking ball otherwise; keeping the façade allows building and its immediate surroundings to retain a simulacrum of salvaged history. Preservationists usually frown at the façadectomy practice, no doubt because it taints the integrity of this discipline by implying that the veneer is what really matters. A façadectomy implies that the essence of the building—its ability to enclose specific human activities—is expendable, tossing most of the refinement of true preservation out the window and reducing it to a cosmetic exercise. Conversely, anyone preparing a rebuttal to a criticism of façadectomies would argue that the façade really is the most important aspect, while building interiors often undergo far more frequent surgeries over the life cycle of a building. Rare is the National Historic Landmark that enjoys preservation inside and out, so salvaging the just the façade—the one part that the vast majority of people will actually see—frequently succeeds as a cause célèbre in populist preservation. Thus, the “ectomies” continue.

But what happens when the developers salvage the façade, only to replace it with nothing? I first noted this occurrence early on in the life of this blog, when it took me by surprise on Memphis’ Beale Street. For several of the structures along this popular, touristy entertainment hub, the façades are all that survive. If a visitor passes through what used to be an entrance, he or she encounters a courtyard featuring a restaurant and bar.

But from the outside, it doesn't look remotely like a building: the girders supporting the structure make no attempt at subtlety; the masonry where the rest of the building was demolished is still jagged and irregular; the windows are just gaping apertures without glass. It looks like exactly what it is: a brick sheath suspended in an upright position. From a greater distance it's a bit more convincing, and it retains the essence of a contiguous street wall—the classic old-fashioned main street with a storefront at the ground level and apartments or offices on the floors above. As much as I hate sneering Disney analogies, the illusion Beale Street hopes to create is not unlike Disneyland's Main Street, which in itself is a specious paradigm since Disney's corridor owes its vibrancy to a captive audience and its imperviousness to conventional urban blight. Beale Street is vibrant too, no doubt due more to its loose alcohol than because it still harbors a genuine blues community, or many of the Street's actual buildings for that matter. From a distance, Beale Street looks like the real deal. But up close, it's like Pinocchio hoping to become a real boy (alas, another Disney analogy)—the semblance of a building that depends on a human presence to animate and legitimize it.

Keeping this in mind, I was less surprised when I encountered a similar practice in Mobile. Alabama’s southernmost big city, and probably the one with the most distinctive vernacular architecture, has an emergent entertainment corridor in the form of Dauphin Street, a remarkably long main street (over ten blocks) for a not-so-large city.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to determine whether the corridor is enjoying a rebirth or a decline. Vacancy was pretty high on a summer 2010 visit, with some surprising shuttered storefronts:

I know we’re long past the microbrew craze, but at least one should survive on the primary entertainment spine of a metro of over one quarter million. Mobile didn’t appear to have one in business. And the surest sign that Dauphin Street isn’t hot property is the presence of a storefront church:

I've blogged about this a ton in the past. If you see one of these, you can rest assured that the landlord is hard-up for any tenant and rents are low—especially in an area that most likely is trying to attract high-energy, revenue generating debauchery more than piety.

But I don’t want to knock the town when it’s down. Like much of the Gulf Coast, the Mobile area suffered significant losses from Hurricane Katrina, and some of the vacancies might be residual consequences. The fact remains that Dauphin Street almost exclusively features locally owned businesses, and the eyesores alternate in equal measure with streetscapes like this:

Or this:

Or this one:

The establishment in that last photo (probably a restaurant) may be out of business, but the building itself appears well-maintained. None of the grillwork on the balconies is rusted, so it probably hasn’t been shuttered for long. But a trick camera angle is the only thing retaining the duplicity here.
The surgery is much more obvious.

Like the building in Memphis’ Beale Street, it’s an old façade with girders holding it up. But it does show some critical differences. On Beale Street, the girders stood front and center, occupying part of the sidewalk. Here in Mobile, the supports are a bit more subtle because they sit in the back. But this façade also has something else supporting it; unlike Memphis, it’s more than a partition between the street and an open-air courtyard.
The lower level hosts genuine retail space. Whatever the tenant used to be, it was protected from the elements. The alleyway opening to the left of the facade shows how far back the structure extends, seen in the photo angling to the right of the alley:

The scarring of the masonry in both photos suggests that this alleyway underwent some heavy surgery as well in order to achieve its current condition. No doubt at some point in the distant past, this area had a roof. Another significant alteration is right there at the entrance.

Most likely the first floor hosted some large storefront windows flush with the façade, but now they are gated, and the physical entrance to the shelter is offset, allowing a sort of loggia for potential open-air seating—one more reason I think it was intended as a restaurant.

But the most invasive aspect of this façadectomy manifests itself when you crane your neck.

If it weren't for the installation of a new first floor, this building would look just as goofy as the one in Memphis: a decorative brick wall suspended high into the air. But thanks to the restaurant installation at the ground level and the concealment of the girders, it genuinely takes a keen eye to notice the illusion—quite a contrast from the far more obvious, contrived effort in Memphis. Preservationists may groan at the shallowness of either of these initiatives, but they still demonstrate a conscious attempt to retain at least part of the historic commercial character of their respective streets. In both cases, the owner of the property may be waiting until the market is right for a higher and better use. At that point, he or she could fill in the remaining void with a structure that matches the façade.

Filling in the void and completing the façadectomy would be much easier with Memphis. The Mobile example hints at something a bit more problematic and pervasive: many once-struggling commercial corridors are enjoying a revival through renewed populist appreciation in older architecture. But does this revival penetrate the entirety of the building? All to often, the first floor is the only thing capable of landing a tenant: the upper levels remain empty and sometimes quite decrepit. New Orleans' Royal Street in the French Quarter offers a great example, where the first floor is replete with active storefronts hosting often high-end art, antiques, and collectables. Yet even there, where retail space rents at high prices (for New Orleans' standards), the upper levels are frequently shuttered—a problem throughout much of the Quarter. The quaint ideal of retail on bottom and housing above is a concept we idealize but rarely embrace in actuality. Mixed-use seems great when someone else is creating the mixture. But the market demand for it—the best way to find an occupant for those other levels—is often miniscule.

This storefront on Mobile's Dauphin Street looked good enough for a restaurant, and in a better economic climate, it will probably find a new tenant. But the likelihood of demand escalating enough to justify building a structure for those other two floors is slim. In fact, a restaurant on the first floor may actually be a deterrent to transforming those upper levels into residential or office. Food handling is an extremely tough use to mix. Not too many people want the same smells wafting into their home or workspace every day from the restaurant below, no matter how good it may be. And even the best maintained of restaurants have a greater propensity for attracting vermin such as mice or roaches. Ask anyone who's lived next to a grocery store. Ask me.

In light of these undertakings in Memphis and now Mobile, it's hard to take a firm stand on façadectomies. Like it or not, they're part of a sub-practice within historic preservation, and they speak volumes about when the effort to salvage a structure aligns with demand—and when they clearly only generate dischord. We've already lost hundreds of buildings that intended to mix retail and residential throughout this country, and we'll lose many more in the future. Even if Dauphine and Beale Street become trendy entertainment destinations (the latter one already is), nothing suggests that main street architecture has more than a niche appeal—a antique collector's nostalgia. If anything else were the case, the majority of intact American main streets would be flourishing by now, but clearly they aren't. I still hold hope that we will witness the restoration of numerous other aging, pedestrian-scaled buildings in the decades to come, but not all will enjoy preservation from top to bottom, back to front. A flimsy brick wall surviving by braces may look ridiculous, but the care involved in trying to save it earns a distinctiveness all its own. And maybe these shells will find a new hermit crab to re-inhabit them, filling out the remaining three walls, then finding a tenant on those upper-level apartments who never grows tired of the southern barbecue smells simmering below.