Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Massaging the main street.

I had hoped to get one more lengthy blog post published by the end of the month, but I’m unfortunately getting bogged down due to a persistent problem I have: the photos for the essay I have prepared are not sufficient, nor is the quality good enough, to get my point across.  Hopefully I will be able to submit a much more in-depth essay in the next week or so.  In the meantime, I offer an intriguing adaptive re-use in an old downtown, featuring a tenant I have never seen before in such a location:
Value City Furniture, normally a denizen of big-boxes along six-lane highways, is sitting here in a century-old building in the small waterfront city of Sandusky, Ohio.  It’s occupying a corner parcel downtown, with about as much off-street parking as one might expect:

I’m not sure if it occupies all three floors of this building, and certainly the tenants have taken some liberties with the architectural integrity of the fa├žade’s first floor, but it impresses me nonetheless that the City of Sandusky was able to lure this national brand as a tenant.  Downtown Sandusky isn’t particularly blighted, nor is it flourishing—it’s enduring with a series of predominantly mom-and-pop establishments that are most likely attracted to the presumably affordable rents.  Most of Sandusky’s streets look pretty much like this, on the next blocks over:
It’s hanging in there.  Sandusky is a frequented destination in the summer, no doubt in part because of its position directly at the point where Sandusky Bay meets Lake Erie.
But most visitors to Sandusky skip the downtown and head immediately to Cedar Point, a hugely popular amusement park on a peninsula just east of downtown.  Sandusky itself is just a stepping-stone on the way to this colossally successful destination, the nation’s second oldest continually operating amusement park and a frequent winner of awards among seasonal parks.  No doubt Sandusky leadership would like to capitalize on some of the crowds that pass through the city, but nothing about downtown Sandusky suggests a great deal of success in that endeavor.  Even when I visited in late September, near the end of the season, it was obvious that this was just another downtown.

But the presence of Value City Furniture demonstrates sincere initiatives to stock the available retail space with prominent tenants.  I can’t find evidence of what impelled it to locate there in the downtown, but a conversation on Cyburbia reveals that it has been at this location for awhile (at least since 2005).  Why would a national chain choose to locate in a downtown with modest amounts of parking, when their business depends on people being able to purchase and load their large, heavy merchandise into cars?  It’s not comparable to an urban grocery store, where people can easily carry most of the products and continue to walk some distance by foot.  That’s just not how we buy furniture.  For that matter, wouldn’t it be logistically more difficult for Value City to restock its merchandise?  After all, a big box in the suburbs has a huge space in the back for unloading those trucks.

It seems impractical for a Value City to occupy a downtown spot, and, given our growing propensity for ordering furniture (and practically everything else) online, I can’t help but wonder how much longer bricks-and-mortar furniture retail outlets will even be that easy to find.  Clearly, though, something enticed Value City Furniture to locate in downtown Sandusky, and I suspect the answer might just be right across the street:
What on earth would a Subway have to do with this?  Nothing really, except that this Subway is clearly not historic construction, and yet it sits flush with the sidewalk on both sides. It matches the rest of the streetscape, with no parking out front.  A Subway building anew in a small downtown such as Sandusky wouldn’t typically think twice about using the suburban prototype, with abundant parking out front for passers-by to see.  Some higher power encouraged the developer or franchisee to build this Subway according to more suitable urban design standards.  Could it be the same broker who was able to encourage Value City Furniture to locate downtown several years ago?  Could it be the Sandusky Main Street Association?

Most cities of Sandusky’s size and economic health—neither struggling nor flourishing—are not likely to nitpick on urban design particulars through planning, zoning, or permitting.  I could be wrong, but Sandusky clearly isn’t experiencing some surge in tourism, judging from the dowdy appearance of its downtown.  Like many Lake Erie towns in Ohio, Sandusky is trying to assert itself as something other than the gateway to a larger, glossier attraction, such as Cedar Point or Put-in-Bay Island nearby.  The Sandusky Main Street Association hopes to stimulate activity in the city’s downtown by any means—if tourism isn’t the solution, enticing a major retail anchor like Value City Furniture shouldn’t hurt.  And improving the architectural standards for new development by encouraging zero setbacks on new construction certainly promotes a more consistent aesthetic; it worked for whoever built that Subway restaurant across the street.   Time will only tell if downtown Sandusky can eventually transform into a destination of its own; at any rate, the presence of a suburban retailer deviating from its normal location is evidence enough of a benevolent guiding hand at play. 


Thursday, October 25, 2012

Because the rich can afford cosmetic surgery.


While most evidence suggests that the future of the American metropolitan area will hinge upon further decentralization—after all, it has continued unabated for the last seventy years—most large metros have a few suburbs that buck the trend.  A few years ago I featured Bexley, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, which largely matured in the middle of the 20th century as an affluent enclave just a few miles from the city center.  Fully built-out and benefiting from highly rated school systems, Bexley has always been an comfortable suburb, and the passage of time hasn’t changed this: its population has remained primarily stable over the years and it continues to be one of Columbus’ most desirable addresses.

University City, Missouri, the focal point of this blog, has played a more complicated role in metropolitan decentralization.  One of the earliest streetcar suburbs to St. Louis, it sits directly to the west of the city limits and includes part of Washington University within its municipal boundaries.  Such close proximity to a prestigious university would presumably encourage a desirable housing stock for the academics and staff who work there.  And it has helped University City—part of it, at least.  The southern portion of the city offers high-quality Georgian revival and colonial revival architecture from the 1910s and 1920s along gently hilly streets with a mature tree canopy.  Yet University City has lost one-third of its inhabitants since its peak population of slightly over 50,000 in 1960.  The northern portions of the community, further from the University but closer to some of St. Louis’s most distressed inner-ring suburbs, have a fraction of the income density of southern University City.

Thus we have a fractured community: across its less than 6 square miles are extremes of wealth and poverty, sometimes cheek-by-jowl.  But if a visitor stays south of Delmar Boulevard, he or she would never know that University City is anything but affluent.  Most of the residential streets look like this:
The University City School District has managed to retain a relatively good reputation despite the extremes of incomes it serves, which puts it in a rare minority among metropolitan suburbs.  It’s no Bexley, nor does it rank as highly as top-rated St. Louis suburbs like Ladue, but it certainly hasn’t suffered a collapse of its reputation akin to St. Louis Public Schools.  Thus, the aging but high-quality housing stock in the southern portion of this suburb commands a very high per-square-foot price.  I know this without having to investigate any real estate transactions.  I don’t even need to compare University City home values spatially (to other St. Louis suburbs) or temporally (before and after the real estate bubble burst of 2008-09).  I can tell that this stretch of University City is expensive just by looking at how people treat their houses, and it’s not merely a matter of upkeep or good landscaping.  It’s the subtler details, like this one:
This seems like a pretty conventional house for the neighborhood: all brick, a parcel/lot that is less than a quarter acre, and a garage in the back.  But check the rear end of that house a little further: is it a different color?
It’s a completely different type of construction.  Perhaps it’s a granny flat; perhaps it’s an addition.  Either way, it’s an increase in the overall square footage of livable space on this small lot.

Older neighborhoods like this, however desirable they may be, typically look somewhat different than they did when they were emergent suburbs.  By 21st century standards, these houses are small for the income level they would hope to attract.  In most regards, the homes in this part of metro St. Louis offer a potent counterpart to the pejoratively labeled McMansions popping up in the distant exurbs.  Both housing types attract households of similar income levels, but clearly those who choose University City value proximity to the city center, businesses within walking distance, and mature trees much more than they need spatial separation from neighbors through large lots—and enormous homes to stretch over those lots.  Some homeowners are no doubt comfortable with the smaller houses here, but the fact that they are made of brick imposes a far greater barrier to expansions or modifications than if they were primarily out of wood.  This homeowner with the obvious expansion clearly weighed the options and decided to sacrifice more of an already tiny back yard to boost the square footage.

Meanwhile, a neighbor just a few houses down on the opposite side of the street has apparently chosen a more radical option:
The gap between these two houses—the site of the bulldozer—almost definitely indicates a teardown.  My suspicions are that the house that previously stood here fit the same typology of the 1920s streetcar suburb that all these other homes display.  But it wasn’t good enough for the buyer.  Most likely the new house will be bigger, hugging the lot even more tightly than its predecessor.  Many urban planners call this approach wasteful, since the previous home, whatever condition it might have been in before it faced the dozer, was indubitably built to last the same amount of time as the surviving neighbors.  But this deep-pocketed buyer decided that the desirability of the location in southern University City transcended the shortcomings of the house—but not enough to retain the house itself.  The question becomes what is more wasteful: destruction of a viable house, or the willful bypassing of existing homes to build a much larger house in a greenfield?

For many observers, the answer to this question may arrive in a year or two, when this new house will most likely be complete.  Will it blend in with its neighbors, or will it seem oversized?  Chances are strong that the answer will be the latter of the two.  After all, if the previous house simply suffered from outdated engineering systems, a cramped floor plan, or deferred maintenance, it would possibly have been cheaper to address these issues without complete demolition and new construction.  Barring a concentrated effort from the neighborhood association to enforce conformity in the new construction (quite possibly through pursuit of Historic District status), the new house will stand out, either because the construction materials will lack patina, or it will consume more of the lot—and probably both.

Aside from the wastefulness, planners often harshly criticize the trend toward teardowns because they promote a jarring non-conformity in comfortable, stable (typically urban) neighborhoods.  I’m not as cynical.  After all, plenty of affluent homeowners are perfectly happy building their 6,000 square foot homes in the exurbs where they can buy a lot more land at a much lower price.  If it weren’t for the teardown opportunity, these homebuyers would simply contribute to further decentralization through a McMansion in the hinterlands.  Teardowns typically embody an uncomfortable collision of taste cultures: the bigger (and newer) is better mentality up against an idyllic domesticity substantiated by conformity toward a shared nostalgia.  A community like University City, fractured through its disinvested north and aristocratic south, needs as much reaffirmation of its “good half” to offset its persistent population loss in the other half.  And, even if this new house looks ridiculous, it won’t be alone: across the street is a neighbor with brown brick in the front and red in the back.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Installing one life form; inhibiting another.

I can’t resist the occasional opportunity to showcase egregious impediments on sidewalks, particularly in locations where it seems like the arguments for pedestrianism are strongest, like in the downtown of this country’s 29th largest metropolitan area, Kansas City, Missouri. 
The east side of Grand Boulevard just north of East 10th Street offers a continuous, urban street wall abutting a generous sidewalk, but what’s going on with those planters to the left of the two pedestrians in the distance?  It’s possible that in early October when I took these photos, the seasonal plantings had already retreated, but it does seem strange that it’s hard to find even a blade of grass in any of them.  They’re bulky and imposing on their own terms, but the lamps spaced between every other planter box—bearing a passing resemblance to the emergency lighting commonly seen on university campuses—are the real puzzler here.  The lighting narrows the gap among the already meager intervals between planter boxes, discouraging all but the skinniest pedestrians from squeezing through at the spaces that are still free of lamps.  In short, it forms a wall separating the street from the sidewalk.

It’s a safe bet that the planters are more of a deterrent to jaywalking than a decorative object.  As this Google Streetview from June 2011 indicates, even during more verdant times, the investment in maintaining the shrubbery is minimal.  The more recent photo suggests that whoever manages these planters has extirpated most of the bushes altogether.  I’m not such a pro-pedestrian ideologue that I believe jaywalking should be acceptable under any circumstances, but this big of a partition between the sidewalk and the road serves to inhibit lateral movement even when there is very little vehicular traffic—like 5:45 pm when I took this photo.  It vaguely resembles the curbside fences one finds in authoritarian Singapore to prevent jaywalking.

Stepping back to the other side of 10th Street reveals that the impediment is even more elaborate than the first photo indicated.
Right at the crosswalk sit four more cylindrical planters, ostensibly squeezed in almost as an afterthought.  Did the boxes along the sidewalk prove insufficient?  My suspicion is that these corner plantings intend to discourage “curb jumping”, when a vehicle a large hitch turns the corner too tightly.  Last year, with the help of photographer Nicolette English, I pointed out a numberof rural examples where semis had clearly jumped the curb with their hitches, causing damage to infrastructure (and, most likely, to their hitch).  In many older downtowns, the narrowness of the road already imposes a certain degree of caution among truckers, but many of Kansas City’s streets are wide enough that they depend on other obstructions in order to protect crosswalk signs, streetlights, and other sensitive streetscape devices.  In addition, the small radius created by the design of the curb already requires a sharp turn to maneuver here, so it’s hard to imagine a large vehicle could turn right onto Grand Boulevard from 10th Street at high speed.

Whatever the intent of the concrete planters in terms of separating transportation modes, they create an unambiguously negative effect at this intersection.  Again, Google Streetviewdepicts the intersection during sunnier skies, but meager greenery only does so much to mitigate the appearance of a small fortification surrounding this already imposing building (with metal bars on all the windows, no less).  Bear in mind, at this corner the sidewalk’s junction with the intersection allows for a crosswalk—traversing the road would not qualify as jaywalking under any circumstances.  But the design of these planters obscures the access from an already faded crosswalk, so that a pedestrian unfamiliar with the environment may question whether he or she is allowed to cross.  Wheelchair dependent persons would likely find it particularly difficult to negotiate from the street up the curb, since the grade change seems big enough potentially to violate ADA standards—it’s not a perfectly smooth ramp up to the sidewalk—and may help to explain a puddle during an otherwise dry period.  But then the wheelchair still has to maneuver around those curvy planters.  Just look at how unaccommodating it is from this angle:

If anything, this enhancement to the streetscape carries with it an ancillary goal: to deflect attention from the fact that Grand Boulevard is alarmingly devoid of life.  After all, I took these photos just after the close of the workday.  My suspicion is that most downtowns can claim far more street trees, benches, planters, decorative lights and informational signage than they ever did in the 1940s, for example—those days when downtowns were still the hub of commerce.  In an era when downtown Kansas City was the epicenter for agribusiness across a broad swath of the Great Plains, these sidewalks would have been flooded with people, and the installation of planters would not just have seemed unnecessary, it would have been a downright irritation.  These days, although the city’s center has benefited from heavy investment in an attempt to enliven the downtown and encourage residences (most notably through the high profile Power and Light District), many of the historic buildings in the northern half remain underutilized if not altogether vacant.  The notion that a throng of pedestrians will need to cross 10th Street at Grand Boulevard is a pipe dream, so impediments like these survive, both to endow some deliberate sidewalk clutter in the absence of pedestrians and also because so few pedestrians are there to flag this as an obstacle.

By no means am I intended to denigrate Kansas City exclusively here—urban settings share this same self-defeating dichotomy across the country and at a variety of scales.  For example, I pointed out a costly streetscape enhancement project inthe small town of Edinburgh, Indiana a few years ago, which helped populate the main street with trees, lights, hanging flowers—everything but people.  Sometimes the nuanced placement of these enhancements is all it takes to morph them from an enticement toward street life to a repellent.  Many cities in developing countries will strike the typical American eye as far more vibrant in terms of busy sidewalks, yet their impecunious municipal governments rarely have the money for all those fancy benches, trees, or landscaping.  But they do have obscene traffic, exacerbated by the glut of jaywalking pedestrians.  No doubt the aesthetic distinctions between densely populated chaos and sterile order owes a great deal to individual preferences, but just imagine if each one of those planters along Grand Boulevard were transformed into a person: the character of the street would change dramatically.  It’s not just that it would host organic life—it already does that when the plants are in season and maintained—but the street would host mobile, volitional living things, just like it does at the Power and Light District a few blocks away.  All the concrete-encased landscaping in the world can substitute for that.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

From bookstore to lobby?

My latest is available now on UrbanIndy.com--about the possible loss of terrific retail space at the Barnes and Thornburg building  Though it's probably only of local interest, I'll mention it because of its opportunities for great photographs (provided I had a good camera and was a good photographer).  Here's the outside of the building:


And here are a few of the inside:
 


It's a great space, fronting South Meridian Street in the heart of some of the city's nightlife.  It was last occupied by Borders Books, but closed a few months before the firm went out of business completely, meaning that it has been vacant for about 18 months.  Yet the owners are now thinking of removing it from the lease and instead converting it into a giant lobby.  Admittedly it's an albatross for the owners while it remains unleased and dusty, but won't that shut it out of revenue generation permanently?  I encourage commenter to offer their own thoughts and suggestions for an optimal use of the space.  Read the full details on the Urban Indy website, and thanks as always for reading.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Amidst all the links in the chain, a new shape emerges.


When zipping across a rural landscape on a limited access highway, the visual impact of the exit ramps—and the various goods or services that they access—begin to erode.  To those unfamiliar with the landscape, these exits often all look alike. Even for those motorists who know their precise surroundings, it would be hard to describe these junctions as anything other than monotonous.  But high speeds are only partly to blame for this blur of homogeneity.  Everything looks the same because it largely is the same: gas (BP, Shell), food (McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King) and lodging (Comfort Inn, Days Inn, Hampton Inn).  On a particularly long road trip, one might witness contrasting offerings between mile eight and mile eight hundred, but this is more reflective of regional differences than anything else: the restaurants at the mile eight be indicative of Northeastern tastes, while the restaurants at eight hundred reflect Southern preferences.  Both stretches of the highway nonetheless feature corporate chains, and the widely known national ones like the aforementioned will pervade from coast to coast.  So, even though I’ll confess I had to get off the interstate highway in order to take these photos (and they still didn’t turn out great), the jaunty angles and windshield reflections offer more distinctions to the pictures than the commercial landscape itself.


They come from just outside Exit 63 along I-70 near Vandalia, Illinois, but it could easily be anywhere in the Midwest, or elsewhere in the country, for that matter.  Wendy’s.  Sonic.  Arby’s.  Subway.   This Exit 63 may reveal more uniformity than most of the others along this stretch of I-70, in fact.  Vandalia, one of the state’s first capitals, is a reasonably large town of approximately 7,000, and it is situated about midway along the corridor between the outer Illinois suburbs of St. Louis, and Effingham, Illinois—about 35 miles to the west and east, respectively.  Thus, the land around Exit 63 offers an excellent opportunity to host establishments that both the locals and passers-by will patronize.

As is often the case, the presence of national chains here is, in terms of Vandalia’s inventory of taxable properties, a good thing.  While it may nullify much of a sense of the exit ramp’s uniqueness, the presence of so many chains is a sign of prosperity and comparatively high land values.  (As is often the case, the low-rent downtown of Vandalia is almost completely dominated by local establishments…when a building isn’t completely vacant.) Compare the photos above with the Exit 52 along I-70, at the town of Mulberry Grove.  Google Streetview reveals the Mulberry Grove ramps on both the south and the north sides of the interstate offer little to nothing in terms of goods or services; the town of less than 750 people simply isn’t big enough to justify a truck stop or hotel, especially when Vandalia’s busy exit is just 10 miles further down the road.  If anything, a minor exit like the one at Mulberry Grove is more likely to host locally owned establishments, since the county road that links I-70 to the town gets significantly lower traffic volumes, resulting in cheaper land that equity-poor entrepreneurs can afford.  Conversely, the higher costs at the Vandalia exit have pushed away almost all proprietors except for the ones with deep pockets, which usually translate to landscape of franchises from regionally or nationally recognized chains.

At the same time that Vandalia’s higher income density encourages a greater agglomeration of commerce in general, it poses greater challenges for individual establishments.  How do the owners at these hotels, restaurants, and gas stations distinguish themselves from the same establishments just 10 or 15 miles further down the interstate?  Clearly one proprietor found a way.
On a highway lacking any other distinctive visual stimuli, this stands out like a beacon: a hotel tipping its hat to the Gateway Arch, St. Louis’ signature monument, which the typical motorist traveling westward on I-70 would confront head-on just 70 miles further.  Obviously this replica pales in comparison to the real McCoy, but it certainly stands out in comparison to anything else along the highway.  Despite its blurriness, the photograph below, from the opposite angle, also reveals how well the signage for the Economy Inn holds up against its neighbor:
The conventional plyon sign used throughout suburban America simply doesn’t stand tall enough to motorists traveling at 70 miles per hour; by the time they would see it, it would be too late to pull over on the exit ramp, so they would simply continue 15 miles to the next exit that offers virtually identically services.  Thus, the high-rise sign is ubiquitous along rural instates precisely because it lingers in the horizon for several minutes before drivers encounter the business directly.  The stanchions hoisting the signs along I-70 in Vandalia are several times taller than the Arby’s, Sonic, or Wendy’s buildings themselves.  But as prominent as they may seem, the sheer redundancy of high-rise signs every few miles has diluted their efficacy.

The Economy Inn’s promotional tactic is simple, humorless and not particularly audacious.  But the sign serves as a cheeky overture to the skyline that westbound travelers will likely confront about 40 minutes later.  It owes its communicative strength to its referential source: Eero Saarinen and Hannskarl Bandel’s masterpiece.  Quietly approaching its 50th birthday, the Gateway Arch has proven such an effective landmark that it routinely thrusts this medium-sized city into the Top 10 or even Top 5 most recognizable skylines on opinion polls.  Roadside America derives much of its appeal from iteration—reference loops that provide a certain level of hype as the travelers approach the antecedent.  Since so much of the landscape is built on repetition anyway—those same overpasses, green-and-white informational signs, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Holiday Inn—the deviant attraction stands out like a shofar played during a string quartet.  Regardless of the quality of rooms at this budget hotel (TripAdvisor isn’t exactly complimentary), I bet the Economy Inn boasts a higher nightly occupancy and a higher assessed value than most of its neighbors, all thanks to this unconventional little sign.  It catches the eye.  The real question is whether the sign was born during humbler times, when only a few services stood at the Vandalia exit ramp, land prices were lower, and local establishments still had a toehold.  Maybe some mom-and-pop proprietors originally built it to stand out from the competition.  And—better yet, since it apparently was a Travelodge Vandalia until recently—maybe the Economy Inn is a local operation interspersed with all the national chains, hanging on amidst fierce competition thanks to its visually distinct method of self-promotion.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Tending the student flock.


With any urban infrastructure project dedicated exclusively to separating pedestrians from vehicular traffic, the benefit is typically a double-edged sword.  While the investment may allow pedestrians to cross on their own volition at any point in time, it also expedites the flow of traffic at higher speeds through what could be a pedestrian-dense area.  Instead of improving the ability for foot-travelers and wheels to engage more harmoniously, it forces them into non-engagement.  Any prudent public works project aims to improve the level of service for as many modes of transportation as possible, providing an aggregate net benefit while, to cull from the Hippocratic oath “primum non nocere” (first, do no harm).  Obviously not every transportation enhancement meets all of these ambitions, and all too many meet none of them.  But a radical earth-moving initiative that places pedestrians and vehicles at completely different altitudes will at least induce a formidable change on the landscape—whether the change is necessary or even positive requires evaluation of an individual project’s merits.

The average university campus is a often a wonderful laboratory for pioneering innovative means of traffic management or transportation enhancements: they usually have the combination of an on-site residential student population that is heavily dependent on the two feet for getting around, coupled with a high concentration of jobs that draw vehicle-dependent commuters over a broad radius.  Many universities in urban settings are also benefit from proximity to major transit stops.  Washington University of St. Louis is no exception.
Straddling multiple political jurisdictions, virtually any major street improvement project will inevitably encounter its share of hurdles in terms of financing and implementation.  While the majority of the Danforth Campus (primarily undergraduate) rests within unincorporated St. Louis County, portions of it sit within the municipalities of Clayton and University City; the actual City of St. Louis only contains a small fragment.  The Forsyth Pedestrian Underpass pictured below ostensibly underwent extensive repairs earlier in the year, with costs split between a federal grant and Washington University.
It provides completely protected, ADA-compliant access under Forsyth Boulevard, at the approximate location indicated by the blue rectangle in the map below.
More than half of the Danforth Campus sits on the north side of the road, but a considerable expansion continues south, including the majority of the residence halls.  No doubt this is a heavily traveled passage, and by most metrics, the design appears effective.  Here’s an approach from the north side of the road, heading through the parking lot southward toward the underpass:
Just a bit further, with the underpass in sight:
And pivoting to the left, another ramp that connects directly to the sidewalk along Forsyth.
A fairly obvious but nonetheless smart decision was the inclusion of visual elements that enhance underpass beyond its utilitarian aims.  For example, the walls in the tunnel serve as a series of rotating murals, promoting events (provocatively at times) that will soon take place on campus.  No doubt the displays here change monthly, if not more frequently.
And then, continuing through the underpass and looking behind, the sculptural display (a blue sphere, among other things) through the tunnel.
Had the underpass lacked these colorful flourishes, it would be inevitable that some vandal would insert some on his or her own.  Murals, no matter how crude, have an uncanny ability to deter graffiti artists, who more often than not seek an unmonitored blank canvas.  If graffiti were to accumulate along the Forsyth Underpass, it would immediately convey a sense of insecurity to many users; more likely than not it would encourage other acts of vandalism and perhaps eventually more serious displays of criminality, operating under the elementary tenets of the Broken Windows Theory which I have blogged about in the past.  Another recurrent problem with underpasses, particularly if they are long, is that the absence of natural light renders them shadowy and uninviting, leaving dark corners that could encourage urination or public indecency at best and assault at worst.  Pedestrian advocates typically shy away from underpasses, primarily because they can engender more safety problems than they solve.  The engineering behind the Forsyth Underpass at Washington University seems mindful of the primum non nocere standard: not only does it achieve core functionality, but it also can be informative and aesthetically pleasing.

Despite its general success against many odds, I can’t help but think that the attention to certain details with the Forsyth Underpass also help to shroud its intention to exert a high level of control on its users.  For example, on the south side of the road, pivoting away from the underpass and looking further southward, this is what the pedestrian sees:
For all intents and purposes, it’s an attractive, heavily landscaped path toward the university’s dorms.  But look to the left:
And a bit further:
Either shrubbery or a fence makes it impossible to climb that hill to access the sidewalk on the south side of Forsyth Boulevard.  And it is the same way when one pivots to the right:
I’m clearly looking a bit backward here too, with the road above.  But still no access.  Even if those fences are a temporary installation (the City of Clayton Public Works website does say that peripheral work will continue into the school year), the construction has provided no paved paths to access this side of the street.  It is almost as though the underpass is funneling students directly toward the dorms rather than allowing them to walk along the road.  Contrast this with the northern side of Forsyth Boulevard, where the ramp provides direct access to the street.  From below (as seen before):
And at the top of the ramp (the railing is visible on the far right):

Why is the design of the underpass forcing the students/pedestrians onto a certain path?

That’s not the least of it.  The engineering to the underpass is commendable for not stretching the tunnel to the point that it would be shadowy.  But wouldn’t it be hard for the tunnel ever to be long, considering the width of the street above it?  The previous photo reveals what should be obvious already: Forsyth Boulevard isn’t even a very broad street.  Here’s looking at it perpendicularly southward, with those dorms in the distance:
 
And pivoting a bit to the left:
Only three lanes wide.  Was this really a busy enough arterial to justify separating the pedestrians?  I don’t have traffic counts, but a road of this width couldn’t handle more than moderate levels.  It’s only a collector street cutting through a campus, so maximum speeds will never be high.  It seems even more ridiculous to install an underpass, after considering that a conventional at-grade crosswalk sits just a half-block further to the east:
There it is, at the stop light in the distance.  Pedestrians could just as easily cross there, without having to make unnecessary turns to maneuver the grade change of a ramp and underpass.

Was this underpass really even necessary?  Obviously I don’t know the full political implications at play, and with the Washington University campus straddling so many different boundaries, it is possible that quite a few parties were involved in the negotiation.  But the visual evidence increasingly suggests that the Forsyth Underpass is less of an amenity for students and more of a means of discouraging any pedestrian interference with vehicular traffic.  If this mid-block point is a popular means for students to cross from the dorms to primary academic buildings, wouldn’t a simple guarded, signalized crosswalk have been a much cheaper deterrent to jaywalking?  The only conclusion I can draw is that the installation of this underpass exclusively favors vehicles, preventing them from ever having to stop at anything other than intersections with other roads.  Aside from the fact that pedestrians at the underpass don’t have to wait for traffic to clear in order to cross, it otherwise impinges upon their options.  Like the fence at the crosswalk along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue that I observed a few years ago, this expensive public works initiative prioritizes wheels over feet.  University City, Missouri is, by and large, a pedestrian friendly environment (it also has good St. Louis Metrolink access), and it should be, with all those students.  But the deficiencies still abound, proving how difficult it is to unlearn old habits from nearly a century of placing the car at the top of the cultural pecking order.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Surgeon General’s warning: “It’s Mail Pouch Tobacco. Treat yourself.”


I’ve gotten in the habit of dropping the word “meme” into blog articles as though it has become a part of common parlance.  (Come to think of it, I probably overuse “parlance” too.)  The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “meme” is that it is “an element of a culture or system of behavior passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means”.  The Merriam-Webster  includes the abstract nouns “idea”, “style”, and “usage” in its definition, but otherwise it says more or less the same thing.  A meme seems to be an inherently sociological phenomenon—the iterations that it encapsulates are antithetical to biological means of transmission.  As of yet, the word seems to evade most thesauruses; as recently as fifteen years ago, social theorists and cultural critics bandied the term around freely, and, inevitably, journalists, who have long perused the corpus of this coterie, picked up the term.  From there it proliferated wildly, almost mimetically, to couch its Greek antecedent.  My guess is that while not every Boomer and Xer is acquainted with the word, it is rare that a Millennial would graduate with a liberal arts degree and not learn to use it correctly.  A meme is not necessarily the same as afad, though most fads originate as memes.  A meme is less temporally ephemeral and rarely as ubiquitous—much like the word itself, most people could remain oblivious to a meme, provided they don’t engage with the specific milieu in which the meme has both spawned and flourished.

If the word still seems shadowy after this definition, allow for a photographic illustration that many Americans have seen even if they haven’t overtly contemplated it.
On the side of a building in the two-block main street of tiny St. Elmo, Illinois is a faded advertisement for Mail Pouch Tobacco.  To someone from Maine or Mississippi or Montana it might seem like no more than the vintage bric-a-brac you’d see along the walls of an Applebee’s, but most adult residents of the lower Midwest, Appalachia, or the Mid-Atlantic have seen one in person.  The Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company, founded in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1890, initially resorted to advertising on the walls of commercial buildings such as the one above, or this one below, in Findlay, Ohio:
Pretty faded stuff, and this Ohio variant most likely sat behind an adjacent building for many years that eventually faced the demolition ball.

The crisper iterations of the Mail Pouch Tobacco ad—the ones by which it has been immortalized—grace the roofs and sides of wooden barns across the countryside in about a dozen states.  I haven’t come across a good vintage one recently in my travels, so I will have to crib from another source:
Other angles of this same barn are visible at the Vintage Log website. 

Bloch Brothers Tobacco shifted its focus toward the barns and away from brick buildings a little after 1900.  It doesn’t take a doctorate in economics to guess the reasons: rented advertisement space on rural barns is much cheaper than urban centers (even if many were small towns), and barns are ubiquitous.  Most of the good chronicles of Mail Pouch advertising (such as Jack Goddard’s account of its cultural importance in Beaver County, Pennsylvania) recognize that the rate paid to barn owners of about $1 or $2 a year wasn’t even much by early 20th century standards.  (In the earliest days, they were rewarded with tobacco or subscriptions to The Saturday Evening Post.)  The bigger incentive was that the barns would receive a fresh coat of paint every few years, helping to resist moisture intrusion and extend the lives of the barns themselves.  The relationship between landowners and Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company proved symbiotic: as the program peaked at the halfway point of the century, historians estimate that the standardized Mail Pouch Tobacco advertisement graced the faces of over 20,000 barns.  Other companies such as Burma Shave and Beech-Nut quickly caught on to the effectiveness of this carpet bomb approach, but Mail Pouch Tobacco remained pre-eminent.  The campaign suffered a setback with the passage of the Highway Beautification Program of 1965, which seriously restricted the proximity of billboards or other mounted advertisements along federal highways—a policy that tacitly acknowledged Mail Pouch Tobacco ads as visual blight.  Many proponents of the barn painting no doubt saw this as an elitist gesture, prompting officials (at the behest of West Virginia Senator James Randolph) to adapt a 1974 amendment that exempted Mail Pouch barns from the restrictions, by classifying them as “folk heritage barns”.

In the second half of the century, the continued survival of Mail Pouch barns depended heavily on a single individual: Harley Warrick of rural Ohio, who, by his own estimations painted and re-painted over 20,000 barns.  The logo for mail pouch, Spartan but assertive, depended on versatility because the “easel” wasn’t the least bit standardized; no two barns are identical.  Warrick and his team averaged over 200 barns a year and could, at the height of his productivity, complete two full ads in one day.  This most famous barn-painter retired in 1992, and the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company (after decades of merges and acquisitions, called Swisher International Group, but still based in Wheeling) suspended the barn painting campaign at this point.  Warrick died in 2000, but his legacy survives through American primitive/folk art expositions hosted by theSmithsonian and other globally recognized institutions. 

Unfortunately, in the near future, it’s possible that museum exhibits may be the place to encounter Warrick’s oeuvre.  Time hasn’t exactly been kind to the Mail Pouch campaign; even in his lifetime, Warrick estimated that less than 1,000 barns survive.  Lacking an organized restoration initiative, their numbers are even fewer today.  Passive decomposition is probably a greater culprit than active demolition; anyone driving across a 100-mile stretch of the rural Midwest or Northeast will need more than fingers and toes to track all the collapsing wooden barns.  Mail Pouch Barn Stormers groups are doing their utmost to preserve this endangered piece of Americana, and this initiative proves more than ever that its cultural ascension to the status of a meme: it permeated enough of the collective consciousness to foment a widespread emotional connection.

No example that I have seen better conveys Mail Pouch’s expressive power and resiliency than this barn on a rural road not so far from Tiffin, Ohio.
Yep, it’s a bona fide ad poking up from over the field.  I got a little closer so I could appreciate it.
Hardly a Mail Pouch aficionado, I could still tell that something wasn’t quite right about this.  The colors were legitimate, including the pale blue stripes to the left and right of the sign.  But the letters were too tall and skinny, each row was spaced too closely to the next, and the centering for the “TREAT YOURSELF TO THE BEST” was off.  And the colors just looked way too bold and fresh for it to be even from Warrick’s final years on the job in the early 1990s.  Was it a hack job?  Not even.
Nothing so insidious.  Though the red paint is already widely chipped, the lettering is still in its toddler years, dating from just 2007.  It might not be polished, but it’s a tribute if there ever was one.  Clearly at least a handful of folks in north-central Ohio want to keep the Mail Pouch legacy from fading into extinction, even if its at the expense of the logo’s typographical fundamentals.

Perhaps Mail Pouch Tobacco barns aren’t as an legitimate of a meme as even some contemporary fads.  After all, the campaign was hardly a bottom-up effort; the Bloch Brothers clearly saw a brilliant promotional opportunity and took advantage of it.  It didn’t emerge organically.  But it surely owed at least part of its repetition and proliferation—and it owes virtually all of its continued survival—to a certain “contagion” with humble origins: Landowner A saw what Landowner B was doing to keep his/her barn in tiptop shape, so why can’t I do it too?  Paradigms of contemporary life would suggest that urban settings are the best crucible for the dissemination of memes: after all, they flourish when an agglomeration of people can lubricate them, so to speak.  But billboards continue to thrive in both urban and the most rural of settings; in the age of information, a cultural artifact can “go viral” without having any physical incarnation.  Sites like Youtube spawn digital memes almost every day.  Mail Pouch Tobacco barns are a commodity (I cannot verify if the tobacco is even available for purchase these days) that owes much of its contemporary stewardship to its increasing scarcity.  Though rural in origins, a small-town folk historian and an urban hipster who bought a shirt at Zazzle.com most likely share a core emotional affinity for the advertisement, and who am I to judge the sincerity of their fondness for the meme?  Both depend on the Internet to perpetuate their admiration of this iconic cultural gesture.  I suspect the barn painters outside of Findlay used an online photo as their source of inspiration too.