Tunnels to Freedom

This article should clear up any misgivings about how private transit companies would expand their networks. If the legal environment was such that companies could homestead land deep underneath others’ property, then I’m sure private enterprises would be building subways in every American city. That’s how it was in New York, back when the largest subway system in the world (after the Tube) was built entirely by private companies.

For the sake of our lungs and lifestyle, get the State out of transit. All they do is suffocate mass transit and build highways through our neighborhoods. Jane Jacobs, you should have been a libertarian.

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The Free States of New York

On the subject of New York City secession, one fellow wrote that the 5 Boroughs should secede along with the suburban counties of Upstate New York, Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. It would look something like this:

I would like to take that idea one step further. I have developed a map of several states that could be carved out of what is now New York. It is my theory that large states turn to statism because they are ungovernable. A writer once wrote, “quality does not scale.” This is often true. Companies face this issue when they grow too large to evolve rapidly with their market or connect with their customers. So, here is a first draft of a new map of the New Netherland region of the northeast:

Interestingly enough, another fellow had a similar idea that he developed into the alternative history of the Republic of New Netherland.

While that was just a thought experiment, my initiative is quite serious. New York doesn’t make sense in its current configuration. The only feeling upstaters and downstaters have for each other is disdain. Albany steals all our money and uses to further suffocate the upstate economy with government programs. Upstate has virtually emptied out under the weight of poor governance. The answer is to divide the states. Let the City-State of Gotham be born. Just that move would resolve tensions between East and West Jersey, and New-York and New-England Connecticut. Even Pennsylvania should probably lyse into two states.

Comments welcome.

Ghost Suburbs

This fantastically interesting site cataloguing defunct (mostly during the nationalized years) railway stations in Britain started me thinking about how nature re-absorbs our work so quickly, and then about the next historical oddity in this vein: ghost suburbs.

By this, I mean vast swaths of energy-intensive, and aesthetically demented, urban sprawl that may soon be the next victim of changing priorities. I am here supposing that the late fossil fuel crisis will provide enough incentive for the middle classes to abandon the suburbs and return to the traditional cities and towns of the pre-automotive era. It may not happen this time, but rest assured these crises will pass in waves, each more dire than the last, until we wean ourselves from fossil fuels. We may still drive fuel-cell or battery-powered vehicles, but the fact is it’s energy-intensive to drive everywhere. If energy prices continue to rise, eventually the stubborn car-folk will start moving back to the city centers, and after a generation of grumbling, relearn how to live on a human-scale. Cars may well be used like trains: as a means of getting from one city/town to another. Once you’ve arrived at your destination, the car is parked until you leave. Frankly, at that time, I think most travellers will find it preferable to take the train – no traffic, less energy use (i.e. cost), and more time for personal entertainment.

What tickles me about this transformation is picturing the millions of square miles of shopping centers, eight-lane roads, vinyl-clad carbon-copied houses, exurban mid-rise office towers, and single-use franchise-saturated malls left to nature to slowly disintegrate. Can you imagine what it would look like twenty years later? We’ll zoom past it all on our high-speed intercity trains (private, of course) and wonder how people lived like that for so long:

“What did you do if you didn’t have a car? What if you needed food?”

“Did architects really think vinyl-siding was attractive?”

“Look at the signs. All the stores and restaurants are the same in each center. Didn’t they get bored of that?”

“How did the fuel companies convince people to pump their own gas, when everyone knows the fumes are toxic?”

You and I will be old-timers by then, and we’ll try to explain the mindset of today’s suburbanites. Though we will have seen the car-people try their best to infuse their asphalt wastelands with the vitality of real cities, the ruins will look to our children as decrepit as downtown Detroit.

Perhaps the main shopping malls will serve as focal points for the generation of new cities. Developers may build, as they are now, residential and office towers on the perimeter of and on top of the malls. Slowly, the expansive parking lots that dissever buildings and uses from each other will be in-filled with houses and business – the stuff of life.

Still, if one ventures out from these mall-cities of the future, they will see the asphalt lots turning into gravel, the shopping centers overgrown with weeds, and nary a car in sight. Without any two-ton monsters to pollute their lungs and mow them down, our wanderer and his children might get a game of footy going. It will be unspeakably peaceful and remarkable.

The Withdrawal Method

What do we expect of ourselves – the radicals and reformers of history – when it comes to living day-to-day amongst the instinctual conservatism of the masses?

They seem not to care what temperature it is, as long as the gradients are wide. If they boil to death, fear not, because the boiling is not today, but years away, and further your friends and family share the pot.

There are those of us with high ideals, which risk being pulled into the rushing stream of pragmatism. We are taught to make do, to compromise, to leave alone those things which we cannot control. And yet, we know that this is so opposite the answer that we need that it illustrates why we are lost to start.

The car, for example, is a beast that lures us, swallows us, and waits for us. It offers us convenience, then demands we shape our world to suit it. Think about it – you blasted suburbanites. Could you walk to a store if you wanted to? No. Mostly, you are trapped in your stick-built, two-thousand square feet.

And now, we are at a juncture where the reformers you have ignored have been borne out. George Dubya Bush, Pretender to the Presidency, hoisted up in his demagoguery by suburbia, has been a key player in the forced end of cheap energy. His foreign wars, fought in the name of oil interests, have collapsed the federal currency and driven oil prices to record highs.

But, instead of giving up that wasteful and ugly lifestyle, the car-people are working hard to be lazy: hypermiling, buying hybrids, carpooling. And then there’s us, the lonely reformers, steps ahead and pushing against the immovable rock of habit. There’s only one place for us to live on this continent: New York City. So, we try our best with its elevated housing prices, a symptom of so many people wanting something and so little providing.

Developers, take note, we need more Manhattan and less LA. We need more pedestrianized roads and less superhighways. Robert Moses was the monkeyrencher; Jane Jacobs built the city.

The radicals and reformers, we see these the future, and feel the pain of Cassandra until those who prefer to keep their heads low finally join us on our pedestal.

The Grange

The Grange neighborhood, in Downtown Toronto, has a storied history as a haven of wealth and class in the heart of the city.

Now, that situation has largely changed for the worse. I’m not saying that it’s a bad place to live, because it isn’t. In fact, a new mid-rise condominium, 9T6, is putting up its curtain wall on St. Patrick Street. However, the neighborhood has lost some of its identity, and some of its livability, due to encroachment from Chinatown, aggressive bums, lack of a good grocery store, and a forgotten identity. The cause is what I like to call market transition: its proximity to the commercial core and older housing stock has prepped the area financially for a dominant commercial use. This beautiful thing about a market is that its pressures are resistible. If more attention is paid to the character of the neighborhood then it can be the vital heart of the downtown west-side once again.

So, here I will lay out the neighborhood profile, and proposals for future growth.

Profile

Name: The Grange

Landmarks: Grange Manor, Grange Park, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), Village By The Grange

Colors: grange green, manor red, cream

Boundaries: Northern – Baldwin/Elm St. Eastern – Simcoe St. Southern – Queen St. Western – Huron/Soho St.

Map: Google

Dominant Use(s): Mixed/Residential/Cultural

Character: Artistic intellectual. Young hipsters and older Chinese families.

History: 19th Century – a large plantation estate.
Early 20th Century – a gentrified streetcar suburb of the old Town of York.
21st Century – fighting off the uncanny Chinatown.

Features: Pedestrian-friendly. Privately-owned, public-access cultural attractions of Grange Park and the AGO. Baldwin Street independent shops and restaurants. Queen Street hipster village.

Proposals

50 Stephanie: This building has got to go. I had the ‘pleasure’ of touring it while apartment hunting in the neighborhood. It’s a slum. It seems like it was a good idea gone wrong: a high rise on the South-West corner of Grange Park should make for a neighborhood icon. Instead, we have a staggered-concrete-facade, third-world mess that has a permanent fence blocking its ample green space from the rest of Grange Park.

The building should be bought & torn down. A future project could see a tall, thin, glass, modernist tower, like the Trump World Tower in New York, right on the southern property line, to allow a large contribution of parkland to Grange Park (retained by the owner, but public-access). Or, perhaps a future tower could cover most of the lot, but with an open, arched ground level plaza that provided cover for park-goers in foul weather. Whatever the result, the redevelopment of this lot is a high priority in The Grange renaissance.

University Settlement: Grange Road should be closed and converted into additional parkland and a continuation of the pedestrian pathway. The University Settlement, to my eyes, detracts from the aesthetic of the park. It is a utilitarian structure, and while its purposes might be noble, there is no reason to consider it untouchable. I imagine a second high-rise, perhaps mirroring the 50 Stephanie redevelopment, that could contain a cultural center as well as other uses. It could be a club tower, filled with special purpose rooms, organizations, studios, and halls – it could even provide OCAD with the room it desperately needs to expand. The base could be the AGOra project outlined below. The high rise would, like 50 Stephanie, provide more park space by shrinking the footprint. Even the Stephanie car park could be joined into the park. Whatever it becomes, it’s important to have this sensitive corner’s scale match the growth of its surroundings.

The Grange Soccer Club: All the great neighborhoods of London have their own football clubs. The Grange should be no different. The Grange SC could start by a simple pickup game in Grange Park. Eventually, it could grow to become part of a future Ontario League System, and maybe play in the top flight against Hippie SC of Guelph or North Toronto SC – whatever teams happen to develop once a real football culture develops in Ontario. Whatever pitch this team eventually occupies, it must be called Grange Manor, after the great house and estate that gave birth to The Grange.

Sobey’s: The Grange needs a grocery store, more than anything. To undergo a badly-needed process of gentrification, The Grange needs to attract more than just artists. Yuppies bring wealth, power, and organization to a neighborhood. They often change an artistic area from hip and impractical to intensely desirable. However, yuppies require a few creature comforts to flourish, notably a grocery store. Most Grange residents rely on the myriad markets of Spadinatown and Kensington Market for provisions, but many also pay delivery charges for Grocery Gateway to bring them everyday foods. There are also the many local restaurants that keep Grangers fed. Still, there is a huge untapped demand for a real grocery store. Currently, Grangers must walk a kilometer and a half to Yonge & College for a supermarket. One Sobey’s in The Grange, possibly within a new high-density development proposed herein, would be a big relief for residents who like to cook. A grocery store is one of a few stable establishment that ‘make’ a neighborhood. Sobey’s, Dominion, Whole Foods, won’t you ‘make’ The Grange?

Pedestrianization: This proposal is part of a larger plan for downtown Toronto: pedestrianization. This can happen two ways, by means of the PATH system or car-free streets. The PATH system, which many Torontonians don’t even know exists, is a network of underground tunnels that connect the buildings of the Financial District. While currently administered by the City of Toronto, it was originally spearheaded by the voluntary cooperation of commercial high-rise developers in the city’s core. Due to its nature, the PATH is covered, temperature controlled, and allows for the conduct of normal life through the vicious Toronto winter. Carfree streets would create a more interlinked neighborhood as well. European city centres’ whole aesthetic is shaped by ridding themselves of cars. Aside from being ugly, cars create the ever-present fear of being run over. This has more of a depressing effect on local commerce than many realize. It can be seen on a grand scale with the installation of raised-elevation highways – which have destroyed the fabric of whole city boroughs.

Baldwin Street, a main drag at the north end of The Grange, already holds carfree Sundays during the summer. These events allow the local establishment to spill forth into a kind of constant street fair. I would prefer to see the PATH system undergo privatization into a non-profit standards organization (essentially setting the rules for voluntary participation by individual building owners). I think this will put it back on the ‘path’ to growth (which seems to have stopped or slowed when the city took over). Even if it doesn’t, The Grange landlords and developers could create an underground pedestrian system that serves only the locality – much as Manulife and The Bay did in Yorkville. This will allow street-level access for cars, weather protection for pedestrians, and creation of a vibrant social space underground.

Grange AGOra: Grange Park should continue to expand. It will soon merge with OCAD’s Butterfield Park, which is a noteworthy first step. I would encourage the AGO to create an indoor plaza integral to Grange Park, in order to provide a forum for their works and a neighborhood space in the winter. This should be on land acquired, as the park is already quite small. Again looking to Europe, we often seen urban neighborhoods with a central plaza or park, as envisioned by Jane Jacobs. This area is not meant for anything in particular, but acts as a meeting place for a melange of interpersonal activities that lack a forum in everyday life. Adolescents illustrate the lack of these sorts of spaces when they hang out in stores, on streets, or anywhere else they can until being shooed away.

It is right and makes sense for there to be an open meeting place for the propagation of civil society. In Toronto, it makes even more sense for this place to be shielded from the elements, preferably by a high glass roof which gives the impression of openness. If developed, the Grange AGOra would fill a niche missing not only in The Grange, but throughout Toronto’s Jacobs-inspired urban design. Sure, Toronto may be a ‘city within a park,’ but those parks are useless for most of the year! A covered, privately-maintained civic space would provide a warm respite from the solitude and gloom of the long Canadian winter.

In Conclusion

Again, The Grange is a neighborhood with huge potential. Rents are still affordable; it is right downtown; the history is rich. It’s up to the residents, the institutions, and the developers to make The Grange the premier district of this fair city. Many of these proposals will help, but The Grange suffers most from neglect. The key players are allowing it to be swallowed by Chinatown, the ‘Discovery District,’ and Queen Street. Identity is critical in a post-modern world, and I hardly ever see The Grange on a neighborhood map of Toronto. With the chattering voices of Toronto’s many neighborhoods, The Grange must scream to be heard – and have something to say. This profile begins to tell the story of The Grange: where it has been, where it is now, and where it must go. Go.

Pedemapia: A Step Forward

This newspaper’s article, entitled “Neighborhood Maps & Meetups” drew several worthwhile responses. The article made a call for work to commence on neighborhood and pedestrian maps of major cities. In turn, it drew the interest of those who are already working on these important endeavors.

Pedemapia is one such proposal. Created by a Maen Zaghloul of Amman, Jordan, it is astounding in its simplicity. The idea, contained in a unassuming Microsoft Word document, is primarily to urge map makers to add pedestrian routes to maps, but secondarily it depicts a particular symbol set to depict gradation. Changes in grade are important bits of information to walkers and cyclists.

Pedemapia appears to be the kernel of a future pedestrian mapping site. I recommend that the author pursue this goal. However lofty it may seem now, it is a chance at greatness. With a meaningful investment of time and money, and perhaps a partnership with Google Maps or Mapquest, the dream of Pedemapia is well within reach. The yield would most likely be a small fortune, and the gratitude of pedestrians worldwide.

In other news, a company called Maponics now offers detailed and researched neighborhood maps for sale, if anyone is so inclined to purchase one. If you are looking for some free entertainment, Google Labs is developing another revolutionary product: Google Transit. So far, it allows residents of select cities to chart a route on mass transit as easily as one can chart an automotive route on Google Maps. There’s still no Toronto. Hear that Google? Add Toronto. And New York for Spooner’s sake! Regardless, it is the latest salvo against the car-focused modern era.

I still believe that pedestrian and neighborhood maps are highly relevant informational tools for the postmodern era. Current maps reinforce cars and governments as the sources of legitimacy. For isn’t it only ‘public’ landmarks, highways, and roads that are featured. They are all we see of cities, so they are how we see cities. It’s no wonder Robert Moses was allowed to have his way with New York City for so many years. The pragmatist in me rejects this thinking. We should identify ourselves rather than being labeled. Neighborhoods emerge through the names on store awnings and local clubs. Pedestrian pathways are still often within the realm of private development. Both need charting, so that we can view ourselves in our own image – not contorted into the unforgiving motorways that clog and suffocate our cities.