Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sips, suds, sweets, swash

A very nice article today from Columbia Economic Development Corporation details the entrepreneurial endeavors of Hudson business owner Selha Graham Cora. Her Sip n' Suds on State Street exemplifies everything an urban business should be: human-scaled, locally responsive, multi-faceted, and infinitely flexible.

In addition to a self-serve laundry, Cora provides wash-dry-fold service, baked goods, U-Haul pick-up and drop-off, and even rooms for rent. She recently added a "Swash" machine, which deodorizes and steams clothes in an hour. Perhaps we can convince her to add a formal drycleaning dropoff; given her admirably fluid business model I will not be surprised if and when that happens.

Sip 'n' Suds Laundro-net Cafe
453 State Street, Hudson | 518.828.3452
M, W-F 9AM to 7PM; Sa-Su 8:30AM to 8PM

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Things you didn't think you needed to know about cities

New York City residents spend six times the national average on wristwatch purchases, but 63% less on bicycles. Bostonians spend 330% more than the average on alimony, 17% less on men's underwear, and 79% less on dating services. San Diegans spends 3.6 times the national average on infants' equipment; Dallas-Fort Worth residents spend 44% less than average on charity, and San Francisco-San Jose residents spend 1.7 times the average on women's costumes. Nifty feature in the New York Times.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Neighborhood That Disappeared

If you missed Mary Paley and John Romeo's documentary, The Neighborhood That Disappeared, which aired last week on WMHT, you have a couple more opportunities to watch it, including tonight—I hope.* The film traces the history of an Italian neighborhood in Albany from its settlement through its demise when the Empire State Plaza was built in the 1960s. According to the filmmakers, the project displaced 9,000 people, 3,600 households, and more than 1,500 buildings, including 350 businesses, four churches and 29 taverns. You can watch a 30 second trailer here, or a longer, more informative pre-release trailer above.

*The notices I've come across the web haven't inspired my confidence in their accuracy, but below are the places and times I have found.

The Neighborhood That Disappeared
   Monday Dec 15, 7:30PM on WMHT World (channel 115 on Mid-Hudson cable)
   Monday, Dec 29, 8:00PM on WMHT-TV (channel 2 on MHC)
   Thursday, Jan 1, 2015, 10:00AM, 3:30PM, and 9:30PM on WMHT-TV (channel 2 on MHC)
   December 13-18 7:30PM, Madison Theater, Albany

If your television provider is other than Mid-Hudson Cable, this link will tell you where to find WMHT: Find WMHT

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Business climate survey

The good folks at the Hudson Development Corporation need business owners and creative economy participants in the City of Hudson to complete their online Business Climate Survey. The survey results will be used by HDC in its ongoing efforts to improve economic opportunities and enhance the quality of life in Hudson. Your participation may help the HDC identify and act on such needs as funding, training, insurance, networking, advertising, housing, and much more.

The survey takes less than five minutes to complete, and will be available until at least January 9, 2015. Access it here.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Shameless Commerce Division

Need a holiday gift idea? My 101 Things I Learned® books are great for college students, experienced professionals, and general readers. Each book is handsomely packaged and has 101 illustrated lessons that will orient newcomers, provoke contemplation by old hands, and give all some unexpected insights into one of seven fields—architecture, business, culinary arts, engineering, fashion, film, and law.

You can get a look inside the 101 Things I Learned® books at the series website. They're available for purchase at B&N (all brick and mortar stores as well as online), Amazon, and most indie bookstores (including Market Block Books in Troy and Spotty Dog in Hudson for those located in the Hudson Valley).

Friday, December 5, 2014

Found in Hudson

Part of the enjoyment of a used book comes from discovering the history of the book itself. Recently I scooped up some good ones at the Hudson Library book sale. Right now I'm immersed in Tobias Wolff's memoir This Boy's Life. The inscriptions on the inside cover reveal that it was twice given as a Christmas gift: to Carl from Kate (who had read and enjoyed it), and to Jonathan from Mom (who also claims to have read it). Mom not only has great penmanship, but a sense of economy (and/or humor), as she recycled Kate's inscription as well the book. A third owner is implied, unless Mom's given name is Carl.

Also in the pile was Deborah Tannen's 1990 classic, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. Time has rendered some of Tannen's examples of inter-gender dialogue quaint, but the book nonetheless serves as an effective reminder of gender issues we still need to work on.

$7.00 netted this haul at the Hudson Library used book sale.
Inside the Tannen book I found a 1991 airline itinerary for travel between and among Minnesota, Arkansas, and Texas. According to a web search, the traveler, a member of the Dallas Brass Band, now lives in New York State. This somewhat explains how the book ended up in Hudson. On the reverse side of the itinerary were some scrawled notes. I presumed them to be the reader's thoughts on the book's content, but it's a list of words found in the text, which the reader perhaps intended to look up after his flight.

The used book store, located in the library building at 400 State Street in Hudson, will be open tomorrow and next Saturday from 10am-1pm for holiday shopping. Entrance is on the left side of the building near the parking lot.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

We have Miranda rights...why not a Garner warning?

Eric Garner

"Sir, you are being placed under arrest. You do not have the right to resist. Please immediately turn and face the wall with your arms behind your back, or lie face down on the ground. If you do not do so, I will use physical force to ensure your compliance. I do not wish to injure you, but if you do not comply, it will be at your own risk. You are commanded to comply with my order NOW."

Not that anyone asked me. But if the police were required to give such a warning to any unarmed person who appears prepared to resist arrest, Eric Garner might be alive today.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Lighting the way

St. Michael's Chapel, Northeast Philadelphia.

My calling to architecture may be rooted in this portico, which belongs to a lovely church located almost literally in my childhood backyard in Philly. Our yard abutted the church grounds, and the Catholics in our neighborhood had to cut through our yard to get to Sunday mass for several years, until a permanent church was built a mile away. It was nowhere near as nice, built as it was in the 1960s Stingy Revival Style. The church and mansion pictured were built by Katharine Drexel, now recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Changing the air

The complexity of the urban problem can be overwhelming. In a given neighborhood, a hundred buildings may be falling down in a thousand ways for a million different reasons. Beneath the loose bricks and rotting eaves lies more complexity: people from countless walks of life with innumerable problems and an infinite number of obstacles to solving them. Where does one begin to improve an urban community mired in poverty, despair, and dysfunction?

A version of this question was posed to me recently by an official of a city in upstate New York. Our conversation, having reached a point of exhaustion, had settled upon a mutual realization: there never will be enough government programs operating with sufficient nuance to solve the problems of the people, buildings, and neighborhoods of our cities in all their particularities. We’ve tried top-down solutions for decades, and rarely have they begotten true improvement. Top-down urbanism focuses on buildings, not on lives. It might bring about physical improvement, but it doesn’t make the residents of a neighborhood wealthier. Instead, it most often displaces them in favor of a different group of people who already are wealthier. The displaced have the same problems they had before, with the added burden of having to solve them in a different neighborhood or in an altogether different city. Third tier cities—Troy, Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, and others in the upstate come to mind—end up as depots for those dispossessed from “successful” cities. But if North Central Troy is struggling, don't worry, we tell ourselves; hang in there a while longer, until we find the money to do the same great things we did in Brooklyn.

It was in acknowledgment of such foolishness that my interlocutor asked, “What would you do in these places? How would you change things?”

It’s tricky to answer such a question. A too ambitious response suggests more top-downism, and urbanism properly works from the bottom up. So I narrowed the question further. “Let me suggest something small that might get things pointed in the right direction,” I offered. “Let me suggest something practical, that isn’t top-down or outside-in but that builds on what is already in a neighborhood. Something that will give the people there a tangible sense of hope…that might fundamentally change the air.”

My very modest suggestion is: signage. In even the most troubled neighborhoods, at least some people are engaged in useful, paying work. They babysit, cut hair, give manicures, sew clothes, make candles, plan parties, pack brown bag lunches, fabricate sheet metal, perform day labor, and engage in dozens of other activities that wouldn’t occur to someone like me trying to make a list of them. Most such activities, if not all, have no street visibility, as they take place in private homes and apartments. Proprietors earn a bit of pocket money and some carve out a subsistence income. But they rarely earn enough to fully flower. Clients are limited to those that can be found through word of mouth, or perhaps craigslist. Anyone not already in the know will pass these places of commerce without realizing they are there.

But imagine if someone making a few dollars under the radar on River Street in North Central Troy, North Miller Street in Newburgh, or even State Street in Hudson were granted the freedom to install a sign over his or her front door to advertise his or her goods or services. Imagine the opportunities for income, improvement, and self-actualization that would be created at very little expense. The changes would be modest at first. But imagine the sense of self-agency some citizens would acquire. Imagine, over time, the neighborhood sprouting a plethora of signs for independent businesses. Imagine the neighborhood becoming a place to live, instead of a place where people can only hope for something better to come along. Imagine the children growing up in the neighborhood seeing the elders be productive and self-driven. Imagine them realizing that their own future could be realized right there, instead of a far-off place somewhere on the other side of a college degree. Imagine the residents acquiring enough wealth to repair the broken stoops and rotted eaves, and to build new storefronts, and—

Oops…I forgot. Historic preservation. Pure architectural style must be preserved. Sorry about that. And so, let us give thanks on this day for those who remind us again and again that cities are places of buildings, not places of people, and that the former is more important than the latter. Not sure how I got that on wrong.

Apologies for the digression. Carry on.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Separated at birth

Left, the great urbanist Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great 
American Cities and other books. Right, the architect Louis Kahn. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Unfriended by a racist cop

I had a disturbing facebook conversation with two police officers (from outside the Hudson Valley) about seven weeks ago. I have pasted it below in its entirety. I was tempted as I prepared this post to provide a running commentary alongside it; perhaps I will another time. For now, the conversation is presented as it unfolded.

All the individuals participating in this discussion are white. I have masked the names of the two officers and that of a third participant to protect their identities. "Officer Pink" is was a facebook friend in Pennsylvania. I don't know where "Officer Gray" resides and works, and I was not sure when I entered the conversation that he is an officer. However, he is addressed as such by Officer Pink.

I don't believe their views are indicative of the views of a majority of white cops, or that there are more racists among white police officers than among white Americans in general. Nor do I think, as I attempted to make clear in the conversation, that the African-American man in the video should be excused for his actions. But I do believe that a startling number of white Americans, many of whom deem themselves enlightened on matters of race, do not understand why many African-Americans rightly fear the police. More generally, they do not understand that many African-Americans carry a minute-by-minute burden that white Americans do not carry. It is stunning and saddening that so many white people still don't get it.
[NOTE: During the conversation, I misunderstood Officer Pink's claim made above that her family is half minority. Officer Pink is white with, apparently, an Hispanic spouse.]

Monday, November 3, 2014

The fake New York town that became real

Before the Google Maps era, cartographers occasionally inserted fictitious place names into their maps. It was a way of protecting their copyright: if a fake street or town name inserted by a mapmaker subsequently appeared on a competitor's map, the first mapmaker had evidence its competitor had plagiarized.
The fictitious town of Agloe appears on this Google map, although some sources
report that Google removed it earlier this year in the interest of accuracy.

In the 1920s or 1930s (sources differ), the General Drafting Company created a road map of New York State. At a location deep in the Catskills, company director Otto G. Lindberg and his assistant Ernest Alpers inserted the town of Agloe, an anagram of their initials. Such lightly traveled places were ideal for locating a "paper town" or "trap street"; a ruse in a more populous area ran the risk of confusing map users and damaging the mapmaker's reputation.

A few years later, Lindberg spotted Agloe on a map published by Rand McNally. He thought he had caught the famous company red-handed. But Rand McNally, it turned out, had found Agloe in Delaware County records, which showed the Agloe General Store (described as a fishing lodge by some sources) at the spot created by Lindberg on his map. The store owner, it turned out, had taken the name from a map provided by Esso, one of General Drafting Company's clients. Thus did Lindberg's fake place become a real place.

The General Drafting Company and the Agloe General Store are now gone, but Agloe remains—in the virtual world of Google, at least. It also appears in John Green's popular young adult novel, Paper Towns, currently being turned into a motion picture.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Hudson's weight problem

Hudson's five wards have widely varying populations. The weighted voting system used by Common Council is designed to compensate for this, but it appears to be unconstitutional and is thought by some to give disproportionate power to 5th Ward aldermen. Below, I offer some schematic, fairly simple suggestions for achieving population balance. The percentage of the city's population living within each ward is shown in blue; they are my unofficial estimates. Where I've decreased the number of wards, I've suggested additional at-large aldermen. Such changes call for a more extensive discussion, but for now here's a start.

Existing Ward Plan
5 wards / 11 total representatives:
● 10 ward aldermen (2 each ward)
● 0 at-large aldermen
● 1 at-large Council president

Ward Scheme A
3 Wards / 9 or 11 representatives:
● 6 ward aldermen (2 each ward)
● 2 or 4 at-large aldermen
● 1 at-large Council president

Comments: Wards 2 and 4 are combined, as are Wards 1 and 3. Additional tweaking of Ward 5's boundaries would make the ward populations equal.

Ward Scheme B
3 Wards / 9 or 11 representatives:
● 6 ward aldermen (2 each ward)
● 2 or 4 at-large aldermen
● 1 at-large Council president

Comments: Wards 1 and 2 are combined, as are Wards 3 and 4. Additional tweaking looks to be more complicated than Scheme A. The boundary between 1+2 and 3+4 would need to move slightly east, and Ward 5 also would have to be adjusted. Another possible disadvantage is that the entire waterfront would be contained within one ward.

Ward Scheme C
5 Wards / 11 representatives:
● 10 ward aldermen (2 each ward)
● 0 at-large aldermen
● 1 at-large Council president

Comments: Wards 1 and 4 are joined; Ward 5 is split. (For expedience I've used the existing internal voting district boundary, but this might not be ideal.) The resulting ward populations are very close, although the configuration of Ward 1+4 appears gerrymandered and improbable.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday faceplant

We've all endured the indignity of tripping in public. Chances are, you haven't had it captured by the Google streetview camera, as was the case for this unfortunate Albany pedestrian. Of course, if you fall twice in the space of a hundred feet you increase your odds of being memorialized. The sidewalks look rather devoid of other pedestrians; I hope the fellow got whatever help he needed.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

An idiot's* guide to the weighted vote

The ever active Victor Mendolia will host a session on Hudson's weighted vote this Sunday at 10AM at Valley Variety, 705 Warren Street in Hudson. There does not appear to be a RSVP, so show up if you are interested and bring donuts for the rest of us.
*****EDIT: Victor has informed me that the Sunday meeting is for those who would like to work directly on the weighted vote issue with Hudson Forward. Potential courses of action will be discussed and debated. It won't be an informational session per se, but all are welcome to attend.*****
I've been slow to grasp the weighted vote issue, and slow to form an opinion on it. I don't know where things settle out for me on it, but I usually learn something by writing about it. So I'll try that here in preparation for Sunday's meeting. If I get some of this wrong, perhaps someone will tell me.

What is in question?
Typically, a city's ward boundaries are drawn to ensure roughly equal populations among them. The boundaries are adjusted every few years (ten, I think) to account for population shifts. Each district has the same number of councilors, giving each city resident equally representation in council voting.

Hudson's system is different. Our wards have different populations, and their boundaries stay the same year after year. Inequalities in ward population are compensated by applying different multipliers to the in-chamber votes of aldermen (councilors). An alderman representing a large district has a large multiplier applied to his or her vote, while an alderman representing a small district has his or her vote reduced by a different multiplier. As populations shift, the multipliers, rather than the ward boundaries, are changed.

In theory, the outcomes are the same. The question is whether our current system is fair in practice.

An independent study concluded that Hudson is the only city in the U.S. that uses a weighted vote. Is this a reason to change it?
Logically, no. We might be the only city doing it right. (And perhaps our extremely small size for a city makes us a special case.) However, this might not be the most useful approach to take.

Does the Fifth Ward have an unfair advantage over other wards?
The Fifth Ward is the largest in the city. When its two aldermen cast the same vote, the large multiplier attached to them means they are 72% of the way to achieving a council majority. In some instances, only two other aldermen would have to cast the same vote to give the Fifth Ward its way. In short, four out of ten could create a majority. Keep in mind, however, that those four councilors would represent a majority of the city's population. So technically speaking the equivalent of a one-man-one-vote system would prevail. The question is whether a technical majority truly reflects the will of the populace, or whether some districts get shortchanged under this system, and who would not be shortchanged under a different system.

I am curious if the current system has distorted any votes to date, and which future scenarios would produce distortions. I hope Victor will provide specific examples.

Does the weighted system undermine faith in votes taken by Hudson's Common Council?
In Council votes, a show of hands in Council does not necessarily indicate the actual voting result. Calculations must be performed before the exact outcome is known. This might seem to add an element of artifice to the process, even if it is technically accurate. Does the perception of artifice outweigh technical accuracy? Is this perception contributing to the sense of unfairness in the current system? Or is perception itself a significant factor; i.e., is public faith in the fairness of a process as important as, or more important than, the actual fairness of the process?  

Do the recent errors in counting First and Second Ward residents and the confusion over whether the Crosswinds development is in the Fourth or Fifth Ward impact the weighted vote discussion?
It seems to me that these are entirely separate issues. If we are having difficulty correctly counting population within wards, or in agreeing on ward boundaries, we are going to have a problem determining accurate representation under any system. Further, a conventional system would leave us debating not only the population count every ten years, but whether a ward boundary should be in front of or behind a given house. Multiply this problem by several thousand houses, and... oh boy.

This probably makes it sound like I am arguing to keep the current system, but I really don't know.

What else might be at work here?
I think the heart of the issue is that the Fifth Ward is the most suburban of the five wards. Its population seems to have a larger percentage of native born Hudsonians and political conservatives than Hudson's more urban districts. The Fifth Ward therefore might be thought to stand in the way of policies that the more urban parts of the city want to implement. I suspect the real sorting out that needs to be done lies in this terrain. Messy, messy, messy. Or fun, fun fun. Or both.

*Me, not Victor.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Friday, October 17, 2014

Waterbound leaf peepers

I was surprised to see a large (for these parts) passenger ship docked in Catskill this week. The American Star, operated by American Cruise Lines, hosts two weeklong scenery tours between Manhattan and Troy. Stops are made in Sleepy Hollow, West Point, Poughkeepsie, Kingston, Catskill, and Albany to check out local attractions, including a land run over to Olana. Prices per person range from $3,440 to $5,955, which is shockingly expensive to me, but the leaf peepers on board appeared to be enjoying themselves.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Million dollar spaceship

A spaceship in the woods isn't everyone's taste, but this example near New Paltz, New York seems as well done as any you are likely to find. Currently used as a bed and breakfast, it's listed for sale by Douglas Elliman Real Estate at $1M.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Correction: How to make it more difficult for the poor to afford an apartment

Yesterday I reported that Hudson Common Council is weighing whether to establish minimum apartment sizes in the city. I erred in reporting that the minimum studio size would be 250 square feet. The correct minimum size proposed is 350 square feet.

While this alters some of the details of my post, my argument remains the same: the provision will make an entry-level apartment more expensive for some individuals on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. This runs counter to the goal expressed within the proposal, namely to ensure that adequate affordable housing is available in the city. Further, there remains a lack of objective evidence in support of the proposal. The Common Council should reject it.

The full text of the proposed law may be found here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How to make it more difficult for the poor to afford an apartment

Hudson's Common Council will soon vote on a proposal to establish minimum apartment sizes in the city. The proposed standards are 250 square feet for a studio and 500 square feet for a one-bedroom unit. The proposal presumably aims to protect citizens at the lower end of the rental market by guaranteeing more pleasant dwelling units and limiting exploitation by landlords. But on examination, the proposal does not appear to be rationally justified, self-consistent, or helpful to renters. If enacted, it likely will do more harm than good.

Screenshot from trulia.com
Most people would agree that a larger apartment is better, all things being equal. But in order to turn such preferences into law, we need objective evidence that people's health and well-being are compromised by living in apartments smaller than the proposed standards. Proponents of the measure have not provided this. If there is any evidence to be found, or at least intuited, on the subject, it indicates that the proposal will threaten the well-being of some individuals on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder by increasing the cost of renting an entry-level apartment.

Let's look at an example. Recently, the owners of a building at 949-951 Columbia Street proposed creating two apartments within the existing building shell. One is to be a 420 square foot, one-bedroom unit. This unit might be realized before a city-wide minimum is passed, but the situation will come up again, so it's a worthy example. 420 square feet is small for a one-bedroom unit, smaller than many folks would be willing to live in. But a pleasant, livable unit this size can be realized if it has a proper layout. I once lived in such a unit for a year and a half.

An informal survey of Trulia indicates that the average apartment in Hudson rents for 1.00 to $1.50 per square foot per month. Using a mean of $1.25, the 420 square foot unit will cost $525 per month. If increased to the 500 square foot minimum, it would cost $625. That's $100 more per month, $1200 more per year that the renter would have to come up with. Keeping in mind that such a unit would attract renters near the bottom end of the rental market, this is $1200 that otherwise might be spent on getting to work or clothing a child. I cannot fathom how forcing such a compromise is a good idea in a city in which around one in four people live below the poverty line.

Of course, someone priced out of the one bedroom market could shop for a studio apartment. But this presumes a studio would suit a renter's needs or personal preferences. Further, the proposal is self-inconsistent: In setting a minimum size for a studio apartment, it acknowledges that a person can live, eat, and sleep in 250 square feet. Reasonably, then, a renter can conduct two of these activities, i.e., live and eat, in less space; let's call it 230 square feet. Why, then, does the proposal insist that a renter who wishes to sleep in a separate room rent 270 additional square feet of space? (I am not saying the bedroom will have to be 270 square feet, only that the apartment would have to be this much larger.)

Landlords could face compromises as well. Returning to our 420 square foot example, the owner would have to: 1.) find 80 more square feet within the building; 2.) build an 80 square foot addition; or 3.) remove some existing interior walls within the one bedroom apartment to turn it into a studio. I suspect that at some point in this deliberation, the owner will wonder why city government has inserted itself into the question of whether a renter has a wall between where he sleeps and where he eats.

The proposal for a minimum size apartment ordinance in Hudson is not rational, self-consistent, or beneficial to the public it aims to protect. The Common Council should reject it.
CORRECTION, 10/15/2014: The proposed minimum studio size is 350 square feet. Please see here.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Robinson Street, look out

Robinson Street in Hudson
"I think Hudson is turning a corner," a friend said at a party. "The people moving in here are really beginning to make a difference."

"I think Robinson is our next up and coming street," said an acquaintance at a community event. "It's the next street in Hudson to be discovered."

It's great to see houses and streets being improved, but statements such as these do not sit well with me. They are directed at the surface of things, and ignore the cultural realities taking place, or that could be taking place, beneath the surface renovation of bricks and mortar.

There are essentially two ways by which a depressed neighborhood may be physically improved. The first is the way to which we have become accustomed: people with wealth acquired elsewhere move into a neighborhood and fix it up. Stockbrokers and lawyers who make their living in Manhattan buy fixer-uppers in depressed areas of Brooklyn and Harlem. Wealthy high-tech workers from Google and Yahoo buy condos and buildings in overlooked neighborhoods of San Francisco, twenty-five miles north of their work, and motivate their improvement. State government workers in Albany purchase and renovate inexpensive housing in Hudson, while continuing to commute to work in the state capital. Or as has become perhaps more common in Hudson, wealthy Manhattanites purchase and renovate second homes here, and turn them into vacation outposts while conducting the bulk of their lives elsewhere.

The second way a neighborhood is improved is when the people already there experience improved financial fortune, and in turn fix up their homes and business establishments. Of the two models, I believe this is the more genuine one, even if its physical results are indistinguishable (by some) from the first. The first model, which I call an objective model of urban improvement, is directed at the physical repair of a place, while the second, subjective model seeks to motivate the physical repair of a place as a byproduct of cultural repair.

Hudsonians who are satisfied with the first model are being very short sighted about our city, about the urban problem generally, and about the causes of and cures for America's cultural ills. They don't understand that, comparatively speaking, one isn't repairing much of significance if all he repairs is a building. They don't understand that the embedded problems of a culture are not being addressed when struggling people are forced out of a neighborhood and out of a city just so its buildings can be renovated. All this does is put Hudson on the winning side of a zero-sum game. But so what? these folks seem to think; that is a problem for Troy or Albany or Schenectady to figure out.

But I will admit that my friends are right about one thing: the people moving into Hudson are making a difference. They indeed are. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Dans mon quartier

Citroen 2CV6, Hudson, New York. Built from 1948 to 1990, the 2CV sold over 3.8 million units.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

What's the big (or little) idea?

from 101 Things I Learned
in Architecture School
Next week I'll be teaching a nonfiction writing class in Boston. It will be held at Grub Street, a remarkable organization that began twenty years ago when a recent MFA grad nailed fliers to telephone poles in her neighborhood and began teaching writing classes in her apartment. Today, Grub Street has several thousand members and each year puts on one of the largest and best writers' conferences in the country, Muse and the Marketplace.

My own entry into the writing world has been without benefit of extensive formal training in writing. But there are many parallels in the creative process in writing and architecture, so I often turn to my architectural training for insights. In my writing course, I'll be drawing from one particularly hard-earned lesson from architecture school. In a second-year studio, my classmates and I were asked to design a bookstore. In those days, bookstores didn’t sell coffee, scones, toys, and all the other things they now sell instead of books, so the building seemed quite simple. The site was simple, too: a sea of anonymous suburban asphalt—the Great American Strip, our instructor called it.

I confidently sat down at my drawing table and got to work. I drew a large rectangle and filled most of it with bookshelves. In a corner near the front door I placed a cash register. In a back corner I carved out an office and a storage room. Next, I…

World's Biggest Bookstore, Toronto,
closed March 2014.
This wasn’t going to work. Already, I could hear the vacant buzz of fluorescent lights over my neat, parallel rows of shelves. My store didn’t sell books; it peddled ennui. But from my struggles on previous projects, I knew what the problem was: my bookstore lacked an idea. Unfortunately, I wasn't sure what an idea was, let alone how to find one, so what was I to do? I was trying to design a bookstore on the Great American Strip, and there was nothing I could find in the assignment that compelled or inspired anything. All I had to work with were books, books, and more books. I was stuck.

When the weekend arrived, I paced my apartment, looking for a way out of my stuckness. I called a friend in the class; he was equally clueless, and perhaps clueless about his cluelessness. After several more hours of pacing, I remembered something I had overheard in school: a good design solution is an eloquent restatement of the problem. I wasn’t sure what this meant, but it seemed to hold a possibility. So I spent the rest of my Saturday restating the problem: I needed to design a bookstore on the Great American Strip. Sunday, more of the same: I needed to design a bookstore on the Great American Strip. Monday… on and on I went. The project was due Wednesday, and by Tuesday I was in a full-blown panic. I needed to design a bookstore on the Great American Strip, and I had nothing.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, clarity: I needed to design a bookstore on the Great American Strip. How obvious!

Robert Venturi, inspired by this building in
Flanders, New York, used the term "duck" to
describe a building that literally expresses
its purpose.
What occurred to me in that moment is that in placing a bookstore in a landscape of transmission shops, drive-through restaurants, and adult clubs, I was inserting something of intellectual and cultural value into an intellectual and cultural wasteland. My bookstore needed to embody this. And so, amidst the architectural “ducks” of the suburban strip—a Chinese restaurant with a pagoda roof, a strip joint with blinking breasts, and a Leaning Tower of Pizza—I envisioned my own duck: a classical building conveying, “culture within.” Nothing too serious, but not too jokey either. Perhaps an interpretation of the Tempietto—a beautiful, extraordinarily unified little building in Rome.
Tempietto di San Pietro in Montorio, Rome Italy.
The drawings for my less serious bookstore
adaptation, although successful, were not as
worthy of being preserved.

The possibility was exciting, but the territory felt alien and full of risk. The regurgitation of classical architecture was not rewarded in architecture school, and I had no inherent disposition toward doing so. But I forged ahead. I made a few marks on the page, and a few more, and I nudged things this way and that. Before long, the building was designing itself. A central display room appeared under the dome, with light filtering through clerestory windows. A columned portico provided a transition from the parking lot. Shelves and displays began to fill the facets of the octagonal floor plan. Places emerged for customers to browse and hang out. There were places to sit on the floor. Places to open a large art book. Places to take it all in.

I turned a corner as a designer that day. Little of creative value can happen, I realized, without a specific idea to drive and unify one's efforts. The lesson is as true in literary endeavor as in architecture. If you are trying to write a memoir about all the interesting things you have done in your life, you lack a real idea. You’re doing the autobiographical equivalent of lining up bookshelves under fluorescent lights. But if, say, you’re writing a memoir that combines a reflection on your geeky teenage years with a journalistic investigation into contemporary geek culture, I’d say you have a real idea. If you want to write a book on baking desserts for every occasion, you don't have an idea, because you're trying to be all things to all people. But a book on baking cookies for a once-a-year cookie exchange party? That's a real idea.

The fear we naturally have in narrowing our creative energies to something so specific is that we won't attract an adequate audience. However, the opposite actually is the case. When we try to appeal to everyone, we end up appealing to no one. But when we narrow our efforts, we increase the likelihood that a particular group of readers will say, "this is the book I've been looking for." This is the case for humor books, do-it-yourself books, travelogues, history books, and every other form of nonfiction. A book needs a unique, informing idea. It needs a specific lens. It needs boundaries. It needs something that tells the writer, and ultimately the reader, what it is about and what it is not about.

What’s the Big (or Little) Idea? Creating Nonfiction Books that Work 
Do you have an idea for a memoir, cookbook, travelogue, self-help book, or other nonfiction project, but it’s not yet a great idea? Are you knee-deep in a project in which dozens of ideas are competing for space, and you don’t know how to make them cohere? Or do you already have a strong project, but it lacks a certain something that will make it stand out among the hundreds of pitches that agents and editors field each week?

This workshop will introduce numerous strategies and writing exercises that will help you discover, broaden, narrow, heighten, deepen, or redefine the core concept for your nonfiction project, with the goal of identifying a singular, clarifying idea that will organize it, tell you what belongs and doesn’t belong in it, and make it “pitchable.” Whether you are just beginning or are feeling mired in a long-term effort, you will leave this session with a fresh perspective on your project.
162 Boylston St, Boston, MA 02116
(617) 695-0075 www.grubstreet.org
$130.00 non-members / $110.00 members