Monday, September 24, 2012

Destroying San Francisco (the one that exists, not the one that never did)

There's something about being in the Bay Area that makes me notice things I wouldn't otherwise, and want to express things I usually don't. Maybe that's because it's the first place I went and completely failed to live in.

Anyway, this past weekend I drove twice over the Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco (and continued on to 101), something I had never done before. At night it's a disorienting experience. You know by road signs that you're driving into San Francisco, but for whatever reason as a driver you never see the skyline, or really very many other buildings at all, from the elevated structure, only road, cars, signs, advertisements, and more road (always more road). It feels like you could be any anonymous place, and that's not a feeling we're supposed to expect in San Francisco. Especially when the Folsom Street Fair (JFGI) is going on just a few blocks away. Anyway, this isn't just a freeway thing, it's a specific freeway thing, because in most old central cities (and even many edge cities) you at least get a view of some characteristic part of the city as you drive through, even at night.

I've been on the Muni subway a handful of times, and really, you miss out on as much of the city there as you do from the freeway. Maybe if I was from New York I'd be used to this, but the cities I know best are Chicago and Seattle. The trains and buses there mostly only run underground in places I've been many times and am at no risk of forgetting. I found when I went running down Market Street up over Twin Peaks and to the Sunset District from just east of Van Ness that there's a lot of city up there in a corridor I'd otherwise have had no reason to travel at ground-level. You might say that at least on the Muni you see the people, but you definitely don't see all the people.

Monday, September 3, 2012

City vs. Suburb: what does it mean?

I just saw this article on my G+. And, as is so often the case, something I mostly identify with prompts much thought and comment. In particular, the idea of the distinction between “The City” and “The Suburbs”. I think the distinction is overblown. It divides places unnecessarily, and it doesn't adequately address the real characteristics of places and the history behind them.

To start with, dividing an urban area into a city and suburbs, especially when the purpose is to set one against another, is to divide something that's working as a whole. People regularly cross not only municipal boundaries, but urban-suburban-exurban-rural boundaries as a matter of course when conducting daily business. The city and suburbs together form an interdependent economic unit. When my wife's grandfather started his heating and air conditioning business he set up shop in La Grange, a suburb of Chicago, because that was the location from which he could reach the largest part of the area as a whole, from Indiana to Wisconsin, city and suburb alike. A location along the Tri-State Tollway was like a shipping business' location the Chicago Belt Railway. Similarly places we live and work may fit somewhere in a city-suburb binary, but we choose them based on their specific characteristics, convenient access to things we care about, and cost of living. Chicago, La Grange, Naperville, and Skokie are all part of the same whole and all serve each other. Or Seattle, Redmond, Canyon Park, and SeaTac. None could exist as it is today without all the others. The city-suburb distinction sometimes encourages people to set one against the other, especially in funding disputes where one typically accuses the other of being a leech.

And while in some ways the city-suburb binary is an unnecessary and divisive way to look at things, it's also in other ways not precise enough. Perhaps you buy the idea that downtown Kirkland and Canyon Park are both suburban, and that SODO, South Lake Union, and the core of downtown Seattle are all urban. The distinctions within the urban and suburban groups are perhaps greater than the distinctions between them. A lot of people in Seattle live in middle-ground areas developed initially as “streetcar suburbs”, which would further stretch the definitions of whichever group you put them in. And even the history of some of these areas is important. In 20 years people might wonder why all the fast transit service between downtown Seattle (decidedly urban) and the U District (urban enough, and a huge transit destination) skips SLU (which in 20 years will be quite a transit destination). Its history as a warehouse district and its long period of decline will answer those questions well, while an appeal to its “urbanness” won't yield many answers.