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Saturday, 20 October 2007
Midtown - biting the bullet, or the dust?
Topic: urban issues

So Midtown Plaza soon will bite the dust. Actually, it will be Rochesterians who’ll bite any dust raised in the process: the inevitable though unseen air pollution from dismantling and imploding older buildings laden with asbestos, gypsum, silica, and other things inimical to human lungs. But that’s progress, right?

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Midtown for years. When I was an Eastman student, and later when I worked there in the Sibley Music Library, Midtown offered me a respite from the unfortunately small world of the arts. Never mind the kitschy Clock of the Nations; the plaza floor itself measured, step by human step, the depth and range of city life. You could see anybody at all walking through, waiting for a slice of pizza, pausing over a cup of coffee, focusing on urgent or imaginary business, trying to find a seat among the “No Sitting” signs on what looked like natural benches – you were part of Midtown, whether you looked eminently respectable or any other form of lost soul.

The hate part of my feelings was architectural. Even when it was a newborn, as the gleaming progeny of once-revered Victor Gruen, the plaza always looked cheap, and the 1960s-style updating of several older buildings that staked out the site like pylons depressed the aesthetic value even more.

Yet Midtown at its best fulfilled the promise of good urban design. It brought people together – as close to “everybody” as you can get, and as you do get on Saturdays at the Public Market, to cite Rochester’s greatest success. And as you won’t get with whatever succeeds the plaza – whether it’s a stuffy office tower for Paetec, as now promised, or the plans change again and we get a stuffy collection of boutiques and upper middle class retreats and redoubts.

At the very least, some effort should go to saving the more valuable older buildings that the plaza swallowed whole, or nearly whole. Why demolish everything on the 8.6-acre site? There’s got to be space that’s retrievable.

But most of what needs retrieval is the life of the street. When Rochesterians reminisce about Downtown in the old days, they mostly talk about the crowds, the packed department stores at holiday time, the annual monorail in Midtown loaded with kids. It’s that critical mass of humanity that we need to worry about most. And as we assess the Paetec plan, we should be asking what life it will bring to East Main, Clinton, East Avenue, and Chestnut And forgotten streets like Euclid, Lawn, and Atlas. Where are those, you ask? Exactly my point.

(Note: A few days ago, the D&C ran a pretty good piece by Erica Bryant about bicycle commuting. I say pretty good because I think Bryant should have dealt comprehensively with transportation issues like intermodality - including the fact that most serious urban cyclists, particularly in the winter, are low-income men who need the cheapest transportation possible. But you can't have everything in one article, and Bryant certainly must have turned some people on to giving their two-wheelers a whirl. She also interviewed my friend Jason Crane and hightlighted RocBike.com, which he created and for which I'm a contributing writer. So visit RocBike, read your fill from cyclo-cyberspace, and give a listen to some entertaining audio files, like one that Jason, Adam Durand and I did on a trip to Charlotte and back.)


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 13:01 EDT
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Tuesday, 25 September 2007
Bike trip, 12 - A brief intermodal pause
Topic: travel

Travel by bike often translates into travel with bike. That is, when you need to make an intermodal connection, your vehicle becomes a piece of luggage. So it was for me at one point this summer: I needed to get back to Rochester for a few days of paid employment, in part to finance my summer rambles, and that meant a quick zip west from Schenectady by train or bus. For this “detour,” I picked the train, mostly because I like Amtrak – which you should keep in mind when you see the criticism below. (And did I mention I’m a member of the Empire State Passenger Association, a fine public transport advocacy group that works to bring rail service up to par? Check it out at www.trainweb.org/espa/ - and think seriously about joining.)

Now, traveling with a bike shouldn’t be a problem – after all, the thing weighs only 25 pounds or so, and though it’s bigger than a bread basket, it’s not much bigger than some bags that are wheeled through the train station or airport every day. But the transportation system, such as it is, can’t seem to handle a bike.

I chewed on this fact several times during my summer tour. The first time was when I made an abortive stop at the Fort Edward Amtrak station, which I’ve already described. The second was at the Schenectady station, a “full service” hub where, like the proverbial glass, the vessel is only half-full.

What I chewed on was Amtrak’s schizoid attitude toward bicycles. There’s a limitation that applies to all routes: you can take a bike aboard only those trains that have a baggage car, which knocks you out of half the schedule. But on east-west routes in this region, you must box the bike, while on the north-south Adirondack line, you can check the bike unboxed - apparently a special service for the New York-Montreal traveler, who’s more likely to be a cyclist. Compare this to Canada’s VIA Rail, which allows unboxed bikes as checked baggage on every train with a baggage car – slightly better, more predictable service. Neither Amtrak nor Via provides free bike service; the former charges $5 for checking the bike, plus $10 for the box (unless you provide your own and truck it to the station).

You can circumvent the problems by traveling with a folding bike, which is legal on all trains and is not treated as checked baggage; on Amtrak, your folder slips into the oversized luggage area at one end of the passenger car. (I’ve got a Dahon folder that I used for part of my tour; more about this later, in regard to the New England leg.) This is similar to the European system – only across the pond, they allow full-sized bikes to be brought aboard passenger cars and stashed securely in a special area. No reason Amtrak couldn’t do the same, except for the fact that their leadership and political sponsors suffer from what I call hardening of the arterials, a transport syndrome that closes off the blood supply to creativity and innovation.

Well, I’ve said a lot about travel considerations and the ups-and-downs of intermodality. But what about the actual train ride to Rochester? Truth is, it was wonderfully non-eventful. I bought a bike box at the Schenectady station, then packed my beloved Miyata and checked it at the desk, and then proceeded to kill a few hours checking out, first, an new Irish pub near the station, and second, the modestly gentrified old section of town only a few blocks away. Think Corn Hill, but with more limestone than brick. I finally arrived in Rochester around 11:00 p.m. Seems like it should take a much shorter time to get from there to here; indeed, if we had modern high-speed rail service, the straight shot from Schenectady to Rochester would take an hour and a quarter, and I’d have got home by 8:00. And it would have taken me about ten minutes to deboard, unboxed bike in hand, and get to my front door.

I know: Dream on.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 22:22 EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 25 September 2007 22:23 EDT
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Thursday, 6 September 2007
Bike trip, 11 - Do you know the way to Sche-nec-ta-day?
Topic: travel

I spoke too soon (see installment 10). Someone or a force of nature removed my edits from the USMC insignia on the River Trail. So I’m issuing a call to peace vandals. Your help is needed. And your paint.

But enough for now on the fine arts. Let’s transport ourselves to Route 50 between Saratoga Springs and Scotia, a 21-mile stretch that leads to Schenectady’s north portal at the Mohawk River.

To tell the truth, I missed some of the sights along this route, mostly because I was in a hurry to catch a mid-day train in Schenectady. This is a city that use to be a real destination, at least before General Electric pulled its own plug and largely abandoned the area.

Even though two major east-west rail passenger services and a north-south one go through the heart of downtown, Schenectady is still much too quiet. It does have a beautiful historic district, though, with pretty good vital signs. (So why did I have to go there? Basically, the vicissitudes, or follies, of modern American rail travel. I was hoping to board the Amtrak Adirondack at the Fort Edward station, but it turns out that this station doesn’t provide checked baggage service, which is required if you’re going to bring a standard bike aboard. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I’d have to go farther south and catch the Empire or Lake Shore Limited.)

It was my own fault that I had to hurry. If I’d been a responsible bicycle tourist and got up at dawn in my cheap motel room near Saratoga, then passed up my habitual sit-down breakfast with bottomless coffee mug and morning paper, I would have had loads of time to cruise and lollygag the whole way to Schenectady. But no, as usual, I took my sweet time waking up and so had to pump like crazy to get to the station.

Whatever your daily biorhythms, you’ll find that Route 50 has good features. It passes by Saratoga Springs State Park, where woodlands and campgrounds surround the venerable spa where generations came to “take the waters.” And there’s the entrance to the Performing Arts Center, summer home to the Philadelphia Orchestra and New York City Ballet. The orchestra is there only in August, so I came too early to hear a performance. But I thought back to concerts there years – decades – ago, and heard in my kind’s ear snatches of the LPs that were my daily bread when I was a kid, back during the reign of conductor Eugene Ormandy. The Philly had such big, rich sound, just what appealed to a kid who thought music began with Schubert and ended with Brahms.

The musical qualities of Route 50, though, are less appealing. Though the paved shoulder is accommodating, the roadway gets louder and more crowded as you go south, especially once you’ve passed through the charming old-style village of Ballston Spa.

One incident from this leg of the ride stands out in memory. Near Ballston I approached one of those acute-angled intersections that inspire drivers to do jackrabbit starts, and make bicyclists hit the brakes. A young woman in a sporty sedan zipped up to the stop sign, obviously intent on ignoring it; she looked over her left shoulder at me as I neared the intersection doing maybe 25 mph (or faster, since I was on a gentle downhill, and as I said, pressed for time). The two of us made eye contact, but that didn’t stop the woman from gunning it just as I got close. I had to brake really hard - as I hard as I could, given my hand-position on the brake hoods. The woman, of course, blasted down the road with no apparent regrets.

(Let’s pause for a note to all bikers who use classic drop handlebars: If your bars are equipped with “auxiliary brake levers,” an add-on that does have some advantage for kids riding on sidewalks, take them off and throw them away! The auxiliary levers don’t give much braking power, and if you apply them while riding at higher speeds, you may suddenly find yourself thrown over the bars – a classic “header” – because you’re too high in the saddle and thus have too high a center of gravity for your own good. Once you’ve gotten rid of the levers, learn how to hit the brakes from the hoods as well as from the drops, and keep your brakes properly adjusted.)

You may have experienced an intersection of this type. There may or may not be a stop or yield sign on the side road, but no matter: the motorist just floors it and tries to merge with the main flow of traffic without really stopping first, or even looking for oncoming traffic. And of course there’s a larger problem: Even in the best circumstances, too many motorists consider bicycles a marginal presence that should be segregated onto a path way off the pavement, preferably up in the woods or somewhere in the next county and truly invisible.

I am not exaggerating here; the existence of this attitude is one reason some biking advocates, notably the followers of writer-consultant John Forester, oppose the construction of bike lanes and segregated trails. These advocates fear that separate-and-unequal facilities will lead to bicyclists’ being thrown off the public roads altogether. Sometimes I think they’ve got a point.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 23:34 EDT
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Wednesday, 22 August 2007
Bike trip, 10 - North of Albany
Topic: travel

The transportation corridors between Lake George and Albany are among the most heavily used north of Westchester. And they have been since before the days of James Fenimore Cooper, whose romanticized and racialized imprint still lingers over land and water – as at Lake George’s reconstructed, indeed reinvented Fort William Henry. But here The Last of the Mohicans won’t grip your mind for long, not with the tourist glitz that is today’s commanding presence.

Yes, Lake George village, with all its lights, cameras, and action, is a nice place to visit briefly but a better place to leave, especially for a bicyclist. And luckily, the towns and villages south of the lake have capitalized on this by creating a 17-mile, largely paved bike path that goes through magnificent woodlands and open spaces.

This bike route, well-mapped and marked, connects the communities of Lake George, Glens Falls and Fort Edward. The route’s northern section, labeled the Warren County Bikeway, follows the “Old Military Road,” a shaded path below congested Route 9 that makes you think of the very old days when colonial armies went to and from the original Fort William Henry and points north, like Ticonderoga. But after a half dozen miles, and then a slight detour onto the roads, the bike route becomes the Feeder Canal Park Heritage Trail, which provides a trip through the industrial history of several towns beside the Hudson River.

The Feeder Canal itself, which is still watered, goes through various abandoned and semi-abandoned industrial sites and a stunning series of locks (reminiscent of the spectacularly engineered “17 Locks” of the old Genesee Valley Canal near Nunda, NY) and eventually joins the Old Champlain Canal and its accompanying towpath/trail. The Champlain Canal, though, has become a marsh – still attractive, and certainly more of a wildlife refuge than it used to be.

This interconnected canal system then leads you to the edge of Saratoga County, and before you know it – partly because the roadways, unlike the slow-paced, moribund canals, inspire you to make time – you find yourself in Saratoga Springs. And only then do you understand you’ve made quite an economic journey, too. So few miles from the middle-class resort of Lake George, to the hard-luck town of Glens Falls, to the even harder-luck towns of Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, and then to affluence of Saratoga Springs, still banking on its Gilded Age legacy.

How to characterize these contrasting towns? Well, Saratoga Springs has the typical ooh-and-ah storefronts: designer clothing, you name it. And of course there are sidewalk cafes and restaurants, though the morning I was there, hardly any customers were around. But Fort Edward? Part of the reason I went there was to check out the Amtrak station; I was considering hopping a train to Schenectady and then catching a westbound train to Rochester for a couple days so I could finish some paid jobs. (In a future installment I’ll tell how I ended up biking all the way to Schenectady and catching the train there.)

Well, the Fort Edward station, a beautiful old building that’s being restored with grant money, is hardly ever open. You can board a train from the platform, but you can’t check baggage, etc., and so if you’re packing/boxing a bike you might as well forget it. But at least as you stand there admiring the architecture and pondering the history, you can reflect on what might have been and still may be. And so it is with the village of Fort Edward, which, like the milltowns of the Mohawk Valley or eastern and southern New England, is a survivor. Maybe because I was born and raised in the rundown industrial city of Niagara Falls, I appreciate the classic milltown’s rugged poetry, written in limestone and brick and the good faith of people who refuse to let their hometowns die.

Postscript: Just before I jotted this stuff down, I went for a ride on the Rochester River Trail from downtown to Genesee Valley Park. A few things struck me. Why haven’t they opened the trail under the west side of the new Anthony-Douglass bridge yet? Why are cycling improvements always the last things to get done, even though they’re the simplest and cheapest? Going further south: Why does the RPD continue to ignore illegal parking on Moore Road within GV Park? The few spaces provided there are supposed to be for park users, yet every time I pass through the area, I see that UR and Strong employees have hogged the spaces for free workday parking. UR parking staffers are aware of the situation, and so are the cops, so where’s the action? Ordinarily I don’t give a rat’s ass about parking – but here’s a situation where parkland is being abused and officialdom is looking the other way.

I saw great things on my ride, too: a wide selection of birds, including a great blue heron, and the oddly compelling phalanx of black (or European) alders along the northern stretch of Wilson Boulevard, coming visually alive in a reddening dusk. But the greatest sight was a paint-job. I noticed months ago that some jerk, maybe a ROTC type, had stenciled the Marine Corps insignia in two spots along the river trail, one near the UR Quad, the other almost at Ford Street. As an ex-Marine myself (heavy accent on the “ex”), I knew it was my duty to obliterate these guerrilla images, lest they corrupt the youth. So one night a few weeks ago, I took a can of gray spray paint and messed one of them up pretty bad. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough paint left in the can to cover the image entirely, so I said to myself that I’d have to re-arm and complete the mission later. But whaddya know? Some other anti-militarist came by and took care of it. Thank you, anonymous benefactor! This is the kind of rural pacification program that fits perfectly with the biking ethos.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 08:42 EDT
Updated: Friday, 24 August 2007 11:55 EDT
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Friday, 17 August 2007
Bike trip, 9 - Why I ride
Topic: travel

I’ve tossed a few thousand words into cyberspace about my summer bicycling trip – but, as a few friends have pointed out, I haven’t dealt with the primary question. Why did I get on my bike in the first place?

Sure, I could have taken the same route by car (or approximately the same route by bus or train) and done the whole 1,000 miles in a couple of days, or a leisurely week by motoring standards. And to tell the truth, I would have seen pretty much every high point along the way.

But in these facile determinations lie the answers to “Why Bike?”

First, long experience leads me to believe there’s unbreakable link between biking and the human biological clock. Just as in music, it’s a matter of rhythm and tempo.

Whether by accident or technological limitation or whatever, the bicycle was designed to be a close extension of the human body. It’s not a cocoon like a modern automobile or truck. (Recall that early cars and trucks were pretty open-air.) It’s not just a multiplier of muscle power, it’s almost part of your arm-and-leg motion and your biological drive to cover distance. (Think long runs across the savannah.) And as such, it heightens your awareness of the terrain you cover, not just on fast downhill “runs,” but also in quiet moments as you roll past woods and fields and (let’s face it) strip malls and used car lots.

In a car, you’re mentally at your destination before you’ve earned the journey, and the distances are the psychological equivalent of stoop labor. On a bike, though, you may be thinking about a hard pull ahead – that monster hill or unplanned ten-mile detour – but fundamentally you’re right “there,” in the Zen sense that you cannot be anywhere but where you are, if only you’ll realize it. And because, if you’re lucky and realize this, your body has to go peaceably along with your mind.

Somewhere Thoreau asks the reader, What mode of travel is the fastest? His answer: walking, which he contrasts with the trains of his day. But Thoreau wasn’t posing a Zen koan; as with much of his work, he was making a stripped-down calculation. To be able to ride the train, he said, a person must work x number of hours to buy the ticket; but walking is practically free. So when you compare the hours of work required to support each mode of travel, then add these hours to those spent en route, you have to conclude that walking is fastest.

I don’t claim that biking is faster than walking, in this sense. But I think it’s competitive, and that it transmits similar wholistic messages and values back through our bodies and spirits. Biking may be an industrial-technological compromise. (It’s certainly not atavistic or romanticist – not in a world where, way off the First World radar screen, hundreds of millions of people either use bicycles as their primary transport or wish they could afford to.) But it’s still uses the same language as the one we feel in our gut, genetically speaking.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 13:58 EDT
Updated: Friday, 17 August 2007 14:00 EDT
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