A blog entry based on an Instagram post.

InstaBlog: A (Lonely) Canal Runs in Indy

The Indianapolis Canal Walk, located right near the city's downtown, is often described in glowing terms, not only as one of the city's gems, but as a rare example of rust belt urban regeneration done well.  There is no doubt that it is a pretty place, leaning hard into its image as a faux Venice of the Midwest.  Sadly, however, it seems far less impactful than glossy photos might have you believe.

The waterway itself has an almost hilariously tragic history: planned in the midst of the Erie Canal boom, the Indianapolis Central Canal was designed to help connect the Great Lakes to the Ohio River, traveling some 296 miles (476km).  When the project finally went bankrupt around a decade later, however, only a bare 8 miles (13km) of canal had actually been built—most of that in the city proper.  In fact, the only reason the canal still exists today is that, for many years, it was repurposed as part of the city's water supply system. By the mid-1980s, the southernmost portion of the canal had become redundant—just in time to be sold to the city.  At the time, Indianapolis was in the midst of an expensive attempt at downtown regeneration, spending heavily on a strategy of sports stadiums, convention center space, and recreational facilities.  As part of this, the canal would be extensively rebuilt into an urban destination: a grand park connecting the growing IU Health hospital campus to the north with White River State park in the south.

Walking the canal path in early March of this year, it certainly looks the part.  Extensively landscaped on both banks, it is lined with apartments, hotels, museums, and government offices.  A series of intentionally quaint pedestrian bridges cross the water at regular intervals, and the path is connected to the street grid above at every road crossing.  Visually, the design is very New Urbanist—and that is largely meant as a compliment.

There was just one problem with this scenic vista, however: there was no one there.  Sure, late winter in Indiana is clearly out of season for an outdoor attraction, and the weather was hovering around freezing, with transient flurries.  Plenty of other urban public spaces across the world, however, find ways to attract so many more people even in far worse conditions. While the path is in decent enough shape, a general lack of maintenance only added to the post-apocalyptic ambiance.  Although a lot of money was clearly spent to create this place, it now can often feel uncared for, dotted with the occasional crumbling brick wall or graffitied sign.

InstaBlog: Small City Buses Done Right in Charlottetown, PE

While staying in Charlottetown, the capital and primary city of Canada's Prince Edward Island, one of the things I knew I had to do was check out the local bus system. And honestly, for a small city of around 40,000 people, I have to admit I was mightily impressed. Charlottetown transit offers a number of important lessons on how to build effective transit in all sorts of smaller and often less-urban places.

A bus in downtown Charlottetown

Of course, when I say transit "system," in this case, I really mean a single route. While the local operator, T3 ("Take Transit Today") offers a handful of highly limited local routes similar to many small US bus systems, its secret lies in its primary route, the #1 along University Ave, which offers frequent service from the Confederation Centre downtown out to the Charlottetown Mall. For most of the day on weekdays, Route 1 runs every 15 minutes—just frequent enough to allow for easy, show-up-and-go service. Better still, because the route is only half an hour long, two buses can offer clockface service from each terminal (that is, buses leave the terminals at the same times every hour), making riding easy. Service also continues comparatively late into the evening, with a bus every half hour from 7-10:30PM.

A map of T3's bus services.

By the standards of even many large US transit systems, this level of service and freedom is revelatory. And as a result, the system is not merely a social service for the poor, but simply a fact of live, serving all types of riders on all types of trips. Ridership feels amazingly strong and amazingly diverse for such a small place. Better still, the route manages to carry people across a variety of urban textures, as well. While downtown Charlottetown is a small, traditionally urban (and thus tremendously walkable) place, much of the city spread out into the standard North American sprawl of strip malls and subdivisions. Even here, however, transit use is strong, leading to a healthy pedestrian presence on the ground that you can feel, even when crossing deeply off-putting arterial roads.

InstaBlog: Zionsville, IN's Public Library

Author's note: Warning—this is a blog-style post based on a social media post. Beware typos and poorly elucidated thoughts. For more polish, perhaps try an article!

Last month, while visiting a good friend in Indiana, I had a chance to explore the Hussey-Mayfield Memorial Public Library in Zionsville, IN. A small suburb of Indianapolis, I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the town's public library—even if (as always) I was excited to investigate it as a public space. As I walked through its spacious halls, however, I found myself suitably impressed. Hussey-Mayfield is a great example of how libraries can serve as vital parts of our public realm, and is the type of facility that every community deserves.

The first thing that blew me away was the amount of space. Of course, as my friend Chris Jones rightly teased, this is what can happen when a New Yorker used to cramped confines heads to Midwest. Still, the building just seems to keep on going and going—in part a result of a 2006 addition to the original 1994 building. As such, it is an enjoyable place to simply explore.

Silent and Surreal: Inside the Old Croton Aqueduct

Critical—and admittedly romantic—urban impressions of the Old Croton Aqueduct, present and past, outside and in.
One of the most important pieces of infrastructure in New York's history, the famous channel now exists as a strange, glorious ruin, nearly hidden in plain sight. Travel inside, and you submerge into a landscape that is at once alien and oddly human—urban history writ on a monumental scale.

More than thirty miles north of Midtown Manhattan, deep in New York State's Westchester County, the Sing Sing Kill cuts a jagged, rocky ravine into the steep, riverine countryside. A small creek, it winds its way through the equally small town of Ossining, its waters carving out a succession of scenic vistas as they make their way down to the Hudson River. Its name alone is arresting. A dramatic juxtaposition, it combines the anglicized name of a Native American tribe—before it was appropriated, this land belonged to the Sintsink, part of the larger Algonquin-speaking Wappinger—with kill, an old Dutch word for creek. What has truly made the name infamous, however, is the metonymic prison which still stands near the stream's mouth. Indeed, by the turn of the Twentieth Century, the idiom "to be sent up the river"—that is, to be sentenced to Sing Sing Prison—had become so ubiquitous that the village itself decided to change its name to Ossining, just to avoid the association.

Unusual nomenclature, however, is only a part of what makes the small waterway worthy of note. A larger piece comes in the form of the towering, wall-like monolith which just so happens to intersect its course right in the middle of town. Built of well-weathered stone, the structure bursts from the ravine's rocky walls and soars across the creek's valley with an unmistakable human straightness. But while the crossing is clearly a product of engineering skill, its rough-hewn stone walls and rugged, aged demeanor also grant it an air of natural permanence, as if it has stood here since time immemorial. The grand viaduct bridges the kill itself by way of an impressive masonry arch—a spot known to locals as the Double Arch, thanks to the later stone arch bridge built underneath the original, larger one. By any measure, it is an impressive sight.

Left: The Double Arch as seen in a 1907 postcard. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)
Right:The arches today, seen from above and behind.

What truly makes this spot unique, however, is what that monolith contains. As you may have already surmised from the title of this piece, the crossing carries within its walls the former channel of the Old Croton Aqueduct, one of the most important pieces of infrastructure in New York City's history. More than that, however, this viaduct also offers the only place that a visitor can actually set foot inside this remarkable (and remarkably intact) structure. For anyone with even the slightest inkling of romanticism for either urban infrastructure or urban history, the trip is a surreal and affecting experience, one well worthy of the journey upstate.

Urban Impressions: Zionsville, IN (Indianapolis Part 3)

Part 3 of Urban Impressions: Indianapolis. See also Part One and Part Two.

To be honest, Zionsville, IN is not the type of place I would normally explore, let alone analyze in depth. In fact, had I not been staying in this small, rural-turned-suburban town just northwest of Indianapolis, I might not have paid it a second thought. Sitting right outside Interstate 465—the gigantic, square beltway that surrounds the city—Zionsville is one of the epicenters of suburban growth in greater Indianapolis. Its population has been exploding, nearly doubling in the past ten years alone. But while the town is mainly suburban, what makes it truly unique—not to mention economically successful—is its quasi urban core. Zionsville is centered on a quaint, compact downtown full of quirky shops—all of which are supported by acre after acre of nigh-exurban single family housing developments and big box stores. It should, by all rights, be a place I loathe, one that sells itself on its small-town-America charm, its driving proximity to central Indianapolis, and its tourist friendly nature. And yet, as with anything related to cities—even small ones—nothing is so simple, nor so clear cut.

Of course, some of this may well be Stockholm syndrome. After a few days of suburban Indiana, downtown Zionsville's urban nature—no matter how kitschy or artificial—offered a welcome respite. Having somewhat likened parts of Indianapolis's Fountain Square neighborhood to a theme park, I am painfully aware of my own potential hypocrisy. After all, no matter how troubling I find some of that neighborhood's development trends, it is still a long-struggling urban neighborhood striving to be more—and that is something that should be commended. In contrast, a place like Zionsville exists upon far more artifice: a cynical mind would not be entirely wrong to see its cute downtown as little more than an artisanal mall for rich, white suburbanites. And yet, just as a large part of me was uncomfortable with a cynical characterization of Fountain Square, I cannot bring myself to be fully smug and dismissive of this town, either. Zionsville is a far harder circle to square than it may appear at first glance. On the one hand, it is a surprisingly functional, delightfully gorgeous, nearly urban place, full of interesting shops and interacting people. The town stands as a shining example of the quasi-urban desires of the suburban class: of just how many otherwise proud suburban- and exurbanites still often seek out urban-like forms, at least on their own terms. On the other hand, however, the town is also a place founded upon rural and suburban fantasies of town life, on boutique consumption, and exclusion. In other words, Zionsville is a product of inseparable contradictions—and that, perhaps more than anything else, makes it quintessentially American.

Urban Impressions: Fountain Square (Indianapolis Part 2)

Continued from Part One.

The other urban neighborhood in Indianapolis proper that I had chance to explore during my brief visit was Fountain Square. Like Broad Ripple, it is another newly thriving urban fragment firmly lodged in a predominantly suburban city. Unlike its northern sibling, however, it is, in typological terms, a far more traditionally urban-looking place—and given the neighborhood's location and history, perhaps that should not be surprising. Fountain Square is an inner-ring urban neighborhood that lies a mere mile and half southeast of the city's center. One of the earliest satellite neighborhoods of downtown, it sits at the end of Virginia Avenue, a major commercial street that carves a straight line across the city's grid and into its core. That link has defined Fountain Square, for better or for worse, for its entire history. Indeed, this urban fragment is a fascinating place, as it seems to have embodied the entire Midwestern urban experience of the last 150 years.

It is almost impossible to discuss today's neighborhood without discussing how it came to be. The history of Fountain Square as an urban place essentially begins in 1864, when a horse-drawn street railway line out of downtown opened along Virginia Avenue. As was so often the case in 19th Century American cities, new transportation infrastructure enabled physical expansion, pushing the city's built up area southwards. All along its path, the railway spurred commercial and residential development, and nowhere was this more true than at its terminus, a loop built into the irregular intersection at the very end of Virginia Avenue. The terminal made the area an early transportation node, and locals soon found a fitting nickname for the nascent neighborhood: "The End." The name would stick around for decades—at least until a fountain opened at the foot of Virginia Avenue in 1889.

Urban Impressions: Indianapolis Part 1—Broad Ripple Village

Author's note: This is a blog-style post, and as such—even though I do my best to avoid it—it may have research gaps, a lack of citations, and even (gasp!) typos. If you are looking for something a bit meaty more to sink your teeth into, you may consider a full article.

Indianapolis had, for quite some time, been one of those cities which stuck in the back of my mind: a place I had an interest in exploring, but could never quite pin a reason on why—a feeling I think may be very familiar to those who study cities. Over this past summer, thanks to a new local friend, I finally had the opportunity to indulge that interest, and visit parts of the city and its environs. My timing was far from perfect: not only was my trip brief, but it came only a little more than a month before the opening of the city's new bus rapid transit Red Line. Still, the city has a lot going for it, and hopefully someday soon I will have to opportunity to return and do some more in-depth study.

In physical terms, Indianapolis is a predominantly suburban, auto-focused city—even more so than many of its similar Midwestern siblings. Of course, like almost every older American city, it did once have a large, thriving streetcar network, but much of the region's physical growth seems to have come at the tail end of the streetcar era and at the dawn of the age of auto-dominance. As such, outside of the downtown—most of which I sadly did not have time to explore on this trip—there is sadly little traditional urban fabric. Worse still, outside of downtown's famous Mile Square, much of what once did exist has been razed, either for urban expressways or in the name of progress. Even in outlying neighborhoods that developed before the car, the rigid separation of commercial and residential buildings and the reification of the detached, single family home are paramount. As you research the city, you are told that, thanks to the absence of natural boundaries and ethnic enclaves, most neighborhoods have fuzzy boundaries—if they exist in more than name, at all. The city can seem a uniform tapestry of large roads and suburban houses, sprawling in every direction.

Still, like most any city with roots in the streetcar era, Indianapolis does have a handful of urban fragments: pockets of urbanity which now float disconnectedly in that seemingly endless sea of residential suburbs. In part, one can thank the city’s transportation history for their existence. If one mode of infrastructure defined the urban form of greater Indianapolis prior to the automobile, it was the interurban. The city and its surroundings were laced with these small, electric railways, which ran like a traditional passenger train between cities and villages, and then like a streetcar within them. As a result, the landscape is dotted with shards of urban life left where these systems deigned to stop, many of which were once towns and villages in their own right.

Insta(Photo)Blog: Manhattan Ave, Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Author's note: Warning—this is a blog-style post based on a social media post. Beware typos and poorly elucidated thoughts. For more polish, perhaps try an article!

Manhattan Ave in Greenpoint, Brooklyn is—location to the contrary—well named, indeed.

One of the great pieces of whimsy (not to mention of psychological interest) that an urban environment can give a denizen is a stunning, unexpected view.

I may not be a huge fan of 432 Park Ave (the huge tower in the far distance), but I'll be damned if it isn't impressive—it makes the Citicorp Center in front of it look tiny—and this is doubly true when lined up with a traditional urban Brooklyn street. There is also something to be said here about the stunning contrast here: between low-rise north Brooklyn—the city of Churches—and the grand towers in the distance. When it lines up, it is something special, indeed.

Apropos of nothing, this picture was a challenge to develop right: so much light and dark! But I think it came out well!


Based on an Instagram post.
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Insta(Photo)Blog: Brooklyn


The City of Churches.
A Working Port.
Part of New York.

And gorgeous, even in the rain.

All in one shot, how could I resist?

Based on an Instagram post.
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InstaBlog: Borough Park 2

Author's note: Warning—this is a blog-style post based on a social media post. Beware typos and poorly elucidated thoughts. For more polish, perhaps try an article!

The long-delayed second part of my walk exploring the urbanism of Brooklyn's Borough Park (see the first part here!).

Mostly, here you see more images of the small, independent clothing & other retail shops, primarily Jewish, that define so much of the neighborhood—including some decidedly unique ones. Tucked in amongst them is the Thirteenth Avenue Retail Market. Built during by the administration of Fiorello LaGuardia in the late 1930s, it was part of his effort to "modernize" the city (read: making the streets less "chaotic" and more available for cars). Similar markets were built all over the city to get small, pushcart vendors off the streets.

You can also seem some of the relatively unique urban scenery created by a New York elevated train. It is dramatic, even if the streets below are loud and shrouded in perpetual darkness. You may may remember New Utrecht Avenue here from 1971's The French Connection, where Popeye Doyle raced an el train in a car below.

But although the el can make the city look as gritty as it did in the 70s, it's important not to make the classic mistake: just because a neighborhood is poor, gritty, or less-maintained does not mean it isn't a thriving urban center. While there is always a lot to improve, these streets are a thriving social, cultural, and economic resource for a decidedly unique community. And for that, they are amazing.

Based on an Instagram post.
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