South Hill Elementary School playground

Playground hopping

This summer we had to get creative and figure out ways to keep Rowan entertained while doing our best to prevent the spread of Covid. That meant we spent a lot more time outdoors than we had ever imagined possible.

While playgrounds were off limits in the early days of the pandemic we did our best to avoid even saying the word aloud. Explaining that “playgrounds are closed” to a two-year-old is basically like telling him that his birthday is cancelled and all his toys have been melted down for scrap. No bueno.

South Hill Elementary playground was closed due to Covid as of April 2020

Thankfully most playgrounds did re-open and research showed that Covid was not easily spread by touching objects. Armed with hand sanitizer, we felt prepared to accept the risk of playing outdoors starting in July.

Now that summer is drawing to a close, it seems like a good time to reflect, and consider: what makes a great playground? In my view, there are at least four factors to consider:

  • Fun – the playground needs to be engaging and offer a variety of activities for kids of various ages and abilities.
  • Parent spaces – there should be space for adults to watch their kids comfortably.
  • Picnic areas – tables or grass for a snack break allow families to spend more time outdoors.
  • Restrooms – when you gotta go, you gotta go.

The ratings below are loosely based on these criteria.

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Cayuga Waterfront Trail near NYSDOT facility

If I had three million dollars…

(Set to the tune of the Barenaked Ladies 1992 hit)

A few weeks ago a NYSDOT maintenance facility in Ithaca went up for auction with a starting bid of $2.85 million. You know it’s going to be special when there’s a fancy video!

The eight acre site is situated between the Ithaca Farmer’s Market and the Cornell Boathouse. It is surrounded on two sides by the Cayuga Waterfront Trail.

Efforts to relocate the NYSDOT facility off this prime real estate have been happening for at least twenty years. Whoever buys this is clearly not going to use it as a yard for road salt, dump trucks, and highway signs. (In case you’re curious, the maintenance facility is moving to a site near the airport.) A 2016 study [large PDF] looked into redevelopment options for the site.

By next week the winning bid should be announced, but it may take longer for details about redevelopment to emerge.

The site is a bit disconnected from Ithaca’s primary street grid – the only route for vehicular traffic is via 3rd Street. Crossing Route 13 on foot or bike at 3rd Street is a bit nerve-racking even when traffic is light. While there are crosswalks, due to the geometry of the intersection it takes a long time to cross the highway on foot.

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Lunch in Hanover Square

Last week I visited Syracuse and ate lunch in Hanover Square. This was the first time I explored downtown Syracuse on foot.

Hanover Square is a triangular pedestrian plaza lined by historic buildings to the south, Water street to the north and Warren street to the east. The plaza is slightly sunken below street level and mostly concrete.

I found Hanover Square an engaging and humane. It was a delightful spot to observe the city and eat a burrito from Otro Cinco. (If it weren’t for the Covid-19 pandemic, I would have eaten in the restaurant and never found this place.)

At the time of my visit there were no cars parked in the square, and it did not appear as though vehicular traffic was permitted. However Google Street View reveals that parking is apparently allowed along the south edge.

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Thoughts on Historic Markers

Lately I’ve started to notice historic markers. I often see them when I am riding my bike on country roads. I wondered, who are these signs for and what purpose do they serve?

I started paying attention to these signs after noticing one for the Underground Railroad on Lower Creek Road in Freeville. Upstate New York was an important destination on the path to freedom from slavery. The sign in Freeville marked a specific home which provided refuge. Specifically, the sign read as follows:

UNDERGROUND
RAILROAD
HOME OF WILLIAM HANFORD
AND WIFE ALTHA C. TODD,
WHO SHELTERED FUGITIVE SLAVES
ON WAY TO CANADA AND FREEDOM

APHNYS

Unfortunately, most historic markers I’ve witnessed are less remarkable. These signs tend to commemorate events that have blurred into the background of history: ends of old turnpikes, sites of early churches, mills long demolished. These markers tend to blend together as they reinforce dominant concepts in American history: European settlement of the American interior, the growth of industry, etc.

Historic markers are subtle cues to the stories that society has accepted and deemed important. They literally embed a narrative in the landscape for future generations to digest. Like statues, historic markers serve as a showcase for the values and beliefs of those who install them.

While historic markers don’t have the symbolic significance of large monuments, they deserve critical attention in my opinion. These signs tell us about the people whose stories mattered. In my experience, these markers too often reflect a history focused on the accomplishments of white people, men, and Christian congregations. People who do not identify with these groups will likely find it hard to understand how their past intersects with local history.

A new historic marker for the Alex Haley birthplace was recently installed in the City of Ithaca. I found it encouraging to see his story officially included as a part of the city’s history. However, this event also reminded me that there is much, much work left to address how racism in the past continues to echo into our present day.

In my view, a historic marker should cause its readers to pause and reflect on their role in history. It can be challenging to confront some facts about the past – particularly when we find our community’s history painful or our ancestor’s history repulsive. However, I think this reflexive discomfort is an important step to acknowledging uncomfortable truth and a prelude to taking meaningful action to address injustice.

Changing historic markers alone will not make our future more just, peaceful, or equitable. Like statues, monuments, and public art, these signs represent a small piece of our cultural consciousness. However, these signs are unique as they are physically attached to the earth and officially authorized by local historians (and often local governments). Their messages and placement are signals to the values which we continue to deem important.

On Race in America

I have found it hard to put my feelings over the last few days into words. Angry, sad, ashamed, disgusted. The brutal and inhumane murders that sparked days of protest are not isolated events; they are the latest crimes in a long history of oppression against black people in America. This is a history that I have learned about on an intellectual level since grade school, but I am only beginning to understand on an emotional level. I am trying to come to terms with the privileges I have experienced on account of nothing but my skin color and unearned ancestry. The simple and boring freedoms I take for granted (like walking around my neighborhood without fear of arrest) are not apparently not distributed equally. It is shameful that it has taken this level of civil unrest to bring this truth to my attention. But now I must confront this monstrous injustice – I am trying to figure out what that means for me. Let me know if you have ideas.

I posted this to Facebook on Friday night.

New House

It’s funny how some things that ought to be celebrations can feel so distressing.

A week ago we bought a house in Ithaca, NY. We are extremely fortunate to be able to afford a home in this city. This is a place where lots of people want to live – and housing prices reflect this demand.

Yet, the events that unfolded between our purchase offer and closing caused some deep turmoil in me. This unrest blocked me from being grateful and joyful at this important event.

Only thanks to my supportive wife have I been able to step back from these feelings and begin to understand their origins. I realized that a profound sense of entitlement was at the root of my feelings. My habits over the past months also contributed to these emotions. These default routines have nurtured resentment and anxiety instead of gratitude and joy.

About the new house:

Our new house is less than a mile from downtown Ithaca and was built in the 1870s. It is very close to a recreation trail and an elementary school. It has a small yard and an enclosed front porch. The house has two floors, two bedrooms, and two bathrooms.

There will be a lot of opportunity for us to upgrade the home’s energy efficiency. The home has a gas furnace and water heater. There is a nominal amount of insulation in the attic. There may be some potential for solar, but its not clear at this point.

Previous owners added on the kitchen and laundry room. Many of the windows in the house are original. The bathrooms and bedrooms have been updated recently. The house has a mix of hardwood and bamboo flooring – there is no carpet.

The Trick-or-Treat Test

Have you wondered if a neighborhood is walkable? Or, perhaps you have wondered what it even means to define a street, neighborhood, or city as walkable. Here is a dead simple test that will point you toward an answer.

Walkability has ascended to become a top-tier buzz word among urban planners in recent years. Yet, in spite of many efforts, there is no clear, consensus on how to measure a place’s walkability. (A google search yields methods proposed by advocacy groups, the private sector, and academics over the past decade.) 

I propose that truly walkable neighborhoods are those that attract kids on Halloween. (This definition will not work in places that do not celebrate Halloween in the American tradition.) Here’s why.

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Michigan Musings

Earlier this month I visited family and friends in Michigan. In between these visits I snapped a few pictures of familiar and unfamiliar spaces.

Grand Rapids

I grew up in Michigan and most of my family lives in the Western portion of the state around Grand Rapids. Over the last ten years, the city has hosted ArtPrize – a downtown contest for visual and performing arts where citizens vote on their favorites. On our visit to the Children’s Museum we passed by the 2nd place entry from 2009.

“Imagine That!” by Tracy Van Duinen

I love the way this bright, mosaic mural livens up the street. It feels like a natural extension of the Children’s Museum. It is a wonderful example of the lasting effects public art has on civic pride. 

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In The City of Bikes

Amsterdam’s love affair with bicycles goes back to practically the invention of the pneumatic tire. Pete Jordan explains In The City of Bikesthat the city embraced two-wheeled transport nearly a century ago. Shortly after World War I, the Dutch were able to import German bikes at a steep discount which led to a boom in cycling.

Jordan’s weaves together his personal experience as a American transplant to the Netherlands with the city’s cycling history. The author’s passion for bicycles leads him to count cyclists at intersections throughout Amsterdam while classifying each rider. He recounts his observations of the ways people ride bikes as passengers (aka dinking), the types of rain gear bicyclists use, and a catalog of large objects transported by bike.

The book shines in its detailed recollection of Amsterdam – especially the chapters on the Nazi occupation years. Jordan vividly describes the horrors that the Dutch faced during World War II while keeping the focus of his book on the unique role of the bicycle.

The author calls special attention to places where conflicts over cycling became heated – in particular he recounts the various efforts to close the bike passageway under the Rijksmuseum and the protest parades in Dam Square. I find it interesting that these spaces were flash points in the city’s transportation debates for decades.  However, Jordan’s detailed history of the multiple failed attempts to launch bike sharing in Amsterdam were perhaps the most fascinating to me.

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If highways are a drug, trails are treatment.

Something interesting happened during the nine years I lived outside of Ithaca – it grew a network of trails into its surrounding towns. A glance at the county’s bicycle map shows how these pedestrian friendly tendrils connecting downtown and campuses to rural hamlets. Dig deeper into the Priority Trails Plan and you will find a vision for an even more robust network of non-motorized trails.

Trails can be an important part of a treatment to our national addiction to highways. Yonah Freemark made this striking analogy on his blog, The Transport Politic:

“For American cities, highways are a drug. They’re expensive to acquire. They devastate healthy tissue and arteries, replacing previous modes of nourishment with destructive ones. They force the rest of the body to adapt to their needs, and they inflict pain on those nearby.”

Trails connect communities and open up recreational opportunities. Compared to highways, trails are a bargain (often an order of magnitude less expensive).  Trails enable physical health as people use them to walk, run, or bike.

Trails can help rekindle human connections. On a trail a group can hold a conversation without distraction. (Interestingly, social connection is seen as a treatment to drug addiction.)

While it’s common to hear objections to trail projects on the basis of increased crime or lower property values, new trails have been shown time and time again to be reliably safe and a benefit to neighborsContinue reading