City Stories #3 – Such Fools We Are


City Stories is a semi-regular feature where I write short expository pieces and vignettes inspired by cities I’ve lived in and visited in various places of the world. In previous stories we visited Brooklyn and Derry.  Today we walk through Virginia Woolf’s London. 

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.  Clarissa Dalloway’s familiarity with her route to the flower shop meant that she could perambulate Westminster while remembering her youth in the countryside, and pondering her choice of husband.  For a pair of Americans who majored in English literature, however, we need a plan.  To plot our route, I defer to Susan who read all of Virginia Woolf’s novels and has an additional graduate degree in English. She spends our flight from Logan to Heathrow highlighting passages from Mrs. Dalloway and charting a course on a map of London.

On our first full day in London in January 2004, we attempt to recreate the route that Clarissa followed eighty years and six months earlier.  On our way to the residential area of Westminster where the Dalloways lived we pass the Houses of Parliament and a statue of Oliver Cromwell.  Filled with the indignant rage of my Irish ancestry, I shake my fist at Cromwell, only to notice the closed circuit camera pointed right at me.  I was now on the the United Kingdom’s list of dangerous people for threatening a statue of one of their leaders.  But as we continue along we saw a large group protesting the war in Iraq holding pointed signs accusing Parliament of being “BABY KILLERS,” so maybe I’m low on that list.

We find the home suspected to be Woolf’s inspiration for the Dalloway’s house in a quiet residential area near the home once occupied by T.E. Lawrence.  From there we set off on our walk, not to find flowers, but the delights of London.  As the leaden circles of Big Ben’s chime dissolve in the air, we prepared to cross Victoria Street. Susan informs me that at this point Clarissa thought “Such fools we are!” while crossing the street and so we should as well. But as we start to cross a motor scooter zips by and nearly runs Susan over.  That would be a foolish way to go.

Smiling after not being flattened by a motor scooter on Victoria Street.

Safely across Victoria Street we divert from Mrs. Dalloway’s route and into Westminster Abbey. Over time this church has accrued so much statuary and memorial plaques as to become something of an unofficial English Hall of Fame and Museum. The area around Geoffrey Chaucer’s grave is known as Poets’ Corner where there are burials and monumental plaques for over 100 English writers. An egregious absence from Poets’ Corner is Virginia Woolf.

After examining every nook and cranny of the Abbey, we emerge outdoors and enter into St. James Park. There is no airplane skywriting over the park but it is a quiet respite with “the slow-swimming happy ducks; the pouched birds waddling” in the Lake. Additional birds cavorting around the lake include pigeons, geese, and most exotic to Americans, coots.  Unlike other water birds, coots do not have webbed feet but instead have long toes with lobes of skin.  A bird that’s completely out of place in London is the pelican, but the lake is also home to a flock of pelicans descended from those donated by a 17th-century Russian ambassador.  One pelican has its back to the government offices, just like Hugh Whitbread whom Clarissa meets in the park.  So we decide this pelican’s name is Hugh and carry on.

We march up Whitehall past the Cenotaph and Horse Guards.  No backfiring cars startle us, but we once again diverge from Clarissa Dalloway’s route and make our way to Trafalgar Square. We visit the cheery crypt of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields where we enjoy a delicious late lunch. Above, in the nave of St. Martins-in-the-Fields, we listen to a soprano and counter-tenor rehearse for that night’s performance.

In Trafalgar Square, we pick up on the route of Peter Walsh, Clarissa’s old friend and potential suitor. Here Peter pondered “strangeness of standing alone, alive, unknown, at half-past eleven.”  It is much later in the day for us and as we were also unknown we join the crowds of tourists clambering up the Nelson monument to visit the cuddly lions.  We help a fellow American up behind us, but then she promptly falls on her face.  Luckily there are no injuries.  Nearby a pair of young women sit looking at the South Africa house because they say it’s helping with their homesickness.  The South Africans are traveling across Europe, visiting 11 cities in 12 days with a focus on dancing at the top nightclubs in every city.  No wonder they look exhausted.

We notice a bird of prey with a tether on its leg circling overhead and an the absence of Trafalgar Square’s famed pigeons and wonder if the two our connected.  We see two men wearing vests that read Heritage Guardians and approach them with our questions.

“Excuse me, what kind of bird is that?”

“It’s an ‘arris ‘awk.”

“Does it keep the pigeon population down?”

“The ‘awk keeps the pigeon population moving. It’s the boys with the shovels on Sunday morning that keep the pigeon population down.” He makes his meaning clear by using his hands to make the international gesture for braining a pigeon with a shovel.

Susan remembers that Peter Walsh looked up to a statue of Gordon, an historical figure he’d worshipped, but we can’t find the statue anywhere. We return to the Heritage Guards with another question.

“Do you know where the Statue of Gordon is?”

“Gordon of Khartoum?” replies one with a mix of surprise and confusion.

“No, not a cartoon!” says Susan with greater confusion. Clearing up the difference between cartoon and Khartoum, they have further questions.

“Does he ride a horse?” asks one.

“Does he wear a fez?” asks the other.

We don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  One of the guards thinks that the statue was moved from Trafalgar Square just after the Second World War, and directs us to the Embankment by the Thames.

“There’s a statue there, might as well be ‘im!”

Susan has an Ahab-like obsession to stand under the Gordon statue like Peter Walsh and leads us down Northumberland Avenue to a park along the Embankment.  There are in fact two statues in this park, but the problem is that they’re behind a fence and the gates are locked.  After trying to find a way into the park or verify the statues’ identity from afar, we realize that the sun is setting and our stroll should come to an end.*

We determine the nearest Tube station for a line that will take us to meet up with our host Sarah is across the Thames at Waterloo Station.  We bounce across the Hungerford Footbridge to the tune of “Take Five.” At the far end of the bridge a blonde woman busks on her saxophone.

For there she was.


* NOTE: With the help of Google Streetview, I’ve been able to locate the Charles George Gordon Statue in a park on the Victoria Embankment just one block up the Thames from where we were looking.  Not only that, but the park has no enclosure so we totally could’ve stood under the Gordon statue.  Other Woolfheads, take note!

Advertisements

Write a Letter to Help Fix Cambridge Street


[cross-posted from my Boston Bike Commuter blog]

 

Wednesday is the deadline to help fix Cambridge Street by signing Fix Cambridge Street‘s community letter to MassDOT at http://tinyurl.com/CambridgeStreet.

 

Please also send an email to dot.feedback.highway@state.ma.us with your own comments (mention “Project File # 606376”).

 

Keep up with news on Facebook and Twitter.

My letter to MassDOT is below.

January 27, 2014

Richard Davey, Secretary and Chief Executive Officer
Frank DePaola, Administrator, Highway Division
Massachusetts Department of Transportation
10 Park Plaza,
Boston, MA 02114
RE: Project #606376 Cambridge Street bridge over I-90, Allston, Boston
Dear Secretary Davey and Administrator DePaolo:
I’m writing in regards to the Cambridge Street Overpass in Allston, Project #606376.  I appreciate that in recent public meetings and plans that community concerns have been incorporated onto the Cambridge Street renovations.  However, the street design is still geared toward high-speed / high-volume motor vehicle traffic, increasing the risks for bicyclists and pedestrians.
I work in Allston and live in Jamaica Plain, and whenever possible I prefer to commute by work.  Any route I take to work must cross the Massachusetts Turnpike, but crossings are few and far between with the majority of them designed almost exclusively for automotive traffic with wide lanes and high speeds (this includes Cambridge Street, as well as Carlton/Mounfort St, Beacon St, and Charlesgate).  These crossings are intimidating to bicyclists at best and downright dangerous at worst.  While the Cambridge Street crossing is the most direct route, I often go miles out-of-the-way to Massachusetts Avenue to avoid the stress and risks of biking on Cambridge Street.
With this in mind, and the concerns of Allston community members, bicyclists, and pedestrians, I would like to encourage the following modifications to encourage the goal of slowing automotive traffic speed and creating a safer street for pedestrians and bicyclists:
  • Do not install a median fence.
  • Reallocate excess space from roadway to bicyclists and pedestrians
  • The new pedestrian crossing should use a standard red/yellow/green traffic signal
  • Plant landscaping in the median between the Mansfield Crosswalk & Lincoln Street.
  • Use permanent coloring to distinguish the sidewalk and cycletrack
Thank you for your consideration and attention to my concerns and those of others who wish to transform Cambridge Street into a safe, accessible and attractive gateway to the Allston community.  Working together we can the project to remake Cambridge Street something we can all be proud of.

Book Review: Walkable City by Jeff Speck


Author: Jeff Speck
TitleWalkable City
Publication Info: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c2012.
ISBN: 9780374285814
Summary/Review:

A city planner by trade, Speck is aware of what works and doesn’t work in creating and maintaining thriving metropolises.  He blames many of his fellow planners for the big mistakes of repeatedly designing cities for the swift movement of cars and then for places to park those cars, destroying the city in the process.  The obvious solution is to make the city more “walkable” but many efforts to design cities as a place to walk have failed as well, often due to their half-hearted nature or lack of understanding of what makes a city walkable.  To address this, Speck created a ten step list (cited in its entirety below) with each chapter describing the facets involved in creating truly walkable city.

The Useful Walk

Step 1. Put Cars in Their Place.
Step 2. Mix the Uses.
Step 3. Get the Parking Right.
Step 4. Let Transit Work.

The Safe Walk

Step 5. Protect the Pedestrian.
Step 6. Welcome Bikes.

The Comfortable Walk

Step 7. Shape the Spaces.
Step 8. Plant Trees.

The Interesting Walk

Step 9. Make Friendly and Unique Faces.
Step 10. Pick Your Winners.

I read a lot of books about urbanism, city planning, walking, and bicycling (and against the prioritizing of automobiles), so I’m the proverbial choir being preached too.  Speck’s book clearly states the advantages of his model to everyone, and enunciates the steps in getting to that point.  For these reasons, this is the book I’d hand to an automobile-focused doubter to read and think it would have a great chance of making an impression.

Favorite Passages:

“The General Theory of Walkability explains how, to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Each of these qualities is essential and none alone is sufficient. Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well. Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe but feel safe, which is even tougher to satisfy. Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban streets into ‘outdoor living rooms,’ in contrast to wide-open spaces, which usually fail to attract pedestrians. Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound.”

“Since midcentury, whether intentionally or by accident, most American cities have effectively become no-walking zones. In the absence of any larger vision or mandate, city engineers—worshipping the twin gods of Smooth Traffic and Ample Parking—have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at.”

“Engineers design streets for speeds well above the posted limit, so that speeding drivers will be safe—a practice that, of course, causes the very speeding it hopes to protect against.”

Recommended booksStraphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by Taras Grescoe, Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability by David Owen, Triumph of the City by Edward L. Glaeser, and Pedaling revolution : how cyclists are changing American cities by Jeff Mapes.
Rating: ****

Book Review: The lost art of walking by Geoff Nicholson


Author: Geoff  Nicholson
Title: 
The lost art of walking : the history, science, philosophy, and literature of pedestrianism
Publication Info: 
New York : Riverhead Books, 2008
ISBN:
9781594489983
Summary/Review: 
 
Geoff  Nicholson takes on the quotidian topic of walking, something just about everyone can do, although there who some who can who fail to exercise the ability regularly.  At the heart of this work are Nicholson’s own walks.  At the time of writing, Nicholson lived in Los Angeles a place generally seen to be hostile to walking although it is possible as I’ve experienced myself.  Nicholson walks in the various places he lives – London, New York, Los Angeles, and in a bittersweet final chapter he returns to walk through his childhood home of Sheffield.    In between he explores the history of walking (particularly sport walkers who performed feats of endurance such as walking 1 mile an hour for 1000 consecutive hours), walks in music and movies, psychogeography, walks in the desert, and street photography. There are also walking tours, which are near and dear to my heart, including such oddities as walking tours of parking lots. Nicholson seems to be a cranky person and that crankiness kind of sucks the joy out of his writing.  Still this is an interesting book with some intriguing insights into the topic.

Favorite Passages:
“Walking for peace may certainly strike you and me as futile and useless, but if a person believes it works, then it’s the most logical and rational thing in the world.  To walk for a reason, any reason, however personal or obscure, is surely a mark of rationality.  Money, art, self-knowledge, world peace, these are not eccentric motivations for walking; they’re damn good ones, regardless of whether or not they succeed.  I find myself coming to the conclusion that perhaps the only truly eccentric walker is the one who walks for no reason whatsover.  However, I’m no longer sure if that’s even possible.” – p. 85
“We walked on, not very far and not very fast.  It gradually became obvious, and it was not exactly a surprise, that two hours standing around listening to stories, interspersed with rather short walks, of no more than a couple of hundred yards each, was actually very hard work, much harder than walking continuously for two hours.  As the tour ended twenty people were rubbing their backs, complaining about their feet, and saying they needed to sit down.  I checked my GPS: in those two hours we’d walked just under a mile.” – p. 90

Book Review: Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit


Author: Rebecca Solnit
Title: Wanderlust : a history of walking
Publication Info: New York : Viking, c2000.
ISBN: 0670882097

Summary/Review:

I like walking and a history of walking intrigued me.  It was not quite what I expected as Solnit takes a philosophical and metaphysical approach to the concept of walking.  The book includes ruminations on the biology of walking, pilgrimages, famed walkers like Peace Pilgrim, meditative walking, poets who walk (Wordsworth), walking clubs, hiking, climbing, walking in the city and the affects of sexual discrimination and racism on walkers, among many other topics.  The last chapter is an interesting contrast of Las Vegas, a notoriously unfriendly city to walkers, developing a pedestrian core.  Solnit insisted that her own story be part of the history by necessity, but I wish she hadn’t as she comes across as preachy and didactic.  Her voice appears throughout the text as one of nagging disapproval and it hampers my enjoyment of this book.

Favorite Passages:

“We talked about the more stately sense of time one has afoot and on public transit, where things must be planned and scheduled beforehand, rather than rushed through at the last minute,and about the sense of place that can only be gained on foot.  Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors — home, car, gym, office, shops — disconnected from each other.  On foot evertything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors.  One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.” – p.9

“The new treadmills have two-horsepower engines.  Once, a person might have hitched two horses to a carriage to go out into the world without walking; now she might plug in a two-horsepower  motor to walk without going out into the world. … So the treadmill requires far more economic and ecological interconnection that does taking a walk, but it makes far fewer experiential connections.” – p. 265

Recommended books: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John R. Stilgoe, Lights Out for the Territory by Iain Sinclair and Snowshoeing Through Sewers: Adventures in New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia by Michael Aaron Rockland

Rating: **

Boston By Foot Tour of the Month – Chestnut Hill


Today I took the excellent Boston By Foot Tour of the Month of Chestnut Hill.  While the neighborhood straddles Newton, Brookline, and Boston, the tour covered the Newton portion viewing elegant houses along shady lanes.

My photos are online here, with some samples below.

The Church of the Redeemer

The official description of  the tour from the Boston By Foot website:

Chestnut Hill is a classic streetcar suburb which developed as the railroad and streetcar network expanded around Boston. By the early twentieth century, Chestnut Hill was considered to be “suburban living at its best”.

This walking tour explores the Newton portion of the Chestnut Hill neighborhood where you will walk among large Victorian mansions while learning its evolution from rural farmland to a modern suburb.

Chestnut Hill also features the campus of Boston College and the historic Chestnut Hill Reservoir with a finish at the new Metropolitan WaterWorks Museum.

Hammond House

If you missed the tour today, don’t worry it will be offered again next year.  Become a Boston By Foot Member today and receive a discount on Tours of the Month plus special members only tours.

The Metropolitan Water Works

Boston By Foot Avenue of the Arts Tour


Huntington Avenue photo courtesy of Yarian Gomez's photostream on Flickr

Come out this Sunday July 25th at 2pm for a guided walking tour of Boston’s Avenue of the Arts lead by Boston By Foot guides (including yours truly).  The tour begins in front of The Church of Christ, Scientist on Massachusetts Avenue and the cost is just $15/person.  If you become a Boston By Foot member admission is reduced to just $5 and you get lots of other benefits as well.

Have you ever wondered why so many cultural institutions dedicated to fine arts, music, education, religion, and sports are clustered in one area in Boston?  As we walk along this cultural corridor we’ll explore the history of Huntington Avenue and learn about:

  • landmarks created by two of the most remarkable women in Boston’s history: Mary Baker Eddy and Isabella Stewart Gardner
  • not one but two acoustically perfect concert halls
  • not one but two historical figures named Eben
  • the oldest artificial ice sporting arena in the world
  • Boston’s lost opera house
  • the many innovations and contributions of the YMCA
  • the site of the first World Series game
  • expansion and development at Northeastern University, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
  • and much, much more

I’m particularly proud of this tour because I originated the idea and collaborated on the research and manual writing.  So please come out and join us to learn more about this fascinating Boston district.

Huntington Avenue in 1920, courtesy of Boston Public Library's photostream on Flickr

The Best Dam Walking Tour in Boston


I promote a lot of tours on this blog, but if there’s one tour you must take this summer it’s the Exploring the Charles River Basin tour offered by Boston By Foot guides (including myself).  The tour steps off at 2 pm on Sunday, June 27th from Nashua Street Park just opposite the exit from the Science Park MBTA station (exit to the right, not toward the Museum of Science).  Admission for this tour is $15/person and $5 for card-carrying members of Boston By Foot.  A great excuse for getting a membership now!

Not to frighten anyone off but this tour covers about two-miles of some-times rough ground with little protection from the elements.  So come prepared with appropriate clothing and fresh liquids.  The tour lasts approximately 2 hours but you can duck out pretty easily at the 90-minute mark if you need to.

While Exploring the Charles River Basin,  you will:

  • discover three brand-new parks that most people don’t know exist.
  • history of the Charles River and its ever-encroaching banks
  • hear mellifluous words like bascule, freshet, and sluiceway and find out what they mean too
  • cross not one but two dams
  • see the only city jail with a waterfront view and a park across the street
  • ponder our litigious society
  • find what remains of Miller’s River
  • get a new perspective on the world’s widest cable-stayed bridge
  • and without fail you’ll see all manner of transportation, roads, railways, bridges, and waterways

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

FREE Tour of Jamaica Pond on Saturday!


Saturday June 19th at 11 am, meet at the Jamaica Pond Bandstand near the intersection of Pond Street and Jamaicaway for a 90-minute tour around Jamaica Pond.   Yours truly will be one of the guides for this Jamaica Plain Historical Society walking tour.

Official description of the tour from the JPHS website:

Once a gathering point for Boston’s elite, the Pond had previously been put to   industrial use as tons of ice were harvested there each winter. Learn about the movers and shakers such as Francis Parkman who made their homes on the Pond’s shores. Discover how the Pond was transformed from private estates and warehouses into the parkland we know today.
Leaves from the Bandstand, Pond Street and Jamaicaway.

Come join us for a fun and informative tour.  Last year I lead this tour for 27 people and 4 dogs.  It should be a nice escape on a hot day.  Don’t forget that the price of this tour is FREE, although you may want to sign up for a JPHS membership starting at $15.

Boston By Foot Tour of the Month – Preserving Boston’s History


Today I took Boston By Foot’s August Tour of the Month focusing on the Historic Preservation movement entitled Preserving Boston’s History.  The tour featured many familiar Boston landmarks and the guide informed us how historic preservationists saved many of them from the dustheap.

I’ve put a gallery of photos from the tour on my website.

Adaptive reuse kept Old City Hall alive after the municipal offices moved to Government Center.
Adaptive reuse kept Old City Hall alive after the municipal offices moved to Government Center.

Highlights include:

  • the site of John Hancock’s house on Beacon Hill, lost in 1863 and ever since has been the rallying cry for what can be lost with historic preservation.
  • the Charles Bulfinch portion of the Massachusetts State House which was almost demolished and replaced with a larger version of itself during an expansion
  • Old City Hall, an early example of adaptive reuse as the government building was converted for commercial office space and restaurants.
  • Old South Meeting House, one of the first buildings preserved due to historic events that happened there rather than being associated with one famous person.
  • City Hall Plaza, once a vibrant commercial district which was cleared for urban renewal and replaced with a sea of bricks.  At least the Sears Crescent survived.
  • The Filene’s department store building, currently gutted and vacant, holds the future of historic preservation in Boston.
Will Daniel Burnhams beautiful Filenes store building survive?
Will Daniel Burnham's beautiful Filene's store building survive?

If you missed the tour today, fret not as Boston By Foot will offer it again as part of its Tours of the Month in the 2010 season.