Wednesday, March 30, 2016

What Streets Can Learn From Boardwalks

The Asbury Park Boardwalk and the Teacup

What would our streets look like if we gave them back to the people? In my opinion, they'd look a lot like boardwalks.

Recently I've been spending a bunch of time on the Asbury Park boardwalk. Just to orient you, the boardwalk runs north-south. To the east is the beach and the Atlantic Ocean. To the west is Ocean Avenue, on the western side of which lie a number of cultural attractions, including the Stone Pony, where Bruce Springsteen still shows up occasionally to jam. Madam Marie's is actually on the boardwalk, along with a bunch of pavilions that contain restaurants, saloons, a pinball museum that also sells pizza, and a variety of retail shops ranging from schlock to above my pay grade.

Towards the north, and straddling the boardwalk, lies Convention Hall, which has a bunch of shops, two theaters, two saloons, an oyster bar, and one of my favorite coffee shops in the world. I have to say that my favorite favorite coffee shop in Asbury Park is Volan, which is over in the business district, near Cookman Avenue.

Towards the south, near the Methodist camp meeting site known as Ocean Grove, is something called the Casino, which figured greatly in television news broadcasts after Hurricane Sandy. The Casino is a wreck. It was a wreck many years before Sandy. But still it was a good backdrop, and it helped bring money to the Jersey shore at an important time, so I'm not complaining about the journalistic shorthand. The main attraction at the Casino is the guy with the keyboard who plays carousel tunes - there once was a carousel in the carousel house next to the Casino, but it's not there anymore.

The Teacup
My favorite part of the boardwalk is the Teacup. It lies about midway between Convention Hall and the Casino, and it is part of a children's water park. The Teacup is very large and sits on a high podium; it fills slowly as the little children stand below, and when it is full it tips over and showers them - inundates them - with water. The children squeal with delight and run around. I stand and watch this, and I am delighted.

Photo by Alicia West
The Teacup tells us something about fun, and it reminds us that we were not necessarily designed for the world that we now live in. And here's the thing: the whole boardwalk is that way. It shows us, pretty much, what streets were like before the cars came.

Streets used to be about people on foot - pedestrians. Of course there were other occupants of the road, mainly horse-drawn wagons, carriages, and streetcars, but pedestrians set the tone, and most traffic didn't go much faster than a brisk walk.

And the street was not just for coming and going. It was also for socializing and entertainment - for dwelling. It was okay to stop in the middle of the street and talk to a friend you had just run into. And people did not march down the right side of the street in columns of four, like infantry regiments on parade. They wandered, they swirled, they doubled back to look at something interesting. Pretty much the way they behave on a boardwalk today.

No Lines, No Signs
Naturally there are those who would like to organize the traffic on the boardwalk, make it look more like the car traffic on the street. In Asbury Park even some bicyclists find the random, impulsive, darting behavior of pedestrians frustrating, and there has been talk of striping bicycle lanes on the boardwalk.

But the search for order misses the point. Carving up the boardwalk with separate lanes for different uses would simply turn it into a modern street. In the old street nobody owned a lane, and the pedestrian had the right of way over the street's larger, faster denizens.

And in fact there were no lane stripes. There were no traffic signals. People actually had to deal with one another and negotiate their paths. This goes on today, every day, on the Asbury Park boardwalk.

The system was a bit chaotic, but it allowed people to behave naturally, and everybody was moving slowly.

This approach to life on the street had been around for millennia, but it began to break down in the 1890's, with the arrival of bicycles and the electric streetcar. People were particularly incensed by rapid bicyclists, called scorchers, who had the temerity to pedal at 15 miles an hour!

Needless to say, the arrival of the car took everything to a new level, and fairly rapidly the old, pedestrian-centric street pretty much disappeared, except for niches like the boardwalk.

A Reasonable Compromise
Today, on the Asbury boardwalk, bicycles can and do participate in the dance of traffic until noon, which strikes me as a reasonable compromise. It can get very crowded in the afternoon. Service vehicles - the glorified golf carts used by the police and trash collectors - are on the boardwalk at all times. No horses pulling trash carts, but still the analogy with the pre-car street is strong.

We even have scorchers. Not many, but there is a lady on an elliptiGO - a mashup of an indoor elliptical trainer and a bicycle - who loudly bulls her way through the crowd. People make way, perhaps a bit grudgingly. Again, you're not going to go very fast on an elliptiGO; I personally think she's afraid of going too slow and falling over. Bikes are easier. You just put a foot down and wait.

The towns south of Asbury also have boardwalks; you can ride a long way. I've done it a lot, and it's a nice ride. However, many of the towns to the south have more restrictive riding hours than Asbury Park. I think the bicycle interests could do a good thing by asking these southern towns to extend their bicycle-friendly hours.

The guys on road bikes - the ones in spandex - will still need to go share the road with the cars. This raises the subject of protected bicycle lanes, which is a topic for another day.

A Liminal Space
Beyond being a pedestrian street, the boardwalk in Asbury Park is special in another, and probably more powerful, way. It is a liminal space, mediating the dry land of Ocean Avenue and the Stone Pony (well, perhaps not entirely dry) and the world of water represented by the beach and the ocean. There is a quiet magic to liminal spaces, perhaps none more so than at the water's edge.

And so people may not be entirely conscious of the undertow that the boardwalk wraps them in, floating them back into the old, pedestrian-centric street, an experience that is astonishingly rare today.

Perhaps tomorrow it will not be quite so rare. I hope.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

A Tale of Three Alleys

Go to Fitler Square. Look west. You'll see three alleys leading down to the park by the Schuylkill River. The 2400 blocks of Panama, Delancey, and Cypress. They can talk to us about what it's like to be an alley in Philadelphia.

Let's start with Panama Street. This is an old street that has seen hard use and survived in very good shape. Its scars (have a look at the tree behind the dog walker) should be seen as badges of honor. I don't want to turn Philadelphia into Disneyland.

I think this is one of the most beautiful streets in Philadelphia. On my rating scale (see Center City Quarterly, Fall 2015, p. 1), I give it an A. I choose not to see its flaws, and it sparks joy. Make that an A+.

Pavement on Panama Street
Next is Delancey. A very different block from Panama, with a lovely Mediterranean vibe. Don't know how to improve it. It's been on my basic running route for many years, and I've watched the work that got it to where it is. Another A.

Ah, Cypress. There are some very good elements here, but the block hasn't gelled. The other two alleys hold you, but this one lets the space bleed away on the north side, over the garage gates.

I think part of the problem is that the alley is so wide. The gates simply aren't tall enough to provide closure.

And there are no sidewalks. Well, there are some remnants, but mainly this alley is wall-to-wall asphalt. I feel adrift, and it's not a wine-dark sea. We need a little poetry here.

What to do? Sidewalks would be nice; they would help define the space. But they would be expensive. Strings of LED lights over the parking spaces on the north side would provide an attractive visual closure, at least at night.

Have a look at the building to the left in the picture, with the red-painted brick. Call Isaiah Zagar and get a mural. One with lots of mirror shards. The light at this end is dead.

Also, the buildings on the south side might want to consider some Mediterranean pastels for their facades, which are actually quite nice in their current shades of off-white. But the block needs something. (The house facing the park, on the south side of the alley, has already made a nice start in this regard.)

 Cypress, corner of 25th
Bury the utility wires. Maybe some trees? There are a few, but not enough to pull the block together.

2400 Cypress is a clean utilitarian alley. There are no derelict structures. I'll give it a B.

See also This Isn't Just Any Alley.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

This Isn't Just Any Alley

Some of the finest architecture in Philadelphia stands next to this alley, which today, as you can see above, is largely devoted to the storage of trash. Welcome to the 1400 block of Moravian Street, just west of Broad Street, south of Sansom, north of Walnut. Two blocks from City Hall. But more importantly, this is where the people who really ran things, for many years, used to hang out.

To the left, in the picture above, is the Union League. To the right the big building, with the columns well above ground-level, used to be the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. The Drexel building, which we will see in a minute, is to the right, facing 15th Street and Walnut.

Years ago, I used to work in lower Manhattan. One day I was walking down Broadway near Trinity Church, and I passed a group of tourists who were standing at the head of Wall Street, by the church. An older gentleman placed his bag on the pavement with an air of arrival, straightened up, looked down Wall Street, and said, "Ach so, die Zentrum der Platz."

So that was Wall Street, and the alley above was essentially our Zentrum from before World War I to after World War II. I wonder what it was like when all the financiers crossed Moravian to eat lunch at the Union League, and when they went back to their offices after their steaks and succotash. Did they have dumpsters in those days?

I think most people don't even know this alley exists. Below is Moravian at 15th Street, the Union League to the left, the Drexel and Company building to the right. Looks thoroughly respectable, doesn't it? To see the alley, you need to be standing in the right place, and you need to be looking for it.

The Drexel family has a university named after it, but the eponymous building here was the brainchild of Edward T. Stotesbury, who in addition to running the Drexel firm found time to dabble in the sport of racing rowboats. The Stotesbury Cup, held on the Schuylkill every spring, is named after him.

The design of the Drexel and Company building is based on the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. The Strozzi were rivals of the Medici, and they had a better architect. The Drexel building went up between 1925 and 1927.

And here's the Broad Street end, with the Banana Republic and a pile of condo apartments on the left and the Union League on the right.

You'll notice that this end of the Union League looks a lot different from the 15th Street end. That's because they're two different buildings. The building on Broad Street dates from 1865; the Renaissance palace fronting 15th Street was designed by Horace Trumbauer and went up between 1909 and 1911.

These two very different buildings joined at the hip can be a bit disconcerting to the modern eye. But I've gotten used to it. And this isn't the only building on Broad Street that looks like this. A few blocks to the south, at Pine Street, stands the main building of the University of the Arts, Dorrance Hamilton Hall. The front of this structure, which like the Union League extends through to 15th Street, was designed by John Haviland and built between 1824 and 1826, with wings added in 1838 by William Strickland. The back part was designed in 1875 by Frank Furness in his own style.

I've taken to walking down the 1400 block of Moravian on my way to the Reading Terminal Market. It's not a pretty place. Recently I've noticed that it's cleaner than it used to be. That's true of a lot of the alleys that I walk down. I haven't seen a dead rat in quite a while.

But still it's ugly. My best story comes from last year, in the warm weather. I was walking down the middle of the street, dodging puddles of slime - you need to watch your step in these alleys - and almost missed a man sitting on the sidewalk with his back resting against the old Stock Exchange building. He was a homeless man, bearded and quite dirty, and he was naked. His clothes were on the sidewalk next to him. I could relate. It was a warm day, his clothes were very dirty, and so was he. It probably felt good getting some fresh air on his skin.

But still. What would Mr. Stotesbury have said?

I'm not one of those who wishes that the homeless would just disappear, and doesn't particularly care what happens to them when that happens. Again, though, this should be one of the premier pedestrian streets in Philadelphia.

Just have a look at the front facade of the Stock Exchange building, over on Walnut Street. This is what the Moravian Street facade should look like as well, instead of having those lovely arched openings at ground level blocked in ways that only the Department of Licenses and Inspections could love.

The other Walnut Street frontages, below, show a similar sense of possibility.

If you go all the way back to the first picture, you'll notice that several of these buildings have fire escapes on their Moravian frontages. Show stopper, you say. Well, no. Andy Nicolini has been working on giving the 2000 block of Moravian, next to the Shake Shack, a makeover, and he and his design crew have come up with some very nice ways to make fire escapes cute, and even fun, without reducing their effectiveness in an emergency. (See Center City Quarterly 5:3, Fall 2015, p. 15.) Now he just needs to get his funding, so we can stop looking at drawings and actually go to the alley and look at the real thing. I think when that happens people will finally understand the value in these alleys - and, to use a real estate term - they may even feel motivated to unlock that value.

Finally, here is a shot of something that few people see. It is the south side of the Union League's new building - the extension built by Trumbauer in 1909-1911.

I like to think that, at some point, that naked homeless guy looked up and saw this.