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A Good Looking City

ablarc

Cyburbian Emeritus
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713
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A GOOD LOOKING CITY

Everyone knows the landmarks in this city, so I have left them out. Landmarks and their immediate vicinity are almost always nice looking, but this city looks good nearly everywhere in its built-up area.

It looks good partly because it is almost entirely free of parking lots. Therefore it is not gap-toothed, and the spatial experience is coherent and intentional throughout. This is also true of much of New York and San Francisco, and would be the case with any American city that had the intelligence to get rid of its parking lots.



This is the shopping street of an old and ritzy residential area right downtown. It is starting to evolve into a regional shopping street of toney boutiques for people with deep pockets. The street was widened about a hundred years ago; you can see evidence of this on the patched brick wall of the building on the left.



This leafy oasis is actually the roof of a five-story underground parking garage. The garage used to be two stories and above-ground. The views from the upper level featured a veritable menagerie of nifty skyscrapers. Now you have to wait for the leaves to fall off the trees to see the high-rise zoo. But there is plenty of compensation meantime: a green retreat from the bustle, like Bryant Park. It even has a glassy food kiosk.



Skyscrapers surround another garage roof, this time entirely covered with water. The water is both reflecting pool and part of the mechanical system of the surrounding buildings. Three are office buildings, two are apartments, and two are hotels.



These three deco office "towers" are part of the building boom that also produced the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. Rather smaller, they extract the last iota of monumental potential from their setting as they strive toward the infinite reaches of the sky. Atop a gentle rise, they take the upward energy of the street and propel it skyward, while simultaneously deflecting it around the bend. In his quest for Babylonian vastness, the architect (Frank Kellogg) progressively lightens the tone of the brick as his building reaches for the sky, lost in the mists of atmospheric perspective. Never have fourteen stories seemed so vast. A fine passage of urban design. Beyond, a recent interloper by Philip Johnson soars effortlessly to three times the height.

The three-towered deco building has recently been converted to a hotel. Other older office buildings in this district are slated to become apartments and condominiums.



This afternoon rush hour photo was taken from an office tower built on air rights over railroad tracks and an interstate highway. A fairly new mid-rise condominium mimics the undulating façade treatment of its older, smaller neighbors. These are alternately residential or offices, all with shops at street level. Zoning by function has here never raised its ugly head. The sidewalk exhibits a nice uncertainty about the precise location of the line between public right-of-way and private property.

As more larger buildings are added, this street will acquire the proportions of a Paris boulevard.



A row house district with a checkered past and an increasingly glittering present. Gentrification of this district has been a forty-year effort, slowed by politicians and community representatives of the downtrodden poor. These correctly perceived that if they let the yuppies get comfortable in this place, the floodgates would be opened to a middle class takeover.

Though you could buy a house for a song, everyone had a horror story to tell. Middle class families who moved into this district often left after the fifth burglary and the third mugging. People who are desperate to leave a place sell low, so real estate values appreciated slower than hoped for by those who bought in.

Various social engineering strategies were concocted by the government to keep the poor in place. These included quotas, subsidies and low interest loans for groups that represented low-income economic or ethnic interests. One such group was chosen to develop Villa Victoria, the area of gable-roofed town houses surrounding the lone residential tower in the right middle ground. (The tower is also part of the project, as are the five-story brick-clad slabs.)

Villa Victoria was developed as a Puerto Rican enclave, with a mixture of rental and owner-occupied units, and a bodega. At first it had a distinctly ethnic character, especially on weekends when its streets became impromptu car repair shops and taverns. The streets were filled with salsa music and guys sitting on car hoods drinking beer. It was a place avoided by women.

There was one group who steadfastly refused to be deterred: gays. In their traditional role as the flying wedge of gentrification, they eventually overwhelmed the district by sheer numbers. At some point critical mass was achieved, and the area abruptly became middle class. Today, it is clean, graffiti-free, unlittered and safe. Its demography is a mix of old-timers and carpetbaggers. And the Puerto Ricans? Why, they became middle class too. Today there is nary a boom box to be heard.

In roughly descending order of numbers, the diverse population consists of: gays, yuppies, Hispanics, Chinese, African-Americans, Middle-Easterners, and others. A nice mix.

The big church is the Roman Catholic cathedral, and the stuff to its right that looks like public housing is public housing. There is less of it this year than last, and next year there will be less still, as the housing authority nibbles at it bit by bit.



Here is a street scene in the same district. The building in the foreground has not changed function since it was built. It has evidently been spiffed up, though not with central air. The building at right was obviously a church before its present career as condos. Wouldn’t you like to have the pad with the rose window?



Down by the Waterfront, someone planted a big suburban office building and called it a courthouse. The view is from a boat landing used by, among others, a waterfront hotel.



During the Urban Renewal era, they built a much-too-big plaza and set some elephantine government buildings on it. They have been trying ever since to find ways to make it smaller. This is their latest effort, a kind of market shelter under which people can sell things. That is the unforgiving façade of the Federal Building at right.



Every city has an old and important street that used to be a principal way out of town, like Broadway. This one is seen here passing through a smaller satellite city.
This street is quite urban because a subway line passes under it. Development is concentrated along the subway line, thus allowing the rest of the satellite city to retain a certain 19th Century small-town appearance:



Tom Sawyer is accepting applications from potential fence-painters. The line forms beside the blue bicycle.



The old city is still there, and plenty of people occupy dense four and five story row houses, some subdivided into apartments, and a fair minority, not. You don’t have to be rich to live in these places if you are in a two-income household, or can tolerate roommates and not much space. I used to have a friend who was a loner and lived in a coal bin.



People refer to this as a European city. What they mean by that is that it is intact because it has no parking lots, unlike most American cities, and therefore it is walkable. Another European thing about it is that it has fast trains.



Needless to say, it is not in the Sunbelt. This is the main street of another neighborhood, in this case Italian.



New and old buildings jostle on a crooked old street grid, making for some striking juxtapositions of scale, materials and styles. None of it is displeasing.



Down by the waterfront, it gets seriously nautical. Why, that hotel is even shaped a little like a boat. The waterfront is now residential and recreational, but it used to be a busy cargo port and even had a fishing fleet.



Cruise boats still call, and there is a state-of-the-art container facility. Too bad the skyline is truncated by height limitations and NIMBYs.



There is a neat new cable-stayed bridge across the river where it empties into the harbor. Very European.



Looking to the future, a Cesar Pelli skyscraper is proposed over some railroad tracks.



And they are tearing down their elevated highway.




My thanks to tocoto, scott, statler, Mike617, Poolio, AmeriKen Artist and all others whose pictures appear above. Some of these photos obviously required stalwart early Sunday morning forays to get clean pictures uncluttered by too many people.
 

BKM

Cyburbian
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When I win the huge lottery tomorrow night, in addition to my San Francisco house, I will be buying a small house on Beacon Hill. :) (I will then be "Bi-coastal")

Definitely one of my favorite cities, and this was quite a collection of photos!
 

Rem

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Ablarc thanks for another interesting photo essay. I don't know Boston (or any other American Cities) so I was confused by the title block on one of the earlier photos referring to Pittsburgh - which I understood to be a more industrial city. Thanks to the other Cyburbanites for correcting my assumption.

I was wondering whether the container port caused any conflicts - truck movements, truck queuing, container parks, hours of operation, noise, or the like. The photo of the cruise ship wharf reminded me of Sydney's Darling Harbour (only used for cruise ships too big for Circular Quay) where a debate is occurring about removing cargo traffic. In my opinion I think the working aspects of a port add immensely to the character of Sydney and it would be a backward step to convert it to a pleasure park for the rich and privileged. There may be economic benefits to adjoining cities, but a loss of efficiency in access to Australia's largest City.
 

ablarc

Cyburbian Emeritus
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713
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Rem, it occurs to me that Boston and Sydney are really quite similar. They are both built around a fine, large harbor and have skylines of comparable mass. They are about the same size; Boston's metropolitan population is about four and a half million, though its city limit population is less than 600,000 in a compact area of 48 square miles. Boston is about 140 years older.

Oh, and I guess both cities came into existence to house people who were regarded as undesirables by the folks back in the old country.
 

jordanb

Cyburbian
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Excellent pictures, but I find it mildly amusing that you love urbanity but consider people to be "clutter." ;)
 

ablarc

Cyburbian Emeritus
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They're only clutter in architectural photographs. That's why architectural photographers go to a lot of trouble to take pictures when there is no one around. People comment on this and draw mistaken conclusions about whether places are heavily used. I made my comment to forestall the usual talk about unpopulated spaces.

Architectural photographers also routinely correct the effects of perspective by eliminating the third vanishing point in the sky. When you are walking through a city in real 3D your mind automatically takes care of these phenomena, but you can't do that on a flat image. It hardly matters how many people are around you if you want to admire a piece of architecture in reality, but in a photograph--since you can't move in 3D to get a better view-- people literally block the view, and there's nothing you can do to compensate. You could try imagining the people; they are normally there.
 

BKM

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In the pictures I do as an (unskileld) hobby, my biggest beef was always parked cars. Now, I just kinda accept them as part of reality.
 

LouisvilleSlugger

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I use to live in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood in Boston, and that neighborhood has since gone through an amazing transformation - very trendy! and hip. the emerald necklace is close by and its home to Forest Park and Arbor Arboretum. The trolley line that once rolled down the neighborhoods main st. is planning on returning after many years of being discontinued.
 

Rem

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ablarc said:
Rem, it occurs to me that Boston and Sydney are really quite similar.
Right down to having almost identical new bridges.

Sydney's Anzac Bridge (Blackwattle Bay)

 

Bangorian

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BKM said:
In the pictures I do as an (unskileld) hobby, my biggest beef was always parked cars. Now, I just kinda accept them as part of reality.
Parked cars, and lets not forget, those obnoxious utility poles and drooping wires strung in front of EVERYTHING!
 

ablarc

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Drooping Wires and Parking Lots

Those obnoxious utility poles and drooping wires go along with parking lots to create visual chaos. Real cities don't have them-- except in some residential parts of San Francisco. But even there, they are less prevalent than they once were.
 
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BKM

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Well, one thing about San Francisco poles and wires-some of them power the MUNI busses. As a (seasonal, thank God) asthmatic, I can take a little visual pollution over diesel fumes, any day :)

Of course, they are beginning to move more to CNG busses in the non-electrified routes, which is an improvement over diesel!

I'm not sure I agree with you, though, about your statement "real cities don't have them." Look at Tokyo, for example. Its to a certain extent a cultural thing, maybe? Just like many Asian cities are absolutely overwhelmed with signs??? Not very dignified, or to my eyes, good-looking, but certainly "urban."
 

ablarc

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BKM,

Tokyo is such an anarchic and over-the-top jumble that normal aesthetic rules and concepts don't apply there. The issue of taste just cannot come up, except in a tiny number of placid and carefully circumscribed enclaves, such as the Imperial Gardens.

Tokyo is the exception that proves the rule.
 

Doitnow

Cyburbian
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496
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Great Snaps

Parked cars, and lets not forget, those obnoxious utility poles and drooping wires strung in front of EVERYTHING!
I quite agree with that for me theres another thing to be added and that is moving traffic.
MAny times i drive around late nights just to see the real right of ways of streets which are normally full of people annd hawkers/buyers and traffic.
The worst things that happen to me while taking photographs is that suddenly out of nowhere some bus or truck or a motorcylcist zips in front of you and you have this guys head/helmet blocking the frame.
Also whenever i have to compare the physical standards I take a snap with the people and without the people so that theres good comparison.
I think that where i live poles and wires are really view blockers and are sore to the eye especially for the heritage buildings. I asked a professional artist to sketch some specifically without these obstacles so that we would know how they would withou the modern special effects.

Great gallery from ablarc. Till now I havent had a problem with downloading the long messages. Looks like my internet connection is pretty good.
Its a treat really.
 

bocian

Cyburbian
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212
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9
The utility lines in Boston are buried underground, indeed.
It is beneficial to that city. Yet in cities like Chicago, which have abundant alleyways, utility lines can be buid and maintained cheaper when located in alleyways (and that's where they are..).
 

BKM

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Not to devolve into an argument :), but aren't most Chinese cities (and Japanese cities outside Tokyo, as well) also characterized by visual chaos? Given that China has a good 1/5 of the world's population-including many of the world's largest and most dynamic cities, are also characterized by urban chaos-including wires and signs, I don't know if you can dismiss Tokyo as an exception to the rule.

I've never been to China, so I don't know. It's just that dismissing Asian cities with chaos as not "real" seems a little presumptious.

Still, the bottom line is-I too prefer buried utilities or alley services.
 

passdoubt

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I would move to Boston if it weren't for its freezing cold climate, high proportion of stupid rich white kids, and high cost of living. It's a great city otherwise.
 

jordanb

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BKM said:
Well, one thing about San Francisco poles and wires-some of them power the MUNI busses. As a (seasonal, thank God) asthmatic, I can take a little visual pollution over diesel fumes, any day :)
The San Francisco wires are horrible, and they're everywhere! I think that city is a showcase example of why alleys are necessary in urban environments.

I agree though, the electric busses are *much* better than diesel busses. I was thinking that if they replaced the guy wires holding the trolley wires up with metal boons as they had on some streets, they could eliminate a lot of the clutter. Then, instead of having fifteen wires hanging over the street, you'd have four wires and some classy-looking poles.

Of course, with a spiderweb of utility wires haning off of the front of most buildings, cleaning up the trolley wires probably wouln't be that much of an improvement.
 

BKM

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Yeah, they are pretty horrible. Some more affluent suburban parts of town can be much better (Saint Francis Wood, SF's "Winnetka-in-the-City-Limits" neighborhood, has buried lines.
 

ablarc

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passdoubt said:
I would move to Boston if it weren't for its freezing cold climate, high proportion of stupid rich white kids, and high cost of living. It's a great city otherwise.
Each of the boldfaced words in the above quote has an exact opposite. Substitute them in your mind for the words used by the author in the post. So...what do you think?

Do we have a double standard for bad-mouthing categories of people?

Even in jest..
 

jordanb

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As a white kid, I totally agree with passdoubt.

Lincoln Park in Chicago is as banal as it is pretentious. I shudder to imagine a whole city like that.
 

BKM

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Sorry: I agree with ablarc on this one. EVERY cultural group has its steretoypes. We are not allowed to talk about some (the propensity for violence in some groups, for example) while others are perfectly fine. Look at the constant references to "the town next door" and now, it's rich white folks, who are all the same, all evil, and all subject to derision. Why don't we ever talk about "that darn ghetto had another drive-by last night."? Why is the latter more offensive?

(I do know the history of racial relationships in this country and the legacy of inequality-but enough with the trite overgeneralizations.)

Lincoln Park may be "banal" to the oh-so-youthful radical revolutionaries, but it is also a beautiful neighborhood with active street-level retail, people actually walking around, and many of the things planners like. Sure, its not "edgy" enough-but edgyn can be over-rated when you have a family and kids (which I don't, but even so...)

Besides, much of Boston outside the historic core is pretty run down and ethnic, from my experience.

Forgive me if this is "offensive" to anyone, but I get annoyed with the reflexive bashing of anyone who is not a politically correct social group. Heck, I do it too :)
 

mendelman

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BKM said:
Lincoln Park may be "banal" to the oh-so-youthful radical revolutionaries, but it is also a beautiful neighborhood with active street-level retail, people actually walking around, and many of the things planners like. Sure, its not "edgy" enough-but edgyn can be over-rated when you have a family and kids (which I don't, but even so...)
Off-Topic, but still a 'good looking city'
BKM, I agree with you!

Although I am very tired of the very commomplace white bred, 20-somethings in Lincoln Park, I echo all the above. It is one of the best functioning med-high denisty, urban neighborhoods in the Midwest!

If I could buy a house here I would in an instant.

EDIT:
Sorry
I love the pics of Boston, and the short essay. I've been to Boston twice and love it. Could definitely live there, if I didn't love the Great Lakes so much.
 

jordanb

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mendelman - You might want to check out North Center. I went there the other day to take pictures for my ongoing neighborhoods website project. It's got a ton of nice rowhouses and dosen't appear to be that gentrified.

Lincoln Avenue (the main drag):





Rowhouses:



Back yards:


Signs of life you'd *never* see in Lincoln Park:


The rest of what I took is herre:
http://neighborhoods.chicago.il.us/gallery/North_Center
 

BKM

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And, I am not innocent of this attitude, either. I have to admit a pretty serious case of "annoyance" regarding the infamous cell-phone toting, sports bar hangin' college sweatshirt wearing "Marina Yuppies" who stride through the trendy chain stores of Chestnut Street in my brother's San Francisco neighborhood. Definitely a case of Trixies and Chads. I feel like I'm back at R. Nelson Snider High School (home of the "Snider Snobs"). Ick!
 

BKM

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Cool project, jordanb.

As much walking as I do, I need to start bringing a camera along.
 

mendelman

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North Center is nice!

I exlpored North Center a lot on foot and bike. It is very nice comfy residential, or "urban village". I've also seen it from the Brown Line El.

I would love to have one of those houses you showed. That is the perfect size back yard for me.

Pretty much all the northside neighborhoods in Chicago are great or only need a little help.


but watch out - North Center now has a Container Store and Trader Joe's, so it is probably on the fasttrack for gentrification. Though hopefully not.
 

Cardinal

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OMG! Jordan, that is my grandparents neighborhood! We have had family living there since the 1920's. The film-making industry was centered on the river near Irving Park before moving off to California. I'll have to post a couple old pictures when I get home.
 

jordanb

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Really? I've always understood it to be based in Uptown near Lawrence, hense the Uptown Theater.
 

Cardinal

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Perhaps. It may have migrated or been more spread out. My grandfather used to point out a couple of the old studios from the 1920's.

I found this on the web...

"Back in 1895 Chicago native Col. William Nicholas Selig founded a film studio eventually called The Selig Polyscope Company, with offices located on Western Avenue near Irving Park Road. In 1896 Selig shot the first narrative film made in Chicago. I was called the "Tramp and the Dog." West Ridge played a significant role in those early movies shot between the late 1890s and 1918. Because the area was mostly sprawling prairie land, it made perfect settings for early Western type films."
 
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BKM

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Hey, I lived one summer in West Ridge (when I thought I was going to be an electrical engineer-I interned for Sun Electric Company). I lived in a lovely three-flat on Fargo Avenue just off Western Avenue.

Edit: OOPS: That's quite a bit north of Irving Park Road. I lived north of Touhy-almost Skokie.
 

Cardinal

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As promised, here are a couple old photos. This first one is Campbell Street, in Chicago's North Center neighborhood. North Center has been gentrifying for the past decade, after just starting to slip in the 1980's. It is a predominantly German neighborhood. Eat at Schulien's or Zum Deutschen Eck. As I mentioned earlier, this was a center for the film industry until the 1930's, but the real industry was in metal working, manchinery manufacturing, and similar trades.

This is north of Irving Park Road and a couple blocks east of the river.

11Campbell.jpg

This next photo was taken in Grant Park in the 1930's. (Regardless of the facts, I deny any ties to the mafia. ;) )

11grant_park.jpg
 
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