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The New Urban–Boarding Houses?

14 Nov

a 19th century DC boarding house, the Mary Surratt house.

My great-grandmother ran a boarding house. Widowed, she lived in western PA with a bevy of girls and a few little boys–not a lot of options. So she opened up her house in a mill town and took in boarders. These were inevitably unmarried men who didn’t want to cook or clean. They worked hard on their shifts, came back to shovel the food in, and slept; somewhere along the way they probably stopped in the bar. No visitors, no cursing, no public drunkenness. And she survived, her daughters met young men whose characters she quickly knew, she kept her mortgage healthy.

So when I saw this online headline last night I was interested: “Bring Back the Rooming House?”Author Neil Peirce is a metropolitan specialist, and he’s speaking to the “New Millennials,” young grads whose income can’t keep pace with city apartment costs, but who want to live in cities. He jokes that he’s not talking about “tiny rooms with cast iron beds, a shared bathroom down the hall, and meals ruled over by a stern older woman. Shared meals? Maybe not anymore.” No, he’s talking about high density city spots with smaller dwelling footprints.

California's Palo Alto Treehouse an example of talking about smaller units in lower cost buildings, often with green or other elements.

Places like Palo Alto, CA’s Tree House Development, meant for those with low incomes–housing in California is so expensive, lots of folks would love this sliding scale 35 unit spot. It only includes two one-bedroom slots; the rest are studios, with prices that range from $371 to $928, depending on income. The best part? The city council passed the project on the condition that the developer provide transit passes to each resident, so that traffic and parking issues would be lessened.

In the same article, architect/city planner Mark Hinshaw, author of True Urbanism, recommended new smaller units of 400-500 sq ft in buildings with grass roofs, situated

The former Jay Hotel (photo by "Clueless, Ohio"), a transient hotel whose residents' behavior prompted a shutdown some years back

over start-up “commercial incubator” first floors–infill building that might require zoning change.

But why not combine some of these ideas with the old-fashioned boarding house? First,

Wikipedia's take on a flophouse type of room

let’s distinguish the boarding house from the flophouse, like the late, unlamented Jay Hotel in Ohio City. Flophouses were often built for seasonal workers or the down and out; they have minimal amenities and are very small. Districts once full of flophouses, like NYC’s Bowery, offered off-the-street protection for those who today might be in shelters. Drunks, prostitutes, drug addicts–flophouses come to mind. The boarding house, on the other hand, creates images of a woman whose hair was

A cruise ship's balcony stateroom layout

scraped into a bun, allowed no nonsense and ran a tight ship in an environment that flourished through the Great Depression.

How about something that combines modern amenities–high-speed wifi, transit passes, the cool factors of greenness and sustainability–with old-fashioned amenities? That is,

St. Teresa's convent cell in Avila, Spain

meals made by someone else, clothes washed by someone else, room swept/vacuumed by someone else on a weekly basis. Small rooms and larger common spaces–reminiscent of older models, like dorms, ship staterooms, YMCA rooms or monastic refectories–no, no, not prisons.

Not a lot of elbow room at NYC's Hudson Hotel--but still has ambiance!

A small room needn’t be soulless, as boutique hotels have discovered. New York’s Hudson Hotel, where I stayed four years ago, used to be a YMCA. Its conversion kept very small rooms, but each has its own bath and desk. There’s a refectory set-up in the dining room, interesting nooks for chatting with friends, a library with billiards, a bar, a lovely terrace shared space. What if a young

The Hudson's desk, with the bathroom through the curtain

working person closed at 7, came home, had an included meal, flopped into a bed without worries about washing dishes, going food shopping, doing laundry?

I would have loved this kind of city living. No need for a car, even for food shopping. Places to relax and unwind. Attractive surroundings. Lower costs. Complete freedom to

The Hudson Hotel's lobby is full of inviting nooks for conversation.

concentrate on a project, on living. Interestingly enough, this kind of setup is being abandoned by new university dorms, where the tendency is away from shared rooms and shared floor bathrooms to individual bedrooms in a suite set up with a living room. But students want that taste of independence, a feel for what i

The Hudson Hotel has a very refectory-style dining area--perfect for encouraging talking to strangers

t’s like to live like a grown up.

I’d bet many adults would cheerfully chuck that independence for some hired TLC. Some writers are advocating a similar scheme for a kind of fun environment for retirees, and it does have some built-in sociability. Just the thing for the hip boomer who’s tired of cooking and cleaning, and is newly single!

I really like this thought for an urban affordability site. Although the residents would be its main users, perhaps the dining areas or bar could be open to outsiders, for extra income. It could even be a training arena for those in the hospitality arena, or host cooking school internships.

Hudson Hotel's terrace--how about a hammock at your New Boarding House?

And there are a lot of possibilities to maximize small spaces–high ceilings with sleeping lofts, or even Murphy beds and tables that fold up into the wall. The

A contemporary Murphy bed

New Simplicity. Why not?


Cleveland as The New Urban

28 Oct

The Baltimore tragedy; fantastic location, great old detailed housing stock, desertion

So what’s the New Urban to me? It’s the city as a conscious experiment, where placemaking, green innovations, neighborhood creation and cohesiveness, luring exurbanites back to a vibrant environment come together. It’s easier in some areas than others, and it’s easiest in places that have good bones but sagging flesh: that is, cities like Cleveland, Baltimore, Detroit. Places that understand that turnarounds are possible, and that they are the lab. How much experimentation can take place in a city that’s filled to near capacity, with solid, lovely buildings, lots of employment, and attractions galore? Not so much–perhaps in run-down neighborhoods only. Cleveland is a scrappy place with plenty of heart and treasures, and is doing its best to leap back into top-tier urbandom. This is the time to run rampant with small ideas, as well as large ones.

Sneak peek at the new aquarium layout, courtesy Wally Waterdrop (spokeswater for the NEO Regional Sewer District!)

From the CUDC's recent HippDeck pop-up atop a Euclid Ave. parking garage

On the larger scale, Cleveland’s trying it through expansion, such as the new extensions of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the new structures on the CSU campus, the MedMart, Aquarium and casino. Do all these work? Ah, this is not going to be a series of reviews, but these are all places worth evaluation (see my take on the casino below as well). They’re trying it through innovative thinking, too. This past week saw my first interaction with Kent State’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, a downtown-based group of Kent architectural and urban design students who both actively create city moments through their pop-up interventions, temporary sites that open viewers’ eyes to urban possibilities, and through actively researching and engaging citizens for more long-term neighborhood planning. They brought their Fall charrette (such a great word, and new to me–an intensive collaborative series of meetings in a short time to bring diverse minds together for a design solution) to EcoVillage on Cleveland’s near West Side this past weekend, and I loved the result. I thought I’d write up the findings today, but it would feel feeble without their images, so I’ll wait for their postings before I go into details. Instead, here are some general thoughts and observations they’ve inspired.

When the scrap metal man and his cart are on your horizon, the vision of vibrant city life seems far away.

Go, EcoVillage Cleveland!!!!

Inspiration is key. When you live in a bleak area, small islands of hope seem miniscule indeed. It can take outsiders who have done research and talk to people to see the possibilities inherent in a place, from the small tinkerings that can make a big visual and emotional impact to the larger, costlier changes that can bring about major shifts. A lot of what they brought up was integral to the goals the EcoVillage had from its founding–to regenerate an urban neighborhood while incorporating advanced ecological design in order to realize the promise of diverse, vibrant urban life. Some of those dreams are underway, but the economic climate’s slowdown, petty crimes, vandalism and degenerative creep had instigates some discouragement–at least in me.

But this is where the CUDC folks blew on the embers and restored hope. Not only were the efforts going into residents’ ears, our councilman Matt Zone and Jeff Ramsey, exec director of Detroit Shoreway’s organization, both of whom have done so much to perk up Detroit Shoreway‘s Detroit Ave. through the splendid Gordon Square Arts District’s exciting revivification, were active and interested participants. It was thrilling to hear them talk about nearly–immediate doable aspects that fit an existing budget, and you could see wheels turning regarding community action committees, grant applications, and other ideas.

Some of the exquisite hand-carved German craftsmanship of the EcoVillage's St. Stephen's R.C. Church

Cleveland is a city of neighborhoods, but it’s essential to make those neighborhoods destinations for eager residents and interested visitors, rather than places to avoid. Many of our neighborhoods have underexplored architectural wonders–the EcoVillage’s St. Colman towers might excite some nighttime appreciation from the highway, but how many visit (outside of St. Patrick’s Day, of course)? St. Stephen’s is an otherworldly gem, rightfully on the National Registry. But it’s not permanent architectural wonders alone that make a neighborhood, or provide it with a desirable identity.

A green wall in progressive Pittsburgh--yeah, I said it!

The CUDC folks looked at the “Eco” part of EcoVillage, and pushed for plantings of native wildflowers and grasses, in meadow-like vacant lots and front yards. They suggested low-scale resident agribusiness that would combine urban farming with outlets for sale, education and employment.

The Plantagon--urban greenhouse AND sculpture/architecture!

They looked for ways to increase manageable wildlife, both along the RTA train corridor and through possible green art birdhouses. I think one of the things the neighborhood could really use is an urban greenhouse, designed to both employ underemployed residents and feed all through sales of espaliered fruit and winter vegetables–a lot of our residents aren’t riding bicycles for exercise or enjoyment, but as a primary means of transportation. The local convenience store has bread and milk, but fruits and vegetables require transit–great to be able to trot down the street and get your fresh winter produce. One resident mentioned a Great Depression practice for our alley-rich

Vertical farming concept for NYC--why not the CLE?

neighborhood: he said everyone planted a fruit tree along their alley, so the hungry could have something to eat–a variety of types, so there was nearly always something in season. The CUDC was big on green walls, which could certainly improve the many blocky structures along Lorain, and could make the bridge over the RTA corridor a link to other greenery. This has been done to great success in some other cities, even when sponsorship is involved.

UK design winner for solar bus stop with recycled bottles, LED lights. Click pic for more info.

Take a page from Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar and make urban mosaics from recycled materials.

I was pleased some of the quickish fixes that emerged from the charrette were small (solar-powered!) lighting projects, such as a canopy of lights across a bridge. as well as bigger plans for a series of solar bus stops on Lorain that might have wifi and recharging stations. The implementation of bigger projects like these might find collaborations that draw in not only RTA and corporate sponsors, but the upcoming LAND-studio coalition of Cleveland Public Art and ParkWorks–artist-conceived, creatively-lit solar bus stops could provide a wow factor for all. I think mosaic work from recycled materials along the to-be-rehabbed Madison Ave. bridge could be a fabulous direction as well–or as insets bordering new pedestrian walkways along Lorain. As I mentioned before, inserting color into our winterscape (as well as light!) can make a huge difference to perceptions.

Proposed greenery intervention in St. Louis. Click pic for info.

There are some exciting new urban prospects afoot in the world–some aren’t even far afield. Columbus, for example, is implementing a green “highway cap” that’s generating much buzz and reconnecting neighborhoods–Innerbelt rehab, anyone? Some haters of skywalks might find relief in the addition of other greenery rehabbing.

Thank you CUDC! My mind is racing, and I’ll bet you were similarly a catalyst for other residents of this part of Cleveland. You show just how much neighborhood and even individually-driven design intiatives can create a sense of space that rivals (oooh, dare I say COULD even surpass) the big players in the Cleveland game. And in that regard, I want to give a heartfelt shoutout of tribute to developer Ari Maron, who made East 4th St. the most vibrant corner of downtown, and has begun to work his magic on the Lorain/W. 25th crossroads of Ohio City. Vision to fruition for us all!

Adapting Great Depression Christmas Customs to the New Depression

8 Oct

Chicago ad from the Depression

My parents grew up on opposite sides of the Monongahela River outside of Pittsburgh during the Great Depression. Neither of their families had much money, but one had a house and land, the other an apartment. One had lots of kids, the other just two, a widowed mom, and a grandmother. My Mom was the townie, and remembers having a tree in a box at first, then agitating for a real–albeit small–tree. My Dad was in a quasi-rural area with “hollers,” and they’d go and cut a tree from their property. It’s from him we heard stories of one orange a year (he wasn’t alone; such stories abound–how many requests today with produce memories like these?) and the excitement of a handful of nuts and a special cheese. My Mom got presents–games, then clothes. She said she used to shop at the 5 and 10 (ah, the progenitor of the dollar store, but more fun), but graduated to a real store. In those days the store lured in customers with a coupon book and a lottery aspect. Each week a customer would pay a sum–say a dollar–and at the end of the saving period (five weeks? three months? she isn’t sure) they’d have a lump sum to spend ($30?), save from the grubby hands of little brothers or greedy husbands. Each week the store would draw one ticket, and that customer would have a shortcut to the lump–maybe you were only two dollars into your saving, but you’d get the full thirty dollars nonetheless. If you didn’t do that, you had layaway! Stockings were hung, paper chains in varied colors festooned the tree, Midnight Mass was really at midnight. And if you were lucky enough to be Greek or Russian Orthodox, with a later Christmas date, you could pluck your tree (perhaps with slightly fewer needles) from the sidewalk where the trashmen were due to pick it up. One of the best parts of Christmas in town was visits by relatives and friends, all

Horace Pippin's "Christmas Morning Breakfast" 1945

marked with special foods you didn’t have the rest of the year.

These days, depending where you live, fresh trees may be hard to find or not too economical, but nothing beats their smell and the fun of decorating them. In my day, we had everything our little hearts desired–we were circling potential gifts in the Sears catalogue and elsewhere once Thanksgiving hit. My sister, a planner, partook in the Christmas Club at the bank, socking away $5 or $10 or $20 a week into a special account–but the bank didn’t pluck an account a week and reward the lump sum in advance. There were plenty of special foods and cookie baking and visitors, and it’s still the only time of year we get nuts in the shell and have the cracker and picks handy.

This isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia. Part of it is about making Christmas and other holidays less about Martha Stewart and new purchases, and more about creating an atmosphere that reinforces specialness–in terms of religion, of family, of season. The creation of memories doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s also a thumbs down to gift certificates (except in case of emergencies) and thumbs up to thinking of those you love and searching for just the right item that will bring that look of pleasure to their face.

1955 Spiegel catalogue Christmas decorations

Hey, I’m not trying to match the stores by rushing Christmas. I mention it now because I have a personal challenge ahead. One of my generation in the family has asked for us to hold our giving to each other at $25 per person (parents are the exception, and they don’t know about it). This won’t be easy; we have always liked an overboard Christmas, just for the sheer fun and spectacle of it. But the reasoning behind it can be appreciated (if not shared!), and my challenge begins–how do I not only hold each person at $25, but still have a plethora of things they’ll love to unwrap. Not one nice gift–oh, no. There must be many! I believe I can do it, but it will take passion, a hunter’s training, and a keen eye. No children are involved, just two adult women (easy) and two men (difficult). Let the games begin! For this kind of operation does not allow for the last minute–no, it takes a careful plan of attack.

If you’re trying to hold your spending this year, join me on this adventure and be aware of the free. We’ll continue to revisit this subject, but right now I urge you to look over your credit cards. Do you have any, as I do, that have credits toward gifts? Citibank, for example, has such a program. Some of the gifts are great–but you have to cash in your points this month if the gifts are to arrive in time. Going to make things (yes!)? Then you’d best get busy. Gears must start turning, cranks cranking. I don’t believe in holidays making one nuts–rather, I believe in eating nuts on holidays. We need not be extremists, going into debt or selling our hair like an O. Henry character. The Bon Vivant wants everyone to be happy, and for Christmas to signify an excess of joy. Nobody during the Great Depression spoke of holiday stress and duress–it was a beacon to remind everyone of the precious, and of possibility. Part of my problem is that I was loathe to realize that prices were rising and my salary wasn’t keeping pace; I hadn’t grown up to expect that I wouldn’t be able to afford the expectations of my social class. Well, well, well. There’s an easy solution to that: adjust your expectations for material goods, expand them for rewards for the mind, the eyes, the heart, the spirit.

Marketing tactics for the New Depression from the Great Depression

26 Sep

Had something like this as a child from the grocery store!

In the interest of full disclosure, the Thrifty Bon Vivant must reveal she was raised by Great Depression-era parents. This stood them in good stead. The thrifty habits of their youth continued, even as their wallets thickened, and now, still healthy and happy in their 90s, they can say they paid for three children’s college years (no loans), have long paid off the mortgage on their three-bedroom home, always paid for a new car with cash, and can indulge themselves as they like. In short, my mother, the money manager, did a great job massaging my dad’s salary and had a knack for the stock market, which increased it considerably.

Like all children of such parents, I did my share of eye-rolling listening to tales of the old days. Had I but listened, would I be in my present (soon to be past!) financial situation? Of course not! I was taught never to carry a balance on my credit card. But somewhere (I am cueing the emphatic tambourine player’s shake and slap) I slipped off the straight and narrow path into the muddy shoulder of those who want more than they need, those who don’t cut their coat according to their size (beckoning in the tuneful moans of a gospel choir here), those who fell prey to the thought that prices were only going to go up–in short, I became a shameful child who had jumped off a cliff because everybody else was. I now beat my breast in penitence, and greet the world at dawn as a reformed sinner.

And now a lot of those Depression Era stories come back to me. Some are being echoed today, such as…the return of layaway! Yes, layaway still existed in my prosperous tail-end-of-the-baby-boomer youth–teenagers would see an enticing mini that their mother would never buy for them, put some money down, and return weekly to dole out some allowance or part-time job money till it was paid up, then take it home. Then layaway vanished, as credit was extended to more and more–who wanted to be bothered with layaway when every store had a credit card? But–coming in every week not only allowed purchasers to buy bit by bit, it exposed them to the store’s contents on a weekly basis–not a bad marketing tactic in and of itself. Now K-Mart, Sears and Toys-R-Us already have layaway, and Walmart is introducing it just for the holiday season, beginning Oct. 17. Only certain items apply, service charges and down payments are present–but perhaps layaway will find its way into smaller stores, which also had it in the past–it only takes a record and a storage rack.

Giveaway lures were also popular. Dish Night at the movies

Depression Era glass--once el Cheapo, now a collector's item

meant you could pick up glassware or china, one piece at a time. Others were enclosed in product boxes. Women wanted a whole set, so they were bound to return. Again, I remember similar promotions in my own youth–the grocery store would have inexpensive but cute dishes, a different size each week. If Dave’s Market gave out one for every sales slip over $100, I could equip whole households with new dishes! my favorite Jetsons orange juice glass was a Sinclair giveaway with a purchase of a certain amount. Giant Eagle‘s gas station/grocery store arrangement lures the customer on a similar principle, as do rewards cards at some dining spots. But the movies…often Tower City Cunemas are extremely empty, and now they have expanded their lures to include specials on Monday (free fountain drink with popcorn, $1 off candy and soda, and $5 admission), Tuesday (free 32 oz. popcorn with admission), Wednesday (no 3D surcharge), Thursday (student night), or the free Marquee Club rewards card, which leads to free tickets and concessions. What if they restarted giveaways? Could they bring in more bodies if they had children’s book day once a month? Or a door prize for Tower City’s nail salon (my favorite in town) or some other shop/service?

I’m going to ask my mom about other tactics of the day. What would lure you?