Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Here's an Onion

I sliced into a particularly juicy red onion last night while making potato soup and thought it looked neat in cross section, so I tried to take a photo. This was the best one. For once I made an onion cry instead of t'other way 'round.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Timely Quote

Just after posting the entry below, we received a shipment of The Philistine for our collection and I found the following quote on one of the covers:

"A criminal--one who does by illegal means what all the rest of us do legally."

So, think about that.

Between "Informal" and "Illegal"

This post has been marinating for a while, I wrote it some time ago and I wasn't really sure where I was going with it, so I didn't publish it, but reading back over it now, I guess it's at least a little thought-provoking.

I just read a very interesting article about how slums might give us a model for the future of cities. I have to admit, it was my interest in post-collapse theory that initially attracted me to the headline, but the article was actually about how the density and activity of the slums provides a different model for urban living than the sleek, sanitized, and intensely regulated modern city life the developed world has come to expect. The article was primarily about how cities have long gone untapped as a model for "green" living, but the thing that really caught my eye was a reference to the "informal sector" of the slum economy. That is, what some might refer to as the illegal sector: alleyway salesmen, squatters, and the like.

All of this made me think of a phrase our wedding florist used in reference to obtaining flowers not readily available on the retail market: midnight gardening. Basically, flower stealing. This florist wasn't saying that she steals other people's flowers to make money for herself, but if she spots a flourishing patch of Whatever in someone else's garden or lawn, she might take a snip of it some late night and put it in a vase in her own house. Theoretically, this would be stealing, but can anyone really imagine pressing charges for something like this?

My point, and the thing that got me off on this tangent, is that there is a middle ground between informal and illegal activity that most of us implicitly acknowledge as ambiguous moral territory. It is illegal to roll a stop sign in a deserted neighborhood at 3:00am, but people do it. It is illegal to drive over the speed limit, but people do it. It is illegal not to have white or yellow reflectors on bicycle pedals (at least in California), but a lot of people don't even have pedals that will fit reflectors. Most of us do things that are illegal every day with only a dim consciousness that these things theoretically breach a written code of conduct, but are not, in a cultural sense, immoral or otherwise damaging to the community at large.

And yet, even with an acknowledgement that there is some slippage between codified and actual human conduct, our first response to social problems is to seek new legislation, knowing full-well that (as the old saw goes) "rules are meant to be broken." But I wonder if the traffic calming theory of removing all signage and roadway markings might also apply on some level to other sorts of laws governing human behavior. If there is a middle ground between informal and illegal, I wonder if there is also a middle ground between the institutional formation and application of laws and utter social chaos? Is there a point at which community norms and standards can stand-in for formalized legal structures and the people can collectively (and ethically) take responsibility for their enforcement?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ethnictown Meets Anytown

Ages ago (it seems), I wrote an anthropology B.A. thesis about the expression of German-American ethnicity in a rural Oregon town near where I grew up. One of the things I looked at closely was the physical transformation of the town from a nondescript farm community to an idealized folk version of a German village. I worked elements of cultural geography into my analysis, looking at the literal creation of visual markers of German ethnicity.

This weekend, I had occasion to revisit some of the ideas I explored in that paper when my wife and I visited Convoy Street in San Diego's Kearny Mesa neighborhood. This area is reputed to be an emerging "Asia Town" where restaurants, bakeries, and other sorts of shops and services are increasingly owned by and serve diverse Asian populations, including Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese.

We went up for dinner at a Thai restaurant (which was okay) and then looked around just a bit. The main thing to notice about this area is that Convoy Street is dominated by strip malls and industrial buildings.  The street is wide and fast, the parking lots are ample, the buildings are low and plain, the landscaping and greenery virtually nonexistent.

The first thing we noticed was that the restaurant's parking lot (and the adjacent lot) was completely full.  We turned down a side street to look for parking, but there were a lot of wide warehouse driveways, red zones, and loadings zones, so not a lot of street parking. We did find a spot, just ahead of a rush of other cars who were all obviously driving around looking for parking. It was clear that in this land of proprietary parking lots, street parking was never designed-in to the neighborhood.

Second, we noticed that signage (in strip-mall mega signs) in this area is often bilingual with English or unilingual in only the ethnic language. It's almost a "covert ethnicity" that is only noticeable if you look for it, it blends into the surroundings; no rearing Chinese dragons and towering pagodas here, just words.

Can you spot the ethnic community in this photo?

Third, smack dab in the middle of the Asian ethnic restaurants and ethnic-owned businesses, was a Weinershnitzel chain, an Office Depot, a Mexican restaurant, an auto parts store, and all sorts of other non-Asian-specific businesses like mattress and tire and carpet stores.

The thing that made me really get started on this line of thought was the question: what happens when an area that was designed and planned to be acultural, becomes a cultural destination? Well, first of all, you run out of parking. Second, you subject pedestrians who are partaking in the cultural attractions to a road system that is designed to facilitate high-volume and high-speed traffic. It's an ugly, non-human-centered landscape that was never designed to be attractive for any reason beyond the content of the shops and warehouses.

So, how does such a landscape become a cultural landscape in an overt sense? Public spaces? Public art? De-emphasizing traffic and parking? What would that transformed, human-centric landscape look like? And most importantly, what role can ethnicity and ethnic identity play in this transformation? How can overt expressions of ethnicity, through physical changes to the man-made landscape, turn an area blighted with concrete and strip malls into a walkable, livable, human-centered neighborhood with significant cultural attractions?

It will be interesting to see how (and if) this growing multi-ethnic Asian community will coalesce into an interest group to rally for changes to the landscape. Will they capitalize on the cultural draw of their neighborhood to lobby for changes that will make this a more attractive place to visit (and spend money), or will the (dare I say) brutal nature of the landscape stymie any such efforts?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Saturday Ramble: Golden Hill

Edit: jacobk asked where this little canyon is, so here's a screenshot of a Google map. The entrance to the canyon open space is at Russ Boulevard and 24th Street (blue marker in map below). It's not much, just an opening in a fence and a garbage can; cross the open area, and you'll see the trail down a little to the left of where my bike is parked in the photo above. Use caution, however, as it appears that some unsavory characters frequent the canyon area occasionally. Also, the canyon is quite small, but it sure is pretty. There is also a staircase up (or down--that's usually how stairs work) where the red marker is on the map.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Lookin' Sharp!

How much do I love my wife? She sends me stuff like this from work.

The Amsterdam City Archives

I have no professional interest in Amsterdam's history or archives, but I do like a good online archive. For all of the hubbub that folks in the bicycling community make about Amsterdam, it's interesting to note the paucity of bicycles in the online portion of the archive, which, of course, is miniscule compared to their physical records, but still. This was one of only two bicycle images I turned up in a quick browse through the site.

Gemeente Amsterdam Stadsarchief

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

David Foster Wallace Doodled on Cormac McCarthy

The Harry Ransom Center at UT-Austin has recently acquired the papers of the late David Foster Wallace. Included among the archive are books annotated by Wallace, like this copy of Suttree by my all-time favorite author Cormac McCarthy. It seems Wallace also made a few "notes" regarding the composition of McCarthy's author portrait. I also like the note on the inside of the cover: "set-up is slow -- does not set stage," which is a fair criticism, I suppose.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Bicycle Sizing from Back in the Day

I am always startled by the huge size of bicycles relative to their riders in photos from around the turn of the century. I wonder if riding gigantic "safety" bicycles was a holdover from the days of riding high wheels? Notice especially the PBH (pubic bone height) of the guy on the left relative to the top tube of his bike. If either of these guys ever had to come down off the saddle in a hurry, I bet they were wishing they had smaller frames.

Photo from Flickr user radlmax.