Concentrated Krautness

Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation of the USA, on what he'd like to see happen there (via):

Q: You talk a lot about livable communities. How would you describe one?

A: It’s a community where if people don’t want an automobile, they don’t have to have one. A community where you can walk to work, your doctor’s appointment, pharmacy or grocery store. Or you could take light rail, a bus or ride a bike.

Good on you, LaHood. But achieving that in the U.S. is gonna take zillions of dollars and massive upheaval. My advice: avoid the muss and fuss and just move to Germany! I've got my doctor, 5 pharmacies, 6 grocery stores, 3 video-rental places, 4 bookstores, 2 shopping malls (meh), about 15 restaurants, 3 parks, and 3 bordellos within a kilometer of my house (that's about half a mile, for those using Godly units of measurement). Only drawback is that work is 1.9 kilometers away, which forces me to undertake a grueling 10-minute bicycle ride there and back. Every day.

Reclamation of A Trade Park

Witzelstr. 55 is the address of a mixed commercial and industrial trade area in the middle of Duesseldorf that was entirely abandoned in mid-2002.

Since then, lots of interesting things have been going on there. I'm working on a more ambitious project, but until then, here is a slideshow of images taken in October 2007, April 2008, and August of 2009. However, I recommend that instead of watching this glorious decay through a little window, you follow the link below to my Picasa photo album, and run a full-screen slideshow.


America for the Americans, Europe for the Europeans


Bryan Caplan on what American and European tourists get wrong:

Where American tourists go wrong:

1. In European countries, historic downtowns of the premiere cities like Paris or Stockholm are by far the best places to live.  Most people in Europe don't live in these areas, and can't afford to.

2. Most of the Europeans who are lucky enough to live in the premiere cities can't afford to frequently eat in the nice restaurants that delight foreign visitors.

3.  "Efficient public transportation" and bicycles may seem great to a tourist who eats in restaurants.  They're not so great if you're a local who needs to get groceries home to make dinner.  In bad weather, subways and bikes are downright awful.

Where European tourists go wrong:

1. They usually visit the most European places in the U.S. - especially New York City and San Francisco.  Since NYC and SF are basically uglier, scarier versions of the premiere European cities, it's natural for tourists to go home with a negative impression.

2. However, very few Americans live in such cities - even if they can easily afford to.  Why not?  Because the natural habitat of the American - including most affluent Americans - is the suburb.

It's easy to see why tourists don't go to the suburbs, because they're places to live and work, not places to see.  But almost no one in Europe lives in places as comfortable and convenient as American suburbs: The houses are spacious, the cars are huge, cheap Big Box stores and chain restaurants are nearby, and (to quote South Park) there's "ample parking day or night."  Europeans can learn a lot more about the American psyche with a visit to a random CostCo than a visit to the Guggenheim.


Europe is a better place for most people to visit.  But America is a better place for most people to live.

Consider this a riposte to Don Alphonso's dyspeptic mutterings (g). You might be expecting me to take issue with Caplan's points, but my response is mixed. (Caplan, by the way, defends himself against accusations of 'USA #1' jingoism in the post, and I believe him).

My preferences are clear: I've lived in the American suburbs and in European cities, and I prefer the latter. By a mile. But what Caplan is missing is the cultural preferences of Americans and Europeans. American suburbs might well be a better place for Americans to live, but transplant Europeans there, and many of them will be miserable, despite all that comfort and convenience. I am sometimes asked to consult with Europeans who are being relocated to places like Houston, Texas. I can usually tell within about 5 minutes whether that person's likely to adjust successfully to life in the American suburbs. Engineers and computer programmers and the like have no problems; in fact, they'll often beg to be allowed to stay. Nothing like having your own gigantic, cheap house, as many power tools as you want, and your own private pool whose chemicals you can adjust to your heart's content. Plus, Americans are task-oriented, unstuffy workers who are easy to deal with. Sure, there is less of a social safety net in the U.S., but these people don't care too much about that, since they have valuable job skills and will always get good benefits from their employers.

For Europeans of a less practical bent, though, the American suburbs are sterile, dull places. There are no cafes, no street life, no festivals just around the corner, no neighborhood bars, no beautifully-landscaped parks, no arthouse cinemas within walking distance -- in fact, no walking at all worthy of the name. In the vast stretches of America which are located in sub-tropical or desert climates, you will live 7 or 8 months of the year going from one sealed cubicle filled with artificial air to the next. The general cultural level of suburban Americans will strike these Europeans as desperately low. They are unlikely to meet very many people who have been well-traveled, know how to prepare a proper salad, or know the difference between a symphony and a concerto. (I remember an anecdote about Philippe de Montebello, once Director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, who said one of the things that irritated him about working there was all the museum visitors who put their cigarettes out in what was clearly a piece of modern sculpture right outside the front entrance.) Needless to say, these Europeans will regard the committee-produced gooey, salty offerings of American 'chain restaurants' as unfit for consumption by goats, much less humans. They will not perceive the suburbs as comfortable and convenient because maximizing comfort and convenience has never been a part of their world-view.

The same thing goes for Americans who live in Europe. No doubt most Americans would find much to object to in living in a Plattenbausiedlung (public-housing project) in Rostock or in a Parisian banlieue. But that's not where most of them are going to end up. As to how they see European cities -- once again, a lot depends on temperament. A highly practical American who values "comfort and convenience" above all is going to find those things in short supply in most European cities. You'll find these people bitching and moaning -- usually in English -- at various Irish bars. But then again, many Americans who relocate to Europe do so voluntarily, precisely because it's Europe. They want the safe, lively parks and neighborhoods, the 120-year-old cafes, the Gothic cathedrals, restaurants which reflect the chef's personality and no-one else's, the fine regional orchestras, art-house cinemas and the gleaming, sophisticated museums. To them, not having to own a car is a kind of liberation.

However, cultures being what they are, most Americans are going to be happier in America, since they've absorbed American priorities and attitudes, and the same goes for Europeans. In fact, the very idea of measuring quality of life primarily by 'comfort and convenience' will seem -- to many non-Americans -- hopelessly American. Once you take into account these limitations, it's difficult to make any sort of meaningful cross-cultural comparisons.

My Husband Was Torn Apart by a Frenzied Mob!!


Eija-Riitta Eklöf Berliner-Mauer's* moving tribute to her...uh, 'late' husband:

"We have been together now for many years, spiritually if not physically. Like every married couple, we have our ups and downs. We even made it through the terrible disaster of November 9, 1989, when my husband was subjected to frenzied attacks by a mob.

But we are still as much in love as the day we first met. We may not have a conventional marriage, but neither of us cares much for conventions. Ours is a story of two beings in love, our souls entwined for all eternity."

Yesterday, I heard a fascinating interview (g) with  Eklöf Berliner-Mauer on my public radio station. Strongly recommended!

Continue reading "My Husband Was Torn Apart by a Frenzied Mob!!" »

The Adorno Industrial Zone and Mysterious Canal Technology

Over the weekend I  mounted Heinrich, my trusty vsf fahrradmanufaktur (g) bicycle, fired up my legs, and rode to the Altenberger Dom (g), a Gothic cathedral located in the Bergisches Land area just east of Cologne.

My route took me through beautiful downtown Leverkusen, where I had the pleasure not only of riding on Karl Marx Street,

Public Transportation = Socialism

but also of turning from the Heinrich-Lübke Street (almost) directly into the Theodor Adorno Strasse.* The Adorno Strasse, it turns out, is home to an industrial park:

Did he show up to cut the ribbon?

I hope the Aldi has a large section of discount Frankfurt School publications, right next to the bodice-rippers.

Leverkusen, like a lot of places in Germany that are supposed to be rather grim, turns out to be cross-hatched with pleasant and well-designed green spaces that help to soften the impact of the ugly subsidized-housing high-rises:

Apartment High-Rise Above Field

Nevertheless, there were still some regrettable sights near the soccer stadium (where regrettable sights tend to congregate):

Fear Centor, Overlord of Gamma Quadrant!

But let's concentrate on the nice, leafy parts of Leverkusen, like the Green Path. It's as green as it claims, although like most nature spots near urban areas, you'll see evidence of urban infrastructure -- sewage manholes, groundwater measurement devices, discreet exhaust vents, etc. -- if you look closely enough. (All that lush greenery requires behind-the-scenes attention from the Deputy Assistant for Maintenance to the Southeast Leverkusen Regional Superintendent for Green Spaces.) It's sort of like being in a convincing life-size diorama of nature.

Usually, it's not hard to figure out what these discreet chunks of metal and concrete are for. Sometimes, they even have discreet plaques (g) explaining exactly what they're for. But this piece of ditch technology puzzled me:

Touch the wires and you'

What is it for? It looks like it does something -- perhaps something noisy -- but what? Any help would be appreciated.

Below the fold you'll find pretty pictures of the old church, if you're interested.

Continue reading "The Adorno Industrial Zone and Mysterious Canal Technology" »

An Orgy of Waste

I've blogged before about German garbage customs. When apartment-dwellers move out in Germany, they must make an appointment with the local Sperrmuell (oversized garbage) service to dispose of things too large to fit in regulation waste bins -- cheap furniture, refrigerators, TVs and the like. They stack them on the sidewalk, and wait for them to be picked up, either by the city or by a private contractor. Before the authorities arrive, though, roving groups of Eastern Europeans and Turks have usually thinned out the pile quite a bit, stuffing everything that might have residual value into cheap vans and whisking it away to their small apartments, or to flea markets in Lodz or Plovdiv. I call this informal recycling, and it's as important to urban ecology as mushrooms are to forest ecology. If any computers, refrigerators, or TVs are left after the informal recycling, they are sent to special processing facilities to be dismantled and recycled or otherwise disposed of in an environmentally-friendly way (g). It's these strategies that are behind Germany's ability to reduce (g) the amount of trash produced per person in recent years, and to re-process over half of all garbage.

Now let's cross the Atlantic. Below we see a poignant video report what happens when people lose their homes in the suburbs and exurbs that sprouted up during the housing bubble. The video's kind of long, so I'll summarize the key points: when they can't afford their homes anymore, many of these suburb-dwellers abandon their property disappear without leaving a forwarding address. They leave behind toys, large-screen TVs, computers, even family photos and urns full of relatives' ashes. After the homebuyers have vanished, the "trash-out" firms arrive. Their crews remove every single item from the house so it can be prepared for resale. Since the home-dwellers only lived there a few years, most of the things they own were new. All of it -- lamps, tables, toys, tools, mattresses -- gets dumped into a nearby landfill. No recycling, no donation to charity (though the owner of the trash-out firm, to his credit, tries occasionally). Seven hundred families a day lose their homes to foreclosure in Southern California. This one firm alone dumps fifteen truckloads a day into the landfill.

In a priceless bit of symbolism, a man then arrives to turn the dead brown grass on the lawn spray-painting it. At least he uses biodegradable paint. 

Another Rave about German Urban Planning

William Powers is traveling through Germany for Slate, and he's impressed by German urban planning, including "tough anti-sprawl laws" and bicycle lanes everywhere:

It's a pleasure to ride in a city [Berlin] that has bicycle lanes everywhere, complete with miniature traffic lights. Amid hundreds of others bikers, I two-wheeled it through large swaths of the city in these safe, convenient lanes. I passed one eye-watering exception where a highway runs through the city, a relic of the urban renewal of the 1960s. But how is it that the "Los Angeles model" of urban renewal affected Berlin, and many other German cities, so minimally?

I put that question to Peter Engelke over dinner one night in Berlin. He's doing his Georgetown University Ph.D. thesis on German city planning. "It's partly tied up with the history of the Green Party," he told me. You might picture Jane Jacobs (the woman who prevented Robert Moses from running a highway through lower Manhattan) times 10,000. "There were Jacobses in every neighborhood of every city," Engelke told me. "Germany shows that grass-roots politics can change a nation."

That's one Ph.D dissertation that I hope will get published and read. Germany's urban-planning triumphs should be studied carefully worldwide.

I think the key here is not just that there were activists in every city and neighborhood, but that they had an idea of what a proper neighborhood should look like. There seem to be deeply-ingrained cultural tropes about the use of space in Germany that have been passed down from generation to generation: avoid too many tall buildings; put small parks everywhere; cover even the smallest spaces with green; use trees and bushes as sound and visual insulation around unavoidably ugly/loud land uses; stick garages, roads, and other practical necessities underground whenever possible; make sure you can safely cross every road, no matter how big; mix retail and housing whenever possible; and expand cities inward and upward, not outward.

Every time some a developer comes to propose creating thousands of new jobs by building some neighborhood-destroying big-box retail store or high-rise, opponents can respond with land-use arguments that resonate with these deeply-rooted cultural expectations about land use. People nod their heads in agreement when a neighborhood activist insists that green space is "necessary for the health of the community." The fact that most Germans intuitively "get" good land-use principles allows activists to overcome purely growth-based arguments. The result is usually some form of compromise (this is Germany, after all), but the compromise is invariably better than the original proposal.

A Fine Set of Pipes

In many German cities, you see large metal pipes that emerge from the ground and snake along for hundreds of meters. They often bend upward and elevate themselves when they cross a road or sidewalk. Leipzig, or "Pipezig," as we came to call it, had more than any German city I've seen so far:

Pipezig 1

Pipezig 2

At first I thought these were temporary diversions caused by construction -- but many of these pipes looked like they'd been there for years, and aren't near construction sites. Does anyone know what's in these pipes, and why they're above ground? Will they ever go away?

What's Old Europe is New

Via Eschaton, an article called McMansions no More about one place in Pennsylvania that's considering changing building regulations to discourage developers from building and selling McMansions. The new model will encourage

cottage housing, clustered housing that preserves green space, zoning that encourages businesses and homes to occupy the same neighborhoods and incentives to developers to preserve open space.

If you're reading this in Europe, it probably sounds like where you already live. North Americans excuse their energy consumption by pointing to the sheer vastness of the country they live in, but that only gets you so far. The fact that you've got lots of space between places where people live doesn't mean those places themselves have to contain giant, energy-intensive, detached single-family homes surrounded by chemical-soaked eternally-green lawns, all clustered in isolated, limited-access suburbs reachable only by 18-lane highways.

The fuel price spike and the mortgage meltdown are two Bogartian open-hand face slaps administered to the hysterical blond of the American consumer.

A Piece of the Rhineland in Missouri

The New York Times profiles Hermann, Missouri, a village founded by German immigrant wine-makers in the 1830s:

Hermann has called itself a Rhineland village, but that sells it short. Hermann is an 1850s Missouri River town playing the part of a Rhineland village, which is a lot more interesting. That allows the county courthouse to sit on a bluff and proclaim its presence to the river the way courthouses do in river towns, while squared-off red-brick houses with backyard grape arbors run up San Francisco-like hills on streets named Schiller and Mozart. ... 

Hermann also officially celebrates its German roots. On the third weekend of May, there’s Maifest, which focuses on dancing, parades and crafts. Octoberfest brings four weekends of wine tours, music and food, and in December, the town features a traditional German Christmas market....

Unlike the Ozarks several hours south, the Hermann hills have no water parks, music theaters, casinos or magic shows — just rambling woods cut by fields, white-fenced horse farms, brick farmhouses enveloped in ancient trees and wineries. And its residents like it that way.

Hermann is so charming and well-preserved that it's suffering the fate of all such places in the U.S.: it's gradually being bought up by lawyers and bankers from a nearby metropolis (St. Louis).