Saturday, December 5, 2009

Big Box Store

[I heard this a few weeks ago on the WTMD radio station (89.7) . Although I don't think it's directly related to any of the specific topics we've covered so far, the general idea is inescapably rooted in the whole notion of suburbia that's been recurring throughout our semester... Enjoy. -Merry]

"Big Box Store"


The squirrels gathered nuts, the sun shone on the leaves

The fragrance of the flowers sweetened the gentle breeze

The birdies were all singing… but they’re not anymore

‘Cause I dug the whole thing up and built a big box store


Big box store, it’s my big box store

Shopping here makes it clear what life’s worth living for

Big box store, it’s my big box store

It’s big, it’s a box, it’s my big box store

It’s as if a football field made love to a mall

And the baby that they had is my sweet suburban sprawl

Whose parking lot is bigger than the downtown it destroyed

Come on and enjoy shopping on steroids


Its rectangulated beauty is sure hard to ignore


It’s got toys from China

And TV’s from China

And knick-knacks from China

And lamps from China

And clothes from China

And china from China

And employees from Mexico

So bring your big box wife and your growing big box kids

And get some big box stuff to shove into your big box fridge

If living large is what you want and we’ve got what you need

So buy a dozen sofas or a ten pound bag of cheese

At my…


You’ll come out with lots of stuff you didn’t come in for


How can you ever have enough when there is so much more!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

20-year life gap separates city's poorest, wealthy

October 16, 2008

In West Baltimore's impoverished Hollins Market neighborhood, where the average life expectancy is about 63 years, residents shared beers and cigarettes on their front steps at midday yesterday while pedestrians using canes gingerly avoided two dead rats on the street.

Across town in wealthy Roland Park, where residents live on average to be 83, the scene predicably changed. One gray-haired woman rushed to swimming lessons, while a family rode past on bikes and a man with an iPod jogged nearby.

The two-decade difference in life expectancy between Hollins Market and Roland Park was revealed in data released yesterday by the city Health Department, which for the first time has compiled comprehensive death data on a neighborhood level.

The results are striking. In some impoverished neighborhoods, the death rates from heart disease and stroke are more than twice as high as in wealthier places just a few blocks or miles away. At the extreme, the difference in mortality rates between some neighborhoods is as wide as the disparity in life expectancy between the United States and a Third World nation such as Burma.

"The scale of the differences is definitely eye- opening," said city Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein.

The numbers reveal that the chronic illnesses of heart disease and cancer are killers everywhere, regardless of income and race.

The data also show that there are some neighborhoods where homicide steals the most collective life-years from communities.

Sharfstein hopes the new numbers will help attract grant money to the city and spur outrage in the lower-income neighborhoods where life expectancy is lower then average.

"If communities can get as engaged about their health indicators as they are about abandoned housing and the need for new road construction projects, that would be a tremendous force for change," he said.

While people rail against boarded-up homes because they see the blight, "you don't see the health statistics," Sharfstein said. "Until now, we haven't had them."

Mayor Sheila Dixon, who has made health one of her signature issues, stressed that the city's overall health has improved.

In the past eight years, the average life expectancy in the city increased from 69.2 years to 71.8 years, according to the figures

Still, "in the midst of these developments we have very sick communities," Dixon said, ticking off a number of factors for the gap, including economic development, education, outreach and food choices.

"You could go to a bar or a grocery store and purchase a single cigar easier then a cheap piece of fruit," she said.

Researchers from the city and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health spent 11 months reviewing and analyzing 37,000 death records from 2002 to 2006 to compile the data. Using lines drawn by the planning department, they separated data into 55 areas that cover two or three neighborhoods - and produced individualized reports for each. Researchers adjusted the data for age so that areas with more senior citizens would not skew the results.

The study does not address why some communities have higher death rates than others, and why causes of death vary. Sharfstein said in some areas that work has been done to determine those causes and, where that work has not been done, he hopes neighborhood leaders will share their ideas.

He expects the data to guide decisions about where to concentrate health programs, and to help communities apply for health grants. Councilwoman Helen Holton, who has a strong health interest, said yesterday that she plans to use the data to seek national money.

Mirroring national trends, the results show that in most neighborhoods, heart disease and cancer are the biggest killers, regardless of income. "These are deaths that are in many cases preventable," Sharfstein said.

Life expectancy tends to rise with median income, the data show. For every increase of $10,000 in a neighborhood's median household income, residents lived 3.4 years longer, according to Sharfstein. But he noted that even among neighborhoods with similar incomes there are ranges of up to 10 years in life expectancies.

Though the city's poorer neighborhoods tend to be predominantly African-American, the data did not show as strong a relationship between density of black residents and lower life expectancy as other factors such as income, said Caroline Fichtenberg, the Health Department's chief epidemiologist and the project leader.

But since the city is 64 percent African-American, Sharfstein said that all health issues in the city can be viewed through a racial lens.

Researches also examined the years of life lost in each area - a calculation arrived at by assuming that each resident should live to be 75 years old (the statewide life expectancy is 78), and then subtracting the average death age. Viewed this way, there are 10 communities where homicides are the single largest cause of lost years of life - robbing neighborhoods of productive years. In Madison and East End, on the city's east side, homicides account for 22 percent of all of the years lost to death in the neighborhood. In Westport, homicides represent 18 percent of the years of life lost, and in Cherry Hill it was 17 percent.

"You can really see why we are treating homicides as a public health issue," Sharfstein said. In other areas such as Seton Hill and Reservoir Hill, HIV/AIDS is either the highest or near the highest cause of potential lost years. Such information, Sharfstein said, will be critical in looking for grant funding.

Sharfstein was quick to note that the neighborhood studies represent what he called a "snapshot" and do not reflect progress made in neighborhoods over time, including this year's drop in homicides.

Hollins Market, listed as part of an area with the lowest life expectancy in the city, has benefited in the past two years from more police attention and development. Yesterday, the sounds of saws buzzed from an alley where developers are rehabbing former crack houses to create units of low-income housing. A new Vietnamese fusion restaurant called Pho draws residents from all over the city.

But the residents weren't surprised to learn that their neighborhood had one of the lowest life expectancies. "I'd say there are a lot of unhealthy people here," said Jimmie Pearson. "Its drug-infested. Its rodent-infested. It is trashy."

Diana Cummings, 58, a former drug addict, complained that her tap water is brown and rats boldly gobble up food she puts out for her dog. She said she's clean now, but that she still likes to have her beer. A bottle was half-empty on the ground near her.

About 1 p.m. yesterday, Pamela Michelle Scott, 37, had just finished her monthly shopping to purchase 30 days' worth of meat from Hollins Market. She goes to the nearby Giant to buy canned vegetables. She's reared five healthy children and said that she made good use of the free clinics and food banks.

"They've given us what we need," she said. But others with fractured families don't always take advantage of those resources.

Across town in Roland Park, many residents going in and out of the Eddies supermarket didn't have time, or desire, to talk about the city's health problems. Jane Davis was shopping at Eddies of Roland Park and said she was not surprised by the disparity. She declined to give her age but said she's in the Social Security collection years and explained that she has a condo in Guilford, a neighborhood where residents have the second-longest life expectancy. However, she said she spends most of time at her West Virginia cabin, where she likes to hike.,0,7674902.story

Monday, November 23, 2009

Obama on Jane Jacobs and cities

Not for one of our assignments, but I came across this the other day and thought I'd share it with the class:

It's a clip linked to from the market urbanism blog, showing Obama receiving a copy of Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities as a gift, and talking to a group of supporters in Toledo, Ohio about the importance of cities and how their success is linked to the success of the nation.

He speaks to the same point as Kenneth Jackson in his essay "Gentleman's Agreement: Discrimination in Metropolitan America" :

The major conclusion of this analysis is that no one city or suburb can alone do much about poverty and discrimination. If communities jointly support the needs of the poor, this can be an effective solution to metropolitan ills and disparities. In short, the histories and the futures of [cities and suburbs] are linked. Affluence and despair, in the modern American context, are as intertwined as day and night, as the wind and the rain. The New York metropolitan area, the largest and most complex in the United States, is really an interconnected job and housing market. If Wall Street investment banks lay off thousands of employees, [the suburbs] all feel the repercussions. Any solution to America’s urban ills must begin with the recognition that residents of metropolitan regions share common challenges. Few people benefit when inner city schools are dysfunctional, when public housing projects become armed camps, or when minority jobless rates are double those of the middle class. Similarly, city dwellers should recognize that on balance, it is a benefit to them if the region includes a variety of residential and educational options, including many in the suburbs. 


The “gentleman’s agreement” of the United States is the shared willingness to ignore or to attribute to natural causes the maldistribution of poverty and wealth among local governmental jurisdictions. The problem will not be solved unless the local, state, and national governments, encouraged probably by the court system, develop policies that can earn the contingent consent of most people. This is to say that successful solutions and conditions must earn the willing and active approval of the electorate, who must believe that other citizens are doing their share (pp 211- 212). 

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Weapon of Inclusion: basketball courts

I nominate basketball courts as a weapon of inclusion. All public sports venues create a situation that invites play and exercise amongst strangers, what make basketball stand out is it's simplicity and popularity. Basketball courts offer a space to play, only requiring a basketball and players. Players can come alone and play by themselves or join others there. A game can vary greatly in size to how many people are needed . When in a heated game is already in session, a court can have a formal feeling, but generally courts are open to others and never require scheduling in advance. Basketball courts offer a space for the game or practicing any time day or night, do not require a large space, and are low maintenance (no need to cut any grass or line a goal). Unlike swimming or ice skating, basketball does not require surveillance. This allows for less inhibited or calculated interactions. It is easy to place a basketball court in an urban space or tuck it away into a neighborhood, unlike a soccer field or track. Basketball is very popular internationally and across many races of people. As racial tension and divide is a large factor in closing the city, basketball is a simple accessible avenue for those of different races to play together without much effort.  

Additionally, basketballs are often the only well-lit space on a block and as an open space (unlike a tennis court or skateboard park) can be used for other purposes like jump-roping, clapping games, even playing music late at night (I've seen it! see link: The court, if well-lit at night can serve as a haven and increase safety - of course if it attracts drug dealing or violence (murders are often committed on basketball courts in Baltimore according the the City Paper's Murder Ink). This is often countered, most famously by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in their promotion of midnight basketball as a tool against crime, arguing it occupies many "at-risk" young men (low-income, African-American young men). Courts are often used at night by young people and can serve as a safe space, often built near schools, parks or major streets. Overall, courts offer a place for children and adults to meet people in their neighborhood and exercise in a relaxed social setting.

Monday, November 2, 2009

We All Scream for Ice Cream

I can still remember, quite clearly, my first encounter with an ice cream truck. Growing up in the rural outskirts of suburbs surrounding metropolitan DC, I suppose the houses were spread a bit too far from each other for the average hard-working ice cream vendor to make his profit worthwhile. So for some time, the entire institution of mobile ice cream distribution was a completely alien concept to me.

One day in the midst of my eighth or ninth year, I was over at a friend’s house; she lived in a typical townhouse complex, clustered around a typical community pool. We were playing outside when I started to hear this strange lilting sound far off in the distance; it was verging on resembling a melody, and it’s compressed, twinkly notes were growing closer. Confused but intrigued, I froze, cocking an ear in a vain attempt to better decipher the sound waves. I turned to my classmate, inquiring what that crazy noise could possibly be, and she just stared back at me as if I had just told her my limbs were made of ice cream. “Um… That’s the ice cream truck…” she responded slowly, as if it couldn’t be more painstakingly obvious. Ice cream truck? You mean, they bring the ice cream to you?” Thus far in my young life, my experiences with ice cream acquisition were limited to parlor-served cones or store-bought cartons. I contemplated the information for a moment, mouth agape, but this brief musing was quickly dissipated; I excavated a few coins from my grubby, grade school backpack and eagerly stampeded towards the musical promise of a sweet, cold reward.

During the first year I spent living in Baltimore, I found myself residing in the infamous Pigtown of the southwest section of the city. I was sharing a rowhouse with a formerly significant other, as well as sharing in the overwhelmingly limitless task of renovating and rehabilitating that rundown piece of property. Living in Pigtown, there was not a night that went by, whose air remained untainted with playful music box jingles, for probably at least nine months out of the year. Perhaps there are considerably fewer children living in the Bolton Hill neighborhood, to which I later migrated and currently reside, but I can only recall ever hearing the distinctive presence of an ice cream truck on one solitary occasion. In Pigtown, there were also at least three or maybe even four different trucks out there making the rounds; I could tell them apart from the slightly different songs they played, each one an almost painfully familiar tune from the realm of public domain. I was particularly appreciative of these frequently attendant dairy merchants during the hottest summer peaks, as our un-insulated kitchen and functionally inferior freezer unit made it impossible to keep store-bought ice cream from dissolving into a liquid mess. Especially within that oppressively hot heart of the summer, the fleet would cycle those streets sometimes until well past three in the morning. Naturally, I do harbor the suspicion that these particular entrepreneurs are also peddling something a bit stronger than ice cream. And although most would probably consider this an immoral detriment to the community, on an ethical level perhaps that’s true, but as far as the community dynamic was concerned, this additional fact only drew people closer together, as adults and children alike could be easily coaxed out into the street by the siren’s wail of ice cream melodies. And unlike most commercial establishments we are accustomed to these days, it is still a one-man job, leaving the waiting customers to stand idly around and to hopefully perhaps even engage in an otherwise unprovoked communication with their associates by proximity.

Say what you will about Pigtown, but I couldn’t help but sense a spirit of community there, as rather unconventional as it might be. There were always people planted on stoops, whether they belonged to someone else or not, the schoolchildren would gather together, flocking to school en masse, and nameless, unknown neighbors would often acknowledge me with a nod or a greeting, simply because of the repetition of visual recognition. Most inhabitants of our immediate area seemed to know each other, as many had lived in this neighborhood for numerous years, if not generations. (We even knew some of our local crackheads by name as well.) Now, I’m not saying that community atmosphere has anything to do with the frequent patrol of ice cream trucks in the area, but I do believe the persistent existence of them is made possible because the community is knit in such a way, that persists an atmosphere receptive to such interactions.

The eagerly anticipated arrival of an ice cream truck drags people from the isolation of indoors, not only coaxing them into the street, but also uniting individuals with a common, albeit inconsequential, goal. The key to the ice cream truck’s effectiveness in gathering neighbors together is the very limited time frame containing their visit. It is not something anyone but the truck driver himself can plot or schedule, and so it forces people to drop what they are doing more immediately than any other urban function I can think of. Neighbors might on the off chance cross each other’s paths in their day-to-day comings and goings, but the likelihood that timing could be coincidentally synchronized is usually quite slim. The inviting wail of an ice cream truck sets forth a solid, concrete reason for neighbors to converge in the same place at the same time. I’m sure it also doesn’t hurt that the overall cultural perception of ice cream is as a treat, an indulgence, or a reward. Isn’t everyone a good deal more sociable when there are tasty desserts involved? There is something so satisfyingly casual about the endeavor; it is an activity virtually free of the traditional pressures of the outside world. So the ice cream man beckons his surrounding citizens out of their domestic fortresses of solitude, and into the street, irresistibly plunging neighbors together, bound by common sweet teeth. Even if these neighbors are already on friendly terms, every little piece of interaction weaves another tiny thread of community tighter. Because even if gathering around the dull glow of a buzzing ice cream truck window only elicits idle chitchat between neighbors, it still fosters a social and visual recognition among the population, encouraging opportunities for deeper levels of community interaction. I believe the key community-driving success behind the ice cream truck industry lies in its own triviality. Overly deliberate intentions of rousing community spirit and involvement often prove to be awkwardly labored in their execution, like somebody is trying too hard to bind community members together under legitimate, albeit artificially contrived circumstances. As productive community socialization performs best when functioning as the unintended result of seemingly happenstance encounters, I think the most beneficial neighborly interactions manifest when we least expect it.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Canines for the Open City!

One of the undercover agents working for the Open City may live right in our own homes! Dogs, more than any other pet, bring people outside and often together. Bolton Hill is a perfect example of a space with untapped potential for interaction. Private houses and apartment buildings allow for people to stay cooped up inside. But dogs need to be walked, and this brings people out of their yards, gates, and fences, down from the top floors of apartment buildings, and outside in all kinds of weather.

The beauty, I think, of this entry to the arsenal, is that it is so common and also so positive! Man's best friend often has many of the qualities that our human neighbors lack: energy, curiosity, and a tendency to be friendly and outgoing. Although dogs' personalities vary, some will run right up to a stranger to investigate, or just to get a pat on the head and a good scratch behind the ears. The owner will often follow at some distance, or attached to their gregarious pet by its leash, forcing the owner into some kind of interaction with their dog's new friend, a 'hello' and a smile at the very least.

I've often found myself talking to a dog before even making eye contact with the owner. There's one older man in the neighborhood who I've seen following a few paces behind his tiny unleashed dachshund who trots along, obediently keeping within distance. Most times, I'll bend down to pet the dog, then look up to greet the old man. Dogs are especially interested in other dogs- whether as a friend or possible opponent. And being cloistered indoors most of the time, out of the company of their own species, who can blame them? To most people who live in an urban or suburban environment, the sight of a dog dragging its owner towards another animal is amusingly familiar. Who doesn't like making small-talk with your neighbor while your dog tangles its leash around your legs, the both of you clutching warm grocery bags. Open city! Common' feel the love!

There is always the issue of cleanliness, since the parks and sidewalks we frequent are all fair game as 'bathroom' to our canine friends. But for the most part, people around here seem to abide by the 'clean up after your dog' laws. The park at the corner of Bolton and Wilson Street even has a re-used plastic bag dispenser, which I assume is for that purpose. 

Recently, though, I was looking out my living room window onto the park on Park Ave, and I witnessed a man pick up after his dog with his bare hands(!) and toss it under a parked car, after checking to make sure no one was watching. Hopefully the other pet-owning residents of Bolton Hill have a little more class. And cat-owners? Well, you guys are just anti-social.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Duncan Street Miracle Garden

Mr. Lewis Sharpe started the Duncan Street Miracle Garden in 1989; today--along with the twenty or so urban garderner/farmers he hosts each summer on his city soil plots--the space lives as an example of a successful, long-term urban public-space project. In a neighborhood (down North Avenue toward Rt. 95) devastated by a culture of drugs and violence (during a summer cleanup of the garden this year volunteers weeded out dozens of crack vials and a few heroin needles from the perimeter fence), the community garden stands as an urban oasis--it's vibrant flora of fruit trees, perrenial flowers and bushes, and annual fruits and vegetables seem to have been dropped from the sky on the plot (a collection of city blocks the city lends to Mr. Sharpe and others). What we know from the work of decades of patient, diligent soil generation, though, is the opposite: Duncan Street grew up from below.

The word palimpsest (which I've heard used to describe the geological layering of the architecture of old cities) came to mind when I squatted low in the small path that runs between the long, rectangular plots of soil Mr. Sharpe loans out to his gardeners each year--in one particularly successful plot, the rich, black stuff sat atop the concrete like a tremendous brownie. From its surface sprouted neat green rows of green beans, swiss chard, cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, and squash.

At the time of this discovery, I'd--along with a few other MICAns--just begun my own gardening experiment back at school behind the Buddha statute. Having toured the city and its surround with the Hugh Pocock's Urban Farming class, I found the Miracle Street Garden to be the most mature, developed, and successful project of its kind. From within it there emanated the signs of a tremendous patience--the kind of attitude that I had romanticized for a life in the countryside. Here, though, in a part of town I'd avoided, to be sure, because of color barriers, my expectations--and their reductionist paradigms--exploded in the face of a place strangely undefinable. Not simply urban, suburban, or rural alone, the space melted into a hybridity yet fully examined by any theory I've come across. The particular character, for certain, of this garden seemed somehow unjaded by the simple, repetitive movements required for its maintenance; undaunted by the challenge of the scattered neighborhood that made its borders. It was a project without ideology, without documentation, without shine. It's documentation is there, in the dirt, for anyone to see.

I stood for a time staring at the brownie and the green things exploding from its surface. Through the layers of vegetation, I then witnessed something even more extraordinary: from behind a dense wall of cucumber vines, a small metal triangle emerged, gently but firmly prying a new row of earth open as it traveled in small rhythmic circles. I ducked down further below the raised plot, kneeling behind a trellised grape vine, afraid the operator of the tool would alter the grace of his movement at the sight of me. For a long time, I watched as he moved steadily--slowly pulling the wooden-handled hoe into the layer of soil just beneath the surface, severing the newly-germinated weed sprouts before they ever had a chance to reach the sunlight.