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Posts Tagged ‘Transportation’

Chicago’s quirky curbside conventions

In Thoughts on February 16, 2011 at 11:45 am

A unique quirk of Chicago’s built environment is its system of “dibs.” In a way as childish as it sounds, during times of immense snow cover—like that following this year’s Groundhog Day Blizzard—people will place random objects in their parking places, saving them until they return.

Objects can be anything; mostly you see chairs, tubs, garbage cans, or crates. Sometimes laundry baskets (which we resorted to). I saw in one photo what appeared to be a giant, stuffed panther. Not taxidermied—Tigger-like. Now, as temperatures hit nearly 50 degrees, people are finally forgoing the etymologically obscure practice. But given that it’s only February, I doubt this is the last time we’ll the streets littered with odds, ends, and other paraphernalia.

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Photo. More.

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Tracking the conscious carnivore’s worst enemy

In Thoughts on January 26, 2011 at 2:35 pm

One of the worst things about traveling is the food. Not once you’ve reached your destination—once you’re there, your friend takes you to a tapas place and orders a small plate of what he calls “Meat Candy.” Or  you happily discover a market that offers all things local, including a breakfast pizza topped with a sunny-side-up egg.

But while en route, it’s another story. Airport food is atrociously overpriced, especially for anything “healthy,” and fast-food makes up 99% of the offerings along our country’s interstates. Since I began eating only meat that’s been sourced appropriately (i.e. from small family farms that ensure humane treatment), fast food and most airport fare have been off the table. And I’ve never felt better. But a road trip is a conscious carnivore’s worst enemy. The only relief from the glow of the Golden Arches and hybrid KFC/Taco Bells are the occasional mom-and-pop sit-down restaurants—Uncle Mac’s, Kountry Kafe, Roadside Inn. Which might be local, but sure aren’t health-oriented or conscious of where their meat comes from.

So on a recent drive, tracing our way from Chicago to Kansas City, I was thinking about our limited options and mourning the loss of all the legitimately good restaurants we were passing by at 76 mph. Maybe there weren’t many, but there had to be a few, even along this route through the Midwest. And it struck me that both of us were missing out: we had to suffer shitty, mass-produced, cholesterol bombs and they had to suffer pathetically low customer traffic, since fast-food  crowded them out of the roadtrip market a long time ago.

If only there were a Yelp for highways. A site where instead of a zipcode or city, you put in an interstate number, or a Point A and Point B. And it would bring up all the great restaurants there were from Chicago to Kansas City. Hours, menus, reviews. All the fixin’s.

I didn’t mention my idea until our final day in Kansas City, brunching at Blue Bird Bistro, a spacious, gorgeously decorated, corner eatery in Westside, not two blocks from our friend Derek’s house. Over spinach omelettes and blueberry pancakes and “really good bacon,” with the 8 hours back to Chicago on my mind, I briefly laid out my idea. A Yelp for the road. Derek said, Go look at the story by the door. I tried to explain further. Go look at it, he said. I did. It was a story about a couple who wrote a book called Healthy Highways, which is also now a website. It’s a catalog of healthy, locally owned restaurants along major travel routes all across the country. The latest edition has more than 2,800 entries. Blue Bird Bistro was featured, since it’s right off the 670/35 interchange, hence the newspaper story framed on their wall.

My idea had been taken. But I was happy to have a resource. So I went to www.healthyhighways.com, only to find that it’s a jumbled mess. Not at all a functional, search-and-ye-shall-find Yelp equivalent. This was a cluttered promo site: ONLY $1. SHIPPING. No Matter How Many Books You Order. (US ONLY. BOOKS ONLY). Plus Discount Prices. Everything was highlighted in highlighter yellow. It felt like browsing through an infomercial. Not a single tab was a Search function.

The authors wanted you to buy their book. Well, that’s fine. But with about 6 months in between road trips (I’ll assume that’s fairly accurate for the average American young person working full-time), you’re only getting a few trips in before the book’s out of date. Four at most. And how can Nikki and David Goldbeck know about every healthy roadside place anyway? If a site was built, foodies could create pages when they heard about a new place opening up. Even better, if it was built from the official Yelp platform, existing restaurant pages could be duplicated, even just tagged as “Highway Proximal” so that it appears on the “Roadtrip” page, which could next to the “Events” tab (they’ve even left room!).

Just when I think I’m still on to something, a search turns up Roadfood.com. Looks like what I was hoping for. Well designed. Prominent search function. No highlighter.

It may not turn up anything in Hannibal, MO (which may or may not mean anything), but it does find Canteen Lunch in the Alley, in Ottumwa, IA. Anyone heading through Iowa on 34 or 63 should check that out.

On myth, tourism, and ancient land patterns

In Thoughts on January 13, 2011 at 10:23 pm

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Honolulu is a place that once experienced as a kama’aina—a local—somehow becomes shallower. Most places, especially cities, seep into your blood as you get to know them, infusing your DNA with their urban genetic code, but Honolulu serves mostly as the central construct of a Hawaiian myth, not one native to the islands, but written and passed down by the Bureau of Tourism.

If you visit O’ahu today, much of the splendor of the 20th century has been
co-opted by the maintenance of a cheap, glamorous facade. In Waikiki especially, the idea of a “beautiful island vacation” is built like a card house: the paper-thin layers of the hotels, restaurants (more kitsch than hand-crafted care), and beaches do little to hide the voids between, which are filled with chess-playing homeless, angry and increasingly addicted native Hawaiians, petty politics, and a near-total dearth of modernized infrastructure or contemporary culture.


It is a city that feels timeless. Not in the way jewelers want you to believe diamonds are timeless, but in the sense that it is unaware of time, and therefore unaware of any other place in time. It is not on the level of any other American cities, which vie to be cleanest, or greenest, or most innovative. It gives the impression it is always 20 years behind while also implying that things will never change at all—not in 20 years, or 50. I expect Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki’s main strip, will look mostly the same in 10 years and again in 10 more. The Hawaiian myth will continue to be told, planted in the minds of new generations, who will hold Honolulu as some idol in the not-too-distant future, someday attainable.

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Honolulu’s sprawling built environment consists of 30-year-old high- and mid-rises and the light, airy, single-family homes of any other warm-weather isle. The city is contained within the avenue created by the mountains (mauka) and the ocean (makai). Its streets have been described as a bowl of spaghetti, plopped onto the city’s plate; there was little, if any, urban planning during the height of Hawaii’s boom, around the time Elvis made it famous and stayed in Kauai’s now abandoned Coco Palms. (To see the shell of this resort today, shuttered, falling apart, a relic of another time is fascinating—much could be written about it.)

It was a new resort that had gotten me thinking about Hawaii’s built environment a while back. I was editing a story about a developer planning a new resort on the Big Island (the one that is Hawaii). The story mentioned an old practice that early tribes used to distribute land. Because it was beneficial to have access to both mountain regions and the ocean, land was divided into long, narrow strips called ahupua’a. For the resort, the architects borrowed this idea, designing the space so that each guest had a view of the mountains and access to the beach. I don’t know whether to call that borrowing or bastardization—or simply today’s norm: taking ancient, often sacred practices that preserved the natural environment and ensured equitable treatment of all people and using them as “design elements” of an exclusive getaway for the hyper-rich.

As we were flying back to the mainland a few weeks ago, I noticed that Honolulu has retained an echo of the long-vanished ahupua’a. Responding to the topography, just as early tribes did, neighborhoods stretch into the foothills, like fingers from the palm of the city. They rise up the ridges, narrowing to points and cutting off abruptly as the slope becomes too steep. In this way, the city reaches from makai to mauka in long strips much like the ahupua’a, divided by the valleys, which remain undeveloped. Seen from the air (as in the top photo), it is as if white tentacles of built environment stretch toward the center of the island while green claws reach down toward the sea. Seen at night, the valleys disappear into the night, and the houses appear to float on invisible slopes.

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Across the island from Honolulu and Waikiki is the North Shore, a haven for native flora, fauna, and unspoiled vistas, populated by locals and transplants, hippies most of them, surfers all. It’s a must-see for tourists, but there aren’t hotels, so it’s the quintessential Hawaiian day-trip: set out early from a Waikiki car-rental, get to Hale’iwa (North Shore’s only real town) by mid-morning, hit Waimea by noon, and wind your way back to Honolulu in time for happy hour.

The reason people have to leave early is because there’s only one road to North Shore, an old two-lane that circles the entire island. By mid-morning it slows to a crawl. The obvious, or increasingly “logical” solution would be to build a bigger highway, perhaps a four-lane freeway that skirts Hale’iwa and takes a more direct route to the tourist hot spots: Exit 49 Hale’iwa, Exit 51A Turtle Beach, Exit 51B Waimea. As it is now there are no exits because the road goes to everything, one stop at a time.

But this is actually a great example of how old infrastructure naturally limits use and therefore helps preserve treasured areas. Aside from the immediate, localized destruction it would cause, a highway would also suddenly make North Shore that much more accessible. Beaches would become more crowded, overrun with tourists; Hale’iwa would be inundated with throngs of pedestrians (whose cars would fill the few parking spots in minutes); and the hubbub of the city would inch ever closer.

There’s much more to say about Hawaii, even just this last time spent there. The coincidence of—on this particular trip—finally reading Joan Didion, who we discovered spent much of her time at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, just down the street from where we stay when we’re in Waikiki. Or the sheer size and ‘Third Worldness’ of the homeless villages constructed from spare parts and found objects that stretch on for miles along the Waianae coast, on the far west side of the island, a place that feels like the edge of the world.