Monday, November 2, 2009

What about Roy?

Did he say T?
Is Roy an idiot?
Does someone wish the state of New York gave them an extra character to clarify?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Detroit: a leisurely disaster

The people who publish Forbes must think exclusively in list form. Top 10 cars that are hard to find at dealers, The Top 10 majors for college students, Top 12 foods you shouldn't be eating...
As we mark the anniversary of a year of economic despair I keep being bombarded with lists of cities down on their luck. I take issue with these lists because they're low on substance, basic data ranked in a simple method that consistently make the front pages of Yahoo news. I'm shocked people get legitimate paychecks for such shoddy journalism. These list makers shouldn't even get paid for all 10 of the most depressed metro areas because...
You'd be hard pressed to find a city in the US that has had such a consistent run of bad luck. New Orleans has had a rough spell, but because it's steeped in culture and a tourism hot spot I am confident they'll make a full recovery. The obvious choice for #1 Detroit, is worse than I expected. In late Summer of 2008 I passed through on business and it was really rough. A year later I pass through to find things have gone from worse to the absolute worst.
The building above was a train station that had been fully restored in the mid-1980s. Today not a single window remains intact. If this happened all at once by way of a natural disaster it would be front page news. Below is what remains from the old Tigers stadium, surrounded by bars full of history but overwhelmingly empty on game days.
What happened to Detroit was a leisurely disaster. A slow moving decay that began in the 1960's, as residents fled the city bad times crept on in. This is a city that wasn't destroyed by a hurricane, fire or earthquake. It was destroyed over time as the rest of the world changed and it didn't. I've run across people, assuredly not from Detroit and likely never to have visited, who suggest letting it die, accuse it of digging its own grave and assessing the damage as not worth fixing. How would these armchair economists go about telling the man below walking past the former Hotel Eddystone that his town is not worth saving.
Detroit has fallen from being the 4th largest city in the United States to being the 11th. Despite the decades of crime, drugs and poverty there's still nearly a million people left. I hope the worst is behind Detroit. What was once a prime example of the American Dream is too big to fail, but after spending a few days on its crumbling streets it could be argued that it already has.

How can this be a good idea?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The rural Ohio random find of the week

On a random drive across Ohio's countryside I turned a corner and learned all I ever wanted to know about where the Goodyear Blimp is kept. Since 1917 this has been the headquarters for Airship Operations. One of the random perks of driving down roads aimlessly when somebody else is paying for the gas.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Onions of Wrath

I've gained a newfound respect for the onions I discard from the endless number of over processed and under priced meals that fuel life on the road. From Portland, Oregon to Providence, Rhode Island I have sent unwanted onion slices flying out of sunroofs, into trash cans and bouncing off walls of hotel rooms I'll never have to clean.
In rural Ohio I came across a community of migrant workers and surveyed the modest shacks they lived in. These are easily the most basic of housing units I've encountered in over 2 years of traveling. Just enough room for a cot, a bedside table, and a chair. The lucky ones have a shower and public restroom to share, others have a outhouse and water from a hose. Hanging out to dry are the uncomfortable looking yellow protective suits to keep the pesticides from getting into the workers skin.
The farm grew a variety of vegetables and relied heavily on a combination of manual labor and aging red trucks. It's humbling to see the lengths people will go to have a unforgiving and dirty job. The farm went on for miles, retired school buses shuttled hundreds of workers and the basic hand tools they were using from field to field. As my own unemployment looms in the distance I've found that a look into the lives of these workers makes the last 2.5 years not appear so bad. As rough as the work looked to be, there have been more books written about migrant workers than traveling market research surveyors.
My inner nerd environmental-economist was glad to see this type of farming still done in the United States and done in a environment that actually gets rainfall. Arizona and Southern California drain rivers to farm the desert. My inner human rights activist was more than a little uncomfortable seeing people that live in the modern day equivalent of a slave cabin.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Co-op City = Futureville... cira 1968

The West Bronx is home to Co-op City, an experiment in ideal living. Unlike most Co-op arrangements this is not a farmhouse in rural Vermont where Phish is the soundtrack to organic farming and aging VW Vanagons are used as storage sheds while children are allowed to name themselves.
What Co-op City is? What happens when you try to cram 55,000 people into under 65 acres of land. The entire complex is around 320 acres but just 20% of that land houses enough people to be the 10th biggest city in New York. It seems like a viable solution for middle class families to live and work in the city. On paper, the sheer number of bodies occupying these towers seems like a disaster waiting to happen. In person, a livable and comfortable neighborhood that resembles a college campus more than a the worlds largest housing complex.

It works because of the walkable nature of the complex, everything you'd need on a regular basis is within a block or two. It also works because they don't allow convicted felons in. Aside from bankruptcy issues that crop up about once a decade, this urban utopia seems to be a success. Which is surprising because when I read about it... on paper it looks like somebody trying to cram 10 pounds of shit into a 5 pound bag.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Search for North Brother Island

While mapping out the weeks work in the South Bronx I noticed a few islands on Google maps. I decided to take the time to fully investigate these islands and so began the search for North Brother Island.
Southwest of Hunts Point and Northwest of Rikers Island lies North Brother Island, a sprawling abandoned hospital island for quarantining the sick and undesirable from the rest of the city. As I've explained in previous blog posts, I enjoy creepy abandoned places. In a historic and not goth way though, the most I'll do is take pictures and consult Wikipedia, no ghost hunting, emo-cutting or meth smoking here.
Unfortunately there are no good ways to reach the shore across from the Island, the first step is driving South. My travels led me to Hunt's Point, known for its widespread prostitution and one of the largest food distribution centers in the US. I got a view of Rikers Island.. and a variety of other things... But I wasn't hunting for strange, I was searching for North Island.
West of the point was a Coke bottling plant and some sort of refinery, its as close as I could get. All that is visible now is a rusting dock and what is left of the power plant.
It'll be interesting to see how much longer the island remains in its current state. A Discovery Channel special featured the island as an example of what happens when humans leave an area for a extended period of time. In the city with land at a premium this has been sitting for over 40 years. Rikers Island isn't the most desirable neighbor, that may play a factor as well. Google Earth and Wikipedia do a much better job explaining the history, it doesn't appear I'll be getting a chance at a closer look.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Bronx: freedom from hipsters and gentrification

Which is just the way I like it. The Bronx is as intimidatingly raw as it is overwhelmingly friendly. I found people in Manhattan are too busy to be helpful and Staten Island residents are too paranoid to deal with. Only in the Bronx will someone toss you their keys so you can let yourself into a locked private condo building.
The neighborhoods range from dense projects to single family homes on quiet streets. Along the Hudson River the neighborhoods seem almost suburban and across the borough Co-op City is the worlds largest apartment complex. Many remind me of the set from Sesame Street. That is if Hooper's Store sold blunts, the front steps smelled of urine and Bert & Ernie enjoyed an occasional taste of snow.
The lack of gentrification keeps things authentic. Corner stores and local diners dominate the storefronts and for some reason Jerome Ave. manages to have at least one auto glass place per block for miles. It lacks the touristy feel that some parts of Manhattan have, I'm fairly sure the new Yankees Stadium is as far North as they dare to go.
Not the most glamorous area but not the worst place to be working. My one gripe is the widespread use of the Bumper De-Fender. The only thing worse than poor parking jobs are rewarding bad parkers for their lack of skill. From the looks of things it didn't do a whole lot of good.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Where it smells like burning

For the third year in a row, work has dropped me into NYC's industrial neighbor to the South. Time spent here is a series of bell shaped curves, moments of joy or curiosity followed by valleys of anger at traffic or the locals. It seems like this would be a choice destination if you're looking for a fight.
The first reaction is... "Hey, it's the NYC skyline" followed by the realization shipping containers block the view. As the weeks progress the stack grows higher, work gets increasingly tiring and sleep is harder to come by. May be the neighbors to blame, the annoying family across the hall, the Norfolk Southern Railroad, the Jersey Turnpike and/or the Newark International Airport.
Two hours of each day are spent on I-95 dealing with the never ending road rage and close calls that keep the entire population on the brink of hostility. Turnpike traffic is a combination of the aggressive tactics found in New York City driving mixed with excessive highway speeds. Only here can you find semi trucks cut each other off, brakes lock up, trailers swerve into the other lane and the trucks fly up over cement barriers on a regular basis.
Sopranos filming locations dot the landscape, people who could easily pass for extras in the series are also in good supply. Its a mysterious place, at first you think its kinda cool, then you get a slight headache. About a week into it you're ready to go home, at two weeks... ready to hit someone. Could be the chemicals in the air, I dunno. It's reassuring to know that driving North out of NYC yields the exact opposite kind of place.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

San Diego: A Hotbed of Perfection

San Diego. An abrupt departure from Arizona's formidable dust, this place is uncomfortably perfect. The average San Diegan spends an impressive amount of time outdoors, they just don't realize it because the inside and outside have blended into a mix of perfect that is hard to discern. Shopping, dining and drinking take place in a hybrid environment of sunshine, hallways, ocean breezes and wild birds.
Won't find many angry people here, it works like AT&T Rollover Minutes. With each day comes the same perfect weather, smooth running public transit, innovative fast food solutions...
Low stress allows for this excess of good times to carryover until needed during tax season or for a unexpected trip to Tulsa.
I traded my Nielsen business cards for a NEA conference badge and settled in for the combination of sightseeing, seafood and education based democracy.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson spoke about the importance of funding education. Teachers rallied against adopting performance based pay, after arguing over how to define it. Former Vermont Governor, Doctor, Democratic Party chairman, Presidential hopeful, and infamous screamer Howard Dean promoted his book about how to fix healthcare. Manny Ramirez returned after a 50 game suspension, apparently baseball was played, I found $2 huge draft beers by way of the black market Petco Field beer trade.
San Diego reminds me of the cover of Sim City 4, municipal perfection that borders on impossible to make when you play the game yourself. A little bit of this makes up for a whole lot of what comes next.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Because calling it a skateboard is letting them win

Regional Chain Review: Whataburger

Whataburger is a chain burger joint in the American Southwest that goes to great lengths to recreate fast food burgers in a style that represents your very own botched cooking attempts. A pioneer in theme chain dining, the 'your own shitty attempt at cooking' genre is still few and far between. While the food came from a commercial kitchen and was received via drive thru window, aside from the wrapper and branded bags the food is just like you used to make it way back when.
The choicest cuts of frozen beef patty were cooked in a manner to replicate the tastes of a George Forman Jr. with a full grease tray that was purchased at a garage sale. In the Whataburger kitchens the magic begins when a slovenly dressed team member hastily chops lettuce and tomato while nursing a fierce hangover. Craftsmanship continues as the bleached flour bun, institutional grade beef and waxed paper all are balled into a mess and thrown into a bag. A throw back to the days when I didn't know what the hell I was doing.

Regional Chain Review: Pirate's Fish & Chips

An ABOMINATION located on E Baseline Road near Mill St in Tempe AZ.

My Domestic Chariots

While I prefer my personal cars to be complicated, European, underpowered, expensive and repair prone the vast majority of my 16 company rentals have been domestic. Nearly every one was cheaper to repair, simpler, more powerful and easier to use than those in my own garage. In the tens of thousands of miles I have put on these lowly rental cars there have been faults, under-engineering and annoying cost cutting build quality, but it's not as bad as you'd think.

On this Independence day weekend I'm giving a tip of my hat to what's left of the American Auto Industry. A Toyota has an appliance like quality about it, reliable but lacking presence. Of course the time you spend and places you go in your Toyota build memories and before you know it the reliability itself is a characteristic as endearing as any other. But I don't have time to wait for a car to grow on me, these rental cars are a limited time sort of deal and need to be impressive from Avis lot to rental return. They need swagger right out the box.
The Charger comes from the weakest of the Big Three. An effort to conjure up emotion with a retro look paying homage to a happier time for Chrysler. With looks right out of Hazard County and a striking resemblance to a Georgia State Highway Patrol cruiser the Charger has a coolness I've yet to find in a Hyundai. I can think of no better car for highway cruising, it just eats up the miles effortlessly as other drivers panic and slow to a legal 65 MPH. Perhaps its my midwestern sensibilities but there's just something about a full size sedan, it feasts on interstate miles.
Another guilty pleasure, another American retro styled car... imagine that. The V6 powered Ford Mustang has secured its place in recent history as the car of choice for spoiled upper middle class high school girls. After checking my ego at the rental counter I found the Mustang, even in its most pedestrian of forms to be solid fun. Just enough power to remind you that it is rear wheel drive and just loud enough to enjoy the acoustics of a parking garage. Perfect for some Arizona desert off roading, not the best for picking up used after a rough gig as a rental car.
The Chevy Impala isn't a sports car and certainly isn't the poster of choice for childhood bedrooms. It is the V6 powered, front wheel drive GM sedan that is the spiritual descendant of land yachts of yore. Beneath its bland corporate GM looks lurks a powertrain that is built for crushing yellow lights and venturing into the left lane. What impressed me most about the Impala was how far the basic American sedan had come. Heated leather seats, Bose XM radio, Onstar (which almost came in handy) and nearly 250 horsepower made the thousands of miles I drove in under two weeks fly by.

It has become apparent these aren't the watered down American sedans of my youth. The big three need to focus on build quality, seat comfort and a higher grade of interior plastics. Forget the practices of planned obsolescence, build the right car instead of the car for right now.

Who told California about Sedona?

For 45 minutes I braved the winding two lane road to Sedona. I had it on good authority, by way of a college roommates recollections, that Sedona was the most beautiful place on earth. The cramped and narrow road to Sedona was a claustrophobic preview of the crowded streets that would await.
Sedona is a breathtaking place that just happens to be chock full of Californians. I need to go back sometime with no schedule to keep, when its not a weekend, and when the roads are in tact.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bryce Hervert: Several Reservations

Unlike Anthony Bourdain, I go places less than desirable. I've poked fun a time or two at rough areas but this one really stands in a league of its own. The cause for this intensity of badness is complex, a solution is tough to work out. It comes down to being a victim of happenstance on several occasions. I am of course referring to Indian Reservations.
Generations of poverty hasn't been kind to this group of people but it is not a simple fix. Gambling and the sales of crafts in roadside three sided shacks can only go so far, and the farther you get from civilization, the more depressing things get. The land is about as useless as land gets with no water and temperatures soaring well over 100 degrees. A short drive reveals an incredible difference in lifestyle between the planned communities of Casa Grande and the simple dirt streets of Sacaton.
How the US Government treated the Native Americans in the past was certainly horrific but in many ways they haven't done themselves any favors. The capital city of the Gila River Indian Community is a prime example of mismanaged finances. The showcase of the small community is the municipal complex featuring a luxurious city hall and municipal building, there is a massive new jail and a sprawling juvenile detention center. The stores and high school is crumbling with no public parks to speak of. I ran into some of the nicest people you'll ever meet, just stuck in a unfortunate situation on some pretty unusable land. They could sure use help, an actual solution instead of some quick fix. Down the road a new liquor store is opening, perpetuating stereotypes and prolonging the cycle of poverty. I have heard suggestions of misappropriated funds but had never seen the areas personally. It looks like those in charge must not spend a lot of time in the village.
A days drive to the North and the situation at the Navajo city of Kabitio was much worse. Hours away from the nearest Interstate Highway the village was a dusty patch of ground with sick looking horses running loose and a dead puppy getting stepped over in the middle of a parking lot. People seemed to be less friendly and borderline hostile. People would turn away if I asked a question, cut in front of me in line at the small grocery store... Seemed to be a bit of tension as I tried to survey the village.
I get the fact I was an outsider and that my job makes me look incredibly conspicuous, but why the attitude. I'm just doing my job, sure would be nice if someone would lead by example, put an address on your house and for christ sake bury that dog.