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Archive for June, 2011

THE RACE IS ON

For a couple of decades, bicycle racing in Cleveland has meant after-hours, “alley cat” races among the messengers downtown, a handful of quiet, out-of-the-way events for club racers, and the occasional whisper of a paragraph in the Plain Dealer about doping allegations associated with the Tour de France.

This year that will change as a group of racers, barkeeps, restauranteurs, and the Lakewood Chamber of Commerce bring USA Cycling-sanctioned bicycle racing to the west end of Lakewood, with the Lakewood Criterium.

 One week after the Tour de France ends with a criterium on the Boulevard des Champs Elyees in Paris, racers from around the Midwest will compete for cash and glory in Lakewood.

The Lakewood Criterium will go faster than this, and the riders will wear helmets.

A “criterium” is a race designed for spectators, with multiple laps around a short course, usually through the city. In Lakewood’s case the race will use Detroit Avenue, Sloane, and West Clifton—streets lined with restaurants, bars, apartments, and other businesses. The restaurants and bars supporting the event will help create a party atmosphere, with food, drink, and music. High rise apartments along the route will have a sensational, bird’s eye view of the action.

 The race has been coordinated by Team Spin rider Brian Limkemann, working with a committee of Lakewood business owners coordinated by the local Chamber of Commerce.

All I can say is, it’s about time. As a longtime bicycle commuter, I’ve seen the number of cyclists on the streets multiply exponentially in the past ten years. Maybe it’s the substantial advocacy by organizations like the Ohio City Bike Co-Op, or events like Critical Mass, or maybe it’s just about the price of gas. But it feels like rediscovery: the day-to-day use of bicycles as a transportation tool returns them to that historic time when people were just beginning to appreciate what two wheels with chain-drive could do.

In the early days of bike racing, part of the appeal was to find out whether adventurous wheelmen could actually make their way around the perimeter of France, or from one city to another, and if so, how long it would take. These days, it feels to me like lots of adults are just discovering that their bikes can indeed take them downtown.

The Lakewood Criterium takes the discovery to another level, with high speed competition. Racers will whip around corners at speeds nearing 35 miles per hour, and sprint for prizes faster than that. It’s an afternoon series of races, with opportunities for kids and non-licensed riders, in addition to some of the fastest licensed racers in the Midwest.

The racing begins at 1 p.m. Saturday, July 30. Start / Finish is on Detroit at Riverside. The fastest riders roll off the starting line for the main event at 6 p.m. For information, go to  http://www.lakewoodcriterium.com/

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Disposable as a paper cup?

 When was the last time you had a Big Mac?

 Maybe some of us can answer that question. I can’t. It might have been years. I suspect that it’s been a while for just about anyone who would read this blog.

 Unfortunately, that’s not a very large number of people.

 If you went to the community meeting last week at Lakewood Public Library to hear the Mayor and McDonalds reps talk about their vision for the dirt that sits beneath the Detroit Theatre, you would have left with the impression that less than one percent of the city has any interest in having a McDonalds on Detroit Avenue–especially if it means demolition of a theatre that dates from the city’s streetcar heyday.

Dozens from the spillover crowd spoke against the idea. They voiced concerns that ranged from nutrition, to litter, to historic preservation, to the city’s long term economic wellbeing. Just one person said the city needs this kind of “economic development.”

Unfortunately, we know those numbers do not reflect the market. There are vast numbers of people who habitually eat Big Macs and fries and drink those great big wax paper flagons of Coca Cola.

It’s unfortunate for our nation’s health. Unfortunate for the cleanliness of our streets. Unfortunate because McDonalds’ business model is all about homogenizing experience. Unfortunate because they cater to car culture. Unfortunate because their buildings are stone cold ugly.

All these are battles Lakewood tries to fight. Every single one of those issues has organized, institutional opposition in our fair city.

We have an architectural review board that won’t let you enclose your front porch because to do so ruins the front porch aesthetic of our vernacular architecture, but doesn’t have the power to simply say “NO” when a fast food operation wants to bulldoze a piece of the city’s history.

We have a Heritage Advisory Board which apparently has produced an inventory of significant commercial architecture in the city (a report which apparently rates the Detroit Theatre well) but apparently not many people have seen it.

We have a Historical Society that hasn’t built the capacity to get involved in the preservation of buildings.

We have an organization called Live Well Lakewood that holds no sway against fast food dealers.

If you believe the rhetoric that emanates from a slew of government and nonprofit institutions, we have embraced streetcar era architecture and a walkable main street as critical to the economic future of the city. The past defines our future.

But we haven’t got the weapons to defend it against a fast food chain that is perfectly happy to knock down one of the buildings that gives the city its character, as long as it means they can sell a lot of burgers.

Lakewood is at a time in its history that so many inner ring suburbs confront: Left with the dignified vestiges of another era, we attract people with our walkable, bikeable streets, and our old architecture. They come to Lakewood even though that means pouring their money and energy into their homes. Those are some of the greatest minds and most dedicated souls in the city. But we have just about no institutional power to defend the asset that draws them here.

At that same point in history, our “obsolete” houses are inexpensive. Lots of them are for rent. Therefore people also land here by default. Inertia draws them. We have the first decent school system west of Cleveland. With 10,000 people per square mile, we remain the most densely populated city for hundreds of miles around.

I’m concerned about the long term economic well-being of Lakewood, and I think more fast food on Detroit flies in the face of any progress the city has made lately. It directly contradicts the apparent agreement of all those aforementioned institutions: that streetcar-era architecture and pedestrian oriented streets are one of the city’s key selling points for people who choose to live here.

But unless some unforeseen patron comes through with a whole lot of money and a plan, the question of whether McDonalds demolishes the Detroit seems to boil down to one thing: Can a corporation be convinced that to demolish a piece of the city’s architectural history is such a violation of good will–and would inspire such a level of resentment–that they devise another plan?

How tenacious are we? How much noise can we make?

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Rock climbing, Tremont style

It’s hard to estimate the value of people getting together to have a good time in a struggling city: The parties, the parades, the street festivals.

Sure, some of these events could be measured in economical terms: Track the local commerce on comparable days, and then see what kind of a bump the nearby businesses get when your event happens. Institutions like CSU’s Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs are deep into this kind of economic impact study.

 But nobody spent money when my friend Chick Holtkamp invited rock climbing buddies to climb his brick building in Tremont during last week’s Art Walk. Dozens of people gathered and watched as a range of folks—from very experienced climbers to my 9 year-old daughter—crawled like spider man up the three-story brick structure.

When people talk about that, when they share the memory, they don’t talk about safety or its impact on the local economy. People were climbing up a sheer brick face in the middle of the city. People will talk about because it was interesting. Events like these help neighborhoods as much as commerce does. Lots of people live in cities. They have lots of ideas. That makes cities interesting places to live and be.

The arrival of summer time is sure to bring us more and more original and even goofy invention. I’m having a little more fun than usual this summer because of two events:

The Rhythm of the City

First, some friends and local kids are working with me to launch the Edwards Avenue Bucket Drum Corps. We’ve practiced twice.  Inspired by the (familiar? defunct?) Andrews Avenue Kazoo Band, the Edwards Avenue Bucket Drum Corps is a loose collection of DIY bangers using 5-gallon buckets and various other recycled containers for allegedly musical purposes. After police were called on our first practice at Edwards Park (apparently lots of people living close together in the city raises noise concerns) we moved practice to a secret, out-of-the-way location. Watch for the Edwards Avenue Bucket Drum Corps to debut in the Lakewood Fourth of July Parade.

A couple weeks later, I plan to launch a super-soaked surprise July 23 during Lakewood Alive’s Streetwalk. It’s goofy. It’s kid-friendly. But I shouldn’t say anymore about that just yet.

Party on Mars

What I should say is that I hope anyone who reads this is expecting to have as much fun this summer as I am. If you don’t have a block party in the works, get one started. If you haven’t been to a Tremont Art Walk since the rain stopped, put July 10 on your calendar. 

Summer’s here. The rain has stopped. It’s time to have fun. Your city needs it.

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PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE

Pablo, from "The Black Cat's Night," woodcut, 20011

Even though I had to put my beloved fourteen year-old cat to sleep today, a sickly bag of bones purring to his last breath, and even though the day began with dark skies and thunderstorms (adding to what has already been one of the rainiest seasons ever in Cleveland), and even though my neighborhood is lately under siege from developers targeting beautiful old buildings for demolition, I remain an optimistic person.

 You’ll have to excuse me, though, if I am not encouraged by the passive  “Smart Home” built in conjunction with the Clevleand Museum of Natural History’s Climate Change exhibit. The house opened this week. The exhibit opens July 23.

A “passive” home is one that stays warm in the winter and cool in the summer without the use of a furnace or air conditioner. This is accomplished with lots of insulation, and devices known as “heat exchangers.”

The Smart Home was built to add optimism to a fairly bleak picture painted by the CMNH exhibit on global warming. And we absolutely need to confront that situation with optimism. Otherwise, we might just give up.

But let’s not misplace our optimism, or waste the motivation it provides on quixotic, fruitless adventures.

Informative as the “passive house” may be, new construction of half-million dollar “smart” homes is not the way out of our climate crisis.

 First, it’s the tiniest percentage of the population that has the money for such things.  There’s no reason to cite income statistics or median home sale prices here. Anyone reading this already knows the vast, vast majority of Clevelanders, Ohioans, or citizens of the world could never afford a half-million dollar house, no matter how energy efficient it may be.

 Second, how friendly to the climate is energy efficient, new construction, really? It takes an enormous amount of energy—in the production and transportation of materials, the site preparation, and the construction itself—to build a new house. All that has to be figured into the house’s impact on the environment. And it would take years—decades, even, to regain that lost ground.

Besides, we’ve already got far too many houses.

 Existing construction –since all that energy has already been spent—has a much greener head start.

 Second, if lots of people had the money for such projects, they would have to find locations to build them. New construction typically happens in far-flung suburbs, like Medina, where any energy gains made by such a house have to be weighed against the consumption that goes with living miles away from the grocery store or friends, and many more miles from an employment center.

 If we are talking about a sprinkling of projects that will make a few individuals feel good  (and benefit them with low utility bills that enable them to afford “more house”) but will never have much impact on climate change, Cleveland and similar cities have plenty of available land. But to build new homes in numbers that would impact energy consumption on a scale that matters globally, would require clearing of urban land to make room for these half million dollar “passive homes.” That’s another enormous cost, both in energy expense and in dollars. And it makes any positive impact from such newly constructed “smart homes” that much more unlikely.

 What we see here is a construction industry –one that has run rampant over our environmental concerns for half a century—doing a little bit of sexy PR for itself.

The museum’s pretty, Victorian-style house looks nice and showcases a lot of impressive technology, but we are deluded if we believe this is anything like an answer to our problems.

Ray(s) of the Sun: A new solar array in Lakewood

I’m much more encouraged by my friend Ray Query, who lives up the street. Ray is a champion recycler, and committed to bicycling as a primary mode of transportation, but the part of his life that commands attention at the moment is his installation of a solar, photo voltaic array on the south side of his Lakewood house.

 Ray lives in an old side-by-side duplex, in an old, densely built neighborhood—a place where you can walk or bike to just about anything you need, including a job. The house has been there for about 100 years, so it didn’t require the vast energy expense of trucks coming and going with building materials, and so on. That gives its Green quotient a big jump on new construction.

 But by adding a 4-Killowatt solar array, Ray has gone one step further. With an up front cost of $24,000 before tax credits, it’s not cheap. But you could do that twenty times for the cost of a half-million dollar, “smart home.”

 Photovoltaic technology is plenty familiar, but still unusual enough that it took 5 months after signing his contract with the installer Astrum Solar, before the city and power company all gave their approval.

It’s a little consolation that it’s been raining for most of the last several months. The flip of the switch that will actually connect his PV array to his house and the grid will happen this week just in time for the sunniest days.

Query expects that the system will produce about double the amount of electricity his household needs. His is already a frugal family, using energy efficient appliances, unplugging them when they’re not in use, not running an air conditioner, and using a high efficiency light bulbs. 

Whatever is extra, he’ll sell back to the grid. Between the lowered energy costs, the possibility of selling extra electricity to the power company, and the eventual possibility of selling clean energy credits, he expects the system will pay for itself in about 8 years.

Eight years is not very long. My cat lived a lot longer than that.

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