Archive for August, 2011

Blue sky and lightening over Lakewood, Ohio, August 18, 2011, rendered in ones and zeroes

 Blue skies and lightening, thunder clouds and bright white ones mingled in the sky over Cuyahoga County last night.

 Eliot and I ran across the street to the park with our cameras to capture the light show in ones and zeroes: digital pictures, you know. Eliot was hoping to snap a shot of the lightening on his I-pod Touch. But there was a problem. If he’d been trying to take a picture of the thunder, he could have used the lightening as a cue. But lightening strikes first, and without warning.

 It was a violently beautiful welcome back to the city we call home. And you know how it is when you come back from vacation: you jump back into the whirlwind. For me that meant three things: A meeting about historic preservation in Lakewood, which anyone who cares about the city should pay attention to; a book that a whole lot of people in Lakewood are reading; and the non-stop task of completing old house repairs.

 Nudged by McDonalds’ plan to demolish the Detroit Theatre, Lakewood Mayor Mike Summers and Planning Director Dru Siley hosted the meeting to begin discussion of how the city might play a role in preserving the historic buildings that give the city its physical character. Maybe 75 people came to Lakewood Public Library Wednesday night to take part in the conversation.

While parking my bicycle I noted that someone has decorated the bike rack in front of the library with a colorfully crocheted cozy. Or perhaps this is just a bike rack modeling a sweater for an anaconda.

 The meeting seems to have been designed to do two things: 1) to begin the conversation; and 2) to make the point that even among people interested in historic preservation, Lakewood has a huge diversity of opinion about what is worth preserving and what the criteria should be.  Using the Lakewood Heritage Advisory Board’s report of a few years ago that surveyed and graded commercial architecture in town, Siley showed the crowd pictures of 47 buildings the report rated 1-A, for their architecture, condition, and other factors speaking to significance. He divided the crowd into groups, asking them to choose ten buildings they would save from the wrecking ball today. The choices included several significant churches—none of which were onion-domed, orthodox churches of Birdtown); several school buildings; some mixed use buildings, and a couple of apartments.

 Siley reported on results of a survey which showed, among other things, that a significant majority of respondents believe it’s not one sensational building that the city should be concerned about, but the whole effect created by having intact streetcar-era architecture: Our attraction is not  just the timeless landmarks, like St. James church, or the Masonic Temple, but feel of the city, with its collection of two- and three-story mixed use buildings characteristic of the streetcar age.

 The elephant in the middle of the room—the unacknowledged, critical part of the discussion—was what the city can do (and is willing to do) to balance the interests of private property owners against the interests of residents who like the city’s character. All that, of course, has to be weighed against the city’s need for tax revenue. At the moment there is no answer.

 Mayor Summers did, however, note that several people identified the old Westwood / Hilliard Theater as important to save. He said that was the most urgent case in the city because of the building’s deteriorated condition. The building has long been mothballed and losing its fight against time, what with the leaky roof and all. Its challenges include not only its physical condition, but the lack of parking.

 An architectural firm with plenty of experience dealing with theaters looked at the situation about 10 years ago, taking into consideration the whole triangle of property bounded by Hilliard, Madison, and Woodward. The Mayor plans to look at it with a fresh set of eyes. He was met immediately with an opinion that the Westwood / Hilliard theater might be an overly expensive, losing battle, and therefore might make a poor choice as a venture into city-driven historic preservation. But we can only wish him the best of luck. It is a remarkable building. And once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.


 Here’s something quite a bit less challenging: teachers at Lakewood High School have asked the entire community to join students in a bit of summer reading, by inviting everyone in town to read the same book. Lakewood’s first ever “Big Read” is built around Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Told from the perspective of an autistic boy trying to solve the murder of a neighbor’s dog, it’s really a story about understanding autism and the challenges that go with looking after its victims.

The boy in the story is no victim: He is a stew of autistic hallmarks—from his need for order and routine to his prodigious math skills, the strain he puts on his parents. But what drives the story is the way he takes on uncertainty. He wants to learn something new, something highly emotional and mind-boggling: to find out who was responsible for the horrific murder of a dog, apparently by means of a pitchfork. And once he solves the mystery, at great peril, he decides to escape his situation (Don’t look here for any spoiler of the mystery) by leaving his orderly routine behind and setting off by himself for far-off London. He has an address. He has no idea how to get there. It’s a gripping tale.

Mayor Summers read it after copies of the book were distributed during a city council meeting, and told me afterward that he was “compelled by the story to read it through to the end.”

Has your councilman read it yet? Have you? And have you talked to a local high school student about the story?

Here I have to note that in terms of reading and other things, vacation was very, very good to me. Not only did I finish The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, but I also read Steve Martin’s tale of the New York art market, An Object of Beauty, and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s musings on cities and bicycle transportation, The Bicycle Diaries. Someone who cares about art and the economy will enjoy Steve Martin’s book for its intriguing characters, and its portrait of the art market’s ups and downs during the booming ‘nineties, followed by the shakeup that followed  the September 11 terrorist attacks, then the crushing blow dealt by the housing crisis and subsequent recession.

Someone who cares about bicycles and cities will find Byrne’s book just OK. It’s rambling, and not in a good way. I give Byrne enormous credit for touring cities on a bicycle long before it was fashionable, and his observations about getting around that way are plenty accurate. But even by 2009, when this was published, the ideas were well worn. Maybe it takes a rock star to bring bike commuting and the care of central cities into the mainstream. But there’s no way someone other than a rock star would ever have found a publisher for this.

The ongoing reconstruction

Vacation also meant that just two days after the Green Mountains of Vermont defeated me and my bicycle, my 47 year-old corpus came storming back and defeated the mountains. So there.

 And finally, back home in Lakewood, I found my summer project –the reconstruction of my back porch–still waiting for me. But what else is new?

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We Are Here.

I am what is known as ON VACATION. That is to say, we piled the kids in the car and drove east for many hours to the state of Vermont. You can see by the way that word is spelled that it refers to “Green Mountain.” That is roughly where we are: in the Green Mountains, outside a little town called Ludlow, within striking distance of a score of impossibly quaint towns, untouched by the homogeny of franchised commerce. There are still independent bookstores. I Have Not Seen a “McDonalds” in quite some time.

I will tell you something that did happen. But first I am compelled to note that as a bicycle commuter without a job, I have fallen out of my commuting routine, which means I am not nearly in the physical condition I was in at this time last year. So I set out on a ride of 30 or so miles yesterday morning, which ought to be no problem even in my state of atrophied lungs and legs–except that the last leg of the journey –a ten mile jaunt from the old Felchville Lime Kiln directly west to the town of Tyson–crosses a mountain ridge the map refers to as “The Alps.”

This is not a lie. I crossed the Alps yesterday. But I did so only with enormous difficulty. Last year I more or less scampered up this stretch of pavement. This year at one point I actually had to stop and get off my bike to rest. I did not walk up the mountain, mind. I simply rested for a moment before getting back on to complete the ascent. Still, it was devastating to my psychological well-being. I have not dismounted my bike on a hill since I was a small child attempting to climb the Shepherd Road Hill up out of the Cleveland Metroparks. It was made only slightly less depressing by the fact that these are indeed mountains, and they are indeed called “The Alps.” And there are indeed a couple of brutally steep parts.

Meanwhile, “vacation” has afforded me the time to complete The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, which is the book designated for Lakewood, Ohio’s “Big Read,” which I will tell you about eventually. And I began Steve Martin’s “An Object of Beauty,” on loan and at the recommendation of Liz Maugans. What an incredibly diversified talent that Steve Martin is. And I caught several pan fish: perch, crappies, and bluegill. And so did my daughter Grace and my son Eliot.

That is my story for now. It’s time to get back on my bike and continue my vacation. I hope you enjoy the next six days or so as much as I expect that I will.

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Daniel Dominic, Owner, Ride On Cleveland Pedicabs

If you get to the point in this downtrodden economy that you decide that the only way to find work is to make it yourself, you probably go for something you know. Maybe something no one else is doing.

That made it a pretty clear choice for Dan Dominic to start a pedicab company. For six years, Dominic worked as a messenger downtown.  He and his courier friends were spending their days pedaling around the heart of the city, delivering legal documents and Chinese food—those few business day essentials they haven’t yet figured out how to pass around electronically—to just about every building. And then at night they’d ride some more. They’d meet on Public Square. They’d explore the city’s dark corners.

After 6 years of that, Dominic moved to Austin, Texas to try and start a life there. Might as well give it a shot, right? But it wasn’t long before he moved back to Cleveland. And not too much longer before he decided to put his history to future use by launching Ride On—a taxi service powered by his legs.

Passengers ride in comfort on a padded bench seat in the Pedillac

He recruited some investors. He bought a pair of matching, heavy duty tricycles with a padded bench back seat for passengers. They’ve got head lights, tail lights turn blinkers, hydraulic disc brakes in back. They’re made by an Arizona company called Pedillac. People always ask him how much they cost. He hates that.   

It’s not enough just to have strong legs and a purpose-built ride, though. If you want to make a living pedaling people around the city, you’ve got to know the streets and the army of workers that look after them—the security guys, the police, the front desk clerks, the hotel concierges—in order to move around gracefully. You want to be on good terms.

“It’s not like you’re in your own little location, doing the banking or whatever,” Dominic observes. “You’re out in public, owned by everyone else. You need to be perceived in a positive way all the time.”

“I’m basically putting out my hand and high-fiving people all the way down the block. Saluting police, waving at the cab drivers and security guys. I know everybody.”

 And on a Wednesday evening tour that covers East Fourth Street, Playhouse Square, and the Warehouse District, that proves true as people from all walks of life—police, bank security, custodians, and tourists all smile and wave, some calling by name.

 So far, he works for tips and doesn’t charge fares. He hasn’t been stiffed yet. His plan is to work it this way for a while to figure out what the going rate should be. It’s not like he could just use a traditional taxi-cab fare schedule. The businesses are completely different. Ride On specializes in taking people on scenic routes that ultimately cover short distances: From dinner on East Fourth to drinks afterward in the Warehouse district, or from a show over on Playhouse Square to view the fountains after dark—before heading back to East Fourth for a drink. He works neighborhoods. Traditional taxi drivers aren’t interested in those short jaunts. They want to take you out to the Airport.

Touring at a graceful pace

But people out for a night on the town just want to see the sights or get to the next night spot. He typically gives 10 – 12 rides a night, with people tipping $10 and up. You can hire him to chauffer you around all day if you like. The cost would depend on your plans.

 It’s all about good will, and Dominic couldn’t be more comfortable in the urban street scene. “When you start riding a bicycle for a living, whether you’re delivering pizza or working as a messenger—you’re going to be nervous and it’s going to show. You’re putting yourself out there, and you’re on all the time. Whatever you do, someone will see it, and that person will remember you.”

To get in touch with Ride On Cleveland, book your tour, or hire a pedicab for the day, call 216-214-8985, e-mail RideOnCleveland@gmail.com or go to facebook.com/RideOnCleveland.

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Image Credit: The Lakewood Observer

 I heard once that fast food joints view the smell of their cooking grease as a marketing tool—that if you could smell the French fries and beef burgers cooking, it might draw you in. No doubt some fast food marketing department somewhere has conceived a special kind of “stink pump” to push that smell farther into the neighborhoods in the interest of driving sales. No doubt that person got a raise.

 Whether that’s true or not, I can’t cozy up to the idea that the constant stink of fast food is a good thing for a neighborhood. Neither do I think the addition of litter and noise is a plus.

 And when fast food joints locate in dense residential neighborhoods with traffic lights, turning cars, drive ways, kids on bikes, and people walking, I think there are safety concerns, too. All that applies to McDonalds’ Detroit Avenue proposal, and any other fast food, drive thru possibility that should surface for Detroit or Madison Avenues. Lakewood is not a highway exit.

 According to McDonalds own statements,  nearly 70 percent of the company’s business is done through the drive-thru window. Imagine the numbers of people who leave the fast food parking lot with fries in their lap, a drink in the cup holder and a burger—with a curl of onion dripping ketchup—sliding out the back. As that person drives down Detroit, he has to use the brake. Clutch. Shift. Change lanes. Put the sandwich down. Watch out for the RTA bus. Sip.

 Is that safe?

 In the wake of the McDonalds proposal–  and amid rumors  that Taco Bell might be interested in moving West–Lakewood Ward 1 councilman David Anderson has asked the city planning commission to look into setting some conditions for the operation of drive thru windows as part of a business model on the city’s commercial streets.

 If you want to have your say on the issue, come to the meeting tonight—Thursday, August 4, 2011, at 7 p.m. at City Hall.

 If you care about how the city feels, and whether Detroit and Madison retain their character or lose it to big fast food and drugstore chains, this is a big deal.

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