Issue #5

Eld Street Revives!

Eld Street Revives!

Or Does It?

In the spring of 2005 I had just returned from a year at the University of Oregon, and I was relieved to be home. My studies in landscape and urban design, especially a semester spent designing for the town of Bay City, Oregon, had made me newly, keenly aware of the very different relationships people have with landscape, and the ways these ideas are reflected in the built environment. Residents in small western towns like Bay City see the land as a resource and they know it individually – as hunter, logger, fisher, owner, hiker – and so their consequent town-scapes reveal little commonality except for the convenience of adjacency. I experienced Bay City as a disorienting pastiche, a collection of odds and ends with no underlying rationale or organizing principles, and without an expressed collective, civic spirit. In the Midwest where I grew up the built environment sings of community. The responsibility everyone has for public life is eloquently expressed in the the siting of buildings and the activities they contain, in the centrality of parks and green spaces, in cohesive, coherent architectural style1. Even though much of this historic fabric has been undermined by development and sprawl, it is legible here in New Haven, and it forms notions of citizenship as much as it reflects them. My first few weeks home I dreamt repeatedly of New England churches, greens, and town centers, as I re-centered and recovered a part of myself. Of course this is not a new insight about differences of place in the U.S. But my experience of Bay City brought the reality into sharp personal focus, and was the well I drew from as I began a series of community volunteer and political actions to improve conditions in my New Haven neighborhood.  

Once a vibrant and connected neighborhood of mostly Polish, Irish, and Italian immigrants, Eld Street and its environs suffered the usual urban decay precipitated by the rise of suburbia and the construction of federal highways: neighborhoods divided, single family homes chopped into apartments and sold to off-premise landlords, transient populations, increased poverty and crime, and a coincident neglect by the city. Still, when I moved here in 1990, the area was inviting, located as it is near to downtown and the New Haven Green, to Yale University, and to other well-heeled neighborhoods. Much of the housing stock was beautiful if neglected. And we were unique – eleven languages were spoken then on Eld, not counting four variants of English. It seemed an urban place worthy of investment by the city and its residents.


We Begin

The first step was to bring together a group of civilian advocates and actors to conceive a shared vision. In 2006, Eld Street was diverse in age, income, occupation as well as race and nationality, but I knew most of my neighbors. Having my studio at home meant I was around all the time; having a front porch and garden meant many chance encounters and conversations. I slowly realized, though, that not many of my neighbors knew each other. So I produced a few editions of the Eld Street Gazette, (featuring very local news) that I left on doorsteps. I began spending more time on the street too, to help my neighbors make in-person connections. It seemed to work; Eld Street became livelier and friendlier that summer, both intimate and open. To encourage this new, lovely feel of the place, I organized a street wide tag-sale, which brought residents from neighboring streets to Eld, too.

Eventually a core group formed – Rebecca, a vivacious, energetic graduate student;  Helen, the older politically sophisticated and savvy summer visitor, and my husband  Bruce. Our plan to develop and make Eld Street visible as a community and political force began with organizing a block watch group, and a block party. While the block watch group gave Eld Street some visibility, we had little political power. We needed leverage, and Helen knew organizing a much larger group was essential: in politics, attention is paid to leaders. Hence the block party.

The broader gesture of community was emphasized in our flyers advertising the party, but an understated goal was to register voters, and we thought it useful to have campaign representatives there amid the grills, live music, and games. This was the 2008 presidential election cycle and Connecticut had a lively, contested Senate race. Rebecca was in charge of outreach, and a few days before the party date she called us together with some startling news – Ned Lamont himself, upstart candidate for Senate, was coming to Eld Street to campaign. And so he did, bringing Congresswoman Maxine Waters2ABC, NBC, and the Washington Post.

Afterwards we discovered (to our surprise and delight) that the block party had been broadcast live on C-Span.  And City Hall had been paying attention. The reaction was passed on to me later:  “What the hell is going on on Eld Street?!?!??” In the usual way, a political courtship began. I was appointed to the New Haven Ward 9 Democratic Party Committee, the political body responsible for nominating and endorsing candidates for the alderperson seat. Visits from candidates, meet-the-candidate teas for my fellow activists, and joint meetings with sister block watches were arranged, and then negotiations began.

In my conversations with the candidates I was clear about what we wanted – the replacement of decayed sidewalks, buried curbs, and pot-holed paving, along with the removal of many dead trees and stumps. Together these eyesores communicated decline and vulnerability, and opened Eld Street to opportunistic crime. Mail theft, auto theft, and theft from cars were common occurrences; muggings and break-ins happened too.

At the same time the group kept up its profile by attending NHPD Management Team meetings en masse. While long-time attendees and power players did their best to sideline us, numbers talk, and as the Eld Street representative I had leverage to trade my ward committee vote for the goods. One candidate sympathized with our wish list and had the mayor’s ear; if elected he promised to spend monies earmarked for Ward 9 on Eld Street infrastructure his first year, neighboring Bradley Street’s in his second. So I gave him my vote to be the party’s candidate, and he was nominated. Roland Lamar was elected Ward 9 Alder that fall with Eld’s and Bradley Street’s votes.


The Greening of Eld

Promises have to be kept, of course, so we continued our efforts to spotlight Eld. Citizens we met at the police district meetings shared useful strategies and connections; it was here that I first heard about Greenspace.

Greenspace is a program of Yale University Forestry School’s Urban Resources Initiative. URI’s mission is community development (to increase capacity and political capital in underserved populations), and Greenspace is its tree-grant division, a primary tool. Very simply, neighbors come together over environmental stewardship. All of URI’s goals were congruent with ours, and so a small committee formed to apply for a grant and organize a tree-planting group on Eld. 

Chris Ozyck, the director of Greenspace, generously and expertly guided me through the design of a street-wide planting plan that accounted for all the variables, poetic and prosaic: architecture, the larger city context, utility poles and lines, urban environmental conditions, current tree-planting theory, and species attributes. The plan was shared with neighbors, and the great majority were enthusiastic – happy to get a tree, and willing to dig in. Importantly,  Greenspace provided support in articulating the larger vision for our street and neighboring streets that depended on infrastructure replacement and repair. With the organization’s backing I was able to align politicians, city officials, commercial property owners, landlords, and homeowners with our goals.

In the end, significant participation by residents across all demographic categories and the support of a high-profile, popular organization with political juice gave us enough visibility and power, and the following year Eld Street was transformed – first with new sidewalks, curbs, and paving paid for by the city3and then with the addition of twenty-three new trees, planted by Eld Street volunteers.


Down in the Dirt

It was not a smooth process, though. Midway through the politicking a Democratic Party bigwig and friend of a resident (whom I’ll call Suzy) put pressure on one of her employees – another resident – to change Greenspace’s design. Mrs. BigWig instructed her employee to campaign for a design that reflected Suzy’s personal taste4Chris Ozyck’s responding crusade-to-persuade was successful in safeguarding most of the original plan – all except for the eighty lineal feet in front of the apartment block of Suzy “Do-You-Know-Who-I-Am?!?’’5 Jones. 

Of course, it’s hard to make people see past their own noses to the bigger contexts of streetscape and cityscape. The average person is oblivious to factors that go into the design of space, especially at larger scales – that one-way streets are axes and have focal points, for example, or that planting patterns have meaning for navigation and safety. People are mostly ignorant of architectural considerations too, as well as the practical requirements of infrastructure and horticulture. (Nevertheless the average person very much appreciates the aesthetics of good design – evidence is everywhere in copies.) People are also incapable of analyzing existing conditions that are real constraints on urban landscape design – details like street length, width and path – and are unable to assess natural factors like astronomy: most have no understanding of the Sun’s path (let alone its seasonal variations) and therefore wrongly imagine light and shadow effects. The average person is, however, a bandwagon jumper, and lover of groupthink. In New Haven, environmental goals are easy to sell, so these were emphasized as the basis of the streetscape design. Which is not to say the environment wasn’t considered and accommodated, but as one of many factors on parity with all the others. Most importantly, the original design was holistic, like a quilt – thread and fabric arranged in a pattern that connected Eld from one end to the other, one side to the other.

And this is what was lost when three cherry trees were ultimately planted in front of the brick apartments. The result was not as cohesive/coherent a landscape as first imagined nor as tight a community, owing to the discord generated by Suzy and her minion. While most of the street is lovelier – a nice balance of attractive homes accented by a well-curated collection of trees that protect and adorn in all seasons – the cherry trees do nothing to showcase what could be seen as reasonable copies of brownstone architecture. Rather than screen the awkward fourth floor additions and shade the units from direct summer sun, the short dense trees are a visual barrier, obscuring the only lovely architectural features of the building, its front steps, doorways and entrances. An unfortunate choice that will persist, unfortunately.


Our Work Continues

Nevertheless there were many other positive outcomes and repercussions. Other block watches and Greenspace groups formed within the geographic area easily recognized as our neighborhood. The Upper State Street Merchant’s Association, a consortium of nearby business owners, revived, and was successful in extending the Town Green Clean Team’s purview to commercial streets adjoining ours. Another civic-minded resident from the area created seeclickfix, a website designed to hold city departments accountable by transparency. Not least, crime dropped and property values climbed (although well-advertised security systems may have contributed). And unsurprisingly, Roland’s political career took off; he is now a Connecticut State Legislator, first in line for Rosa De Lauro’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Most importantly, an Eld Street parent with two school-aged daughters expanded on our civic work, becoming an advocate for the neighborhood’s public grade school. Britt’s efforts on behalf of our community is another great story of effective civil volunteerism, worthy of a longer retelling. But the results demand mention here. In New Haven there is always maneuvering and jockeying (underhanded and above board) for the privilege of attending its one excellent school, which is out-of-district for Eld Street’s (and most of New Haven’s) children. Rather than move or finagle, Britt went to work. Her level-headed campaign to discover, share, and build on the strengths of our neighborhood school coincided with the construction of a long-needed new building, and established the bona fides of East Rock Community Magnet School. ERCMS is now ranked a top-tier performer.


Fault Lines

It has been almost nine years as I write this history, and we still consider our efforts successful. The gains mentioned above are real, persistent, and in many ways we are the same. There are still Polish and Italian old-timers, students and workers, young and old, and at least eight languages spoken here. Our three adjoining block watches have acted collectively against neighborhood threats, like the time we lobbied against a change to resident-only parking restrictions. But the vibe is different. People don’t hang as much, aren’t as friendly, or as open. You used to feel the ‘we’ on Eld Street; now it’s more of an I, more of an us, more of an us-and-them. There are cliques. An easy target for blame is the rise in number of professional couples, hinting at a dislocating, gentrifying elitist culture. A little bit might be my fault too; after the big dig was completed I retired, exhausted, from an active, public role, without considering what came next.

I think there is more to the story, though. The fractures now visible have older, regional  cultural, and historical roots. They have to do with immigration and changed attitudes about it. Our work paved them over, but the fault zones are deep and tectonic. They are expressed in the aggressively competitive northeast gestalt, and reinforced by the shift from a melting pot ethos to one of multi-culture.

I told the story of self-important Suzy as an interlude, but it was not an isolated event.  There were many more reactions and responses to our activism that I read as inexplicably contrary and hostile. My goal was a bigger we – a group large enough to wield political influence and shape our neighborhood together, but it never happened.

Instead there was resistance. Neighboring streets set up block watches and Greenspace groups in competition. There were flyers, signs, even websites vying for bragging rights and differently from us, attention for the new organizers, who wanted to win a game very different from the one I had been playing. My work had been noticed, but for me this notice was a means to an end, not a goal. I wanted to build a commons, not a name for myself, and certainly not a platform for my personal gain. My goal was our control of our communal urban landscape, for our common good, and my method was simple: strength in numbers. For the new players, however, success was measured in competitive terms: “We can do what you do, we do it better.” “We planted more trees than you planted.” “Our block watch has more members than yours. Our block party is superior.” “We’re bigger than you are, we’re better than you are, we’re more important”.  At its most ridiculous the petty rivalry degenerated into a vicious fight over who was allowed to email whom. No doubt you see the psychological truths behind these reactionary efforts: the aggressive ‘I’ underlying the purported we, the claim of importance and power as badges, and the gross insecurity at the root of it all.

There may be other causes invisible to me: sociological (upper limits on the size of cohesive human groups, e.g.) or political (party hacks deliberately sowing discord and division) or personal (someone out to hurt me). But the psychological still holds: competition comes from insecurity, and copying, while at first tribute and admiration, always ends in opposition and dislike6.



I’ve reflected for a long time about the incidence and prevalence of this kind of insecurity here in the northeast. My initial supposition was that it correlated with successive waves of immigration. In her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom Amy Chua lays out the case that first generation parents push their children hard to succeed for this very reason; they are insecure in a new culture and they want their children to feel at home. Many different immigrant groups in close proximity, as here on the coast, might then only intensify feelings of rootlessness and lead to protective assertions and aggressions that divide rather than unite. 

I would have left it there but for a profoundly revealing letter Bruce unearthed at the New Haven Museum, our local historical society. It shows that what it meant to be a citizen on Eld Street was once different. Here is an excerpt:

These are people united in civility, in civic values, in American-ism. They downplay differences of culture in deference to commonly shared values. That is, after all, why they came to this country. They did not come here to be Polish- or German- Americans, Irish- or Italian- Americans. They came here to be simply American. They were happy to blend their culture in with all of the others, watching bemusedly as some practices were adopted while others stayed in the home. Existing societal rules regarding dress, speech, and public behavior were willingly adopted. Such conformity and humility affirmed the commons. A public self was a vote for the greater we.  

The non-urban Midwest where I grew up is still this way, as am I. My closest neighbors and friends feel the same too, even though they are from such disparate places as northern California, Ghana, Germany, the southern U.S., and Wisconsin. Despite our geographies we share a belief in the commons that we assert as a civic value equal to if not greater than individuality. We are neighbors first; we are the neighborhood. We take in each other’s mail; we choose house colors together; we garden for everyone. We share chores, tools, and our children. Our politics, religions, and customs may be different, but they are un-flaunted and secondary; we share and express them closely so we are not set apart. We emphasize our sameness, and we are secure in each other. We are.

Overall in the northeast, however, identity politicking has displaced the sense of public self that elevated a shared culture. Difference is a value7. Audio and visual disruptions to the we assault us daily, as people proclaim their proclivities. Display culture is now the default; badges are everywhere. In all the noise it is difficult to recognize ourselves in others or to feel recognized. And so each of us is a little less secure, a little more uncomfortable and wary, more aggressive and less open. How much better and more mature if we instead (and again) paid homage to our sameness. This is precisely how the gay community campaigned for and achieved acceptance – door-to-door encounters to inform and re-mind: “You know us, we’re just like you.” 

There is evidence from biology to support the kind of community we value here on Eld Street.  Longevity and health directly derive from social cohesion, and are reduced by living among strangers who only assert me-my-I, or a contrary, narrower, rival we8.

I am happier in the commons and in New Haven I struggle to belong, as do my friends.  We talk a lot of leaving – when we retire, when the girls start high school, when house values rise. We know a better way, and we are disheartened by people with impulses that rend our cherished fabric. It will be a shame if what we have made ceases to be. Our only real hope is our children, who have watched us – as we – and who, as they grow, take over the stitching that keeps Eld Street a larger cloth.

Eld Street Gazette
Block Party broadcast live on C-Span





Red Paper Quilt & Orange Paper Quilt1
by Deborah Zervas.

These two pieces were first exhibited with the  “Transparency” exhibit at Willoughby Wallace Memorial Library
January 2003

Exhibit Info

The Genius of a Place

The Genius of a Place

Bruce has been lamenting something for quite a long while – the loss of the local. He remembers vividly the differences encountered town to town, as a boy in Denora, Pennsylvania; Holden, West Virginia; and Mayfield, Ohio. The stories of his youth are rich with details that put you in those places and nowhere else. Here is his remembrance of Holden:

Holden sits at the head of an Appalachian valley, nestled between two hollows (‘hollers’) that extend in opposite directions. Island Creek (the coal company’s eponym) flows out of the western hollow, through town and the valley until it empties into the Guyandotte River five miles away in Logan. The densely forested mountainsides rise in easy slopes or drop steeply according to the rock they are made of; the hollows reach and dwindle between them like spindly fingers. The three mountains that enclose Holden are capped with exposed rock formations sculpted over time by the elements and are named for their shapes. Massive Tank Rock tops the eastern ridge. Hole-in-the-Head is part of an extended ridge line to the west; as you look that way from town daylight streams from its pass-through. Umbrella Rock is the fossil-ridden, mushroom shaped behemoth that presides over the far side of middle ridge, unseen from the town below. An abandoned telephone pole stood a ways up on the south slope facing town, but it went mostly unnoticed each year until December, when the company constructed a lighted Christmas tree, using the pole as the trunk. The whole of it – mountains, hollows, creek – was my playground to discover and explore on bike and on foot, and I did with my friends, every daylight hour.  I remember finding fossil imprints of ancient marine life embedded in Umbrella Rock and pondering the ocean that had left them in such a place.

Driving west from Logan you arrive in Holden after taking a left to cross the bridge over the creek. Holden was very compact, squeezed into shape by the mountains and water, but it was very lively as the headquarters town of the company, then in its prime. On the right, a three story brick building housed the company store and offices. Across the road a single-story building held a movie theater with a marquee, and the beauty salon and town drugstore. The drugstore was typical of the time with a soda fountain and lunch counter, and sold everything from medication to toys. Mr. Reynolds ran the store and served as pharmacist and soda jerk too. I spent a good many afternoons at that counter, eating hot dogs and drinking vanilla cokes with my friends. A small triangular park lay beyond the store, nicely landscaped with flower beds planted and kept by the Holden Garden Club. The Garden Club’s members were mostly Holden’s womenfolk, who also tended to the flowers at the foot of the Welcome to Holden sign outside of town. The Catholic church faced the park a block beyond the drugstore. We attended mass there, and many children took piano lessons in its basement. As you passed the church the road curved left and became a residential street that led to the school, up the eastern hollow.

If you were to go straight on the road from Logan (instead of forking left over the bridge to town) the western hollow lay ahead. Just beyond the bridge a long narrow lawn lined with ancient sycamore trees – too big to climb, even then – stretched between the road and the creek. The lawn ended at the start of Beebe Street. Beebe Street was really an abandoned rail bed with sidewalks on each side lined with small company houses that faced each other across it. The tracks had been dismantled long before when the coal seams in the upper mines were worked out, and there were barriers at either end to disallow cars and other vehicles. I lived at the far end on the southern side. The road from town skirted behind the houses across from mine and continued up the hollow. A gravel alley backed the houses on my side, and beyond the alley Island Creek flowed at the bottom of a of the steeply rising mountainside.

The one mile walk to school took me through town each day. All of my friends and the other kids of Holden attended the town’s three-story brick schoolhouse which housed two classes each of grades 1-8. The stately three-story brick and stone structure sat on the hillside above the road and had grand curved stone stairs to carry us up from the street to its pronounced entrance. While not greatly embellished the school was the most distinctive building in town. The movie theater, salon, and drugstore were inviting and pleasant, but the company buildings were plain and unremarkable.

On school days I left the house with my older sister and we walked along Beebe Street collecting friends along the way. Two doors down, my best friend David Copley. Three doors down, Patty Turner, my sister’s best friend, and then, Albert Young (the preacher’s son), Linda Long (whose older brother Randy played drums in a band that practiced on the front porch. I remember “Incense and Peppermint” …)  At the last house we picked up another good friend, David Mayo.

The sidewalk led to the abandoned railroad trestle spanning the creek, and we crossed there. Just before the trestle on the right was a huge tree where David Mayo and I built a many-level treehouse one summer.

Across the trestle the sidewalk began again and continued to the town center, past the company store parking lot on the left where, on weekends, we made villages out of the appliance boxes left for us (a perk of knowing the store manager, who was my friend Keith’s dad). The company “clubhouse”, used mainly by visiting executives, topped a steep rise to the right. The ground leveled enough beyond the clubhouse to form an oddly-shaped makeshift ball field, with left field sloping up to the clubhouse, and we picked up games there at every opportunity, the field’s irregularities notwithstanding. The fenced public tennis court served as our home plate backstop. Other times we actually used the tennis courts to play tennis.

Across town and past the church we came to the neighborhood at the foot of the other hollow, and there we collected Ralph Brown (whose father taught wood shop), red-headed Tommy Harmon, and Tasha Taylor too.

Report card days were ones to remember because of Mr. Reynolds at the drugstore. I’m not sure if he owned the store, or if the company did, but everyone in town knew it only as Reynolds Drug Store, and that’s down to the man he was.

Mr. Reynolds was a kind middle-aged man whom all of the town’s children knew and liked. He was fond of us too. He provided Principal with coupons for free milk shakes, to hand out to all honor roll students. This turned report card day into a fateful day of reckoning. Each and every time anticipation built up morning through afternoon, even more as I went to the office to pick up my report card. “Did I make it? YESSSSS! MILK SHAKE! I mean, Honor Roll”. When the final bell rang at the end of classes the honor roll kids were off in a flash, running full speed to the drugstore to collect our rewards. But no matter how fast I ran I could never catch Keith or Barry – I was always third in line.

Holden was a place made by people’s relationships with/to each other, and in response to a distinct geography. How unlike today’s world where the siting (and use) of new buildings reflects only commercial interests – adjacency to consumers and transportation networks, or tax-advantaged land. We go to CVS because it’s on the way home, rather than visiting Mr. Reynolds, whom we know and who knows us. And we drive everywhere, which means we have few opportunities to experience the small scale – few spontaneous interactions, few smell-the-roses moments, little up-close and personal. Walking knowledge of a place is finely grained and rich, in especial contrast to the mental maps we make from motor vehicle navigation.1 It makes for a different kind of attachment to the earth beneath our feet and to each other. What strikes me most in Bruce’s recollections are the accounts of play: wide-ranging, unfenced and un-shepherded, opportunistic and proprietary. He came to know the world deeply and on his own terms, while at the same time making Holden with his tracks and traces and leavings.

In small towns (and discrete city neighborhoods) family-owned eateries and stores were layered in and woven together with local recipes, crafts, and traditions, regional building materials, language dialects and accents, customs and music, indigenous flora and fauna, and the-people-who-stayed. Together they made unique places. Places like these could be claimed, owned, remembered and embodied – they got under your skin as you lived there, and they stayed with you after you left, enlarging your sense of the world. Place was a part of you just as you were a part of place. Then, too, discovering the alternatives and possibilities presented by other places was an impetus for travel. Bruce took me to Holden thirty years after he left to share his remembered place, now a part of me, too. Authentic experiences of the outside world predated the iconic, which is a capture and promotion of authenticity that in fact undermines it.

Nowadays there are only artifacts (and stores that specialize in selling them to us, hawking the remembrance of place). Geographic fabrics are frayed, undone, even as tourism economies promote unique identities, and farmers’ markets spring up everywhere. You may recognize some of the remnants we have found and known throughout our lives. Bluestone paving and curbs, brownstone buildings, and clapboard siding in the northeastern U.S. are features derived from indigenous resources (timber and bedrock), as are limestone fenceposts in Kansas, and the limestone and brick architecture of Indiana University. (Indiana building-stone is renowned.) Here in Connecticut the Merritt Parkway passes under a series of bridges (constructed in the1930’s) unlike any I have seen elsewhere1 Much of our local masonry is credited to Italian-American craftsmen and displays proprietary techniques and stylings honed and passed-down for generations. In Seattle, residential landscape style still reflects traditions and aesthetics introduced by Japanese caretakers, who found the local climate familiar and welcoming to their horticultural expertise and preferences. But for the most part local flavor is disappearing and/or homogenizing, original stylings having given way to standardized materials and methods.

And so everywhere looks more and more the same, as the tokens of mass culture embed themselves and accumulate, as memes spread, as people refer to the away rather than the here, as people stop inventing and instead import, as the distances between us shorten both really and virtually. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, ‘there is no there there’ anywhere anymore2. Even contemporary attempts to revive place – Main Street restorations, adaptations and reuses, New Urbanism, retro stylings – often miss the mark, as they replicate each other, rather than grow organically from distinctive soils3.

This is more than nostalgic fondness for the times and places of our youths. Ethnographers are still discovering homegrown and isolate cultures in our midst, documenting the one-of-a-kind outcomes that result from the longterm inward and iterative interactions of people and geography4. Randall Hester wrote of the attachment to place that is inscribed by daily living5, and the urbanist Jane Jacobs recognized and asserted the value of places made by small scale actions and changes, moderated by people living together as neighbors6. Landscape (and other) designers look for and pay heed to these expressions and manifestations. We have a term for the spirit of places thus made, so well represented by small-town America of the twentieth century: genius loci, which simply means genius of place. My teacher Anita Van Asperdt instilled in me the necessity of and desire for knowing a place deeply, before designing. She also provided methods and tools to uncover and appreciate genius loci: sensory mapping, art-making, and encountering people informally, while they create place in the everyday. Local histories reveal a lot, too, about persistent values and touchstones of identity.

I took her imperative to heart as I developed a proposal for Bay City, Oregon. Bay City was a place unlike any I had ever known, and I spent many, many hours there discovering and learning, before I began a design for the empty lot in the center of town. Here is a record of my experiences as I got to know the town.

  • BC-bldg-OPT
  • BC-box-OPT
  • BayCity-4pc-collage-OPT

What I found in Bay City:

* a desire to welcome visitors * teens who liked BMX biking * a beautiful park * a slide on a hill that sloped towards the creek * The Landing restaurant * The Art Center *  lovely houses * the namesake bay, silted-in and separated from the town by a state highway  * a variety of building setbacks and orientations * overgrown gardens and verges * an unused tennis court * people on horseback * patriots * rhythms and pathways * moss * an RV campground * a dying timber industry (with no replacement) * frugality * cloudy rainy weather * no sidewalks * the sound of speeding wheels on asphalt * a forest * hidden places * open spaces * independence * community *

Next:  a proposal for Bay City


Bay City

Bay City

This is the presentation I made to residents and officials of Bay City, Oregon officials, in response to their request for a re-design of a vacant lot in the middle of the town.

Proposal for Bay City Town Square and Patterson Creek Park

“Bay City needs a place to welcome visitors, and celebrate community.  It also needs places for recreation – walking, running, biking, playing – and others for informal gatherings like picnics and group events. This proposal imagines a new lower park, a redesigned upper park, and a new town square as places for residents and guests that will also identify Bay City as a small unique town.

As a visitor both to Bay City and the west coast, it took some time for me to discover and know the town. Traditions of building and community that are familiar to me are not present here, and I struggled to uncover the meaning behind the built environment. My initial confusion is expressed in the exploratory art work I made. What I have since learned is that an individual relationship with the land is most important to people, whether as hunter, farmer, fisher, hiker or landowner.  The problem to be solved, then, is how to express community and common identity in a place so individualistic in its orientation and organization.

My suggestion for the empty lot is to define a central town square that clearly and physically marks the heart and spirit of this community, especially to the visitors that come to (and will come to) Bay City’s most public events.  Patterson Creek Park becomes the place used mostly and most frequently by the people who live in Bay City.

I see the square as a seasonal place, used mostly in summer, and into the fall.  The rest of the year it will be less active, but not entirely empty, as it will hold the memories of the events that happen there.  The red maples, as they change color, mark the end of the season, encouraging reflection and remembrance;  the crocus blooming in the lawn in February anticipate all the fun and new memories to be made in the coming year.  In this way the seasons highlight community and celebrate the spirit of Bay City.”

Site Map (town square and park in green)

Patterson Creek Park

The park is divided naturally into two areas by the creek. The upper park features active recreation spaces, while the lower park is quieter, with places for gatherings large and small.  A series of accessible pressed gravel walking (and running) paths pass through and connect the upper and lower parks; these paths are slightly incised, to screen them and preserve the wonderful open feel.  No bikes on these paths!

Features of the Lower Park :

  • Removal of the existing asphalt road/RV parking lot, to provide more open recreation and gathering space in the sun
  • New pavilion with fireplace for picnics and other community gathering
  • Parking alongside park edges
  • Informal and temporary overflow event camping only. This preserves the park for town use most of the time.
  • New bathroom, with showers for campers


Features of the Upper Park:

  • Bike jump track, somewhat secluded, for young enthusiasts, with an adjacent “sitting hill”  for their friends and fans 
  • Separate bike path for BMXers to get to their jumps
  • Reconfigured playground, with swings facing the creek, and pine bark mulch for a soft fall
  • New bathroom close to the playground
  • Resurfaced basketball courts
  • horseshoe pits
  • New park entrance on the square, to better connect the park to downtown
  • New entrance on  3rd  Street,  to connect the park to the bay, important to the future development of the waterfront 


Town Square
The square can be imagined as a Clearing in the Forest. This is the place where Bay City welcomes visitors to its annual,public events, and where special community events take place.

  • This special public space is marked by a frame of red maples, that line the streets across from the square.  This announces to residents and especially to visitors that the square is an important place, and that special things happen here
  • Pavilions line two sides of the square, providing stall space for weekly markets, festivals, and food vendors as appropriate to various events.  There are benches and lights alongside.
  • Pressed gravel surfaces and walkways allow circulation within, around, and through the square
  • Outdoor stage at the south end for music concerts and theater
  • Central lawn (well drained!) provides a seating area for festival, musical and theatrical events.  The lawn is interplanted with crocus, which bloom in early spring, before the lawn can be used, and die back before the first mowing in summer.  Bright color in a cloudy rainy time!
  • A remodeled restaurant, (The Landing) with new north windows that face the square (for people watching), a new side entrance, highly visible from the square and the street.  This new restaurant entrance helps define the southeast corner as an important entrance to the square, especially for visitors arriving by car.  Also added to The Landing is an outside eating area on the south side of the building, the sunniest place
  • A new park entrance off the square
  • Trees on the south end of the square, for windbreaks
  • Accessible pressed gravel  “sidewalks” under the Maples across the streets from the square, that also connect to the new park entrance
  • Parking alongside the square.  This can be parallel or diagonal parking, but not front-in.  Front-in parking greatly interferes with pedestrian circulation.  For this reason, parking in front of the Art Center is not recommended; accessible parking can be accommodated on site, and other parking for the Art Center would happen along the square. 


When I returned to New Haven from Oregon I dreamt intensely the first few nights. Over and over the spires and steeples of New England churches and their associated greens and commons passed by. I was home, where the importance of community – one of my most cherished values – is easily read in the buildings and landscape.

This new understanding led me to organize my neighborhood, and advocate for its revitalization, as a personal quest to live what I believe – the effort undertaken as a citizen and resident. As a designer, though, I struggle with my role. Was I correct in my assessment of Bay City? And was my design appropriate for its residents? How broadly is my professional expertise defined? Where is the line that separates my personal preferences and cultural milieu from my expert design knowledge and understanding of the human realm? What I strive for professionally is to be a creative problem solver – to listen to my clients’ desires and needs and to design places that effect the changes and purposes they intend, perhaps in ways they never imagined. The example of Bay City is never far from my mind.


Funk It Up

Funk It Up

The field of landscape architecture covers design at many scales: residential, park, campus and city, and region also, especially if you consider planning as design. (I do.) One focus of mine is community design, an aspect of urban design. My work concerns questions of participation: What is the appropriate level and kind of citizen involvement? What are appropriate roles for experts in a democracy? How can accord be achieved in diverse communities? Following is a report on the first of my public space experiments in Hamburg, Germany, that explored these questions.1


In the summer of 2009, I attended a two-week-long urban design workshop in Wilhelmsburg, Germany, a river island neighborhood of Hamburg. Sponsored by Hafencity University, the goal of the International Summer School was to create a plan for Wilhelmsburg that would improve livability and develop the public realm. Students of architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, and planning from Russia, Italy, Germany, and the U.S. worked and stayed in Wilhemsburg during the workshop.

The specific aims of the workshop were to work with/engage the community, try promising findings on site, assess contemporary practices in the fields of planning and urban design, and examine planning and urban design curricula in this light. To achieve these objectives and the larger community design goals, it was essential to realize a high level of international and intercultural cooperation.

This study team identified one key concern: the lack of an integrated community on the island. People originally from Germany, Turkey, Russia, Portugal, Spain, and Ghana self- segregate residentially and socially in Wilhelmsburg, and are collectively separate again from the city of Hamburg and in other important spatial and economic dimensions.

Our biggest hurdles as planners were to promote conversation about Wilhelmsburg’s future both with and among the diverse groups, and to better connect the island to the greater city. These were no small tasks.

While we identified diversity as the predominant characteristic of the island in all of its aspects—quality and use of space, culture, and scale—we determined that this was both challenge and asset. New, creative solutions are frequently a product of such a mix, even when dialogue is problematic.

To address the diversity conundrum, we devised many small hypothetical actions that could add function to one-use spaces in the community. Our goal with these actions was to increase the mix of users and promote interaction and dialogue that would spark further, larger actions and interactions within and beyond Wilhelmsburg. We called our proposed actions “Funken” (sparks), and named the consequent transformational chains of actions and interactions “FunkenFlut” (flood of sparks). From this hypothetical action master plan, we designated several small “funken” for the initial experiment in Wilhelmsburg that were appropriate in scale, time, and means for the workshop.

We looked for public spaces that people necessarily used in common. Our chosen sites were a neighborhood laundry, a universally used bus line, and a men’s gym. We also identified five areas of universal human concern and interest—music, community, nature, health, and goods—and designed experiments related to them: music on the bus, gym in the park, a “barter box” (receptacle for exchange of goods), and a sidewalk cafe.

With one important distinction our method was akin to art intervention, the use of art outside the art world to change an existing condition. Initially we kept our purpose hidden, but quickly realized that sharing the purpose with the community was itself an important (planning) interaction that better created capacity for change. So our final, and most successful, experiment at the laundry was open and transparent.

To create a new public space at the laundry, we brought with us everything necessary for a sidewalk cafe, and set the items up inside the facility and then outside its entrance on Georg-Wilhelm-Strasse. The research team sat at a table, drank coffee, and was available to interact with employees, patrons, and passers-by. At the café, many people spoke with us and expressed their interest and support for street-side casual gathering places, including individuals walking by, the barber next door, and the formerly hostile laundry manager who changed his tune when he saw the positive community response. This indicated to us that informal public gathering spaces were in short supply and welcome, and that adding function to existing places was an effective, appropriate design response.

Also significant for our purposes were two upscale actions outside the experimental space that were sparked by this one small funk. First, local resident Ghanaian immigrants accepted an invitation to attend a ISS sponsored neighborhood party happening that Friday, bringing their drums for a jam session with the hired band—with great results. Second, a HafenCity University faculty member who was very familiar with the district reported that the day after WaschPlus’ debut, tables and chairs were outside another business establishment across the street from the laundry. She had never seen them before.

While these results of experimentally activating these specific spaces and sparking dialogue are few and small, they are not inconsequential. Importantly, they point to the efficacy of real time interventions as a legitimate on-site data gathering instrument for planning decisions. The questions that can be answered with this technique are: What does the community want and need? How will the community members respond? Is there community consensus? Can it be developed? Which design solutions are workable, worthy, acceptable? Can spaces be transformed?

We hope to report on and encourage other such experiments in the future.

One possibility is to continue this work in Germany. Andrea Merkel’s remarks concerning the cultural separateness of Turkish immigrants throughout German society highlight the condition we noticed in Wilhemsberg. Funk-like actions at a larger scale may be an appropriate and effective response, with music as the medium. Because musicians are frequently the first explorers of other cultures, ambassadors of their own, and creators of new, hybrid forms, they are a logical choice to spark dialogue across cultures. There are examples worldwide of new musical forms presaging larger cultural integration – American jazz is one – but most relevant here is the popularity in Germany of Shantel’s Disco Partizani pop music – a Russian/disco/German pop blend. This suggests a readiness for cross-cultural acceptance that musical events (on the scale of festivals or soccer games) may jumpstart and facilitate.

  • laundry new
  • bus
  • barter box
  • party


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