First Days of Summer

I’m lucky again in that I am done with my grading, have returned to Evanston, and am now able to spend each day with my 20-month-old son. I’ve imposed an email limit to keep from wasting all day on the computer, and have become intimately familiar with the local coffee shops and kids’ parks in our neighborhood. A great form of decompression and battery recharging before ramping up on book research in a few weeks.

Evanston’s no Rome, but it’s pretty nice. Even better, I think since I have been living at moderate altitude the last 4 months (Blacksburg is a 2100 feet), I feel much better running these days.


My precinct in Evanston was horribly organized. I got to the polling site at about 5:45 am for a 6am opening and was ~20th in line. Doors didn’t open until about 6:20, then I didn’t vote until 7am because there was a problem with my precinct’s voting room. Got to know some neighbors, though.

Overdesigning the American Dream

Evanston has been replanning its lakefront parks and tonight will present the proposed re-design. WBEZ had a segment on this during Morning Edition this morning. 848 did a program on it, too.

As far as I can tell, it’s the typical rich city expensive overdesign. Talk about building more structures for the parks and relocating the protective lakeshore boulders out into the lake (estimated price tag: millions). Making Sheridan into a nicer gateway and a transformative green space. And all infused with a pride in process and excitement. Jesus, smell the citizen participation.

Thankfully, we also get word the city is putting up signs and painting sharrows on roads to promote biking. If there’s a change to be made to Sheridan, it’s this relatively inexpensive alteration that should reduce auto speeds and traffic counts rather than a multi-million dollar redevelopment.

Outdoor Clotheslines

Outdoor Clotheslines
Originally uploaded by urbanoasis.

Our next step in cutting the costs of consumption and convenience, while being more energy friendly. This is our summer alternative to hanging wet clothes on our radiators. Next up on our list will probably be a free-standing composter, since we live in an apartment and don’t have any yard.

Any other pretty easy (and probably old-school) ideas for saving money and energy?

Novel Side Project

Like I don’t have enough of those, right?

Northwestern was founded in 1855 in Evanston. Like several schools of the period, they sold perpetual full scholarships to people who gave $100 to the university as a means of raising capital. I recall a controversy highlighted in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few years ago in which a small college had merged a couple times in the intervening century and, when someone produced an aged, brittle certificate attesting to their scholarship to the ancestor college, the administration of the modern college balked (I may research and update this with specifics later). Eventually, some crappy compromise of half-tuition or something similar was worked out, which was totally unsatisfying, in my mind. When you merge with or buy a corporation, you acquire their liabilities as well as their assets.

Anyway, a display near the archives building indicates that 1150 such scholarships were purchased and that the university still honors them, including a student currently at the university. The scholarships have only been used 400 times in the history of the institution.

The project: wouldn’t it be great if I could find the university’s copies of these scholarships, do some genealogical research to find some descendants, and let the families know that one of their kids could have a full ride to Northwestern? It’s not out of the realm of possibility that my research skills could be a major catalyst in changing somebody’s life (in a concrete, immediate fashion, not the usual “I’m making a long-term, incremental difference” way). I’ll keep you posted.

UPDATE: The more that I think about this, this could be a tremendous model project in enabling social mobility (provided I can get access to the documents, the dissemination of which goes against the economic interest of the university). As with all my recent ideas, it will have to be collective and relatively decentralized. Two questions: (1) Who wants in? (2) What are the best tools for coordinating such a project: On the genealogy side? On the communication side? At the risk of thinking everything is a nail, maybe a flickr group could allow me to put up images of all the scholarships, enabling wide access and public participation.

Now, how to deal with the possibility I would be alerting already wealthy people they have free scholarships that their wealthy great-great-great-great-grandparents bought? Hmmm…

What My Life Is Like

I haven’t seen anything on TV in several weeks, if not months. My wife and I are working our way through the decent but not exceptional Grey’s Anatomy while we wait for the library to get seasons 5-7 of West Wing. Unfortunately, I don’t listen to much radio or music either, so I totally missed the State of the Union address last week. Fortunately, I didn’t have to give it much consideration, since America’s Finest News Source reports “White House Quietly Retracts Entire State Of The Union Address.”

I’m thinking of hiring my old roommate Brandon as a consultant to analyze my social life and get me plugged into the Evanston/North Side social scene, the current state consisting of some of my wife’s colleagues. I’ll have to wait until spring to begin implementing any recommendations, though, because it’s freaking cold here and I’m a huge wimp these days.

If anyone wants to read my comments about Greenbelt, MD, in the New York Times, you’re going to be disappointed, because they didn’t make it into the story. If you want to hear a bit about the history of Greenbelt’s postwar development, see my earlier post and HABS report on Springhill Lake. I’ll keep you posted on my next brush with greatness.

New Year, New Projects

This blogger is not too proud (nor too creative) to write the obligatory New Year’s post. This version comes to you from the Evanston apartment I’ll be calling home for the next 3 to 5 years. What were this year’s milestones?

1. Getting married. A tons-of-fun local affair held on Super Bowl Sunday at the Pittsfield Union Grange hall. Terribly stressful, though it turned out fabulous. Wish I wouldn’t have had a bad cold at the time.
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Damn it!

Originally uploaded by Rob Wheatley.

It’s getting to be a habit, this profane exclamation. But I’m so frigging sick of the crappy coffee at Espresso Royale I’m regularly tempted to get coffee at Starbucks when I have a choice. Despite its hipster cred, I don’t find Cafe Ambrosia’s house blend to be very good, either. Starbucks’ and Sweetwaters’ are the only ones I’ve had that pass muster, and that is so sad. (Maybe Zingerman’s is better, which I’ve never had, but I’ve heard mixed reviews). I WANT to support local business, but I don’t even feel Cafe Verde’s brew, and that’s like buying coffee from yourself.

Fortunately, the coffee shop across the street from my place in Evanston has the goods — the coffee has BODY, ie it has multiple layers of taste, none of which are “burned.”

I first acquired my taste for coffee when I lived near Portland, OR, in 2001 and got a job at the Coffee Brake Co., in Aloha. The owner roasted his own beans even though he only had one retail location. The decor was terrible and the location not much better, but that was a great job and I enjoyed the hell out of making coffee drinks and learning about the commodity and preparation process from Ron, the owner.

Anyways, I wonder if there are “Starbucks offset credits” you can buy to make up for the corporate coffee you drink like Al Gore advocates for carbon in An Inconvenient Truth?

Maybe I’ll just have to play some more Great Lakes Myth Society and Chris Bathgate as a sort of local culture penance?

UPDATE: I had some Akire coffee today– the place on Packard near State — that was decent, though crazy expensive at 1.59 a cup.

UPDATE2: Tried Amer’s in the Union — sucked.

UPDATE3: Mujo French Roast at the Duderstadt Center: 5 out of 10. Not much more body than ERC’s house blend, but it doesn’t taste burned.

UPDATE4: Sweetwater’s Sumatra: 7 out of 10. Decent body, ok taste. I just found out you can roast your own with a few guides on the interweb. Frickin’ sweet.

UPDATE5: Zingerman’s house blend: 7.5 out of 10. Body was ok, and you could taste the beans.  I’ve still had way better, eg Caffe Artigiano in Vancouver. [Best. Coffee. Ever.  I want to go back nooowwwwww…]

Out of the Pan and into the NIMBY

Form based zoning
Originally uploaded by urbanoasis.

Damn it. My future home is slightly ahead of my current one in terms of thinking about downtown development, but only slightly. Evanston is currently considering form-based zoning as a means of dealing with density and real estate within the city. Good, right?

Well, when it and design review are used as justification to stop projects for which there is a market, these mechanisms start looking like NIMBY roadblocks to necessary development rather than effective means of managing the built environment  (did I mention the average home sale price in Evanston is half a million dollars?). The Design Review lobby piped up, “whose members expressed grave concerns over its inappropriate height and scale.” They further expressed outrage at the aldermen’s approval of the project, claiming that if allowed to vote, the citizens of Evanston would have risen up and defeated this project. (I honestly question the credentials of the architects in this special-interest group if they endorse the use of the phrase “‘McMansion’ condominiums.” It has about as much basis in reality as “vertical sprawl.” Maybe they should look up what the word “mansion” means.)

This reminds me of Todd Leopold’s frequent complaint about Ann Arbor — people think that the laws of economics don’t apply here. “Supply” and “demand” are just two concepts developers throw around to try to get their projects approved. I generally subscribe to David Sucher’s Three Rules in urban design — build to the sidewalk, make the ground floor visually permeable, and don’t put a parking lot in front of the building. Fewer restrictions are generally better than more, because clever people who are either misguided or motivated by economic self-interest will manipulate those restrictions to try to make sure nothing changes.

A used book store in Evanston I have shopped at a couple of times said the large new project across the street with the parking garage helped his business by (surprise!) bringing more foot traffic by. And that’s what I want; I want used book stores, not short buildings. Whatever we can do in terms of planning to keep Amaranth Books viable and the downtown vibrant should be our responsibility, rather than making sure everything is appropriate scale and that every project would be approved by a majority of the voters. Thank god for the city’s aldermen.