Monday, November 19, 2007

Brady Street Bike Lanes?

A friend who bikes a lot to get around recently put to me this proposition: Brady Street desperately needs bike lanes.

Brady Street, looking east

How're they going to get them? I immediately asked. Simple, came the answer: get get rid of the street parking.

The merchants will never, ever go for it, I said, and with good reason: businesses thrive on that kind of easy, short-term, highly visible parking. Parking doesn't have to be physically close, but it has to be percieved as close, easily accessible and easily found.

But then I thought about it further. Brady does get a lot of bike traffic already; it's at the core of Milwaukee's most bikeable neighborhood. How much would that increase by if it weren't so narrow and intimidating? Would it perhaps be so bad to sacrifice parking on one side of the street? Would the loss be compensated by an increase in bike and other foot-based traffic?

FYI, I count about 30 parking spaces on the north side of Brady, east of Humbolt; and roughly the same number west of Humbolt. Would 60 short-term parking spots be an acceptable loss?

Brady Street, looking east from Humboldt

It's hard for me to be completely objective. When I ride Brady Street, I'm usually going nearly the same pace as traffic -- sometimes faster. When you're keeping up with the cars, it's easy to justify taking a lane, and the moving cars don't seem so intimidating when you're going nearly the same speed. It's more important to take the lane, too. At those speeds, getting hit by the opening door of a parked car ("doored") could be fatal. So I've never worried much about a lack of bike lanes.

Lots of other people ride more slowly, however, and to them the cars are whizzing past at breakneck speed. Either that, or they're stuck behind the bicyclist, poking along at 10 miles an hour, wishing there was some chance to pass. Bike lanes would reduce or eliminate this problem.

Having lanes on one side of the street would also reduce by half a biker's chance of getting doored.

Brady Street, looking west

On the minus side, the perception of a wider street would inevitably lead to faster-moving traffic. One reason I can keep up with traffic on Brady is that the cars are only going 25 mph or so, sometimes less. That's about the fastest speed that feels safe in Brady Street's narrow confines. Widen the street and the safest perceived speed will rise, and actual speeds with it. This would in turn degrade the slow-moving, pedestrian-scaled ambiance that makes Brady Street so appealing to begin with, the physical scale that makes it seem like it'd be a good place to ride a bike -- a far more damaging loss than the elimination of a few dozen parking spots.

I had a professor once who made the point that pedestrian malls are only a good idea when a place is so crowded that there's no more room for vehicles. He noted that if any street in Milwaukee might be headed that way, it's Brady -- but it had a long way to go before it hit that point. I'd say it still has a long way to go before cutting out a lane of traffic would have more positive than negative results.

Brady Street, looking west

On a related side note -- those traffic-calming sidewalk bump-outs aren't doing Milwaukee cyclists any favors. I live in dread fear of hitting one of those things dead-on and going flying over the handlebars.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Highland Park - Not a huge loss.

Old news, this one, but I wanted to mention it anyway -- the old Highland Park public housing towers at 17th Street and W. Juneau are history, demolished over the summer.

Highland Park, then

Highland Park, now

Is there terribly much to regret, even for an avowed Mid-Century Modern fan such as myself?

These cylinder-shaped structures, dating from 1967, weren't especially pleasing to the eye, apart from their precast concrete panels with their quirky incised geometric design. They were part of a superblock, a limited-access space breaking up the street grid. They have no relationship with anything around them.

The buildings' primary purpose has already been supplanted by the new Highland Gardens building, a mid-rise structure. The towers had been largely emptied out by attrition.

Was there anything good about them? Umm..... well. Though isolated on their Modernist towers-in-the-park lot, they might have provided more density to the area than most of the surrounding housing, which is distinctly suburban in design. Much of the entire neighborhood, in fact, appears to have been destroyed at some point and rebuilt with a suburban ethos, leading to vast, empty, forbidding streets that serve as little more than conduits for west-bound commuters after work.

But, new small single family houses and an expanded street grid will replace the towers and various other public housing buildings. The street grid expansion is particularly heartening, coming as it is to a neighborhood that's long been rendered placeless by suburban models of development. It will reconnect these blocks to the rest of the city, and expand options for travelers within and passing through the area.

- Aerial view of the towers at
- Sierra Club report on the new homes
- Undoing 'urban renewal' at Highland Park - Business Journal article

Monday, November 05, 2007

The FREAKIN' Pabst, Man

It'd take a hard, horrid person to dislike the Pabst Theater. It's a magnificent and intimate venue, lovingly restored, carefully maintained, integral to the history and culture of Milwaukee, and host an unending stream of terrific shows by top-notch artists. It just killed me when I had to miss Lucinda Williams and Susan Tedeschi on successive nights a while back.

Pabst Theater with City Hall

But. Milwaukee, do you ever get the feeling the Pabst and Riverside are kinda talking down to you?

There's just... something incredibly annoying about the whole style and tone of their ongoing ad campaign of the last two years or so. Something about the random multiple font sizes drifting all over the ads. Something about the corny, slightly-too-enthused descriptions of performers ("the beret-wearing singer-songwriter who looks like she just walked out of a Jack Kerouac novel"). Something about having the famous hit song titles floating around randomly in the newspaper ads. Something about having poor Bruce Winter read these ads over and over again on WUWM.

It's like they're certain we've never heard of any of these people, and will only be persuaded to go if we hear gushing, simply-worded acolades from the advertisers. It's like they don't trust us.

I dunno. Maybe it works! Maybe it sells tickets. Maybe most potential concert-goers really don't have any idea who Rikki Lee Jones or Josh Rouse are. But still... don't you occasionally feel like we're being regarded as a bunch of uncultured rubes?

Also, the emphasis in "the freaking Pabst, man!" should be on "Pabst", not "freaking". Don't people look at what they paste on their buildings??

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Great Gray Zone

Came across an old entry in my personal journal, from before I started this blog, and found it of some interest. From May 15, 2006:

I spent Tuesday evening driving all over northwestern Milwaukee. The city expands for many miles in that direction, the only corner of its rectanglular boundaries that hasn't been bitten off by some other municipality. The shift into suburbia is slow and gradual indeed, measurable in tiny increments of decreasing density and increasing yard size.

The Great Gray Zone

I don't even have a real name for the kind of development that permeates those endless blocks. It's old suburbia, the kind now known as "inner ring" -- developed between the World Wars, or in the boom years immediately after the second one. It's more spread out than the older streetcar suburbs where I like to make my home (St. Louis's Central West End, West Philly, and now Milwaukee's East Side). But it's not the endless, faceless sprawl of modern suburbia, either.

The Great Gray Zone

The buildings of commercial strips found at major intersections still come out to the street, still work to establish major intersections as places instead of just real estate. The houses still have some relationship to each other. The street wall is lower, wider, and less defined, but it's still there. There's some traces of City Beautiful planning, mostly in the form of wide boulevards with grassy medians down the middle. Small apartment buildings are plentiful -- little individual buildings that could almost pass for mid-sized houses, holding two apartments on each of two floors. The houses are compact, often small, some to the point of being cottages. Small traces of Mid-Century Modern enliven them: angled metal pole columns support porch roofs; horizontal slat fences define yards and balconies; large geometric patterns break the monotony of garage doors.

The Great Gray Zone

Yet in Milwaukee, it's still something of what Jane Jacobs described as "the great gray zones" -- not the lush, rustic countryside, not the pleasant charm of a small town, yet not dense enough to support the true pulsing life of a city, either. It's a step up from modern suburbia, but just barely. Most of the benefits are superficial -- and even those have diminished as this zone of expansion has been tarnished by age. The architecture has hints of what it was emulating, but the truly superlative moments are few and far between. Demographically, almost everywhere I went last night was inhabited by black people, just like the neighborhood that contains the diminished parish of St. Stephen Protomartyr... and long, sad experience whispers to me that predominantly black populations all too often tend to be poor and beset by a common set of social ills. Some of the neighborhoods show the tell-tale signs of decline, the early notes of people starting not to care or not having the money to keep things up. It's an odd thing to see in what are essentially Modern buildings, but many of them are pushing 50 years old now -- well past the age when neighborhoods start to get cast off by the well-to-do.

And I fear that, truthfully, there's not much to recommend these places. Their biggest appeal was that they were new, and that they accomodated the automobile more easily than any existing cityscape; neither condition applies today. The terrain is flat, straight, and boring -- Villard Avenue, in fact, ends at a local airport. The streetscapes are cohesive but bland. The density is such that a car is a requirement of daily life. The yards are small and not especially charming. This is the new and future ghetto of Milwaukee, and once it sinks I fear there will never be much reason for it to change.

(On the other hand, some of these areas are quite nice, in a leafy shade-tree-street kind of way. And while I mention "tale-tell signs of decline", the bulk of the buildings I saw appear to be in good to excellent condition.)

The Great Gray Zone

And in yet another illustration of how it's hard to see what's right in front of you... I have almost no photographs of the places I'm describing. They didn't strike me as remarkable, so I never documented them, even though I found them worth writing about. So very strange...