Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Walking the Gulch -- October 2018

I didn't get around to writing this in October, but it's stayed on my mind, and better late than never I guess.  It was before the City Council approved the deal on the Gulch -- a deal that disappointed me for its massive scale, its public subsidies, and its privatization of public space.  ThreadATL and some other groups and individuals who cared about downtown organized a tour of the Gulch on October 13.  We met in south downtown and as we walked, we learned about the history of the area and the railway stations that were no longer there. 

We walked down the stairs from street level into the parking lots and underused space that makes up the Gulch, across train tracks that trains still run on, in dizzying proximity to the new stadium. 

In one particularly underused area, there were remnants of train platforms left over from when Union Station stood there, and three dancers from Lauri Stallings' dance company glo were there, bringing color and drama and to what otherwise would have been a nondescript space.

How did an area that played such an important role in Atlanta's history end up being an empty spot in the heart of the city?  The city was built around the rail lines, and as the city grew, it was built over them, except for this one area. The City Council signed off on the mayor's proposal to subsidize a massive project by a developer; it will probably be soulless towers and privatized streets, swept free of homeless people, and there will be nothing interesting about it.  Maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe it won't be awful.

That evening we rode our bikes to Krog Street Market and got dinner there.  It was Pride weekend, and Piedmont Park was full of people with picnics and tents and chairs. We expected there to be crowds in the park, but there also were an enormous number of people on the Eastside Trail that night.  Some of them were probably going to or coming from Piedmont Park, but there was some other event going on in the Historic Old Fourth Ward Park; there were people, everywhere, walking with friends, riding bikes, out for evening, headed to a brewery or a restaurant or a bar or a friend's place.  All I could think of, that night, was how much Atlantans want the city to be better.  Build something better, and we'll come.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Looking for Zero

I took the bus to Five Points and wasn't completely sure what I was looking for.  There was an address on Marietta Street but it wasn't clear if it was inside or outside; since it was raining, I hoped it was inside.  Once I got there, there was a cluster of people at the door of the building, and the door was locked.  We were dressed for the weather, with raincoats and umbrellas.  Someone got a message that the performers were running late.  We waited.  Maybe some people knew what to expect, but I did not.

Then we saw them -- two women in blue robes, lying on the wet sidewalk across the street.

I am not sure what I expected, but this was not it.  It was a jarring moment.  And then, admitting to myself that I see people on the sidewalk all the time in terrible weather, and almost always I try to act like I don't see them and hurry on by.

The other dancers seemed to arrive from all directions, walking slowly toward the intersection.  By that point, the people who had been waiting had crossed the street and there were other people watching too, 

I don't know how many of the spectators had planned to be there, to see glo's "Starting from Zero" intervention, and how many just happened on the performance and were curious and stayed to watch, pulled into the unexpected sight of blue-robed dancers making impossible moves on sidewalks and open spaces near Five Points, and later in an underground space that I didn't even really know was there.  The dancers pulled us with them, sometimes literally (spectators became part of the performance periodically, when dancers would take our hand and gently guide us to where they wanted us to go), and together we lingered in the streets and and on the sidewalks around Five Points.

Eventually we went down a staircase to a space under the streets.  I knew, vaguely, that there was another level, down from what is street level, that was important for Atlanta's early history, when transportation meant railroads, not airplanes or automobiles, but I'd never been there, and I would not have gone there without a guide.  On that rainy Sunday afternoon, my guides were a blue-robed dancers, whose wet skin sparkled in the dim light and who reminded me -- too late to get a good picture of it -- Matisse's dancers, and who were fearless in this grim space.  We heard the trains and the dripping water.  A few cars tried to come through, and some of them were redirected in another direction.  

For that first Sunday performance, I didn't stay until the very end -- I needed to get home, and the buses don't run that frequently on Sunday (or for that matter, pretty much any other time) -- but I came back for the final performance last Saturday.  That was when I heard the story, from glo's Lauri Stallings, about how Atlanta's original zero milepost has for a long time been in a nondescript and apparently no longer used building that is owned by the Georgia Building Authority and used to house the Capitol Police.

There were barricades there that we walked through, but the building itself is surrounded by a fence that is locked. One of the few authentic remnants of Atlanta's history -- why Atlanta is where it is, and how transportation has been central to the city's history from the very beginning -- is in a place where you cannot go, even if you want to.

In Atlanta, we knock down whole neighborhoods to build stadiums and expressways, so maybe we should not be surprised that the zero milepost is locked up in a fenced-off empty building in an underground parking lot.  But I was, and I am so glad that glo took me and many of my fellow Atlantans on this exploration of our city.  I will never again see these places as I did before -- thanks for the adventure.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Flu Season

I would have known it was a bad flu season even if I hadn't seen the surveillance reports from CDC each week.  There are the people missing work because they're sick or they are home with sick children.  There are the long-planned events, cancelled due to illness of critical participants.  There are the press reports of overwhelmed hospitals, and of the deaths of children and young adults, who had been healthy but then they got influenza and unexpectedly and tragically died.  Less dramatically, last week when I checked into a hotel, there was hand sanitizer with the shampoo and body lotion.

Yesterday it was texts from one of my kids, achy and miserable, who was tested positive for influenza and is now on oseltamivir.  

And then there's the weekly report from the CDC.  Here's a few excerpts from the report, posted on Friday, January 19, which covers the week of January 7-13, 2018.

For the second week in a row, every state but Hawaii is reporting widespread influenza activity.  This is unusual; last week, when they saw it the first time, the people at CDC who put these maps together said they hadn't seen this before.  And now, of course, it's two weeks in a row.

CDC also reports what proportion of doctor visits are for something that looks like influenza.  It might not be flu -- there are other viruses circulating, too, and some of them cause something that looks and feels like flu -- but it is one way to measure the level of misery at the state level.  And the level is high in 32 states.

And there are the deaths.  There often are delays in reporting these but last week ten -- ten -- pediatric deaths were reported, most of them deaths that actually had occurred earlier in the season (the new reports are the ones in turquoise).  We aren't even seeing, for the most part, the deaths that actually occurred during January 7-13.  Most of those will show up later.

CDC also monitors overall deaths due to pneumonia and influenza -- they aren't all influenza-related, of course, but many of them are, and the model allows for the seasonal variation in other respiratory illnesses.  This is the first time this season that the red line crossed the black line -- the "epidemic threshold" -- and because death can be a delayed outcome, the impact of the disease that was happening January 7-13 will mostly show up in coming weeks.  But it is not looking good.

I have gotten an influenza vaccine every year for decades, and I make sure that my husband and kids get a shot every year, too.  The vaccine won't prevent every case, but probably makes illness milder when if fails to prevent it altogether (the child that is currently ill and on oseltamivir was vaccinated, and probably would be much sicker without that vaccination).  If you have not gotten a flu shot yet, go do it.  Do not wait.  In most places teens and adults can get flu shots at a pharmacy without a prescription.  Go do it.  It will take some time for your immune system to respond, but in two weeks there still will be flu circulating -- so go do it. 

If you get sick and it turns out to be influenza, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral.  This is especially important for people with underlying conditions that make them more likely to get really sick or die when they get the flu.

And if you are sick, stay home and keep your viruses to yourself.  "Going viral" is not a good thing when we are talking about actual viruses that can kill people.

When I was in college, I got what I am sure was influenza, although there wasn't a test that was widely used back then.  I lived by myself and felt like I was too sick to be alone.  I remember talking to my mother on the phone (this was back when we only had landlines and had to pay for long distance calls, and I didn't talk to my parents frequently by phone) and she asked if she needed to come stay with me.  I told her no, that I'd go to the student health center.  It was February, and there was snow on the ground, and I walked the mile and half there (this also was pre-Uber, needless to say) and promptly collapsed on arrival.  I was admitted to the infirmary for a couple of days and had to come back for a chest x-ray, meaning they were concerned enough that I might have pneumonia that they wanted to make sure whatever abnormality they had seen when I was admitted had completely cleared up.  This is the only time in my life I have been admitted to a hospital for illness.  That's what influenza does -- it takes perfectly healthy people and can make them so sick that they end up in the hospital, or the morgue.

Influenza is a serial killer, and right now, it is pretty much everywhere. Take it seriously.  Take the vaccine.  Take antivirals if your doctor prescribes them.  And take to the sofa if you're sick.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

More Books in the House

The Christmas wrapping is in the compost and the presents are now in a stack next to my bed.  They are almost all books, added to the hundred or so others piled up between my side of the bed and the window.  I've been home from work for a couple of days, and during this time have acquired even more.  I went to a book store on Wednesday, looking for a copy of "Love in the Time of Cholera" for a book club that I may or may not make it to, but they didn't have it in stock so I got it nearly instantly downloaded to my Kindle instead (when two day delivery is not fast enough).  Others have come up in other discussions for another book club, another I heard about from a New Yorker article, and I ordered all of them.

We were walking the dog the other day and I asked whichever children were accompanying me (it's not that I have that many, but they are all at home at the moment) how many books they thought we have in our house.  Sarah estimated ten thousand, which seemed to me to be a reasonable guess - almost every room has bookcases, and they are insufficient to hold all the books, which are also in boxes and stacks and spread across the floor where stacks collapsed.  When Caroline was in kindergarten, she was recruited to participate in the kindergarten cohort of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, a U.S. Department of Education-sponsored study that included periodic in person assessments, teacher questionnaires, and telephone interviews of parents.  One question they always asked me was how many children's books we had in our home; I remember estimating eight hundred the first time I was asked and two thousand years later -- the interviewers always seemed surprised; not skeptical, just surprised.

Most of those have been cleared out now - they went to neighbors, to neighborhood preschools and to Morningside Elementary and to book drives for other schools and maybe some of them to Goodwill -- but we all are accumulators of books, and the result is apparent in almost every room.  I have been thinking about this recently not because I am concerned about the clutter (which I should be more than I am) but because I now know that it is hopeless that I will every get everything read that I intend to read.

Years ago (I don't even remember when) I used to keep track of the books I read on 3 by 5 inch index cards.  After that there was a notebook; I don't know what happened to either that or the 3 by 5 cards.  Then there was nothing for a long time (which may have had something to do with having children) and then there was Goodreads.  I liked being able to easily add a book to the list of books I want to read, and then move them, one at a time, from "Want to Read" to "Currently Reading" to "Read." And then there are the reading challenges, setting goals for how many books you plan to read, and periodically checking how you're doing.  One recent year I set a goal of fifty, and came no where near it.  This year's goal was 26, but I have been reading more (I have periodically sworn off watching television news, this year, and have consciously tried to read instead) and I am now at forty books read in 2017, and may finish that book on the Kindle by the end of the year (or not).

But here's the calculation I just did.  Let's say, for purposes of discussion, that I have another thirty years of reading ahead of me (which would get me to an age older than both of my long-lived parents) - and I managed to read an average of fifty books a year for those thirty years.  That is only fifteen hundred books, for the rest of my life - and I just got eleven books for Christmas (okay, so one was a book on hydroponic gardening that is more of a reference book and probably won't be read cover-to-cover) and since Christmas I've bought five more, including the one I am currently reading on my Kindle.

I really am fine with getting rid of most of them, after I've read them - I regularly pass them along to someone else, or leave them in a neighborhood Little Free Library, or drop them off in a Better World Books donation box.  Our house is not full to the rafters with books we've read (although some of them we have) but with books we mean to read.  So I guess this means I should stop writing, right now, and start reading - because I can't really do too much about the thirty years, at this point, but maybe I can increase the fifty.  Fifteen hundred is just not a big enough number.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Good Neighbors

I haven't written much here this year in part because for the last several months I have mostly been out of town for work.  During the time I was gone, I lived in a short term rental, furnished apartment in a building where I did not know a single person.  There were other people living there for sure -- I saw their Amazon packages, piled up in the corridor -- but I rarely saw anyone.  It's not that the neighborhood wasn't a "real neighborhood" -- on Halloween, there was a huge neighborhood festival and entire families in costume out trick-or-treating in the early evening, and occupants of single family homes were set up in the front yard in costume with vats of candy to hand out -- but my building, no.

Now I am back, and getting caught up on what's going on here. We have houses under construction on both ends of the street but several houses that were on the market are now under contract (at least according to the signs in the yards).

So we are expecting several new neighbors soon, unless the plan is to knock down the house and start over. 

The moving truck followed by the home theater installation people and Xfinity have been at one house (the "Under Contract" sign has been down there for a while), and there's now a car in the driveway, so we figure we do have new neighbors, but at least as of yesterday, the neighbors on either side of them haven't met them yet.  I will try to get brownies made today and take them over.  Wessyngton women are having our more-or-less annual festive winter seasonal event later this week, and we'll need to make sure to pass along the invitation to that, too.

This is what neighbors are supposed to do -- stop by when new people move in, not with the expectation that we will all end up being best of friends (although of course that might happen), but that if I'm out of town you might be willing to pick up my mail and my newspaper for a couple of days, or help me find my lost dog.  This does not appear to be the norm everywhere, I know - there was the terribly depressing post I saw during the summer, written by an elderly lady in Southern California who tried hard to get to know her neighbors, but no one reciprocated, (and no, I don't usually read The Federalist - I don't even remember how I came across this) and there are the regular reports that fewer people know their neighbors now than in the past.  (And of course, sometimes it just doesn't work because some people are terrible people.)  That's not our local ecology, here, but I know it is that way in many neighborhoods.  A lot of us here try hard to be good neighbors.

When I was in the apartment, there was an electronic lock on my door that didn't require a key.  One time when I was on an early morning flight back to Atlanta I realized after I got to the airport that I hadn't locked the door when I left.  The normal thing would be to ask a neighbor to lock it, but I did not know one person in the building - so I had to ask the property management company to send someone by to lock the door. 

But I have to go now.  I need to make some brownies.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Neighborhoods We Want (Business Edition, Part 2)

I haven't posted in a long time - there are several half-written posts in my head, but none of them ever got to keyboard (there's been a lot going on).  But I have to get this post written because there's another round of discussion on Nextdoor about local businesses closing.  The spice store in Virginia Highland closed - I loved the spice store, but it's gone.  On Nextdoor, it's pretty much the same discussion as last time, about rents and foot traffic and competition from cooler commercial areas like Ponce City Market or Krog Street Market and paid parking and what kinds of retail and restaurants used to be in the neighborhood as opposed to what's there now.

It's not that it's a great time for retail generally.  A couple days ago NBC News reported that over a thousand stores closed in a recent week, and more than 100,000 retail workers have lost their jobs since October 2016.  Retail space is overbuilt, and that, along with online buying and other changes in taste and habit (malls stopped being cool decades ago) have decimated shopping malls.

But our neighborhood commercial areas aren't enclosed malls or strip malls - they are appealing, and walkable, and in well-established neighborhoods with substantial buying power.  In spite of that, though, businesses struggle and the latest round of closings in Virginia Highland has reignited the discussion about what's going on.  In our small commercial area in Morningside, it seems that vacancies linger longer than they do in Virginia Highland, where hope springs eternal and retailers keep trying.  There's a "Coming Soon" sign up where Half-Moon Outfitters was and another empty location also will reopen sometime before too long as something else.  But if rents are so high that the businesses the neighborhood actually can and will support can't survive, and there aren't enough destination shops to fill the spaces, at some point, places stay vacant, because once rents go up, they don't go down.

There was an article in the New York Times last week about what happened to a small retail area on Bleecker Street in West Village in New York City.  There used to be neighborhood businesses like bodegas and laundromats and hardware stores, but then the high-end stores came in, and the neighborhood was briefly full of high-priced designer shops.  Then the designer stores failed (they didn't get much business), and now the rents are too high for anything else and the storefronts are vacant.
"If many of the high-end stores along Bleecker didn’t prosper as businesses, 'they succeeded in transforming the area into a luxury retail neighborhood that feeds on itself,' said Jeremiah Moss, who has tracked the city’s ever-changing streetscape on his blog, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, since 2007.
"Bleecker Street, Mr. Moss said, is a prime example of high-rent blight, a symptom of late-stage gentrification. 'These stores open as billboards for the brand,' he said. 'Then they leave because the rents become untenable. Landlords hold out. And you’re left with storefronts that will sit vacant for a year, two years, three years.'"
 Here are the last several paragraphs of the article:
"Elad Yifrach, the founder and creative director of L’Objet, an upscale d├ęcor brand that opened its first New York store last fall in one of the former Coach outposts, believes the area still has retail magic, despite the recent hard times.
“'Bleecker is quintessential West Village,' he said. 'The most beautiful townhouses are around there. The street needs to go back to bringing a cool factor, things that will inspire the audience.'
"For many longtime Village residents, what the street is missing is not a cool factor but the essential mix of businesses that makes a neighborhood function. On a recent afternoon, Marjorie Reitman, who has lived in the Village for 43 years and who was out on Bleecker Street walking her neighbor’s dog, Walter, reflected on the street’s mercantile past.
“'I remember when I first moved down here,' she said. 'There was a hardware store owned by an elderly couple, a grocery store, a newspaper store.'
"She was standing in front of ATM Anthony Thomas Melillo, a clothing boutique that opened in February to sell $115 'destroyed wash' T-shirts and other garments. The store had no customers, and the front door was open, allowing the air-conditioning to pump out into the street, something Ms. Reitman lectured the young sales associates about.
'That’s the attitude: "I have money, I can pay the fine, I don’t care,"' Ms. Reitman said.

"The original Marc Jacobs store on Bleecker that started the boom was next door with its windows blacked out. Ms. Reitman had an idea for that space and the other empty stores that dot Bleecker Street like missing teeth in a very expensive mouth.
"'They should all be pot shops,' she said. 'Seriously. I’m not kidding. I can’t imagine what else could go in and pay the rent.'"
If it is not possible to make enough to pay the rent, no one will stay in business, and once rents go up, they don't, apparently, go down.  So Caramba is replaced by Burger Tap which is replaced by the waffle sandwich place (okay, so maybe there is a reason other than high rents why some of these places didn't make it) which is replaced by Timone's which is replaced by Timone's which is replaced by Whiskey Bird. I certainly wish the Whiskey Bird folks well, but it they don't make it, it's back to brown paper covering the windows and a "For Lease" sign.

I would like to be optimistic but I'm not.  I don't know if there is any turning the clock back, once you lose the places that make your neighborhood function for the people who live there.  If the business plan requires that lots of people come from outside the neighborhood, then there's the reality of competition from cooler places and traffic and parking -- it might work for Murphy's, but it's hard to see it working for the entire commercial district.  Our neighborhood commercial areas may not be quite at the "high-rent blight" stage, but if it happens, at least now we know what to call it.

 And for all those folks on Nextdoor, we have the answer -- the rents are too high.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Neighborhoods We Want (Business Edition)

It was in early September that we got the email announcement that Toscano & Sons, the Italian grocery store in Virginia Highland, was closing.  This was a shock.  That was where we bought flour for pizza making in 50 pound bags and cans of Italian tomatoes for pizza sauce.  They had great sandwiches and it was pleasant to sit on the sidewalk with a panini and watch the people go by.  But the rents were high, and ultimately (Tom heard from the owners), it just wasn't worth it -- the landlord was making more than the business owners were.

The closing of Toscano & Sons led to a long and surprisingly lively and constructive discussion on Nextdoor about the difficulties that neighborhood businesses face.  My response when my favorite places close is blame the landlords for rents that are too high, which may or may not be fair; there was discussion in the Nextdoor thread about whether or not Virginia Highland is still a shopping and dining destination for people from outside the neighborhood, with competition from other commercial areas, like Ponce City Market and Krog Street Market and Inman Quarter.  There were complaints about Park Atlanta, which is always fair game in my book, but others pointed out that most of us can easily walk or bike there so parking should not really be so much of a deterrent for us in the nearby neighborhoods. There were discussions about the mix of businesses in Virginia Highland, pointing out that there were only so many bars and boutiques the neighborhood could support, and some proposals for what kind of businesses we'd like to see in the neighborhood, with most of the suggestions not sounding very viable to me (a lot of focus on "organic" and "locally sourced" which doesn't go so well with "inexpensive").  There was nostalgia for an independent bookstore that used to be nearby that I don't remember so it probably closed more than 25 years ago.  And some of the local business owners spoke up, and made the case that just a little more business from all of us would make a big difference to them.

There are lots of reasons to support local businesses -- we'd rather do business with people that we know and that know us than with strangers; it's more fun to walk to Morningside Kitchen than to drive to Buckhead (actually, almost anything is more fun than driving to Buckhead); and it would be so depressing if Virginia Highland or Morningside Village got replaced by, say, a Walmart.  Another reason is what the American Independent Business Alliance calls "the local economic multiplier effect" -- what we spend at locally-owned, independent businesses is far more likely to circulate in our community, contributing to the local economy, than what we spend at absentee-owned businesses, locally-owned franchises, or (in the worst possible case) a distant, online retailer.  ("Buying remotely creates almost no local benefit – just a few minutes’ work for a delivery person.”)

We shop at Costco and Target and Amazon, and will continue to, but having Toscano & Sons close and the subsequent conversation about our neighborhood businesses has made me realize that if I love having these businesses nearby, I need to support them better.  And if all of us did that -- just a little more shopping and dining in the neighborhood -- we wouldn't keep having our favorite places closing.

Yesterday, after early voting, we walked to Virginia Highland for breakfast, and I was surprised to see this in the window, where Toscano & Sons used to be:

It looks like we might have another chance at supporting our neighborhood Italian market.  I'll do better this time.