The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

How freeways kill communities

Via Sullivan, Timothy Lee describes how freeway construction destroyed the center of St. Louis:

Planners in St. Louis, as in most American cities, decided that the new expressways would run directly through the cities’ downtowns. One of them (I-44/I-70) now runs North to South between the park and downtown. Not surprisingly, if you visit the park today you’ll find a light sprinkling of tourists, but nothing like the throngs of locals you’ll find in successful urban parks like New York’s Union Square, Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, or DC’s Dupont Circle. Whatever “revitalizing” effects the park might have had on the rest of the city were undermined by the fact that the park isn’t really accessible to pedestrians in the rest of the city.

Planners pursued the same basic scheme in other American cities. And in almost every case, they encountered fierce resistance from people already living where the freeways were supposed to go. [Author Jane] Jacobs herself was a key player in the famous, and ultimately successful, effort to stop a proposed freeway through lower Manhattan. After decades of bitter conflict, similar plans were defeated in Washington, DC. Urbanists were partially successful in Philadelphia. They killed the Crosstown expressway, which would have cut through South Philly, but they failed to stop the Vine Street Expressway, which ran north of downtown and contributed to the destruction of Philly’s Chinatown.

In Chicago, the Eisenhower and U of I combined to destroy Little Italy; and the Dan Ryan sliced right through the principal middle-class black community, scattering black professionals to the winds.

Where has all the time gone?

In the past seven calendar days[1], I have worked 40.3 hours[2], traveled 39.8 hours through four countries and six states, and, so far as I can tell, slept for about 40 hours. I am not sure what happened in the remaining few minutes, though part of it included walking Parker and part of it included staring into space dazedly. Fortunately traveling wasn't entirely wasted time, including as it did four episodes of This American Life and two complete novels.

This is all a long way of saying I apologize for the reduced velocity of The Daily Parker, and I expect to resume my usual average of 1½ posts per day in short order.

N.B.: Don't ask how I know all this. I will say only that sitting in a car, train, bus, or airplane for more than 40 hours in one week gives one a lot of time to think about irrelevant crap.

[1] Since 17:30 CDT last Sunday.

[2] Plus another 4.4 hours commuting to and from my client site.

Dehli Terminal 3 completed

Back in February, some of us got the opportunity to tour Indira Gandhi Airport Terminal 3, then under construction. It opened this week:

The new terminal—Terminal 3—was "inaugurated" on July 3rd (Saturday) with India's great and good in attendance, and flights will start from July 14th. Mumbai’s airport is also getting a new terminal, but I don’t think it’s nearly as far along as Delhi’s, which needed completing before the Commonwealth Games this October. There is much excitement in the Indian media about the scale of the thing. Nobody seems able to decide whether it will be the world’s third-, fifth-, or eighth-biggest airport terminal. But it seems pretty certain that it will be a vast improvement over what came before (that’s a low bar, I suppose). Perhaps readers can help resolve this issue: in terms of floor area, which are the world's biggest airport terminals, and how big are they? (The most reliable stuff I've seen puts Delhi T3 in roughly the same ballpark as Madrid's T4, the Mexico City airport, Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi, and a couple of others—around 500,000 square meters—and about half the size of Beijing's new terminal, and a third that of Dubai's).

Of course, however spiffy the building, there is always scope for Heathrow T5-style shenanigans with baggage and so on to mess things up. I’m curious, therefore, to hear from any readers travelling through Delhi after July 15th. Do let us know how you found the new terminal. I myself won’t be passing through until mid-October. I am timing my annual visit home until after the Commonwealth-Games madness, such as it is, is over. By then, teething troubles will hopefully have been sorted out.

St. Petersburg Residency, Day -1

I love that for €54 and an hour and a half (round-trip, both numbers), you can take a boat from Finaland across the Baltic Sea and be in Estonia. The abandoned immigration and customs counters look a little forlorn to me, but have got to look completely eerie to anyone who made the trip before 2008, when Estonia entered the Schengen area.

The ferry terminal on the Estonian side is a ghastly pile of Soviet concrete too horrible for me even to photograph. To give you an example, this is directly across from the terminal, and is one of the first things you see entering Tallinn:

Fortunately, it gets better. The Soviets seem to have left Old Tallinn alone, so there is still a good-sized hunk of the city that looks like this:

Then there's this, a door you never, never wanted to enter if you were Estonian during the Cold War:

That building, at #1 Pagari, was at one point the KGB's headquarters. It seems to have been repurposed, which I deduce from my ability to photograph it repeatedly and not disappear.

Beautiful day, though. The temperature hovered around 22°C, the sun came and went, and the sea breeze off the Baltic felt great. I'm glad the weather held.

One more thing. As the return ferry approached Helsinki, I thought about the original settlers of the two cities, living a thousand years ago, rowing their longboats across. The catamaran I took cruised at 64 km/h, about ten times faster than the fastest longboat ever could have made the journey. We had about 15 minutes from the time I first sighted Finland until we were close enough to the archipelago to have waded ashore. It would have taken the Vikings three hours to cover the same distance. It's a mundane thought in the 21st century, but just the same, I thought it.

Obligatory mistranslation examples

Going over some photos from Shanghai, I found a few examples of the well-known Chinese allergy to validating English translations with people who actually speak English. Some examples:

Mmm! Almost as appetizing as the "hot pig intestines food" offered at the same establishment:

And this one, I couldn't figure out:

Update: An academic explanation (NSFW) of why this might be happening. Oh, the poor cabbage.

Postcards and Books

Before going to Shanghai, I picked up James Fallows's Postcards from Tomorrow Square, a collection of his essays from living there 2006-2009. (Yes, he lived in the building that houses the hotel where our CCMBA cohort stayed.)

First, I'd like to call attention to page 76:

The easier America makes it for talented foreigners to work and study there, the richer, more powerful, and more respected America will be. America's ability to absorb the world's talent is the crucial advantage no other culture can match—as long as America doesn't forfeit this advantage with visa rules written mainly out of fear.

Second, the book should be required of CCMBA students visiting Shanghai to complement Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy, which we had to read for our Global Markets and Institutions (GMI) class. In the essay "China Makes, the World Takes" (available at The Atlantic.com in shorter form), Fallows looks at the Chinese side of Livoli's traveling t-shirt. Computer accessories, for instance:

The other facility that intrigued me, one of Liam Casey’s in Shenzhen, handled online orders for a different well-known American company. I was there around dawn, which was crunch time. Because of the 12-hour time difference from the U.S. East Coast, orders Americans place in the late afternoon arrive in China in the dead of night. As I watched, a customer in Palatine, Illinois, perhaps shopping from his office, clicked on the American company’s Web site to order two $25 accessories. A few seconds later, the order appeared on the screen 12,500 km away in Shenzhen. It automatically generated a packing and address slip and several bar-code labels. One young woman put the address label on a brown cardboard shipping box and the packing slip inside. The box moved down a conveyer belt to another woman working a “pick to light” system: She stood in front of a kind of cupboard with a separate open-fronted bin for each item customers might order from the Web site; a light turned on over each bin holding a part specified in the latest order. She picked the item out of that bin, ran it past a scanner that checked its number (and signaled the light to go off), and put it in the box. More check-weighing and rescanning followed, and when the box was sealed, young men added it to a shipping pallet.

By the time the night shift was ready to leave—8 a.m. China time, 7 p.m. in Palatine, 8 p.m. on the U.S. East Coast—the volume of orders from America was tapering off. More important, the FedEx pickup time was drawing near. At 9 a.m. couriers would arrive and rush the pallets to the Hong Kong airport. The FedEx flight to Anchorage would leave by 6 p.m., and when it got there, the goods on this company’s pallets would be combined with other Chinese exports and re-sorted for destinations in America. Forty-eight hours after the man in Palatine clicked “Buy it now!” on his computer, the item showed up at his door. Its return address was a company warehouse in the United States; a small Made in China label was on the bottom of the box.

Finally, a bleg: what book or books do you think, dear reader, should be required reading for visitors to your city? For example, I'd say Nelson Algren's prose-poem City on the Make and Mike Royko's Boss for Chicago. Thoughts?

Shanghai cultural disconnect

For some reason, the Cultural Disconnect I just wrote for the Shanghai residency was the hardest. I don't know if that's good or bad.

Full text follows:


Cultural connect?

I reviewed my ICE profile and the regional Cultural Dimensions the week before arriving in China. What interactions should I worry about? Where would the disconnections come from? China has high in-group collectivism, high power distance, and relatively low uncertainty avoidance, contra the U.S. My ICE profile spells out a hybrid Midwestern-East Coast sensibility, being across-the-board direct in the relationship context, having a mixed direct-expressive communication style, and an almost completely reserved space context. (My time context is all over the place, but that’s a different essay.)

I expected China would bang away on my communication style and space contexts especially. From everything I’d read about them, I expected Chinese people to be much more reserved in communication style but much more expressive in space context than I am. I looked forward to being trampled by the teeming masses in the Metro and engaging in indirect negotiations that never quite began, and never quite ended.[1]

As soon as I got onto the China Eastern airplane at Narita (as alien a place to me as I had ever experienced, at least since leaving O’Hare a few hours earlier), I started looking for Cultural Disconnects. OK: there’s a sullen-looking Chinese person already sitting in my seat on the plane! That’s because of the expressive...because the attitude towards...because she just didn’t know that A is the window and B is the aisle? Point, point, shrug, shrug, we’re in our correct seats. It differed from similar interactions I’ve had on American Airlines only because I can usually communicate orally in the U.S., even though pointing and shrugging politely and with good humor works just as well as saying “I’m sorry, you seem to be in my seat.”

Next opportunity: Passport control. OK, looks a little different than the U.S. Much better run than Miami, less crowded than O’Hare...short, orderly lines...signs in English. Huh. The immigration officer and I had a brief conversation in English, she stamped my passport, and I left. In the annals of culturally distinctive immigration experiences, this rated somewhere between Dublin and Schiphol.[2]

Next: navigating Pudong Airport to find the Maglev. Huh. More signs in English. Many of them say “Maglev” with arrows pointing to, I found out, the Maglev station. That the signs also had Chinese characters on them doesn’t really have ICE or CD significance, does it? It looked cool, though.

Buying a Maglev ticket: with the RMB I’d bought at an offensive markup in the terminal (again, pretty common in airports world-wide), I whipped out my Mandarin phrase-book and walked up to the ticket counter. “One way or return?” she asked, in perfect English, before I’d even opened the book. She could have been selling tickets at Penn Station, except that no train leaving Penn Station has ever got up to 430 km/h. Security screening to get on the train: now we’re getting somewhere. I’ve never had my bags X-Rayed before getting on a train, let alone a Metro. But does this fit into the definition of “cultural disconnect?” It’s a different trade-off between security and convenience than we make in Chicago, sure. But Shanghai was just a week from opening the World Expo, so heightened “security theater” should be expected. The police at least looked at the X-Ray monitor, unlike in Dubai where one screener was actually asleep when I put my bags through.

Getting out of the Metro at People’s Square, I got accosted by a pimp. Cultural disconnect? I could argue that my expressive “avoid disagreement” and “avoid conflict/tension” communication styles, not to mention my direct “ambiguity in communication” style, explains my clearly disagreeable, tense, unambiguous response; and maybe it was his in-group collectivism (I wasn’t “one of us” and therefore a target) that made him follow me halfway to the hotel even after I’d told him where he should go instead. But no, I think he was just a pimp harassing a traveler and got told off. I’ve spent nearly my entire life in the three largest cities in the U.S.; I can assure doubters that his was not culturally-distinctive behavior, nor was my response.

Next day: a nice-looking young couple “on vacation” chatted me up “to practice their English” and, inevitably, invited me to a tea ceremony. How droll. Again: where there are tourists, there are scammers, only this time I told them “I am afraid it will not be possible to go with you at this time” instead of what I told the pimp. (Ah, but how did I know they were scammers? Could my wariness have been a cultural disconnect? Or might I have read about the “tea ceremony” scam in the Lonely Planet guide on the flight over?)

On and on it went for 10 days. Cultural disconnects just didn’t seem to happen. Of course, I’m sure I had dozens of them—but I wasn’t aware of them. I think, instead, that consciously looking for cultural disconnects dissipated them before they could start. I anticipated things being radically different in China, so maybe I kept looking for big disconnects like I had in Dubai and Delhi and missed the countless little ones in Shanghai. Or maybe I should have gotten farther away from Shanghai than Zhouzhuang.

The last is the most likely. And there are compelling historical reasons for this. Shanghai has had an openness to foreigners (not, of course, entirely voluntarily) for centuries. Western interests in particular dominated Shanghai from the 1800s until the Japanese turfed them out in the 1930s. Flash forward to the more open economic policies of Deng Xiaoping starting in the 1980s continuing through Hu Jintao’s today: China’s desire to prove itself equal to the West, and Shanghai’s historical Western orientation (occidation?), led to a conscious effort to develop Pudong as a modern city center. Puxi, with its Victorian and Third Republic architecture, benefitted as well. Shanghai’s growing reputation as a Chinese city with Western sensibilities encouraged more Western visitors to Shanghai, which made it a more Western-feeling place. In short, a virtuous cycle.

Still, I think Shanghai was simultaneously too alien and too similar for me to experience differences as disconnects. Alien, because forget it, Jake, it’s China.[3] In Shanghai, the thick language barrier prevented me from taking any communications for granted, and kept me so focused on the instant conversation that I forgot about the larger cultural context. Cultural disconnects disappeared from my forebrain when I had trouble saying “forty five” without it sounding like “death decade company.”

Similar, because for innumerable reasons, Shanghai felt like Chicago—except when it felt like New York. Sure, people do things differently in Shanghai than we do here, but people do things differently everywhere. But people in large, cosmopolitan cities have ways of behaving that are more similar than not. I’m not really joking when I say Raleigh sometimes feels more alien to me than Shanghai did. My disconnects in North Carolina come not from my direct-expressive communication style and time context smacking into their reserved Southern counterparts, but rather from thinking, because we’re all from the same country, we should all act the same, and then being surprised when we don’t. That was not a possibility in China.

 

[1] Most of my cultural priming came from James Fallows’ Postcards from Tomorrow Square. Fallows spent three years in Shanghai as the Atlantic’s Asia correspondent. The book collects and extends the columns he wrote about living in China for the magazine.

[2] In fact, my two most unusual interactions were at a land crossing into Canada, where I had my car searched, and at De Gaulle, where the immigration officers had to deal with simultaneously arriving flights from Boston and Nigeria. The solution in the latter case was to shout, in perfect English, “Americans, British, Canadians, EU, this way please” and then shoo the European-looking folks past the counters without a second glance or even a look at our passports. I will leave to the reader to sort out what may they may have been thinking, and if this is really the way we want cops to behave.

[3] Cf. Nicholson, Polanski, et al., 1972.