Category Archives: Housing

Boomerang, Boomerang

flower and teen

So, the Millennials aren’t growing up.

As an aging Generation X-er, I feel concerned about the future of the Millennials. These young people–the generation coming of age behind us–are graduating from college and discovering their parents were wrong. Going to college does NOT guarantee you a really good, white-collar job in the field of your choice as soon as you graduate. Thanks to a stagnant economy, these young college graduates can’t earn enough to do the things adults do: pay back their loans, buy a house, start a family. Instead, they are struggling to find work, coming back home to live, and putting off babies indefinitely.

Millennials also grew up with lots of privileges and material goods, and they aren’t about to give those goodies up if they can help it. Can we blame them? They were brought up with cool clothes, video games, mobile devices, and lots of social activities like recreational soccer league and summer theater camps. Is it any wonder that they believe they should be able to have them after putting in the hard work of earning a college degree and doing everything else their parents told them would ensure their success?

Instead, they are faced with unpalatable choices. Pay for rent or pay for an unlimited data plan? One is a necessity to the Millennial…and it isn’t the apartment.

To add insult to injury, the Affordable Care Act is now forcing them to purchase health insurance they perhaps do not need in order to “make the numbers work.”

Behold: “If the ObamaCare health insurance exchanges are to function properly, it is crucial that a substantial number of people ages 18-34 join them. This age group that is young and relatively healthy must purchase health insurance on the exchanges in order to “cross-subsidize” people who are older and sicker. Without the young and healthy, the exchanges will enter a “death spiral” where only the older and sicker participate, and price of insurance premiums will increase precipitously, says David Hogberg, a health care policy analyst for the National Center for Public Policy Research.” (ObamaCare’s Success Is Dependent on Young Adults

So the poor and the aging are going to suck off the young and healthy like economic vampires. No wonder Twilight and The Vampire Diaries are so popular with this age group!

It should come as no shock(with the economy struggling and jobs still scarce and apartments still expensive and giving up technologies like iPhones unthinkable), Millennials are boomeranging back home once they finish college. See Adulthood Delayed by Derek Thompson, in the Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 14, 2012.

We Gen X parents are dismayed by this turn of events. Will we have our aging Boomer parents living in the guest rooms and our frustrated Millennial children living in our basements? We’ll do it if we have to–family is important to us. But egads! Can’t something be done?

It got me thinking. What if some smart landlords invested in creating “low-income housing” for 18-30 year-olds with a college degree? Sure, this demographic doesn’t make much money at their service-industry or entry-level jobs, but that doesn’t mean they have no intention of bettering themselves. They aren’t your typical “low-income housing” demographic, are they? They were brought up expecting to dress well, drive a decent car, hang out with other college-educated people, pay their bills, and vote on issues important to them. They want to grow up, have a good job, and be good parents.

They would probably be good tenants, especially if the complex offered free wifi.

The parking lot might be full of six-year-old Priuses (officially, I guess the plural is Prii. Puh-lease) passed down from Mom and Dad. There would have to be a coffee shop in house. Millennial tenants would be passably content, I imagine, to hang out in a cafe–socializing and networking while looking for professional-type jobs on their tablet computers and doing all the other stuff they like to do on their iPhones (texting, making videos, watching movies, reading magazines, checking Instagram and Twitter, etc.).They could grab a latte on their way to work at a)the mall b)temp agency c)restaurant d)support service for the disabled. A fitness center in the complex would provide them healthy exercise and socializing opportunities.

IMG_cafe

There should be bike storage and a bus stop. Perhaps the apartment complex should be placed in an area with some microbrewery pubs, good restaurants (for dining and for working in), a natural food store, and some consignment shops.

It would be like a college dorm–without the studying.

It would be Melrose Place for a new generation of young adults who happen to be on a really fixed budget.

Housing of this sort would give Millennials some time and a safe, comfortable space to figure out the next phase of their lives–well out of earshot of Mom and Dad who really love them AND truly are hoping their children can be the self-actualized individuals they raised them to be.

Our (guilty as hell to have helped create this poor state of affairs and I’m not just talking about the current administration which really inherited the problem) government could allow entrepreneurs to create these specialized housing units without all the red tape of “equal opportunity housing” rules that would derail such a project. There are plenty of traditional low-income housing spaces out there (and more could be built for the poor and uneducated among us), but they are not the places our college-educated, potentially upwardly mobile Millennials want to be or should be.

I’m not sure this has much to do with being a Localista except we all have these young people in our communities. I would like to see them move up, follow their life-plan, and reach full adulthood . . .

. . . somewhere other than in my basement.

Turkey in the Straw-Bale

Straw Bale Garden Rows

Dear Reader:

Since I live in an HOA (homeowner’s association) that does not allow “livestock,” you may have already guessed that the only turkey in my straw bale garden is me.

In the future, anyone who is interested in self-sufficiency, sustainable living, growing/raising of backyard food will avoid these HOA’s like a nuclear testing field. Not that HOA’s aren’t pleasant places to live. And not that they couldn’t be designed ON PURPOSE to support sustainability and community and nice things like backyard poultry that loves to eat up nasty ticks while providing delicious, nutritious eggs with deep-gold yokes. The tragedy of my particular HOA is the squandering of so much potential for self-sufficiency, learning, discovery, and…extremely tasty eggs!

The other problem I’ve discovered is the lack of sunlight due to so many tall, skinny, 100-yr-old pine trees that have sprung up from the old, deserted pastures of a time not so long ago when we were agrarian and proud of it. Don’t talk to me about “old-growth forest.” (See the stand of pines in the background of the photo above).

Old-growth forest does not have fieldstone walls running through it, people! This is old farm land. Pasture. Probably dairy cows. Whether we like to admit it or not, our HOA is built on livestock droppings now covered over with the pines and with the hardwood saplings struggling and finding bright pockets of sunlight in which to stretch now that the pine forest is beginning to break down.

Stumped

This is the stump from a pine that fell (tipped) not 30 ft from our house. The pine forest is crumbling around us, but not quickly enough to give me adequate sunlight for a full-scale kitchen garden. The only spot with enough sunlight for things like tomatoes and peppers and other sun-loving plants is directly over the septic field–where I’m not convinced I should create a conventional garden.

Faux Homestead

Now that nine years have gone by, my house is just starting to feel settled-into. The area directly in front, past the beech trees and the remnant of stone wall is the leach field. Here, I get six to seven hours of sunlight, but I was at a loss as to how to plant on it. One day, while bopping around the cyber world of Facebook, I saw on a friend’s wall the answer to my problem: straw bale gardening.

At least I think the bales will be the answer. The Facebook page led me to a website called Introduction to Straw Bale Gardening. I ordered the pdf version of Joel Karsten’s book/let. This weekend I moseyed on down to the farm supply store for straw bales and 24-0-0 fertilizer and then over to Plummer’s Hardware for stakes and string. In a couple of hours, my garden rows were ready for “conditioning.”

The process is pretty simple. Take some straw, sprinkle on some nitrogen, soak it with water, repeat, and wait for the composting to break down the straw into a growing medium. The stakes hold the ends of the rows tight while the string (or wire) between the stakes provides a trellis for growing plants.

An unidentified flowering shrub in my back yard

Once I set these up, I observed the sunlight beaming down on these bales from 8 a.m. until almost 4 p.m. yesterday. My hope for a bumper crop of tomatoes is almost as bright as that Flower Moon the other night.

The beauty of straw bale gardening is the ability to place a garden on any surface–not unlike container gardening. Theoretically, it is cheaper as containers can be expensive. However, I will warn you that this may be a bit of a marketing ploy. Containers will last for years, while a straw bale will only be good for a year, two at most. Of course, the spent straw, now composted quite a bit, will then be perfect for creating “lasagna gardens” or for use as nutritious mulch on other garden beds. Also, the bales I bought were expensive–$5.99 each! The 50lb. bag of fertilizer was $30.00, but it should last me a good while. I’ve since discovered that the fertilizer was probably not necessary. I could have put on a layer of the $30/TRUCKLOAD of Tibbett’s compost and maybe started the process a bit earlier.

Delilah by the Woodpile

There are also organic fertilizers that could be used. Bloodmeal. Urine.

Yes, you read that right. Urine is full of nitrogen and is completely sterile. I haven’t quite become that brave yet–not brave enough or obsessed enough about sustainability to pee in a bottle for feeding the perennials, let alone the tomatoes. But there is something poetic, I think, about completing the cycle in the same way that using composted cow manure completes the cycle.

So, my little front-yard experimental garden is almost ready for planting. I have the four old boxes for greens. I have the five new boxes for peas and string beans and squashes and carrots and herbs. I have the two rows of straw bales for tomatoes and peppers and maybe some greens or something in between. My perennial beds have been divided now. I’ll be putting some more herbs in the sunny perennial bed to go along with the rudbeckia and echinacea and the lilac shrub and chives.

Partly Sunny Side

Next year I may create a big perennial flower bed on part of that leach field–the kinds of flowers for bouquets and for dying homespun skeins of yarn, perhaps. And I still want to create an apple tree guild between the beeches and the compost bins.

But this year, oh this year, I’m longing for tomatoes. Big, fat, juicy, red tomatoes.

The Mill Has Some Gloss

North Mill in Biddeford, Maine

Dear Reader:

I love old mill towns. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps because I didn’t grow up in a mill town, I am fascinated by the novelty of an industrial-ish landscape. These manufacturing communities are cities, not towns, I suppose, but they are not cities of high-rise apartment buildings, corporate offices for national food chains and banks, and big shopping malls. These Maine city-towns have Main Streets, corner stores, local tobacco shops, and hundred-year-old bakeries; triple-decker apartment buildings that used to house the mill workers, big Catholic cathedrals with a satisfying Gothic flair, and a turn-of-the-century architectural style that for one reason or another sets my creative juices flowing; people who sometimes speak with the slight accent, still, of the St. George River Valley. I love it!

Across the river in Saco

When I lived in Westbrook, my daily walk took me past one of these slumbering manufacturing behmoths that had been built along the tumbling river that once powered the building’s machinery. Incidentally, I would also walk past the still-operating paper mill at the other end of Main Street. I would look up at the even rows of windows, the geometric simplicity of those windows and the pattern of red-orange brick, and imagine an earlier time when people walked from the neighboring streets to punch in to work for the day. They’d be carrying their tin lunch boxes. They’d be tired already, perhaps, at the end of a long week, or else young and cheerful and hopeful.

I’m sure I’m romanticizing the whole thing. That’s my nature.

Since moving even further south, I’ve spent time driving into Sanford, often routing past the empty, old textile buildings there and dreaming of how they could be repurposed. I even wrote two romance novels set in towns like these. Apparently, I’m a little obsessed.

From www.goodreads.com

Maybe it has something to do with Richard Russo. His EMPIRE FALLS is brilliant, of course. It is the story of a town and its citizens trying to come to grips with a new economy where manufacturing takes place in China or India or Mexico, and the people left behind at home buy the finished products and struggle to figure out what to do now. I loved EMPIRE FALLS. I recognized it. There is a kind of sad romanticism to these crumbling, quiet buildings. Like Dickens’ Miss Havisham, they’ve seen better days.

Enter Biddeford. I’ve been to this small city many times in the past few years, taking the Teen to the orthodontist and myself to the allergist over near Southern Maine Med, but I’d only visited downtown twice–once to eat at a great little Indian restaurant, The Jewel of India, and another time to have coffee with a friend at the old mill building. So, on a sunny day last week, I decided to check out the refurbished North Dam Mill again–this time with my camera and a notebook in hand.

Smokestack Tower

The first mill established here in the 17th century was an iron manufacturing business. Eventually, large buildings were erected on both the Biddeford and Saco sides of the Saco River and workers flooded into the cities, creating a booming textile manufacturing center. Read about the history and see some great archival photos at the Maine Memory Network site.

Eventually the mills closed. A few years ago, developer Doug Sanford bought the property and re-purposed the wonderful buildings into retail, office, and living space. Click HERE to visit the Pepperell Mill/North Dam Mill website.

Art Outside the Mill

On this day, I take a few photos of the impressive smokestack near the parking lot and then stroll into the reception area on the main floor of building 18. The large hallway is dim, with its exposed pipes painted black to blend in with the black ceiling. An expansive red Oriental rug anchors two over-sized leather couches in a sitting area. Right near the windows of a small off-shoot of a hall, a tiny coffee shop wafts acoustic music and the aroma of fresh-ground java.

This is “Perk”…and while I sit at the narrow counter in front of the windows, a few residents drift in to order lunch or coffee. The young guy behind the counter makes pleasant chit-chat with everyone. His co-worker is busy making sandwiches or something. I hear clanging pans behind the music (Sarah Brightman, maybe?)piped in over the speakers

Outside the windows, I can see the river across the road, traffic zipping past, three guys hanging out near the benches and steel flower sculpture near the entrance. Neighbors chatting? I think so.

The entire place makes me think of a castle, the walls rising along the river and road like ramparts, the smokestack a watchtower. Inside are art studios and professional offices on this main floor. A sign beside me reads, “River’s Edge Wood Products: Showroom open on an appointment basis.” Upstairs floors are dedicated to apartments.

Exposed pipe against a white-painted brick wall

I can imagine living here. The exposed pipes. The high ceilings. The well-used hardwood flooring. Mostly, though, I love the idea of living within biking/walking distance to Main St. and all the great local stores and restaurants and the library. The Amtrak station is a short walk, as well, for trips to Boston and beyond. Living close to neighbors. Stopping for a morning latte at Perk.

Art in the hallway

This is a New-Urbanists dream! Click HERE to read about New Urbanism. Walkability. Diversity of purpose. Community and connectivity. Traditional neighborhood structure. Common space. I’d like to see a community garden somewhere here–maybe on the roof!

The Saco River

I took this picture from a little patio off the parking lot overlooking the river. The Saco side of the mills are across the water.

Windmill at the Mill

Isn’t the juxtaposition between the old water/coal-powered mill and the new, space-agey windmill great? To me this symbolizes the future . . . if we have the guts and willpower to transition to a more sustainable way of life. A way where we go back to our more densely-populated urbans centers, our Main Street stores owned by our neighbors, and our sense of community purpose while at the same time taking advantage of new technologies and ideas and art.

I want to wake up and smell the coffee . . . at places like Perk!

Day 17: Teeny Shoes & Other Things You Don’t See Every Day

Miniature Shoes at Old Town Shoe & Luggage

Dear Reader:

On Sunday, the Teen and Hubby and I went back to Alexandria, Virginia to while away a sultry late afternoon and snap some pictures of the historic Old Town neighborhood. The Teen and I took the Metro Blue Line to the King Street stop at the top of King near Diagonal Street. Hubby chose to ride to Alexandria on his bike going south on the Mount Vernon Trail.

Vine-Covered Pergola

The top of King St. is more “modern highrise” than “quaint Colonial,” but both the Teen and myself were drawn to this pretty pergola at the intersection. A few tables and chairs had been placed beneath the shade, and the Teen commented, “You only see nice things like this in a city.”

I replied, “It’s pretty, isn’t it.” Outside, I was nonchalant. Inside, I was secretly doing a happy-dance because my off-spring was finally letting go of her resentment and instead showing some interest in the scene around us. Not only noticing, but comparing and analyzing similarities and differences between the places she knows and the places she is discovering.

Used Book Store on King Street

I wanted to pop into the Book Bank bookstore, but we were supposed to be meeting Hubby half-way down King Street. A couple of twenty-somethings exited the store as we strolled past. The Teen said, “Get a whiff of that book-smell!” Then she went back to practicing texting on her cell phone and walking at the same time.

Town Houses

The buildings here are a mixture of retail, office space, and housing–one of the major signs of a vital, thriving, workable community neighborhood.

Horse Statue in Old Truck

The Teen was full of playful quips this afternoon. She saw this horse statue in the back of a vintage truck in front of the Hard Times Cafe and said, “You don’t see that every day.” Indeed, you do not.

Old Town Storefronts

Painted in vibrant or subdued paint, the various storefronts and shop doors lend color and interest to the street scene. I was struck, once again, how much more you can see on foot than on wheels. There is no better way to get to know a place than by walking it.

Old Town Movie Theater

The Old Town theater was built in 1914 and used to have a vaudeville stage on the first floor and a dance hall on the second. Now it shows movies on two screens and fits right in with the restaurants and shops on this end of the street.

Market Square

The closer we get to the Potomac, the quainter and more colonial the street becomes. The shops and restaurants seem a little more narrow, the sidewalks a little more crowded with cafe tables. We stopped at Market Square to take pictures in front of the fountain and listen to a street performer thumping away on his drums.

Market Square Fountain

There is a farmer’s market here on Saturdays, so I will have to come back again to pick up some weekend goodies and to browse that book store, too. I also want to find a locally-owned coffee shop. I’m becoming too dependent on Starbucks grande iced mocha coffees.

Visitor's Center

Here’s the Visitor’s Center where you can sign up for guided tours or pick up materials for self-guided walking tours of the notable historic buildings in the Old Town neighborhood. You often see guides dressed in colonial clothes standing with a group of tourists here. A bunch were about to go on a “graveyard” tour when we snapped this picture.

A Typical Street View

We strolled down the lower end of King Street toward the waterfront.

Waterfront Plaza

Down on the plaza overlooking the Potomac, people sat on benches or fed the ducks or listened to the street performers or watched a couple artists sketching portraits. Standing at the railing, we caught glimpses of huge catfish opening their wide mouths around pieces of bread thrown into the water. The sight of the boats bobbing at the moorings made me homesick for Maine.

Waterfront Restaurant and Boat Tour Area

As the sun was about to set, we knew it was time to walk back to the Metro station.

Sailboat

Hubby picked up his bike and sped off down the path toward home. The Teen and I took a last look at the water, and I put away my camera for the day. Instead of viewing King Street through a lens on the walk back, I decided to simply absorb the vitality and hominess and beauty of this wonderful section of the city.

Old Town Alexandria Public Square

Day 16: Don’t Go Down The “Hollers”

And Other Words Of Wisdom From West Virginia

Shenandoah River

Dear Reader:

On Saturday morning, Hubby, the Teen, and I sprang the F-150 from the bowels of Underground Parking Lot 2 and promptly lost ourselves in the maze that is the D.C. roadway situation. You know those maze puzzles in magazines found on the racks of convenience stores? Looking at a map, that’s what you see. Instead of finding your way out with a no. 2 pencil, though, you are navigating a big red truck.

But forget the map . . . we didn’t bring one.

So what was the first stop on our trip? A convenience store somewhere over near Georgetown for a two maps (just to make sure). I was impressed by Hubby’s ability to parallel park the truck on city street between two smaller vehicles. Lucky for us, traffic was really light on Saturday morning. Soon, we were on the George Washington Parkway heading in the right direction and enjoying views of the Potomac through the trees.

Georgetown, I presume?

I was able to snap a picture of Georgetown through the window as we rolled along, heading for the highways and byways of Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia on our way to Charles Town, WV.

Farm from a Window

Twenty minutes later, the city and suburban landscape gave way to farmland. Driving down I-495 didn’t seem that much different from I-295 back home. I had to snap this picture of a farm, and an hour and fifteen minutes out of the city, we crossed the Shenandoah River and saw the long, wavy, blue line of the Blue Ridge Mountains ahead of us.

Appalachian Trail Sign

Seeing this sign, I had the feeling that, if necessary, I could get out and walk all the way home to western Maine.

Golf, anyone?

Charles Town, West Virginia is named for George Washington’s brother who had inherited some land here and who laid out and founded the town. Charles Town is a small city with a cute and thriving Main Street filled with shops, churches, library and a courthouse. On the outskirts near the highway, a casino has recently been built, and this is where you see the strip of chain stores and fast-food restaurant franchises. Wisely, the citizens preserved the historic downtown to retain its charm and character.

Houses All In A Row

We zipped through town, me gawking out the window and wishing we could stop and explore, and soon reached farms and cornfields and finally the housing development where our friends live. The development is ten years old and built around a golf course. I have to admit, the houses are beautiful and spacious with generous, rectangular back yards and large, wooden decks for the outdoor furniture and brick patios for the barbeque grill.

Golf Cart

Hubby and A___ decided to hit a bucket of neon-yellow golf balls over on the green. I liked watching all the electric carts zipping around while grilling R_____ with questions about her life here.

We stood in the shade of a tree and discussed women’s golf-fashion (I love the little plaid skorts and the saddle-shoes) and whether or not she enjoyed living here. She said they did—though everyone commutes to work in the city on the train and works long hours, and they still don’t really know too many neighbors even after two years.

R_____ works in town, though, and said she’s met some nice people there. “They did all warn me not to accidentally drive ‘down the hollers,'” she said. “You know, those dirt tracks that lead off the road?” I nodded. “There’s lots of family clan territories down there where they’ll shoot you if they don’t know you.”

Okaaaayyyy, then.

And how easy would it be to get to town without a car? R______ said she could, if necessary, ride her bike, but the road leading in doesn’t have a breakdown lane and the drivers don’t pay much attention to what they’re doing.

Would it be better to live in town, I wondered? She said the houses in town cost about three times as much as out in the development . . . and are ten times as old. I can see how tempting it would be, if moving to this area, to buy in a development where you have a new, huge house and a nice back yard and neighbors in the same socio-economic slot as you.

The downside is, like most exurban housing developments, this one doesn’t allow retail and there are no communal gathering spots other than the golf course/clubhouse. Everyone is so tired from commuting, anyway, that all they want to do is chill in front of the big screen television on the weekend. We sat out on the deck for hours and saw only one neighbor venture out her door. It felt like a ghost town–albeit a well-manicured, nicely-landscaped, upper-middle-class ghost town. If I hadn’t been drinking and eating with friends all afternoon, I would have wondered if any real people actually lived here.

A____ and R_____ have picked out some houses for us for “when we move down here” (not that we are seriously considering it), and we took a look at them. Part of me is drawn to this kind of pretty, quiet neighborhood. I could do so much with a big, flat, sunny fenced-in back yard in a climate where the flowers are already blooming by the first week of March and the growing season extends into November. I was impressed by their neighbor’s raised garden beds with drip irrigation system (I saw cucumber plants, carrots, and feathers of asparagus gone by).

But I do wonder if I’d want to move into yet another housing development just a little too far removed from the center of town, where, let’s face it, the real community-stuff happens and you can walk to the grocery store and return your library books and grab a cup of coffee at the java hut.

I’m not even sure that I’d want to live this far from the city now that I’ve had a taste of urban living.

Spinning Wheel from upstate New York

Of course, I had to ask about R_____’s spinning wheel and was delighted when she told me it belonged to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s great-grandmother! R_____’s great-great something grandfather was a brother to Charles Ingalls, so she and Laura shared this common ancestress. Made me itch to get back to my spinning . . . and reread the Little House books.

A___ and R____ were wonderful hosts. It was delightful to see and talk with them again. The Teen didn’t even complain too much as her new phone is keeping her in touch with her friends back home, and she was able to sit and watched movies in the air-conditioned house all afternoon. She even came outside to join us for dinner and practice her conversation skills with us “old” people. As the sun sank, we reluctantly headed back to the city after securing promises that our friends would come see us for a D.C. weekend before the end of the summer.

All in all, it was a nice trip out of the city.

Sunday, we went back to Alexandria, and I this time I remembered to bring my camera! Read about it next time, Outside the Box in D.C.

Day 14: Mojitos In The Square

Pentagon Row "Town Square"

Dear Reader:

Day 14 was a typical day spent completely in my neighborhood. I woke around seven o’clock, brewed some coffee, and read more of Phyllis Theroux’s inspiring book while listening to the sounds of George Winston playing on Pandora.com.

After my coffee/music/reading hour I headed down to the gym to lift weights, something that I’ve been neglecting more than not over the past couple of weeks. The scale in the gym showed a one-pound weight-loss which is either good (all that walking is burning more calories than I thought) or bad (I’m losing muscle mass due to laziness and inactivity.) I choose to believe it is the walking but also vow to get down there three times a week for the remainder of the summer just in case.

After a shower, breakfast, and a blog post, I laced up my Sketchers and walked through Pentagon Row to the grocery store. I love strolling down the brick-paved sidewalks and looking in shop windows, passing people walking their dogs or pushing baby carriages or sitting at outdoor cafe tables enjoying a coffee or a meal. The mixed-use character of our neighborhood is comfortable and welcoming and convenient in ways that a typical suburban housing development is not. How did this human-scale neighborhood come about, anyway, I wondered.

When I looked up the history of the development of Pentagon Row, I discovered an article on the New Urban Network praising the thoughtful development of this neighborhood.

“Pentagon Row charts an exciting direction in urban retail and residential development — it embraces smart-growth initiatives to serve a community and captures the romantic spirit of living above the shop.”

The article goes on to outline the process of developing this 18-acre site which was originally zoned only for housing. By mixing housing with retail and community space–rather than separating them as developers in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s were wont to do–a walkable, neighborly, human-scale village was created in the middle of the metropolitan D.C. area.

This kind of development is also called Traditional Neighborhood Development. From an article by the National Association of Home Builders and posted on the Legacy Town Square (another planned neighborhood) website:

“Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND), also called Neotraditional Development or the New Urbanism, refers to a pattern of land planning and development that emulates the towns and suburbs built in the early to mid-20th century more than the automobile-dominated suburbs of the 1960s and beyond. While the typical suburbs and planned communities built since the 1960s have stressed a separation of uses and great emphasis on the automobile, traditional neighborhood development stresses a walkable scale, an integration of different housing types and commercial uses, and the building of true town centers with civic uses.”

When Hubby said we were going to be living in a ninth-floor apartment, I didn’t realize I was going to be living in the middle of a New Urban neighborhood, just the kind of place I’ve been reading and writing about the past few years. So now, when I talk about the wisdom of New Urban principals, I can do so with some authority. I’ve experienced it first hand–and I love it!

Shops on the Square

Hubby was home from work early when I arrived back home from my walk to the grocery store. Since the Teen had hurt her leg exercising the previous night and was busy learning how to use her new cell phone (yes, we finally figured out which phone/plan would be suitable), we went down to the gym to work out on the elliptical machines for an hour and then lazed around the outdoor pool and read through the worst heat of the day. The pool is surrounded by pretty black-iron fencing interwoven with bright-green vines, concrete planters overflowing with magenta impatiens, dark-leafed tropical foliage and spiky, green tropical plants, and lounge chairs and tables with dark-orange umbrellas. Moms and dads help their children learn to swim, teens and twenty-somethings tap away on their cell phones, women and men read and sun themselves. Here is something about the people who live in this apartment building–everybody reads. Whenever I come down to the pool almost every single adult and many of the teens have a book in hand. What does this say about the community? I’ll let you decide.

After our swim, Hubby and I strolled over to the square where the Thursday evening concert was underway. A two-person band mutilated some Steve Windwood and U2 songs from the stage in front of the water fountain, but their hearts were in the right place, and it was fun to sip a couple of blackberry Mojitos and eat Cobb salad at an outdoor table and watch the little kids running around on the grassy area in front of us while the band played. It looked like half the neighborhood decided to hang out in the square last night. We watched people of all sizes, shapes, colors, and dress wander past our table. There were the almost-furtive smokers standing outside restaurant doorways, dog-walkers, dads carrying their babies in slings, groups of girlfriends out for a drink or two after work, shoppers with bags stopping by for an ice-cream or coffee at Starbucks (I do wish there were a locally-owned coffee shop instead, but that is a small complaint) after a successful foray in the shops.

After all that exercise and stimulation (not to mention the two mojitos), I practically fell into bed and a deep sleep. These Thursday concerts remind me of when Hubby and I were first married, living in our apartment over J.J. Newberry’s in Farmington and going to the town park for the weekly band performances. Farmington is also one of those towns, like Alexandria, that the New Urbanists use as templates for their community designs. We did, in fact, live “above the shop.” We could walk to the grocery store, the movie theater, the pharmacy, the gift shop, and a nice variety of restaurants. When we bought our first house, that town, too, had a Maine street with housing and retail and schools all mixed together.

Why did we stray so far from what we knew? Why did the automobile change the entire structure of our housing developments? Having lived in both traditional neighborhoods and in a 1960’s cul-de-sac exurban housing development, I find it hard to believe anybody would deliberately chose to live cut off from the vibrancy and community that the “town,” with its retail business, civic spaces, and gathering spots, provides. What was the charm of suburban housing development with its little houses all in a row, serpentine roads that led nowhere, and nothing to do but sit in the back yard staring at . . . nothing but the fence between you and the neighbors’ back yard?

So the question remains: Can we remake these single-use sprawls into something truly liveable, walkable, and sustainable? It will take changing “by-laws” and renegotiating zoning to allow retail development, types of buildings (not only single-family homes but also apartments above retail shops, apartment-type buildings, etc.), sidewalks, and lamp posts. It can happen, but do enough people want to do it? Probably not, at least not now and probably not until it is too late.

Days 7 & 8: A-List Neighborhoods

Urban Garden in Adams Morgan

Dear Reader:

The end of the week found us exploring two very different kinds of neighborhoods with one thing in common: they both start with the letter A. Read on to hear about our Old Town Alexandria and Adams Morgan experiences.

On Thursday, Hubby and I biked into Alexandria on the Mt. Vernon Trail. The trail took us along a highway, down along the Potomac, across a pretty marsh area (where we saw a smiling woman sitting on a grassy bank, sketching, her lavender-colored bike parked a short distance down the path), and past an old industrial site with its rust and peeling paint juxtaposed against the blue river dotted with sailboats. Crossing a grassy, old railroad track, we found ourselves in Old Town Alexandria–a quaint, Colonial-era village. I forgot my camera, but if you’d like to armchair travel today, click HERE to go to the official website.

We parked our bikes at the foot of King Street near the Old Dominion Boat Club where the boats were moored and bobbing around. The Potomac is a wide, calm river, and watching the white sails cutting through the water gave me a pang of homesickness for Maine–the park in Belfast where we like to sit and drink Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, the Bangor Riverfront where we watch the fireworks on the 4th of July, Pine Point in Scarborough. Shaking off the longing for home, we made our way up King Street, past trolley buses waiting for tourist groups and well-dressed couples strolling along the brick-paved sidewalks.

After a week living in our neighborhood of modern, concrete high-rises and shopping malls and New Urbanist village squares, walking in an historic town felt cozy and familiar. Buildings here are two-stories tall, three at the most. Church spires rise into the blue, early-evening sky. Cafes offer sidewalk seating, black metal chairs and tables filled with people chatting and enjoying glasses of wine or mugs of coffee or plates of delicious food. For those who enjoy shopping, Alexandria offers boutiques and shops of all types. We passed clothing stores and shoe shops and even two wig emporiums.

For a few blocks, we wandered behind a couple of women wearing long, linen skirts and simple tops and the kind of flat, stocky shoes you see on women in Portland’s Old Port or strolling through L.L. Bean, and that feeling of familiarity hit me again. It must be the Colonial influence here that brings Alexandria closer to New England than other neighborhoods I’ve seen so far. The ladies crossed the street and we continued on, passing bakeries and an art gallery and pubs with an Irish theme.

Alexandria is a classy, well-heeled neighborhood. I felt a little conspicuous in my plaid Bermuda shorts and tank top and pink sneakers– fine gear for bike riding but not up to par with the coiffed and perfectly-made-up women heading off to meet friends for dinner at the bistro on the corner.

The sun sinking lower, we strolled back to the boat club and biked toward home and a glass of chardonnay out on the balcony before bedtime.

Mural in Adams Morgan

The following day, the Teen and I hopped on the Metro to Adams Morgan, a neighborhood not far from the National Zoo and a world away from the colonial charm of Old Town Alexandria.

Adams Morgan is known as a “gateway” community for immigrants, and because of this cultural diversity, the neighborhood is colorful, multilingual, and filled with every kind of food you ever wished to sample. I saw Greek restaurants and Ethiopian establishments, a falafel joint next to a Mexican eatery, an Irish pub and an airy bakery/cafe called Tryst with what looked like a fantastic assortment of cheesecakes and pastries as well as a full seating area with couches and farm tables and comfy chairs crowded into the space. We also spotted a well-known blues bar called Madam’s Organ, a place that sports a mural of a large-breasted, red-haired “Madam” along with its delightful word-play of a name.

To get here, we took the Metro to the Woodley Park-Adams Morgan stop and walked across the Calvert Street Bridge. Soon we found ourselves walking past gorgeous row houses painted in different colors and planted with tiny gardens–some quite lush and beautiful–behind iron-rail fences in front.

Adams Morgan Row Houses

The tree-shaded street gave way to the busy intersection on Columbia Avenue. We wandered around, absorbing the atmosphere, and looking for Tryst. According to guidebooks, this neighborhood has more independently-owned shops than what you usually find in D.C. areas. Sure enough, I spotted a natural food store on Columbia, a Peruvian goods store, and the shop in the photo below. If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ll know how intrigued I was by the name stenciled on the window.

Urban Sustainable!

The Teen and I were hungry and thirsty (it hit 90 degrees here Friday). I let the Teen decide where we’d eat since she is being such a good sport letting me drag her away from her friends and home this summer to spend eight weeks in the company of–gasp–parental units. So, with all those ethnic foods to chose from, where did we end up?

Pizza Mart

The Pizza Mart for a jumbo slice . . . something you see advertised around here all over the place. This was a hole-in-the-wall joint, maybe the size of my kitchen, with two short counters,five or so ripped, red-leather stools, and the largest slices of pizza you’ve ever seen! Seriously, I didn’t know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t imagine a slice of pizza the equivalent of a 10″ from back at home.

Jumbo Slice

The guy at the counter was friendly, and the cook delivered the pizza to the table on two paper plates. We were joined by a family chatting to each other in Spanish, gladly moving aside so they could grab handfuls of paper napkins and shakers of garlic. The pizza? Delicious. Good choice by the Teen. We felt like native Adams Morganites.

After lunch, we browsed a wonderful used bookstore called Idle Time Books where the owner had a lovely, lilting accent (Irish?) and the narrow, two-storied space was crammed full of reading material on every subject. I spent some time in the “writing” section and picked up a couple of paperbacks–one a memoir called THE JOURNAL KEEPER by Phyllis Theroux and the other issue 38 of GRANTA with a newly-discovered story by Raymond Carver featured and a theme called “Love Stories” which, of course, I couldn’t resist.

Photo courtesy of Idle Time Books website

If you are ever in D.C., I highly recommend making the trip to Adams Morgan and Idle Time Books. Then stop in at Tryst for a latte and a pastry and fit right in with the local literati. We were running short of time and our bellies were over-stuffed with pizza, so we had to forgo the cheesecake and cafe au lait and instead walked around a bit more before heading back over the bridge to Woodley Park.

Diversity statue in the park

The park/square was shady and full of vendors selling “fast” food and drinks beneath the tents–if you want to call homemade, authentic, regional foods wrapped in foil and colorful drinks dotted with ice floating in glass drink dispensers “fast.”

Bright paint on a sunny day

I love the color on the buildings . . .

City plantings

. . . and the gardens in front of the row houses.

King in D.C.

‘Course surprises are always just around the corner, and it seems that Maine has a presence even in this quirky, diverse section of D.C. Oggling the gardens on Calvert Street, I looked down and saw this hardcover edition of Stephen King’s NEEDFUL THINGS, just laying there in a garden plot like a missive from my home state.

All in all, the excursion to Adams Morgan was a success. Even the Teen enjoyed it. I think she felt comfortable up here where the people and restaurants are more laid-back–a little shabbier, perhaps, but with a very natural, easy vibe. I’ll be heading up there again, maybe mid-morning for a coffee and bagel at Tryst and another peek into the bookstore and a definite visit to Urban Sustainable, which we had to skip as the day was getting late.

As different as these two neighborhood were, I enjoyed each of them–Alexandria, for its familiarity. Adams Morgan for a shot of adventure. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.

As my Dear Reader, Mary Ann, mentioned in a comment, there are opportunities for exploration right around the corner from you own house. When is the last time you walked around the town next door? Or checked out the local tourist spot? This weekend, I encourage you to put on your walking shoes, grab your camera, and take a look around through a different lens. You may be surprised by what you see.

Days 3 & 4: Biking, BBQ, and Some Pretty Cool Sculpture

Hirshhorn Museum Outdoor Sculpture Garden

Reminder: Click on underlined words to access links for more information, articles, photos, videos, and more.

Dear Reader:

Sunday morning, hubby and I hit the bike trail. I had my first experience with city biking, traveling partly on sidewalks (I’m thinking this is not good form, though people do it) and partly on the city streets where there are marked bike lanes in the middle of the road. D.C. is a very bike-friendly city with its many trails, marked bike routes, and a Capital Bikeshare program.

All around the city you’ll see bright red bicycles lined up in a cheery, earth-friendly row, waiting for members (you can get one day, five-day, one month, or one-year memberships for prices ranging from $5 to $75) to hop on and ride to another station where the bike can be dropped off. The beauty of this is that the rider doesn’t have to cart the machine all around the city. Just take it, use it, drop it off at a station closest to your destination. The first thirty minutes of each ride are free, the second thirty minutes are a buck-fifty, and so on.

If you want to use a bike for a longer ride, it makes more sense to rent one for the day from one of the many rental companies. You might even want to take a bike tour to see some of the historic sites. For example, Bike and Roll offers seven different bike tours as well as an option to create a custom experience.

Park in Crystal City near the bike path

Since hubby stashed our bikes in the back of the F-150, all we had to do on Sunday morning was free my cycle from the truck bed and take off. Passing by the Crystal City Water Park, we hung a left to access the 18-mile Mt. Vernon Trail. This paved, two-lane trail is a favorite with locals and tourists, especially on Sunday morning. Bikers and joggers were out in full force enjoying the breezy, warm day.

Gravelly Point

A few minutes into our ride, we found Gravelly Point. This is a good picnic spot, especially for families with young children, as the planes leaving Reagan International Airport take off directly overhead. The area is park-like with its wide swaths of grass and the trees and shrubbery lining the river where you can watch the boats and kayaks out in the water.

Trestle on Mt. Vernon Trail

We watched a couple of planes take off and then launched ourselves down the path along the Potomac. Soon the path was shaded with trees. Every so often you’d hear “Left!” or the cheerful “ding-ding” of a bicycle bell indicating that someone was about to pass you. This happened alot, since the traffic was quite heavy. Hubby and I passed many a jogger, and I am now longing for a bell of my own.

I was captivated by the squares of light falling through the rusty trestle bridge we passed under and made a note to stop and take a picture on the way back. Hubby was too far ahead of me, so I had to pedal like crazy to catch up. We crossed the Potomac and ended up at the Jefferson Memorial where we parked the bikes for a few minutes and explored the site.

Jefferson Memorial

We wanted to hit the National Capital BBQ Battle, so we headed back to the apartment to grab the Teen who was, amazingly, showered and dressed and blown-dry and made-up and ready to go. Trekking across the Mall, we saw the Hirshhorn Museum, the Smithsonian’s museum of contemporary art and sculpture. The sculpture garden called to us with its pool and plantings and intriguing installations.

I should have taken notes on the names of the pieces and their creators. Unfortunately, I am becoming as technology-dependent as the rest of the world and assumed I could easily find a list of pics and info online at home. Um, wrong. Note to self: Buy notebook today and carry it everywhere!

Thought this sculpture of a coat was cool. The Hirshhorn has art programs for teens, I discovered while searching online for the information I was too lazy to write down. Check out this short video created by some of the kids in the program. You’ll see the coat sculpture in a whole different way.

I wonder if I can get the Teen to sign up for a workshop in the Artlab?

Willem de Kooning "Seated Woman on a Bench"

Having a little bit of fun with sculpture.

Much as I would have liked to continue to explore the garden (I have a feeling this is going to be one of my favorite spots in D.C.), we were lured by the call of ribs and other culinary delights. Off we went in search of the BBQ Battle. A block or so over from the Mall, on 12th St. near the Old Post Office, we found an entrance to the BBQ.

Clock tower of Old Post Office

The BBQ has raised over 1.2 million dollars in the past for the Boys & Girls Clubs of D.C. We handed over our $12 apiece and took a look around. The BBQ was like our Maine community festivals–Strawberry or Apple or Lobster Fest–with vendors set up in booths, entertainment on various stages, food and drink for sale, and samples to try. Unlike our rural Maine festivals, this one was crowded with people of all races, nationalities, styles of dress, languages. Fascinating to watch the astounding variety of people!

People at the BBQ

It’s quite a jump from Willem de Kooning to Lego, but the day’s theme seemed to be sculpture, high-brow to low-brow. The kids were getting a kick out of sticking their heads in the shark’s jaws.

Lego sculpture

Everyone seemed to be lined up at the Safeway Sampling Tent, so we queued up for what ended up being the longest line EVER! Okay, not ever, but it took us a good two hours to finally get up to the sampling area. I tried to remember the kids in Haiti from the IMAX movie the day before, the kids who were lined up with buckets waiting for clean water to drink. Instead of griping, I decided to watch people instead.

We filled ourselves on samples of watermelon and mango, lamb ribs and chili dogs and bbq turkey, potato and ceasar salads, and countless tiny cups of lemonade, tea, and soft drinks. My favorite was a Sobe Goji Pear Yerba Mate drink. Yerba Mate is a South American beverage that is supposed to help with weight-loss, energy, and focus. I don’t know if the Sobe drink can do all that for you, but it sure did taste yummy!

Oscar Meyer Weinermobile

There’s just something fun about the Weinermobile which has been around (in various incarnations, of course) for about as long as automobiles. Click HERE to view a YouTube video about the history of the Weinermobile.

Love Seed Mama Jump

Finally we wandered down to the far end of the BBQ and the blues stage and caught the first set of a great Delaware band, Love Seed Mama Jump. These guys could rock! Click HERE to sample their version of John Denver’s “Country Road.” The bongo drums were unique, and I think I caught a bit of Celtic flare in the music, though the Teen thinks I’m crazy.

All in all, I’m glad we went to the festival. It’s the sort of thing that the locals do, I think, and we saw a great variety of people just hangin’ out and enjoying themselves on a nice summer Sunday afternoon. The money raised will help some kids get into after school programs and summer camps, and I may have discovered a new band to follow. Next time, though, we would skip the sampling tent and head over to “Retaurant Row” to buy some finger-lickin’ spicy ribs or one of the gigantic turkey legs we saw some people gnawing upon.

After three days of sightseeing and walking and Metro-ing, we went home for some much-needed hydration and sleep. Hubby went to work Monday morning, and the Teen and I decided that Mondays should be housekeeping day since we pretty much needed some quiet and home time. I hit the gym in the morning.

Later, I walked over to the Harris Teeter for some provisions. I haven’t driven a car since Wednesday, and I love living in a walkable community. With a mall right across the street and the Pentagon Row shops just around the corner, I could live comfortably without leaving my city block, even if I didn’t have a bicycle.

This is a planned development, quite new and one of several of Arlington, Virginia’s urban villages. According to Wikipedia, a Metro stop spurred development of this area which was once an open field and some industrial buildings. With its green spaces, park, tree-lined sidewalks, center square, and public transportation, this development provides healthy, happy urban living.

If you can afford it.

The apartment we are staying in costs about $3000 a month. Average rental costs for a two-bedroom in the D.C. area (according to ApartmentRatings.com) is about $1500 a month for 2011. I keep wondering, where do all the retail and restaurant workers live?

Today I’m heading over to Crystal City, the urban village next door, in order to check out the farmer’s market. Check in tomorrow for pics and commentary!

We Cambridged, We Saw, and We Concord

For several years now I have wanted to visit Cambridge, Massachusetts. Why Cambridge, you ask? Sometime just before junior high school, I had gone through my parents’ collection of books stored on shelves in the basement and came across a paperback edition of Erich Segal’s book, LOVE STORY. I read it, understanding not much except that she was a young girl who dies. What kind of writer, I wondered, kills off the heroine like that? Stupid book, I thought. I’d go back to my ANN OF GREEN GABLES, thank you very much.

(In eighth grade my teacher gave me a copy of WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, and I realized that heroes die in some books so I’d better get used to it. Two years later I read GONE WITH THE WIND and discovered that even epic love stories can have tragic endings. Don’t even get me started on ANNA KARENINA.)

Sunny courtyard seen through an archway

Anyway, LOVE STORY was my first literary journey to Harvard and Radcliffe, The Coop, Widener Library, and rowing on the Charles River. After that, I had a fascination with Harvard. For me it has been this sort of ideal–as if all that history and learning and writing and lecturing and studying has bonded into the brick and stone structures, permeated the leaves of the trees in Harvard Yard, seeped into the water of the river down which preppy boys skim in long, thin boats. If only I could get there, I fantasized, perhaps some of that intellectual wondrousness (think Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Adams, Al Gore, Matt Damon . . .) would rub off on me.

Plus it just sounded like a really cool, historical, happening place to visit.

So, last weekend when my friend, Donna, invited me to attend her reunion at Lesley University, a small liberal arts college right next door to Harvard, I jumped at the opportunity.

This is Lesley University’s Admissions building.

The entire campus is housed in these beautiful, renovated, Victorian-era houses snuggled up together on tree-shaded streets just off Massachusetts Avenue. If you Google Map it, look for Wendell Street.

Here I am on the steps of the dormitory hall where we stayed. The three-story house was tall and narrow with five or six rooms on each floor. A wooden staircase wound up from the front entrance hall to the two upper stories. Pretty posh living quarters for undergraduates, I thought.

The Coop Bookstore and Cafe

Refreshed and revived, we didn’t stay in our room for long–just about enough time to throw our bags on the bed and eat a brownie from the fabulous table of food downstairs in the common room. Donna gave me a tour of Lesley and then showed me where she used to cut through Harvard to get to stores and whatnot.

Street performer on a unicycle playing the bagpipes in a kilt

Sure enough, we came out near Harvard Square where you can catch the T, watch street performers, browse for books in The Coop, have coffee at one of the many, many coffee shops, and window-shop for shoes that cost more than I spend on groceries for a month.

Cambridge River Festival

Donna and I were lucky to be here the same weekend as the Cambridge River Festival, a celebration of the arts set up along the Charles. About 2 pm, we slipped into a tent to enjoy a presentation of storytelling by some very talented local teenagers, viewed some performance art (guy dressed up like a giant, slightly creepy, white angel) and then went back to Harvard Square in search of coffee at The Coop.

Once we’d had our fill of mocha lattes and book browsing, we walked around the city for a few more hours enjoying the pretty, landscaped dooryards, quaint neighborhoods, campus buildings, and shop windows. Cambridge really is a walkable city, the kind of place New Urbanists claim we most enjoy living in.

Roses gracing the sidewalk

What are the priciples of New Urbanism?
1. Walkability
2. Connectivity
3. Mixed use and diversity
4. Mixed housing
5. Quality architecture and Urban Design
6. Traditional neighborhood structure
7. Increased density
8. Green transportation
9. Sustainability
10.Quality of life

Of course, Cambridge is an OLD urban model. It is the kind of place the New Urbanists look to for inspiration. Cambridge has the elelments we’ve been missing in all our unsustainable suburbs and exurban housing developments.

Here, you can shop, eat, learn, sleep, exercise, work and play all in the same place without having to get into a car. You can walk or bike or ride the T or catch a bus. The architecture is stunning. The quality of life is fantastic–all those institutions of learning, the emphasis on culture and the arts, the plethora of caffeinated beverages. I felt energized just being there for one weekend. Imagine living somewhere even a little bit like that.

Sign at the Farmer's Market

On Sunday morning, Donna and I even discovered a farmer’s market in Charles Square. We bought bread, sampled cheesecake, perused the greens, and admired the booths. I watched people buying bags of veggies, tubs of goat cheese and long sticks of baguettes and envied them their local lunch.

Donna at the Farmer's Market

We ate a small lunch at an outside table in front of a coffee shop and headed back to Harvard for more sightseeing. I was determined to see Widener Library before we left Cambridge, and Donna wanted to find a church she had attended a few times when she was at Lesley.

Ironically, you CAN park your car at Harvard Yard . . . or pretty close to it, anyway. When we had arrived at Lesley the day before, we were given a pass to park at Harvard’s underground Oxford Street parking lot. Now we stopped to see the buildings around Harvard Yard on our way back to the garage.

Widener Library

Widener Library was closed on Sunday morning, but was still impressive in its huge massiveness. The thought of all those books housed in such a beautiful structure makes me giddy!

Memorial Church

We found Memorial Church, and snapped a few pictures. It was built in 1932 as a memorial to those who had died in World War I and to serve as Harvard’s church.

Pretty grounds at Harvard University

The day was getting late, and so with reluctance we found the parking garage and said farewell to Cambridge. Heading home, we decided to swing through Concord–home to some pretty famous writers back in the day. We drove past Thoreau’s Walden Pond. A little ways down the road was something even more remarkable and heartwarming . . . a community garden!

Community garden just outside Concord

Here where a few of our country’s great writers–Thoreau, Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Nat Hawthorne–penned some pretty amazing American Literature, modern Concordians not only enjoy reading but also like growing their own food. According to the official Concord, MA website, “Concord has long supported community gardens and in 2010 has three community gardens on town land with over 100 plots. The burgeoning interest in gardening and local food production has ensured that two of the three gardens are subscribed to capacity, though there is limited turnover from year to year. East Quarter Farm Gardens, near Ripley School, was established in 2009 and still has plots available.”

Three community gardens on public land! Over one hundred plots! Two are filled to capacity!

There in a quaint, old, respected, historical, classy community we find three community gardens, while here in my exurban subdivision carved out of old farmland we have none because some people don’t want to live next door to a garden. How sad–and stupid. When is my community going to wake up?

Emerson's House

Perhaps if I were as effective a writer as Emerson or Thoreau, I could convince my fellow community members to find a place for a communal garden space, to change the bylaws which allow cutting trees in order to put in a swimming pool but not for a sunny garden area, and to begin changing our subdivision from a car-centric, single-use, unsustainable, exurban backwater into a walkable, mixed-use, connected, sustainable, green community.

Cambridge house on side-street

Or maybe I just need to get out of Dodge for awhile.

Stay tuned in the next week or so as Outside the Box travels to Washington D.C.

Growing In The Shade

Red sky in the morning . . .

“Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.”

Dear Reader:

The above quote is an old adage I learned as a child. Basically, it means that if there’s a red sunset you can expect clear, sunny skies the next day, but if you have a red sunrise, watch out for a gloomy day ahead. (click HERE for a scientific explanation.)

I say, with all the news we’ve had lately about oil prices, revolutions in the Middle East, mega earthquakes, nuclear power plant problems, our national debt ceiling about to be reached come May, and a stalemate over our Washington budget, we are seeing a red sky in the morning here on planet Earth. Will we heed the warning signs?

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t heard about Peak Oil yet? If you haven’t, I encourage you to find out about it as quickly as possible. The Post Carbon Institute has published a Peak Oil Primer (click HERE to read it)that will give you an overview of the issue. Basically, Peak Oil is the point in time when we have used up half of the original oil reserves in the world. If graphed on a bell curve, the extraction and production of oil would form a “peak” at this point, and from that point on extraction and production will become more difficult and less efficient over time. Another term for this is “energy resource depletion.” Or, as I like to call it, “running out of gas.”

You can also watch a few documentaries:
COLLAPSE with Michael Rupert (click HERE)
THE END OF SUBURBIA (click HERE)
ENERGY CROSSROADS (click HERE to view the trailer)

These are just a few. I encourage you to explore and share what you find.

In essence, what these films (and the myriad books that are available–more on those in another post) tell us is that everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, in our current way of life depends on oil. Our food is grown with oil-based fertilizers applied by oil-run tractors that are manufactured using oil. Irrigation pumps to water the fields run on oil. All plastics are made with oil. Obviously, our transportation is mostly oil-fueled. We heat our homes and hot water with oil. Our clothing (and just about everything else in the stores) is shipped to us via a fleet of trucks that run on gasoline. Suburbia depends on the automobile to get its residents to and from work, school, stores, and hospitals. We have fewer and fewer walkable, liveable communities.

I am aware that this all sounds alarmist. It is. I am alarmed. The more I learn, the more I read the news, the more I think, the more alarmed I become. All my little projects here Outside the Box have been attempted because I believe the only way to make a difference in this alarming scenario is to go local. Even then, deep down, all this square-foot gardening/buying local milk/knitting socks feels more like child's play than a real answer to the disaster-waiting-to-happen. Unless everyone else begins to localize, too.

A couple years ago I tried to bring Peak Oil and its implications to the attention of my homeowner's association–asking that we begin to think about some changes to our bylaws that would allow us to become more sustainable and less dependent on oil and outside resources. Opening up the canopy to let in much-needed sunlight was my biggest plea. I said we needed to be able to learn to grow our own food in our own backyards, and and that takes eight hours of sunlight, minimum. I also said we could become more energy independent if we used solar technology to heat our homes and hot water, possibly even selling excess energy back to "the grid" and easing some of our home economies and off-setting increases in our association dues.

As you can imagine, nobody took this seriously. Maybe it was because I also mentioned raising goats.

I understand that some people moved here to "get back to nature." Our development was created as a vacation community, after all. I understand that people "up to camp" like the old, Maine pine trees swaying above the cottage while the sunlight sparkles on the lake. It is beautiful. I like it, too. I wish our way of life could continue on just the way it is now, driving outside the community to go to work and coming home to our nice houses and power boats and microwave ovens and the wind sighing through the pines while we sip our pre-dinner Merlot on the deck while the steak sizzles on the gas grill. It's a wonderful life.

I just don't happen to believe it's gonna last. Hopefully I'm wrong.

While we wait and see what the future holds, I'll keep on playing around with my projects. I can't do much about what other people chose or chose not to learn. To give up entirely would mean giving in to fear.

In the spirit of doing something even if it is a drop in the bucket, I am plunging ahead this year with more garden boxes. I am going to focus on vegetables and herbs that can be grown in the shade and hope to trade for some tomatoes and peppers and squashes from someone with a sunny garden spot. I’m also going to experiment with those Topsy Turvy planters . . . growing tomatoes upside down on iron hooks stuck into my septic field–the sunniest spot in my yard. I’m also contemplating growing a few tomatoes in large pots . . . on top of my septic tank, the area of my yard that remained mostly snow-free all winter despite record snowfalls due to the heat underneath the dirt.

If you have a shady area of your yard, if your entire yard is shady, and if you want to give gardening a try, HERE is a list of plants that will grow in 3-6 hours of sunlight. Compost heavily. Water regularly. Read the article about Peak Oil and share it with others. Good luck, and let us know how it turns out.