What Makes A Great Skyline?

We’re in Austin for a quick visit, and last night we attended a fine performance of the Austin Symphony Orchestra at the Long Center. The Long Center not only is a good place to listen to orchestral music, it also is a great place to admire the Austin skyline. Being across the river from the core downtown area, it allows you to get some distance and perspective.

Austin has a great skyline, and looking at it from one of the Long Center balconies got me to think about what makes a great skyline. The height of the skyscrapers helps, of course, but it is not dispositive. The key thing is variety, both in terms of the height of the buildings–to help create that classic, jagged, sawtooth look that we associate with skylines–but also in the design and depth of the buildings. Austin has some very tall buildings, but it also has a lot of architectural variety that makes the skyline interesting to study. The “jenga” building, and the graceful arc of the Google building, which looks like an unfurled sail from a distance, help to make the Austin skyline a lot more interesting.

Columbus has a decent skyline, and thanks to the LeVeque tower, and its art deco lineage, there is some architectural variety. The construction that has occurred over the past few years and the projects that are underway will go a long way to determining the long-term quality of the Columbus skyline, however. I’m hoping the architects of the new buildings are willing to take some risks on their designs, and provide a bit more visual diversity, so Columbus’ skyline ends up looking a lot more like Austin’s.

Late Night At The Lot

Yesterday, Kish had a horrendous travel day, with flight cancellations, delays, and multiple layovers. As a result of the mishaps, I found myself spending some quality time hanging at the John Glenn International Airport cell phone lot at about 2 a.m.

In the wee hours, the cell phone lot is a pretty quiet place. Unlike earlier in the day, there aren’t a lot of people moving in and out due to the arrival of flights they have been waiting for. There were perhaps three other vehicles in the lot at 2 a.m.–the Columbus airport isn’t a round-the-clock venue, unlike some larger airports–and my guess is that we all were waiting to make pick-ups for passengers on the same, delayed flight.

There’s a certain etiquette in the cell phone lot during the off hours. For one thing, there’s lots of open territory, and you want to make sure that you give the other cars plenty of room by parking multiple spaces away. If you were to drive up and park right next to another vehicle that has been waiting, the other driver probably would turn on the ignition and move to another spot. Whether you intend it or not, you would be sending an unnerving personal space message. Parking right next to another car at a vacant cell phone lot late at night is like violating the “two-urinal” rule at a not-very-busy men’s public restroom.

There’s also not really much to do at a cell phone lot while you’re waiting to get the text or the call that it’s time for the pick-up. It’s an ideal time for playing games on your phone. I’m a bit surprised, frankly, that airports haven’t installed one of those rolling advertising billboards at the front of their cell phone lots and offered businesses the opportunity to peddle their wares to the captive audience that is cooling its heels and waiting for a call. A news crawl would be a nice touch, too. When all you’re doing is passing the time, I guarantee you that people would look at the ads and follow the crawl. It could be a nice additional revenue source for JGI, and I bet the cell lot parkers would appreciate it.

If they have videos and advertisements on gas station pumps, why not at the cell phone lot?

Cruisin’ Cbus

A big part of the plot of the classic film American Graffiti centered around the car culture of early ’60s America. The social life of a small town focused on teenagers cruising the main street, showing off their rides, listening to rock ‘n roll on the same radio station, stopping for a cheeseburger, engaging in youthful hijinks, and getting into the occasional drag race.

I can report to you that cruisin’ culture remains alive and well in Columbus, except instead of candy-colored cars and hot rods the cruising traffic consists of motorcycles, decked out pickup trucks, and the occasional three-wheeled vehicle. The cruisers like driving up and down High Street, revving their engines and seemingly trying to create as many backfires and engine rumbles as possible. And music remains a big part of the scene, too, except rather than Wolfman Jack and Buddy Holly and the Coasters, hip hop played at maximum volume rules the day. If you live along High Street you know the cruisers put on quite a show starting in the spring and continuing through the fall, when the weather is best suited for a drive through town. It’s entertaining to sit outside and watch the parade, so long as your eardrums can take the noise level.

Why does the cruisin’ culture still thrive in downtown Columbus? I think one of the main impulses that motivated the kids in American Graffiti–to proudly display their vehicles, in a place where they thought everyone would see them–still lurks out there. If you’ve got a fancy chopper or a high-end, chrome-plated, big-engined pickup, you could use them to run errands, pick up the groceries, or go for a quiet ride on a country road . . . or you could drive them through the center of the city, knowing there will be people on the streets and sidewalks to look your way when you rev your engine and crank up your sound system. The existence of traffic lights every block encourages the revving and backfires, and the tall buildings lining High Street ensure the vehicle noise echoes to maximum effect. In short, if you want to cruise in your ride, High Street is a pretty good place to do it.

This isn’t a great thing if you live in one of the buildings along High Street, of course–but it’s interesting that there is still a part of the American social landscape that likes going for a very public ride as in days of old. No drag races yet, though.

Turtles Tale

I took a walk along the Scioto Mile this afternoon and was pleased to see a row of painted turtles sunning themselves atop some cutoff stumps along the river’s eastern shoreline. There originally were turtles on virtually every one of the small outcroppings in the water, but by the time I got into a position to take the photograph above a number of the terrapins had slid off their perches into the water, and only three of the turtles remained.

I don’t believe I’ve seen turtles in the Scioto River before, and I took it as a good sign that the river’s overall health continues to improve. Studies indicate that freshwater turtles can play an important role in maintaining and improving the health of rivers, because turtles are scavengers and help to remove fish carcasses and other edible debris that might otherwise harm the quality of river water.

I like turtles, and I look forward to seeing more of them in my walks along the Scioto. I hope the presence of turtles means the fish population in the river is growing as well.

The Coming Red And Blue Cloud Above Gay And High

We will soon be getting a new neighbor in the Gay Street District of downtown Columbus–but instead of being at street level, like most of our neighbors, this addition will be floating above the ground, suspended from supports attached to the four buildings at the intersection of Gay and High Streets.

The new neighbor will be a sculpture, called “Current,” by Janet Echelman. The artwork will be a red and blue, cloud-like object that apparently will look something like the picture above once it is installed. According to news reports, it was made with 78 miles of twine and more than 500,000 knots.

That’s a lot of knots!

“Current” is supposed to be installed in early June. It will be a significant piece of public art in Columbus, and civic boosters are hoping that it will have the same kind of visual appeal and tourist-attracting power as “The Bean” in Chicago’s Millennium Park. If that happens, we can expect to see “Current” as the backdrop for a lot of selfies.

It will be interesting to see how “Current” works out. Speaking as someone who walks through the Gay and High Street intersection every day, I wonder about the practical impact of a large, knotty sculpture suspended overhead. How will it handle the inevitable summer thunderstorm? Will traffic be snarled as drivers gape at the huge red and blue object overhead? Can it be changed to scarlet and gray during football season? Will I inevitably appear as a random background pedestrian in hundreds of selfies taken as I walk to and from work every day?

I like the fact that Columbus is trying something interesting like this, and I really hope it works out as planned.

On A Warm Spring Afternoon in Cbus

We had an absolutely spectacular spring afternoon in downtown Columbus today. The sun was so bright it cast dark shadows on the ground, the sky was a deep blue, and the temperature hit the upper 70s. It was a perfect day for the downtown set to get out on the Scioto Mile, where I took these pictures on a walk after work. People were out in force, including three kayakers navigating the muddy Scioto currents and a guy walking along with a beautiful, bright yellow macaw. I should have gotten a picture of that, too, now that I think of it.

A River, Wasted

There’s a significant highway construction project underway in downtown Columbus, just south of downtown. The project has eliminated the path that you formerly could follow south along the Scioto River from the Scioto Mile riverside park area to Audubon Park. Now, instead of the river and some surrounding greenery, there will be towering highway overpasses right next to the river–with the shadows, road noise, truck engine sounds, and graffiti that inevitably accompany highway bridges. You can get a sense of the height of the overpass from the photo above and its location adjacent to the river from the photo below.

I can’t help but see this as a missed opportunity and a waste of riverfront. On nice spring days, like this past weekend, the Scioto Mile area was full of people walking, jogging, cycling, and skateboarding along the river–but when you reach this construction scene at the south end, you either turn around or make a hard left turn and walk through and under the construction zone. When the project is finished, visitors to the Scioto Mile will have to make a similar choice, and go under loud and dystopian underpasses if they want to continue their walks, jogs, or rides. My guess is that most people will turn around, because towering bridges, road noise, and bucolic river settings really don’t mix.

The Scioto River, as it winds through downtown, isn’t the most scenic river in the world– although it may be one of the muddiest. Still, the Scioto Mile project has brought about a vast improvement over the river as it once was, making it narrower, with a faster current and fewer tree limbs and other debris clogging its flow. The green space developed along the river banks has brought people down to the riverfront for the first time in decades. The shallow Scioto River will never be as interesting as the Ohio River or Lake Erie, with their boat traffic, but this decision to shroud the river in shadow from an interstate highway really isn’t giving it a fair chance.

Modern Mail Marketing

Our new downtown restaurant, Speck, uses a novel form of mail marketing. When you finish your meal, you receive a blank postcard along with your bill. All of the postcards have a drawing of something good that you can get at the restaurant on the front and the standard postcard set-up on the back, with room for a short message on the left side and the lines for the address on the right.

Of course, whether you fill out your postcard is totally up to you. But if you do address your postcard, jot down a message to the recipient, and leave it with your server, Speck will mail it for you and bear the cost of postage. I’ve sent a few postcards after our meals at Speck, and it would be interesting to know what percentage of Speck patrons do likewise. I suspect they do, more often than not. Who can resist a freebie–especially an unusual one?

Yesterday I got the above postcard featuring a bright and happy drawing of an Aperol spritz sent by a friend who had dinner at Speck recently. It’s the first postcard I’ve received in years. I enjoyed the sender’s handwritten message–and hand-drawn smiley face, because dinner at Speck tends to put you in a good mood. The drawing of the Aperol spritz looked pretty good, too.

Postcards are decidedly old-school, but modern businesses are always looking for a way to break through the marketing clutter, and a postcard definitely accomplishes that. Postcards cost 48 cents to mail, but you really get some bang for your half-buck. A physical, handwritten message from a friend has a lot more impact, in my book, than another readily deleted email message cluttering the inbox.

Filling In The Surface Lots

If you looked at an overhead shot of downtown Columbus 25 years ago, you would have seen the Statehouse, scattered buildings, a few green spaces, and a sweeping array of surface parking lots. Years ago, the urban renewal wrecking ball knocked down whatever buildings once stood on those lots, which were paved over and converted to parking. The core downtown area was home to countless dismal seas of asphalt.

But the scales have tipped, and the surface parking lots are gradually being filled in. The construction site shown in the photo above, located on High Street just two blocks from the Statehouse, is filling in what had been a crappy surface parking lot for the entire 37 years I’ve been working in downtown Columbus. The lot will be replaced by a 15-story apartment building that will be a nice addition to the Columbus skyline. That’s been the fate of many of the surface lots: they are being replaced by new buildings fueled by the downtown residential housing boom that has been ongoing for more than a decade.

There’s a lot of construction work currently underway in the downtown area, and those of use who work downtown have gotten used to the rumble of heavy trucks, the sounds of pile driving, the beeping of construction vehicles in operation, and the tramping of crews of hard-hatted workers. These are sweet sounds for those of us who are happy to see those sad surface parking lots vanish, one by one. It’s a great thing for our city.

Columbus-Style Pizza?

I belong to a devoted (and happily apolitical) Facebook group called Pizza Connoisseurs of Columbus. Recently I learned a surprising fact from that group: there is such a thing as “Columbus-style pizza.” Indeed, the fact that Columbus has its own distinctive pizza style is so widely recognized that pizza lovers have written about it and people actually come to Columbus looking for the best places to to sample it.

So, “Columbus-style pizza” is a real thing. You can put Columbus right up there with New York, Chicago, and Detroit in the ranks of cities with an iconic form of pizza.

So, what is a “Columbus-style” pizza, exactly? The key identifying ingredients seem to be an ultra-thin, cracker-like crust, edge-to-edge toppings, sliced pepperoni that curls up so it looks like a small bowl after baking, and a pie that is cut into small, easily handled squares, rather than larger, potentially floppy triangles. To people like me who have lived in the northwest part of the Columbus area, that sounds like a description of a Tommy’s Pizza offering–so I guess I’ve had “Columbus-style” pizza before without explicitly knowing it.

Having a specific “style” could be both a blessing and a curse. It’s nice to have an approach to pizza that is so well-recognized it has become iconic, but you don’t want the need for pizza chefs to conform to the “style” to crush innovation and creativity. Fortunately, Columbus is such a strong pizza-loving town that doesn’t seem to be a problem, and great new options like JT’s Pizza–which has been recognized as a leading local pizza emporium in articles about “Columbus-style pizza”–can establish their own styles and introduce Columbus taste buds to new options and flavor combinations.

All this talk about pizza makes my hungry for a pie.

Dinner At The Bar

Last night, on a whim, we decided to duck into Speck, the new downtown restaurant only a short walk from our apartment, to see if we could grab a meal at the bar. Getting a table can be a challenge at this hot new Columbus dining option, but Speck has a bar area and we decided to take our chances that two seats might be open. Luck was with us, and we grabbed two stools at the end of the bar.

I like eating at a bar every now and then. The vibe is distinctly different, and a nice change of pace. At a table, you see your server periodically, you’re a few feet from other diners, and there is a sense of some privacy. At the bar, on the other hand, there’s a lot more interaction with the servers and a lot more hustle and bustle; you’re only a foot or so away from people making drinks, slicing fruit, and washing dishes. There’s no sense of privacy, really, but it’s easy to strike up a conversation with the back of the bar staff.

Another key difference is that you are facing the array of different bottles of alcohol behind the bar, and seeing a lot of interesting drinks being made. The temptation to try something new is irresistible. As befits an Italian eatery, Speck has an extensive collection of European liquors. That’s why I deviated from my normal wine-only beverage approach and started the evening with a bright and refreshing Aperol spritzer, shown above. At the barkeep’s suggestion, I followed that up with a Fernet-Branca, an Italian digestif and apertif that was interesting from a flavor standpoint, but a bit on the bitter side for my tastes, so I switched to a glass of wine for my meal.

Speaking of the meal, we started with some excellent mussels, with a broth that demanded to be sopped up by some delicious bread. It was succulent. I followed that with an enormous and awesomely tender short rib, shown above, that looked like it should have been precariously balanced on the side of Fred Flintstone’s car. I ate it all, without remorse, and some of Kish’s cacio e pepe pasta, besides.

I had the feeling that the dinner wasn’t quite done yet, so I sought the bartender’s advice on one last drink to cap off an excellent meal in a fun setting. He suggested a pistachiocello, shown below, which was absolutely delicious. I could have guzzled a gallon of it, but somehow resisted the temptation. We headed out into the cold Columbus night, fully satisfied and happy that we took a chance on a few seats at the bar.

Our evening at the bar at Speck was a memorable one that we’ll want to repeat in the future. If you haven’t eaten at the bar lately, you might want to give it a try.

March, The Cruelest Month

On the morning when we “spring ahead” by adjusting our clocks forward one hour and implement Daily Savings Time, we’re dealing with snow and 30-degree temperatures in Columbus. Is spring truly ahead? The buses and cars rolling down the street are snow-topped, the asphalt has a cold, snowy shimmer, and the promise of an early spring has been dashed by this dusting of the white stuff. What’s more, the forecast is for dreary, cold temperatures for the next 10 days.

I disagree with T.S. Eliot: in the Midwest, March, not April, is the cruelest month. Whether it comes in like a lamb or a lion, March invariably teases us with warm days where the promise of spring is definitely in the air, then crushes our hopes with cold temperatures, cold winds, and snow. March is the month with the most unpredictable weather, and it comes at the precise time when we most want to put winter behind us and enjoy the delights of spring.

Here’s the beginning of Eliot’s The Waste Land. Substitute March for April, and it remains apt:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

150 Years Of The CML

Yesterday the Columbus Metropolitan Library officially marked its 150th anniversary. Today we celebrated the sesquicentennial in classic library fashion–by walking down to the Main Library, doing some browsing, and borrowing a few books from the collection. There was a special program there, and the library was hopping with visitors, as well as being decked out with a nerdy book cake, shown below, and other decorations for the CML’s big birthday.

Public libraries are one of the most important elements of a free society, in my view, and the Columbus library system has been a crucial part of the central Ohio community for its entire 150-year history. We know this first-hand because we are frequent users of the library, its services, and its book reservation system. You can read about the Columbus Metropolitan Library and its history, from its humble beginning on March 4, 1873 as a single reading room in the old city hall, at the library website here.

Happy birthday, CML, and thank you for being such a key part of our city!

The Road Home

Yesterday I got up early and drove from Savannah, Georgia to Columbus, Ohio. It’s an interesting ride that took me on I-95, then I-26, then a long stretch on I-77–one of the major north-south arteries in the eastern part of the country, running from the outskirts of Columbia, South Carolina, through North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio to Lake Erie–before finally rolling through southeastern Ohio on Route 33.

My journey began in the coastal low country, where the roads were flat as a pancake. The roads were so flat for so long, in fact, that it was mildly startling to encounter my first hill in inland South Carolina. But the countryside quickly becomes hilly, and then mountainous, as you intersect with I-77 and head north through the Blue Ridge Mountains and and later the Appalachian Mountains. Before you know it you are dealing with numerous switchbacks and driving through the long tunnel at Big Walker Mountain.

I-77 is apparently notorious for truckers; it is ranked as one of the most dangerous roads in the country for drivers of the big rigs, primarily because of its unpredictable weather. The weather is so unpredictable that I-77 has its own weather tracker website, which provides information like that shown in the screenshot above. I got a taste of the squirrelly weather yesterday, when I hit a significant amount of thick fog in one of the mountain passes. The drive also features lots of steep inclines and declines and significant curves as you maneuver through the mountains. It’s impressive work by the traffic engineers and road builders, but surely no treat for tractor-trailers.

As I drove, I once again appreciated the investment in our national road system, which allowed me to make a reasonably straight-line drive back home and complete the trip in a single morning and afternoon. The only sour taste came when I hit two “pay to drive” stretches–a paid “express lane” option in North Carolina, and three toll booths, requiring payments of $4.25 each, in southern West Virginia. The express lane option would have really irked me if the traffic was heavy, but fortunately it wasn’t. The toll payments in West Virginia made me wonder why tolls were required there when the rest of I-77 was, literally, a freeway. The road went through rugged country at that stretch, and at least it seemed that my toll payments were keeping the road in good repair. In the grand scheme of things, paying $12.75 and buying a few tanks of gas to complete a 670-mile journey is a bargain.