Down Into The Levels of Travel Hell

Dante’s Inferno envisioned nine levels of Hell, with the hopeless condemned being subjected to various kinds of torment depending on the nature of sins they had committed.

Any traveler knows that there are similar levels of Travel Hell.  Yesterday, Kish and I got down to about Level 5.

angerWe first crossed the river Styx when an early morning snowstorm and de-icing needs delayed our flight out of Columbus.  We abandoned all hope when our flight was late arriving in St. Louis and the airline inexplicably did not  hold the plane for only the few minutes needed for us to make our connection — leaving us winded and desolate as we stood at the gate, watching our plane move slowly away — and instead booked us for a flight to occur 11 hours later.  We then wandered like lost souls through the St. Louis airport, moving from terminal to terminal in the bitter cold, enduring the initial levels of Travel Hell and hoping in vain to find an earlier flight option.  We moved even lower when we decided to take an earlier flight, through Houston, with the thought that we could then drive to our ultimate destination of San Antonio, and learned that the flight was populated entirely by screaming, thrashing children and inattentive parents.

We reached our final depth when we arrived in Houston, found the rental car counters in the terminal were closed, checked to make sure that their signs indicated they had cars available, then went to a rental car area only to learn that notwithstanding the freaking sign, they had no cars, and we therefore had to return to the terminal and board another bus to get to another rental car outlet.  The final indignity came when, after waiting patiently in the line at the rental car counter and finally securing a vehicle, we were directed to a car, got in, drove to the exit, and were told that we were in the wrong kind of car and needed to return it and get another one.  After that piece de resistance, the three-hour drive through the rain from Houston to San Antonio, with oversized pick-ups with their brights on powering up right behind us, seemed like a walk in the park.

Fortunately, we didn’t reach the lowest levels of Travel Hell — which involve things like being physically ill, getting food poisoning at an airport terminal food court, and then having to spend the night in an airport in the company of fellow travelers who won’t shut up — but Level 5 was bad enough.  After 14 hours, we emerged from the pits into the friendly environs of San Antonio, and the air never smelled so sweet.

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When Should The Incentives Stop?

Most cities use tax incentives and tax breaks as inducements to development of depressed areas, to lure businesses considering relocation, and to promote other activities that are viewed as economically or culturally positive for their communities.

Cities try to be judicious and targeted in providing the incentives, but of course there’s no certainty in predicting how economic and cultural forces will play out.  Sometimes the incentive plans work and produce the hoped-for benefits, and sometimes they don’t.

608d7dbd-7704-4938-b6cb-ef2a77673a8eRichard recently wrote an interesting article about one aspect of tax incentives:  if they are successful and work as intended, when should they end?  The subject of the article is the Pearl Brewery area in San Antonio — which, by any measure, has been a fabulously successful use of tax incentives.  The incentives have helped to turn what was once a blighted area into a kind of tourist attraction with fine restaurants, pubs, office space, hotels and apartments.  When Kish and I have visited San Antonio we’ve gone to the Pearl area, and it’s hard to imagine it once was a depressed area.  Most cities would love to have a place like the Pearl Brewery District.

And the Pearl Brewery development has produced more tax revenue for the city:  property taxes for the area were $144,000 in 2003, when the development started, this year, tax revenues hit $6.7 million, of which $783,000 was refunded by the city under the tax rebate agreement.  It’s a classic example of how tax incentives are supposed to work.

Now, San Antonio is trying to decide whether the Pearl Brewery District is successful enough, and mature enough, to stand on its own without the incentives.  Some people in the city say that, with the Pearl having become a high-end, expensive area, the subsidies should stop and development efforts should start to focus on other parts of San Antonio.  The Pearl area developers, on the other hand, say that the tax incentives remain essential if the area is to reach even greater heights — with more jobs, more construction, and ultimately more tax revenue.

It’s a tough call — but it’s also a problem that a lot of other cities would like to have.

The Family Weather Differential

It’s cold in Columbus this morning.  It’s not really cold by absolute standards — at 32 degrees, it’s just at freezing, and a mere chilly precursor of the truly icy days that inevitably are coming this winter — but it’s an arctic blast by relative measurements, since only a few days ago the temperature was pleasantly in the 60s.

ios_weather_icons_1xWhen I checked my weather app to see exactly what the temperature was, I noticed that it’s a heck of a lot warmer in San Antonio, where Richard and Julianne and their dog Pretty make their home.  Down there in south central Texas it’s a fine 66 degrees right now, and I can imagine walking out into the San Antonio surroundings, clad in t-shirt and shorts, and thinking that 66 degrees is a nice cool start to the day — good for a stroll on the Riverwalk or, in Richard’s case, a jog.  Up in Detroit, Russell’s waking up to 36 degrees and a forecast of snow flurries.  And if you add in siblings and uncles and aunts, we’ve got Heidi out in Huntington Beach, California where it’s 54 degrees and the forecast is for partly cloudy skies and a high of 67, and Aunt Corinne and Uncle Mack down in Savannah, Georgia, where its 50 degrees and the week ahead on the weather app features temperatures around 70 and lots of those bright, unclouded sun icons that you always like to see.

So, right now, Columbus is the coldest place in the family, a solid 34 degrees more frigid than San Antonio.  That’s why the weather app offers both the bitter and the sweet.  It’s not great to be here at the coldest location, but one advantage of having a trusty weather app and a a family that is spread out from coast to coast and from north to south is we can live vicariously through whoever is getting the best weather right now.  Later today, I think I’ll take an imaginary walk on Huntington Beach.

Working Man, Burger Boy

We’re down in San Antonio, arriving just in time for lunch.  Richard said we had to go to the Burger Boy, a long time San Antonio institution, and when I asked one of the locals what to order he said I should opt for the Working Man combo — a double burger, crinkle-cut fries, and a tub of diet soda big enough to float a battleship — and to order it with “real” Kraft American cheese.  I’m a working man, so of course I took his advice.  

The double burger was succulent, the “real” American  cheese nudged it into the spectacular category — so much so I was briefly tempted to wolf down another — and the crinkle-cuts were deep-fried to perfection.  Fully sated, I exited the ’50s and headed back into modern America.

Psychedelic Church

Last night after dinner we walked over to the plaza in front of the Cathedral of San Fernando, one of the oldest churches in the United States.  A few times every night they project a light show against the facade of the cathedral that tells, in very broad strokes, the history of San Antonio.

It’s an interesting, memorable show, as new images slide up and down, faces appear and then vanish, and wavy lines move back and forth on the church and its two towers — but it’s disorienting, too.  After a while you wonder if you’re dreaming, or if someone might have slipped a Mickey into your drink.

The Tiled Stairways Of The River Walk


To get down to the San Antonio River Walk, you take stairways and ramps from bridges and overpasses.  Many of the stairways and ramps are of the bland, concrete variety, but some are special — gracefully curved, with wide steps and overhead greenery and delicate tiled facings that reflect a southwestern flair.

It’s amazing how a few colorful squares of tile can turn a generic stairway into an eye-catching addition to an already festive area.  If I had my say, every concrete municipal staircase would have bright tile facings with bold colors and geometric designs.  It’s a way to inject some much-needed art into our everyday surroundings.