“What’s the good news?”

I can usually count on a certain supervisor of mine to greet me with this particular question.  Despite how often it’s posed, I am almost always caught off-guard and almost certain to offer a standard response.

Yesterday morning however, I greeted him with some wildly good news:

“Joe [my husband] dropped his wallet while biking to work this morning, and a father and son returned it to us.”

Truly incredible.  While biking to the Metro yesterday morning, my husband’s wallet fell out of his pocket and onto the street.  While reaching for his Metro pass, he realized in horror that it was all gone and had retraced his steps with no luck.  Returning home, he dejectedly told me the story and then took the morning off with plans to get a new driver’s license at the DMV.

As soon as he left, however, an unfamiliar truck rolled to a stop in front of our house.  I was standing on the steps, preparing to bike to work.  An older Hispanic man hopped off of the truck, followed by a young one.  Glancing hesitantly back and forth between me and our house, the younger man waved a small object at me.

“Did you lose this?”

What joy!  What absolute relief.  Gratefulness overcame me for the moment, and I wordlessly embraced each of them.

Frank and Manuel were their names.  Manuel, the father, had found the wallet while stopping at a bakery on 10th Street.  I’m sheepish now that I didn’t offer them any reward other than my thanks, but I often remember their good deed, and I hope that karma will repay them in kind.

Pan Dulce (John.Fisch, Flickr)
Pan Dulce (John.Fisch, Flickr)
“What’s the good news?”

Home, Sweet Home

Well, it has been about a year since I’ve taken my writing (typing) pen out.  I am married now, and my last name is officially not Tran anymore, but I think I’ll keep it like that on here for a while longer.  Maybe.

The last ten (?) or so months have been quite full–full of love, full of life, full of new and old joys.  I’m not sure where I was in the planning of this the last time I wrote, but last September, I decided to move out of my mom’s house and into my first place of my own.  I chose downtown Long Beach, somewhere between 8 and 10 minutes walking from my office, upstairs from a coffee shop in a former naval hotel.  Not a bad kind of life, I’ll tell you, walking a few minutes to and from home to get everywhere you need to be.  It was my way of liberating myself from the stink of suburban Southern California, and though it lasted only six months’ time, I cherished every day of my little European life.

In thinking about a place of my own, I began to think of the meaning of “home.”  Yes, it is sweet, and yes, it is where the heart lies.  But why is that?  What is it exactly about a place that causes us to bestow such affections upon it?

I began this train of thought a couple of weeks ago.  My husband and I had just moved into our first apartment after our nuptials and were in the midst of unpacking.  Although no longer walking distance from work, I had moved only a couple miles to east Long Beach.  He had gone somewhere on that Saturday morning, and as it was the first weekend in months that was devoid of any wedding business, I made some coffee and peeked out upon our new world.

Long Beach, California.  What do I love about it?

The people here share.

Share the streets, share the parks, share the public realm.  After having lived here for almost a year, I can now easily pick out the Long Beach visitors from the residents.  When driving, for example, the visitors feel uncomfortable and especially angry at having to weave around the bus, bike, and pedestrian who are all somehow taking up the right-most lane of traffic.  The residents, however, just make their way around the obstacles, even using the center turning lane to make it work.  Living gets tight sometimes, but Long Beach residents are space efficient like that.  Congestion in this form, “is often a symptom of success” (John Norquist, CNU).

Long Beach Sharrows (San Clemente Patch)
Long Beach Sharrows (San Clemente Patch)

The city has “good bones.”

In a lunch conversation on my very first day of work, I remember asking my colleague why he thought that Long Beach was such a vibrant city.  He responded in architectural lingo, saying, “Long Beach just has good bones.”  That is, unlike many newly developed cities and towns, Long Beach has a true city street grid, with blocks that are small enough to promote walking and other forms of urban life.  This gives future development, and re-development, a much-needed foundation on which to build.

Say that the average person takes twenty minutes to walk one mile or 5,280 feet.  If your city block is only 300 feet square, think of how many directions and places a person can go in those twenty minutes.  Think of how many types of buildings and uses can have street frontage.  But if your city block is 5,280 feet square…it’s pretty likely that for the next twenty minutes, a pedestrian is limited to that single direction in which he or she started.  And it’s pretty likely that the buildings and uses are farther and fewer.

“…Summertime, and the livin’s easy”

Sublime isn’t the only one who has said that life in Long Beach is “easy”–my boss, who has lived here since the 1980s, also told me this one day.  “I really like Long Beach.  It’s just…easy.  It’s got everything you need, all in one place…even an airport.”

And so I’ve discovered for myself.  There’s more art, music, and food–and life–here than I know what to do with.

Home, Sweet Home

Meet Bella

Bella.  She’s my 2002, Intensa Blue Pearl, 5-Speed, Lexus IS-300.  Dream car since the eighth grade.  Searched high and low for her throughout Southern California when my family decided that I needed a more reliable car to take with me to college.  Bought her beat-up and modified beyond recognition and have been returning her to her original condition ever since.  I’ve repainted her rims, replaced her floor mats, replaced her center caps, replaced her tires, replaced her battery, replaced her cold-air intake, changed her oil, Seafoamed her engine and crank case, and have hand-washed, clay-barred, waxed, and polished her regularly, and with only the best products, since she has been mine.

In college, I used to hose her down once a week without fail during the winter so as to keep the salt from corroding her undercarriage.

I once slept in my car, refusing to leave her to go home with my friends after leaving a bar too intoxicated to drive.  And it was by no means a safe neighborhood.

And she has always had 91 octane gas, if not better.  Always.

As you can see, I love her.  She’s my beautiful beast, and until yesterday, nothing had changed.

I gave her a wash yesterday, and with sadness, it dawned on me that I no longer fervently loved to take care of her.  Why?  I asked myself.  And as I write this, I am still figuring it out.

It is a combination of things.  With my knowledge of urbanism continuing to expand, I have wholeheartedly begun to celebrate the pedestrian way of life.  This is the feeling of growing excitement you have as you walk through any outdoor market or festival: the energy, activity, and laughter of others permeates the air and beckons you to share in it.  “What’s that crowd over there?  Someone performing?  Let’s look!”  “What’s that wonderful smell?  Oh, he’s roasting chestnuts!”  Even outdoor shopping centers, like the Block at Orange or Bella Terra can recreate that feeling, that connection with people.  And sadly, Bella and her kind do not share in this sort of life.

The Metro as well, I think, has un-romanticized the private automobile for me.  I use Bella very sparingly, partly to save gas but mostly because I have found that I don’t need her.  The public bus and public train are so convenient for me, that I drive only two out of five weekdays, sometimes two out of all seven days a week.

I don’t think I love her any less, but rather, I see her in a different light.  The romantic view of her as an icon, as part of my identity on the street, is gone.  I now love her and appreciate her for what she is: a vehicle.  My fiance and I have talked about selling one of our cars after we’re married, and I should’ve realized something in me had changed when I volunteered to let Bella go without much hesitation.  It makes sense–she’s beautiful but…we wouldn’t need her.  And at 17-18 mpg, she’d cost a small fortune more than his Corolla.

It is always a moment for pausing when you realize that your priorities in life have played musical chairs on you.  When did this happen?  When did I begin to actually consider letting someone else wash and detail her?  When did I stop associating myself with the type of vehicle I drove?

I will still fill her up with premium gas.  I will still turn off the AC as I go up a hill and will still warm up the car before I drive.  But when I do hand over her keys…I think I’ll smile and be okay, and I’ll look forward to a more people-centric way of life.

(DianeRocks, Flickr)
(DianeRocks, Flickr)
Meet Bella

A carne asada burrito, please.

There is something about bus stops that encourages people to tell their stories.  You can see this phenomenon in movies–Forrest Gump, for example, begins as he retells his whole life’s story to different strangers who come and go at the stop’s bench.  And you know, I think we all recognize it not only as a story-telling place where it’s acceptable to share your day with complete strangers, but also as a listening place, a place where it’s also okay to just sit and listen.

I experienced a bit of this story-telling magic on a late afternoon last week.  Instead of taking my car to the train station that morning, I had jumped on the bus in efforts to avoid the soon-to-be-full parking lot.  I had however, missed the last bus home that evening and was waiting for my mom to pick me up.  Tired, I made my way to one of the benches and plopped down to wait.

A man was already sitting there, wearing the strangest of outfits (and that’s saying a lot when you see a good sampling of people riding the train every day).  It reminded me of a baby suit–you know, a baby “one-sie”, where you have to put the feet in first and then pull it up, shove the arms in, and then zip up the front.  His was all black, and made of the same kind of material of those paper blankets they give you when you’re getting that annual physical checkup at the Doc’s.

“Cold, huh?”  He said to me after a few minutes of silence.

“Yeah,” I said, nodding.  I was not in the mood for chatting.

“You just come from work?”  He continued.


“Where at?”

“Long Beach.”  I hesitated.  Did I really want to open up this potential can of worms?  Something about him seemed…okay though.  After a long pause, I asked, “What about you?”

“Me?”  He laughed.  “I just got out of jail, just like an hour ago.”

OH.  Well that explains the outfit, I guess.  Wow.  Having grown up in your typical suburban pleasantville, this was my first ever encounter with any sort of “criminal.”  I was surprised to find my feelings as normal as ever–not shocked, not suspicious, and most importantly, not scared.

“How does it feel?”  I asked.

“Out here?  Man, it feels good.”

“How long were you in there?”

“Two months.  Some guys though, three years.”

“What did you miss most about being out here?”  At this point, he had my full attention.

“The food.  We had peanut butter and jelly, for every meal, every day.  I won’t touch no peanut butter now, no way.  And we had to sleep on wooden benches, hard like this bench.  It’s going to be nice to be in a bed.  And I’m tired of showering with other guys.”

I laughed.  “What’s your first meal going to be?”

“Carne asada burrito!”  He said immediately.

“Those are soo good!”  Connection made.  This young man, though scruffy and garbed in an accusing prison uniform, was a goddamn normal person.  “So what are you going to do now?”  I asked.

“Well I know how to drive a fork-lift.  So I’m gonna get me a fork-lifting job tomorrow.”

“Oh, wow, okay.  That’s good, right?”

“Yeah.  Always work.  Keep you from gettin’ mixed up with the wrong crowd.  That’s what I’m gonna do, always work.”

“Do you have any family around here?”

“Yeah, a sister.  Gonna go see her tomorrow.”

I nodded, and we paused and sat in silence.  What an interesting conversation, I thought to myself.  I marveled at how normal he was–just another human being who cares about family, good food, and getting by.  I asked for his name before he got on his bus.

“Jerry, with a J”, he said.  We shook hands, and he waved from the window–like a scene from a movie, I know.

“Good luck!”  I yelled after him.

Oh, the magical bus stop.  Where else can one learn to connect with those with lives so unfamiliar to us, but in a good ol’ public place?  A place that truly belongs to all–from corporate business execs, to students, to parents and their fussy children, to homeless men and women.  A place that bridges each other’s worlds and quiets racial stereotypes, simply by its very nature of inclusion.  For what, you ask?  To lessen that dark, four-letter F word that drives segregation and hate:


A carne asada burrito, please.

Life lessons from the train

I used to tell my college classmates (who mostly weren’t from California) that the biggest reason L.A. sucks is because it has no viable alternative for transportation.  It was car-dependent.  Upon graduating, I was set on finding a job in a big city where I had the option to walk or bike or take public transportation, or where if I were driving, I could at least turn down a side street instead of being stuck in the freeway traffic black hole.  But as luck had it, I fell in love with an architecture job here in Long Beach and chose to stay in the Golden State for a while longer.

Living twenty-two miles away from downtown Long Beach, I dreaded my morning commute.  That is, until I stumbled upon the L.A. Metro (Metro has both a bus and train system, but here I’m referring mostly to the train).  First off, I didn’t even realize that this King of Car Culture even had one.  I still remember my very first ride on the Metro to and from work.  I felt naked–sort of the same feeling you have when you forget your cell phone at home.  Vulnerable!  Could I really rely on this thing to take me back home?

YES.  I can proudly say I’ve been riding the Metro at least five days out of the week for three months now, and I wouldn’t trade this liberation for anything, on most days anyway.

LA Metro (Bethany Mollenkoff, LA Times)
LA Metro (Bethany Mollenkoff, LA Times)

Why do I love riding that big yellow and white train so much?  Mostly because this atypical commute, at least in SoCal, has taught me many a life lesson.  In no particular order:

1.  I can save money
Because my daily car ride is only to and from the nearest Park-and-Ride lot, I save at least $70/month on gas.  Furthermore, my company generously pays for employee parking, and since turning in my parking pass, they’ve begun to reimburse me for the Metro.  I now save at least $160 on transportation every month.  That’s nearly $2,000 a year!

2.  I can save myself headaches
One big reason that I started to look into alternative transportation is because I found myself, every morning, full of mean and petty thoughts:  “What is this woman DOING?”; “Hello, it’s your turn to go.”; “Dammit, missed the light.”  For me, being irritated just wasn’t the way I wanted to start each day.  It’s still an effort to curb these thoughts and feelings every time I do drive.  But not on the train!  Every morning when I transfer between metro lines, I am constantly amazed at the courtesy people have toward one another even at those busy busy transfer points.  I have never been shoved or pushed even when the train doors are crammed with people, bikes, and the like getting in and out.  I really believe that the “protection” of cars allows us to get away with unkindness–no one can hold you accountable for being an awful human being when you’ve already sped off.  But I’ll save that for another post.   

3.  I can save resources
I really can’t talk much about the economy or politics, but I do know enough to recognize an oil saving opportunity.  About 29.5 million people used the L.A. Metro system this past February.  If even half of those people had cars to leave at home, that’s still almost 15 million cars not guzzling gas each month.

4.  I can combat fear
“Combating fear” sounds dramatic, but I’ll explain.  First and foremost I mean the fear within myself and within all of us for things unknown and untried.  As I mentioned, my first train ride was full of anxiety.  I sat clutching my purse and trying my best not to make eye contact with anyone for fear of being mugged, fear of being assaulted, fear of just being hit on.  I turned my engagement ring inside out for a while, just for good measure.  But day after day as I began to familiarize myself with the system and its people, I began to loosen up and to reexamine my previous concerns.  Although I am still conscious of my fellow riders and my belongings, I no longer turn my ring around and no longer sit in fear, which actually segues into the next point.

5.  I can connect with people
Now no longer tearfully fearful, I’ve found myself happily making conversation with people from walks of life so divergent from mine.  Last week a stranger and I both wrote down gospel singer recommendations from a lady who was smiling and humming a song on her music player.  I’ve never listened to gospel before in my life.  Also not too long ago, I wrote down a couple of my favorite Vietnamese dishes for a chatty computer salesman.  Simple life moments like this aren’t available on freeways.

6.  I can gain personal time
When you’re travelling, you usually carry some sort of entertainment for yourself–books, games, work–and likewise when you commute via train or bus.  In the mornings, I often see make-up cases, newspapers, and laptops just to name a few.  One boy who sat next to me today was scribbling away at his Japanese homework.  For me, I’ve begun checking off my very long (and very old) book list.  Sometimes I use the time to write up a new to-do list, make appointments, or any sort of necessary tasks.

7.  I can support real urbanism
If real urbanism is all about connecting people and places, the L.A. Metro is literal evidence of so.  More, please!

8.  I can gain freedom
The first time I took the metro on a Saturday, I was headed to LACMA in downtown Los Angeles and then possibly to a few boutique stores in the Hollywood area since I had never been to either.  Although I did grow up in the metropolitan area, my last five years were spent predominantly out-of-state–which basically means that I have been nowhere and know nothing about L.A.  The fact that I just hopped on a train that took me 30 miles away to all sorts of stops and places, practically for free, was mind-blowing.  In Southern California?  No car?  I felt like I had a whole new pair of very big feet, or big wheels, or something.  Having such a viable option to get where I wanted, when I wanted to get there is amazing.

9.  I can explore
Not only can I now explore my “new” home of Los Angeles, but I can also now explore all of its little suburbs including my family’s.  While on the bus just last week, I spied a promising Thai restaurant not far from my house.  My mom and I are always on the lookout for good local restaurants being that the options around us are limited, so I excitedly reported the news to her.  We went to try it that night, and it was spot on!  But I would have just driven past if I had been in my car that day–driving isn’t very conducive to window shopping.

10.  I can have more life
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once said that “…the chief worth of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex; that it calls for great and combined intellectual efforts…in order that the crowd may be fed and clothed and housed and moved from place to place.  Because more complex and intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life.  They mean more life.  Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.”  (qtd. in Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities).  Do I have enough of life every day?  If civilization makes life richer, are we working together enough to improve our quality of life?  Something to think about, maybe on my next train ride.

The Metro was my “last straw” of inspiration for this blog and is also the inspiration behind its name.  I think that in time we will all begin to better understand the influence of good urbanism in our lives and the necessity to care for and support it.  The going might be slow…but we are getting Somewhere.

Life lessons from the train

Where do people tend to sit most?

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/82618859]

Every other Friday afternoon, my studio has (or tries to squeeze in) something called our “Friday presentation,” an hour reserved for learning where a coworker usually presents a current project or something of general architectural interest.  This was my first time attending a Friday presentation, and as there was no presenter this particular week, we watched a documentary instead.

It was titled The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, a 1980s documentary by William “Holly” Whyte that had originally accompanied his book by the same title.  To explain how I felt while watching the documentary wouldn’t capture enough of my interest and excitement.

Whyte covers the basic ingredients of successful urban spaces–seating, sun, and water to name a few–in a study of New York City’s different plazas.  Although the people studied are obviously of a different era given their fashion styles, their behavior–their very human behavior–described in Whyte’s witty and informative manner remains absolutely contemporary.  I was both surprised and amused by the simple brilliance of one of Whyte’s findings:

“People tend to sit most where there are places to sit.”

Ha!  Talk about anticlimactic.  But yet, so true!

For example, take downtown Long Beach, California.  During my lunch hour, I will often go outside to find a place to relax and enjoy my break.  A hard task, and this isn’t even a suburb.  I might just write a separate blog about my findings (or lack thereof!)  In general however, I have found that while the nearby Promenade and parks do have some scattered seating, they’re rather lacking in “sit appeal.”  Of the ones I did find, many are too small or narrow to sit on without extra efforts.  One park I tried was completely shaded by its adjoining office building and felt very damp, mossy, and much too cold.  Some benches were hardly deep enough to actually fully sit on, and at striking height of 5′-1 3/4″, I’m hardly long-legged.  The point is, a successful plaza will offer a variety of seating choices, all of which should appeal to the average person.  Oftentimes, I think, designers of places and objects of such importance do not sincerely design for people, but rather for aesthetic appeal that achieves a look or trend of the moment.  I can tell you, however, that sitting on a piece of art has yet to allow me to enjoy my lunch in comfort!

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is thus a true eye-opener, giving viewers insightful perspective on every-day places we often don’t think twice about.  It is the second inspiration for this blog.  View the online video above!

A copy of the text can be found here.

Where do people tend to sit most?

Better than my morning coffee

Last Thursday, my architecture firm had invited a guest speaker to present his work to us at the wee hour of 9 am.  I by opportunity had walked by the seminar room early and so had peeked in to see what all the set-up was about.  Learning that it had something to do with urbanism and public spaces, I dipped out of my desk area and into an hour of pure inspiration.

I remember inhaling with absolute delight when our guest speaker began his talk.  What serendipity!  The speaker was Fred Kent, president of Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a nonprofit planning organization that works with a community’s own people to revitalize and re-urbanize neighborhood centers all over the world.  Their mission is to help people create public spaces that give back to their communities and that bring value and local pride to its members.

To PPS, “…Placemaking is a catalyst for building healthy, sustainable and economically viable cities of the future.”  I listened with both my ears and hands, scribbling away as Kent described PPS’s “Placemaking” approach to programming these spaces.  I found their concept of the Power of 10 most exciting: in any city, first find ten destinations that people go to or ten reasons to be there (e.g., cultural museum); near each destination, identify ten places to go to (e.g., coffee shop, movies, bookstore); then at each place, identify ten things to do there (e.g. have a conversation, meet a friend, buy a lotto ticket).  If the quota is lacking, then program more of the necessary ingredient.  The idea here is that a great place to be should be brimming with activities of all kinds, for all kinds of people.

I could feel purpose in my step as I left the room.  I felt invigorated to hear about a group of people so dedicated to improving the quality of life through the same means as mine, and I returned to my work with a different sort of energy boost.  That morning’s event was the first inspiration for this blog.  Read my studio’s PPS blog here!


Better than my morning coffee