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.

“Yeah.”

“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:

Fear.

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A carne asada burrito, please.

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!

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Better than my morning coffee