Tag Archives: neighborhoods

Vacant Lot Transformation for Green Jobs and Neighbhoodhood Revitalization

21 Apr

I just found this little blue-print I drew up for a vacant lot by one of my houses in Pittsburgh. I never had the chance to put this into place, but it would be wonderful to have more non-consumerist places to spend time between home and work.

Break it Down!

There’s tons of space in Pittsburgh and tons of bricks from demolitions so it would be pretty great to build a rainy or very sunny day pavilion as you see in the top left corner.

The top right corner would hold the Constance Street community bread / pizza oven and would also benefit from spare bricks.

Going down the top center are several long picnic tables.

Trees are much needed on this highway-side of Pittsburgh’s Northside so some nice fruit and shade trees in the middle of a block will sooth the residents and be beautiful and delicious. Sporadic dots both labeled and unlabeled represent trees.

The bottom center of the lot includes plans for some weird seating to be designed by one or several of Pittsburgh’s many amazing artists.

And at the very bottom, a lovely long row of soil-cleansing, sun-worshiping, smile-making sunflowers!

Let’s Make Green Jobs Fixing Our Communities

We have so much public land that’s being wasted as over-grown and trash-filled lots. At the same time, we have so many under and unemployed people. Let’s find a way to create and fund jobs that would enhance our communities, like rehabilitating abandoned lots, while putting under-worked Americans back in the workforce.

I’m underemployed myself and I’d jump at the chance to have a part-time job cleaning up and beautifying my neighborhood.

Give Me Work and Give Me Beauty

We want bread but we want roses too!

Help Flood Victims in Nashville

8 May


With all the excitement and rage about BP’s reckless management of offshore drilling, the massive flooding of Nashville has lost opportunities for press coverage and sympathy. If you have some extra money lying around and want to donate to restoration efforts in the land of country music, the Community Foundation is a non-profit organization that is accepting donations of any size.

In partnership with Davidson County’s Office of Emergency Management, The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee has activated its Metro Nashville Disaster Response Fund to help to those affected by the May 1, 2010 floods. Donations of any size are welcome. Grants from the fund will support relief and restoration in the Davidson County area.

Photo by Southern Tabitha, Flickr

Nashville is the city where I was born, where my parents bought their first house, where I learned how to walk, and talk, and ride a bike. It’s the home of my grandma who gave me my name and tons of vintage clothes, as well as the home of numerous aunts, uncles, dozens of cousins, and relatives that I haven’t even met yet.

Flooding in Nashville, Photo by Southern Tabitha, Flickr

Nashville is my first city. I was born there and lived right by Vanderbilt University until I was seven, and I even went on my first upside down roller coaster there. I started my life walking everywhere: to school, to the grocery store, to friends’ houses, to the park down the street. Nashville is the fantastic city that I no longer know but that spoiled me for the next ten years that I spent living in the suburbs of Washington, DC. (Sorry parents, but blech! What a wretched departure!)

Yield to Pedestrians

So if you have a little disposable income and want to help out some people who are drowning in dirty water, please pass some dollars along to the Community Foundation or another reputable non-profit.

For a little swoon from my childhood, here is the Dragon Park down the street from my semi-ancestral home:

The Dragon Park, photo by Brent, flickr

For more pictures of this incredible park, check out this blog on Mosaic Art.

How to Turn a Vacant Lot into a Pizza Parlor – GOOD

7 May

Great article from GOOD Magazine.

Seven steps to figure out how to get a community oven in your neighborhood.

How many parties have you walked into only to find the living room empty and a crowded kitchen, everyone huddled near the stove or around the table? Maybe it’s the smell of food. Maybe it’s the warmth of the stove. Maybe it’s our ancestral heritage. Kitchens are the hearts of our homes, so why not for the whole neighborhood? “Community ovens can be the glue that keeps a neighborhood together,” says Ray Werner, a Pittsburgh based community oven builder. Want to build a hearth for your hood? Here’s how to get started.

I want to build a community oven! I live on a street that doesn’t have any green space except for two vacant lots and so I drew up this very professional design to make better use of the space:

I graduated from the School of Looseleaf Design

The top right hand corner of the paper is the Oven.
I imagined the fairly large vacant lot having:
  1. Fruit trees: a row of fruit trees to provide shade and food for residents.
  2. Picnic tables throughout, of course.
  3. Sunflowers.
  4. Weather-proof seats designed and installed by local artists.
  5. And a pavilion.
Because buildings are often being demolished in Pittsburgh, there are a lot of extra
bricks lying around. So why not also build a pavilion so residents can escape their homes even if it’s raining, and still have a place to sit outside? A place to read, or sketch, or lament, a place to meet with friends, a place where you can sit comfortably outside your home without having to buy anything?

Can’t Get There From Here: The Woeful Tale of a Stranded Pedestrian

5 May

This is the soundtrack for my exploration stroll the other day around my neighborhood. Unless you loathe R.E.M., it is a good accompaniment to reading this post.

Several times in the past I have celebrated my neighborhood and home on the North Side of Pittsburgh. But I have to tell you that I exaggerated a little and omitted much.

There are many beautiful areas of the North Side and much of it is quaint, wonderful, and convenient. But I have to confess: I live on the OTHER North Side, the part that was cut in half by a neighborhood dividing highway.

The parts that contain all the amenities like the National Aviary, the Andy Warhol Museum, coffee shops, grocery stores, and parks are all on the other side of this highway:

That is the scene I have to ride or walk across when heading to other, more lovelier parts of the North Side.

And if I want to go downtown or shopping in the Strip District, I find myself facing signs like this:

No Pedestrian Signs are More Common Than Crosswalks

Riding bikes is not much of a problem as you’re on the road, but if you are trying to get around by foot, as are children and many elderly who do not own cars, it is a death-trap. A place filled with crumbling gravelly sidewalks that are dangerous for nearly everyone except the most fit.

What if I depended on a wheelchair to get around? I’d never make it in this neighborhood.

Getting to the bus stop is quite perilous and I waited through three lights at one intersection waiting for a pedestrian signal. Over 50 cars drove by in three light switches and not one stopped to let me cross,  so I finally had to just make a run for it.

To cross to this intersection:

If you look really closely there used to be a crosswalk

Then the friendly pedestrian must run across another faded crosswalk, but this time there is a light for the walker!

Crossing East Ohio

Seems like that should be hazardous enough, right? But if I want to get my groceries from the Strip, I still have to get to the 16th Street Bridge and walk past the highway exit where this sizable vehicle powered up to the sidewalk where I was standing:

Intimidatingly Large Truck

And though I wasn’t trying to walk onto the highway, seeing this sign just reinforced how my walk felt:

Pedestrians Prohibited

By this point I’d walked less than half a mile but it took me nearly 20 minutes with all the waiting and trying not to die.

I’m fairly young and in shape, I ride a bike and move around all the time and this area is really difficult for me to navigate. Imagine how dangerous these streets are for people who are older, maybe less fit and less able to make a run for it across the street.

This area is incredibly unfriendly to pedestrians and many people do not have the luxury of investing a substantial amount of their income on a vehicle.

We need, very soon:

  • Crosswalks to be repainted
  • Pedestrian crossing signals at all intersections

Can you think of any other easy-to-implement solutions that could make this area safer for everyone?

Changing the Face of the Allegheny Riverfront, Tonight

29 Apr

Attention Pittsburghettes and Pittsburghers,

Reminder about the Allegheny Riverfront Meeting tonight! (And after that there is going to be a fantastic dance party at the Brillobox).

This is a major cycling corridor, and plans and ideas are being put on the table that need your input.

Thursday, April 29th

6:30 to 8:00

the History Center

1212 Smallman St


“For decades, Pittsburgh’s riverfronts were used as transportation corridors for industrial production, and the land surrounding them did not connect to our communities. Today we recognize the riverfronts as our most treasured assets that have tremendous potential to improve our quality of life. We now have the opportunity to reconnect our neighborhoods, reclaim these waterways as amenities, and provide new venues for recreation.”
– Mayor Luke Ravenstahl

Why Words Matter: This isn’t a Plaza, it’s a Strip Mall

7 Apr

This is why words matter. When you call a strip mall a plaza, the meaning of the word plaza is twisted and becomes meaningless. A strip mall is “a long usually one-story building or group of buildings housing several adjacent retail stores or service establishments” which is what we find in the not so lovely Shadyside “Plaza”.

If this location were actually a plaza we might find “a public square in a city or town” or “an open area usually located near urban buildings and often featuring walkways, trees and shrubs, places to sit, and sometimes shops”

Instead, we see this:




A plaza is a gathering space, a beautiful respite in a city, a place where people take pictures, meet friends, a place to show off to out of town visitors.

A strip mall is none of these things. Rather, it is a waste of precious urban land, a careless, unplanned, ugly, quick construction; a symbol that no one cares what it looks like, what it feels like, or the experience that people have when going to or by it.

Strip malls have no place in dense urban centers and certainly do not deserve the honor of the title plaza. They are usually inhabited by bland, faceless corporations with zero ties to the community that have no investment in making their location a better place to live.

This is just one small example of the importance of language and how inaccurately describing something limits our ability to correctly interpret.
Some other examples:

The difference between car accident and car crash. Car “accident” automatically removes any responsibility and accountability from a driver.

Global warming vs. climate change. Global warming sounds GREAT, doesn’t it? Everyone likes being warm and doesn’t that mean reduced heating bills? When incorrect terminology becomes popularized, it changes the scope of the debate.

Alternative transportation. The word “alternative” automatically isolates and alienates anyone who chooses to use a method of transport beyond a car.

Why I Love Pittsburgh in Five Pictures or Less

18 Mar

I left DC in November to move to Pittsburgh, which is not the ideal time to explore a new city in the Western Pennsylvania, but yesterday, March 18 was perfect. It was 65 and sunny! It was so warm it felt like a light weather massage all day. The sun gave me some more freckles and my hair started to redden around my helmet.  I rode my sometimes trusty, very tiny, yet extremely heavy bicycle all around Pittsburgh’s North Side, my super glamorous side of town.

One reason why I love Pittsburgh: I pay $250 a month in rent and I live a five minute bike ride to the Andy Warhol Museum, the National Aviary, the Children’s Museum, the Mattress Factory (a museum of contemporary art that presents art you can get into — room-sized environments, created by in-residence artists!), a baseball field, if I’m feeling summery. I’m also just a short ride across a bridge to the Strip District, the market district packed with yummy foods from all over the world.

I rode my bike this afternoon to visit a tasty vegetarian coffee shop called Hoi Polloi. I ordered a yummy chai that came out all scaldy, the way I like it, cooking my insides for a minute and sending flavor everywhere. The grilled cheese sandwich was less than $4. It even came with tomato! I asked if I could add anything else and was suddenly moved to add a slice of mango, something I’d never tried before. It was … quite good. the mango was a bit slippery, but it was an interesting compliment to the sweet tomato. And for less than less than $4, impressive.

They have a neat bike rack outside the coffee shop. It looks clever, but is practically useless against theft.

We used it anyway:

Cute, but structurally unsound

(PS: Pittsburgh Councilmembers, vote for bike parking next week, and businesses, add more reliable racks! If someone stole my bike from this rickety rack, I’d be without my main mode of transportation.)

I was planning to ride to the Andy Warhol Museum to write in the museum cafe after lunch. The Museum is close to my house and the cafe has cheap tasty coffee with unlimited refills. So you can work there surrounded by art for $2 plus tip while only 40 feet away from a real film photo booth! But I forgot the power cord to my computer which only has three minutes of battery life…  so I decided to ride my bike around the neighborhood, to get a look around on the way back to my house.

I slowly pedaled my clunky steel bicycle, while the wind blew on my arms and in my hair. I could feel my legs getting stronger again after a winter stuck inside, and I was appreciating the sound of a variety of birds, and the occasional flowers starting to bloom.

Spring is wonderful, but it’s much easier to appreciate every little warm lively detail after a long, cold, hard, dreary, dark, wet, endless winter.

Soon I was in this neighborhood:

Mexican War Streets Neighborhood

Enjoy this Imported Historical Blip about the Mexican War Streets: In 1848 General William Robinson, Jr. (later Mayor of Allegheny) plotted out the Mexican War Streets immediately following his return from the Mexican-American War, which annexed Texas and California. With patriotic fervor, he named the streets after the war’s battles (Buena Vista. Monterey. Resaca, Palo Alto) and military leaders (Taylor, Sherman, Jackson).

Nearly all the architectural types popular in the Victorian era are represented in the Mexican War Streets: Italianate, Gothic Revival, Richardson Romanesque, Empire and Queen Anne. Wow.

I rode by this mysterious house:

I could study the details of this house for a week.

This magical place is called “Randyland” and there are more pictures of it here on my shiny new flickr account.

But I thought I should keep exploring.

More pictures to come soon-ish. I am working on a new flickr account, but my computer is really old so it takes about a day to upload a couple of pictures.

I’m off for the tomorrow to spend the weekend celebrating wacky, functional, handmade, tall bicycles in Chicago.

The Citizen’s Handbook: Practical Assistance for Those Who Want to Make a Difference

3 Feb

“Practical Assistance for Those Who Want to Make a Difference”

This morning I was looking for some organizing tools for planning the 2010 Three Rivers Bioneers Conference and discovered  The Citizen’s Handbook, produced in Vancouver, BC.

Developed to encourage citizens to become active participants in shaping their own communities, the Handbook provides guidelines for tackling problems locally. Though many of the resources mentioned are Canadian, the U.S. is referenced frequently and the strategies shared are largely universal. I highly recommend taking a look at this resource and sharing it widely.

What happens when people stop observing and start acting?

“When people become involved in their neighbourhoods they can become a potent force for dealing with local problems. Through co-ordinated planning, research and action, they can accomplish what individuals working alone could not. When people decide they are going to be part of the solution, local problems start getting solved. When they actually begin to work with other individuals, schools, associations, businesses, and government service providers, there is no limit to what they can accomplish.”

How can my involvement change anything?

“When citizens get together at the neighbourhood level, they generate a number of remarkable side effects. One of these is strengthened democracy. In simple terms, democracy means that the people decide. Political scientists describe our system of voting every few years but otherwise leaving everything up to government as weak democracy. In weak democracy, citizens have no role, no real part in decision-making between elections. Experts assume responsibility for deciding how to deal with important public issues.
The great movement of the last decades of the twentieth century has been a drive toward stronger democracy in corporations, institutions and governments. In many cities this has resulted in the formal recognition of neighbourhood groups as a link between people and municipal government, and a venue for citizen participation in decision-making between elections.”

In the past several decades, people have moved around more, become less connected to their communities and less likely to know their neighbors. This is not inevitable, and small actions can help redefine our neighborhoods, making them safer, healthier places to live.

“Active citizens can help to create a sense of community connected to place. We all live somewhere. As such we share a unique collection of problems and prospects in common with our neighbours. Participation in neighbourhood affairs builds on a recognition of here-we-are-together, and a yearning to recapture something of the tight-knit communities of the past. Neighbourhood groups can act as vehicles for making connections between people, forums for resolving local differences, and a means of looking after one another. Most important, they can create a positive social environment that can become one of the best features of a place.”

Thoughts from an Urban Visionary – Enrique Peñalosa

1 Feb

“A premise of the new city is that we want a society to be as egalitarian as possible. For this purpose, quality-of-life distribution is more important than income distribution. [And quality of life includes] a living environment as free of motor vehicles as possible.” – Enrique Peñalosa

I stumbled onto the website of the Project for Public Spaces the other day and was revisiting the work of Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia whose ideas have been very influential to my own. When I decided to start planning a Carfree Day in Washington, DC in 2007, I had stars in my eyes and was imagining a city-wide stoppage of car usage such as happened in Bogotá in February 2000 for the first Carfree Day under the leadership of Enrique Peñalosa.

Over 600,000 residents left their cars at home and walked, cycled, or took the bus in Bogotá, this is what I was hoping to see happen in Washington, DC. According to the BBC, “The empty streets marked a tremendous change for Bogota. Usually, the morning and evening rush hours bring paralysis to the city streets, and every year more than 1,000 people are killed in road accidents in Bogotá.”

The change faced some resistance initially but was popular enough that people voted for a referendum to adopt a “yearly car free day and decided that from the year 2015 onwards, there would be no cars during rush hours, from 6 AM to 9 AM and from 4:30 PM to 7:30 PM.”

This radical change in regulation and perspective on the part of the government and residents show a dedication to re-creating their city with a focus on people rather than cars. Here are some notable quotes from Peñalosa on his building cities with children in mind, creating cities that are “marvelous”! (Thanks to the Project for Public Spaces for compiling).

  • “We had to build a city not for businesses or automobiles, but for children and thus for people. Instead of building highways, we restricted car use. … We invested in high-quality sidewalks, pedestrian streets, parks, bicycle paths, libraries; we got rid of thousands of cluttering commercial signs and planted trees. … All our everyday efforts have one objective: Happiness.”
  • “Over the past 80 years we have been building cities for cars much more than for people. If only children had as much public space as cars, most cities in the world would become marvelous.”
  • “The importance of pedestrian public spaces cannot be measured, but most other important things in life cannot be measured either: Friendship, beauty, love and loyalty are examples. Parks and other pedestrian places are essential to a city’s happiness.”

We need to follow his example in the United States to eliminate the horrendous congestion that is dominating our landscape.

If you’ve got several minutes, check out this interview with Mr. Peñalosa by Streetfilms:

For more on Enrique Peñalosa’s other accomplishments and background, visit the Project for Public Space.

Some Views of Pittsburgh

25 Jan

I’m enjoying exploring my new city by bicycle and by foot. These are some pictures I took while walking around in the first couple of weeks of the year when it snowed every day.

The skyscrapers at eye-level from an overlook at the top of Mt. Washington on the South Side:

A collection of bridges over the three rivers:

After climbing up a cobblestone street on the North Side where I live, I found one of Pittsburgh’s several hundred sets of stairs:

I climbed 100 stairs and was rewarded with this view:

From about.com: “The city of Pittsburgh has 712 public stairways with a total of 44,645 steps … Tallied together, that’s more than 24,000 vertical feet, or four miles in height – more than 4,000 feet higher than Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain peak in North America. It also gives Pittsburgh the distinction as the U.S. city with the most public stairways. With 712 sets of stairs, the city of Pittsburgh has almost as many steps as the next two cities on the list (Cincinnati, 400 and San Francisco, 350) combined.”

According to Wikipedia, Pittsburgh is tied with Prentiss St. in San Franscisco for steepest urban street in the United States. Canton Ave. is nauseatingly steep at 37% grade which means that “for every 100 ft of horizontal distance traveled, the elevation changes by 37 ft”. This photograph has been temporarily borrowed from that same website until I can take one.

Check out this video from the terrifying-sounding bicycle ride in Pittsburgh, the Dirty Dozen, as riders struggle to make it up this hill.

Maps and Crashes

21 Jan

Bike Pittsburgh is a fairly young organization with a small staff but they have accomplished much in just over seven years.

Among their many successes, they worked with Pittsburgh design firm Deeplocal to develop an award winning bicycle map, which I keep with me at all times and consult daily. The map is clear and the graphics are superb.

I found an older version of the map hanging in the hallway of my old bike group house, along with bike maps of DC, Chicago, Atlanta, Portland, Virginia, Maryland. I snagged it on the way to the bus station for a one am bus to Pittsburgh to volunteer at the Three Rivers Bioneers Conference.

The 2009 edition is more compact, glossy, modern. It is essential to any newcomer and also long term residents with information about bike routes, hill difficulty, amenities like Free Ride!, a volunteer run bike co-op.

One useful resource Bike Pittsburgh provides is a map variation charting the crashes that have been reported. Only one accident has been marked on the North Side where I live! What does this mean? Good drivers? Good bikers? Lack of reporting? If a bicycle falls on a quiet urban street, does anyone count it?

I’m excited to see Pittsburgh’s biking scene grow and to see what creative ideas are generated by Bike Pittsburgh’s staff, members, and disconnected cyclists to promote bikes as a free/cheap, healthy, invigorating, sustainable form of transportation.

And now that I know where the problem areas are, I can be more diligent. Now I’d like to borrow from WABA and copy their “What to do after a traffic crash” spoke card and distribute it in those areas particularly.

Stop Sign Quest Part 4: New Stop Sign at 12th and Newton!

7 Jan

Admittedly, I am pretty behind with this update, but it is fairly exciting to be writing about the new stop sign after writing about Brookland desperately needing traffic calming, the decade long quest for a stop sign by Brookland residents, and when traffic studies studies, and resident requests fail, accosting the mayor at a coffee shop.

The new pedestrian preservation device at 12th and Newton NE.

I’m told that it was fairly ineffective upon initial installation. Drivers unaccustomed to a stop sign sped through the intersection, pedestrians sprinted, dodging cars.

Both drivers and pedestrians took some time to get to this simple sign which powerfully and simply indicates that the street belongs to everyone, regardless of size, speed, economic status, physical impairment. Each person gets their turn to proceed in order of arrival, safely.

I would like to thank persistent neighbors and friends in Brookland, Mayor Fenty for being responsive to resident concerns and for introducing me to his staff to assist in getting the petitions and the stop sign, and especially Sybongile Cook, the Mayor’s Outreach Coordinator for Ward 1. Even though she doesn’t represent Brookland which is Ward 5, Ms. Cook was incredibly helpful in getting me the materials and contacts necessary to proceed with the stop sign request.

I was back in D.C. for the holidays and got to see the stop sign for the first time. I actually forgot that it was there and was baffled to see drivers waiting patiently in their cars at the crosswalk. I stepped into the crosswalk, sure that one of the drivers would decide I’d taken too long and accelerate, but that didn’t happen. I noticed the short line of cars waiting, remembered the stop sign, and yelped with excitement. I really did, I yelped.

I was so thrilled I crossed the street again. And drivers waited. And other pedestrians crossed too, now walking without fear.

Then I crossed for the third time, satisfied with the resolution to a year-long quest for a safer street in Brookland, and moved to Pittsburgh.

Stop Sign Quest Part 3: Maybe If I Ask the Mayor Personally?

30 Sep

After the applause fest for the new Columbia Heights plaza the other day, I was writing about it outside Sticky Fingers, DC’s scrumptious vegan bakery and saw that Mayor Adrian Fenty was sauntering in my direction! Perfect!

Adrian Fenty was elected in large part because of his accessibility. He knocked on doors in neighborhoods all over the city talking to residents about bringing a new era of accountability and action.  Accessibility, accountability, action: who doesn’t want that in an elected official?

So I jumped up and did my own saunter to him and thrust out my hand so he had to shake it. Introducing myself, I said “I’m a resident of Ward 5 and I’ve been trying to get a stop sign in my neighborhood for a year. Can you help me?”

He seemed disturbed by this and told me that he had just had a nice little press conference with Gabe Klein from Transportation. I said I’d attended and he said he needed to introduce me to Mr. Klein so the Department of Transportation could start working on the stop sign.

He introduced me to a couple of his assistants and everyone was surprisingly earnest and helpful. By the time I was introduced to Gabe Klein, there were seven people standing around me listening intently to the description of the Stop Sign Quest. I received cards from the Director of Communications, of Transportation, and Ward 1’s Outreach Coordinator (with cell phone number!).

When describing the location, almost no one could mentally access the corner of 12th and Newton, the main street of Brookland, and I remembered how Northwest-centric this city is. The landmark that made some eyes light up was the former movie theater which is now a horrendous chain pharmacy with a marquee. “Ah… that place.”

Photo Courtesy of Mr T in DC

They told me that a traffic study and petition were required to move forward and I countered that a traffic study had already been conducted, and that a stop sign was supposed to have been installed as part of the streetscape redesign that was completed earlier this year. So they fell back on the petition.

I asked why no one had mentioned, in any of the previous correspondence in the last year, that a petition was necessary. Blank faces. I have no problems getting people to sign a petition and will do it gladly and quickly, and would have done it last year if anyone had said that one was necessary.

The Outreach Coordinator for Ward 1, Sybongile Cook, thought she might have a copy of the necessary petition in her car but didn’t so she said she would email it to me. I still haven’t received it.

These are some problems I have with this process:

1. If a petition is necessary to obtain a stop sign, why was that simple fact not mentioned after a dozen emails?

2. Why is a petition necessary if the previous traffic study determined that a stop sign was needed at the corner and was supposed to have been installed?

3. Why was the stop sign, that people have been clamoring for for years and that was declared part of the streetscape, simply not put in place?

It seems that it would be easier for the city to install a relatively cheap sign rather than facing the potential lawsuits and the backlash of the community when someone is inevitably run down.

I will continue to follow up with all of my new contacts in the DC Government regarding this issue until it is resolved.

Finally, A Public Plaza in Columbia Heights

28 Sep

Today Mayor Fenty, Councilman Jim Graham, Transportation Director Gabe Klein, and their entourage opened the new public plaza in Columbia Heights.

When I moved to Columbia Heights in 2002 the area that is now the plaza was a de facto dump, a lot filled with gravel and strewn with trash. Every day I walked home it made me cringe and long for a park or some greenery and the location is finally functional for residents.

Columbia Heights, despite all of the problems with gentrification, has become one of the most pedestrian-heavy neighborhoods in the city and this plaza offers an excellent spot for people and bike watching. Most importantly, it is free of commerce where anyone can sit and talk with friends or meet new ones or sketch or read or paint or lounge without having to pay for the privilege of using public space.

I’m quite impressed by the metal tree-looking installations which are solar panels that will power the fountain and the lights at night.

It looks barren from this angle — there are so many parts of this square that are empty and not incorporated into the plaza. Why not some seating here? Some tables and chairs not connected to the businesses there would be excellent.

There’s a jaunty, uneven fountain in the center that is supposed to represent the myriad cultures that make up Columbia Heights. It’s a nice idea I suppose but the surface area of the fountain takes up too much space which could better be used for seating or performances. The gray step-looking things close to 14th street operate as the seating.

This bright grassy patch also seems to be seating. I tried it this morning: it works. Apologies for the worst photographs possible.

This is only the first of three phases of this project, so I’m excited to see what will follow. While not perfect, it is very refreshing that this project is finally complete, five years after the initial planning began. I hope that this plaza is filled with people all the time and that many more (maybe not quite like it) start to appear all over the city.

Stop Sign Quest Part 2: Oh Please, Please Can We Have a Stop Sign?

28 Sep

Let this show that email “activism” is not the most efficient way of getting something done, especially if you do it infrequently, politely, and don’t send it to enough of the right people.

It’s been nearly a year since I first contacted the District Department of Transportation requesting a stop sign at the intersection of 12th and Newton NE, one of the main pedestrian intersections in Brookland, my quiet neighborhood in Northeast DC. I thought it would be kind of easy.

this is a stop sign one block away at an intersection with much less traffic

this is a stop sign one block away at an intersection with much less traffic

On October 6, 2008, I sent the following email to a woman I’ve worked with before at DDOT:

“I am pretty sure you are not the person to ask about this, but I’m not sure where to direct this inquiry. There doesn’t seem to be an option for requesting a stop sign on the DC Government service request forms. I want to find out how to get a stop sign or stop light at 12th and Newton Sts NE. It is a really busy intersection with hundreds of people crossing the street to get to and from the Brookland metro stop and cars rarely obey the yield to pedestrians sign. It is really dangerous for children and elderly and though there is a stop light at 12th and Monroe, people drive south at probably 35-40 miles an hour to make it through the light. This morning I was almost hit while walking in the crosswalk by a woman who slammed on her brakes a few inches in front of me and then screamed at me from her window, right after she almost hit another much older woman.

Your disgruntled pedestrian friend,


Fifteen minutes later she forwarded it to Chris Delfs: “The email below is about an unsafe intersection in Ward 5. While we are currently without a Ward 5 planner – is there someone that this can get referred to?”

I didn’t hear anything back and let it move comfortably to the back of my mind where it stayed for many months, thinking somehow that I’d done my part. Without a planner for our ward, it likely moved even farther off the DDOT radar. It seems that happens a lot, according to many of my neighbors who have tried numerous times to have a stop sign installed.

On April 7, 2009 Gabe Klein was confirmed as the Director of Transportation and I sent him the previous email I’d sent to DDOT repeating my request:

“Congratulations on your confirmation!

I’m forwarding you this email because I haven’t heard anything about this stop sign request. Apparently my lovely ward 5 was without a planner back in October, and maybe still is, but we could really use a stop sign at 12th and Newton NE. It’s where people from east Brookland cross to get to the metro and cars never obey the poorly placed yield to pedestrian sign. There are stop signs all over Brookland where they are not as vital as this intersection.

Also, there are new speedbumps all over 10th st NE. Any chance we could get some bike cut-outs mandated in future installations? They are really high and a bit difficult to ride over. (Especially with that fork on my bike that’s bent, as you pointed out at the safety ride a couple of weeks ago).



I was impressed to hear back from him the next day, two days into his job.

“Hi Laura,


We will look into this and get right back to you. Jeff Marootian will bird-dog the requests.


Bird-dogging, eh? Didn’t know what that was but I decided it was promising.

It wasn’t.

Three months later, in July I sent an email to the very active Brookland listserv with the reasons I thought a stop sign was necessary. I received another “thank you” from our ANC Commissioner Carolyn Steptoe, but I also received many messages from residents nodding in email agreement about the need for a stop sign. There were a lot of stories of close calls and a lot of indignation.

Several told me that that they’d tried it before and had been brushed off, some said that it was a waste of time. I was frustrated with my neighbors who told me that it was futile to try but I began looking through old postings of the Brookland listserv and found messages dating back to 2004 from residents who were agigtating for a stop sign over five years ago. No wonder people think it’s a waste of effort.

So July 28, 2009 I sent the following email to the Director Klein, the bird-dogger Marootian, the ANC Commissioner Steptoe, the Ward 5 Outreach Specialist Alice Thompson, and the Brookland listserv:

“Hello Everyone,

I’m following up on the email discussion about installing a stop sign at 12th and Newton NE. If there has been a traffic study, let’s verify that it says what residents can see every day and install a stop sign or stop light. If it determines that this intersection is acceptable as it is, then the method of study needs to be changed to reflect the reality.

This intersection is dangerous.

What is the turnover time for completing the assessment to the installation stage? According to Lavinia Wohlfarth, the 12th St Streetscape “plan called for raised crosswalks, and pedestrian walking signs at Newton, Monroe and Otis”.

It took the death of a pedestrian at the nightmare intersection of 15th, Florida, and W NW to get any action on those streets and that should never happen again.

Please install a stop sign or a stop light at 12th and Newton at the very least, and complete the improvements which were included in the plan to make the streets accessible for all residents.

Laura Walsh

Newton St..”

It’s now two months since that last email. No stop signs have been installed, no bird-dogging has commenced, no response from the DC Government.

NOW is the time to fix this problem, before someone is killed.

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