Thursday, December 31, 2015

I read 60,000 pages of books in 2015

Actually, 64,439 pages across 175 books. I set this relatively arbitrary goal because I wanted to make some headway on both my physical and virtual "to-read" piles, and 5,000 pages a month seemed reasonable: it's about 10 fat novels, or about a novel every 3 days, which is about how fast I read when I'm in a reading mood. I chose pages rather than books as my marker because I didn't want to incentivize myself to knock off lots of skinny, easy books at the expense of the big fat ones that haunt my to-read pile. Of course, sustaining that speed across an entire year was much harder than I thought it would be; after about three-months of high-intensity reading, my brain would want a break to go watch bad TV for a while, but I had to keep chugging along to keep up the pace. I also didn't stop to consider that a lot of what I wanted to read didn't read nearly as quickly as a comfortable novel; working through "Team of Rivals," "Pioneer Girl," "Alexander Hamilton," and "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" in particular left me more mentally exhausted than I've been since the rigors of graduate school. But exhausted in a good way!

Of the 175 books, 50 were non-fiction, 4 were poetry, and 121 were fiction (vastly disproportionately tilted towards SFF -- 68 SFF novels, more than half my fictional total). This was the year my reading toppled almost entirely into e-books; 150 of the books I read were on my kindle, with only 25 in hard copy. When I first began reading on a kindle, I found it harder to retain what I read, but that problem has faded and I seem to have gained kindle-specific reading skills the more I use it. I also tried to firmly restrict my re-reading habits (I'm a dire re-reader) because the point of 2015 was to read down my to-read pile, but even so I re-read 25 novels -- childhood favorites like the Little House books or Anne of Green Gables; and SFF comfort reading from Bujold, Eddings, and Pierce. I might try to break down my male vs. female authors later on, but I forgot to keep track as I was reading and it seems like a lot to look up now. Regardless, I read a lot of women.

I can't really make a list of the "best" books I read or my "favorite" ones, but I've put together lists of the books that most delighted me and most disappointed me -- in other words, books that were better than I'd anticipated them being, and books that were worse than I'd expected. And below that, behind the jump, you can see the whole messy list, loosely divided into genres.

Most Delightful (in no particular order)
Motel of the Mysteries - A children's book about how experts don't know nearly as much as they think they do, featuring the archaeological exploration of a 70s-era motel? YES PLEASE.
Ten Cents a Dance - A little YA historical fiction novel about taxi dancers in Chicago. I'm not sure where I stumbled across it, probably a Kindle Daily Deal, but it was charming and I loved it.
Fangirl - Where has Rainbow Rowell been all my life??? This is just so lovely.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - Mind blown into a hundred thousand pieces. The sequels weren't as powerful as the first one, but the first one was one of the best pieces of SFF I've read in a long time. Fantastic.
Team of Rivals - There's a reason everybody read it, and you should too.
Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years - I seriously could not put this down. It's about the importance of string, spinning, weaving, etc., to human culture, and why this is so under-recognized in archaeology and history (string decays). It's also tangentially about why diversity is so important; until women began entering archaeology, male archaeologists often didn't know what they were looking at when they did happen across fiber work or fiber art, because men in western culture don't sew. You don't know what you don't know; diversity helps us at least recognize those gaps that hegemonic thought can't even see!
Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation - The next time you're feeling depressed about climate change, this is the book to read. It's about the life of Plenty Coups, the Crow chief who helped his people survive the coming of the white man. It is not cheerful, but it is intensely hopeful.
Citizen - If you haven't read this, you've missed one of the most important books of 2015.
I, Claudius - An older classic, but so hugely entertaining! Compulsively readable.
The Wake - Haunting, terrifying, deep, weird, strange ... a tough book (written in a fake Old English dialect), but worth the effort.
The Dinner - Months later this is still haunting me and I still want to argue with people about it.
Americanah - The best novel I read in 2015, hands down. Just made me so happy.
The Martian - XKCD got me to read it by saying it was the "nerds making air filters" scene in Apollo 13 expanded out to an entire novel/movie. That's my favorite scene! Totally worth it.
The Goblin Emperor - When I first read it, I was like, "Oh, that was nice." Now I can't wait to go back and read it again, and I wish it were longer.
Alexander Hamilton - How DOES a bastard orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar? Now I know.
Fire Season - Really charming memoir of a man who works as a fire spotter in the GIla Wilderness.
Spillover - I love reading terrifying books about zoonotic diseases, I can't help it, and this was a good one. I now know everything that wants to kill you.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up - It changed my life, so sue me. I HAVE EMPTY DRAWERS NOW.

Most Disappointing (in no particular order)
Un Lun Dun - I like China Mieville, but this was just tedious, even for a children's book.
The Lost Prince - Flatly ridiculous. I can't imagine I would have enjoyed it even as a child; the protagonist had a serious case of massive stupidity and terminal genre blindness.
Banner of the Damned - I like Sherwood Smith, but in this one she gives in to all her worst habits and it was wildly inadequately edited. Nice world-building, terrible story.
The Time of the Dark - Saw it raved about in several places; was just meh.
Saplings - For Noel Streatfield, this was SUPER-DARK. I was depressed for days.
Brideshead Revisited - This was so obviously a convert's book, and just sort-of embarrassing in its shallow exposition of issues of faith to arrive at the author's predetermined outcome. Reading it gave me terrible fremdscham.
Hild - Great setting; meh plot. Relies too much on the fact that there will be sequels; doesn't provide a strong emotional through-line. It wants to be a sort of fictional biography, and as such doesn't feel too obligated to provide a narrative structure. It's good, but it was disappointing compared to how good I expected it to be.
Condominium - This book is terribawesome and I totally recommend it as a hate-read. This is the flap copy: "He's in finance, she works at a hipster small press, yet both are indie-rock East Village veterans who aren't above snorting a little heroin on the weekends. But when they decide to take the logical next step and buy a condo in one of the glass-and-steel skyscrapers now dotting the waterfront of Williamsburg, their lives start to fall apart." It's more entertaining than that makes it sound, but it's pretty hilarrible.
Dead Key - flatly awful. Not even worth a hate-read.
Wreckage - The entire plot hinges on a wildly incorrect understanding of the law, and therefore makes no sense.
Burned Bridges of Ward Nebraska - Everyone in this book is terrible and you root for no one.
Monuments Men - It's hard to even say what was so bad about this book: the writing is weak, it tries to end every chapter on a pithy cliffhanger that never works, the author makes it impossible to follow his large and shifting cast of characters, he sets things up as about-to-be-momentous and then they disappear with no explanation. It was such a disappointment for a book on a topic so naturally interesting to me.
Garlic & Sapphires - Like virtually all food memoirs, about 1/3 too long. Also kinda mean.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Streetcars and Neighborhood Design

Note: This is the first in what will be a series of essays about South Peoria's history, development, and present conditions. These essays may be updated as my research becomes more complete. All essays are linked to an index page for easier browsing. Project homepage.

South Peoria was developed as a streetcar neighborhood, building out along the Lincoln and Garden lines. We'll take a look at the general characteristics of Midwestern streetcar suburbs (or neighborhoods), and we'll compare a typical Peoria streetcar neighborhood (South Peoria) to a typical postwar neighborhood in central Peoria and a typical suburban-style subdivision in far north Peoria.

Streetcars, first drawn by horses but later (and primarily) electric, ran out from the city center into newly-developed residential areas. These streetcar neighborhoods were characterized by rectangular plots, often quite long and thin, which packed a maximum number of house frontages along the streetcar line itself. There are relatively frequent cross streets connecting the blocks, trying to ensure that all houses are within a 5 to 10 minute walk to the streetcar. (Often, the houses along the streetcar's road were larger and more expensive, while those tucked into back streets were smaller and shoddier, but this can be difficult to eyeball in South Peoria because the houses on the street car road are packed so tightly and their extra volume runs towards the back of the lot and is hidden by their neighbors.) To keep houses closer together and easier for pedestrians, garages are almost always behind the house, typically facing an alley, and they are almost always detached. This was the law in Peoria until the development of more modern fire safety standards for homes and more modern cars that were less likely to carbon monoxide poison people if the garage was attached. (I want to say that city code changed to permit attached garages in all new construction around 1960. You can actually see the change occur in some post-war neighborhoods where the houses built closer to 1950 have detached houses and then the next block over, completed closer to 1960, the houses all have attached garages.)

Streetcars work exceedingly well in the flat topography of the Midwest (significant hills require cable cars, like San Francisco's), and in many Midwestern cities became the primary mode of transportation for people of all classes.

One of the most characteristic features of streetcar neighborhoods is small commercial establishments on corners where cross streets cross the streetcar's street. These are typically flush or nearly flush with the sidewalk, and if there is any parking, it's behind the building. These commercial buildings were often originally built with the idea that the proprietor would live above or behind the shop. The most typical uses were small mom & pop groceries, where you could pick up a few items on the way home, and neighborhood taverns. Let's look at a couple of characteristic Peoria neighborhoods. This is part of the South Peoria neighborhood that I've been documenting. Grey buildings are housing; yellow are outbuildings (mostly garages); red buildings are commercial; and blue are non-profit (mostly schools and churches). You can see the mix of red commercial buildings in the primarily residential neighborhoods, as well as a smattering of small churches and larger school buildings.

South Peoria: Residential with "corner stores" and many churches.

In this map, I've traced in red a major 4-lane arterial road, Western Avenue, that marks the neighborhood boundary and features larger commercial establishments. In green, Garden Street, which had one of the two neighborhood streetcar routes; you can see the small red commercial buildings -- former corner stores, taverns, small garages -- studding the streetcar's route and providing services to the houses along there. In yellow, Starr Street, a slightly larger vehicular route (but not a streetcar route) that provided through access to the neighborhood and is also marked with many commercial buildings.

Red corner businesses along the green Garden Street former streetcar line.

By comparison, here's a neighborhood in Central Peoria, just south of War Memorial Drive (the neighborhood is called “North Florence” and sits just southeast of War Memorial and Sheridan). This is a post-war suburb, and you can see that there's barely any commercial activity – on the northwest is a tiny, hard-to-access strip mall with a cellular store and a dry cleaner; on the southeast is a former drive-through bank that's now a State Farm Insurance (Randy Begole, good dude), that's also inaccessible from the neighborhood. There are a handful of religious buildings, all surrounded by seas of parking. (Top left: Disused synagogue that has had several failed redevelopment attempts. Below that, Apostolic Christian Church. Top center: St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral. Top right, First Covenant, a small evangelical church.) It's a very pleasant neighborhood for walking – you see lots of people out walking dogs or walking for fitness -- but there's not anywhere to walk to. This is typical of neighborhoods developed after zoning codes were introduced, separating commercial uses from residential and removing small-scale neighborhood commerce like ice cream shops and corner groceries.

Postwar neighborhood of North Florence, zoned residential. There are no commercial establishments to walk to.
Here's a neighborhood in North Peoria (still within the City of Peoria), a fancy and exclusive neighborhood with large, expensive houses on sprawling lots, that is exclusively for cars. Here, the street grid has been abandoned, and many of the streets don't even have sidewalks. It's difficult to walk within the neighborhood, which is designed for cars rather than people. There is no commercial development at all within the neighborhood – the few red buildings face a busy arterial road (Knoxville) and cannot be accessed from the neighborhood. You must get in the car and drive to them (you cannot safely walk around; there's no shoulder and no sidewalk on that part of Knoxville). There are a lot of children in this part of town, but they can't walk to each others' houses, because the high-speed car-oriented sidewalk-lacking roads are too dangerous for kids on foot. (Even worse, restrictive covenants make all the front yards super-boring and the streets are hot and unshaded.) It's kind-of a hellscape, which is why you rarely see people outdoors in this neighborhood; they stay inside their pleasant houses or drive their cars even within the neighborhood itself. There's nothing to do in this neighborhood; there's no there there.

North Peoria neighborhood: no grid, not safe on foot, nowhere to go.

Further Reading:

National Park Service, An Overview of Suburbanization in the United States, 1830 to 1960

In Praise of Streetcar Suburbs (they're adaptable, efficient, and multi-modal)

Why Streetcar Neighborhoods Work Well ( link; report for Salisbury NC with recommendations for future development as part of 2020 planning)
Summary: Streetcar suburbs feature development density, multimodal transit capabilities, and gridiron blocks that make for liveable, adaptable neighborhoods. They also feature pleasant pedestrian streetscapes with sidewalks everywhere and many mature trees. Setbacks are modest and porches ubiquitous; garages are deprioritized to alleys, along with trash pickup and (sometimes) utility services. Modern, low-density, car-centric suburbs are considerably more expensive to supply with roads, utility services, police and fire coverage, mail delivery, and public transit. (Greater property taxes levied on more expensive homes in diffuse, suburban-type developments does not cover the greater cost those homes extract from city services, which I'll talk about in future posts dealing with utilities.)