Category Archives: Travel

Manifest Destiny

Early in the year I resolved to let go of things that I felt were holding me back, and one of the biggest things I had in mind was the home I had created for myself in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. I moved there in January of last year to be closer to friends and nightlife downtown, closer to school, and to have an overall nicer place to live. And what a place it was: a huge, newly-renovated loft in an 1860’s-era row house, complete with exposed brick walls, three decorative fireplaces, 10-foot ceilings, an incredible view of the downtown skyline, and within easy walking distance of nearly bars and art galleries on Main Street. I put a huge amount of effort and money into making the apartment into a real home, and the results were spectacular. My friends were properly impressed, and for a while, it felt like the kind of home I thought I wanted. The idea was to stay there until a few years after grad school, when I’d presumably be ready to buy a house or condo.

It was impossible to resist the siren call of exposed brick, polished concrete countertops, and hardwood floors.

It was the right idea, but at the wrong point in my life. With my meager student budget and co-op schedule, the apartment turned out to be an incredibly seductive but expensive albatross. The rent was already at the high end of what I could afford, and became untenable when the utility bills started pouring in. (As I discovered, it’s incredibly expensive to heat and cool a huge apartment with exposed brick walls and high ceilings, especially in a climate like Cincinnati’s where winters and summers are both equally brutal.) And there was the fact that I was already thoroughly burned-out with the whole “urban pioneer” lifestyle when I left New York in 2010. I love the city and its neighborhoods, but before long I quickly remembered just how much I hate loud car stereos and obnoxious college kids on a Friday night.

There’s also the issue of Cincinnati itself, and my long-term career options there. My first two co-ops were both with local firms in downtown Cincinnati, and I came away from them with a pretty strong conviction that if I were to stay in Cincinnati and practice as an architect there after grad school, I’d be spending the bulk of my career designing grocery stores and renovations to strip malls. My gaze turned westward, which prompted me to apply to firms in Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles for my five-month co-op. When I accepted the offer from the firm in Santa Monica, I made the difficult decision to give up the apartment and put almost everything I own into storage. My ideal home would have to wait until some other time and some other place.

At the end of the winter quarter, I began packing up and moving out. By the evening of Thursday, March 22nd, all the effort I had put into that apartment had been undone. My stuff had been packed away into a self-storage facility, my cat had been dropped off to live with my parents while I’m away, and my car had been loaded up with my clothing and some other essentials. It was already starting to get dark when I finally hit the road, but at this point I just wanted to get Cincinnati behind me before I had time to think too much about what I had done or what I was getting myself into out in California. Almost eight years after leaving my life behind in New York and heading to Oregon, I was once again taking a giant leap of faith to the west coast, and I had just stepped off the edge of the cliff.

Somewhere before reaching Louisville, I had a mild anxiety attack as I was driving down the dark interstate. Now that I was on the road and was finally able to catch my breath after moving all day, the second-guessing and self-doubts started kicking in. What the fuck have I just done? What if I hate Los Angeles? What if the new job sucks? What if everything I left behind in that storage unit gets wiped out by a fire or tornado? I felt a bit like Captain Kirk in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, having just scuttled the Enterprise and now watching its burning hull streak through the sky of the newly-formed Genesis Planet:

"My God, what have I done?"

I made it through Louisville and a few miles into Indiana before stopping for the night. Tomorrow would be a new day, I figured, and the sooner it got here the better. I left the hotel the next morning feeling rested and renewed, and my focus turned from what I had left behind to what was waiting for me on the road ahead. The following three days took me across eight more states, the Great Plains, the Colorado Rockies, and the desserts and mountains of the Southwest.

In western Kansas the following night, I was treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen. The next day I stopped for a pint at the Cheeky Monk on Colfax Avenue in Denver, which had been the site of celebrating my friend Bret’s ordination to the Episcopal priesthood at nearby St. John’s Cathedral a few years ago. The Rockies, of course, were spectacular, and it was nice to see them again after my last visit to Colorado. I took a short detour to Breckenridge to have lunch at the Breckenridge Brewery, and spent my third and final night on the road in a tiny place called Salina, Utah.

The last day on the road took me through the remainder of Utah, a few more deserts and mountain ranges, a small corner of Arizona that’s home to the spectacular Virgin River Gorge, a monster traffic jam that lasted almost the entire way from Las Vegas to San Bernardino, and finally Los Angeles.

I arrived at the Santa Monica Pier late in the evening of Sunday, March 25th, in the midst of a rare Southern California thunderstorm. I would’ve kept on driving, but I had reached the edge of the continent. I’m convinced that every American should take a solo road trip across the country at least once in their life. Until they do, they’ll never truly appreciate the immense size and beauty of this country.

I checked into my hotel in Woodland Hills — where I’d arranged to stay for a week while I looked for more permanent housing — and began work the next morning. One of the few cardinal rules I have for this blog is that I rarely ever discuss work (I’m happy to air my own dirty laundry online, but not my employer’s), but I will say that it’s going well so far. The firm is well-regarded within the profession and has been widely published, the office culture is generally casual and drama-free, I like my co-workers (and they seem to like me), and the projects are challenging and interesting. More than just being a high-profile “starchitect” firm, though, their philosophy towards design is very closely aligned with my own. No grocery stores or strip mall renovations here. In fact, it’s the kind of place I could see myself working long-term after I finish grad school.

Southern California itself has also been treating me pretty well so far, despite dire warnings from my East Coast and Midwestern friends that the place is nothing more than a traffic-choked wasteland of suburban sprawl and fake personalities. Most stereotypes have a grain of truth within them, but for the most part, I’ve found that Los Angeles isn’t nearly as bad as people who’ve never been here insist it is. (And let’s be honest here. Nobody in Cincinnati is in a position to spew negative stereotypes about any other city. Cincinnati has its own less-than-stellar public image to deal with.) Ironically, I live in a very walkable neighborhood that’s within an easy bike ride of my office, with a 24-hour Ralphs grocery store right around the corner. As such, traffic is a non-issue during the week, and I can usually take an alternate route on the weekend if a particular freeway is jammed up.

As for the fake personalities, I think that stereotype is perpetrated on late-night talk shows by those the entertainment industry, where people’s livelihoods are often based upon how well they can put on a fake persona. The vast majority of the people I’ve encountered, though, are no different than the people I’ve encountered elsewhere. Some of them I like a lot, some of them I can’t stand, and most of them fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Even among the few people I’ve met who actually are connected to the entertainment industry in some way, I’ve found them to be as genuine as anybody else. For every celebrity who manages to be a constant source of tabloid fodder, there are a thousand other people who work regular day jobs while advancing their particular craft during their spare time. And then there are all the behind-the-scenes people who, despite incredible talent, will never see their names in lights. Even though I have no desire to go into that business myself, I still find it all incredibly fascinating.

The things I like most about Los Angeles?

The climate is perfect for me. Just warm enough during the daytime to wear short sleeves (maybe a blazer during the winter), and cool enough at night that I can sleep under a thick blanket with the windows open. It’s amazing to not be living in constant fear of the weather. As an added bonus, my allergies — which normally go haywire whenever I’m within 500 miles of Cincinnati — have been clear for the entire two months I’ve been living here.

I'll take the one on the left, please.

The natural scenery is great; within the same county are miles of beach as well as snow-capped mountains. Having lived most of my life near either the ocean or Lake Michigan, I had forgotten just how much I miss the beach and the associated casual beach culture. And of course, there are the mountains. With the San Gabriel Mountains and other nearby ranges, it’s like having a piece of the Colorado Rockies closer to downtown Los Angeles than the actual Rockies are to downtown Denver.

These two photos were taken within a few hours of each other.

In addition, Southern California is a culinary delight, even on my meager budget. I don’t think I’ve had a bad meal here yet, except when it’s been something I cooked myself. And of course, there is the refreshing lack of Bible-thumpers and teabaggers in the civic realm.

Perhaps most importantly, though: almost everybody out here is from somewhere else, and nobody here gives a damn which high school or college I went to or what family I’m from. By almost any account, there shouldn’t even be a city here; there’s no natural port, and the nearest large-scale source of fresh drinking water is hundreds of miles away. But in the same way that the Los Angeles Basin was an entirely blank slate upon which to build a massive city from scratch, my life out here feels like a blank slate that can be given whatever attributes or characteristics I want.

My biggest complaint so far has nothing to do with my job or the locale, but the transitional living arrangement I find myself in while I’m out here. I keep telling myself this whole student lifestyle is only for a couple more years and will be worth it in the end, but a part of me is very much obsessed with getting my stuff out of storage and re-establishing a real home that actually feels like a home. I’m 37 years old, and way past the point in my life where I should be sharing a small apartment with a roommate and going to parties where beer pong is the dominant form of entertainment. My biggest motivation for finishing grad school is to put this decades-long student phase of my life behind me. More than giving me the credentials I need to achieve my professional goals, my masters degree will hopefully be the piece of paper that gives me permission to settle down, sink some roots, build a career, and finally create a real life for myself. It can’t come fast enough, though, as I’m getting incredibly impatient.

Genesis Planet

A couple weeks after my arrival, I was asked to house-sit at a friend’s apartment in Culver City while she was out of town over a long weekend. The large apartment complex felt almost like a fantasy world, with lush tropical landscaping and fountains between the buildings, several pools, and all the other modern amenities one would expect. The apartment itself had a large fireplace, dramatic vaulted ceilings, and just the right amount of space. At night, the only sounds where crickets chirping and the running fountain outside the window. I did some further research, and found that this apartment complex should actually be within my price range once I’m out of grad school and earning the average salary with somebody at my level of experience. And being a fairly large complex with several hundred apartments, there are always a certain number of vacancies each month. If I end up staying in Los Angeles for good after grad school, they’ll likely be the first place I contact about housing. I just need to hold on until I have that permission slip.

Blank slate.

New Photo Galleries Added

At long last I’ve finally gotten around to adding the photos I took in London and Paris this past September. Here they are:

London 2011: Day One
Taking a stroll around London’s West End after arriving in town from Heathrow Airport.

River Thames and Environs
On my first full day in London, I decided to take a long walk from Parliament Square to Tower Bridge and back.

Shaftesbury Avenue, Camden Town, and Hampstead
Exploring the northern reaches of Zone 1, including Camden Market and London’s upmarket Hampstead neighborhood.

Nine Hours in Paris
A quick day trip from London to Paris and back on the high-speed Eurostar train.

Earl’s Court and Doctor Who
Exploring the neighborhood around Earl’s Court and checking out the BBC’s Doctor Who exhibit.

Lazy Sunday in London
On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I decided to take a walk around Grosvenor Square, Hyde Park, and St. James Park.

Chelsea and Knightsbridge
A walk around London’s exclusive Chelsea and Knightsbridge neighborhoods.

Peripheral London


Checking out some of the neighborhoods around London’s periphery, including Wimbledon, Croydon, and Stratford.

Angel to Victoria
My last full day in London involved an epic walk from the Angel tube station, northeast of central London, to Victoria Station southwest of central London.

The Next Horizon

Apologies for neglecting this blog lately. Being a full-time graduate architecture student at DAAP has a way of forcing one to jettison all other extracurricular activities in favor of school-related work. Now that the fall quarter is over, I finally have a chance to catch my breath and turn my attention to some of those things that have been pushed to the back burner over the past few months.

Back in July I posted The Grass is Always Greener, which describes my dilemma as to whether or not I’ll want to remain here in the Cincinnati area after grad school. In that post I concluded with, “If I ultimately decide to leave town, possible destinations include London, Los Angeles, the Pacific Northwest, or back to the East Coast. Each locale has its own pros and cons, which will probably be the subject of a future blog post.” This is that blog post.

In addition to the long-term question of where I go after grad school, there’s also a more immediate question of where I’ll end up spending my 5-month co-op that begins in late March. I’ve already begun laying the groundwork for that decision, and where I end up going for co-op has the potential to strongly influence where I’ll end up post-graduation. And of course, the decision isn’t entirely up to me, as it will depend heavily upon where I can find a job. In this crappy economy, I may end up having to hold my nose and move someplace I otherwise wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, at least until the job market improves and I get an offer someplace more desirable.

That said, there are a few locales that I return to often in my mind, where I can envision myself having a reasonably good quality of life, and will probably be the places where I concentrate my job search both for the co-op and for permanent employment. The short list changes from time to time,  and will almost certainly change many more times before a decision is made, but now consists of Cincinnati, London, Los Angeles, the Pacific Northwest, and Asheville, North Carolina.

Cincinnati

Home sweet home... for now.

As I mentioned before, my roots here in Cincinnati run deep, and no matter where else I end up, I’ll always be a Cincinnatian at heart. I grew up here, I have a lot of friends and family here, and I’ve made a point to get as involved as I can in local civic affairs. Cincinnati is small enough that one person can make a big splash, the cost of living is dirt-cheap, and the city has ambitious plans for remaking its urban core. I have enough professional connections that finding a job here after graduation will likely be considerably easier than in any other city.

On the downside: While I love Cincinnati dearly, I generally loathe the Midwest. No mountains, no ocean, very little international vibe, and despite some progress here in the city, the region’s political culture is loaded with right-wing ideology with strong undercurrents of racism and religious fundamentalism. In my more cynical moments, I feel like Cincinnati is where the bigotry and religious fanaticism of the Deep South meet the burned-out post-industrial landscape of the Rust Belt. The weather — featuring the most unpleasant extremes of both winter and summer — makes the mere act of going outside tortuous for entire weeks at a time. The local architectural scene, while not without its bright spots, tends to be very conservative without much in the way of new ground being broken. If I end up working here as an architect, it almost certainly won’t be in the areas of design that I’m most passionate about.

London

My life in six months?

This past September I finally took my long-awaited return trip to London, and stayed there for almost a full two weeks. There’s something invigorating about being in a global city where you can hear a dozen languages being spoken while walking down the street, and if I want to specialize in transportation-related design, there’s plenty of such work in London. London’s mild climate would be ideal for me, and the benefits of living in a city with such a rich history go without saying. London is also an ideal jumping-off point for exploring the rest of Europe. And while no political system is without its faults, the overall political climate in the United Kingdom is much more to my taste, and working in the UK would provide job benefits that Americans can only dream about. Depending on how the currency exchange rates fluctuate, I might also be able to repay my student loans in a much shorter period of time.

The biggest catch, though, is that it’s in a different country. Finding an employer willing to sponsor me for a work visa would be a big challenge (especially when so many British and European Union architects are already out of work), and if I were to live there permanently, getting professionally registered as an architect with my American masters degree and work experience would be at least as challenging. Moving that far of a distance across an ocean would present its own logistical problems. London is a long way from home both in miles and in culture, and while I consider my Anglophile credentials to be pretty solid, nothing would change the fact that I’d always be a foreigner in a foreign land. Beyond that, living in a major global city like London, with its long commutes and extreme cost of living, would present a lot of the same frustrations I found while living in New York City. On those frequent occasions when I get tired of the rat race, it simply wouldn’t be possible to jump in my car and escape to the countryside in a few minutes like I can do here. Visits back home would involve a long trans-Atlantic flight and all the hassle that entails.

While London would be ideal for  my 5-month co-op, I don’t see it being the place where I ultimately settle down after grad school. As such, there’s the possibility that whatever networking connections I make in London on my co-op ultimately wouldn’t do me much good if I decide to stay here in the US for the long term.

Los Angeles

You are entering a world of pain.

This past summer I had the opportunity to visit Los Angeles for the first time, and to my surprise, I liked it a lot better than I thought I would. The climate can’t be beat, and the city is in the process of rapidly expanding its mass transit system. I have a couple good friends out there already, and the ocean and mountains are both nearby. The architectural scene in LA is decidedly more forward-looking than that of Cincinnati.

Of course, the idealized vision of Los Angeles giving way to its harsh realities is one of the oldest cliches in the book. The cost of living — while not nearly as high as that of New York or London — is still very high, crime and general quality of life would be big concerns, and having the ocean and mountains nearby won’t count for much if I have to sit in traffic for two hours to reach them. Visiting Cincinnati would involve a 4-hour flight. While not nearly as long as a flight from London, it’s still a major hassle.

The Pacific Northwest

All else aside, if I could pick any region of the country in which to settle down based purely on its climate and natural beauty, it would be the Pacific Northwest. I briefly lived in Eugene, Oregon from late 2004 to early 2005, and not a day goes by where my mind doesn’t wander back to the mountains, forests, and waterfalls of the Oregon Cascades. While living in Eugene I visited Portland a couple times and liked what I saw of it. Similar in size to Cincinnati, Portland seems to have made all the right decisions regarding its future as a city, while Cincinnati has made many wrong ones. Seattle is less familiar to me, except to say it’s somewhat larger than Portland and has the benefit of being on Puget Sound. Both cities offer an attractive quality of life in a mild climate, a reasonable cost of living (although Seattle is a bit more expensive than Portland), incredible natural beauty outside the city, and a more progressive architectural climate. Portland has a well-developed light rail and streetcar system, while Seattle has ambitious plans for expansion of its own light rail system. I’ve never been to Vancouver, BC to date, but I haven’t yet heard a bad thing about it.

I'd be willing to put up with a lot of bullshit Monday through Friday if it meant being able to drive to a place like this on Saturday.

It’s hard to think of many downsides to the Pacific Northwest, but there may be a few potential pitfalls. The job market in Portland is notoriously bad even in good economic times. Lots of people want to live there, but there aren’t enough jobs to go around. This puts downward pressure on wages and upward pressure on the cost of living, and I’ve heard people half-jokingly say that almost every bartender and barista in town has a masters degree. I’m not sure what the situation in Seattle or Vancouver is like, but I imagine it’s similar. While I wouldn’t move to someplace like Portland or Seattle without first having a job lined up, this could pose a big problem down the road if I got laid off or otherwise had to look for work again. As with London, moving to Vancouver would require getting a visa, but I understand it’s generally easier to get a Canadian visa than a British one. While living in Eugene I found myself bored once I had explored most of the area, although I attribute that more to being unemployed and broke in a smallish town than to any inherent flaws of the region. I also remember feeling like I was about a million miles away from my friends and family back east, and I could see that being a potential problem. But I didn’t have social media like Facebook and Twitter at my disposal in 2004, and the world feels much smaller now than it did back then.

Asheville, North Carolina

Oregon Lite

I almost hesitate to include this on the list, but I lived there for a couple years as a kid and I was back there for a couple days last spring break, so I may as well mention it. Asheville is similar in size to Eugene, and offers many of the same advantages: a mild climate, a beautiful setting in the mountains, and a relatively progressive college-town atmosphere with a strong emphasis on the arts and brewing. Asheville also has the advantage of being only a 6-hour drive from Cincinnati, making weekend visits back home relatively easy.

Unfortunately, Asheville is the largest city for many miles in any direction. Whenever I got bored in Eugene I could always drive a couple hours up the road to Portland. Driving a couple hours in any direction from Asheville only puts you smack in the middle of Deliverance country. Driving back home to Cincinnati from Asheville takes about the same amount of time as flying to Cincinnati from Portland or Seattle. And there’s even less of an architectural scene in Asheville than in Cincinnati. If I end up working as an architect in Asheville, I certainly won’t be designing transit systems or other major infrastructure projects. But maybe that’s okay, and I would certainly consider Asheville if the right opportunity came along.

So, that’s the list as of today. I reserve the right to revise it, refine it, or scrap it altogether in the future. All in all, I’d say the Pacific Northwest has the most advantages and the fewest disadvantages, and I’ll admit that area of the country has been on my mind a lot lately. But it’s too early to say for sure where I’ll end up, and like I said before, it’s not entirely within my control anyway. If nothing else, though, it will be interesting to see where the road leads.

IMG_2483

City of Angels

Los Angeles has always occupied a weird place in my consciousness. Having spent the bulk of my adult life in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City, my mental image of LA consisted primarily of east coast stereotypes and whatever I had seen on movies and television. That said, the city certainly has a mystique to it. Given that many of my favorite movies (Pulp Fiction, Blade Runner, Mulholland Drive, The Big Lebowski, and L.A. Confidential, among others) are set in LA and prominently feature the city itself as a major character, I figured there was something out there worth checking out.

That opportunity came this past week when my employer sent me and some others out to LA to take field measurements at a Macy’s store in Orange County. Most of the week was spent counting light fixtures and floor tiles inside the store, but at the end of the week I finally had a free evening before flying back to Cincinnati.

The skyline of downtown Los Angeles is somewhere off in the distance. Throughout the week I kept seeing this bright thing in the sky that Californians apparently call the "sun".

I met up with an old high school friend who has a small post-production company in Hollywood (www.5thwall.tv), and he gave me a quick driving tour of Los Angeles. Two of my favorite activities in the world are catching up with old friends and exploring new cities, and this evening offered the opportunity for both. Unfortunately we ran out of daylight before I could take many photos, but here are a few of them anyway.

My first impressions of Los Angeles: Dorothy Parker supposedly described LA as “72 suburbs in search of a city”, and the description seems apt. But among that vast patchwork of sprawl are some surprisingly fascinating urban places. And of course, the weather didn’t suck at all. It was nice to be in a place where I didn’t find myself living in fear of the outdoors. A few days after returning home to Cincinnati, I think I finally realized what I liked so much about Southern California: It had most of the things I miss about living in Florida (palm trees and the casual semi-tropical beach culture), minus most of the things I don’t miss about living in Florida (stifling humidity, boring topography, the post-Confederate collective chip on the shoulder, and the right-wing political/religious culture).

Large swaths of Los Angeles apparently look like this. (In fairness, so do large parts of New York and Chicago, minus the palm trees.) But the nice weather makes up for a lot of the LA cityscape's shortcomings. And like New York and Chicago, the scenery improves drastically once you get off the commercial avenues and start exploring the side streets.

I was barely able to scratch the surface on this trip, but I was there long enough to see the appeal LA holds in the popular imagination, and I’m sure I’ll find a reason to make a return trip out there at some point. Would I actually consider moving out there? Maybe. In a couple years I’ll finish up my M.Arch. degree in Cincinnati, and where I end up after that will largely depend on where I can find a job. My primary passion is transportation and infrastructure design, and there simply isn’t much of that type of work here in Cincinnati. But despite being the poster child for automobile-oriented sprawl, Los Angeles has actually been taking some aggressive steps

to expand its public transit system. Before this trip I probably would have ruled out applying for positions in Los Angeles, but now I’d be willing to consider LA is a possible destination if the right opportunity came along.

The fact that you can buy liquor at your local CVS or Walgreen's is almost reason alone to move out there.

The full photo gallery from my Los Angeles trip can be found here.

‘Nati Weekend

Time for another trip back to base camp. The official reason for the trip was to attend the M.Arch. open house at the University of Cincinnati. Just as importantly, it was an excuse to get the hell away from the NYC pressure cooker and spend a much-needed few days back on my home turf, and look at things that aren’t made of asphalt or concrete.

I arrived in Cincinnati late Thursday morning, and promptly checked into the hotel, took a shower, and crashed for a couple hours. I had overslept that morning, and woke up about ten minutes before I was supposed to be leaving for the airport. The next few hours were a blur, but I made my flight and landed at CVG without incident.

That evening, I attended a debate at UC about Cincinnati’s streetcar project and Issue 9. I met up with Sherman Cahal and Gordon Bombay at the event. Long story made short, later that evening Sherman and I found ourselves having beers with Mark Miller and Chris Finney, the two people most responsible for getting this stupid referendum issue on the ballot. Talk about awkward. Mark Miller turned out to be a nice guy and I found myself agreeing with him on more things than I thought I would. Chris Finney? No comment.

The next day was spent almost entirely at the M.Arch. open house at UC. I didn’t learn much that I didn’t already know, but it was still nice to be on campus and meet people in the architecture program there. UC was my first choice of architecture schools when I was in high school, but I didn’t get accepted there, and I ended up at a few other places instead. Now I’m hoping to go there for grad school. I’m trying not to get my hopes up too high and jinx myself, but I think I already crossed that bridge a long time ago.

That evening I met up with Eighth and State, Maximillian, testell, Caseyc, thomasbw, Kevin LeMaster, and a few others (my apologies if I left anybody out) at Grammers in Over-the-Rhine, and ran into Michael Moore. Not Michael Moore of “Bowling for Columbine” fame, but Michael Moore, the City Architect for the City of Cincinnati. He’s the one working to build a streetcar line through OTR, and he’s got some other good ideas as well. Nice guy, and I wish him the best in making Cincinnati a better city.

The following day was spent driving around the city and checking out routes and locations for my thesis project, a rapid transit system for Cincinnati. I got as far west as Lawrenceburg and as far east as Milford. Google Earth is great, but nothing beats going out and seeing a place in real life. One thing that struck me was how badly aerial photos are at depicting topography.

That evening was spent at my cousin’s place in Silver Grove, eating chili, drinking beer, and engaging in good conversation. I think I had more of a social life in three days in Cincinnati than I’ve had in the past two years in New York.

On Sunday I checked out of the hotel, drove around for a bit, and headed back to the airport. In what’s becoming somewhat of an unfortunate tradition, my return flight from Cincinnati to NYC was yet another clusterfuck.

My flights to Cincinnati from NYC have invariably been on-time and incident-free. My return flights back to New York are another story. A year ago, Delta forgot to load the baggage onto the plane, resulting in 150 angry people about to start a riot at the baggage claim office at Newark Airport. Last June, after a series of delays and mechanical failures, my flight was ultimately canceled and I arrived in New York 26 hours after first checking in at CVG — enough time to drive or take Amtrak from Cincy to New York and back.

This time, the flight was two hours late, there were a half-dozen hyperactive brats in the back of the tiny plane, a screaming infant in the row behind me, and the landing was so hard I thought the pilot was trying to put a crater in LaGuardia’s runway. And of course, arriving in Queens from almost anywhere is like arriving in Tijuana after a weekend in Lake Tahoe. I’ve reached the conclusion that God really doesn’t want me to return to New York from Cincinnati, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

Well, if I get accepted to UC and things go the way I hope they will, my next trip to Cincinnati will be sometime in May, and the purpose of that trip will be to look for an apartment. Wish me luck.

Issue 9 debate at UC:

Main Street on the University of Cincinnati campus:

The old quad at the University of Cincinnati:

Main Street @ UC:

Grammer’s in Over-the-Rhine:

I love beer steins. My grandfather used to have a few, but I have no idea whatever happened to them.

Grammer’s. Some neighborhood thug threw a cinder block through the leaded glass window on the right a few months ago, but it has since been restored.

A name from Cincinnati’s rich brewing history.

Beer steins on display at Grammer’s.

More beer steins. Grammer’s has been around in one form or another since 1872.

The bar at Grammer’s. Lately the hipsters have discovered Grammer’s, but tonight it wasn’t too obnoxious.

Old railroad tracks on the Oasis line. In my thesis project, this right-of-way carries the Blue Line rapid transit route.

An old church along River Road on Cincinnati’s west side. The steeple reminds me a lot of St. Michael’s in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood.

Northside. I had a great sandwich at Melt.

No visit to Cincy is complete without stopping at Fountain Square and paying homage to the Genius of Water.

The so-called “Short Vine” business district near the UC campus.

Cincinnati’s hills offer great vistas of the downtown skyline from all directions. This one is from a steep street in the Prospect Hill neighborhood.

Prospect Hill:

Cincinnati’s Pendleton neighborhood. Many parts of Cincinnati wouldn’t feel out of place in Brooklyn or Philadelphia.

My survival kit for the winter:

Rediscovering Cincinnati

This past week I took a much-needed vacation back home to Cincinnati, my first real vacation (other than short weekend trips) since my 2001 trip to London. I had been hoping to take a 2-week trip to the UK later this summer, but that was looking increasingly unrealistic from a fiscal point of view, so I decided another trip to Cincinnati was in order. This was the longest trip I’ve taken to Cincy in quite a while, and it felt good to be back home without having to rush around to cram everything into a couple short days.

Most of my time was spent meeting up with friends and family, and wondering around town and taking lots of photos. A couple highlights included:

  • Meeting local bloggers Randy Simes, the Provost of Cincinnati, Sherman Cahal, and a few others for drinks on Fountain Square. Randy was also kind enough to meet up for drinks and give me a brief driving tour of the city the day before. It’s nice to meet up with people who share a passion for the city and who are doing what they can to make it a better place.
  • I had a meeting with a longtime professor at the University of Cincinnati’s school of architecture to talk about the program and have him look over my portfolio. The meeting went well, and I came away cautiously optimistic that, if all goes well, I’ll be starting my M.Arch. degree at UC around this time next year. I’m trying not to jinx myself by getting my hopes up too high before anything is official, but it’s hard not to be excited about the idea.
  • I was able to visit the Cincinnati Zoo, Union Terminal, and a few other spots around town that I haven’t had a chance to visit in far too long.

Most importantly, though, the trip was a chance to remind myself how comfortable Cincinnati feels to me, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to finally move back there.

The only real black mark on the whole trip was the return flight to New York. I showed up at Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky Airport (CVG) at around 6 PM for an 8 PM flight. But the flight kept getting delayed because they were waiting for a crew member to arrive on an inbound flight from JFK, and when they finally loaded us onto the plane at 11 PM, we taxied out to the runway only to be informed that the plane had some mechanical issues. We sat there for an hour while some mechanics tinkered around with the hydraulic system, before finally sending us back to the gate and canceling the flight. They put us up in a hotel, and then I was finally able to catch a 4:30 PM flight the next day. I landed at JFK at around 7:00 Saturday evening, 25 hours after first arriving at CVG for my departure. And people wonder why I hate flying so much…

Here are lots of photos. Click on the title to view the full album.

Fort Thomas, Kentucky

I was born in Cincinnati near Mariemont, but I spent most of my childhood just across the river in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. “Cake Town” is about as middle-America as you can possibly get, a cozy bedroom community strung along the top of a steep ridge overlooking the Ohio River, best known for its excellent public schools and its streets of tidy, well-kept houses. The type of place where you want to wake up on Christmas morning.

For me, it’s always refreshing going back there. Almost every spot in the city has some sort of childhood memory associated with it. No matter where I’ve been and what kinds of sordid ordeals I’ve been going through in my life, I feel like I can always go back and find Fort Thomas pretty much just as I had left it.

Most of my extended family and a few old friends in the Cincinnati area still live either in or near Fort Thomas, so the town typically serves as the hub of my activities during my periodic visits back home.

Prior to my most recent visit, though, it occurred to me that I hardly had any photos of the city, so I made a special point to remedy that oversight with my new digital camera. (63 photos)

Downtown Cincinnati and the Riverfront

While growing up in the Cincinnati area, downtown was like the nerve center of my universe. I was always begging my parents to take me over there. Until I visited Atlanta for the first time in high school, Cincinnati was the largest city I had ever been in. Later in my life I found myself living in places like Chicago and New York City, so downtown Cincy no longer really impresses me with its bigness.

That said, downtown Cincy is no slouch, and there are some much larger American cities that would kill to have a central business district as strong as Cincinnati’s. Many fine old buildings have been preserved and restored, the streets are generally clean and well-kept, and things are looking up. Downtown went through some rough periods through the 90’s and 2000’s, but the mood seems much more optimistic now that vacant storefronts are being filled and more people are choosing to actually live downtown. (108 photos)

Over-the-Rhine

To the north of downtown lies Cincinnati’s famed (and infamous) Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, a spectacular collection of 19th Century Italianate buildings that was once the most densely-populated American neighborhood outside of New York City. OTR spent much of the post-war period as a burned-out ghetto, but is now finally being rediscovered and redeveloped. Think of it as Cincinnati’s answer to the Lower East Side. (32 photos)

Union Terminal

Have you ever been given a priceless family heirloom or antique that, despite its incredible beauty and functionality, never seems to really fit anywhere in your home? That seems to be the dilemma Cincinnati has faced with its magnificent Union Terminal complex over the years. Completed in 1933, Union Terminal was not only one of the finest examples of art deco architecture in the world, but it was also one of the best-planned transportation facilities of its age. A large concourse spanned the tracks at the rear of the building and provided stairs to each train platform. At the front, dedicated ramps for taxis, busses, and streetcars funneled passengers to their ultimate destinations in an efficient manner. The central hub of activity was the massive half-domed rotunda.

Unfortunately, Union Terminal opened just as passenger rail in the US was beginning its long decline. Despite an upsurge in rail travel during the Second World War, the building soon found itself empty and obsolete. In 1974, the Southern Railway demolished the concourse to make room for an expanded yard for its freight operations. As if to add insult to injury, all but one of the concourse’s famous murals were relocated to the new airport across the river in Boone County, Kentucky.

In 1990, Union Terminal re-opened as a home to the Cincinnati History Museum, the Museum of Natural History & Science, an Ominmax theater, and a children’s museum. The following year, Amtrak resurrected the building’s original function as a passenger rail station in a limited way, with its Cardinal train calling at the station three times a week in each direction.

With plans underway to develop a regional high-speed rail system, Union Terminal may once again see its place restored as a magnificent gateway to the city. (25 photos)

University of Cincinnati

My earliest memories of the UC campus are from some sort of grade school field trip to Nippert Stadium. Since then, many parts of the campus have been completely rebuilt, and the campus now includes new structures by some of the most prominent architects currently practicing. (46 photos)

Maysville, Kentucky

One of the most frustrating things about living in NYC without a car is that I don’t often get the chance to take a nice long drive on country highways. So, this past week I decided to take a break from Cincinnati and head down Kentucky 8 towards the historic river town of Maysville. The town’s history dates back to before the American Revolution, and it was an important waypoint for travelers navigating the Ohio River. (10 photos)

Mount Adams, Eden Park, and the Krohn Conservatory

The Cincinnati neighborhood of Mount Adams and adjacent Eden Park have always been one of my favorite parts of the city. Mount Adams is a vibrant urban neighborhood that consists of steep, narrow streets that wouldn’t be out of place in San Francisco, and densely-spaced row houses that cling to the hillside for dear life.

Eden Park, although not the city’s largest public park, is arguably the best-known and most popular. The park features the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Krohn Conservatory, and incredible views overlooking the Ohio River. (66 photos)

Cincinnati Zoo

It had been ages since the last time I visited the Cincinnati Zoo, so I decided to stop by and check the place out. It’s the second-oldest zoo in the US (opened in 1875, only 14 months after the Philadelphia Zoo) and is consistently ranked as one of the best zoos in America. (59 photos)

Village of Mariemont

Mariemont was founded as a planned community in 1923, and modeled after an idyllic English village. I was born nearby, so I guess you could say my Anglophile streak goes back a long way. My maternal grandmother, now 86 years old and still sharp as a tack, still lives a few blocks away. (20 photos)

Around Town

Here are a few neighborhood shots and various other photos that don’t neatly fit into albums of their own. This album includes Columbia-Tusculum, Hyde Park, Mount Lookout, Spring Grove Cemetery, and an unplanned late night at CVG Airport. (41 photos)

Escape from New York

This past Saturday, with clear skies and temps in the 70’s, I decided that it was the perfect day to take a long-overdue break from the concrete canyons of Manhattan.

I picked up the rental car at around noon, and took the Saw Mill River Parkway and Taconic Parkway up the east side of the Hudson River to the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge. After crossing over, I made my way through Saugarties and Palenville to Catskills State Park. Highway 23A is a steep, windy road that heads up through a dramatic gorge that wouldn’t be out of place in the Oregon Cascades.

I pulled over at the trailhead to Kaaterskill Falls and hiked the half-mile trail to the base of the falls. While fairly short, the steepness of the trail and the rocky terrain made it one of the more brutal hikes I’ve taken on either coast. (I’ve noticed that many Northeastern hiking trails tend to be fairly trashy and head straight up the side of a steep hill, while the trails I hiked in the Northwest tend to ease you up a hill through a series of switchbacks.) Probably doesn’t help that I’m completely out of shape and that it’s been months since I’ve walked on something that isn’t made of asphalt or concrete.

Once I made it back to the car, I drove the long way around through the Catskills, passing through a series of some quaint and not-so-quaint small towns and hamlets. Woodstock was particularly interesting; the whole town is like one giant head shop, and I saw a couple people wandering around who appeared to have been “wandering” around town since 1969. It’s sort of like a hyper-condensed version of Eugene, Oregon. (I later learned that the 1969 Woodstock music festival took place about 40-some miles from the actual town of Woodstock.)

On the way back toward the city, I came back down the west side of the Hudson on Highways 32 and 17, passing through Kingston, New Paltz, etc. before eventually finding myself driving through the suburban wastelands of northern New Jersey. I was able to stop in IKEA and pick up a new dresser as planned, and then came back into the city via the George Washington Bridge.

I need to make a point to do something like this much more often. The scenery north of NYC is quite beautiful, and (at least depending on which route you take) it’s amazing how it transitions from urban to almost-rural within a very short distance. Compare to Chicagoland, where you have to drive through almost 40 miles of suburban sprawl before you get anywhere that even resembles “rural”, and even then you’re out in the middle of cornfields rather than mountains and forests.

Return of the Prodigal Son

As I mentioned on an earlier posting in September, I had planned on taking a weekend trip back to Cincinnati this month. Well, I just got back from that trip, so here’s my report.

I had to wake up at the ungodly hour of 4:00 AM on Thursday to catch my flight out of Newark Airport. Somebody remind me never to book a 7:45 AM flight again, especially when it takes over an hour just to get to the airport from my apartment. Fortunately, once we got airborne, the flight to Cincinnati was uneventful. I absolutely hate flying with a passion that passes all human understanding, and I’ll do anything I can to avoid it, but sometimes there’s no viable alternative and you just have to bend over and take it like a man.

Upon arriving at CVG, I picked up the rental car and grabbed a bite to eat at the Frisch’s in the Cincinnati suburb of Fort Thomas, just a couple blocks away from the house I grew up in. Afterwards, I drove around Fort Thomas a bit to see what, if anything, had changed. To nobody’s surprise, the town has hardly changed a bit in decades. They built an addition to the high school, and there’s been some streetscape improvements in the little downtown business district. That’s about it. Fort Thomas is about as middle-America as you can possibly get, a cozy bedroom community strung along the top of a high ridge overlooking the Ohio River, best known for its excellent public schools and its streets of tidy, well-kept houses. The type of place where you want to wake up on Christmas morning.

For me, it’s always weird going back there. Almost every spot in the city has some sort of childhood memory associated with it. No matter where I’ve been and what kinds of sordid ordeals I’ve been going through in my life, I feel like I can always go back and find Fort Thomas just as I had left it. For better or worse, the town feels like it’s stuck in some sort of time warp where the calendar never got past 1984. In many ways it’s nice to have a place like that to go back to, but I can’t help but wonder if I’d ever be able to live there again without going nuts.

My hometown of Fort Thomas may not have changed much since I moved away in 1984 at the ripe old age of nine, but my friends and family there aren’t getting any younger, and it always comes as a jolt to my senses when I realize how fast the years are passing. I’m now about the same age as my parents, aunts, and uncles were when I was a kid in Fort Thomas. My parents and their siblings are now rapidly approaching the same age my grandparents where at the time I most remember them. My cousin Austin and I were inseparable as kids in Fort Thomas; now he’s married and has a kid of his own. My best friend April is about the same age as me, and we spent countless hours playing together down in the woods behind our houses. She’s been married for a few years now, and has three kids. Her oldest kid is now as old as I was when I moved away in 1984.

I have no regrets about moving around as much as I have, even the moves during my childhood when I had no choice in the matter. I think being exposed to so many places has made me a more well-rounded and open-minded person than I probably would have been otherwise, and I’ve met some great people and made some great friends along the way. But I can’t help but mourn all the things I’ve missed out on while I’ve been away from my hometown, and it’s during these periodic visits when those feelings always come rushing back up to the surface.

For that reason, I made a special point during this trip to touch base with some friends and family members who I haven’t seen in a long time, to rekindle some of those relationships. I visited my aunt Ellen on Thursday, soon after my arrival in town. Saturday evening I was able to get together with Austin, his wife and kid, his sister Emily and brother Eliot, and his mother (my aunt) Lisa down at his place in Silver Grove. We all goofed around a bit while kicking back pizza and cold beers, and Austin and I still hit it off like old times. A lot of things have changed, but people’s personalities seem to stay fairly constant.

Earlier that day, I had met up with April at her place. This was especially emotional for me, as I hadn’t seen her in ages. There’s been more than one occasion where I’d become convinced that we had lost touch for so long that our friendship had become just an old memory, but we always seem to get back in touch. We were such close friends back in grade school that, at the time, I just assumed that we’d eventually get married. But I moved away and now she’s grown into a beautiful woman, happily married to her husband for about ten years now, with three kids and a nice house. I can’t help but think about the “what-if’s” that might have played out if we had been allowed to continue growing up together.

All but one of my grandparents have long since passed away, but Grandma Hillerich, now well into her 80’s, is still more healthy, more mentally sharp, and more active than most people half her age. The Energizer Bunny has nothing on her. She’s actually my mother’s stepmother, but I never knew my biological grandmother on that side of the family, so she’s always been my “real” grandmother as far as I’m concerned. As active and healthy as she is, she’s not getting any younger, and I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I should really make an effort to visit her while I’m in town. I made a couple attempts to call her, but wasn’t able to connect. So this morning, after checking out of the hotel and with a few hours to kill before I had to be at the airport, I decided to take a drive around her part of town. She lives near Mariemont, a picturesque village made up of Tudor-style buildings clustered around a central village sqaure. Up the hill not far away is the site of the hospital I was born in, now converted to a nursing home. Fort Thomas is my hometown, but Mariemont is where I was born. During my drive I happened across a familiar-looking little gray church on Plainville Road, and I realized that it was my grandmother’s church, where she’s been active for decades. I kept on driving, but looking at my watch, I figured she was probably in there getting ready for the worship service. I took a deep breath, turned the car around, pulled into the church parking lot, and went inside. How long since the last time I’d been inside that church? At least 25 years. I soon found her, and she gave me a huge hug and was proud to introduce me to her friends there. I stuck around for the service, and then we grabbed a bite to eat together afterwards. It was nice seeing her again, and for once I’m glad I listened to the little nagging voice that told me to turn the car around.

Eventually we had to say our goodbyes, and I made my way out to the airport to turn in the rental car and get checked in. Unlike the flight out there, the flight back was a living hell, the type of flight that reminds me why I hate flying so much. Two rows in front of me were three spoiled-rotten toddlers, who screamed non-stop the entire three hours I was on board that plane. It was with a huge sense of relief that I finally stepped off the plane, even if I was in Newark. My relief turned to dismay, though, when my baggage never showed up on the carousel, and I was informed that it was apparently never loaded onto the plane at CVG. About half the people on the flight had the same problem. Supposedly the baggage was put on a later flight and they’ll deliver my suitcase to my apartment sometime late tonight, but I’ll believe it when I see it. They said midnight, and it’s now 1:00 AM as I type this. Somebody remind me never to fly anywhere again, ever.

The obstensible reason for this trip was to attend the M.Arch. open house at the University of Cincinnati on Friday. Even aside from the chance to catch up with friends and family and to get my Skyline Chili fix, the event at UC was well worth the trip. I came away with lots of questions answered, and with UC now ranking among my top picks for grad school. Unfortunately, it looks like I’ll be delaying my application for another year while I finish my BA degree and get some money saved up, but I’m looking forward to sending them my application around this time next year. Assuming I get accepted and decide to enroll there, I’ll be moving back to Cincinnati around June of 2010, about 20 months from now.

I just hope New York City doesn’t drive me crazy in the meantime. Don’t get me wrong; I still love NYC with a passion. But it takes a certain type of person to live here for an extended period of time, and sometimes I question whether I’m that type of person or not. I’m rapidly reaching the point in my life where I need to pick a spot to settle down and sink some roots, and right now it’s looking like that place will either be New York or Cincinnati. Cincinnati has plenty of its own issues and problems, so I guess my task for the next 12 months is to decide which city is least likely to drive me crazy.

New Haven Road Trip

Well, I just got back from an exciting road trip to New Haven, where I was hoping to sell my car at the CarMax store up there (which, it turns out, is the closest one to NYC). Their offer for my car: $750. This is a car that is worth over $5000 according to NADA and Kelly Blue Book, and CarMax told me with a straight face that it’s worth $750. I not-so-politely declined their offer and walked out.

In an effort to ensure that my 120-mile round trip wasn’t a complete waste of time and gas money, I decided to head over to Yale and check out the area. I had never been anywhere near the Yale campus before, and it’s one of the schools I’ll most likely be re-applying to for my M.Arch. at some point.

I parked near the architecture building (which is currently ripped to shreds as it undergoes a gut renovation), and poked around a bit at Louis Kahn’s building nearby. Very cool building, but unfortunately it was closed when I was there, so I was limited to looking around the exterior. I have no idea where Yale’s architecture studios are being held in the interim, or else I would have checked them out. I’m sure I’ll be back up there at some point in the fall, though.

I had a burger at Loui’s Lunch Spot, which claims to be the place that invented the hamburger. Tiny restaurant, and decent burger cooked in a weird cast iron contraption and served on toast, but hardly the best burger I’ve ever had. I guess it’s one of those places you go once just for the novelty of it.

After that, I did some walking around the Yale campus, which is very large and very beautiful. Lots of old gothic buildings, traditional campus quads, big trees, etc… It actually reminded me a bit of the University of Chicago campus. The surrounding streets have your typical college business district array of pizza places, bars, head shops, etc. Pretty cool overall… I could certainly think of worse places to spend three years of my life. New Haven has somewhat of a reputation for being a crime-ridden hellhole, but the area immediately near the campus seems pretty nice.

So my car is parked back in Newark, and I’m in a bit of a dilemma as how to pay the first month’s rent and security deposit for a slightly more permanent housing situation next month. I’ve already given up on the idea of getting my own apartment right away (that idea will most likely have to wait a few months), so I’ll be looking to move in with roommates for a while. True, my new job is paying me good money, but it will be a while until I’m working full-time and the paychecks start rolling in.

New York Road Trip

I recently got back from a road trip to New York… Mainly to visit a couple of prospective grad schools, but also to visit my church in NYC and catch up with some old friends there.I briefly visited Columbia, and although I generally liked what I saw, I wasn’t blown away by it, either. Avery Hall is incredibly cramped, and people are practically sitting on top of each other in the studios. Lots of computers, naturally, but relatively little in the way of models or hand drawings. While walking around, most people seemed inclined to avoid eye contact and pretend I wasn’t there. Being a former NYC resident, I guess I shouldn’t have expected any differently, but it would have been nice to at least gotten a friendly “hello” from somebody.

I spent Monday evening and all day Tuesday up in Ithaca, and spent most of that time hanging around the Cornell campus and the surrounding area. Ithaca itself actually reminds me a lot of Eugene, Oregon… Smallish college town, incredible natural beauty, and lots of flannel and granola. Cornell itself was very nice, and I had a good meeting with Dr. Lily Chi, the director of the graduate architecture program. She gave me a few helpful pointers about my portfolio, gave me tons of information about the program, and led me on a brief tour of the facilities before setting me loose to explore Rand Hall on my own. Rand Hall itself is rather old and decrepit, but much more spacious than Avery, and looks like a cool place with a lot of creative energy… I especially loved the top floor studios. In general, there seemed to be much more of a balance between computers and hand drawings and models, which I appreciated. Dr. Chi introduced me to a couple of the students there, and they were happy to answer any questions I had.

I happen to love waterfalls, so later in the day I did some exploring around the area and got some photos of some of the nicer falls nearby. The Cornell campus reminded me of Rivendell… How many other colleges can claim to have large canyons and waterfalls directly adjacent to the campus? Even if I don’t wind up in Ithaca for grad school, I may have to build myself a vacation house there someday.

Overall, I was much more impressed with Cornell than with Columbia, not only in terms of the welcome and the general vibe I got, but also in terms of the facilities and the program itself. Of course, where I end up going is up to the respective admissions committees of the schools I’m applying to, but I feel safe in saying that Cornell is my #1 pick at the moment.

For those who are interested, I’ve posted some photos from my trip:

Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC
This is my home church in New York, and is currently undergoing a massive cleaning and restoration project as the result of a severe fire in 2001. The nave is currently closed for restoration, but the Great Choir has recently been re-opened, and the results are spectacular.

Ithaca, Cornell, and environs
Okay, not much in the way of Cornell itself, but several photos of Fall Creek Gorge and Taughannock Falls.

Enjoy…