Obviously Provisional Title That’ll Get Forgotten About (Again)

So Google Maps has updated its imagery, and now it shows commercial corridors. Urbanists have known for some time that different cities have different types of commercial corridors. Some, like Chicago, have corridors that march on down the city’s primary transit spines for what seems like miles on end; others, like DC, have corridors that wink into and out of existence.

And then we have this:

How did these byzantine commercial corridors, corridors which seem to undulate across vast swaths of the city like so many snakes, come about?

Like DC, Philadelphia’s heritage is one of commercial corridors that are short, discrete Main Streets. For example, here are Main Streets Roxborough and Manayunk.

Screenshot 2016-07-28 at 12.14.47 PMBut the city’s urban core is also a very old place, one that has continually intensified year after year, decade after decade, for almost four centuries now. As time goes on, the corridors get longer, and as they get longer, they start to meet one another. We can see this happening in South Philly: as East Passyunk gets stronger, it gets longer, and as it gets longer, it pushes closer to the Italian Market — a different commercial corridor which it will, given enough time, intersect with. The same holds true for South Street, and the Italian Market itself.

The process is apparently complete in Spruce Hill, where commercial corridors along Chestnut, Locust, Spruce, and 45th streets have effectively oozed into one another, creating a vast low-intensity commercial “district” more than a corridor. Some of the city’s best Ethiopian eats are in this district.

Similarly, increasingly complex commercial patterns can be seen in Fishtown and Northern Liberties, where the 2nd Street and Girard and Frankford avenue cores are mere blocks from one another, and where Frankford Ave. is a commercial corridor with its own identity. In terms of activity, this area has become the center of the River Wards, and is noticeably becoming the largest and most-intensively used commercial district outside Center City proper or the serpentine web of South Philly commerce.

This map isn’t perfect, though. It doesn’t show the Fairmount Avenue corridor, a strong eastward-expanding corridor that runs all the way from Pennsylvania Ave. to 18th St. or so — a corridor historically anchored by Eastern State, the way EPX was once anchored by the long-gone Moyamensing Prison at 10th and Passyunk. And it appears ambivalent to the idea of representing strip malls as commercial corridors, including the Oregon Avenue strips but ignoring the vast Pennsport power centers.

This inconsistency points to an interesting question: what, exactly, is Google Maps trying to point out? Destinations, perhaps? Intensity? Commercial use? What do you think?


The Numbers Game

When I was in college, the last thing I wanted to do was become a professional writer. Not because I’m not good at it, and certainly not because I don’t enjoy it. No: the reason why was because I intuited the writing market was a numbers game I could not win.

Of course, life has a way of getting in the way. When the only thing you can get people to pay you to do is write, you become a writer. But the numbers game is still there.

The reason why it persists is that most writers are functionally innumerate. Creativity is more important than logic. But there are ways to figure out how much you’re worth, and how much you need to be worth, and they don’t involve gradients or differentials or even integrals. Just basic arithmetic.

Working Down: What Do I Need To Make?

Like just about anybody else, a writer needs to have an idea of how much they’d like to earn in mind. (And I don’t mean “more than J.K. Rowling” here.) This is because, from the figure they’d like to earn, they can deduce how much they want to earn — on average — in a given week.

It’s the same principle as analyzing a salary into a budget. How much are you getting paid a year? Since a working year is effectively fifty weeks in the United States, divide the offer amount by fifty to get your weekly gross. For example, somebody making $30k a year makes $600 a week; somebody making $100k makes $2,000 a week.

Because you are trying to make numbers work without the luxury of working documentation — such is the way of the freelancer — you will need to budget yourself. Over time, I have budgeted myself such that I live comfortably with an outlay of >$1,500 a month. But that’s because I have a dirt-cheap room, utilities included, with purportedly free internet, and no car, so I can put more spending towards eating well and working at coffeeshops … at least when I can make this budget. It also helps me see the room I have to deal with debt service.

By figuring out how your annual target breaks down monthly and hence weekly (a week is 1/4 of a month, here) to make your numbers work, you’ve figured out your quota — that is, how much you must make in order to break even from a budgetary perspective.

Working Up: How Much Am I Worth?

Every serious writer knows that job ads advertising 1¢ or 2¢ a word is a scam. If you know how much, on average, your words are worth, then you also know when you’re getting hoodwinked or getting a good deal.

Say, for example, your annual target is $50k. This is a nice round income target of $1k weekly — an admirable effort, and probably more than the salary you’d get from copywriting at that level. From this, we can deduce that you need to make $200 a day (remember, a workweek has five days!).

Now … how many words do you feel comfortable writing in a day? Sure, you may say, writing is like coding: paying by the line just incentivizes bad code. But the fact of the matter is: clients are looking for a certain amount of space to fill. And while some clients are willing to pay by the hour, they’re hard to come by: It’s much more common to be paid by the post, or by the word. And even when you’re paid by the post, you’re expected to make a certain word count.

At production, I can usually write about four 500-word articles a day. This works well for both me and my clients: If I have that much workload then I am consistently making my daily bread. It also allows me to assay the net value of my words.

If I am making $200 a day writing 4 500-word articles, then I am making $200 a day writing 2,000 words, or my words are worth about 10¢. Because I know this is the mean I want to distribute my actual pay rates around, this also allows me to take on clients valuing my words both to greater and lesser degrees, depending on the quality of the client and how badly I need the additional work. (I currently need additional work badly.)

By contrast, if I were trying to make $200 with a client that only paid 2¢ a word, I would need to write a whopping 10,000 words a day — laughable!


So, by understanding our quotas and capabilities, we understand our net value. Finally, I want to address the budget.

When I budget, I follow a 25 x 4 rule: in any given month

  1. The first week pays ongoing bills (rent, utilities, transportation, communications)
  2. The second week goes into debt service
  3. The third week goes into savings
  4. The fourth week goes into “slush” — that is, my free $$$.

I live by myself with no real tether, so this isn’t a difficult budget to develop. It’s also allowing me to clearly see what I need to have, based on the 80/20 rule: namely, that of the $4000 a month I would want to have under this budget, about $3200 would need to come from the same 20% of clients.

What this means is that, if my best client — who I can usually get ~$500 a month from — represents part of the 80%, then I would need five other like clients to make my bills! And from that, I can also see that I would need about 30 clients total … not an easy task. (I’m less than 20% of the way there.)

But I can draw all of this knowledge out of knowing what I need to make, and how much effort I can fairly put into making it. That is, I know how to value myself and my work. This was not an easy lesson to learn.

Stadium Arcadium

Stadium Arcadium

I am a stadium agnostic.

I don’t mean I am for pro stadiums in general — like any good urbanist, I understand those are oversold and that they underdeliver — but rather, I am talking about an ongoing stadium controversy here in Philadelphia.

You see, my alma mater, Temple University, wants to build an on-campus football stadium. And most of the city’s urbanist community has had their own knee-jerk reaction against the proposal. But because the knee-jerk comes from the critique against pro stadiums, instead of looking at college stadiums, it misses the point and in so doing misses the opportunity urbanists have of instilling urbanist values on Temple’s campus.

The Problems with Pro Stadiums

We all know these by now. Pro stadiums are brought for with significant public money in sweetheart deals with the team owners. Some pro stadium contracts are so utterly ridiculous one wonders how they were agreed upon in the first place. And in exchange — nothing. There is little to no immediate economic benefit that stadiums spark. Philadelphia’s own stadium district remains a handful of colosseums in a sea of parking, a single strip mall breaking the monotony. Team owners say that their teams are good for the entire metro, and like the best of lies, that does have a spark of truth in it. So too the idea that an arena or a baseball field — much more heavily used — can be located convenient to downtown.

But the problem in all of this is that team owners have successfully convinced the public, time and again, to invest its own money in these white elephant facilities. Football stadiums get used maybe ten times in the year; baseball fields and arenas are more heavily booked. No matter how you look at it, a stadium is not a good public investment.

Temple’s Proposal

Temple, meanwhile, wants to build a 35k seat stadium at Broad and Norris, about a block north of the Liacouras Center and cater-corner to the Performing Arts Center. The rationale behind the move is manifold: first, they’re sick and tired of being junior partners to the Eagles in Lincoln Financial Field, whose dominant team is raising their rent as Temple gains increasing national recognition. Temple also wants to control all of the revenue streams, and finally, to their eyes, an on-campus stadium is vital to creating an on-campus gameday experience.

(It’s also important not to understate Temple’s meteoric rise as its football team has gotten good: Sports Illustrated — not Penn State, not Pitt — now rates Temple as Pennsylvania’s most popular team.)

Being on-campus, the stadium would be built on land Temple already owns — part of Geasy Field, in this case. (Another part is becoming part of the Student Health and Wellness Center.) And the school — and this is important — has pledged to raise the money to fund it from donations and bonding.

The Backlash

This is, however, North Philadelphia, and the political backlash is already brewing. Last February, students protested against it in what was, at the end of the day, an utterly predictable gesture. In the African-American community, the clergy is against it, and this has political implications: Councilman Darrell Clarke, who represents the area around Temple, dare not anger them lest he loses the key that keeps getting him elected in the face of increasingly adversarial demographics.

This makes sense. North Philadelphia’s African-American community has long resented Temple, and this resentment dates back to the urban renewal era, when Temple once proposed to take everything between Broad Street, Girard Avenue, and the Reading Railroad (now SEPTA) line for its burgeoning campus. The Liacouras Center itself, reports agree, was built with heavy-handed tactics, including unwelcome takings, decades after urban renewal’s end. Fifty years of resentment does not go away in a flash.

The Reason for Agnosticism

And here I explain my reasoning for being a stadium agnostic. In the end, the reason we oppose pro stadiums is because they expropriate public resources to line team owners’ pockets. They use land conveyed into public hands and public funding mechanisms. Public, public, public.

Temple’s stadium proposal does not. It only uses land Temple already owns, and has owned since at least the urban-renewal era, if not longer. (Most of Geasy Field was built on a defunct cemetery.) In using donations and university bonding, Temple is very specifically not proposing tapping into public resources.

Is this the highest and best use for Temple? Who knows. But, at the end of the day, it is the use Temple wants, on land they already own, with resources they intend to raise themselves. The public has fuck-all to do with it. And, as long as Temple does not seek public resources, then what right do urbanists — the same urbanists who want more relaxed zoning and less public input into private projects to begin with — have to impinge on Temple’s desire to do with their land and their resources as they please?

The Center of it All

Ohio is often thought of as being a microcosm of modern-day America. This is true in its way today: most of the distinct nations of the American interior — the Lower Lakes, Ohio Valley, and Heartland Midwests (cf. American Nations, Joel Garreau, and Corner Side Yardesp. his explanation of the multiple Midwests), as well as Appalachia in the southeastern highlands — are present in the state.

But, before Columbus sailed the ocean blue and introduced plagues to the Americas, before Massasoit allowed the Puritans to recolonize depopulated Wampanoag villages in an effort to hold the Narragansett off — thereby giving those pesky English a second toehold in North America — before all of that, Ohio really was the center of it all, at last as far as the Americas north and east of the Rio Grande were concerned.

The Eastern Agricultural Complex

Agriculture was developed independently in about a dozen places worldwide. The hearth of western Eurasian agriculture was Egypt and Mesopotamia; agriculture was also independently developed in the Indus River, along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, in Mesoamerica, along the Andean coast, in the New Guinean highlands … and in the Ohio Valley.

The Ohio Valley? Really?

Yes indeed. The archaeological record shows that about ten plants were domesticated for human consumption, independently of anywhere else, in the Ohio Valley some 4,000 years ago. Some of these — sunflowers and gourds, for example, continue to be planted and used — but most of them (goosefoot, little barley, marsh elder, knotweed, and maygrass) have been completely forgotten about as cereal crops and herbs, instead being herbicide’d into oblivion.

Why? Well, in an era when complex societies depended on the energy surplus that stored cereal plants offered, nothing in this collection — today known as the Eastern Agricultural Complex or EAC — was really that great for producing an energy surplus (as I recall, little barley’s grains are smaller than teff’s, and didn’t really have the nutrition available from most staple starches, such as wheat, rice, maize, potatoes, cassava, or taro). Even though the Eastern Woodlanders were expert at managing their environment — encouraging the spread of grassland to provide grazing space for bison, recreating their forest ecosystem to maximize the yield of edible plants and trees, and so forth — this relative lack of a nutritional store really did function as a hard limit on population size. In 1491, Charles Mann dryly notes that, before the development of a middle-latitudes tolerant maize variety ca. 200 BCE and its propagation over the next millennia, Eastern Woodlanders were “slowly hunting the local deer and bison populations to extinction” (p. 295), despite the fact that they had, for millennia, completely reshaped the environment to better suit large game animals.

Thus, by around 1000 CE, a scant 500 years before Columbus’ expedition and 600 years before the first permanent European colonies north of the Rio Grande, the Mesoamerican maize-beans-squash* trifecta had replaced the EAC as the region’s agricultural staple.

(It would be an interesting culinary experiment to bring back the EAC, to develop pseudo-Woodlander dishes based on the ingredients and techniques they had available. Its limitations — particularly the fact that it never had a true staple crop — are much less debilitating in modern society.)

Cultural Center of the Woodlands

Much as the Ohio Valley was where Woodlander agriculture first began, it was also the region’s main cultural center. While their main societal marker — mounds — were first developed and used in the Ozarks and Lower Mississippi far to the southwest, nearly every other major facet of later Woodlander culture is first attested to in the Adena culture of the first millennium BCE. The Adena were the earliest tobacco users (in fact, Mann notes their varieties may have been psychoactive, a property that was in all likelihood accidentally bred out of later cultivars), and their culture expanded far and wide through a sphere of influence — it’s entirely possible that most of the customs shared by later Woodlanders developed from the Adena, and specifically the religion their hallucinogenic tobacco helped develop.

While suitable maize landraces only appeared on the scene as the Adena culture transitioned into the Hopewell culture, Hopewellers eschewed this new plant, preferring their ancestors’ plants. But it is notable that, like the Adena, the Hopewell were also centered in the Ohio Valley, also built large grave and other mounds, also smoked tobacco (though maybe not quite as strong as the Adenan kind), and also used the vast Eastern Woodlands trade network — which reached all the way from Mesoamerica to Québec, from the Albertan Rockies to the Florida Panhandle — to exert soft hegemony over an even vaster area.

Truly, for the first three millennia after the discovery of agriculture in the Ohio Valley, that region was the center of the world.

So what happened?


Nobody really knows. The Hopewell society fell apart ca. 500 CE. The trade network flickered out, the population dispersed, and villages turned their efforts to stockades rather than mounds. Several of these are signs of a cultural dark age.

While temperate maize landraces would have had to be cultivated somewhere while the Hopewellers ran things (maize cannot breed without human intervention, and about half a millennium had elapsed since its introduction), even in the absence of large-scale trade networks, this was the period in which the Mesoamerican-derived Three Sisters replaced the EAC in the Woodlands.

Regardless, by the end of the first millennium CE, a new culture dominated much of the Woodlands: the Mississippians. They rekindled Woodlander life: pipe-smoking, mound-building, the vast and disparate religious tradition held together, much like Hinduism, by a few common themes. But they added a few new wrinkles.

First of all, the Adena and Hopewell were never an urban society. They seem to have gotten to the village phase and … just stopped. But the Mississippians built the first true city north of the Rio Grande: Cahokia. Sure, they also abandoned the first true city north of the Rio Grande — Mann notes that its downfall was much like the central Classic Maya poleis’: the elite’s short-term solutions (channelizing the Cahokia Creek for drinking water, a later stockade, etc.) did nothing to alleviate and sometimes even exacerbated long-term issues (flooding, bluff deforestation and subsequent erosion, etc.) — but, while Monks Mound is an engineering marvel, Cahokia made “beginners’ mistakes” when it came to modern agriculture.

For the reason that Cahokia represents the last time a society experimented with urbanism without committing to it is because of the Mississippians’ second modern marvel: the Three Sisters. By ca. 1000 CE, the EAC had been completely supplanted by it; knowledge of (much, but not quite all, of) the EAC’s culinary purposes seems to have dwindled fast, and certainly by the colonial period most EAC plants had reverted to feral states — weeds we all know and “love” today. And this is because — unlike anything in the EAC — maize was a staple crop, a crop with enough stored energy that diversification of labor on a large scale, a precondition of urbanization, became possible.

Unfortunately, the Mississippians never tried to build a city again. It’s likely, though, that they were close to reaching a breaking point where their society became complex enough to need labor to be diversified — Mississippian culture was the largest and most complex the Eastern Woodlands had ever seen (thanks to maize).

And there are several tantalizing signs that the whole region was tantalizingly close to a major cultural revolution right when the Europeans showed up. An Iroquoian tribe, the Neutral Nation, had developed deer pens and enclosures and were probably in the process of domestication; the Abenaki people of New Brunswick had begun to develop their own writing system; maize-supported villages were larger, denser, and more bountiful than they had ever been before; and the Mississippians (at least the ones de Soto encountered) were chiefdoms in sharp contrast to the Algonquin and Iroquoian democracies.

Aye, and that’s perhaps the biggest rub of all. For three thousand years, the Ohio Valley was the cultural center north and east of the Rio Grande. But it was the changes in the millennium after the Ohio Valley’s fall that had set the Woodlands towards something that Mesoamericans would recognize as “civilization”. And then, just before it happened, the Europeans came and messed it all up.

* Some may point out that squash and gourds are, in fact, the same plant. In fact, there are so many breeds of squash that pumpkins and zucchini are both squash cultivars! But the Mesoamericans domesticated squash for food and as such emphasized their fleshy insides, while the Eastern Woodlanders domesticated gourds for hard shells as storage vessels. Thus squash is edible while gourds are not.

A Thought on Referenda

A point that got me thinking recently was that the Brexit vote had been done by referendum over the whole of the UK. And as such, half of the country’s four constituent nations (England, Wales) voted in favor of it, and half (Scotland, Northern Ireland) against.

Consider this for a moment: while England may be a unitary state centered on London, the United Kingdom as a whole isn’t. It’s rather like New England: while Boston may be the social and economic center for the whole of New England, it is the unitary center of just one part of the region–Massachusetts.

Now consider if New England were to vote on a referendum on whether to leave the US and form its own nation, and half–oh, let’s say Massachusetts (god damn, that’s a hard state to spell!), Connecticut, and Rhode Island voted to leave, while the other half–Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire voted to stay. (Oh, and Boston proper voted to stay as well.) If a large enough majority of the southerners decide to leave, then the referendum would pass regardless of what the Mainers would have to say on the subject.

This would obviously exacerbate tensions between Northern and Southern New England, where Maine is actually closer to the Canadian Maritimes than anyplace in the US; Vermont is more culturally linked to the Adirondacks across Lake Champlain; New Hampshire is sort of its own thing; and you’ve got the Québécois community along the northern borders. Most of “New England” as a nation is actually Southern New England, just as much of “Britain” as a nation is actually England.

It isn’t a perfect comparison, of course, but we can start to see some of the failures of the referendum mechanism, and why it must be tempered with other mechanisms for certain types of decision. Or in plain English: why putting Brexit up to a simple referendum was a bloody stupid thing to do.

Questions of sovereignty in the US Constitution are subject to a completely different process than a simple election, or a referendum. We usually see this as the amendment process.

To pass, an amendment needs a 2/3rds majority at the federal level: that is, 2/3rds of the states must be in favor of the amendment. (This obviously creates the condition where any amendment coalition must cross party lines, although a large enough supercoalition–a very rare achievement in its own right–can circumvent that.)

And questions of statehood have to be handled locally. Consider West Virginia: when Virginia voted to secede from the Union and form the Confederation in 1861, its trans-Allegheny region–culturally and economically extensions of Appalachia and the Ohio Valley rather than Virginia’s secessionist Tidewater heart–future West Virginians were like, “fuck that jazz–we’d rather be part of the US than VA.” The state was admitted to the Union in 1863, and never returned back to Virginia after the secession of hostilities.

It should not come as a surprise that a referendum predicated on cracking the order of things…cracks the order of things. The moment you pound a wedge into a fissure, other cracks form, and other cracks turn into fissures themselves. Just as the Tidewater plantationmen failed to consider the interests of trans-Alleghenian coal miners and Ohio Valleyers, an oversight that permanently cost Virginia about a third of its territory, so too the Tory landowners who formed Brexit’s backbone completely failed to consider the interests of Londoners, the Scots, and the Northern Irish (Wales is much more malleable), an oversight whose inevitable consequence is the UK’s breakup should Brexit go through.

(There is a long extraction process ahead, and a strong possibility that a second referendum is part of it. Such a referendum would essentially state: “To leave the EU, the UK agrees to grant Scotland independence and cede Northern Ireland, Gibraltar, and Jersey; in other words, cease to be the “united kingdom” of anything other than England and Wales, etcetera etcetera … Do you still wish to leave?”)

But the fact that Brexit occurred at all is a failure. Questions of sovereignty, like constitution, should never be put to a simple referendum. If the vote is to change the status quo, and all that entails, then at the very least the vote needs to be a convincing majority — 2/3rds of the vote sounds about right. Or, perhaps in the UK’s case, at least three constituent nations, if not all four, would have to agree to leave to begin with.

Some More Brexit Notes

The collapse of the UK as a unified political entity is looking pretty much inevitable at this point. England and Wales want out of the EU, and Scotland and Northern Ireland would rather be part of the EU than the UK. Scotland has, in fact, already met with EU leadership looking for ways to establish it staying in the EU.

A second issue is that of internal migration. The EU will require freedom of movement from England if England is to continue doing business with them. And of course, there is no small matter of an independent EU Scotland creating a land border on Britain.

Nice job breaking it, guys.

What about Northern Ireland?

Poor Northern Ireland. You’re like a wallflower at a party. You almost certainly do not have the economy to go it alone — remember, a lot of EU grants to the UK went to Wales and Northern Ireland — and you’re a millstone on either Scotland (in, say, a joint independence referendum) or Ireland (in a reunification scenario). You want out of the UK and have no place to go.

Ireland and Schengen

The main reason Ireland never entered Schengen was to preserve its own open border with Northern Ireland. Keep this in mind: like Scotland, Northern Ireland sounds like it’s fixing to leave the UK. And if it isn’t, there’s no more British-Irish land border to worry about, and hence no reason for Ireland not to join Schengen.

A 51st State?

If you’re a Yank, you probably ought to learn something before you spout off. Unlike the EU, the US has no orderly secession mechanism — we fought a war over that, as you may remember — and in any event, nationalism was the main Brexit driver. Why on earth would the English go to a stricter sovereignty pool when they wanted to exert sovereignty in their own right?

David Cameron’s Legacy

He’s probably going to go down as one of Britain’s worst PMs. Somebody whose main agenda was pushing for further EU-UK integration, his entire project just suffered the fate of say a B-52 suffering a catastrophic accident in its nuclear arsenal while still in midair …

Yet at the same time, I rather suspect that the aftermath will be instructive for Europeans. Even the non-EU Western European states — Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland — are still deeply linked with it; a state trying to “go it alone” for no matter how long (and there is little doubt that the migration issue will keep stalling exit negotiations) will suffer a significant economic hit. Remember that — discounting Russia because Russia — Serbia is currently the wealthiest European state outside current EU/EFTA membership or arrangements in lieu of membership (i.e. what e.g. Andorra, Monaco, and San Marino have). And (a) Serbia is a clear notch down in terms of wealth from even EU member Croatia, and (b) Serbia — like literally everybody else in the Balkans — wants in on the EU.

As the Brexit aftermath unfolds, the true cost of England — and I cannot stress this enough: THIS IS ENGLAND’S DECISION — leaving will become increasingly apparent. And it will take the form of the English losing all but the last tiny Welsh sliver vestige of their empire, of British brain drain as major European economic activity shifts away from London for the first time since (as the Londoners themselves might say) time immemorial, of a property slump and the recession that triggers, and so on …

The mess that is Britain is only just starting. And I honestly suspect that, as the old people die off and British interests realize just how hard being out of the EU is making everything, as the Welsh realize that without the EU there is no money going to Wales, England — having suffered a huge hit in its national pride — will return to the EU.

If the UK still ran the British Isles, or most of the British Isles, it could probably get away with being insular. But really Brexit’s ultimate consequence is that England will be left running maybe a third of them — sure, the densest and most populous third — but it will no longer be an island in the political sense.

And that’s perhaps the biggest irony of all: In the foolhardy English desire to bolt, the EU’s own soft power will have essentially tethered England to Europe.