Lessons from Jane

Burlington, VT is a beautiful place to live. No matter where I walk or run there are historic houses, bustling streets, vibrant parks, lake views and mountain views.  Some blocks are lined with elegant historic homes, all unique in shingles, dormers, porches, turrets, and landscaping. On other blocks, much smaller homes stand in a line. These homes are very similar in style, but additions and handiwork have given them character over the years. People live above business, in apartments, in duplexes, on the lake, and everywhere else.

House fronts, yards, and elevation seem to reveal a lot about the social class of neighborhood inhabitants. As a general rule it is easy to identify where the undergraduate students lives, where the upper class families live, and where those in between might live (young professionals, middle class families, etc.) The houses sit in various states of repair, some meticulously maintained and other crying for a paint job at the very least.

As a young professional/graduate student, I love that undergraduates and young working adults can live in these historic homes and are not banished to the suburbs or some apartment complex sitting next to the interstate. It keeps the community alive and diversity alive downtown and on the streets. People live on different schedules, so there is always something interesting happening.

However, I often catch myself wishing that these poor houses could all be given some good TLC and patched up. A paint job at least, random trash off the porch, how hard could that be? But, as we all know, when the place shapes up, rent goes up, and then property managers will not rent to undergraduates because of the stigma associated with them as tenants.  And although someone cleaning up a house’s appearance doesn’t necessarily equal gentrification, it still holds true that the nicer neighborhoods have higher property values and rents (at least here in Burlington – judging from all of the apartment searching I have done recently).

Thankfully, we all have Jane Jacobs to give us a few lessons in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Jacobs discusses how diversity in buildings is necessary to keep a block or a neighborhood strong.  Not every “old” building needs to be kept in tip-top shape, because it allows for a variety of businesses to move in and convert the building to fit its requirements. Older buildings are cheaper than modern construction, but when combined they attract diverse tenants (think of retail businesses that typically inhabit old buildings vs. ones that occupy new buildings). In the same fashion, people will live in houses and apartments of varying age. Owner investments into a house will be a long term investment whereas renters will make the place livable and pleasant for their time there. Community pride will take care of the neighborhood.

While the extremes of the above discussion are gentrification and the decay of a neighborhood, maintaining the mixture creates a safe, good environment for its residents. And I try to think of this as I explore my new surroundings. After all, I have seen the most activity on streets in the supposed “bad” neighborhood here, but then again downtown is always full of people, and in the “upper class” neighborhood people stroll and talk to their neighbors on the porches. And together they make combine to make a great city and a very entertaining running route. So, every building does not have to be restored to its historic grandeur, just maintained. Thanks for the lessons, Jane.


Bicycle Trails Update

A follow up to Bicyle Trails from August 13, 2009.

Since my youngest sister is so adamant about sharing the bike trails with everyone, she took the time to read the PiP post (thanks, Erin) and the LIRR Wading River Rail Trail website. Deciding to take action, she emailed the webmaster, Denis Byrne, with suggestions for the bike route and questions about whom she can contact to lend her support.

For anyone interested, the best people to contact are Congressman Tim Bishop, Suffolk County Legislators Dan Losquardo and Vivian Vilora-Fisher, and NYS Senator Ken LaValle.  While there are plans in place for the trail, the problems lie with funding and responsibilities of parties involved, mainly LIPA (Long Island Power Authority) and Suffolk County.  The best thing to do is to contact those above and show support (click on the names for their   and emails).  Support from all ages would prove that the bike trails would be a great asset to the community.

Any kids reading this? Are you unsure of where to start? Open a word document and write how you feel about the bicycle trails and why you like them. How would it help your community? What do you think would make them better? You can write the same email to everyone, just change the heading “Dear _________” for each one. Share this email with your friends and family and ask them to write a similar one or to sign it with you. The email/letter does not have to be long – a little support can go a long way!

How You Know You’re Living in an Old House

Plaster and lath in the closet, covered by gypsum board and now filled with insulation.

Plaster and lath in the closet, covered by gypsum board and now filled with insulation.

Note to pet owners: be sure to cover the exposed wall with gypsum board so the nosy cats do not jump into the fiberglass insulation. But, make sure you can remove the board so you can show off the plaster and lath (even though it’s mostly lath now).


As mentioned in Road Trip Report 4 and discussed in the comments, the old dangerous playgrounds are some of the most loved playgrounds. One of my favorite playgrounds had a rocket ship slide – it was three “stories” with ladders and the slides were incrementally longer on each level. It was so much fun and so tall that the biggest slide was scary for a little kid! It’s long gone now and the last time I saw it was in a parade in my hometown. On Flickr try typing in “rocket ship playground” and you’ll see what I mean by rocket ships.

I don’t know much about dating playgrounds or playground history in general, but the blog Playscapes is an excellent resource for reading about design, landscape, and history of playgrounds. The author of the blog posts as Arcady. The blog is worth more than a few minutes of your time. It’s fascinating. If you click on the “Playground History” label, you’ll find pictures, diagrams, and historical information about playgrounds in NYC in the early 20th century, McDonald’s playgrounds in the 1970s and many international ones as well. Scroll through those posts and see how many playgrounds you wish you could visit!

While most of us prefer the 1970s era playgrounds, not all modern playgrounds are built for younger children and boring.  Circular slides, tube slides, tunnels, movable balance beams – all of these are fun. There are many newer playgrounds that children love.  An article in Cookie magazine by KellyAlfieri lists the best playgrounds in major cities.  Click on each playground name to see a picture. They look like so much fun! However, these are just from a few major cities. What about small town America? What are the best playgrounds everywhere else? One that I have heard about a few times is Camelot Playground in Pinehurst, NC. It is a wooden playground with bridges, castles, ropes, and so much for the imagination!

It seems as though playgrounds are loved for different reasons. Are they metal and old and dangerous, wooden and magical, modern and safe, whimsical, the bare minimum, etc.

What’s your favorite? How would you categorize playgrounds?

National Trust Paint Colors at Lowe’s

For anyone who has been painting lately or for anyone who has been in Lowe’s lately, you may have noticed that select paint chips at Lowe’s are labeled with the National Trust for Historic Preservation logo. My first reaction: why is the National Trust partnering with a big-box retailer that puts small hardware stores out of business? Why not Ace Hardware or somewhere similar? I have no idea, but I’m sure the Trust has its reasoning. Thoughts?

Valspar, the paint brand of Lowe’s, teamed up with the National Trust to develop over 250 historic paint colors used at the Trust’s historic sites across the country. (See the National Trust’s blog.) The colors are labeled by the site name (i.e. Lyndhurst, Woodlawn, Oatlands, Grand Hotel, Jekyll Island Club, and many more). In the paint chip display at Lowe’s, the colors are not separated from the rest of the Valspar colors, but are identified by the Trust’s logo. This makes it possible for anyone to choose a Trust color, even if someone who is not looking for a historic paint color. The National Trust receives a portion of the proceeds from the paint and Valspar supplies paint to the historic sites.

While I’m not necessarily proud to announce that I shopped at Lowe’s for recent apartment fixer-up materials, I’m happy to say that Vinny and I chose colors from the Valspar National Trust colors. And since Lowe’s is one of two most common home improvement warehouses in the country, at least the Trust’s paint colors will be exposed to anyone who is shopping for paint.

Apartment Renters

In high rent, high turnover, high demand areas, you pretty much take what you can get in terms of an apartment. Maybe you’ll get the basic things on your wish list (pets, location) but not that fireplace or extremely detailed doors and transoms you always dreamed about.  For Vinny and me, location, price, and pets were what we could not compromise on, i.e. we had to be able to walk to school, we would not go over a certain dollar amount (read: poor grad students), and we had to have the cats.

We were able to find an apartment with those qualities just when we were at the end our rope. Realtors didn’t return calls, craigslist ads weren’t much help, and we had already seen a not-so-great apartment and one building that we wouldn’t even set foot in. (Elyse Gerstenecker wrote an article about her troubles while apartment hunting in the December 2008 issue of Preservation in Pink.)

When we saw this apartment, we knew it was our best shot. We didn’t have other options. So we signed a lease for this tiny apartment (as in small for one person) and we started thinking about how to improve it because the guy who lived here before us had never cleaned a day in his life.

Cleaning the apartment top to bottom was a must, cabinets, floors, windows, refrigerator, oven, bathtub, everything. We picked out paint colors and decided the cream color needed to be white for the window frames and door frames, crown molding, baseboards, and cabinets. Cleaning and painting is exhausting and it gets expensive.

So why would we bother doing this to an apartment that is only temporarily ours? We’re not getting reimbursed for painting, though our landlord did rip up an old rug for us and give us floor cleaner. We are trying to make this apartment feel like home, make it someplace we want to stay in for more than one year. And in the process of making this apartment a pleasant place to live, we’re keeping things in mind for how to do things when we restore our own house someday.

The apartment is in a historic house, one that was divided into apartments long ago. The more I sit in the house, the easier it is to see clues to the house’s history. Clues like crown molding in the closet, a former exterior window (now an alcove above my head) is in the living room, the molding around an old door frame that has since been closed in, hardwood floors under the kitchen linoleum, and other  things have revealed themselves as we’ve been painting and cleaning. I think our living room is a former porch.

I’ve never lived in an old house, so this project is one I’m more than happy to have. We’re taking care of the apartment, something it has needed desperately. And with all of this work, we already feel attached. Granted, it’s just a facelift and minor maintenance, not restoration by any means, but we feel that the house deserves it.  Once our work is done, I’ll do some historical research for the details.

A Favorite Quote

“Folk culture is nothing if not continuous. Of course all of human culture is constantly changing, but it is the thread of history and tradition that keeps us creatively linked to each other and to our pasts.”

–Meg Glaser, Andrea Graham. Different Hairs of the Same Dog: The Work of a Public Folklorist. Elko, Western Folklife Center, 1999.

Bicycle Trails

Long Island is just full of surprises for me lately. Maybe it’s because I haven’t spent so much time at home in years or maybe it’s because people are working together to improve their quality of life in the non-materialistic sense. Whatever the reason, there are good surprises aside from the Grown on Long Island initiative. (See post August 12, 2009.)  The newest discovery for me is the paved bike path near my house. My youngest sister, always on the move, explores everywhere by bicycle. She and her friend watched the construction of a bike path along the power lines.

In April 2009, a New York Times article by John Rather reported about the Rails-To-Trails Project on Long Island. There are many defunct railroad right of ways on Long Island, many of which are now Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) property. The trails are easily accessible from existing roads and the project could be completed within two years and would connect Port Jefferson Station and Wading River, a distance of 12 miles. The trail would pass historic landmarks and connect with other trails, including the Rocky Point State Preserve, which is part of the Long Island Pine Barrens preserve. A website, LIRR Wading River Rail-Trail,  run by Denis Byrne of the Long Island Greenways and Healthy Trails (LIGHT) has the project information and updates, with pictures of the existing trail before paving. The Three Village Community Trust announced the opening of a short 1.5 mile paved path in May. (I’m unsure if the LIRR Wading River trail is the same as this segment of greenways, but no matter what it is a good thing. Hooray for Long Island Greenways!)

My sister and I went for a bike ride because she wanted to show me the trail and it was amazing! Although short, it is a beautiful path behind houses and under the shade of trees. Best of all, so many people were using the trail! People walked or biked and waved to us and said hello. I actually felt like I lived in a community. Those of you who have grown up in a community where you regularly say hello to passers-by might not understand my amazement with this in my own neighborhood. But, we’ve never had something like this and I am so excited for the area. I think the bike path will be the start of great things around here.  Maybe it will encourage people to drive less or to just get outside more often and appreciate the environment.

Grown on Long Island

Long Island used to be the country escape from the city’s five boroughs and Nassau County. Suffolk County, eastern Long Island, was so far away from everything else. When my grandparents moved to Suffolk County in 1957, they lived down the block from a potato farm. That farm later became the land for my elementary school, but my grandfather continued to tell stories of walking down the street to pick potatoes. For all of my life, I’ve seen Long Island expand with continuous development, and I have known the farms to be “out east” (that is past Riverhead on the map). But, mostly I didn’t see farms. I imagined that they were quickly disappearing, especially when I saw old strawberry farms developed into strip malls. It always makes me sad.

Last week my dad informed us that one of the remaining farm stands by us would be going out of business after this summer season. The owner said that it is just too difficult to compete with the grocery stores and the bulk stores.  People do not take separate trips to get produce, at least not around here.  When we needed flowers for a party, my mom suggested that I check the farm stand. The owner said she could easily get me fresh cut flowers, but suggested that I go to the actual farm where she would buy them, as I’d probably get a better price and I could see them before buying (which is important for an engagement party).

Vinny and I headed out to Andrews Family Farm on Sound Avenue in Wading River, NY and the woman taking care of the greenhouses was extremely helpful even though they happened to be closed at the time. Still, she showed us bouquets of fresh cut flowers and the sunflower field. Everything was beautiful. We placed an order and picked up the flowers a few days later.  We felt so good buying flowers from a local Long Island Farm and the flowers were more beautiful and much more affordable than anything from a florist. As I was standing in line to pay I noticed brochures for the Long Island Farm Bureau and the website, Grown on Long Island.

Beautiful sunflowers.

Beautiful sunflowers.

I suppose I’d never thought about it, but the farm bureau is working hard to promote local Long Island farm produce and flowers and landscaping businesses. The Long Island supermarket, King Kullen, partners with Long Island farmers to sell produce and flowers in the store. Farmers markets can still be found and the website offers suggestions on how to eat locally and why buying locally benefits Long Island.

Mixed fresh cut flowers.

Mixed fresh cut flowers.

Despite my usual negativity toward Long Island’s “progress,” finding the flowers and these websites made my day. It’s always nice to see that some of the countryside my grandparents and my mother remember.

Road Trip Reflections

Before Vinny and I left on our road trip, we decided to establish a few tenets for our trip. Number one, we would stick to a budget of $100 per day. Number two, no chain hotels or restaurants.  We chose these tenets to keep the trip affordable, to prove that interstates and chains are avoidable in most cases, to prove that road trips that support local businesses can fit the budget of the everyday American, and also just to add a challenge to our planning. Number three, we would travel state highways and US highways, not interstates, except for sections of getting in, around, and out of big cities.

How did we do? Well, as for the $100 per day budget, sometimes we were over, sometimes we were under. We hadn’t exactly thought of this from the get-go, but because each day is different, the budget needs to be moved around on some days. For example, a day of staying at a campground and just hanging around often didn’t require much money, except for some food, firewood, and the camping fee. A day of all driving, buying groceries for the next few days, and then staying at a campground often reached just at the budget because everything adds up quickly. Mackinac Island was our most expensive day, and we knew it would be. That day added to around $150 (ferry tickets, bike rentals, fudge, lunch, campground – really the ferry tickets ate the budget that day). But other days, like camping in Ohio or Indiana fell more around $75 or $80.  Thus, our budget was not completely accurate, but we did our best to stick to it and never felt like we were blatantly ignoring it. It was always a consideration and if we were rich travelers, then we probably would have spent more.  So we spent what we figured. It’s a good rule of thumb to always (in the back of your head) plan on spending more than originally planned when traveling.

Our answer: yes, it is possible to spend $100 per day for a road trip for two people. Our biggest parts of that were camping the entire way, shopping in grocery stores and stocking up for two days (don’t forget the ice!), and eating only one meal out per day if we wanted to eat out somewhere.

As far as no chain hotels or restaurants, we did our absolute best. The majority of the time, we did a great job. However, there were a few slip-ups. The first one was staying at the Indian Creek RV Resort in Geneva-on-the-lake, Ohio. Originally we planned to stay at Geneva State Park, but that required a two night stay, so I had to quickly find somewhere else. After I booked it, I found out that it is actually owned by a much larger company.  We didn’t make that mistake again. Then, while looking for breakfast in downtown South Bend, Indiana, we saw a restaurant called La Peep. The menu looked good and it was downtown near the old theater, so we figured it would be worth a shot. As we were sitting inside, looking around, and reading the menu, I had a feeling that it was a chain. When I looked at the back of the menu, I realized it was – a Midwestern and western chain. We obviously had never heard of it. For the record, the breakfast was not as good as many of the local places where we ate. And then one night, we stayed in a hotel in Beloit, Wisconsin. This came out of necessity, after arriving at our planned campground to find a domestic disturbance dispute and many arguments at the campsite right next to us. For a variety of reasons, we decided to leave. So we started driving around rural southern Wisconsin in hopes of finding somewhere to stay. It was late and we knew that we should take what we find. We knew the hotels would be near the interstate, so we headed that way in the dark past many farm fields. We ended up at a Holiday Inn Express and just accepted that it was obviously against the no-chain rule. But, desperate times call for desperate measures. That day was another one over budget.

For the most part, we did avoid all chains except for grocery stores and gas stations. We found great restaurants and campgrounds and enjoyed all of them.

Interstates or state & US highways? This has the most complications, since we did choose to travel the interstate in some instances. They included: getting out of New York and New Jersey, getting out of Detroit, Michigan (until we could jump on a highway), getting into and out of Minneapolis, MN, going to Milwaukee, and heading home from Columbus, Ohio.  So we’re not perfect and often had we planned better, we could have spent the extra time on the interstate. One thing that this trip taught us was that sometimes the interstates are much better for getting from place to place. The smaller highways aren’t built for interstate traffic and sometimes they were slow, as if we were on Long Island. Sometimes the interstates were the same roads as US highways, making it so we were on both at once. We confirmed our belief that interstates are boring. When we did choose the interstate, we were always more tired and restless without scenery along our way. We always hoped that the journey would end sooner, because then it was just miles, it wasn’t really a trip. So, when we have the option and the time, we will always choose the scenic roads and the byways. It can be done easily, it just needs to be planned.

We enjoyed the trip very much, though we probably wouldn’t repeat the same route as it was not our favorite trip ever planned. However, we wanted to see that part of the country and we are glad we did. (I’m still dying for the Rocky Mountain west road trip – someday.)  A few friends asked us what our least favorite thing was that we saw. I thought about it for a while and then I realized that in many places, I felt as though I couldn’t tell you where we were because everything looked the same, like Anywhere, USA. Sometimes I felt like I was on Long Island. Chains started because people appreciated and wanted the same thing – cleanliness, operations, food, lodging – to make home away from home. However, when I travel, I don’t want to be home. I want to be somewhere new and see something new, as many of us do. Seeing the same restaurants, stores, and hotels everywhere sometimes made me ask why I had left home. That is another reason Vinny and I chose to go the non-chain route – to appreciate the different parts of America.

Maybe the tides are changing, and Americans will want unique food, lodging, and shopping everywhere. Maybe someday the chains will not be what takes over the country and corporate America will be totally different. I have to believe that because it would be such a shame to have no need to travel anywhere, knowing that every place was the same as the one before and the one after it.

Luckily, that feeling of sameness didn’t happen everywhere and we really did enjoy our Great Lakes Road Trip 2009. We tend to travel many places at once, because we like to take an overview of a region to see where we would like to return and spend more time. Not everyone prefers to travel this way, but it’s what Vinny and I do. And while we traveled these 3,641 miles, we came across places we would have never found otherwise. Wrong turns and happenstance directions sometimes lead you the best way.

Thanks for reading along with the Road Trip Reports.