Life Lessons from Freezing Weather

We interrupt our regularly scheduled blog post . . . .

Tens of millions of Americans are accustomed to weather bulletins in winter months advising them of wintry conditions, whether they involve bitter cold or blowing snow. It is no great secret to anyone in recent days that even places as far south as Tallahassee, Florida, and Charleston, South Carolina, have been dealt an unexpected dose of the icy blast, while places like Boston and Maine, which have seen it all before, are being assaulted with both snow and icy storm surges from a northeaster.

Yes, I was a year old at one time. Thank God, photography has improved. Credit: Halle Studio

With friends who inquire about my background, I like to joke that I have spent my life moving back and forth along the 43rd parallel. Born in New York, I was moved at a year of age to a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1950, where I grew up. In January 1979, I moved to Iowa, first to lead a statewide public interest organization, later to attend graduate school at the University of Iowa. By 1985, I moved briefly to Omaha, where my wife and I were married; she was a lifelong Nebraskan. By Thanksgiving, I had a job in Chicago, and we have been here since then. That also means I have spent about six decades along the Great Lakes, experiencing various aspects of the famous “Lake Effect.” One aspect is that it can dump a ton of snow in your backyard—and everywhere else. You learn to deal with it.

As you can see, Roscoe can barely contain his enthusiasm for being outside in the cold.

Chicago, by this weekend, is expected to complete a record-tying 12-day stretch in which the temperature has never reached 20°F. Overnight, it has often slipped below zero. I’d like to sound more poetic, but the simple fact is that it’s been cold out there. Our 14-year-old Springer Spaniel, Roscoe, doesn’t even want to partake in his usual long evening walks with my wife (or sometimes both of us). He prefers for now to take care of business in the snow in the backyard, then run to the kitchen door to be allowed back in. Dogs are very intelligent, practical animals.

When nature gets nasty outside, I tend to remember the first big test of my mettle in a blizzard. Unwittingly and unintentionally, I learned a great deal about myself from this incident. In February 1975, I bought a new Ford Maverick from a dealer in a Cleveland suburb. Radial tires were not yet in widespread use; drivers would use heavy-tread snow tires in the winter and lighter tires the rest of the year. With at most one month of winter left that year, I chose not to buy snow tires until the following fall.

However, in late April I drove this car with two friends to a small conference of progressive activists at Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, near Franconia College. At 25, I had never been to New England. For the first time, on the way up the purple mountainsides, I drove through fog that, when it broke, left us with clouds in the rear-view mirror. We drove past mountain lakes that were frozen on the shady side and rippling on the sunny side. Such scenery was exhilarating to an Ohio flatlander.

Don’t ask me what the conference was about. I no longer remember. All I recall is that, on the last afternoon, a Sunday, warnings began to circulate about an oncoming blizzard. It would be best for everyone to exit the mountain promptly to safer locations. The meetings were disbanded. It was the last weekend in April. I had never seen snow in April in Cleveland, so the thought that snow tires would be useful for this trip never occurred to me.

I soon learned otherwise. As we began our descent down the mountain, the wind whipped snow across the road, making visibility tough and traction even tougher. One thing I recall clearly is that I never panicked. Despite the nervous tension of my passengers, who had to watch me navigate with no control over their fate, I somehow summoned deep reserves of patience, kept my foot firmly but softly on the brake, and focused my eyes on the road ahead, cognizant of the deep chasms to the side. For perhaps the first time in my life, I became acutely aware that losing my nerve was not an option. Muscles taut, I steered the car downhill for what seemed like hours but was probably a mere 20 minutes. Eventually, my two friends were greatly relieved when we reached the base of the hill, which then led to an entrance to I-93, and then to I-91 and south to Hartford, and on through New York back to Cleveland. Where we stayed that night, and what path we subsequently followed home, is all a blur. The only truly emblazoned memory is that of driving down that slippery hillside amid a flurry of white precipitation.

What I learned was something akin to the famous British slogan, “Keep calm and carry on.” I learned that, in a crisis, I could call upon nerves of steel. Freaking out would have resulted in a wrecked car and possibly three dead passengers. Instead, we all got home safely a day later.

In later years, having been forged in that snowy ordeal, those traits reasserted themselves almost instinctively when new challenges arose. In January 1982, my old Plymouth died amid a bigger blizzard near Michigan City on the Indiana Turnpike, in what is ominously known as the snow belt (think “lake effect”), as I was returning after the holidays from Cleveland to Iowa City, where I would start graduate school later that month. Although I did not know the cause immediately, I learned later that the timing chain had snapped. Under such circumstances, the only option is to steer the limping car under its own momentum to the side of the road. I must note for younger readers that cell phones did not exist at the time. Some people, particularly truckers, had CB radios. The rest of us just had to wait for help. I retrieved a white emergency flag from the trunk and tied it to the antenna, noting sardonically to myself that this was of marginal value with the snow blowing and drifting in every direction.

For two hours, I sat patiently in the car, unable even to turn on the heater, and trying to stay as warm as possible under multiple layers of clothing. Finally, an Indiana DOT truck pulled up behind me and approached to find out what the problem was. He called a tow truck for me, whose driver then dropped off my car at a repair shop and took me to a nearby motel for the night. There may never be another motel room that will feel warmer. Whether and how I got some food for the evening, I don’t even remember.

The next day, I took a cab to the South Shore commuter rail station, rode to Union Station in downtown Chicago, and then caught a Greyhound bus for the five-hour ride to Iowa City, where I was greeted by 27 inches of snow but made it to a duplex I shared with roommates. I still can hear their voices when they greeted me at the front door: “He made it!” Later, when the snow was gone and the repairs to my car were complete, I took a day off from my new position as a graduate research assistant to make the reverse Greyhound-South Shore trip to Michigan City to retrieve my car and bring it home.

In between, I had a conversation outdoors with the same roommate, Paul, who first greeted me at the door. We were discussing the difference with weather in California. “This is great!” he exclaimed. “It keeps out the lightweights.” Californians, beware of Midwestern attitudes. We may not want your wildfires, but we can deal with the snow and the cold. We like to think we’re tough.

Sabula, Iowa, and Mississippi River bridge. From Wikipedia

Of course, snow is hardly the only challenge nature can provide. On one occasion about two years earlier, I had been in Dubuque, Iowa, before heading south to another meeting. As I was following U.S. Rte. 52, aka the Great River Road, a thunderstorm erupted. At points, following the river bluffs, the highway is steep and the hillsides even steeper, but rain mostly requires careful driving. Unfortunately, as I watched in alarm, the rubber windshield wiper on my side of the car worked its way loose, and bare metal was scraping the glass, making a screeching noise that was about as unsettling as finger nails on a chalk board. I had to turn off the wipers while continuing downhill because there was no shoulder and I could not block traffic. This time, those steady nerves forced me to lean forward and watch with utmost care for the yellow stripes down the middle of the road, and stay just to the right of them until I made it to the bottom of the hill.

My ordeal ended in Sabula, the only Mississippi River island community in Iowa, which sits at the end of a causeway that leads to a bridge across the river to Savanna, Illinois. Although it was not a big deal in the larger picture, I also recall that the one service station in town charged what I thought was an outrageous price for a wiper replacement—sort of an ultra-miniature version of the small-town Arizona ripoff garage scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation. At the time, I just paid the price and gladly installed the new wiper. My car, at least, did not have to limp away. It drove away very smoothly.

That situation may have prepared me well for Louisiana a dozen years later. Researching for my book about the environmental justice movement, Deeper Shades of Green, I had driven one morning from Baton Rouge to meet two women activists in Lake Charles. I had spent the day with them touring the area and interviewing people before returning in the evening. The one and only obvious path for this trip is I-10, which crosses the Atchafalaya Swamp for about 50 miles, in many areas on a two-lane strip of concrete in each direction above water, interspersed with cypress trees, snakes, alligators, and mud. None of this, of course, is at all foreign to the numerous Cajun residents of small towns in southern Louisiana, but it was new and interesting to me. In the evening, however, an intense thunderstorm swept the area. While there are guardrails on the sides of the interstate highway, I was not interested in sliding into them at 70 mph. I drove carefully, but visibility at times was little more than 100 feet amid torrents of descending water. My patience was rewarded when I finally found an exit into a small town where I bought coffee at a Burger King and waited out the storm. I noted with amusement that no one needed to worry about being cited for speeding (if they were even foolish enough to do so) because the police were also hanging out at Burger King. Eventually, when it seemed the storm had passed, I drove back to the highway, only to catch up with the storm further on my route back to Baton Rouge. Perhaps I had not been patient enough. But I made it back safely, with yet another story to tell.

Nasty weather can teach us patience and perspective, if we are willing listeners. I am grateful that my lessons came at a young age when such impressions matter most. I must admit they don’t make me patient about everything. Computer software glitches can still sometimes send me up a wall. But there is a difference. I just pack up my laptop on a sunny day and take it to the Geek Squad. They make money doing what they do best, I vent some frustration, and nobody gets hurt. Who can question such a sublime outcome?

Jim Schwab

Touching Sky and Sea in Norway

For three months, I have been intermittently aware that, back in August, I shared two phases of a trip to Norway that my wife and I took in July—and that I promised to complete the story with two more. At the same time, I was laying the groundwork for an entirely new phase of my career. Having left the American Planning Association (APA) at the end of May, I was planning book projects, establishing a one-person consulting firm, preparing to teach my fall course at the University of Iowa, and undertaking periodic speaking engagements. This was all part of my “five-point retirement plan,” of which the remaining piece is this blog.

Soon enough, however, given my professional focus on planning for disasters, real life overwhelmed my intentions. Even as I was laying the groundwork for Jim Schwab Consulting LLC, my consulting operation, Hurricane Harvey was blasting the Texas coast. Harvey was soon followed by Irma in Florida, then Maria in Puerto Rico, then wildfires in California. Though I have not been involved in recovery from Irma and Maria, people in Texas solicited my attention, and later I spoke at conferences in North Carolina and Utah. I am participating in a planning group for Harvey recovery, and I have undertaken some other work as well. Before I realized it, the semester was over, the holidays were upon us, and I had utterly failed to write about the rest of the Norway venture. And I do like to inject some travelogues into this blog. All disasters and policy disquisitions and no fun can make for a dull blog. (Some readers may disagree, but my mixture of subject matter seems to have broad appeal.)

Railway station in Oslo (Jean in foreground)

So. About four months ago, I left our story in Oslo after a busy Monday. Jean and I stayed overnight, packed our bags again, and got ready to travel to Bergen. The trip between those two cities is one I would recommend to anyone with the slightest appetite for dramatic scenery. But first we had to move from our hotel, the Radisson Blu Scandinavia, to the railway station. One truly neat feature of Oslo is the tram, which was included in our Oslo Pass, as was all other public transit including the subway system. The tram stopped right behind the hotel, and the railway station was only a few stops away. We had a pleasant early morning ride down the middle of the street, then crossed the street with our luggage and entered a very modern-looking station that would put us on our train to Bergen. It all seemed very convenient and well organized.

The train from Oslo to Bergen, however, is more than just well organized. Norway in a Nutshell notes that the Bergen Railway is “Northern Europe’s highest-altitude railway line.” The passenger cars indicate the altitude at each stop, so you can track your progress upward as well as across the country and downward again to the sea. The highest reading I recall was 1,224 meters, roughly 4,000 feet, but a glance out the window made clear the mountains around us touched the clouds at a slightly more rarefied level.

Once the train departs the urban environment of Oslo, the scenery changes rapidly, passing lakes and rivers and entering the interior of Norway to reveal small lowland farms in the shadows of green, often forested hills. Over a 6 ½ hour journey, the train finds its way into numerous small communities along winding valleys and into the mountains until you begin to witness snow on the peaks, even in July, where the combination of altitude and latitude make clear that Norway is never entirely green. Knowing the long history of this nation, one can only imagine how the challenges of traversing this landscape influenced first the Viking, then the medieval, Reformation, and even Enlightenment Norwegian mindset, and why the law of primogeniture combined with meager prospects for agricultural prosperity to send waves of young people to America in search of a better life. Of course, in modern times, Norwegians have found prosperity through other means, including energy development and a highly educated work force, but for many centuries most people endured a hardscrabble life in a relatively unyielding environment. That gorgeous landscape did not make life easy for those trying to survive by breeding livestock and growing crops. Even though we did not leave the train until we reached Bergen, one could feel the chilly air when the doors opened at small town stations, and knowing it was July made one wonder how cold it might be in January.

And yet there was no question that the views were strikingly beautiful–unless you were passing through one of several tunnels beneath the mountains. We were not there in the right season to attest to this, but I have read repeatedly that winds and snow in the winter make this mountainous terrain a challenging environment in which to maintain year-round train service. The Norwegians, however, are as prepared for such challenges as anyone. They keep the train moving.

In due course, of course, one reaches the peak of the journey, and the downhill ride begins, ending near the sea in Bergen, the second-largest city in Norway behind Oslo. Because of prior arrangements by Bill Mitchell at Conlin Travel, we were greeted upon our exit from the train by a local driver who turned out to be a retired police officer, a fact he revealed in the process of insisting that we buckle up before he took us to our hotel, about 15 minutes away along the harbor. From him, we learned that Bergen is a city of nearly 300,000 people, with half as many more living in the entire metropolitan area. As first-time visitors, we were about to learn just how much Bergen has to offer.

Our modest but well-appointed Clarion Hotel Admiral offered a marvelously serene waterfront setting, supported by a flotilla of sail boats, fishing boats, and larger commercial craft. Somewhere further along the coast were the large cruise ships, such as the Nordnorge, on which we would be sailing by the next evening. Bergen is largely defined by its status as a seaport on a fjord near the Atlantic Ocean, but that location makes it as scenic as any city would want to be. From a crowded waterfront, homes and other buildings seem to radiate up the slopes until they thin out and the insistent lush forest takes over. We were also lucky. We were told it had been raining for most of the month before our arrival, but that, with the emergent sunshine after some initial misty cloudiness, we had “won the weather lottery.” We were grateful for the photogenic result.

For Jean and me, after checking in and relaxing in our room, our first order of business was to meet up with personal friends who would join us on the cruise. Two of my colleagues at APA had also retired within the last few months. Carolyn Torma, formerly education director, left at the end of November 2016 and had already been traveling on her own since then. Deene Alongi, the meetings and conferences director, retired on July 12, just a few days before our trip. She and I had met over dinner about some business matters back in January, and in discussing our plans, discovered we both intended to cruise the fjords of Norway during the summer. She and Carolyn had already been making arrangements for a cruise with Hurtigruten, a Norwegian cruise company, through Mitchell, an acquaintance of Carolyn’s cousin, Carol Wargelin. Why not join forces, we decided, and book the same cruise? Using the same travel agent allowed us to connect at the same hotel, even though our three friends were arriving separately after flying straight to Bergen, letting us visit Oslo first on our own, something I wanted to do so that Jean and I could ride the train to Bergen.

In front of the downtown mall in Bergen. From left, Deene, Carolyn, Carol, and Jean.

By late afternoon, I met Deene in the lobby as she entered the hotel. Later we met Carolyn and Carol, and the five of us enjoyed dinner in Admiral’s very pleasant restaurant. Our conversation revolved around plans for the following day, for we would have until 4 p.m. to wander the city before boarding a bus to the dock to enter the cruise ship.

Although our plans evolved, Bergen made it easy to enjoy the day. We discovered the Kode museums, which line one edge of a charmingly picturesque public park anchored by a pond with a fountain but also including a gazebo and lush lawns. Using a single pass, we visited all four museums by late afternoon, punctuated by lunch at a reasonably classy diner adjoining one of them. The museums offer five daily tours in English, in addition to Norwegian. Kode 1 offers the Singer collection, a combination of Chinese porcelain, period furniture from the 16th and 17th centuries, and classic paintings, among other art, plus a splendid display of silver and gold artifacts created in the city over the past half-millennium, and the H.M. Queen Sonja “Underway,” displaying graphic and ceramic artworks sponsored by a royal who seemed to relish the chance to sponsor sculpture and craft works.

 

The silverwork section of Kode 1.

Kode 2 was not then open, preparing a new exhibition that opened in October. Kode 3 featured the Rasmus Meyer collection, an assortment of Norwegian paintings from 1880-1905, which is surely the golden age, with works from landscape and other

Part of the Rasmus Meyer collection.

painters like J.C. Dahl, Harriet Backer, and Theodor Kittelsen. I will not claim to be any sort of expert on the subject; in fact, I learned about some of the artists for the first time in this visit. But viewing these works up close filled me with admiration for their skills and the cultural perspectives they conveyed. There can be little doubt that Norway experienced a remarkable flowering of artistic talent in the late 19th century. And that is before we even mention the substantial display of work by Edvard Munch. The iconic The Scream, for which he is best known (and of which there are four versions), is only the beginning of Munch’s lifetime of productivity, punctuated by some tragic interludes that no doubt profoundly influenced some of his artistic idiosyncrasies. However, it would be a mistake to think that all, or even most, of his work is affected by the mental illness that ran through the family, including his father, or was dark and depressed. Indeed, there is an entire strain of cheerful nature painting within his oeuvre. Munch was clearly Norway’s artistic genius.

Finally, Kode 4 branches out beyond Norway to include numerous modern European and other artists, including Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Diego Rivera, and Joan Miró. But as one might expect, time ran out, and we all had to stroll back to the Admiral Hotel, retrieve our stored luggage, and await transport to the Hurtigruten dock to embark on our cruise, which will be the focus of the final installment in this series.

Jim Schwab

Our One-Day Peek at Oslo

Oslo is pleasant, scenic, historic, and modest enough in size to be easily navigated. You can learn a great deal about it quickly, but perhaps not as quickly as my wife and I were forced to do by circumstances. But we thoroughly enjoyed our short stay.

View of Oslo from our room at the Radisson Blu Scandinavia Hotel.

Despite better intentions, we had but one full day to explore Oslo. Our hopes for a second day, as noted in my last article, were dashed by a three-hour United Airlines flight delay out of Chicago that became a six-hour delay in reaching Oslo. In effect, we lost an entire Sunday afternoon that might have afforded us a greater opportunity to learn about the Norwegian capital before continuing to Bergen. But in this piece, I will focus on Oslo.

First, some general comments. Although I will not claim any sort of fluency, I usually try to learn at least the rudiments of the language of countries I visit. The only exception has been Spanish because I learned a great deal in high school and college long before working in the Dominican Republic in 2000 and 2001. In other cases, I have often had a relatively short window of opportunity between learning that I would travel on business to another country and had to cram mercilessly in a painfully limited amount of spare time. The most daunting such experience involved acquainting myself with a tiny amount of Sinhala before joining a team in Sri Lanka after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. I did much better with Italian in a short two-month window following an invitation to Venice, in part because it bears considerable similarity to Spanish. I thought I had a much longer window in planning our trip to Norway, but it followed my retirement from APA by just six weeks, and spare time was almost nonexistent before that. So, I squeezed most of it into a month, but I learned something important. As a Germanic language, Norwegian bears a substantial similarity to English in many respects, while retaining distinctive Scandinavian characteristics. But that similarity allowed me to begin making sense of things quickly. Once you are in the country, if you know a little bit of the language, you begin making sense of much more of it because of the constant exposure. Even that limited knowledge of the native language of the country you are visiting enriches the travel experience in unanticipated ways.

However, one factor limited that exposure even as it made life easier: Almost all Norwegians these days learn English from early elementary school and are fluent before they reach adolescence. Many then learn a third language in high school. Because of our short visit, however, that may have been just as well. It reduced confusion a great deal. Moreover, in places where tourists abound, such as hotels, airports, cruise ships, and museums, local familiarity with English is virtually universal. This will come as no surprise to veteran European travelers, but is worth sharing, perhaps, with newbies.

As a result, getting suggestions and directions was remarkably easy, enhanced by the almost universal friendliness of Norwegians in responding to visitors. We learned quickly that we could obtain an Oslopass for 24 or 72 hours that would allow us free access to numerous museums, the transit system, and ferries. The ferries were important because we decided to visit Norsk Folkemuseum (the Norwegian Folk Museum), which was in Bygdøy,a peninsula on the western side of Oslo that requires a ferry ride from the downtown area where our hotel, the Radisson Blu, was located. Fortunately, the harbor was at most a 15-minute walk from the hotel.

The path lay through the Royal Palace grounds. You can, by the way, take a tour of the palace, although we noticed that it was not included in Oslopass. With only one day, we regrettably decided to pass on the experience, but we certainly enjoyed the spacious grounds and shot some photos. We then followed our directions to the pier, only to find ourselves also passing the National Theatre, a delightful old building that made me wish we could stay to enjoy a concert. Again, time was our enemy. We shot more photos and continued to the pier, passing Oslo City Hall as well on the way because it sits right near the waterfront.

National Theatret in Oslo.

At that point, we unexpectedly discovered something we inexplicably had not thought about, but which was in the Oslopass package. The Nobel Peace Museum, with exhibits about the history of the Nobel Peace Prize and a nice gift shop for those seeking mementoes or books, sits right across from the dock. It was a wonderful serendipitous discovery, and we decided we would be fools not to visit.

Those less inclined to ponder some of the most serious questions of modern history may not enjoy the museum as we did. The current exhibit dealt with the efforts of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (the 2016 winner) to bring peace to his nation by negotiating a pact with the FARC rebels, ending a conflict that had raged for nearly five decades in some form, costing the lives of thousands of Colombian citizens killed by rebels or paramilitary forces, often in connection with deadly drug cartels. Those stories are sobering enough. But there is a room illuminated by soft glow lights with haunting background music and winding rows of brief explanations about the dozens of Nobel Peace Prize winners since the beginning of the 20th century. One soon realizes, even in a cursory review of their stories, how many people have laid their lives on the line to advance world peace. If you have a decent shred of humanity in your bones, walking through this chamber will be a very humbling experience. It was clear to me that, whatever I thought I had contributed to the betterment of humanity, it pales alongside the sacrifices of these noble men and women.

One of the most striking cases was that of Carl von Ossietzky, a German pacifist arrested by the Nazis in 1933 and awarded the prize in 1935. Despite his poor health, the German government refused to allow him to leave the concentration camps to accept the prize. He died in 1938, still in the camps. His award infuriated Hitler, and the government demanded that he decline the honor, which he refused to do. Years later, a similar scenario played out in the Chinese government’s angry response to the Nobel committee honoring dissident Liu Xiaobo, who later died while under house arrest. Speaking truth to power remains a very hazardous occupation.

It was still only late morning when we emerged and found our way to the nearby Bygdøy ferry. The ferry provided its own joy as we exchanged cameras with nearby couples for photos. Not sure who among our fellow passengers spoke what languages, I overheard a family conversing in Spanish and asked them if they would shoot our photo. I immediately learned they also spoke English and were from San Diego. They obliged, we obliged, other people obliged, and we all ended up with something better than selfies because we had made some momentary friends. It did not matter that we would probably never meet again; we had broken the ice for our short journey across the bay on a sunny, breezy day.

And so, we all went our own ways once we went ashore. Bygdøy has two primary attractions for visitors, the Viking Ship Museum and the Norwegian Folk Museum. My wife opted for the latter, although I might like to have found time for the former as well. In either case, the route involves walking uphill along a charming residential street and then following signs to the museum of your choice. This apparently prosperous residential area features very attractive hillside vistas above the harbor.

Exhibit hall at the Norsk Folkemuseum.

The Folkemuseum can easily justify several hours of devotion with indoor and outdoor exhibits. The indoor exhibits are in large brick buildings closer to the Visitor’s Center and gift shop near the main entrance. They include some Norwegian art, a rather frank photographic discussion of both Sami culture and the history of social discrimination against the indigenous Sami people, for which the Norwegian king and queen issued a formal apology in recent years, and the difficult role of homosexuals in that environment. There is also a display concerning the role of the Reformation in Norwegian history and culture. In the 16th century, as many people are aware, Norway broke from the Roman Catholic Church to become a predominantly Lutheran nation. Several centuries earlier, Norway and Sweden experienced dramatic changes when Christianity was introduced into a previously pagan Viking culture. Scandinavia was never the same again, and Viking culture, as such, ceased to exist.

Life in those times could be harsh and bleak in Norway because, despite the striking beauty of the landscape, it was also difficult for farming. Much of the land is mountainous, and landholdings were generally small. These and other factors drove much of the immigration to the United States by the 19th century. One gets some sense

Stave church at the museum.

of this history from looking at the preserved barns, farmhouses, and other buildings in the numerous outdoor exhibits that line dirt walking paths throughout the museum’s domain. While my wife chose to sit and rest at one point, I climbed a hill on the eastern end of the museum grounds to find a preserved stave church at the top. To my surprise, the interior did not seem very big, and it also seemed largely dark and foreboding. A painted communion scene illustrates the wooden walls behind the altar. Stave churches relied on wood construction without nails, using the skills of medieval master craftsman to fit supporting beams (staves) into perfectly fitted crossbeams to create what today is a precious piece of the world’s architectural heritage. I acquired a book about this phenomenon and have learned that, while medieval Norwegian Christians built about 1,000 of these structures, only 29 remain, largely in the hands of preservation organizations. The Gol church I saw was slated for demolition when it was replaced in its home town by a new structure in 1882, but King Oscar II of Sweden purchased it and donated it to the museum, which then reconstructed it on its current site in 1885. While a mere handful of stave churches continue to function as parish churches today, most experienced salvation as this one did, usually being acquired by one of several preservation organizations functioning in Norway, which typically reopen the buildings as museums as a means of supporting their efforts.

By late afternoon, however, we caught the ferry back to downtown Oslo. We wandered along the waterfront, checking out the menus in the various waterfront restaurants until we found something sufficiently Norwegian to satisfy our curious palates. (Oslo, like any major city, has developed a diverse cuisine and imported other cuisines that provide a range of options for citizens and visitors alike.) We ended up at Louise Restaurant & Bar. My wife decided to be brave and try cheek of beef, which she had never had before, while I opted for salmon; as we often do, we exchanged samples. Frankly, her choice had much of the taste and texture of pot roast and was much less exotic than she feared. Both dishes included other well-prepared ingredients that added to their appeal, such as potatoes, kale, and cauliflower. Although a retired Norwegian airline pilot we met later informed us that other restaurants in town were less expensive, we relished the waterfront ambience on the last evening we would spend in Oslo. I understand his perspective; I don’t often eat at waterfront restaurants in Chicago, but that is in part because they occupy such familiar territory. We were in Oslo just this once, and we meant to enjoy it. When we were done, we hiked back to our hotel and settled in, knowing we would need to rise early the next morning for an adventure I will describe in the next installment.

Jim Schwab

Still Room for Improvement in the “Friendly Skies”

It has been almost a month since my last blog post, for a reason. I spent most of the remainder of July at a conference in Colorado, for four days, and then overseas, for nearly two weeks. My wife and I traveled to Norway for a vacation, and I chose to separate myself from my laptop for the duration. In coming weeks, I will produce some travelogue posts about that trip, as I have often done in the past. Norway has a great deal to offer for curious travelers.

But first, I want to describe some issues from an experience I am sure many other travelers have shared. Some aspects of this experience, I am sure, are an inevitable part of travel, which always involves the possibility of delays, whether from weather, traffic accidents, or equipment malfunctions, on highways, in the air, or on water. Other aspects are a function of corporate culture and the way in which airlines or other transportation providers choose to communicate with and respond to their customers.

Our flight from Chicago on July 15 began with United Airlines, on which I had used award miles to book both of us to Frankfurt, Germany, with connection on Lufthansa (a Star Alliance partner of United) to Oslo. United Airlines suffered earlier this year from a tsunami of negative publicity for its ill-considered removal of Dr. David Dao from a flight to Louisville, Kentucky, from O’Hare International Airport. The brutal dragging of this paying customer from his seat to make room for airline staff also besmirched the reputation of the Chicago Department of Aviation’s airport police, whose desire to become armed police suffered a long-term setback because of the incident. Followed by some inadequate corporate explanations before CEO Oscar Munoz finally issued a full apology, the incident made no one look good.

I mention this only because, in my opinion, the situation that evolved on our trip shows that United Airlines still has considerable room to improve in learning how to inform and serve its customers when problems arise. Our flight was scheduled to depart at 2:35 p.m., arriving at Frankfurt at 5:55 a.m., with a 7:05 a.m. connecting flight to Oslo. About one hour before that, I began to notice that no one was arriving to staff the original gate assignment, and the number of people present seemed modest for an international flight. Naturally suspicious, I rechecked the monitor in the hallway to discover that the flight had been moved to another gate. That happens, but I did politely ask at the new gate why I had not gotten a text from United, which routinely happens with all updates.

“You always have to check on gate assignments,” she said. I was aware of that—I have traveled a great deal over the years—but she did not really answer the question of why a routine update had not occurred via text. Instead, I got a reply that implied that I did not know any better. Thanks for the condescension, United.

It went downhill from there, as the United personnel learned that something was apparently awry with the engine on the aircraft and needed inspection. What followed was a slow drip of information that materialized in eight separate text messages that ultimately resulted in a departure at 5:30 p.m. In the absence of more definitive information in place of the assortment of 15- and 30-minute delay announcements, it was impossible to know at what point one’s connections would become impossible or, for that matter, which subsequent rebooked connection would be viable. Predictably, the lines for rebooking at both the gate and the United service center became long. At one point, one of the gate attendants checked on later flights and told me, “I’ve backed you up for 10:00.” What I learned later was that the phrase “backed up,” which I’d never heard before, effectively meant nothing. A new boarding pass in Frankfurt might have been useful. In the confusion and amid the crowd of frustrated passengers, getting better answers proved challenging, to put it mildly. Suddenly, in the end, before any of us knew what connections we would have in Frankfurt, airline personnel announced that boarding would commence. We were in the unenviable position of waiting until we got to Frankfurt to find out how we would get to Oslo. The only advice in Chicago was to go to the Lufthansa desk in Frankfurt (a huge airport) to find out. Our flight finally arrived in Frankfurt around 8:30, as best I recall. By then, I was more interested in facilitating the next leg of our journey than in recording the precise time.

Aboard the plane, those needing to rebook connections were told which gate to go to, but as we deplaned, a woman with a sign was telling the same passengers a slightly different gate. Where to go? Many of us ended up at the gate we were told as we got off, only to find that the Lufthansa attendants seemed even more preoccupied with serving passengers from a flight from Washington, D.C. One challenge in these situations is knowing precisely which line will best expedite your request without being able to just cut to the front to find out. When we did reach the desk, an attendant printed out something other than a boarding pass—I have by now tossed it and can’t remember what useless information it contained—and directed us down the hall to the “gate with the yellow signs.” I soon wondered if she was just getting rid of us because “down the hall” meant nothing. Every Lufthansa desk has yellow logos because that is their corporate color. We began to ask again, but we learned that the 10:00 a.m. flight that had been promised was at A52, which we could reach after going through Passport Control, which went quickly enough. But at A52, we were informed by a somewhat sympathetic Lufthansa agent that the flight in question already had a “wait list” of 30 people. So much for being “backed up” on the 10:00 a.m. flight. Soon, she made clear that she simply could not get both of us on the flight, and we made clear we did not want to fly separately, which would only mean Jean would wait in Oslo for my arrival, adding confusion to an already difficult journey.

When we made clear we would stay together, she directed us to A12 for rebooking. That became another interesting feature of communication involving signage. We reached a hall where signs to the right indicated A11 and below, while Gates 13 and above were to the left. Where was A12? We asked one middle-aged airport employee, who sounded like an American, about the gate and he pointed us to the left. Wrong—when we did not see it and asked at a gate, we were pointed back just behind where he had been. In fact, there was no sign for A12, but it was the Lufthansa service desk, not an actual gate. Why not tell us that to begin with? In any case, one friendly worker there tried to get us new boarding passes from one of the kiosks, but that did not work. We had to take a number (A3108) and wait for the electronic sign to tell us which of five desks would handle our problem. Fortunately, about ten minutes later, we were directed to a lady at the end of the wall. After shaking her head at one point, asking me at another if we had been booked with award miles, and discussing the matter by telephone in German with someone, she finally said, “You’re lucky. These are the last two seats on the 1:15 flight.” I thanked her; she had at least accomplished something for us. As for being lucky, I had mixed feelings. After so much non-direction and misdirection, and some other Lufthansa personnel adding to our growing feeling that customer service was not a high priority, I was no longer sure what “lucky” meant. But at least we knew when we would connect to Oslo.

Exhausted by then, Jean took a short hike down the hall from our new gate while I watched our belongings. We were getting hungry, so she bought hot dogs for both of us. That may have helped revive us a bit. We reached Oslo at about 3:10 p.m., got our luggage by 4 p.m., and caught a shuttle to the downtown Radisson Blu Hotel, and checked in by 5 p.m. We had lost an entire Sunday afternoon of sight-seeing that we may otherwise have enjoyed. Once we had stored everything in our room, we crossed the street to a Spanish restaurant, our only activity for the evening, and enjoyed tapas and Sangria and chatted with the waiter. Upon discovering that the trip was in part a celebration of my retirement, he arranged for a complimentary dessert of delicious flan with caramel sauce.

At least someone still knows what good customer service still looks like. The place is called La Sangria Restaurante Espanol. If you’re ever in Oslo, pay them a visit and tell them I sent you.

 

Jim Schwab

The Fine Art of Stepping Down

“The cemeteries are full of indispensable people,” or variations thereof, is a quotation that has been attributed to many, including the late French President Charles de Gaulle, but according to Quote Investigator, actually belongs to an American writer Elbert Hubbard in 1907, using the phrase, “people the world cannot do without” and the word “graveyards.” But QI notes numerous sources over the years, many of which may well have borrowed from or built upon the other. The point is clear: None of us lives forever, and the world finds a way to move on without us. We can make an impact, but so can others. And we can come to terms with those facts long before we arrive at the cemetery.

Although it was not made public until January 9, I decided a few months ago that it was time to leave my post at the American Planning Association as manager of the Hazards Planning Center. There are two other such centers at APA—Green Communities, and Planning and Community Health—each of which has had at least three different managers since the National Centers for Planning were established in 2008 as a means of making clear APA’s commitment to certain leading-edge topics in planning. I have so far been the only manager for Hazards.  More importantly, I built that center’s portfolio atop an existing legacy of work in the field of planning for hazards dating back to 1993, when I agreed to manage a project funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that led to publication of the landmark report, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction. I did not at first foresee the ways in which that effort would forever alter the arc of my career in urban planning. Looking back, there was nothing inevitable about it. While I was http://www.statenislandusa.com/heavily involved until then in environmental planning, almost none of it involved disasters. Once I sank my teeth deeply into the subject matter, however, there was no letting go. The Blues Brothers would have said that I was on a mission from God. Increasingly, I became aware of the high stakes for our society in properly planning our communities to cope with natural hazards.

One of the special pleasures of my position was the opportunity every summer to attend the Natural Hazards Conference in Colorado. Here, along with my wife, Jean, and daughter, Anna, in 2007, are some visitors from Taiwan whom I had met during a conference there the year before.

One of the special pleasures of my position was the opportunity every summer to attend the Natural Hazards Conference in Colorado. Here, along with my wife, Jean, and daughter, Anna, in 2007, are some visitors from Taiwan whom I had met during a conference there the year before.

That quarter-century tenure in the driver’s seat of APA’s initiatives regarding disaster policy and practice made me, in some people’s minds at least, almost inseparable from the position I now hold. Perhaps in part because I was comfortable in working with the news media, I became the public face of APA in the realm of hazards planning. That may have been amplified to some extent by the fact that, until last year, the only APA employees working directly under me on a regular basis were interns, most of whom were graduate planning students. It’s not that I was a one-man show. I enlisted staff within the research department for specific projects with assigned hours. Given the expertise needed in this area, and my own willingness to listen to and learn from the best, most experienced people available, it was generally productive to contract with those people on a consulting basis or through partnerships with other organizations. Because APA is a professional organization with a membership of almost 40,000, those resources were readily available. I could marshal expertise far greater than any we could have hired for most of those years. Last year, however, we came to terms with growth and added research associate Joseph DeAngelis, who joined us after leaving the New York City Planning Department, where he had worked on Hurricane Sandy recovery on Staten Island. He has become a great asset to the organization.

His ability to span the transition to a new manager was one of several preconditions I had in mind over the last two or three years in contemplating my retirement from APA. More important, but a factor in adding him to our staff, was that I wanted to leave my successor with a center that was in good shape. This meant having projects underway, and funded by agreements with sponsors beyond the immediate few months after my departure. By late last year, we had won project grants from FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that will all end between July and December in 2018. That gives my successor, whoever he or she may be, more than adequate opportunity to complete those ongoing projects, maintain APA’s credibility in the realm of hazards, and explore new options and opportunities that will sustain the legacy that is already in place. I understand that people like me sometimes move quickly to another organization, firm, or government agency because a huge opportunity opens on short notice. With retirement, however, there is no need for such haste. We can take time to plan well.

That leads to another precondition in which I can say that I am greatly aided by the management philosophy of APA’s current executive director, James Drinan. He believes that, when possible, we should seek a managerial replacement who can join APA in the last two or three weeks of the tenure of their predecessor. This allows the opportunity for the outgoing person to share how things are done or even answer questions about how they might be done better or differently. I recognize, for one thing, that my own package of skills is unique and unlikely to be replicated. That is fine because someone new may well be much stronger in some other areas than I ever was. And if so, I am happy for them. It is a fool’s errand to seek replacement by a clone. Ultimately, the hiring choice will belong to APA’s research director, David Rouse, but my input on what credentials and experience are most useful is likely to have an impact. We hope to see resumes from some high-quality candidates in coming weeks.

So what is next for me as of June 1? I look forward to an opportunity to explore some new options that simply have not been feasible until now. Elsewhere on this website, I describe my intended work on some future book projects, most immediately focusing on the 1993 and 2008 Midwest floods, but there are other ideas waiting in the wings. APA would like to use my consulting services as needed to aid the transition beyond my retirement, and I have agreed, but there are and may be some other offers. I will certainly continue teaching at the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning, at least as long as they wish to continue that relationship, which has been very fruitful. And it should surprise no one if people find me on the speaking circuit from time to time. In fact, I may be much freer to accept such invitations if I am not managing a research program for APA. Finally, I shall have considerably greater free time to devote to this blog. In less than four years, its following has grown from virtually nothing to more than 14,000 subscribers as of this week. It has been a great pleasure to share what I learn through that forum.

The opportunity to spend part of an afternoon just reading a book on a 606 Trail bench beckons.

The opportunity to spend part of an afternoon just reading a book on a 606 Trail bench beckons.

But those are all activities that somehow involve work. I may well involve myself in some volunteer activities with APA divisions and its Illinois chapter, the Society of Midland Authors, and other outlets that I may discover. That too sometimes sounds like work, so let me try harder. I have written about the wonderful 606 Trail near my home; I expect to walk and bicycle there and in nearby Humboldt Park. I may well take a great novel to one of the trail’s benches (or to my front patio) and read in the middle of the day. My wife and I may travel, both as we choose and as we are invited. Anyone reading this blog must already know that I love to get around. Despite all its flaws, the world remains a fascinating place, and I want to explore it while I can. I may never get a gig (or want one) like that of Anthony Bourdain, but I will see enough. And, yes, like him, I love to explore different cuisines—in part so that, as an amateur gourmet chef with new time on his hands, I can try them out for guests at home or elsewhere. Like I said, the world is a fascinating place. Explore it while you can.

Jim Schwab

In the Valley of the Crooked River

DSCF3156Two weeks ago, I wrote about Cleveland’s Flats Entertainment District, where restaurants and bars now line the sides of the once filthy Cuyahoga River that now hosts boats and rowers. The Flats is but the last reach of a river that extends south into the Akron area. What has often been far less well known to outsiders than the more notorious industrial past of the river is the beautiful, forested valley that surrounds it upstream. In fact, about the time the Cuyahoga River was making environmental history by becoming a driving force behind passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, U.S. Rep. John Seiberling, an antiwar Democrat from Akron, was leading an effort to designate a new national park. By 1974, he had won authorization for the creation of what is now the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which remains a hidden treasure for many. I have personally discovered from discussing our trip that many people outside Ohio do not even know that the park exists.

For some interesting background on the politics and commitment behind the drive to create the park, I recommend a book I read several years ago about the life of John Seiberling, A Passion for the Land: John F. Seiberling and the Environmental Movement, by University of Akron emeritus history professor Daniel Nelson.

As for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park: Yosemite or Yellowstone it is not. Ohio, which became a state in 1803 and rapidly urbanized and industrialized afterwards, does not offer such massive public spaces for preservation. But it does contain gorgeous smaller valleys such as the Cuyahoga where protection of the landscape was still possible in the 1970s, and land was assembled from numerous small landowners and public spaces, woven in some cases into the fabric of the existing Metroparks system. In the area that contains the park, certain places seem to take one back in time to the 19th century, when Ohio built a canal to connect the Ohio River and Lake Erie and move agricultural and other products to markets a generation before the railroads began to dominate. Towns such as Peninsula and Boston, in the heart of the upper Cuyahoga Valley, still have the small town feel of that era in many ways, and many older homes have been preserved.

DSCF3157One, in fact, now hosts the Conservancy of the park, along Hines Hill Road just east of Boston, where one finds the visitor center. When we arrived, staffers were erecting a tent for an outdoor wedding that weekend. Curiously, we were also in town for an outdoor wedding for one of my nephews, but his was at Thorn Creek Winery in Aurora, several miles to the northeast. Although we merely stopped to investigate the scenery, and we were totally unexpected arrivals in the Conservancy office, the staff in the office treated us like honored guests, plying us with materials about the park and answering questions. Their friendliness is a tribute to the attitudes and sense of mission of both the Conservancy and the National Park Service itself.

DSCF3164The park itself is a fantastic playground for hikers, bikers, backpackers, and even skiers and sledders. This is the north, after all. Near the Boston Visitor Center is the Boston Mills ski resort, offering some modest hills but great accessibility for people in the metropolitan area. But we arrived in June, and we began to wander the Towpath trail that leads away from the visitor center back into the forest, south beyond the massive bridge that carries Ohio Turnpike travelers past the Cuyahoga River below. From the height of the turnpike, one might never realize that what lies below is a national park, although it is certainly an impressive expanse of forested greenery. Down below, however, we were treated not to nature’s silence but to its music. For one thing, it was cicada season, so the buzz was all about the woods, but so were the birds, some of whom may have been feasting on cicadas. We surely could have seen other wildlife, had we come around dawn or dusk, but we were hiking in the late morning, when the deer and the rabbits and coyotes were well hidden. It is remarkable how easy it is to get away from everything, although the trails are popular enough to keep you in touch with other passing humans. The trails seemed to attract both young and elderly, providing a great excuse to all ages to stay in shape and in touch with nature. I began to wish I had tree and bird guides with me to better understand parts of my experience. If I still lived in the area, I might revisit with those guides, but it may be a while before I return.

DSCF3169Our hiking visit occurred on a Thursday. Jean and I made a return visit on Friday, but of a different nature, and one that accommodated my sister, Carol, who lives nearby in North Royalton. She joined us at the parking lot on Rockside Road in Independence at 9 a.m. for the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, a fine way for first-time visitors (and others) to see the park and its valley from a different perspective. The CVSR is a passenger train that uses tracks that largely run along the edge of the river. It is mostly run by volunteers who simply love the job of educating people about the local environment and its history. Audio is available that allows you to hear some of that history along with what one crew member jokingly referred to as “some pretty bad music,” most of it evoking a sense of bluegrass and Civil War and the early frontier with the use of banjos and bass fiddles. Call it “mood music.” The train ride takes about an hour and a half to get to Akron before turning around and bringing you back to where it started. Along the way, there are several stops that allow riders to get off and explore and then wait for the next train coming through. Explorers may want to get the schedule before they wander off. The price is only $15; as senior citizens we got tickets for $13. The money supports the train and is well worth it for the scenery along the way.

Because the park is interwoven among small towns and private property, the park leases some land for sustainable farming of vegetables and sheep, goats, and chickens, with some of the products finding their way to the Countryside Farmers’ Markets. The Conservancy staff also noted for us that there is now a visitor home in the park called Stanford House, built in 1843. It is not a bed and breakfast because visitors are on their own in sharing the use of a kitchen, but rooms can be rented starting at $50 per night, and the home provides immediate access to the Towpath Trail and the railroad, among other attractions.

Ultimately, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a study in adaptation, fitting a park into the scenery of a river valley that is also at the center of the large Cleveland-Akron metropolitan area. The park has been evolving since its advent in the 1980s and will continue to evolve as conditions change. But one major contribution it has already made is to stymie the urban sprawl that has so adversely affected much of the Cleveland area and allow residents to enjoy an expanse of refreshing greenery.

One reason it has taken two weeks to return to this blog and tell the story, since we returned to Chicago on June 12, is that I left again on June 19 for Grand Rapids, Michigan, to participate in the 40th annual conference of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, which was founded about the same time the national park was being organized. Today it is a growing organization of more than 17,000 floodplain managers, about 1,000 of whom attended the conference at the DeVos Convention Center, which sits along the Grand River opposite the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, to which it is connected by a stone pedestrian bridge. ASFPM members have always been familiar with nature-based strategies for reducing flood damages and preserving the quality of rivers and streams, and the conference contained numerous discussions of such approaches. It occurred to me that what I had seen in the Cuyahoga Valley was one of the best possible approaches to floodplain management, the prevention of the encroachment of development to allow nature its due, preserving a natural setting that nonetheless endows humans with wonderful opportunities for outdoor recreation and exercise in an age when public health authorities worry about an epidemic of obesity. We have to make our cities attractive places for people to get the exercise they need. Many factors in the Cleveland metropolitan area, frankly, work against that goal, but the park exemplifies it. It is modern floodplain management at its best with a healthy dose of environmental protection in the bargain. The fact that the park is sprinkled with outdoor attractions like the Blossom Music Festival only serves to enhance that goal by acquainting people with what the park has to offer.

John Seiberling was clearly a visionary in fighting for the creation of the park in Congress. But every city has its environmental champions. It is the job of the rest of us to make it politically possible for them to survive and to achieve their objectives. We all benefit from a better quality of life when they do.

As for the title of this blog post: The Cuyahoga River derived its name from the local nomenclature of the Mohawk Indians, an Iroquois nation, who referred to the river as “crooked” because of the way it winds through the landscape, hence “crooked river.” (The Seneca, also Iroquois, used a similar name.) Meandering is nature’s way of diffusing the force of flood waters while distributing silt into the rich agricultural soils along the banks. Ohio grew up on such wealth. Now it is preserving some of it.

 

Jim Schwab

Keeping It Sharp in the Flats

Let’s start with the fact, obvious mostly in retrospect, that I should have printed out a map of the Flats Entertainment District in Cleveland rather than relying on Onstar, the GM dial-in navigation system in our Saturn, for directions. (I could also have used my iPhone for guidance, but I hate looking at such a small screen while driving.) On this one occasion, Onstar stumbled somewhat, but a quick call to Alley Cat Oyster Bar, our choice of location for an anniversary dinner, got us to our destination a mere two blocks away. My point is that the Flats can be mildly confusing if you have not been there before. Onstar told me to go to a traffic circle but failed to detect that another traffic circle preceded the one in front of Alley Cat, but nonetheless insisted “you are near your destination.” Well, sort of.IMG_0258

That said, Onstar has generally served us very well for several years. But in certain anomalous settings like the Flats, it can fall short. The city could also improve its street signage in the area.

The Flats are somewhat anomalous in any event. Here is an area now known for high-end restaurants and entertainment venues along a river that in 1969 caught fire from a train spark and burned. When I was in junior high school in Brecksville, Ohio, in the early 1960s, our class took a field trip on the Goodtime Cruise down the Cuyahoga River and into Lake Erie. One of my classmates asked the tour guide what would happen if someone fell overboard into industrial filth that filled the river. The guide answered rather calmly that the person “would probably get pneumonia and die.” That answer haunted me into my college days, when I emerged as an environmental activist and founded the first student environmental organization at Cleveland State University.

The movement that grew out of shocking events like the burning river helped trigger the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Water Act, which in turn steadily advanced cleanup of the Cuyahoga River, among many others. In the meantime, foreign competition hammered the once-dominant steel industry, and other industries either died or evolved. It was a classic Rust Belt story. Over ensuring decades, the Cuyahoga River changed dramatically, and the current version of the Flats grew up where industrial sewers used to reign. It is a long story that has been told many times and deserves to be understood in the current political environment because it shows that this nation can succeed in improving its quality of life and the environment when it musters the political will to do so.

IMG_0256But back to dinner at the Flats. With a sense of history that is not yet lost in Cleveland, I sat in Alley Cat with my wife, watching out the window at the nearby river, this time watching a team of kayakers row up and down, a pleasure boat docked at the Alley Cat and another across the water at Shooters, on a sunny June evening in Cleveland, just two hours before Game 3 of the NBA Finals would take place downtown at Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cleveland Cavaliers were facing off against the Golden State Warriors in a rematch of the 2015 series. The city’s attention was riveted to the fate of its beloved Cavs.

There are today about a dozen restaurants in the general area of the Flats, but I chose Alley Cat based on its online reviews, which had been stellar. My wife, not a Cleveland native (she grew up in Nebraska), left that decision to me. But we both love seafood, which is Alley Cat’s strong suit, so she was happy. I can happily recommend Alley Cat on several counts.

IMG_0253First, the food is excellent. I enjoyed a Faroe Island salmon entrée, which is draped in Vauduvan curry sauce, accompanied by black rice and yellow squash. I enjoyed it all. My wife opted for the less expensive and more predictable fish sandwich (cod), with pickles and fries, but we cross-fertilized each other’s dinner a bit. The spirits list is impressive, although predictably pricey.  The bottom line is that neither of us was disappointed. Jean, generally a Merlot fan, loved the Syrah that I picked out.

But second, and very important, the wait staff was uniformly gracious and friendly. This is a feature of Cleveland more generally that many outsiders do not appreciate until they experience it, but this is a town that has had good reason at times for a chip on its shoulder yet retains a very welcoming, congenial atmosphere. It is fun to interact with people in the Cleveland metropolitan area. They seem to prefer to enjoy life. At times, they almost made me wonder what I was doing in Chicago. Just the night before, we had met over dinner in Shaker Heights with a former co-worker of mine, now working as a planner with the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, who seemed very happy with his move here from Washington, D.C. As for the staff at the Alley Cat Oyster Bar, they were extremely accommodating with our every request.

IMG_0255The final point deals with the scenery. What was once a stinking, unhealthy cesspool a half-century ago is now a remarkably pleasant setting. Our table was right by a window facing west to the river, where we could watch the rippling water pass by along with the kayakers and other floating transportation, in the shadow of highway bridges high overhead, but with a sidewalk that allows one to experience the marine milieu in a refreshing way. There is outdoor seating, but this day had been rather cool for early summer, so we settled for inside dining.

This all served to remind me that the Flats are at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. It is a relatively short reach of a river that stretches upstream to Akron along a beautiful valley that is now preserved, for the most part, in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the subject of my next blog post.

 

Jim Schwab

Fix the Little Things

I am writing this story about a week after the fact that triggered the idea for this blog post because I have pretty much been on the road (or in the air) ever since, and will complete the two-week stretch of travel tomorrow with a flight to Tulsa. On Monday, September 14, I will give the opening speech there for the Disaster Risk Reduction Ambassadors Pilot Workshop of the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association. It is not the biggest assignment in the world, but an important one.

The fact that I am on the move to that degree, however, has a great deal to do with the point of this story. To the extent that they can do so, frequent travelers appreciate the willingness and ability of airlines, rental car companies, and others whose clientele we are to make our journeys just a little bit easier instead of more challenging. In that context, sometimes a little bit of common sense goes a long way. I am not writing to pick on Budget Rental specifically, nor on the Sacramento International Airport, but I certainly am using them as an example of a problem because they provide a case in point.

I was in Sacramento September 3 to help deliver a pilot workshop, and then, because the rates were so much cheaper, chose to take a 6:00 a.m. flight on US Airways to Phoenix the next morning, followed by a connection from there back to Chicago, where I live. I might have liked a later flight with a shorter layover in Phoenix, but I also wanted to get home at a decent hour, it’s a long trip, and the alternatives were more expensive. Projects have budgets, and flights between Sacramento and Chicago seem to be rather costly these days. The workshop was almost 20 miles from the airport, so renting a car made sense. Budget had the best deal.

So on that Friday morning, I set my alarm for 3:00 a.m., got up and dressed, and packed, and was on the road back to the airport by 4:00 a.m. Traffic at that hour, even in California, is not much of a problem, so that went smoothly, and the GPS kept me painlessly on track. The problem arose only as I got near the rental return station, on McNair Circle, which is almost literally a circular area within which all the rental car facilities are located.

Then things went haywire. It is dark at 4:30 or 4:40 a.m., when I approached. I eventually saw a small sign along the side of the road listing all the rental firms for returns, but did not see an entrance behind that sign. I found myself circling McNair Circle, and coming in for a landing on a second try. Again, I saw the sign, but could not identify the entrance, although I had noticed an employee-only parking lot. On my third try, I pulled into that lot so that I could get off the street and call Budget to clarify the location of the entrance for rental car returns. I discovered that the envelope containing my contract had only an 800, not a local, number, but I tried it. I was soon launched into meaningless waits for no one in particular, and began to get nervous as I watched the time slip away toward 5:00 a.m., knowing that, even after I turned in the car, I would still need to board a shuttle into the terminal.

In the midst of my frustration, I saw a car enter and park, so I left my car and approached the gentleman, who was wearing a Budget shirt, and asked for directions to return my car. He told me to leave the parking lot, turn right, follow the circle, and turn right at the next entrance. I found myself skeptical but willing to try, having passed the same area twice already. But sure enough, before the sign I had seen earlier, I discovered a small entrance, somewhat shrouded in the dark by roadside foliage, and turned right. I drove back a small distance and discovered the return location and the same employee to whom I had spoken, but he did not handle the returns. In a minute, a young lady came out of the hut, relieving my anxiety because it was 5:00 by now and I was getting anxious to move on. I had carry-on luggage but still needed to go through security. One never knows how long that line will be.

As she checked the car and gave me a receipt, I hurriedly told her that the entrance was very poorly marked and hard to see in the dark.

“I hear that all the time,” she said, rather matter-of-factly. I did not argue the point, but in my mind, I thought, “And no one does anything about it?”

But my first priority by then was not to make an issue of it, but to catch the shuttle and get to the airport. I suspect most other patrons have done much the same thing. Fortunately, a shuttle was waiting in front of the main building, and I boarded. I mentioned my experience to a man sitting across the aisle from me as we departed.

“I agree,” he said. “I missed that entrance once myself.”

Now, I will confess that I have not checked further at either Budget or the Sacramento International Airport to find out who is actually responsible for the signage on McNair Circle or the visibility of the entrance for rental car returns. I have not had time, and having made myself clear at the time I returned the vehicle, I don’t feel I have to make it my responsibility. Nor did I have time to get out my camera and take photos of the entrance to make my point. My objective was to board my flight on time.

If Budget employees in fact hear this complaint as often as the young lady admitted, the problem should be obvious anyway. Whether it is ultimately the responsibility of the various rental car firms that share the space in McNair Circle, or that of the airport authority, does not matter to me. The firms and the airport officials undoubtedly talk to each other once in a while, or can. If well aware of a problem, they can put it on their agenda to fix it. But it is apparent that it may not be on any agenda if the lady at Budget hears this complaint “all the time.”

One might think that a company trying to make travel easier in order to attract customers would want to ensure that they do not leave in frustration because a problem like this goes unaddressed. I don’t care whose job it is. As I said, if they know people have experienced a problem repeatedly, they can talk to each other and find a way to resolve it.

Failure to respond is the real failure in customer service. Little things often matter in big ways. Fixing them shows that an agency or company cares. Enough said.

 

Jim Schwab

Charleston Charm

DSCF2878There is something mildly disconcerting about visiting an intriguing city several times without having the spare time to go tourist. I first visited Charleston, South Carolina, in 2003, for a business meeting with the National Fire Protection Association, for which I led an American Planning Association consulting project evaluating the impact of NFPA’s Firewise training program. I wandered a few blocks from the hotel but got only a cursory impression of what the city had to offer. In more recent years, I have been there repeatedly for various meetings and conferences connected to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric  Administration’s Coastal Services Center. This led to considerable familiarity with some of the local hotels and restaurants but still did not afford many opportunities to simply wander.

This year, I decided to fix that problem. My wife, Jean, had never been there. We chose our 30th anniversary (June 8) as an excuse for a four-day visit. Besides, it was time for a vacation. Proposals, projects, meetings, and budgets could all wait.

Even as a vacation, it was a view of Charleston through the eyes of an urban planner. None of us leave our experience, knowledge, or even our biases behind. Mine lean toward intellectual inquiry and a fascination with history. Charleston is chock full of history and geographic challenges, which make for interesting environmental history. The old city sits on a once marshy peninsula facing the Atlantic Ocean with the Cooper River to one side, and the Ashley River to the other. Plantations and a thriving rice culture were once built on those foundations. The rice culture, however lucrative it may have been, was built on one other foundation that vanished after the Civil War: slavery. With its demise, and the rise by the late 19th Century of agricultural machinery for rice growing in Texas and Arkansas, rice died as a central feature of the South Carolina economy.

DSCF2872The story is told vividly in the South Carolina Lowlands exhibit in the Charleston Museum, a two-story building on Meeting Street along what is known as the Museum Mile. As that sobriquet suggests, the city has a great deal to offer in this respect, most of which we did not have the time to visit. The offerings include a Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry, the Confederate Museum, and the Gibbes Museum of Art, currently being renovated, among several others. The Charleston Area Regional Transit Authority makes these attractions readily accessible to visitors with three free trolley lines that come together on John St. in front of the Visitor Center, which sits between King St., largely a commercial corridor, and Meeting St. Of the three, the Green Line (#211) runs the length of the Museum Mile.

From our perspective, the history of the South Carolina Lowcountry makes up the best piece of the exhibits the Charleston Museum offers, and clearly the most extensive, using a combination of glassed display cases and short videos to tell the story from prehistoric Indian tribes to European settlement and Indian displacement, to colonization, the American Revolution and Civil War, to modern Charleston. Another exhibit, for those more biologically inclined, details the flora and fauna of the region, and two other, smaller exhibits display both the clothing of the area over time, and the furnishings and metalware of the early American presence. It is enough, if one is diligent about it, to occupy the better part of a day. The museum also contains an auditorium for special events.

The Joseph Manigault House, viewed from the Temple Gate.

The Joseph Manigault House, viewed from the Temple Gate.

The museum also owns two old houses that have been preserved and are open to the public. The Joseph Manigault House, named after a French Huguenot descended from religious fugitives to America in the 1600s who became wealthy planters by the early 1800s, was designed by the owner’s brother and completed in 1803 using Adam-style architecture. Among its features is a Gate Temple that was left intact in the mid-20th Century even as an Esso gasoline station operated on the property before the museum finally acquired it well after World War II. During the war, it was used by the USO to entertain service men stationed in Charleston. It is on Meeting St. across a short side street from the Charleston Museum.

The Heyward-Washington House, on the other hand, requires either a long walk down Meeting St. or a ride on the Green Line to the corner of Broad and Church St., at which

Backyard gardens of the Heyward-Washington House.

Backyard gardens of the Heyward-Washington House.

point one hikes a block south to a home modestly tucked between other buildings in an area that was urban even when the house was built, just before the American Revolution in 1772. It belonged initially to Thomas Heyward Jr., among other things a signer of the Declaration of Independence, but it never belonged to a Washington. President Washington, during a tour of the southern states in 1791, simply stayed there for one week in June as a guest of the Heywards. More interestingly, the home later became the property of John F. Grimke, who with his wife produced two daughters, Sarah and Angelina, who developed profound differences with their rich, slave-owning, planter parents. The daughters became radical abolitionists. Needless to say, they became less than welcome in South Carolina, which posted a warrant for their arrest. That never happened because they resettled in Philadelphia, where they became Quakers, allied themselves with other abolitionists, and continued their activities, speaking and writing widely for their cause. There is no doubt they remained a thorn in the side of their southern kin until the day they died.

DSCF2828But by now I am well ahead of, well, our trip. Neither the Charleston Museum nor the two historic homes were among the first things we saw. In fact, we arrived on Sunday, relaxed over brunch at the eminently affordable yet well-managed Town & Country Inn & Suites in West Ashley, a quieter part of the city west of downtown across the Ashley River, and finally made our way across not only the Ashley but the Cooper River, traversing the magnificently attractive Arthur Ravenel Bridge to Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant. The dock is home to the U.S.S. Yorktown, a World War II aircraft carrier now preserved as a museum for visitors. We did not happen to buy tickets for that while we were there, but it does look impressive from dockside.

DSCF2836We did have tickets for a dinner cruise that evening aboard the Spirit of Carolina, a much smaller vessel designed to provide a pleasant experience for those who like to eat a fine dinner while watching the waves and the birds and the pleasure boats in Charleston Harbor. Both of us enjoyed a well-prepared meal of rib-eye steak, foreshadowed by she-crab soup and a house salad, accompanied by a bottle of champagne provided for our anniversary, and topped off by key lime pie for dessert. To DSCF2831be honest, I do not expect the absolute best of cuisine on dinner cruises; there are some natural limitations built into the format. The cruise is the point of it all. But this was excellent nonetheless. We both came away satisfied. With the help of some gentle guitar music and the breezes that greeted us during our short visit to the upper deck, it was an enjoyable way to celebrate an anniversary. By 9:15 p.m., as our boat pulled ashore to let everyone out, we felt our hosts had treated us to a very pleasant evening.

The next day our target was the South Carolina Aquarium. Given the geography, and aquatic and maritime history, of Charleston, this aquarium is a natural feature of the city. It is situated on the eastern waterfront of Charleston, a few blocks east of Meeting St., but also accessible by trolley. (It also hosts a parking garage.) One can easily DSCF2841spend a day there, and we spent most of a day there, absorbing the living exhibits of sea life that give patrons insights into aquatic life of all sizes and the ecological challenges facing much of it today. With such scientific powerhouses as NOAA nearby, one has high expectations of the aquarium for its scientific content, and by and large it delivers. One unusual feature, somewhat removed from its context, is the Madagascar exhibit, including some lemurs in a tree. I do not profess to know how that fits with the rest of the material, but it is edifying nonetheless. One learns of the utterly tiny amount of paved roads on an island nearly the size of Texas with nearly as many people but a declining rainforest. More related to the region, we discovered to our surprise an entire section devoted to piedmont ecology, examining the river life and aquatic ecology of the foothills of the Appalachians. If you can afford the time, the aquarium is well-endowed with such pleasant surprises. We arrived late in the morning but did not leave until about 4 p.m.

DSCF2834Although we did not find time to undertake the tour to Fort Sumter, we did visit the Fort Sumter National Monument, a modest building next to the aquarium that houses some displays pertinent to the battle that launched the Civil War when Confederate forces shelled the Union fortress on a small island in Charleston Harbor. Tour boats depart from the piers behind the building, and it is probably worth a visit. I hope to accomplish that on a future trip. The Fort Sumter National Monument, unlike the tour, is free and open to the public, and managed by the National Park Service.

DSCF2860That evening, we cheated, but who cares? We engaged a second establishment, Stars, in helping us celebrate our anniversary, this time on the actual date. I have previously reviewed Stars on this blog. So why not try something new instead? For starters, Jean had never been there; I had been there with colleagues during business trips. After reading my most recent review, Jean insisted she wanted to try the place herself, so I made a reservation. Upon arrival, after checking in with the maître d’, I took her upstairs to see the rooftop bar, where we were promptly served Bellinis, after a short explanation of a drink new to both of us. We loved it. Back downstairs, we got the royal treatment from a waiter who one of the owners subsequently informed us was “Big John,” as opposed to “Little John,” also working there, who was at that moment at the front of the restaurant. Big John had migrated from up north but, for the moment at least, found Charleston to his liking.

This time, we diverged in our orders, Jean getting steak (with black truffle grits and bacon braised mushrooms) while I ordered sea scallops. But neither entrée, while excellent, stole the show, at least in our estimate. That honor was reserved for a special share plate that featured cauliflower and broccolini roasted in a cheddar cheese sauce that was as good and succulent as any appetizer I can remember in a long time.

DSCF2868On Tuesday, our afternoon visit to the Charleston Museum followed a morning visit to the Waterfront Park, much closer to the Battery at the end of the peninsula than to the aquarium and most of Museum Mile, but still accessible by trolley. The park is simply a wonderful outdoor setting in which to view the ocean, complete with fountains, palm trees, and walkways along the water’s edge. It is a very pleasant place to pass some time, especially on a warm summer day. It looks like a wonderful venue for an outdoor wedding and has been used that way. For those who simply want to use their laptop or mobile device while occupying one of many park benches, it is also fully equipped with wifi, courtesy of Google and the Charleston Digital Corridor.

Hiking up the street past the old Custom House and turning left at Market St., we reached the popular City Market, a stretch of airy long buildings containing booths featuring numerous local artists and jewelry makers, among others. From one of them I eventually bought a small matte painting of a tropical seashore for my office. It will serve me well on cold Chicago winter days. We also ate lunch at an open air restaurant nearby, the Noisy Oyster, which offered commendable seafood at very reasonable prices. (By this time we were looking to limit both our food expenditures and our caloric intake.) From City Market we took the trolley back to the Visitors Center, where we had parked in the garage for the day, but first took our detour into the Charleston Museum, across the street.

After leaving the museum to get our car, however, we noticed the ominous, heavy gray clouds gathering overhead. Something told us the better part of wisdom lay in returning to our hotel, where we could read our books. (I was working on the H.W. Brands biography of Ben Franklin, The First American. I like to tackle the 700-page heavyweights during vacations.) By the time we arrived at the hotel, the rain was beginning to drip but not coming down very fast. Soon enough, however, the lightning and thunder mounted, and the rain pounded. On the television, we saw news reports from King St. showing cars struggling through several inches of water. I soon learned that much of downtown is either below sea level or at very low elevations with poor drainage, making for a chronic problem of urban flooding. Charleston, also subject to tropical storms such as Hurricane Hugo, which devastated the area in 1989, was not quite the seaside paradise we had enjoyed until then. It is, in fact, one very vulnerable coastal city that also experiences occasional tremors from a fault that triggered a major earthquake in 1886. Charleston needs good disaster plans.

Charleston needs a few other things as well. On our final day, after visiting the Heyward house, we took a long stroll up King St. back in the direction of Stars and the Visitors Center. On a hot day, that can be challenging, so we tried our best to hew to the shady side of the street, though at noon in June, there is a period when no such thing exists. What does exist is a wide variety of old and new storefronts, and we ended up buying some flip-flops and shoes in an H&M store, lunch at the 208 Kitchen, a pleasant little lunch establishment with good sandwiches at single-digit prices, and delicious Belgian gelato at a small store called, well, Belgian Gelato. Eventually, Jean, having finished off her murder mystery, wanted something new to read and found out there was a Barnes & Noble bookstore around the corner from the Francis Marion Hotel, a charming historic place where I have stayed on several previous trips to Charleston. She decided to try Identical by Scott Turow, a Chicago-area writer and fellow member with me of the Society of Midland Authors.

So what does Charleston need? As helpful as the trolley is, and although there is bus service provided by CARTA, it is clear that the creaking, older part of the city is ultimately facing a challenge of mobility as a result of too much dependence on the automobile. Light rail would help, and some people told me it had been discussed, but the big question is how to retrofit it into the existing fabric of this historic core of the city.

DSCF2880With all the tourism the city is now attracting, it is also facing the classic challenge of most such aging urban magnets of maintaining affordable housing for the workforce it needs to support such attractions within a reasonable distance of their employment. Already there is an obvious outmigration of the working poor to areas like North Charleston, a suburb that has very recently experienced toxic racial tensions between citizens and police, particularly after the shooting of Walter Scott this spring. When we researched hotel prices in preparation for our trip, it became obvious that the downtown area is experiencing significant price escalations. Charleston can easily allow the old city core to become a playground for the affluent, a tax generator as such, but it cannot afford to lose its character in the process. Charleston has come a long way since the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960 and the segregationist politics of Strom Thurmond. The challenge now is to preserve its well-earned reputation by honoring that progress in a progressive fashion. A cursory reading over breakfast of local newspapers told me that issue is far from settled in the development debates that are currently underway.

Jim Schwab

Stars Stars Again

DSCF2610

Nearly two years ago, in what was only my third blog post on this site, I reviewed what I thought was a class-act restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina. I have been to this fascinating historic city several times in recent years, mostly due to involvement in the Digital Coast Partnership, a creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coastal Services Center, which has now been absorbed into NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management after merger with another section of NOAA. In that time, the Digital Coast Partnership has grown from six national organizations, including the American Planning Association, which I represent, to eight. Just last year, the Urban Land Institute and the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association joined. I later discussed the value of this unique enterprise in an article I posted here on September 1, 2014, “Digital Coast: A Model for Progress.”

Much of the Digital Coast Partnership was represented at the 2015 Coastal GeoTools Conference, held in North Charleston March 30-April 2. In addition to being a devoted, professional crew dedicated to making geospatial technology more widely available and valuable for potential users, this is a fun group that socializes well, which leads to the real point of this article. About 20 of us, including the NOAA staffers, visited Stars, the restaurant I reviewed two years ago. Wondering whether I may have overestimated the place after seeing some customer reviews online, I was prepared for possible disappointment. Sometimes restaurant service declines over time, or the kitchen becomes less imaginative. Excellence does not always last forever.

I am happy to report, however, that excellence is still alive and thriving at Stars. Both my good friend and colleague Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), and I ordered the pork chop off the evening’s special menu, accompanied by roasted cauliflower and corn in an unbelievably tasty sauce. There appeared to be numerous other options, many involving seafood, that satisfied other palates at the table. I was soon engrossed in one of the best meals I had had in months, when Chad, having polished off his, turned to me in an almost ecstatic mood and asked:

“Was that the best pork chop you have ever had in your life?”

Chad Berginnis and I discuss what we both agreed was a superb meal.

Chad Berginnis and I discuss what we both agreed was a superb meal.

I quickly agreed. I had to. I spent six and a half years of my life in Iowa, a place that knows pork chops with a passion, and have been back many times over the subsequent 30 years, and I still could not recall a pork chop even there that could pass the high bar set by the chefs at Stars. But the story does not stop with the food, or even the wine, for which Stars had outstanding suggestions.

It continued with the service, personified by our own server, Austin Doyle, who was not only engaging and enthusiastic about his mission, but visibly anxious to ensure he was doing as much for us as he possibly could. I am almost embarrassed it has taken me another month to produce the review I promised him, but I am sure he will feel his patience has paid off. I learned that he was leading an operation to train other restaurant servers (#serverchopped), an indication that he indeed takes his calling seriously.

Austin Doyle (to my left) takes a moment to pose with his customers at Stars.

Austin Doyle (to my left) takes a moment to pose with his customers at Stars.

It is always a pleasure to find such a restaurant in a city that itself is so charming. You can see much of it from the rooftop bar at Stars, if you need to bide time before your table is ready, or just want to enjoy the weather on a pleasant night. I understand that, before the sun goes down, the rooftop can become rather toasty on a warm summer night, perhaps even a bit much to handle, but it’s worth a visit to check out the skyline, even though Charleston is, for the most part, a relatively low-rise city with many buildings in its commercial core dating back to colonial or at least antebellum days. Few serve the same purpose, as many have been converted to storefronts or other restaurants, but the street grid and many of the facades survive, even as the city has added other attractions such as the South Carolina Aquarium and several quirky and idiosyncratic museums. At the same time, a number of historic churches survive and still serve their own intended functions.

Digital Coast advocate Allison Hardin, a planner for Myrtle Beach, S.C., enjoys a laugh amid the views on the Stars rooftop.

Digital Coast advocate Allison Hardin, a planner for Myrtle Beach, S.C., enjoys a laugh amid the views on the Stars rooftop.

It is a city fascinating enough that I persuaded my wife that we should spend our upcoming 30th anniversary there. For her, the visit will be her first, but she was sold when I showed her online what Charleston has to offer. I will be interested in her reaction when she actually gets to walk the streets of the historic quarter and judge for herself. I already understand why Travel Advisor recently rated Charleston the nation’s third most attractive city for tourists, right behind New York and Chicago, quite an achievement.

 

Jim Schwab