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

All’s Well at Burwell’s

Chad Berginnis shares a story during the roast. To his right is Nicole LeBouef, new Deputy Assistant Administrator for NOAA for the National Ocean Service. Photo by Susan Fox.

Chad Berginnis shares a story during the roast. To his right is Nicole LeBouef, new Deputy Assistant Administrator for NOAA for the National Ocean Service. Photo by Susan Fox.

Warmth is a concept with many dimensions. In the realm of physics, it is a relative measure of temperature. In reference to weather, perhaps the most common subject of human conversation, it is a measure of the kinetic energy of the atmosphere around us, which is constantly changing. Mark Twain has been erroneously quoted as saying, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” His friend Charles Dudley Warner sort of said it, but no mind. On Tuesday, February 7, in Charleston, South Carolina, no one around me had any complaints. We were perfectly happy with the kinetic energy of the atmosphere of the day, which brought the city to a very comfortable 75° F. No rain, just a mild breeze. Let it be. (You can accurately take that quote from the Beatles.) Two days later, I would have to return to Chicago, where it was 18° F. when I stepped off the airplane.

Like many other English words, warmth takes on many metaphorical and emotional connotations derived from its physical qualities. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” President Harry Truman used to say, and he was not referring to room temperature in the White House. Conversely, there is the warmth of positive human relationships, just as there is a chill in the air when they are not going well.

That evening, at a downtown Charleston restaurant, Burwell’s, I experienced that warmth at a group dinner organized by some National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) staff for those members of the NOAA Digital Coast Partnership who were attending the Coastal GeoTools Conference. The partnership consists of both NOAA, through its National Ocean Service, and eight national nonprofit organizations, including the American Planning Association, which I represented along with a colleague, Joseph DeAngelis, a research associate for the Hazards Planning Center. The conference was hosted for NOAA by the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM).

Susan Fox, NOAA point of contact for APA in the Digital Coast Partnership, presents a gift before the roast. Photo by Miki Schmidt.

Susan Fox, NOAA point of contact for APA in the Digital Coast Partnership, presents a gift before the roast. Photo by Miki Schmidt.

But enough of the organizational details. Shortly after all our carloads arrived at Burwell’s, and our party of 24 was led upstairs by the wait staff, it became apparent that something special was afoot. Miki Schmidt, Division Chief for Coastal Geospatial Services at NOAA, attempted to get people’s attention by clinking empty glasses. It wasn’t working, so I decided to use my booming voice to say, “Miki wants your attention.” That worked. Then he announced, to my surprise, that they wanted to honor my upcoming retirement with a few gifts, among which were a framed certificate of appreciation from the U.S. Department of Commerce for my service in supporting Digital Coast and a framed photograph of those who had attended the last full meeting of the partnership in Rhode Island in September 2016, signed by many of the attendees. The warmth of the professional and personal relationships built with colleagues since APA joined the partnership in 2010 became readily apparent to me in this unexpected moment.

Allison Hardin poses with the wolf; David Hart observes (September 2011). Photo by Melissa Ladd.

Allison Hardin poses with the wolf; David Hart observes (September 2011). Photo by Melissa Ladd.

Then we sat down, and the “roast” began. More than once, as Miki seemed ready to turn the floor over to me for the final word, someone new would pop up to offer stories both fun and serious. Yes, it was true that I had once, wearing a moveable wolf mask, climbed through the open window of a park shelter in Madison, Wisconsin, during an evening reception for a partnership meeting hosted by ASFPM, asking the whereabouts of “them three little pigs.” Undaunted by the momentary confusion my entrance engendered, Allison Hardin, a planner from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, insisted on posing for a photograph with the wolf, who politely obliged. I was known (though not alone) in trying to provide such moments to enliven the more relaxing moments of partnership gatherings. When my “final word” finally came, I shared not only some enhancements of the recollected moments, but my own plans beyond APA, which I discussed in a recent blog post, “The Fine Art of Stepping Down.”

Still, the Digital Coast Partnership was also built through a great deal of hard work, which was also celebrated. The representatives of the groups involved worked hard over the past decade to build the partnership, which is now celebrating its tenth year. Meetings sometimes involved long discussions of how we could better collaborate, and we now often partner on important proposals and projects in which our complementary strengths facilitate important progress in achieving Digital Coast’s mission. NOAA established Digital Coast to advance the use of geospatial technology by coastal communities to improve and enhance coastal planning and resource management. Much of this consists of a substantial and growing of free, online tools and resources for mapping and visualization purposes. The partnership consists of the user communities that can help vet Digital Coast products and assist in their dissemination. But the operative Digital Coast slogan has been “More than just data.” It is the human dimension that matters, and the science and technology have been means to an end, which is enabling the achievement of noble coastal community goals such as environmental protection, hazard mitigation, economic sustainability, and climate resilience.

And so—I suppose it was appropriate that the organizers of the dinner chose to bring us to Burwell’s Stonefire Grill, which generates its own warmth through its comfort menu of steaks and seafood. Though it certainly can be pricey like any steakhouse (most steak entrees are between $30 and $40), the food is outstanding. Personally, I indulged in the lobster bisque for starters. It offered some of the deepest, most flavorful spoonfuls of joy of any bisque I have had in a long time. Alan, our waiter, was not lying at all when he told me it was great. On the subject of warmth, let me add that the wait staff of Alan, Mat, and Will were very patient and careful in tending to this large crowd, as was bartender Jo Jo Chandler. I did not meet the owner, John Thomas, but he is to be commended for both the staff and the cuisine. The Wagyu flat iron steak that I ordered was tender and delicious. I also indulged in a side order of Brussels sprouts, which I love but which require some attentive preparation to succeed. These were great in part because they were prepared in combination with caramelized onions. Others around me

Miki to the right of me in the upstairs dining room at Burwell's.

Miki to the right of me in the upstairs dining room at Burwell’s. Photo by Susan Fox.

enjoyed the seafood offerings, including oysters and scallops, and I heard no complaints and considerable praise. I can assure readers that, if you visit Charleston, Burwell’s is worth a visit for one of your evening outings. It also features a warm and casual atmosphere and a good downstairs bar, from which that amber beer in my hand originated, courtesy of Chad Berginnis, the executive director of ASFPM. I wasn’t sure, when we first arrived, why he offered to buy. Now I suspect he was in on the “roast” plan all along. Thanks, I say, to all of my friends at Digital Coast. My actual retirement from APA may have been almost four months away, but they knew this might be the last chance to do it before that day came. I hope they do the same for others when the time comes.

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

Riverwalk: A New Chicago Magnet

DSCF3110IMG_0239

Chicago is already quite rich in parks and tourist attractions. What can it add downtown?

In the past, I have written about the 606 Trail in Chicago, which is experiencing its first anniversary after opening a year ago. Despite some of its well-known challenges and problems, Chicago remains a city of quality destinations. Navy Pier, now a century old, just unveiled its redesign last month, including a new 200-foot Ferris wheel, and has been the top tourist attraction in Illinois. Millennium Park has few peers among downtown urban parks and has also been a second magnet for visitors since opening in 2004, ranking only behind Navy Pier.

But below the bridges and viaducts, down near the water’s edge, another jewel is nearing completion along the Chicago River—the Riverwalk. On June 2, I joined a tour sponsored by both the American Planning Association Illinois Chapter and the American Society of Landscape Architects Illinois Chapter and listened to an explanation of both completed and upcoming changes.

Chicago has no shortage of websites and museums devoted to its own urban history, which I won’t even try to summarize here. Suffice it to say that, when Haitian-French explorer-trader Jean Baptiste du Sable first encountered Potawatomi Indians (one of whom he married) at the shore of Lake Michigan in 1790, the Chicago River was still an indolent waterway barely crossing the sandbars to empty into the lake. In a little over 200 years, it has become home to one of the world’s largest cities, with all the pollution and navigation over two centuries that one might expect. In the 1890s, amid the city’s rapid industrial expansion, engineering reversed its flow away from the lake to the Mississippi River watershed, in large part to spare Chicagoans the pollution of their beaches and water supply that came with using the river as an open sewer. The river itself was not a place where you wanted to spend time unless you were in a boat, and even that was questionable. More than 800 picnickers died when the Eastland tipped over at the water’s edge in 1915. At street level on Wacker Drive, a plaque memorializes that notorious incident.

But times change, and in the 21st century, the Chicago River is once again a civic asset to which significant attention—and investment—are being paid. Over the last ten years, the first two phases of a rebuilding project have come to fruition, producing a Riverwalk that now extends on the south side of the main branch from Michigan Avenue west to LaSalle St. A third phase will extend the Riverwalk further west to the juncture of the North and South Branches. Even the term “main branch” may seem a little puzzling to non-natives because it extends only about one mile. Most of the length of the Chicago River is in the two branches, but the whole river in either direction is less than 20 miles. The Lake Michigan watershed in this instance barely reaches beyond the city and rises only about 20 feet above the lakeshore. Beyond that, you are in one of the sub-watersheds of the vast Mississippi River valley. Most people would never notice they had crossed this boundary if a sign did not tell them. The Continental Divide, this is not.

However, the controlled nature of the river and the short reach of the main branch make the creation of a downtown Riverwalk far more manageable and the experience of walking it thoroughly enjoyable. The firms of Jacobs/Ryan Associates, Sasaki Associates (with whom I have collaborated on disaster recovery issues), and Ross Barney Architects, involved in the design and engineering, have produced an experience that unfolds in “rooms” as one moves in either direction along the river, bringing users close to the water while allowing the occasional flood to muddy some steps without much damage beyond washing down the mud the next day. Phase 1redesigned and rebuilt an existing path between Michigan Avenue and the lake, an area popular with tourists as a loading zone below the stairs from Michigan Avenue down to the riverfront for tour boats. It then extended that two blocks westward to State DSCF3126Street and includes the Chicago Veterans’ Memorial Plaza, opened in 2006. One of its nice touches is a series of concrete stairs more suitable for lunch or relaxation than for climbing. It is a dignified but welcoming setting in keeping with its purpose. In Phase I, the idea began to emerge of adding river-level sidewalks that allow visitors to move from block to block without going up to street level and back down again, although some of these obviously had to intrude from the existing river’s edge into the waterway, and thus involved some negotiation among agencies responsible for navigation and safety, given the mix of water traffic still traversing the Chicago River. Congress also had to act to provide permission to allow building 25 feet into the river to create the necessary width for the new Riverwalk.

IMG_0242What has emerged in Phase II is the creation of the rooms: Marina, Cove, and River Theater, extending from State Street west. The first is opposite Marina City, occasionally nicknamed the “Corncob Towers” because of their design, and permits docking by river boats and lounging by pedestrians. The Cove, in contrast, is a favorite stopping point for kayaks and canoes, which provide a rich source of aquatic exercise for sports enthusiasts. The River Theater changes the nature of the experience yet again with the appearance of a riverside amphitheater, using a low-slope path woven into climbing stairs that can also double as points of relaxation for hikers. The theater, for the most part, is the activity on the river itself, although one can imagine a waterborne performance someday floating before the viewers. Most of this opened for public use just a year ago.

Phase III is adding a water plaza at the river’s edge; the Jetty, which places a series of floating gardens along the river edge that allow people to learn about river ecology and native plants, and the Boardwalk, providing an accessible walkway connecting to Lake Street. Although currently inaccessible at river level, one can view the construction on the final phase from street level. We were told the project will be completed by this fall.

O'Brien's is one of the existing restaurants, along with City Winery, that provide refreshment along the route.

O’Brien’s is one of the existing restaurants, along with City Winery, that provide refreshment along the route.

It is one thing to traverse this path with a crowd from a mobile workshop in the late afternoon. Not only does a crowd make a difference, so does timing. I returned the following morning, since my CTA Blue Line commute takes me to the Clark & Lake station. Instead of remaining on Lake Street, I walked to Wacker Drive and descended the stairway again, this time walking in the cool of the morning by myself at 8 a.m. Not that I was alone. The path was already being filled with pedestrians like me, and joggers, and even an occasional bicyclist, so I had to pay attention to those around me as I repeatedly set my camera to shoot many of the photos included here. Heat varies, of course, throughout the summer day, but one pleasant, enduring feature is the cool breeze off the water. In the morning, as well, the restaurants are not yet open, making for a slightly more solitary experience, which even a confirmed extrovert like me can enjoy in contrast to the crowds that by late afternoon are now finding their way to the

The collection of bars and restaurants on the Riverwalk is still growing.

The collection of bars and restaurants on the Riverwalk is still growing.

new bars and restaurants that are now exploiting the popularity of the Riverwalk, as intended, with more coming as the project moves along. The opportunity to sit outdoors at river level and enjoy snacks or dinner and drinks can be very pleasant, and very different from the usual experience high above on the city streets. I expect that most of these establishments will do quite well. I intend to enjoy some of them myself, with friends in tow.

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

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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

Food at the Riverside: Review

Restaurants can and often do feature curious logos, and one would expect no less from any independent restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, but an image of an upward-pointing fork with a upside-down goat sitting on top? Well, let’s just accept that. I didn’t see any goat on the menu anyway, just . . . .

Never judge a restaurant by its entrance. :)

Never judge a restaurant by its entrance. 🙂

goat cheese, unless I am missing something, which I doubt, although buffalo does make an appearance. This is the new West, after all.

And I can always appreciate an entrepreneurial sense of humor. I am a strong believer that a healthy sense of humor extends our life span, and I certainly hope to extend mine with a positive attitude and a disposition toward laughter as good medicine.

In a state where the sign inside “Food at the Riverside,” pointing to a separate downstairs facility, welcomed the now legal “Colorado Cannabis Industry Meetup” that evening, I might note that my own personal disposition is that humor and laughter beat drugs as a source of spiritual and psychological nourishment. But people will find solace where they will, and while I do not personally find any use for marijuana, I certainly favor decriminalization and taxation over wasting money and human resources on jail time for such activities. Our society has better things to do, just as it had better things to do than Prohibition nearly a century ago.

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But that is all apart from my comments on Food at the Riverside, a small restaurant nestled alongside—and mercifully above—the sometimes mercurial Boulder Creek, as it ripples downstream after spilling out of the nearby Rocky Mountains. It is part of a larger complex known simply as The Riverside that includes an outdoor café and facilities for private events, in a building that began its existence long ago as a candy store.

I was part of an unexpected, reservationless group of 14 customers, all attendees of the 3rd International Conference on Urban Disaster Reduction at the nearby Hotel Boulderado. The hotel, by the way, is a wonderfully historic building that dates to Colorado’s nineteenth century and features a look that bridges the years between. It has its challenges, if you want all the modern conveniences of a newly built hotel. The elevator requires the operation of a hotel staffer, but you can ascend and descend five stories of stairs, as I did for three days, and get some aerobic exercise while moving around. In a state with more physical fitness per capita than perhaps any other in the U.S., and one of the lowest obesity rates, this is perhaps not a bad thing, although it is not necessarily the best for people with physical disabilities.

Despite our large group’s unexpected arrival early in the evening, Food at the Riverside quickly made accommodations. An adjacent room hosted a blues band for the evening, but we were able to hear each other and enjoy our conversation, and the evening was nice enough to allow the open window to filter the burbling sound of the creek below. In fact, at one point, that sound was loud enough to cause some of us to wonder if it was raining outside, but it was not.

Our delegation included only three Americans, the rest being from Taiwan and Japan. The size of our group allowed us to combine our orders in certain categories for discounted prices. The menu allows you to choose three items from salads, cold plates, warm plates, or grilled plates for discounts; the salads were all in high single digits, with three for $19; the grilled plates, the most expensive, still were only $10 to $12, or all three for $27. The latter options included duck breast (with butternut squash, granny smith apple, hazelnuts, and tarragon butter), lamb rib (spiced with cardamom brown sugar, plus pear, pomegranate, pistachio, arugula, and gryree), and New York strip steak (with whipped potatoes, grilled asparagus, and horseradish demi). I chose the last of the three, and I must say it was succulent and well prepared, and capped off an evening that began with a quality wine and beer list.

The salads were also all excellent; my choice was arugula, augmented with pears, Maytag blue cheese, toasted walnuts, and red wine vinaigrette. But others featuring romaine hearts, spinach, and golden beets were also available. They were all well worth their modest price.

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I should also note that the manager, as we left, hastened to hand me the breakfast and lunch menu as well once he learned of my blog, and it does look interesting, featuring omelets, benedicts, paninis, and quiches, in addition to more classic fare. I may well be tempted to try either meal on a subsequent visit to Boulder, which for me is almost inevitable, given the local presence of the Natural Hazards Center.

When I do, if the season is appropriate, it may be nice to try the outdoor seating above the creek, where one can watch the joggers, bicyclists, and strollers, as well as the water, pass by. I can think of worse ways to spend a summer evening, especially if another band is playing inside.

 

Jim Schwab

The Fatal Attraction

At first, it looks like something straight out of the Old West, and perhaps it is. The Gold Hill Inn is now 52 years old, which plants its origins in the 1960s, but the building was originally the dining hall for the adjacent but now closed Bluebird Lodge, built in 1873. The Gold Hill Inn, actually a restaurant, was built in 1926. In either case, Colorado was a decidedly different place back then. The historic district that remains carries forward the heritage of the old frontier.

The shuttered Bluebird Lodge, next to the Gold Hill Inn.

The shuttered Bluebird Lodge, next to the Gold Hill Inn.

What is remarkable is finding a restaurant of such gourmet and fine dining predilections, for the Gold Hill Inn is no typical small town diner. It boasts some of the finest menus in Colorado, but I will return to all that later. What I want to discuss first is the journey to this lofty establishment, whose website says it is open from May through December. Sitting high in the mountains above 8,000 feet, one reasonable explanation might be that cold and snow discourage the journey at other times of the year. But I am guessing, as a Midwesterner accustomed to cold but not to the altitude, and I could be wrong. Maybe they just like to take a break for four months.

The Gold Hill Inn awaits. From the left, my friends Barry Hokanson, of Greyslake, Illinois, and Ed Thomas, of Boston.

The Gold Hill Inn awaits. From the left, my friends Barry Hokanson, of Greyslake, Illinois, and Ed Thomas, of Boston.

On the evening of June 22, I was in the company of three other gentlemen, all attending the annual Natural Hazards Workshop in Broomfield, Colorado, who were already familiar with the Gold Hill Inn and had made plans to visit one of their favorite restaurants. Well—two of them were. Ed Thomas, president of the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association, also a land-use attorney and former FEMA employee from Boston, had talked to me a month before about the Gold Hill Inn, and Jim Murphy, a planner working with URS Corporation, knew the way because of prior work on hazard mitigation in the area. The journey was worth every bit as much, in professional education, as the restaurant itself was in oral gratification and nutrition, so I will offer that story first.

One never follows a straight path up into the Rockies. Everything is a long and winding road that clings to the sides of cliffs and creeks, and Jim, the driver, chose his path to let us see the impacts of the September 2013 floods along Four Mile Creek, which descends precipitously from the mountain ridges. We also saw the impacts of prior wildfires. Some of those wildfires were severe enough to char the soils beneath the forests, producing a phenomenon known as hydrophobic soils, which accelerate and exacerbate flash flooding because they are incapable of absorbing the rainfall when a storm hits. That forces the water to rush downstream as if it were simply pouring off a concrete pavement. One of the many functions of healthier soils, especially if covered with healthy tree canopy, is to delay the movement of that rainfall and absorb it into the ground, eventually recharging groundwater. Hydrophobic soils lose that function and contribute to the resulting flood disaster.

Up close, Four Mile Creek tumbling through the mountains.

Up close, Four Mile Creek tumbling through the mountains.

Last fall, Colorado suffered what amounted to a mountain monsoon that dumped nearly 18 inches of rain in parts of the mountains north of Boulder, producing record flooding in many of the communities along the creek path and below the mountains. In flatter areas, flooded rivers can move at frightening speeds, but never approaching those of mountain streams whose descent can sometimes be measured in thousands of feet over just a relatively few miles, particularly along the Front Range in Colorado.

Hillsides denuded of forest by wildfires become more vulnerable to stormwater runoff, exacerbating downstream flooding.

Hillsides denuded of forest by wildfires become more vulnerable to stormwater runoff, exacerbating downstream flooding.

But you don’t have to be at the bottom of the mountain to get the worst of it. Many people in Colorado have chosen home sites that amount to what I like to call the “fatal attraction.” I define such locations as alluring sites that often have stunning views, provide proximity to wildlife for those who treasure their communion with nature, but which also suffer from often dangerous exposures to natural hazards like wildfires and flooding. The fatal attraction is not limited to the Rocky Mountains, or even to the mountains, but plays out in seaside resorts in New Jersey and North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and in many other challenging choices all over the world. We humans are emotional as well as rational creatures, and we often choose places to live based on their tug on our hearts and eyeballs while ignoring the possible long-term consequences of living in locations exposed to hurricanes, floods, wildfires, volcanoes, and whatever else you can name.

And, in truth, those choices are not always as clear-cut as some would suggest. All hazards are ultimately matters of probabilities, how often something happens over what period of time, and of the magnitude of a likely event, and there is no place where those probabilities are zero. They may be zero for a particular hazard, but not for every possible hazard. In early July, lightning in a thunderstorm zapped our living room television and garage door opener. I live in Chicago. I may not be in a floodplain, but things happen. And as some of us like to say, it is not just where you build, but how you build. Yet few of us can afford to build a fortress, and most of us might not like the result if we did.

That said, there can be no doubt that those who choose to live on the side of the mountain can expect swift retribution from nature on occasion, and last fall nature doled it out in abundance. At the Natural Hazards Workshop, which assembles about 400 experts from numerous disciplines every year to discuss these very questions, we heard from local officials and scientists precisely what happened last September.

Robert Henson, a meteorologist at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, noted that Boulder’s worst flooding was along small waterways and that the city received the equivalent of more than half of a year’s rain in one week. But there were problems with accurate measurements because some rain gauges were too close to buildings or under trees, others accidentally spilled, and others overflowed because the rain exceeded their capacity. Henson outlined some common misconceptions about such storms, including the idea that our climate is stationary. It is not. It is constantly changing, and today it is changing faster because of the impact of human activities that inject greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Getting agreement on the latter point is not a problem in Boulder, according to Mayor Matthew Appelbaum. He noted that a survey showed 99 percent agreement among local residents that climate change is real. That somewhat simplifies the task of getting consensus on the needed measures to mitigate against future disasters, but Boulder also benefits from some far-sighted policies of the past, although most were not specifically undertaken with such issues in mind. But over time, the city has created a wide swath of protected reserves with a lot of open space. It has used that open space to create recreational and physical activity benefits for residents by building bicycle and hiking paths along Boulder Creek, notably, but other smaller creeks as well. Thus, the public gets positive amenities in addition to flood mitigation. Much of that open space plan has prevented development in the more hazardous areas of Boulder and prevented unsightly mountainside development. But, according to City Administrator Jane Brautigan, that open space was not acquired in a day, or even a year, but over decades. Boulder’s high-hazard property acquisition program dedicates about a half million dollars every year to acquiring such properties and demolishing the homes. Boulder also reserves 10 percent of its budget for emergencies. It turns out this famously liberal town is fiscally conservative in confronting its vulnerabilities.

What Boulder did not expect was the damage from rising water tables as a result of the sheer quantity of rain, which flooded basements, an outcome that had not been considered possible—until it happened. The flood knocked out one of Boulder’s two water treatment plants, according to Appelbaum. Sewers that normally run 12 million gallons of water per day were running 50 million gallons daily for three weeks straight. Brautigan invited researchers seeking data on rainfall and groundwater to visit Boulder.

But suppose you are merely a town of 2,000, rather than the 100,000-plus residents of Boulder? Even massive reserves relative to your annual budget may not be enough in a case like that of Lyons, about 15 miles north of Boulder, but much smaller and considerably more vulnerable. Lyons sits at the confluence of the North and South St. Vrain Creeks. Every one of its citizens was forced to evacuate, and every one of its businesses closed, almost all of them independently owned.

Victoria Simonsen, the town administrator, noted that this town with a $1 million annual budget had $4.4 million in reserves, which still are nowhere near enough in the face of $50 million in damages. Outside assistance has been essential. The normal creek flow is 1,200 cubic feet per second (cfs); the storm produced a flood flow of 26,000 cfs, ripping a 400-foot gash through the center of town that runs three to 18 feet deep. The severe storm tore apart the water distribution system, pulled gas and electric lines out of the ground, and destroyed communications. Effectively, the community became a series of six islands surrounded by water, isolated from the outside world for 36 hours before the National Guard could arrive with high-water vehicles capable of entering the scene and evacuating those who remained. Miraculously, perhaps, only one person died.

There is a great deal of work to be done in Lyons, and some other towns like it, as a result of last year’s flood. Simonsen provided a laundry list of actions spread across the short-, mid-, and long-term recovery that lies ahead. But the town has help. Oskar Blues, a home-grown brewery, set up a nonprofit foundation to raise money, Oskar Blues CAN’d Aid, named after the company’s famous canned microbrew designed for mountain climbers who cannot afford to carry bottled beer in their sacks. Plans are underway to restart businesses, replace lost housing, and restore parks, open space, and trails. The summer festivals that attracted people in the past will go on, albeit with some adjustments. One has to admire such the sense of community that is on exhibit in places like Lyons.

That brings us back to the Gold Hill Inn. Unique entertainment and eating establishments, and the small town feel that they produce, are what keep many of these small Colorado towns alive today. The Gold Hill Inn serves special food in order to attract the special people who find their way up mountain roads to try the unique cuisine. The menu changes from day to day, so it is posted on the blackboard. You can get the three-course meal for about $25, as I recall, or the six-course for $35, and though it seemed indulgent, we all opted for six. I can personally attest that the Ukrainian borscht, flavored with bacon, made a fabulous side dish and was far better than anything like it I can recall. The ono salad was a treat, but the entrée I ordered, the roast pork cooked in apricot sauce, was a dream. All that is before we get to the dessert (a truly unique apple pie in my case that I cannot recall how to describe if I ever figured out how to do so in the first place), followed by cheeses that ultimately seemed decadent after everything that preceded them. The service was both outstanding and enthusiastic, and it was explained that the staff works as a team and responds to its clientele as a team. No want or concern among customers went unanswered. It is clear they want you to love the place and come back.

And that is because, for all its challenges, the people in these small towns seem to love the place themselves. There are, after all, many reasons not to be there. They focus on the reasons that make the place special.

 

Jim Schwab

Save the Last Dog for Me

One of the glories of living in a city like Chicago is the broad range of culinary talent that exists here. While it is not illogical to assume that the most famous chefs own restaurants that can quickly empty your wallet unless you are part of the one percent, the notion that the average person cannot afford to sample the best is not always true. There is an almost incredible variety of ethnic cuisines available in different parts of Chicago, for instance, with a range of prices. A decent, reasonable Thai restaurant, Chang Mai (Sticky Rice), for example, opened just two blocks away from us on Western Avenue just this spring.

See what you can do with a former Dunkin' Donuts store? It's called adaptive reuse. (DD/BR moved down the street to a new site.)

See what you can do with a former Dunkin’ Donuts store? It’s called adaptive reuse. (DD/BR moved down the street to a new site.)

But in October we will lose one of the most iconic and original establishments Chicago has seen in a while. I first learned of Hot Doug’s, currently at the corner of Roscoe and California, from Doug Sohn’s cousin, Terry Baker, now retired from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in Washington, D.C. One of the unique things about Sohn, who has operated the restaurant for 13 years, is that he takes all the orders from customers himself. That is why he keeps the place open only five and a half hours daily, six days a week, with the afternoon lines stretching out the door and down the sidewalk almost every single day. He is devoted to the personal touch, and his customers are devoted to his restaurant, which he calls a “shrine to encased meat.” Yes, there is a whole wall inside devoted to the history of that subject.

Rain or shine, they form a line at Hot Doug's. No one gets to jump ahead.

Rain or shine, they form a line at Hot Doug’s. No one gets to jump ahead.

So, after learning about the place from Terry, I visited on a Saturday with my wife. We waited in the line, finally got to the front, and I informed Doug that I worked through the American Planning Association with his cousin, Terry, at FEMA. Handing him my cell phone and dialing up her number, I asked him to confirm for me that I had in fact patronized Hot Doug’s.

With an impish smile, he listened to her voice mail message—she was not in at that moment—and then dutifully reported that Jim Schwab was in front of him ordering lunch, noting that I seemed to be “a nice man; not wearing pants.” Then he handed back the phone and took our order.

Now, at Hot Doug’s, you don’t just order hot dogs. You order very specific kinds of sausages, which may be composed of elk meat, rabbit, or, if you wish, ordinary beef. Well, not so ordinary once it goes through the Hot Doug’s treatment. Various concoctions bear the names of celebrities, changing with the times, listed on the board. I believe that day there were sandwiches dedicated to Madonna and Elvis, but names and combinations change to maintain the variety to which customers are addicted. These include French fries fried in duck fat, and foie gras sausages.

That latter drew Doug a $500 fine from the city back when the city had an ordinance prohibiting foie gras from 2006 to 2008, when it was repealed. I am personally not a fan of foie gras, including for reasons related to treatment of the geese involved, but I am not convinced that a city ordinance is the best way to address the question, and numerous chefs in Chicago took exception to the ban. Considering the Chicago City Council’s perennial inability to tackle more serious subjects, like school closings, crime, or meaningful ethics standards for its own members, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the foie gras ban constituted political grandstanding more than any heartfelt commitment to the welfare of geese. Doug proudly posted his citation for all to see as an act of defiance.

But this is not a story about foie gras. It is a story about one chef, one entrepreneur, with his own unique vision, which did not include franchising his idea, who insisted on meeting and greeting each of his customers every day, and built a devoted fan base by word of mouth. It is about a restaurant that will draw tears when it closes so that Doug Sohn can undertake what he calls a “permanent vacation.” He even hinted that his new freedom may allow him to visit someone else’s restaurant for lunch, something he presumably has not done for a very long time.

 

Jim Schwab