Thursday, February 21, 2008

Where to Live (or not)

This is the 100th post!** It is longer than normal, has more pictures, has more links, and is certainly not as literate or funny as some previous posts. So be it. Is there some protocol or tradition for celebrating the 100th post? I think I'll try one of the bottle-fermented French Canadian ales my wife gave me.

Ed, chief mechanic, driver, navigator, and music director of The Old Blue Bus, may be moving from his long-time home in Virginia. He's travelled a lot and lived in many different places, so it is a bit presumptuous of me to jump in with advice or information. Rob Hardy also had some recent posts about legendary sandwiches he has eaten in far-flung places, which reminded me of Tommy's subs in Columbus, where I lived for a few years. I miss Tommy's. So Ed and Rob got me to thinkin' -- what is it about a place (in addition to sandwiches) that would make one choose to live there?

So, here are thumbnail sketches of everywhere I've lived as an adult and why I would or wouldn't want to live there again.

Elkhart, Indiana: Aack. The small town of my youth has turned into a smelly thicket of marginal industries, poverty, and congestion. I tend not to like zoning laws or city planners or similar means of telling other people what they can or cannot do on their own property, but Elkhart is a damning example of unregulated, too-rapid, helter-skelter growth. It is just plain ugly. The photo on the left is the courts building where I used to work. Inspiring, yes?

You can still get great pizza at the Vesuvius restaurant, and parts of the St. Joseph river above the dam are still lovely. The Bonneyville Mill park in Bristol is a treat. But the pizza, the park, and the river cannot overcome the utter dreariness of the rest of the city.

Preference rating for Elkhart: 0 out of 5

Bloomington, Indiana: Meh. I recently visited the campus of my alma mater (IUB, as it's sometimes known) and was struck by the way cars have taken over. Obviously, the campus (even with all those damned cars) is one of Bloomington's assets. The photo on the left is the IU auditorium with the Showalter fountain in front. A very nice focal point for the campus.

Another attractive feature is the hilly, forested countryside surrounding the town. The glaciers stopped short (the furthest southern advance was where Martinsville is now, just north of Bloomington), so the landscape of southern Indiana wasn't scraped flat. The woods and streams and lakes (even the man-made Lake Monroe) are beautiful.

I was the drummer in a crummy rock band that played at bars and VFW clubs in the little towns around Bloomington: Linton, Loogootee, Oolitic, Bedford. That was fun. The legendary bar - Nick's - is still operating. It's right around the corner from the place where Hoagy Charmichael wrote his most famous tunes. Interesting clash of cultures -- the rarefied academic air of the big IU campus vs. the tough, self-reliant limestone workers. I think there was a movie about that.

Preference rating for Bloomington: 3 out of 5

South Bend, Indiana: If you are a college football fan, this is the place. You've got the College Football Hall of Fame and of course the legendary Notre Dame stadium (see photo). If you are not a college football fan, don't give South Bend a second thought as a place to live. It's OK, but if you have the luxury of choosing just about anywhere, this town shouldn't make the short list.

Peter Theodosius was the program director in the St. Joe County jail when I was a grant writer and erstwhile administrator in the probation department. We became friends. Peter's dad ran a bakery a few blocks from the courthouse, so Peter would show up many mornings with some delectable snacks, and we would often wander down to the bakery for an afternoon break -- coffee and Greek pastry. Mmmmm... Peter died of leukemia the year after I left South Bend. He was about 28 years old. That was hard.

And there's the Studebaker museum, which at one time displayed a picture of my great grandfather, George Milburn. He worked at a rival company -- The Milburn Wagon Works -- which was founded by his uncle, also named George Milburn. The owner's daughter Anna (my grandpa's niece) married into the Studebaker family. Milburn sold his wagon business to Studebaker and moved to Toledo, where he built a large automobile factory and made electric cars with some success in the early part of the 20th century.

Preference rating for South Bend: 2.5 of 5

Champaign, Illinois: God, it's flat! The plains can be quite beautiful, but I only recall the howling relentless winter winds and the unrelieved landscape. Damn, people, where are the mountains (or even just a few hills to break up the monotony)? Where are the lakes, the streams, the woods? Why in bloody hell did somebody choose to put the state's big land grant college here?

There was a little bar on Green Street that used to feature fish sandwiches for lunch on Fridays. The proprietors would cover the pool tables with plywood, set out the mayo, mustard, and tartar sauce, and do a very brisk and noisy business. Word was that the fish fillets were tank-raised catfish from Louisiana, which put some people off, but I liked 'em!

The only other highlight I can think of is Assembly Hall, where the Illini play their home basketball games. I'm not a big college hoops fan, but the building is architecturally unique. It's made of two huge cement bowls, one inverted on the other. Where they meet, the lateral forces are contained by heavy steel cable wound around the circumference. It's a brilliantly simple way to hold up the roof, making internal supports unnecessary. The effect is striking, both inside and out. How come more arenas aren't built this way?

Preference rating for Champaign: 2.5 of 5

Columbus, Ohio: I liked living in Columbus. Tommy's pizza and subs, a little bagel place called "Easy Living," the Clippers minor league ballpark, German Village, Marzetti's Studio 35 Cinema.

Every city should have a Studio 35. An old movie theatre playing first-run, second-run, independent, and foreign films. The unique twist is a little bar/restaurant in the back. One can get a beer and a burger, sit in a booth, and watch the movie through a plate glass window separating the restaurant from the theatre proper. Brilliant idea! I lived just blocks from Studio 35 and considered myself fortunate.

And the countryside around Columbus is attractive -- the Hocking Hills and some reservoirs on the Olentangy and Scioto rivers are great in summer and fall.

Preference rating for Columbus: 4 of 5

St. Paul, Minnesota: I lived briefly on the East Side, which had a bad reputation. At the time, Payne Avenue was known for its seedy bars, strip joints, and porn shops. The big draw was a place called The Payne Reliever, which drew crowds, but not the kind of crowds the Chamber of Commerce prefers. Payne Avenue and the rest of the East Side have undergone something of a transformation. That's good, I guess.

St. Paul really is a lovely, lively city, having pushed itself hard to shine as brightly as its cross-river rival, Minneapolis. But you can have the fancy hockey arena, the glitzy science museum, and the classic state capitol building. I'd live in St. Paul for just two reasons: Cossetta Italian deli and the Ordway Theatre. The Ordway, pictured above, is on Rice Park, which is surrounded by beautiful buildings -- Landmark Center (the old federal courts building), the venerable St. Paul Hotel, and the main public library. These buildings make Rice Park one of the prettiest urban settings I've seen.

Preference rating for St. Paul: 4 of 5

Minneapolis, Minnesota: No two ways about it, I like Minneapolis. I liked living there and working there and I like to hang out there. I like the stuff I'm supposed to like -- the Guthrie Theatre, the Minneapolis Instutute of Arts, the Walker, the Weisman, the fantastic lakes and the parkway linking them together. The river. I like to prowl the skyway system. I like the distinct neighborhoods. I like the public transit system, which is even better now than when I lived there.

And there are some hidden gems in Minneapolis that make it even more interesting. Ted Cook's 19th hole barbecue joint reminds me of the famous tiny rib places near the University of Chicago or in Berkely. Good stuff cheap. The International Design Center -- a pretentious name for a furniture store -- has beautiful, high-quality stuff and reasonable prices. The public golf courses are excellent. Stub and Herbs deli. The Northern Clay Center. The Electric Fetus record store. The annual summer Fringe Festival is a lot of fun.

And of course, to top it all off, the Twins will open the 2010 season in a new downtown ballpark.

Ok, that's probably enough for you to get the idea. Yeah, there's that annoying thing called winter, but even so, Minneapolis tops my list.

Preference rating for Minneapolis: 4.75 of 5

Northfield, Minnesota: Nice little college town just 35 miles from Minneapolis/St. Paul. What could be better? All the charm and ease of a small town with ready access to the delights of the Twin Cities. It's nice. People are nice. The hidden gem is probably Chapati, the excellent Indian restaurant, which one would not expect to find in a little town. City planners have made some bad decisions in recent decades, resulting in a proliferation of cheap suburban-style development, including a commercial strip on the south edge of town that is painfully bleak. Makes me sad.

Still, it's a nice little town, which reminds me of the opening lines of a Greg Brown song, Speed Trap Boogie:

It's a nice little town
It's a clean little town
It's a nice little, clean little, happy little, friendly little
town for miles around.

Preference rating for Northfield: 4.5 of 5


** Blogger's counting mechanisms are contradictory. According to the archives on the right sidebar, this is the 97th post. But according to the counter in the "manage posts" section of Blogger, the one before this was number 99 and this one is number 99. I haven't conducted a manual count because I don't care. This is post number 100.


Rob Hardy said...

Wow, you just can't stay put, can you? I lived for 17 in Trumansburg, New York; spent 4 years each in Oberlin, Ohio, and Providence, Rhode Island, for college and grad school, and have lived in Northfield for the past 18 years. But you, you're all over the map!

Jim H. said...


1) I'm old.
2) Somehow, I got into lots of grant-funded projects. These were often short (a year or 18 months) or were subject to the whims of some distant functionary. That explains some of the jumping around -- following the money.

You'll also note that all of these places are in the midwest, so the differences really aren't that pronounced (except Elkhart, which truly is a pit).

Rob Hardy said...

I forgot to say: Happy 100th Post! To celebrate, you should click here and then click on "Take Me Out to the ..."