I bought some art on Hayes Street.

And I do mean on the street: the sidewalk.

Hayes Street was shadowed by a freeway overpass until the 1989 earthquake when the overpass came down.


Before that it was known for open-air prostitution but now it is known for boutiques.  There are three eyeglass stores, three luggage stores, restaurants and wine bars, many shoe and high end sneaker stores, artisanal ice cream and stores for just chocolate and macarons.  There’s even a sake store.

You can buy confections:


Before it was all boutiques there was, among the pioneers, a small Chinese-owned corner grocery store, the kind that makes its margin on junk food, cigarettes, and beer.   And the family that ran it had a little girl who made little paintings on wood in a little studio in the window. 

Sometimes when she had enough she’d set up on the sidewalk. She was 10.

hayes st.jpeg

In 2009 I bought this one, for about ten dollars.

Today the grocery store is gone, replaced by one of those clothing stores that looks like an art gallery, among other clothing stores that look like art galleries.  

Image result for hayes street boutiques

But no more grocery store/art gallery.

The girl must be about 20 now and I hope she is still painting.  

Then, just the other day, I was coming home from lunch on Hayes Street when I saw a couple of siding boards leaning against a wall.

I couldn’t tell if they were abandoned trash or samples of paint under consideration for the building, or artworks or what.  Didn’t matter: I thought they were beautiful.

I tucked them under my arm for the 20-minute walk home.

But I only made it half a block before someone yelled “Hey! Where you going with those!” It was a man sitting on the sidewalk in an alley with a shopping cart and buckets of paint and scraps of wood.  He was pretty shaggy.  I’d seen him before on the street,

His setup typically looks like this:

So I apologized and returned the boards to him.  He barely looked up.

But after a block I came back.  I offered $10. He said OK.  The whole transaction barely interested him.  I interrupted him.  Selling art wasn’t on his mind.

In my apartment the pieces look so different than sitting on a street corner.



 Looking at them, you’ve got to do some work.

Someone said they look like the work of Alberto Giacometti:


Someone else, like American Gothic:This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is american-gothic1.jpg

Or a leg and foot.


Should they go like this?

Or this?

Maybe they’d look more like Art hanging on the wall instead of leaning against it, or if they were painted in oil on stretched canvasses.  Or if I told you I’d paid a lot of money or if the artist were famous (or even if I just knew his name).

I don’t know if the painter considers himself an artist or if he thinks of his work as art. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t making pieces to sell.

I’ve made other things out of objects I’ve found on the street.

Here are some paintings I did on trash I found outside the courthouse.

My guess is that they were evidence exhibits from some kind of car crash.

I’m guessing it happened here:


This one I didn’t paint at all.  I like it just the way it is.

Sometimes, with stuff you find on the street it’s best just to leave it as you found it.














I enjoyed a few days in Medellin, Colombia, a city of about 2.5 million people that recently lost the title of “Most Dangerous City in the World”.   That’s what made me want to go there, to see what changed and how.  In the world of thinking about cities, the Medellin turnaround is famous.

Medellin saw an enormous population growth from the countryside, entire communities driven out by the decades-long warfare among the radical Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC), paramilitaries, the Colombian army, drug traffickers – and their shifting alliances.  The United Nations estimates that 7 million people were displaced within Colombia – more than in Syria or Iraq or any other war zone.  Many of them set up “informal” communities on the mountain slopes surrounding Medellin.



Because they were ad hoc, the City chose for decades not to legitimize them with public services like electricity, water, parks and recreation, and public safety.  Drug gangsters filled the void, even offering extra-legal land titles and developing and running soccer fields. And, for a price, protection. Only later did these communities receive public services.  In the neighborhood of Moravia, where residents had set up camp on and alongside the 90-foot high municipal garbage dump, resources now come from the Colombian government and from Spain and Germany, with leadership from residents, rather than City Hall. Because Moravia was so abject, dozens of international aid organizations have jumped in.

These mountainsides are mosaics of communities, entire villages that moved en masse bringing their social networks with them – even marching bands and boy scout troops. And they included men with real construction skills.  These aren’t shanty towns.  They’re funky and ad hoc but thoughtfully designed.


moravia road

We walked through a couple of these communities: Moravia (formerly tagged the most dangerous neighborhood in the most dangerous city and once the domain of Pablo Escobar, drug lord and member of the Colombian Senate) and Santo Domingo Savio.


Downtown Moravia.

Santo Domingo Savio had had a 9 PM curfew but when we were there in the evening it could not have seemed safer.  The streets were teeming with people, including kids and older residents and the only two cops we saw were flirting with a girl selling sunglasses on the street.  Although we were with our friend Alejandro Echeverri, one of the heroes of the transformation, a kid of about 7 years old proudly offered to show us around and tell us the history of his neighborhood. Not only the houses are illegal but many of them had sprouted stores as well.  It felt safer after dark than our street in San Francisco,  which is typically empty except for occasional dog walkers and homeless drug addicts.

Medellin was an enormously dangerous city. Check out the murder rate:

No family was immune and it was not isolated to discrete slummy neighborhoods.  The last straw was the car bombings.


The shooting of Pablo Escobar, a painting by native son Fernando Botero

The people of Medellin had had enough and turned against the gangs. Medellin began investing in the barrios and integrating them into the rest of the city, most strikingly with a “Metrocable” system of cabins suspended from cables.  It’s a beautiful ride with 8-10 people in each cabin and super long lines at rush hour.  A fine solution to transit connecting mountainsides. And fun.


The City moved quickly and decisively to improve transit and education while roping residents into meaningful participation.  We heard that this involvement was key to the success of the turnaround.  Here’s how Alejandro describes it:

“‘We had a specific team that combined architects, urbanists, social workers, communications people, lawyers and a leader who was the “social manager” for that area of Santo Domingo. And that guy worked with the community keeping the project on the agenda,’ says Echeverri. ‘We also had imagination workshops every month, with children trying to think about how to make a park.”

Younger people in particular saw opportunities beyond the drug trade.  And the investments not only made space for education (with 5 libraries and 10 new schools launched in 2004) but also added to a sense of dignity.  Mayor Sergio Fajardo’s credo: “the most beautiful things for the humblest people”. The transit improvements weave the disenfranchised neighborhoods into the city and enable commutes to jobs outside the ghettos.

There is a lot of literature about “the Medellin Miracle” and like all talk of miracles it is hype. It’s great that the murder rate has plummeted (now to about half of Baltimore’s) but the city still has the big problems that any developing city does.  Traffic and pollution are awful.  And safer doesn’t mean safe, just better.  The infrastructure improvements came with social investments too – in education, arts, parks and a re-opened botanical garden. Medellin is lucky to have a municipal energy company, EPM, which contributes 25% of the City budget, part of the “miracle”. And the city added 2,000 police officers and armed them with state of the art technology.

Medellin was able to make big changes quickly because people were fed up. It  had hit bottom.  The City had to respond.  And it had the leadership and resources to do so.  Citizens participated and there was support from top to bottom, from elites and gang members as well.  The city really did turn around.

Here in San Francisco, we move slow.  For example, we debated for 16 years before devoting a lane of traffic on Van Ness Avenue to buses only.  Construction just began.  Maybe some day there will be a bus lane on Geary Street, a generation after that conversation started. Leaders dithered on the design of a new Bay Bridge and on whether to tear down the damaged freeways.  Nobody is very interested in speeding up public decision-making.  Rezoning takes a decade. And while San Francisco loves process, there is no meaningful public participation. Just ritual battles by the handful of regulars who show up.

Because San Francisco, for most people, despite gripes, works.  Crime and violence aren’t on any list of big problems (except for the petty crime of car break-ins).

Here, it’s hard to imagine the social impacts of widespread violence and corruption.  In Lima, I was told that in the 1990s it was dangerous to go to the corner store after dark and nobody could give or attend a party.  President Alberto Fujimori is credited with putting an end to the violence.  Even though he was convicted and imprisoned for murder, embezzlement, bribery, and forced sterilizations, every cab driver I asked missed him. And here we don’t have the corruption that is common in Latin America.  According to Ann Davis, founder of Venture with Impact, an aid group active in Medellin, Colombians say that 50% of tax dollars go to corruption and in Bogota 80%.  That’s the perception, the reality is that last year the estimated cost of corruption in Colombia was $17 billion, 5.3% of the GDP.


School girls demonstrating against corruption, Cuzco Peru

It’s nice in San Francisco. And there’s no urgency for change.  So the city dawdles along, poking at problems like affordability and crummy public schools and human casualties living on the streets.  It’s really expensive to live in San Francisco, so poverty moves to the suburbs.

There is something appealing about  “the worst”.  Look at the focus on Detroit, with its hipster influx and tourism.  But for every Detroit the US has dozens of cities with high unemployment, abandonment, and decay.  Ironically, Medellin benefitted from its terrible reputation as helpers and support rushed in from around the world. It’s chic.

And tourists.  In twenty years, tourist revenues increased by 700%.  Here is an opportunity to take the “Medellin Slum Tour”.  There is even a whole industry of tours on a Pablo Escobar theme, including some led by former associates.  There is a Pablo Escobar museum with, of course, a gift shop.

Escobar thrived in part because he ruled neighborhoods that the City had abdicated, providing even recreation facilities.  We saw a soccer field he’d donated that was the site of gang turf wars until the women leaders somehow convinced the rival gangs to play a match – dressed in drag.  Those must be super-persuasive women.

And I think he was aided by a culture that winks at the law.

More benign examples: the porn sold right outside the cathedral and the entire neighborhoods of ad hoc houses and even stores.  These struck me as perversely refreshing accommodations to human realities.














The Perfect Place

In Paris’ 17th Arrondissement, a neighborhood called Batignolles, there is a small plaza, Place De Levis, that knocked me out.


de levis

It’s in a bourgeois neighborhood that’s well off the tourist path. It’s small; I’m guessing about 200’ by 500’, ringed by a hodgepodge of stores and dotted with street furniture. Nothing fancy at all, really modest.


But I think it’s the perfect small urban open space.

IMG_2374 (1).jpgThe surrounding buildings frame it well, even curving at the corner.


It’s got a fountain, benches, a news kiosk, handsome Parisian street lights, and boxes of trees. There’s a bike rack.

IMG_2411.jpgAn allée of trees frames a zone for dedicated pedestrians. The pavement is a little different there.

IMG_2400.jpgAround the corner is a car-free street of food markets, bakeries, produce, fish, cheese, all the stuff a Parisian needs.

Benches face two directions.IMG_2407.jpgThey can double as play equipment.


IMG_2392.jpgAt one end it’s anchored by a café and a fruit and vegetable stall.

There are fliers.



news stand1.jpg
Plus there’s a newsstand and the poster kiosk, so there are plenty of ways to get the news.

There are a lot of reasons to be there: a pharmacy, a daycare center, a bank with an outside ATM, a driving school, a café, a small storefront for electrolysis (“Body Minute”), a real estate office. I saw two motorcyclists kissing while a few feet away a group of school kids admired a pet rabbit.


There’s a stand where this woman sells hats and socks.

I bought a really nice wool cap for 20 euros (about $24).

IMG_2412.jpgThere’s even a condom vending machine.


Of course there’s street art…


 including the PacMan variety found all over Paris.


On weekends dads bring their kids to practice soccer.


That’s the one thing that’s prohibited:


Nonetheless, see how delighted this man was to recover the ball as he came by:PASSERBY

It’s not just a patch of grass. In fact, there isn’t any grass. There are about four trees in big planter boxes but this place doesn’t aspire to be a park or a plaza or a square.

It’s a place.

There’s a groundbreaking study by William H. Whyte in 1979, funded by the National Geographic Society that resulted in a book and short film , both called the Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

His team set up cameras and filmed how real people use plazas and parks in Manhattan. Developers were getting additional height bonuses for providing these “amenities” but many of them were unlovable leftovers where nobody would want to linger. Some of his findings were pretty intuitive – like that people prefer to sit in the sun. But he also found that lovers like to kiss on display and that people like to chat right in the flow of traffic. Everyone who can will move a chair, even a little.

It’s not easy to design a place that works.

Place De Levis does.

I think it works because of the size, the scale of surrounding buildings, the classy fountain, lights and kiosk, the café and groceries, the visibility, and most of all the sheer variety of reasons to be there.
You could just walk through. But you could also pick up your kids at daycare, buy a hat, get cash or condoms from machines, buy apples or toothpaste. You could remove unwanted hair, learn to drive, or drink an espresso.

You’re not supposed to, but you could kick a soccer ball around.

There’s a super-easy test to tell whether a public space works: you like being there.

I think you’d like Place De Levis.

The Persistence of the Past

If you aren’t familiar with the San Francisco of forty years ago, the city planning battles that play out at City Hall and in the press might seem baffling. A look back at that period is helpful.


Planning decisions made from the mid-70s to mid-80s led to radical and traumatic changes in the City’s landscape. I had the luck to participate in many of the events I describe, first as an activist, and later as a Planhnning Commissioner and as Director of the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development.

In this piece I’m going to focus on land use battles – conflicts over housing and historic preservation, “Manhattanization” and competing visions for the City. But it’s important to look at other events of that time.

On November 18, 1978 in Guyana, Reverend Jim Jones and almost a thousand members of Peoples Temple killed themselves and others, including Congressman Leo Ryan, in a mass suicide. Jones had recently moved his primarily African-American flock to that jungle camp after having become politically powerful in San Francisco. I worked closely with Jones when he was Chair of the City’s Housing Authority and I have to admit that I saw no charisma. Probably a good thing.

Less than two weeks later, on November 27, 1978 Supervisor Dan White gunned down Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in City Hall. The city was shaken by these events to an extent that I can’t describe.

It was a terrible, shocking time.

Three years later, in 1981, San Francisco saw its first diagnosed AIDS case, and within a few years sick young men were everywhere – newly blind, stick figures, with purple splotches. Nobody knew at first how it was transmitted and there are no cures.
Everyone lost friends and I had friends who lost all their friends and then died themselves.

The landscape and demographics of the City were changing. In 1975 old time San Franciscans voted for Republican mayoral candidate John Barbagelata. And they voted for Dan White, for Supervisor. His slogan: “Unite to Fight With White”. Moscone barely beat Barbagelata (by 4,315 vote out of 200,000). At the time, pollster Melvin Field described Barbagelata voters as “those with property interests to protect, older people, the educated, pessimistic, frustrated by events, the white middle class.” They felt under siege by newcomers, many of them Chinese, or hippies, or gay.


The earliest of the land use traumas discussed here was the destruction of the Fillmore and South of Market neighborhoods by the City’s Redevelopment Agency. The demolitions pre-dated the mid 1970s, but for much of this period there were many acres of empty lots.

During World War II, European cities suffered bombings and civilian casualties on a scale never before seen. After the War, European planners had to rebuild bombed-out central city and American planners were envious of their blank slates. So, in cities across the country, urban leaders bombed our own central cities, particularly those neighborhoods populated by low income, elderly, and minority residences and the businesses that served them. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency leveled 60 blocks in the mostly African-American Fillmore, taking out not just housing but also thriving businesses and an entire local culture of extended families, churches, shops, and nightclubs.



South of Market, Redevelopment wiped out a community to make room for the Moscone Convention Center, Yerba Buena Gardens, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and, after years of lawsuits, both market rate and low-income housing.

Third Street before Redevelopment

Third Street for a decade

These sweeping interventions were not undertaken by conservatives – but by well-intentioned liberals, as part of an effort to address blight. Blight is messy, an infection, unsanitary. Redevelopment is clean.

But it wasn’t just slummy buildings that were removed.


These people lived in the International Hotel, on the edge of the Financial District in what was left of Manilatown. His name was Wahat Tampao.

The Hotel was not just cheap housing; it was also the heart of a community, with restaurants, a barbershop, and a nightclub. A Thai whiskey magnate named Supasit Mahaguna bought the Hotel to demolish and replace with a highrise. The campaign to save the Hotel was the largest housing struggle of the mid 70s in San Francisco with regular demonstrations that circled the entire city block. Advocates pushed for the City to take the Hotel from the developer, had it declared a National Landmark, and fought in court. Defying an eviction order to clear the building, the Sheriff himself went to jail.

That’s Peoples Temple Reverend Jim Jones in the center.

We lost, and on August 4th, 1977 the police cleared the street of demonstrators and the sheriff emptied the building. I was in the building, with a pass issued by the Sheriff.

Adding insult to injury, the replacements for lost buildings were typically Brutalist.

Here’s what replaced the International Hotel:

This department store on Union Square:



This was the old Courthouse, formerly across the street from the International Hotel.

It became:


And this:



Not all of these were public action by the City and not all were downtown. The character of the neighborhoods flanking Golden Gate Park was changing too. The Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods were seeing new Chinese neighbors – in 1970 the City was 8.2% Asian, in 1980, 22%. They were often housed in boxy multifamily buildings that replaced Victorians.

They were known as Richmond Specials and they triggered a backlash that led to a designated priority policy in the Planning Code (one of 8, along with earthquake preparedness):” Conserve and Protect Neighborhood Character. “

When I hear that term I recall what President Jimmy Carter said in April 1976 in an interview with the New York Daily News. He said he saw “nothing wrong with ethnic purity” being maintained in urban neighborhoods.


The mid 70s saw a boom in highrise construction (In the years from 1965-1981 the square footage of office space more than doubled, from 26 million to 55 million). The backlash ended with the 1986 passage of Proposition M, a cap on highrise growth (and the establishment of the Priority Policies).

There was a religious fervor to the anti-highrise campaign:

The Tower of Babel, by Peter Bruegel the Elder

There were many arguments against highrises: they don’t pay enough taxes to cover the public burden; they create shadowed canyons and block views; they spread into Chinatown, South of Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods,

A lot of these objections were lumped together into the term Manhattanization. It’s useful to look back at what Manhattan represented then: anarchy, crime, graffiti, and bedlam:

The best case against highrises was made in a coloring book.

coloring book

It is a tale of innocence lost and hope in an uprising.

It was a postcard town and romance was everywhere:

postcard png


Until the developers came along:


But by banding together, the little guys were able to beat the big guys:

fight back

And how decisions about the City get made would change too:


It’s a great story. And in my experience, a good story will beat a terrific study or report any day. The plucky insurgence against the developers – Jane Jacobs as David against Robert Moses as. Goliath. God punishing the hubris of the builders of Babel. And we had perfect villains: Supasit Mahaguna, the Redevelopment Agency, and the King Kong developer shown above.

In the highrise battles there were two competing narratives, different visions of the role of the city – and of how the future should be determined. On one side, developers, Mayors, and planners envisioning a regional job center in the International style. On the other, the Bay Guardian newspaper, San Francisco Tomorrow, and neighborhood groups keen on a city that primarily serves existing residents. At issue: the idea of Progress.

The City went through a lot.
These battles of the ‘70s and ‘80s echo today and they shape the decisions we make and how we make them. The events of those times were traumatic and the City has responded to them as an individual would.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about trauma:
“Trauma can be caused by a wide variety of events, but there are a few common aspects. There is frequently a violation of the person’s familiar ideas about the world and their human rights, putting the person in a state of extreme confusion and insecurity. This is also seen when institutions that are depended upon for survival, violate, humiliate, betray, or cause major losses or separations.“

In response three changes came about: laws were passed, decision-making authority was diluted, and we have embraced a planning culture that accepts gridlock.


Overall, I think the City did a pretty good job of legislating solutions to the problems of that period. Tenants are well protected and so are historic buildings. Another International Hotel eviction could not happen. New buildings contribute toward offsetting their impacts.

• The Residential Hotel Ordinance mandates that residential hotel rooms must be preserved or replaced.
• Office developers must pay into funds for affordable housing and transit and either fund or provide childcare.
• Significant new shadows on parks are prohibited.
• In the Downtown area, historic buildings are preserved and owners can sell development rights.
• Community – initiated plans adopted by the City help protect Chinatown and the Tenderloin from office and hotel development.


The planning blunders of the ‘70s and ‘80s led to changes in how decisions get made. Power and decision-making authority have been diffused.

• The City went from an at-large system of electing members of the Board of Supervisors to an 11-member Board elected by numbered districts. The effect is that each supervisor has de facto veto power over developments or plans in his or her district.
• Previous Planning Commissions were composed of 5 mayoral appointees and two representing City departments. (For about four years I was a “permanent alternate ex officio” member of the Commission.) Now, the Commission is made up of a handful of appointments from the Board and a handful of Mayoral nominees, who must also be Board approved. They tend to vote along those lines.
• Proposition M the anti-highrise proposition, was the finale to a series of efforts to manage growth at the polls. Since then, “Ballot Box Planning” has really taken off. Affordable housing percentages, disposition of City surplus properties, AirBnB controls, building heights, market rate housing moratoriums, protection for legacy businesses, increased voter controls over waterfront planning, and individual projects have all been decided by the voters in recent years. And it is not only opponents who have brought their case to the electorate. So have developers, including Lennar, the SF Giants, Forest City, and Pacific Waterfront Partners.


Legislation is difficult and the dilution of decision-making authority has made it harder. But I believe that it’s not the challenge of crafting and implementing laws that stymie the City’s planning and development. The impediment is our unique culture.

In reaction to the top-down, autocratic plans of the ‘70s and ‘80s – the hollowing out of entire neighborhoods, the widespread loss of historic buildings and the poor quality of the replacements, the downtown boom that nibbled at Chinatown and other adjacent neighborhoods – San Francisco has adopted a conservative planning culture. We just don’t like change.

• Rather than providing leadership and skill, planning has become an exercise in consensus-seeking. And that means that an unsatisfied individual or group can exercise de facto veto power.
• Preservation, of “neighborhood character” or of individual, often nondescript, older buildings, has assumed a higher value than competing interests for housing, jobs, urbanism, innovative design, or other social goods.
• Fortunately we no longer have the brutal drama of events like the International Hotel eviction or the destructive scale of the scooping out of the Western Addition or South of Market. We lack colorful villains like Supasit Mahaguna or the Redevelopment Agency bulldozers. What we get is vicious infighting among people who generally agree within a narrow spectrum of views. And hyped up crises like the 5M project, a proposal for 40% permanently affordable housing that led to the shut down of the Planning Commission, with speakers calling the proposal “genocide” Or the bogus Wall on the Waterfront campaign – successful opposition to a housing development that was neither a wall nor on the waterfront.
• Planning resources are focused on procedures, bulletproofing proposals from environmental appeals, discretionary review of small projects, and second-guessing design.
• Real issues – like the change of the City’s role in the regional economy, changing transportation patterns, and the housing crisis – have slipped by without serious planning.
• There is no real constituency for effective planning. The sheer inefficiency of planning, with multiple redundant reviews, easy appeals of even fully Code compliant projects, and CEQA review of modest infill projects serve as a de facto drag on change. It is like driving with the parking brakes on.

And after the planning blunders of the past, we settle for this.


David Prowler ( arrived in San Francisco in 1974. Since then he:

• Served as Housing Specialist at the City’s Human Rights Commission, focusing on saving the International Hotel;
• Worked as Planning Director at the Chinatown Community Development Center;
• Served as Special Assistant to the City’s Chief Administrative Officer and as a Planning Commissioner;
• Served as Director of the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development and managed the creation of Mission Bay and the Giants Ballpark;
• Founded Prowler, Inc., a planning and development firm whose clients have included City agencies, SFMOMA, SF State University, SF Zen Center, and One Rincon Hill
• Lectures in the Urban Studies Program at Stanford University.

Souvenirs of Japan


From our hotel room

I had read statistics about Tokyo – for example that metropolitan Tokyo has more people than California or Canada.   That the City has a municipal budget equal to that of India.  That one train station serves 3.5 million people a day.

But I wasn’t prepared. All our time in Tokyo I felt like a country mouse. In a cab we’d drive through a Times Square, then another, then another. A half-dozen high-rise financial districts. Trying to grasp the layout I’d unfold a big map, to find out it covered just one neighborhood. Our sense of scale was so off that we’d find a destination that looked near and head out to walk before realizing we were miles away.


Often I didn’t know where we were, or going, or coming from (and hardly cared.)

It’s hard to imagine how such an enormous city can “work”, but it does, and without the ad hoc, patched together feel of New York. It is famously spotless, everyone is polite, the trains run on time, there is very little graffiti, no smashed car windows, nobody high or drunk, bicycles unlocked, no honking or raised voices.

On our return I was reminded what an advanced civilization Japan is, compared to our primitive one – litter thrown  everywhere, smashed car windows, people raving or lying on the sidewalks. Someone has even spray painted a graffiti tag on our street tree.

I was amazed that a big global capital city could have such a homogeneous population: just about everyone you see is Asian.  San Francisco, New York, Paris, London are all diverse, with Asians, black, brown, and white people. Not Tokyo. The only other city I’ve visited with such homogeneity was Buenos Aires, where every one is white pretty much.

Right off its broad freeway streets, Tokyo everywhere has more intimate, alleys and streets, perfect for getting lost.


And on those streets, more restaurants per capita than any other city. Many of these seat only a handful of patrons and the economics of such small places consistently puzzled us.

Because there is so much competition and because of the Japanese pride in work and attention to detail it would be hard find a bad meal. Ours ranged from good to beyond great. And not just the Japanese cuisine.  A Japanese friend told us how disappointed she was when she ate in French restaurants – in Paris.

I read that so many Japanese eat out because the price of restaurant meals isn’t much more than the cost of groceries. And we saw very few grocery stores.

kimono 711

The big shopping hot spot is 7-11, which is a Japanese corporation and sells everything.

Maybe it’s not all so sweet under the surface. There are special “women only”cars during rush hour for those who want to avoid groping.



If you are a Japanese college graduate and a man you are expected to become a salaryman and if you don’t it’s a shame on you-  and your parents. You get a job in the April after you graduate (that’s when corporations hire) and you stay at that job until you retire. You don’t leave, you don’t get laid off or fired. After work you are expected to dine and drink with your colleagues. Everyone dresses the same: dark suit, white shirt, dark tie.

It sounds miserable and many salarymen commit suicide. The popular spot is the Chuo subway line, paralyzing the commute.


Now there are barriers that only open when the train has arrived

For such a dense city, Tokyo has a surprising number of single-family homes in the center of town:



I liked the humble buildings.  Here, a park restroom:


I even like the ugly buildings:


You might not expect it, but Japanese buildings are not built to last.  They are replaced every 30 years or so.  As in Israel, buildings are either very, very old or young.

Nearly two million buildings occupy the central 23 wards of Tokyo.  About a quarter of these were built since 1990. According to Botond Bognar,quoted in Zen Places and Neon Places by Vinayak Bharne, “In 1997 the annual degree of change within Tokyo’s densely built urban zones was about 30% (encompassing facade improvements to entirely new structures).  The average life span of a building was around 26 years.  Virtually any new building had a zero value after three years, even if built of reinforced concrete, the true value of the property lying in the ground below”.

In Hiroshima I saw the most lamentable, misbegotten building I’ve ever seen.

Hiroshima has a Peace Park with memorials to the atom bomb and a peace center where the G7 foreign ministers convened a couple of days after we left.


There is the famous ruin of the bombed out building and when we got there an opera singer was singing to a group of school kids who later turned out to be a chorus. It was very moving.

The Peace Park’s memorials are lined up toward this shell, with an eternal flame and an arched monument leading up to it, all on an axis. And then this office building:


What a blemish.

One more shot, with the G7 ministersg7

In any town you can’t get far without coming across a shrine (those are Shinto) or a temple (which are Buddhist).

And not just in town. Check out this unmarked shrine we stumbled across on an equally unmarked trail near Hakone:

IMG_0306 (1)

Often there’s a garden that will change what you think a garden can do. To me, their beauty was a type of transcendental transportation.

IMG_0327 (1)

This one, in Kyoto, was designed in the 14th century.


This one is in the heart of Tokyo.

Nature is a big deal. Especially cherry blossoms and we were there for the week or so that they are in full bloom. Japanese love to photograph the blossoms and I loved to photograph the photographers:



And they like to picnic under them.

Shinto is the state religion; you’ve got to be Japanese to get in, there’s no founder and no big book, and the Emperor is a deity. Deities also manifest in rocks and trees and animals and holiness is everywhere and worthy of respect. So the whole Japanese attitude is one of respect. It really comes through. There is a lot of bowing.

Shintoism and Buddhism are ambient, not just in the gardens and temples.


Hotel night table


Japan opened my eyes to another way of living. I’m not an expert and maybe I saw what I wanted to see. But everyone recognizes the sense of mutual respect, attention to details, non-competitiveness, regard for the environment and for oneself and others.

Rather than just tourist sites, it was the culture that we came to see. The gardens, the blossoms, the trains, the enormity of Tokyo, the meals, and the landscape: all worth the trip.

But the air of civilization, that’s my favorite memory of Japan.

Four Poles in Five Blocks

On a short walk in my neighborhood this morning, I must have passed hundreds of poles: Light poles, utility poles, sign poles.

They do their jobs of holding up stuff but I noticed that they can do a lot more.

Here in just a few blocks, some upgrades:

knit pole

This Stop sign pole is across from a yarn store.

no more evictions2

Light pole as soap box.


This memorial pole shows up on my corner every year around this time.

It is for young Emily Dunn, hit by a bus at this intersection.

I’ve posted about it before: ad hoc monuments

pole dancers

These pole dancers are in a series of guerrilla pieces in the neighborhood. Bravo, somebody!


You can tell a lot about a city by its layout.  The arrangement of streets tells the history of a place.  If you look closely, you can see the story of slow growth from cramped forts to booming modern cities.  Or the evidence of evolution from farmland or prairie to grid.

There are the medieval European cities with their high walls and twisty narrow streets.  You can tell they grew organically, the buildings huddled together, defended by the ramparts.  They were designed by fear.


And not just in Europe: look at the Wall Street area in Manhattan:1847_Lower_Manhattan_mapWall Street’s wall was built in 1653, by African slaves, to keep out Indians.

As these towns grew, the modern parts became more open, optimistic.  B GRID

  It’s easy to pick out the romantic European patterns and the pragmatic American ones.urban-form_layout2-eSome people say that San Francisco is the most European of American cities.

It would be even more so if the post Earthquake plan by Daniel Burnham had been adopted: mission_burnham_close San Francisco’s layout ignores the hills and even water.1851MapThe heart of the Financial District was under San Francisco Bay.

The city exploded during the Gold Rush, and its exuberant disregard of obstacles is reflected in the streets.  And its culture to this day.

The patterns of our streets are our cities’ tree rings.  They are the fingerprints of the urban past.

And somewhere, on them: you.

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