Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Why I do it...

A lot of people ask me this: 

Why do you bike in the rain?

I answer in this way: 

When something helps you enjoy life deeply, when it gives you time to work through the matters that would otherwise overwhelm, and when that activity makes coming back home on a rainy day about the most enjoyable feeling you can imagine...how could you not bike in the rain, at least some of the time? Why limit one's self to the sunny or dry days? 

Get some decent rain gear. Get a bike with fenders. Take your time. Try something new. Step out of your car and taste the world. It isn't that hard or uncomfortable--really.

As a utility cyclist (who also drives a car, pays taxes, &c.), I have arrived at the point where having to stay off my bike for more than a few days makes me very downcast--rain or shine. I simply enjoy it that much. 

Never in my life have I actually looked forward to exercise. But I do look forward to the next journey on my bike. Perhaps this is because cycling isn't merely exercise, but a way of finding delight in the midst of the world's requirements, simply, in the familiar surroundings of one's own home town.

That's why I ride...in the rain, in the sun, or in between.

Try it. You might learn to like it, too.

Who knows...we may meet up some time in the rain, get a cup of coffee or tea, and talk it all over.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Downtown Alley, Episode 1

No, this isn't a low-budget Salem version of the popular British costume drama, but a light-hearted survey of one of Salem's hidden public spaces: the alley running north from Ferry Street up to Center Street, between Commercial and Liberty.

I first "met" this alley back in the 1980's when I was in college. In learning the downtown street system, I frequently got confused and would miss the correct turn. I learned I could make up for this by taking these alleys. I remember noticing that some blocks had been made much more attractive by the addition of plantings, artwork, and public improvements. In a few places, businesses had taken it upon themselves to add interest and color.

Fast-forward to October 2012. I had some time to spare one weekend and decided to take some pictures of this alley from its beginning to its end. As a utility cyclist, I frequent the alleys downtown both as access to places hard to get to on the main streets, and as a way to avoid the noise and limited sight-lines of downtown traffic. While not perfect for cycling (they are all active alleys, still serving their business customers, and sometimes are blocked or end up being gathering spots for folks who would prefer not to be disturbed), the alleys of downtown Salem are part of my "ad hoc downtown cycling connectivity plan." It seemed right to spend some time appreciating them for their usefulness and the significant efforts made to give them interest and, well, style.

Alleys are places that most of us avoid or overlook. They are the literal "backdoor" of downtown. I think it took some courage and vision to decide--decades ago--that they were worth making both more versatile and attractive (I would enjoy learning more about the origins of this effort). These alleys are particularly interesting for the variety of treatments they employ. Each block has its own character and reveals something different about the era in which the improvements were made and the ideals inspiring them.

Here is a tour of the first block of this curious, creative, useful, and ignored asset to the Salem civic landscape.

Ferry to State

Across from what is now the Salem Convention Center, this alley commences as an opening in a modified brutalist facade, part of the adjacent parking structure. The other side is formed by a modern office building designed with elements meant (I think) to evoke earlier 20th century frontages. Sadly, it all remains quite cold, sterile, and bleak.

Immediately upon turning into this alley, one notices a couple of things: the fish sculpture overhead (in a sort of un-triumphal arch effect) and the curious sign prohibiting a lot of things...but not making it clear exactly where these activities are prohibited.

Well, you have to start somewhere, and one can pretty much only go up
 from concrete brutalism (even if painted).

So: None of this in the parking structure? In the alley? I'm thinking the former,
but I had my doubts for a few moments, and wondered if this little tour was
already over...

The decorative fish and the light-toned paint scheme set the theme for this block of the alley...which is the most "unified" of its four blocks. This wins the award for the most visually "clean" of the set, as well. The spare lower-level visuals help emphasize the energetic and colorful fish art overhead, which is really quite notable.

Flying fish?
These fish are not static; they move in the breeze and shimmer with reflected light, recalling the live (but endangered) creatures inspiring them. In the sun, glimmering pennants streak from the metallic "stream" onto the masonry "banks." It is an interesting treatment: sculpture in the air about living things in the water...both of which are in streams or channels conducting them along.

Even though the fish (which have names, it appears) nearest the street lights could use a cleaning, they have a vivacity and energy that works...but you have to go looking for them. One could easily miss all of this, hurrying through town in a car.

Further on, we come to the mid-block opening created by a parking lot on the left, and a passage way/ access drive on the right. This area is much more "congruent" with the over-all effect now that the Ladd & Bush bank building has been repainted in fresh, light colors. The old color pattern (wildly 1970's, to my taste) dampened the effect considerably. While most people naturally focus on this building's justly-famous cast iron frontages, the blind arcade that relieves this side of the building from utter dullness contributes to a sense of scale and (dare I say) drama in this space. On a sunny day, it is rather dramatic, actually. It looks a bit like the backdrop for an early Hollywood epic...

Just across the alley from this, though, is a completely different effect. The parking structure and the commercial buildings crowd in to each other, creating a complex pattern of shadows and lines. A sliver of sky allows a view of one of Salem's gems: the Deco masterpiece of the Capitol Center. The Cooke Stationery building (a venerable institution itself) can store its delivery van in this narrow space. Daylight-avoiding souls can use the walkway and gain access to Liberty. Somewhat dog-eared (or dog-used) plantings line the way. A one-way sign points in exactly the opposite direction to the way I'm biking and the fish are swimming. Lots of concrete and metal. It all seems intensely "urban," but it is still just downtown Salem.

The second half of the block continues the fish-and-light-paint theme. This sculpture installation also serves as the rigging for the street lights on the alley, further mixing art and practicality in a creative way. It is a festive finish, urging the viewer on to the next block, their shadows on the pavement recalling everything from sunny days in a shallow river to the deathly photographic negatives of Hiroshima. But, for today, I'm mostly thinking about pleasant things.

Along the way, of course, other things are happening. Under one's feet there are access points to the complex sub-surface goings-on in any city. The way in to this specialized world is usually marked by a manhole cover. These come in a variety of styles. Here is one with concentric rings and a loudly-proclaimed City of Salem provenance:

This is just one of several styles of manhole cover to be seen along this alley.
This is one way we make our mark over the long-haul, I suppose.

We take things like this for granted, passing them unthinkingly all the time. For cyclists, wet manhole covers are mostly just things to be avoided. But they form an unfussy part of the massively complex infrastructure upon which we all depend. Their humble positions belie their true significance to us.

The block comes to an end at State Street, one of downtown's most important thoroughfares, connecting the city's original life-blood (the riverfront) with the early commercial core, the historic First United Methodist Church (that used to flood most years, necessitating its 2nd floor sanctuary), Willamette University, the State Capitol, the State Supreme Court, and (via 12th) the main railway station in town. Along here, though, it is just a broad-ish commercial street lined with various older and newer structures that record a part of Salem's unrolling history.

Here is where the older pavers of the alleyway meet the new ones for the mid-block crosswalk connecting this section of the alley to the next. I'm glad the City went ahead and did this with care. It really looks nice and articulates the alley's significance (and the priority of cross-street traffic) well. For now, the two eras of pavers present quite a contrast...but that won't last for all that long in the traffic and weather conditions they will face.

Old meets new in the continuing saga of Salem...

All-in-all, this block is probably the most "artistic" of the bunch. A considerable amount of thought seems to have gone into it when originally re-built, and since then either someone has been continuing to keep it looking unified...or it has done so by what we might call a "happy accident." Either way, I'm glad for its whimsical and coordinated character.

I use this block quite often on my bike as a way to get to some retailers in this section of town while avoiding some of the more nasty traffic downtown. It does mean a short jaunt on the occasionally frantic Ferry street, but it also means "swimming with the fishes"--in a good way.

Friday, October 12, 2012

A spirited bike with a message to ponder

My travels in town often take me through Willamette University (full disclosure: this is my Alma Mater), where there are great paths upon which one can slowly ride and notice the buildings, the seasons, the students, and the bikes. Yes, the bikes are interesting here. It is as close as Salem gets to the crowded bike racks of a large college town. Though WU is a smaller school, the cycling scene gets better each year, both at the undergraduate campus and at the law school. A mini smorgasbord of bike types and conditions are to be found here (I'll post more on this later). However, one bike caught my attention a few days back.

This is a fairly modern, but very traditionally-styled yellow 3-speed. It is a pretty good bike for Upright Cycling, with fenders, collapsable rear racks, chain-guard, and bell. It appears at various places around campus (there are quite a few bike racks at WU now), but was locked up by Goudy Commons for several sunny days when I took these picture. Its color and adornments bespeak an in-your-face-but-not-aggresively-so attitude about cycling, education, activism, and livability...

I've not seen this bike being ridden, but even in repose, it sends its messages loud and clear.

As the effects of the Great Recession gradually spill out into more and more of our lives, one of the questions more people are asking is: "How much stuff, as opposed to how many relationships, do I need to truly enjoy life?" The average size of our homes has increased even as family size decreases. The number of possessions people have--and the rate at which they are replaced--has spiraled exponentially over recent decades. We are told in myriad ways that our patriotic duty is to buy more and buy often. 

The whirl of consumeristic capitalism has temporarily lulled in our economy, but there remain many voices urging us on to "business as usual" as soon as possible. Yet, so many people report a sense of isolation, disconnection, and alienation from others, from the central institutions of a democracy, from a spiritual foundation giving meaning to life...and from their own selves. To me, these things seem interrelated.

This bike suggests that perhaps the calamity of our recent economy, though undoubtedly extremely destructive to many, could have a long-term benefit to succeeding generations if its lessons are properly absorbed. Perhaps we can begin to define satisfaction in new ways. Maybe--just maybe--life is about more than packing our limited time with more and more stuff and activity. It could be about something based on an inherent meaning, dignity, and purposeful enjoyment. It could be about people and relationships, not only material transactions and mechanical efficiency. To paraphrase Eliot, where is all the knowledge, the wisdom we have lost in the seemingly endless stream of data, information, and purchasing? What have we become in pursuit of goals that have left us in this sorry and divided state?

Human nature being what it is, I don't look for us to embrace only the highest ideals coming out of this recession. However, I like to think that such things as the proposed 3rd Salem auto bridge project (and all it would mean) can now be questioned not just from a price-tag point of view, but from the perspective of what they say about a community's inner life: 
  • Would driving a concrete-and-asphalt stake through the heart of developable portions of the City of Peace really free us to live better? 
  • Would the modest savings of time for a few (through town, to their homes, going to/returning from the coast or the casinos, &c.) actually make up for the continued degradation of an urban core already overshadowed by auto-centric and increasingly antiquated views of transport and community? 
  • Why are we continuing to fund even the studying of such forlorn projects year after year when the significant amount of monies used in doing so could make tremendous creative impact in near-term livability (e.g. planning for fully-functioning mass transit, a "destination" downtown, and a truly inviting and effective multi-modal transport plan)? [Yes, the "pots" of money are different, but the continued fixation on so apparently hopeless a project is a strong statement itself; where we put our research and planning money is probably the main way we make statements about our vision for the future.]
The above questions may not be those of a significant portion of today's city leadership, but they are those of the rising generations who live here (or who might choose to live here), and deserve to be asked with greater urgency.

All this may be more than some would think reasonable from an encounter with a bike, but I think it is in line with what the owner of this spirited vehicle probably intends.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Waning Days of a Delayed Summer

A tree on our parish's property

As anyone in the Pacific Northwest knows, we had a pretty late start to good summer weather. In fact, it was the classic “wait until Independence day for the switch to be flicked.” August was mostly beautiful, and September was (as it so often is) superb. But this October…well, it has been exceptional. With rain expected for the weekend, I'm cherishing this season with especial thankfulness.

Many of the days so far this month have been warmer than much of early summer, and the nights have been mostly cool and clear. I’ve spent much more time by our backyard fireplace this fall than is usual, listening to Dave Brubeck and enjoying conversations with friends.

The best part of this almost Indian Summer has been the biking. My, but it has been beautiful....

Something for which I am most thankful: this bridge, good weather, and the time
to enjoy it by bicycle.

Autumn biking is, to me, always the best. The already-warmed earth meets a lower-angle sun and air that doesn’t seem to “hold the heat” as much, making for a great combination of effects. I was thinking of this today as I made my way across town to bring Holy Communion to a member of our parish. The air was warm yet clear. The promise of a cool night hid in the shadows even as the memories of long summer days wafted amongst the tree-tops. Mellowness was all about.

Bringing Holy Communion to parishioners by bike is a
venerable tradition in the our church.
Unlike the spring, the scents of fall are complex—and at times, pungent—but they remind me of long-ago youthful days, school activities, and the inevitable cycle of the earth preparing for its winter nap.

Fruitfulness: Our Parish's Community Garden

Perhaps best of all, fall is a season of fruitfulness. My favorite Keats poem is all about this, and I’m leaving you with it as well as some photos of this extraordinarily lovely, warm autumn:

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
   Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Leaves from an Autumn Cycling Album

Upright Cycling is about far more than the bike, or even the destination. It is also very much about the journey. Each season presents its gifts, and I enjoy savoring them via bike a great deal. It is one of the truest gifts of utility cycling—experiencing the people and places we would miss otherwise.

Oh, there are times when it isn’t so cool out there, of course. We must take the good with the bad, I guess. But when I am out on my bike, I find a great many reasons to be thankful for the succession of seasons, encounters, and impressions along the way. Here are few recent ones.

Quite a year for acorns…

Perhaps I’m just noticing things more, but does anyone else think we have a bumper-crop of acorns here in Salem this year? They present quite a cycling challenge in some parts of town. I’ve begun to think of them as “nature’s ball bearings.” Various people report being bombarded by a fusillade of acorns on recent windy days, and I know I've hit several squirrels and passers-by with random barrages shot out from my tires.

Short-lived exhibit

A few weeks back, I came upon this spontaneous outdoor “sculpture” near the City View Cemetery. I couldn’t help but enjoy it.

A few days later, it looked like this…

Ah, well; it was probably a temporary installation in any event. I'll miss it, though. It certainly didn’t do anyone any harm and likely didn’t cost the taxpayer anything, either. A win-win!

Cool shades, one and all…

Near church I came upon a couple and their dog (Cobie, if memory serves). They were out for a walk on one of these lovely, warm and sunny autumn days we have been having. They allowed me to take their photo. The dog seemed absolutely determined to wear its shades and get on the move. This was the only photo that came out from the series, as he was getting quite impatient. This was clearly a case of the dog taking the people out for a walk.


This time of year the sun casts increasingly long shadows. This picture came from one late afternoon’s journey to church for a Bible study.  I was preparing to cross one of the more hidden pedestrian bridges in town and snapped this shot (thus, the blurriness). 

The dry grass became the canvas for my elongated silhouette as the sun made its late-day course into evening. Though close to a major street, the impression that stays with me is one of intense quiet. 

There is poetry in many hidden places through life; it is great to savor the experience. That's part of what makes us truly human.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A great response from the City of Salem

A few days ago I raised the question on this blog about a dangerous situation at State and Winter streets, involving a bike lane, gravel being used in the repaving work there, and some possible unintentional BMX-ing. I wrote about coming on to this dark pile of gravel in the middle of the night and almost running right into it because there was no warning about its presence.


When a reader suggested I contact my City Councilor about it, I did so. Now, even though I'm a public person (due to my vocation as a parish priest), I am by nature rather less eager to make a fuss. I had never contacted my City Councilor before (probably thinking she was way too busy for the sort of thing I would likely bring up), but I did feel I had a personal stake in this issue. So, I e-mailed Laura Tesler, received a kind response back very quickly, and found she had copied my e-mail and accompanying link to the blog post to Peter Fernandez, director of the Department of Public Works.

He, in turn, got right back to me with a thoughtful e-mail and assurance that something would be done about the situation (to be fair, a couple of small traffic cone/pylon thingies had been put there already by the time I took the above picture the next day). Subsequently, I've entered into a little e-mail chat with him about some things related to all this, and I hope it will continue as a low-key but helpful connection towards the bigger goal of effective multi-modal transport here in town.

Best of all, this was what I found on Saturday when I pedaled by the State and Winter intersection:

...and after!
That is a great response! Thanks to all who helped make it happen (a reader, a City Councilor, a Department Director, and those who put the signage in place, and perhaps others I don't know anything about). I know life is complicated and that situations often don't work out as we hope...but it is important to express gratitude when they do.

It really does take a village, I guess.

Friday, October 5, 2012

When Envy Leads to Hope


At times one can get a little envious of some communities. I remember hearing that my great-grandmother (who never really learned to speak English beyond a few phrases) called envy “the green-eyed devil.” So, I’m aware that one should be careful about this.


It is hard not to be a bit envious (from a cycling standpoint) of a town like Corvallis, where the biking culture is so engrained that years of improvements have led to not only a rich cycling infrastructure but also a mindset, where in much of town bikes are just part of the landscape. They aren’t toys or oddities. They are functional and usually very unremarkable appliances for moving around town.

Signs of all types are posted for cyclists to use, showing that they are an expected part of the transportation world here…

Yes, you are reading this sign correctly...

Many traffic lights are specifically set up to detect bicycles, allowing them to stay in their own lane when appropriate…

Lots of parking accommodation has been developed, including covered parking (something that really makes clear the equality of cycling with auto use of a downtown)…

Lots of paths for cyclists and pedestrians, well separated from auto traffic (or entirely removed from its proximity) are provided…and much of it well maintained and very smooth.

In short, a lot of emphasis and expenditure over a long time.

I know Corvallis is a college town (I grew up there), and I know it has very different demographics compared with Salem. It is also very flat in most parts of town. However, I cannot help but feel when I travel there that one of the essential elements to Corvallis is a commitment to thinking well beyond the auto, grasping the benefits to community, fitness, creativity, and openness to new currents in what civic life might mean. In short: I don’t get the feeling people are as afraid of the future there.

I think Salem can be a bit more like this, if we allow ourselves to value our downtown and older neighborhoods in a similar way as Corvallis has done. It is easy to forget that the major improvements to the riverfront area of Corvallis were resisted for years by the “powers that be” downtown; it wasn’t always a pro-biking and pro-renewal mindset there. But eventually a coalition of longstanding Corvallis leaders decided that the status quo wasn’t reflective of the best that town could be, and they overcame the resistance through determination and vision.

Biking isn’t the solution to everything…not by a long-shot. But, it can have a surprising “multiplier effect” in communities by changing the scale, pace, and culture of a downtown from a mass of buildings one just tries to get through to a destination where people and the community they create are the focus. I think this is one of the great challenges for all U.S. cities now: how to encourage encounter in an age of electronic isolation.

As a parish priest, I try to take time out of my pastoral responsibilities to the congregation I serve and be part of the community scene…not only by serving on boards or taskforces, but (most importantly, I think) by simply being downtown: in a coffee shop, chatting with people on the sidewalk, or greeting folks along the way. Cycling helps make that possible by moving the emphasis from isolated “through-put” to engagement and encounter on the human scale. That’s the deeper purpose; exercise and spiritual satisfaction are added benefits, really.

In its way, Salem is groping towards a more modern and livable urban environment. We have a great many pieces of the puzzle already. There are a number of functional cycling elements in place, and others that could be developed without too much difficulty. Things like the Waterfront and traffic-calming downtown are great signs that space for people matters. But, there’s more to it than that.

We are a more diverse community by many standards than Corvallis, and that is actually extremely important, for that is the reality of our nation. By having venues for our burgeoning and fermenting culture to mix, share, and peaceably exchange ideas, we are planting seeds to enhanced livability well into the future. Auto culture tends to lessen this sort interchange, typically emphasizing convenience, individuality, and "cocooning." Cycling encourages a dynamic of interchange by making our cities richer places for humane interaction, rather than alleys for impersonal “in-and-out” transportation or venues for mere consumer transactions.

So, while I do sometimes envy a place like Corvallis for its cycling and community culture, that envy just makes me want to find ways to encourage Salem to embrace both its gifts and challenges in a spirit of hope for the coming years. That’s what the best of those before us did. Perhaps a brass plaque will be put up for our era’s efforts to make life more truly enjoyable and enriching as well!