What I Want From Where I Live

Posted in About Me, Get In My Head, Urbanism on June 1st, 2002 by Дмитрий

I’m among the pickiest of people when it comes to choosing where I want to live. Usually, I do a big cost-benefit analysis when thinking of the subject, which usually results in deciding Fresno is the best, considering it’s where all my history is buried, where my family lives, where the rent is cheap, and where the weather is at least tolerable.

Fresno isn’t so much a trap or a prison as it is a really easy living solution. Unless you absolutely must live somewhere that everybody recognizes, Fresno pretty much has everything you need. There is a varied economy, a relatively rich semi-urban culture, heavily weighted on the less-affluent Latino end of things, lots of local art and talent (very little of which is publicly financed), a very high restaurant-to-population ratio, and enough complexity and intricate sprawl to let you explore and lose yourself even if you’re a native. Fresno isn’t nearly as wealthy as most large cities its size, and it also doesn’t have a very good selection of high-end jobs found in the big metropolises, but if you aren’t entirely qualified for such a thing, it’s a great place to grow roots.

About once each year or so, however, I get that nagging desire to get away from this home of mine. Being in comfortable surroundings and close to friends and family is wonderful, but it’s also something that has never quite been as rare as it should for me. I often long for the true independence and solitude afforded someone who lives a more substantial distance from friends and family. The loss of convenient meetings and scheduled get-togethers both helps filter out the superfluous people we tend to build up in our lives, as well as making one more appreciative of the ones that really matter.

I’ve never traveled much, of course. Out of all the cities across the country or world, I couldn’t honestly say I know the exact one in which I’d most enjoy living. But I do know some of the traits of my own city and the ones I’ve visited that I’ve liked, and what I tend to look for in a city. That’s what this essay’s supposed to be about.

The first thing I notice about a city is its weather. This is probably a bad thing for the casual visitor, since the weather you get when you visit a city can make an impression on you that is totally contrary to the majority experienced in that particular place. For instance, when I visited the Northwest, you would never have known that it was the humid temperate marine climate it is, since the majority of the weather I experienced there was warm, dry, California-style. This, of course, colored my impression of Portland and Seattle in a very positive way, but didn’t really give me a feel for how comfortable my average day would be were I to move there.

In general, I enjoy Mediterranean climates. My health, psychological well-being and habits are best served by the relatively mild weather I grew up with in Fresno. I enjoy warm summers, mostly year-round sun and an almost nonexistent winter. Too many days of constant rain or grayness brings me down and makes me almost claustrophobic. On the other hand, the oppressive sun of the Southwest kills my pasty skin, as does the constant need for air conditioning and antiperspirant. On the other hand, I turn into a useless wad of gum when faced with the excessively humid climates which dominate America, as well as the harsh winters of the continental interior. Basically, I’m sturdy in the dry heat and tolerant of winter in small doses. This pretty much limits me to the west coast of North America and the east coast of Australia. Since I doubt I’ll ever be willing to emigrate, chances are I’ll spend most of my life in the same general locale in which I currently reside.

Unless I can find a place with attractions which outweigh climate. That’s where secondary factors play in. I like cities more than the countryside. I don’t, however, like cities that are incredibly far from the countryside. Even though I don’t necessarily want to hear the cattle and sheep at night, I also want to be able to escape their human counterparts with relative ease. I’m not too eager to setup house in the Northeast or Southern Californian megalopolises, but I also don’t really want to be in a cookie-cutter suburban fringe or in one of the maze-like squatter settlements of the Southwest and Southeast, where everything is made of wood and paper and less than 10 years old.

I once heard it referred to as “texture”, and I agree: I look for a certain varied conglomeration of styles, periods, and histories in a city. I like Fresno because it has experienced immense growth in recent years, but much of its historical cultural and architectural record is still intact, from the faux-brick 1920s skyscrapers to the cute characteristic 1940s suburbs to the 1960s downtown redevelopment to the stucco castles of the 80s and 90s. I like a city which doesn’t manage to totally recreate itself every couple decades (even if it tries to), and which still has a bit of laissez-faire randomness to its development, whilst still being cohesive and well-put-together.

I like a city which doesn’t obsess over being a “center of culture” or constantly try to become a “thematic” city. That’s one of the few things which turn me away from Los Angeles, which, despite it’s varied economy and cosmopolitan population, still can’t shrug off the Hollywood costume. I like a city which is unselfconsciously diverse, both culturally and socially. I like to be able to drive through the rich neighborhoods and still do a bit of benevolent slumming. I like to have shopping and services within a reasonable driving distance, and to have a variety at that. Nothing bugs me more than cities that don’t let the Wal-Marts or the Best Buys in, but still manage to have disgustingly overpriced boutiques around every corner. I don’t need to be in walking distance to pubs, restaurants or shops, but it’s always nice for them to be in walking distance from one another.

I don’t like cities which are obsessed with being “cute” or attracting tourists. I remember back when you lived in a city because it was the best way to work, trade and live, and you vacationed in the countryside. Now it seems almost every city fancies itself a tourist destination, and as a result totally ignores the needs of its own residents. I don’t want to live in Disneyland. There’s a reason Disneyland calls itself the “Magic Kingdom” - it’s not supposed to feel real. Real, functional cities, on the other hand, are.

I like to be able to look at a city from a distance and see a cohesive whole, even if it is somewhat segregated and convoluted. The best cities I’ve seen are the ones which seem like some thought went into making them, without looking like the over-planned corners of Hell which are most of the Bay Area or desert Southwest. It’s good to have the choice between a house and an apartment without having to choose between radically different neighborhoods and having to feel segregated. It’s nice to have the choice between a new home, a 20-year-old home and a 50-year old one. It’s nice when a city isn’t so obsessed with “historical preservation” that its 50-year-old homes are gaudy caricatures which cost twice as much as new ones.

Most of all, I hate cities which spout their mottos or themes every time their name is uttered. A city should speak for itself, and should be fun to explore whether you’re on foot or in a car, whether you’re downtown or in the suburbs, whether you’re on a bus or a train, in the shopping district or the commercial district. I like a city with smokestacks and factories, dumpy neighborhoods and ethnic ghettos, ritzy shopping centers and hordes of Sunday soccer moms in their minivans. In other words, I wanta city which has everything. Is that too much to ask?

From the limited traveling I’ve done, I’ve yet to find that city. But I’ve found a few that come close; either they have a great climate combined with lots of the other factors or their cosmopolitan, textured intricacy makes their climate secondary. Fresno is one of them, and it’s why I’ve stayed here so long, and still don’t feel the need to flee in terror as many people have. From where I’ve traveled, I could describe a few more: Monterey, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle… They all differ widely, but when I weigh their factors against my very strict ideals of metropolitan perfection, they sure come damn close.

But the search does continue. I have already chosen a favorite from the list above, but I think I still need to see more. I want to venture further from the west coast and find out if the awful climates in other fascinating cities are compensated by interesting and amazing new opportunities to explore and find new adventures. I also don’t think I’ll ever want to plant permanent roots, unless they are back here in Fresno on some distant future date, when I’ve done my exploring and lived around more. I want to setup house in the cities which intrigue me, explore them intensively, and move often.

I want to see the neck-straining skyscrapers of Chicago and the squalor of Detroit. I want to navigate the intriguing infrastructure of Baltimore and experience for myself the congestion and headache of Atlanta. I want to feel the gothic doom of New Orleans and the snobbish conservatism of Denver. I think I can do it. I just need to learn to take a chance, cut the roots, and not let them grow too far into the ground for as long as I can…

The Jocobsian Spark

Posted in Urbanism on June 2nd, 2002 by Дмитрий

I finally finished The Ominous Parallels today (it took me almost a year of stop-and-go) and started The Death and Life of Great American Cities this morning. I’ve already polished off the first four chapters. It’s probably the second greatest book I’ve ever read… In my endeavor to avoid the specticle of Pride Weekend here in Fresno’s Tower District, I decided to do my reading downtown at Kern St Coffee house, where the Jacobs’ narrative was given even more life in the context of a still-unfolding vision’s movement.

I realize when I visit downtown Fresno that my city’s old downtwon is far more funtional than most of the city planners and city residents make it seem. The place is teeming with life and wonderful to wile away a Saturday midday in the oppressive June heat. Not because of all the recent redevelopment, but in spite of it.

The Fresno city planners are perpetually disappointed with downtown. This is why I wonder how often they actually spend any appreciable amount of time there. Sure, the people walking its streets on a daily basis may not be of the economic or ethic class that the City Council envisions, and it is almost always difficult to take part in a conversation with a stranger without knowing at least some Spanish. But I love it there.

Fresno, largely because of perpetually depressed real estate prices, has an abundant time capsule of architecture. Everything from 1920s brick-clad high-rises to 1940s teal-painted office buildings to 1960s brutalist pillboxes to 1990s stucco nightmares is represented. It’s absolutely beautiful. Where most downtown malls across the country failed and have since been removed, I’m beginning to believe that Fresno’s Fulton Mall should stay as it is. It may not have the high rents and wealthy inhabitants Mayor Bubba wants, but all the shops are occupied, they do a brisk business in discount and ethnic goods, and they survive without subsidy, unlike most businesses in “renewal” areas. They pay their taxes and they keep the place safe and enjoyable even at night, with their busy Latin discos and edgy casinos.

I would hate to see City Hall move in and try to turn this into another “renewal project” as they propose. I see a bright future for downtown Fresno, provided it is left alone to develop in the organic and characteristic way it has the past decade or so. In fact, it’s recent development has been almost entirely self-motivated. While City Hall has spent years trying to figure out how best to “revitalize” downtown (and done nothing more than build an odious stadium and raise the parking fees across the board), the city has gone ahead and grown and developed without any real decisions being made on the part of the local government. I kind of hope they keep it up. Let the bureaucrats spend many many years more trying to figure out how to bring suburban connectivity and Disneyland glossiness to downtown. So long as they are locked in their offices debating the issue, neither of these dubious goals will be accomplished, and downtown Fresno will flourish with the wonderfully dynamic atmosphere it has already…

Confronting the Urban Daemon

Posted in Get In My Head, San Francisco, Urbanism on August 31st, 2004 by Дмитрий

Two years in San Francisco. Damn.

Over the past two years, my relationship with this City has had its ups and downs. It’s sort of like being adopted by your evil stepmother and trying really hard to love her even though she abuses and enslaves you in your own home.

San Francisco: it has such promise. If you look at it from the right angles and in the right lighting, it’s urban perfection and beauty realized. But with your feet on the ground and in the daily grind, it’s a most unlivable place.

I go through my day-to-day life despising this City. I hate the postage-stamp-sized apartment it makes me live in (even though our home is larger than most at its price). I hate the necessity of using the public transit system. I hate the dirt and grime and indigence. I hate the traffic and the daily drama of moving and worrying about my car. I hate the fact that even though the supermarkets are always out of everything, it still costs more than it would in a less-crowded, well-stocked suburban store. I hate the inconvenience of my neighborhood: the fact that it’s the most car-friendly, and thus has all the disadvantages of a dense urban area and none of the advantages, like shops and restaurants and coffeehouses. I hate the unbelievable extra costs incurred for living here: from parking tickets to gas to food to the increased amount of time spent getting to places that would be easy and quick in any mid-sized suburb. The lost investment value of time alone in this City has me running a huge deficit…

The amount of energy I’ve expended maintaining my life in San Francisco is in drastic excess to what the same standard of living would have taken out of me in Fresno - and Fresno itself is not necessarily the most convenient or cheapest place to live. At the same time, I’ve yet to really reap any promised advantages to life here.

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The Truth About the Big City

Posted in Get In My Head, Urbanism on September 25th, 2004 by Дмитрий

The Big City means high-end urban areas such as NY, SF, LA, Philly and Chicago. Places where owning a single-family detatched dwelling is not feasible for the vast majority of residents. This rules out up-and-coming cities with rational real estate such as Charlotte, Raleigh, Austin and Denver. It also rules out most of the rust belt, where property values tend to be declining and the population decreasing.

The Big City has three types of residents: 1) those who were born there 2) those who come there and 3) those who stay there.

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Hipster Alert

Posted in Urbanism on November 17th, 2004 by Дмитрий

Today at Starbucks, we played “How many badly dressed, loud-mouthed annoying faggots does it take to make MurderingMouth resort to homicide?”

My tolerance must be artificailly generous right now due to the impending vacation. As I left, they all still had what brains they possessed tucked safely inside their brittle skulls.

In other news, if you love your cities, please read This. My favorite quote is offered below:

“From here on out, we’re glad red-state rubes live in areas where guns are more powerful and more plentiful, cars are larger and faster, and people are fatter and slower and dumber. This is not a recipe for repopulating the Great Plains. And when you look for ways to revive your failing towns and dying rural counties, don’t even think about tourism. Who wants to go to small-town America now? You people scare us. We’ll island-hop from now on, thank you, spending our time and our money in blue cities. If an urbanite is dying to have a country experience, rural Vermont is lovely. Maple syrup, rolling hills, fly-fishing–everything you could want. Country bumpkins in red rural areas who depend on tourists from urban areas but vote Republican can forget our money.”

Urban Redux

Posted in Urbanism on March 20th, 2005 by Дмитрий

A dinner and visit with Dan last night led to some more rolling around in the psychological quagmire which is my urban outlook these days. I finally got it all out of my system with a long lonely walk through North Beach and Chinatown today.

I think I’ve learned a lot about what I should expect from where I live lately. I’ve learned that I can’t have it all. I’ve learned that in one way or another, I have to lower my expectations. The ideal environment in my fantasies is just that. It’s not something I should expect, nor gauge my experiences upon.

I will probably always live my life coveting the edgy urban experience I’ll never have the means or guts to make real. The key is to understand that the urban daemon kicked my ass and leave it alone at that. I have the ability to be happy without it. I’ll just always feel like I never got a chance to experience something that I really wanted to experience.

It’s just tough giving up on something like that. Like being at a party where everyone’s sharing a private joke about me that I just don’t get let in on. It feels mildy embarrassing and uncomfortable, and it probably won’t ever go away…

Somewhere Else

Posted in San Francisco, Urbanism on May 8th, 2005 by Дмитрий

An interesting exchange recently regarding the “love it or leave it” philosophy. Coincidentally, the Chronicle also published a rather candid reflection on San Francisco today as well… I knew David and I weren’t the only ones who have recognized the change in malls from one-size-fits-all shopping centres to specialized boutique villiages… Oh, I mean the change in cities from one-size-fits-all living and working centres to specialized boutique urban museums…

Whilst “love it or leave it” does, in fact, match our actions in regard to San Francisco, I think that the “love it or leave it” philosophy is intellectually lazy. Whether you’re talking about a dysfunctional bit of geography or a marriage or a movie, you have more than the choice of loving it and leaving it - there’s the possibility of tolerating it or endeavoring to improve it.

If I cared all that much anymore about the type of city I lived in or where it was, I would have the energy and inspiration to try to make San Francisco more livable for myself. If David and I are getting upset with each other, we engage in mutial psychoanalysis rather than break up. If a movie is boring, I get more popcorn and maybe start people watching or passing notes to the people I’m with in the theatre.

From Sister Betty: “Yet, sometimes we fool ourselves thinking the next place will be sparkly-shiney.  Pretty much nowhere is sparkly-shiney.  Every place is just somewhere else.”

That sums up my feelings of late. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my little obsessions, like Seattle and Pittsburgh and Canada, places that I just know can do no wrong - but that obsession would wear off as soon as I chose to live there. It’s no longer exactly about “where” for me as it is “how”. I’m choosing to go somewhere that will allow me a wider range of “hows”.

I doubt many people arrive at their dream city and spend years so happy they’re having a never-ending orgasm (unless you come to San Francisco and do nothing but go to sex clubs). People have their dream lifestyles and life is about building that dream. You never achieve it, because it’s a dream. It’s the process of building it that one has to look forward to.

And perhaps the opportunity to rant and rave about the people who are in your way and pissing you off about the smallest things as you go. Yeah, that’s what life’s all about…

Some Missives for a Chilly, Foggy Friday Morning…

Posted in Economics, Urbanism on May 13th, 2005 by Дмитрий
  • I sure will miss the weather here…
  • I sure won’t miss anything else here…
  • a quote from The Economist: “Tony Blair, for all his flaws, remains the best centre-right option there is” (italics mine).

I’m working on two new essays, which maybe I’ll complete on the train this weekend… One involves the blathering spew of an annoying fag who fancies himself an urban planner and sociologist. The other involves my feelings of satisfaction and vindication at the pending dissolution of not just one horrible corporate mediocrity, but two.

Find a City to Live In

Posted in Urbanism on September 5th, 2005 by Дмитрий

David and I watched Flashdance last night… Sometimes it’s nice to watch a movie just because of its urban eye candy. It made me ponder Pittsburgh again - my paternal homeland and probably the place I’d be most likely to plant myself if money, family and occupation were not an issue…


I’ve repeated it often: the debate about whether I like cities because I want to live in them, or if I simply like them because I want to be them… In any event, after a couple solid months’ escape from The City That Ate Three Years of My Life, I’ve mellowed out a bit in the whole desire to see every destination as a potential home. That tendency will never completely go away, since that’s how I travel, and how I see cities. I look at a place from the perspective of someone wanting to live and work and play in a city, not as someone just wanting some fleeting temporary thrills from it, as the majority of tourists behave (and even many residents, in “museum” cities which often attract a “permanent touriust” population such as San Francisco).


So I’ve revised the list of the cities where I could see myself living. It’s no longer a wish list, but rather an “alternate reality” list. I’ve arrived “someplace else” than where I was when this list started. So there’s no reason to plan a new escape plan - just an excuse to fantasize about those heady days in the far future when I have a big vacation house in each of my favorite places…


Posted in Urbanism on September 6th, 2005 by Дмитрий

David and I watched Flashdance last night… Sometimes it’s nice to watch a movie just because of its urban eye candy. It made me ponder Pittsburgh again - my paternal homeland and probably the place I’d be most likely to plant myself if money, family and occupation were not an issue…

I’ve repeated it often: the debate about whether I like cities because I want to live in them, or if I simply like them because I want to be them… In any event, after a couple solid months’ escape from The City That Ate Three Years of My Life, I’ve mellowed out a bit in the whole desire to see every destination as a potential home. That tendency will never completely go away, since that’s how I travel, and how I see cities. I look at a place from the perspective of someone wanting to live and work and play in a city, not as someone just wanting some fleeting temporary thrills from it, as the majority of tourists behave (and even many residents, in “museum” cities which often attract a “permanent touriust” population such as San Francisco).

So I’ve revised that old list of the cities where I could see myself living. It’s no longer a wish list, but rather an “alternate reality” list. I’ve arrived “someplace else” than where I was when this list started. So there’s no reason to plan a new escape plan - just an excuse to fantasize about those heady days in the far future when I have a big vacation house in each of my favorite places…

Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30

Posted in Evil, Urbanism on October 15th, 2005 by Дмитрий

I think I know the single largest flaw in modern civilization: youth. Shouldn’t our wondrous cloning technologies and life-extending nanotech and biotech revolutions have rendered this horrible thing obsoloete by now?


All I want is to live in a big, dense, thriving city where the average age is 65 and there is no one under 40 (except me, since I’m over 40 in everything but body). Is that too much to ask?

Richard Florida is a Pompous Ass

Posted in Rants, Urbanism on November 15th, 2005 by Дмитрий

You know what American cities need? More subsidies for rich liberal young whites, that’s what.

Or, at least, that’s what Richard Florida thinks…

Note (31 March 2008): My latest, most comprehensive, and (in my opinion) best essay on this topic can be found here:

The Early Bird vs the Night Owl

Urban Mythology and its Fundies

Sure, he has an agenda - to promote wealthy white metrosexuals like himself, city history and urban texture (and old people, and service workers, and brown people, etc) be damned. I guess my agenda is to promote the idea of the built environment as a living organism, in need of its own rights and respect…

The latest silver-bullet fix-all in urban planning has snuck up on us as quietly and unassumingly as each which preceded it. It’s understandable that our fragile psyches require these fix-alls to properly inform our motivation for a better life. For most of us, the lack of any possibility for quick and simple permanent solutions in life would cause us to throw up our hands and give up too easily. Being assured that the real, final solution is only a simple, obvious bit of common sense somehow assures us that there is no reason to despair.

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Creative Class Flogging

Posted in Urbanism on November 16th, 2005 by Дмитрий

Since I’ve been on a Richard Florida hatin’ expedition lately, I thought I’d post some nice gems I’ve found…


  • The Best One (Mirrored Here)

  • Short and Sweet


    And this quote was priceless: “Having met Florida, I’d be the first to agree he is an assiduously self-promoting septic tank, out to make a buck from his theory through a globetrotting dog and pony show that gets local pollies overhyped. But hey, isn’t that what capitalism and the free market of ideas is all about?”

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It’s Cute, But I Wouldn’t Want to Live There

Posted in Travel, Urbanism on February 10th, 2006 by Дмитрий

Yesterday my parents dropped in on me at work in SF. I showed them Twin Peaks, West Portal, The Richmond, and South of Market - what I dubiously consider the interesting parts of San Francisco. Of course, my Dad complained several times that he wished we would have gone to North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown. Alas, it shows you how distant I am from my parents, and from polite society, to insist that one can find Disneylandized neighborhoods in any city and they’re all the same, but to find a truly functioning and interesting neighborhood is a rare thing.


But then, I’ve always said one of my severe personal flaws is that I judge all places and cities and neighborhoods on how much I want to live in them… I’m sure it makes me a rather annoying sightseeing partner.

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Jane Jacobs 1916-2006

Posted in Urbanism on April 25th, 2006 by Дмитрий

She was the lady that taught me to love cities. She taught me to temper my value system with real life. She was real. She understood applied philosophy. I’ll miss her.


David has also written a (more thoughtful) epitaph.

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