I miss you Anthony Bourdain

Only three nights ago, I watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown with my girlfriend before bed. It was the one about Seattle. When it was over and my girlfriend got up to go brush her teeth, I went for my phone, pulled up Instagram, and searched through my recent stories for any from Anthony. He was on Instagram constantly, and the stories were always there. His most recent one was from an hour earlier — a slow pan of a hotel room in France. The one before that was video of Chef Eric Ripert chatting with the Parts Unknown film crew. I closed the story. Then I pulled up Anthony’s profile and hit the Direct Message button.

I never typed anything in the message dialog. I stared at it for a few minutes thinking about what I would say and then eventually I decided I was being ridiculous. “The guy has 2.7 million followers,” I remember thinking. “He wouldn’t even see it.” I closed the dialog and went to bed. I had no idea that only three days later, I’d be waking up to a headline about his suicide.

I’ve never been the type of person to have a deeply emotional response to celebrity tragedy. I feel frustrated when it happens— frustrated that society doesn’t work for people like Chester Bennington or Kate Spade, and that we’re not talking enough about how to fix it— but not so much sad. But faced with the news this morning, I finally understand: Grief, and the need to mourn, are traumatic. They’re overwhelming, debilitating emotions. We can’t feel them every day, because they rip us to shreds and stomp on our soul. They make us question what our lives could possibly mean without the person that’s been lost. They destroy us. And because of that, they’re reserved only for the people we feel closest to in life.

I’ve never felt so destroyed.

As someone with a somewhat cynical view of the modern world, I’ve had to cling to the little things in life that make me feel grounded, content. I’m skeptical of a lot of the ways technology is changing the world. I’m skeptical of culture’s ability to survive and of our own ability to be authentic. I’m skeptical of capitalism, and what many people consider to be progress. A close friend and I have always joked about how fifteen years from now, the only things that will matter will be hot baths and coffee — simple pleasures that will persist, regardless of how the world continues to change. But while hot tubs and coffee will survive, other things won’t. I think that’s something that Anthony understood deeply. I liked Parts Unknown for the food. I liked it for the unique insights it offered into various ways of life, and various peoples’ perspectives. But neither of those are the reason I watched it. I watched Parts Unknown because Anthony and I shared a sense of yearning for a way things aren’t, and will never be.

I loved Anthony Bourdain because in the Seattle episode I watched 3 nights ago, when former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold started to explain how he was using science to “demystify” bread, Anthony asked whether the mystery wasn’t what made it so special in the first place. I loved Anthony Bourdain because when he went to Italy to go diving for Octopus and the fishermen started dumping octopus into the water to “make the experience better,” instead of cutting the footage, Anthony ran the segment in full in order to make a point. I loved Anthony Bourdain because he wrote an entire graphic novel about a sushi chef who cuts people’s heads off for not respecting the tradition of the craft. I loved Anthony Bourdain because he was me. A wiser, more successful, more well-experienced version of me. I looked up to him as someone who had successfully confronted the bleak reality of life, and chose to continue onward in lightness, despite its futility. I needed him, because any emotion, regardless of how strong, is more tolerable when you know someone else feels it too.

I opened Instagram that night because I wanted to tell Anthony how much he meant to me. I wanted to tell him how I felt every time I watched his show. I wanted to tell him that simply knowing he was out there was a comfort to me, because it made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I could have told him I needed him. But I didn’t. I closed that message dialog, because I thought I was destined, at some point in my life, to meet the guy —at one of his shows, or maybe randomly on a street corner here in New York — and that it’d be better if I saved it for when I did. I think subconsciously, I believed we’d somehow become friends one day.

I never sent the message. We will never be friends. I’ve never felt so alone.

I’d Rather Google Didn’t Take Me There

A response to Google Really Wants to Take You There

If you ask anyone working in tech what technology’s role is in 2018, chances are they’ll tell you it’s something along the lines of “to make the world a better place.” The phrase has basically become the tech industry’s unofficial slogan, famous to the point that it was even parodied on an episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley, in which Gavin Belson un-ironically proclaims, “I don’t want to live in a world where someone else is making the world a better place better than I am!” Though it’s hardly a modest goal, it’s certainly not a bad one. Indeed, if every product produced in the valley was actually born out of an honest round table discussion on how to make the world a better place, it might be easier to overlook the arrogance, sexism, and tone deafness that goes into producing those products. Unfortunately though, this is not our reality.

When computers first started to make an appearance in our lives, software wasn’t nearly as capable as it is today. In fact, just about all it was good for was automating and rapidly completing predetermined tasks. As it turns out, that wasn’t a bad thing–our pre-tech lives were crammed full of menial obligations like filling out tax forms, managing schedules, accounting, typing and copying documents, and all kinds of other drudgery that had the potential to be massively improved through increased efficiency. If it takes me an hour of clicking through TurboTax to file my taxes vs ten hours of manually filling out and mailing IRS forms, my life has unequivocally been made better. But over the last several decades, two major changes have taken place in tech. First, the technology itself has advanced significantly, to the point that automation is no longer the only tool in the toolbox. And second, most of the problems that can be solved simply by introducing an element of efficiency have been solved. This means that in order to truly make the world a better place, today’s solutions should look quite different from the solutions of the 90’s.

And yet they don’t. And it’s not necessarily because tech doesn’t care about improving the world, but rather, because after decades of conflating “making things more efficient” with “making the world a better place”, tech has lost the ability to tell the difference between the two, and has mistakenly adopted a near-religious ideology in which those two ideas are one and the same. Consequently, faith in the power of efficiency to solve all our problems is becoming increasingly blind.

For an industry that prides itself on its ability to test and make data-driven decisions, one would expect that tech would make studying whether its products actually accomplish its primary goal–making the world a better place–its number one priority. But somehow in tech, efficiency is exempt from scrutiny, and products that are more efficient are indisputably better than those that aren’t.

The New York Times recently ran an article in its travel section entitled, Google Really Wants to Take You There. On the surface, it wasn’t much more than a thinly veiled advertisement for Google’s suite of travel tools, covering such purportedly innovative features as “the ability to book flights directly through Google instead of going through a third party like Expedia” and the new “blue navigation bar that lets users easily move between flight and hotel options”. But reading deeper into the article, a bigger issue emerged.

Peppered with phrases like “one-stop” and ”on-the-go” a theme starts to develop: vacation is too inefficient. And just as you’re beginning to wonder where exactly these Google engineers are traveling such that they think the problem with vacation in 2018 is that it takes too long, they hit you with the pièce de résistance: the Google Pixel Buds. The pitch for these things reads like another excerpt from an episode of Silicon Valley:

Let’s say you’re in a cafe in Provence. You begin by gently pressing the right earbud touch pad and saying, “Google, help me speak French.”

“Sure,” the Google assistant virtual helper will say, “opening Google Translate” (the app must be installed on a Google Pixel phone for this to work). When the waiter comes by, you can touch the right earbud again and say: “May I have a coffee with milk and a glass of water, please?”  Google Assistant will then speak aloud on the phone in French what you just said in English. When the waiter replies in French, you’ll hear his words translated into English in your ear. Throughout the exchange, the phone will transcribe the conversation in English and French, enabling both parties to read on the screen the words being spoken.

Even if that entire experience goes according to plan and miraculously does not devolve into a cringe-worthy mess of “errr…uhh… hang on a sec”, it’s a sad state of affairs when one of the largest and most successful companies in the world believes such a product is not only necessary, but a superior alternative to simply communicating with one’s fellow human beings via universally human signals like hand gestures. The idea here is that communicating across a language barrier is fundamentally inefficient, and therefore can be improved. But that idea is wrong, because culture doesn’t suffer as a result of its inefficiency–it benefits from it. Even if hand gestures were more challenging and less efficient (they aren’t), it’s hard to imagine a world in which using them is somehow an inferior experience to this technological, anti-humanist mess. Does one not travel to France to experience the French? If speaking English is a priority, are there not plenty of places to get delicious French food right here at home? An experience this embarrassing could only have been designed by someone who was so caught up in the quest for efficiency, they never even stopped to question where the value in travel actually comes from.

Culture is fundamentally inefficient. It is what happens when one chooses to intentionally do something the less efficient way. Because efficiency is absolute, there can be only one most efficient way to make food, one most efficient way to dress, one most efficient way to travel. But whenever someone chooses to eat something that’s not Soylent, wear something that’s not a tshirt and jeans, or walk somewhere instead of drive, they are accepting that there’s value in inefficiency itself. Consequently, it makes no sense to try to improve the experience of appreciating culture by eliminating the very thing that created it. If tech actually wants to improve travel, it’s going to have to exit this ideological box and focus on problems that are actually problems.

As a founder of a tech company myself, I recognize that efficiency as a solution has its place; I would never argue that it’s not useful as a problem solving tool. But not everything benefits from efficiency, and it’s important we learn to make the distinction. Thanks to tech, we now have more free time to enjoy ourselves than ever before. But if we’re not careful, we might accidentally automate away the best parts of life–including the ones we wanted the free time for in the first place.

Bike lanes and right turns: Who designed this system?

A friend of mine recently gave up on Los Angeles after being mowed down on his bike by an uninsured SUV driver making a right turn. He’s now living in Seattle. We lost one of the good ones, guys.

I’ve always thought right turn lanes were a threat to people on bicycles, but this incident in particular got me thinking about it a bit more seriously, and in doing so, I’m becoming increasingly baffled as to how we came up with the system we have.

right hook

First things first, let me be clear: no matter what anyone does, right turns are always going to be a mess. If both the driver and the cyclist are turning, most intersections produce a situation in which a driver must drive in the bike lane in order to make a right turn. The only time that doesn’t happen is when the street being turned onto also has a bike lane, which means that the driver and the cyclist both have a lane and don’t need to merge, but in the much more common case where the road being turned onto does not have a bike lane, the driver must merge into the bike lane before making the turn in order to avoid crashing (via a “right hook”) into any cyclists that might also be making that turn. Like I said, it’s a mess, but even so, it’s nothing compared to what happens when a cyclist is going straight.

Criss cross crash cycling

When a cyclist goes straight, there’s this little dance that happens between her and the cars that are turning right. They essentially need to trade places; the cyclist must move to the left of the right turn lane so that she’s not blocking the driver’s turn. When this happens, the paths of cars and cyclists form an X. If you need a refresher on why that’s a problem, please enjoy the best commercial ever.

Needless to say, this is an extremely dangerous situation, and when you throw someone into one of those, at the very least, you should let them know that it’s about to happen. A lot of cities around the world figured that one out pretty easily, coming up with solutions like this:

Green paint in Chicago reminding drivers that they're crossing cyclists' path.
Green paint in Chicago reminding drivers that they’re crossing cyclists’ path.
Bike boxes put cyclists in front of cars so that they're not in a turning driver's blind spot.
Bike boxes put cyclists in front of cars so that they’re not in a turning driver’s blind spot.

Despite everyone else’s success though, Los Angeles has failed to rise to the challenge. The vast majority of bike lane-equipped intersections I’ve seen here look like this one on Los Angeles St, next to City Hall:

Screen-Shot-2015-03-02-at-11.46

Seriously. That’s a solution someone came up with.

This may as well be the transit equivalent of that movie The Purge–for a brief moment, all rules are abandoned; What happens during that moment is anyone’s best guess. Cyclists have no idea where they’re supposed to be, and drivers have no idea they’re about to enter a bike lane. It’s perfect chaos.

The absolute worst thing about the above situation though is that the dotted line that used to be the right boundary of a vehicle lane turns into the right boundary of the bike lane! That gives the very clear message that the bike lane is on the left side of the current lane, and that there should not be any cyclists on the other side of that line, exactly the place where they’re going to be as they cross over to where the bike lane continues. If that paint has any effect on traffic, it’s to make cycling more dangerous, not safer.

Come on guys. This is a really simple fix. I need to know: What’s the deal? Why are we doing it this way? Is there some ill-conceived engineering guideline that no one has ever bothered to change? Is it a cost-cutting technique? Or has literally no one ever even given it a thought?

No matter what the answer, something needs to be done, because we’ve let this go on long enough. It’s a simple change that will make a huge difference and save a lot of lives.

The problem with parking: My note to the Arts District HCNC

Last night when we were discussing the Arts District Development Plan, Mark said something that really stood out to me. He said that if we do this right, which we absolutely should, the Arts District could serve as a model for development in the rest of the city. I completely agree, and that’s everything I ever wanted for this neighborhood. But if being a role model for the future of Los Angeles is indeed our goal, rewriting that plan is not going to be enough, because at every single one of these meetings I’ve attended, we’re entirely overlooked the one thing that is going to rip our neighborhood apart at the seams: the parking.

Without sounding like a broken record, the way we’re treating parking in this neighborhood is naive. Every developer that rolls through proposes building a parking garage that’s essentially the same size as the development itself, and though we do push back a little on height and location, it’s mainly on the grounds that such structures are ugly. I’m happy that there’s any pushback at all, but in this day and age, there is so much available research documenting the detrimental effects of parking on communities that the aesthetics of a garage are the least of my concerns.

I was blown away when at the first ADC meeting I attended several months ago, our residents were asking developers for assurance that their new developments would provide enough parking so as not to impact the current parking situation in the neighborhood. Parking does not work that way. Providing additional parking does nothing more than encourage people to drive into the neighborhood, because the easier it is to park, the more likely people are to drive. Then, when everyone chooses to drive, the parking fills up, and it’s once-again a problem. Then we’re stuck with this situation where we have twice as much parking disrupting the fabric of the neighborhood, but just as much of a parking problem as before. Is that what we want?

This phenomenon has a name, and I recently wrote an article about it. Counterproductive as it may seem, the best thing you can do to keep the parking problem from getting worse is to allow for as little parking as possible when these new developments come in. That ensures that that the people moving into them are people who are planning on walking, biking, and using transit, not relying on their car. Smart cities have recognized this, and have abolished the concept of parking minimums for developers. Of course, developers aren’t going to be happy with that idea since it interferes with their ability to shower potential tenants in amenities, but these developers also have no incentive to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood, so why are we cutting them so much slack? Remember, the people who are moving into the neighborhood in 2014 are the people who can afford it, and often times, those people just aren’t a good fit. They drive in and drive out, contributing nothing to the sense of community here. There’s one guy who lives in the Savoy building whom I’ve never met, nor have I even seen his face, but I know him because he’s nearly run me over in his Porsche on several occasions blindly entering and leaving his parking garage. That guy takes from the community, and he offers nothing in return. If we keep building all this parking, those are the kinds of people we will continue to get. But we can fix that problem. If we were to build buildings that instead of having 150% parking capacity had only 50% capacity, that would not only enable the developers to dramatically cut the costs of the project itself, allowing for lower rents that artists can afford, but it would also keep the toxic people out by refusing to grant them access to the amenities they can’t live without. Artists are far more likely to live without a car than than others, especially in Los Angeles.

For all the same reasons as above, it’s extremely frustrating to hear talk of “parking relief.” There is no such thing as parking relief. There will never be such a thing. We need to face the facts: the Arts District has become a desirable neighborhood, and all the development we’re doing in it is only making it more desirable. There is no desirable neighborhood in the world that has ever solved the parking problem, because solving the parking problem would mean that every single person that wants to park in the neighborhood has a spot when they want it. Can you imagine what that would look like? That’s an insane number of cars. How could we fix that many cars in one place without it looking like LAX? And yes, there are places out there that do not have parking problems, but they’re places like Burbank, where parking is provided at the expense of any sense of community or authenticity. Burbank is not desirable. It’s not a destination. That’s why they don’t have a parking problem. It’s also the reason I don’t live in Burbank. 

The Arts District of 15 years ago wasn’t a desirable location for most people, and that is in fact the only reason there was no parking problem. Those days are gone. We have to stop talking about them as if they’re coming back, because we sound like those people who talk about the original days of the freeway in Los Angeles, where the was never a traffic problem. There will never be parking relief in the Arts District, and if you think otherwise, you’re fooling yourself. It’s like a drug addition; The only relief we’ll get will eventually just be responsible for making the problem even worse. Let’s move past it. Let’s build the best community we can in acceptance of that fact.

The thing is though, all of the above pales in comparison to the most important point: We talk about being a roll model for the future of LA, but that vision can only come to fruition if we actually plan for the future. We’re not currently doing that. Look at the revolution we’ve seen in transportation over the last couple years. Über and Lyft have gone from nothing to commonplace in our lives. Google’s self driving cars are so close to ready that we can expect to see them carrying passengers within five years. There are excellent case studies out there documenting the impact that such technology will have on the future of transportation, and all of them point to a future where car ownership is in massive decline. One such study estimated that self driving cars would reduce the number of cars on the street by a factor of eleven. This is due to the fact that instead of being parked when you’re not using it, the car you just got out of will then head somewhere else to pick up the next guy. That being the case, what is our neighborhood going to look like years down the line when we’ve sacrificed so much land that could have been used for people to instead cater to the cars that are no longer there? It’s not like a parking garage is a temporary structure—these things are going to be around 50 years from now, even if the cars aren’t. That needs to be a consideration in making these decisions.

Guys, the thing that makes the Arts District so wonderful is the community. I know we all believe in that community. It’s why we do what we do. But we’re not being smart enough about preserving it. We’re putting personal interests ahead of our collective interests. We’re making decisions based on gut instead of facts, and we’re making mistakes that are really going to hurt us down the line. All the space we’re devoting to cars is space that we’re not using for people. It’s space that can’t be used to roast coffee. It’s space that can’t be used to make art. It’s space where you can’t walk your dog. It’s space that 20 years from now might be considered nothing more than blight.

I’m not proposing that we do away with parking altogether. Obviously cars are a necessary part of live for a lot of people and will be for the foreseeable future. But while I do see a need for them, I don’t see the need to encourage them. We should be smart about the way we offer infrastructure to cars, and free parking for all is not the way to do it.

In Tokyo, the interiors all their city blocks have parks, restaurants, and public art. Every block there is a community unto itself, open to both the residents of that block and the people simply wandering past. It’s amazing. We can have that here. We can be a role model for livability. We can turn Los Angeles on its head. We can do it all, if only we set our priorities straight. 

Please, let’s stop the parking.

Thanks for listening,

Stephen

The DTLA fire that may actually have done us a favor

Last night a huge fire broke out in Downtown LA near the intersection of the 101 and 110 freeways. I was fast asleep at the time, but after being awoken by a handful of text messages checking to make sure I was out of harm’s way, I hopped on the computer to check out what had actually happened. After mapping the location of the fire, I knew exactly which construction site they were talking about.

Palmer Da Vinci Burned down Palmer Da Vinci Burned down

Geoff Palmer building

The building affected was an under-construction apartment complex by developer Geoff Palmer. If you’ve ever driven in or around DTLA before, you’ve seen his buildings. They’re the unapologetically out of place, faux-Italian fortresses that decorate the freeways in the area, stretching from South Park along the 110 all the way to Chinatown on the north end. To be blunt, people hate them. Palmer has been accused time and again of having no respect for neighborhoods. His complexes destroy community, alienating neighbors with closed doors and barricaded facades in the name of exclusivity. A post on Curbed LA (from only 2 weeks ago!) fumed:

His squat, nearly-identical fortresses, with embarrassing names like the Visconti and the Medici, aren’t just ugly (although they are very ugly), they’re vacuums designed to suck the life out of a neighborhood that has worked so hard to become lively in the past decade.

Even the USC students who do succumb to the allure of cheesy amenities like swimming pools and gyms don’t stay convinced for long. Not a single one of Palmer’s downtown complexes breaks the 2.5 star mark on Yelp, and most of them are far below that.

Your maintenance will never get done.  Requests are rarely attended to.  Oh, and they’ve had both rats and fecal matter on my floor.

Geoff Palmer doesn’t care about people, and he doesn’t care about neighborhoods. His buildings are rotten cliches that pay more insult than homage to the Italian architecture they weakly attempt to emulate, and their foul presence in the neighborhood actively defies downtown’s authenticity. Palmer moved into the neighborhood because he saw the potential to make a lot of money on the growing demand for housing, and that’s exactly what he’s doing.

When I realized that the building burning down last night was Geoff Palmer’s latest development–yet another culture-void fortress doomed to endless 1-star Yelp reviews–I caught myself feeling almost excited. For years, I’ve wished there was something I could do to voice my opinion about those awful buildings–it’s actually one of the reasons I decided to start CityGrows–, but Palmer is wisely unavailable via social media, as he knows he’d get torn to shreds by the array of people negatively affected by his projects. His absence on the internet blocks any possibility for discussion, and it keeps people from rallying against him by simply eliminating the forum. There’s no way to push back against him at all.

No one knows what started the fire that burned down Geoff’s building last night. Maybe some construction equipment at the site malfunctioned, or maybe a nearby car caught on fire, I don’t know. But what I do know, is that it rained quite a lot last week. And what I do know is that that building was surrounded by a rather large swath of un-burnable material. And what I do know, is that when you make a lot of enemies and piss a lot of people off and deny those people an outlet to vent their frustration, they’re likely to find other ways to do so.

I’m not saying I think someone burned down Geoff Palmer’s building on purpose. All I’m saying is I wouldn’t be surprised.