The architecture of music

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And vice versa, with painting thrown in. This is the subject of a fascinating essay written a decade ago by Steven Semes, author more recently of one of my bibles, The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism and Historic Preservation. First written for the American Arts Quarterly, “Le Voilon d’Ingres” was republished recently by the online journal of the Future Symphony Institute, which seeks to “orchestrate a renaissance” in classical music, classical architecture and classical art.

The title of “Le Voilon d’Ingres: Some Reflections on Music, Painting and Architecture” refers to the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s violin and its artistic qualities as a physical instrument. “The instrument he plays is a composition of molding profiles drawn from classical architecture – torus, scotia, bead and cyma recta – culminating in a spiral resembling the volute of an Ionic capital.” This leads, after some notations on other artists who have immersed themselves in more than one art, into Semes’s admirable thoughts on how the various classical arts reflect each other. I will quote several passages and you can click on the link above to read the rest.

[W]e often find it natural to speak of the architecture of music or the musicality of architecture. What is the source of this connection? Goethe’s famous definition of architecture as “frozen music” is suggestive, but not very specific. My sense is that there are three fundamental points of intersection between music and the visual arts: the first is the analogy between tonality and perspective, the second is their common interest in proportion, and the third is their non-representational, nonverbal expressiveness.

In an architectural analogue to musical space, commuters entering Grand Central Terminal [see below] in New York from 42nd Street pass through a low vestibule into the generously proportioned Vanderbilt Hall, continue through a Piranesian passage where ramps lead to the lower levels, and finally emerge into the great concourse, a crescendo worthy of Beethoven. It is not only the spaces themselves that impress us, but the way the elements enclosing them are organized compositionally. We see walls, floors and ceilings punctuated by openings and organized proportionally by the classical orders – the exact opposite of randomness.

Modern cosmology debunked this ancient picture of the cosmos as mysticism, a view paralleled in Schoenberg’s dismissal of tonality as an arbitrary convention and the modernist architects’ dismissal of the classical orders as relics of an exhausted past.

In recent decades, however, there has been growing scientific interest in the formative power of naturally occurring patterns as a far more complex cosmology slowly emerges. Scientists are interested in pattern and proportion once again. Neuroscience is beginning to reveal ways in which pattern-recognition is built into the complex and subtle mechanisms of the brain. From this viewpoint, classical music and architecture are analogous, not just because they reflect one another, but because they reflect us and the way our minds work. It should come as no surprise, then, that both music and architecture today are engaged in retrieving their respective traditional languages: melody, tonality, proportion, ornament, the classical orders – the whole lot.

Whatever music Ingres played on his violin, it did not express definite thoughts about a non-musical subject that could be restated in words. Architecture, too, may be intensely expressive, communicating strong feelings purely by manipulation of “space, mass, line, and coherence” (to borrow Geoffrey Scott’s terms), but it cannot say anything definite about a non-architectural subject. This is why architecture needs decorative painting and sculpture to introduce narrative content, and why music relies on sung or spoken words for the same purpose.


Grand Central Terminal. (

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Explore the world with AIA

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Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona. (

The American Institute of Architects has announced its sponsorship of a new set of tours that even I would be happy to take. They are not the tours I would expect the AIA to host, not with its almost exclusively modernist agenda. That isn’t to say its tour brochure, “Explore the world through architectural adventures,” published on, excludes modern architecture. You are advised (as a sort of “trigger warning”) that Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao is on the tour of the Atlantic coast of Europe, and that Antoni Gaudi is the designer of “Modernist” marvels.

What struck me, rather, was how much care was taken to assure potential tour-goers that they will not have to put up with modernism exclusively. For example, text for its tour of London refers to “towering triumphs,” and the modernist heart surely flutters at the prospect of mounting the Shard. But then we learn it’s just Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s.

I’m sure the AIA wants to make money. Focusing on the world’s iconic modernist buildings probably would not help sell tour packages, any more than atonal music helps fill seats at a concert hall. Music directors usually sandwich such ear-benders – which they somehow feel a sort of scholarly mandate to program – between classical masterpieces so it’s harder to avoid a Bartók without missing something you like. How much easier it would be to simply drop a modernist tour brochure into the wastebasket and forget it!

So while the AIA leadership cabal must cringe, they are doing the right thing. In these big-ticket fundraising efforts, the marketing folks must be paid heed.

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Will the real Seagram Building please stand up?

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On Sunday I posted “Tom Wolfe and Henry Reed,” and to my mortification was informed by a reader that the Seagram Building was not the building in the photo I used to illustrate the piece. I plead guilty. Who could tell? Well, R. Hjorth could, and did. The primary building in the photo is the Chicago Federal Center, also designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. I am not seeking sympathy; an error is an error and the punishment of its revelation fits the crime. But I do wonder why it is a crime to “copy the past” – as modernists always accuse traditional architects of doing – only if beauty is involved.

So, guess which is the Seagram Building? The one on top or the one below?

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Paris, in danger, needs you

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Here is a video, “SOS Paris: Notre capitale a besoin de nous,” running four and a half minutes of mostly still shots adding up, in a most piquant manner, to the danger facing Paris if its mayor has her way. Contact SOS Paris for more information.

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Tom Wolfe and Henry Reed

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The Seagram Building (r.) designed by Mies van der Rohe. (

I have been finishing up my book Lost Providence, girding my loins on the adrenaline rush of Tom Wolfe’s 1981 bestseller From Bauhaus to Our House. How to select a great passage to quote? Well, one way is to quote a passage that includes the late Henry Hope Reed, one of my heroes, who founded Classical America, now the Institute of Classical Architect & Art, on whose New England chapter’s board I have sat for close to a decade.

Just before the passage below, Wolfe describes how, in the 1950s, as modern architecture took hold, office workers would shove “filing cabinets, desks, wastepaper baskets, potted plants, up against the floor-to-ceiling sheets of glass, anything to build a barrier against the panicked feeling that they were about to pitch headlong into the streets below. … And by night the custodial staff, the Miesling police, under strictest orders, invaded and pulled down these pathetic barricades. … Eventually, everyone gave up and learned, like the haute bourgeoisie above him, to take it like a man.”

Right after that, Wolfe describes how society came to believe, as claimed by such founding modernists as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his “Miesling” followers, that beautiful buildings simply could not be built anymore.

They even learned to accept the Mieslings’ two great pieces of circular reasoning. To those philistines who were still so gauche as to say that the new architecture lacked the richness of detail of the old Beaux-Arts architecture, the plasterwork, the metalwork, the masonry, and so on, the Mieslings would say with considerable condescension: “Fine. You produce the craftsmen who can do that kind of work, and then we’ll talk to you about it. They don’t exist anymore.” True enough. But why? Henry Hope Reed tells of riding across West Fifty-third Street in New York in the 1940s in a car with some employees of E. F. Caldwell & Co., a firm that specialized in bronze work and electrical fixtures. As the car passed the Museum of Modern Art building, the men began shaking their fists at it and shouting: “That goddamn place is destroying us! Those bastards are killing us!” In the palmy days of Beaux-Arts architecture, Caldwell had employed a thousand bronzeurs, marble workers, model makers, and designers. Now the company was sliding into insolvency, along with many similar firms. It was not that craftsmanship was dying. Rather, the International Style was finishing off the demand for it, particularly in commercial construction.

Wolfe then goes on to debunk the second piece of circular reasoning employed by the modernists to snooker the rest of us into “taking it like a man.” (The International Style is the term by which modern architecture was then widely known.)

By the same token, to those who complained that International Style buildings were cramped, had flimsy walls inside as well as out, and, in general, looked cheap, the knowing response was: “These days it’s too expensive to build in any other way.” But it was not too expensive, merely more expensive. The critical point was what people would or would not put up with aesthetically. It was possible to build in styles even cheaper than the International Style. For example, England began to experiment with schools and public housing constructed like airplane hangers, out of corruga- ted metal tethered by guy wires. Their architects also said: “These days it’s too expensive to build in any other style.” Perhaps one day soon everyone (tout le monde) would learn to take this, too, like a man.

From Bauhaus to Our House was published in 1981, but you still hear the same excuses today, even as the ranks of craft artisans has grown, and even as the technologies to fabricate classical architectural embellishments have greatly reduced the cost, whether it be to carve decoration from natural materials or manufacture it with manmade materials. At the same time, the cost of modern architecture has risen drastically, not just because the price of oil has risen drastically since the 1950s, but because the sustainability of erecting, operating and maintaining buildings on the basis of a cheap-oil economy is in drastic decline. You need not believe the most dire predictions of climate change in order to embrace the need for architecture that is more in sync with climate. Even the “gizmo green” gadgetry modern architects use to obtain often-bogus LEED certification ultimately increases cost and reduces sustainability compared with alternative carbon footprint reduction strategies inherent in traditional architecture.

There is virtually nothing modernists say in defense of their architecture that is valid or even factually based. Many of them know that, and the art of defending modernism has been in steep decline for decades. But no need for better reasons exists because the modernist establishment retains a largely undiminished power to prevent traditional work from vying on a level playing field with modernist work for major commissions. The architectural establishment is no less to blame for the ugliness of our built environment than are other elites who have prevented reforms in our social, economic, educational and other institutions. Their leaders have been calmly observing the failure of society’s systems for decades. Only the pay scales for the 1 percent appear to be immune from this lack of concern for how badly everything else in society works. (Where is the outrage!)

The main difference is that it would be so much easier to fix the way cities and towns look than to cure those many other ills of society. Perhaps in fixing the built environment we could create settings in which our ability to fix those problems might improve because addressing them amid beauty and civility might better facilitate solutions.

Just wondering. My book is due to come out in April.


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Bodell estate shenanigans

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Entrance to the Bodell estate, at 25 Balton Rd., Providence. (

So, a little dip into the tall grass of small development. Question of the day: Where is the line between a major and a minor property subdivision? On Tuesday night there was again no quorum at the City Plan Commission for an item on the agenda: the subdivision of the Bodell estate, a mansion on the East Side at 25 Balton Rd., near Blackstone Boulevard. Its owner wants to build five more houses on the land.

The situation, according to one theorist familiar with Rhode Island General Laws Section 45-23-38, is this. The application to subdivide the Bodell estate received its certificate of completeness from the city on Aug. 10. The CPC was without a quorum for this agenda item on Aug. 16 and again on Sept. 20. Two members recused themselves and two have not had their appointments to the CPC confirmed by City Council. Under the law, if 65 days pass without a ruling by the CPC on the subdivision, it is automatically approved. That will be on Oct. 14, four days before the next meeting, slated for Oct. 18.

One of the CPC members to recuse herself, Chairwoman Christine West, is an architect and is apparently being considered (or has already been hired) to design the five new houses the subdivision would enable. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, although eyebrows might very well pop upward at the possibility that her recusal helps set the stage for an automatic approval of the subdivision – again, if it is a minor subdivision. In its section on definitions, the law reads:

(25) Minor subdivision. A plan for a subdivision of land consisting of five (5) or fewer units or lots, provided that the subdivision does not require waivers or modifications as specified in this chapter.

Since the owner of the Bodell estate contemplates five new houses in addition to the existing mansion, it would seem the land is being divided into six lots. That would seem to be a major subdivision. Provided that, etc., etc., so who really knows?  Or maybe the Bodell estate is actually two lots already, and it is the unbuilt lot that is being divided into five units. That possibility is suggested by a map shown below, which was sent out to the Blackstone neighborhood. Either way, neighbors have reason to be wary and to keep their eyes and ears open, and to attend meetings.

The concern in the neighborhood is that if the Bodell subdivision goes through, the owners of the old Granoff estate might try again and a number of other owners of large land parcels in the district might also start to get ideas. The character of the Blackstone neighborhood, already drastically diminished in the past half century by insensitive development, could await another major downhill slide.

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No surrender to Gehry Ike

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Sculpural grouping in proposed Ike memorial design. (Gehry Partners)

News that the Eisenhower family has been flipped and now supports the design of a proposed memorial to their patriarch by celebrity architect Frank Gehry is depressing, and maybe even predictable, but it’s too early for opponents of the monstrosity to throw in the towel.

Congress, which has a say in the matter, was not notified of the development. Leading members of the Appropriations Committee learned of it only when they got calls from the Washington Free Beacon for a story, “Eisenhower Family Reverses Opposition to Memorial Design.” Beacon reporter Blake Seitz wrote, “The proposed changes are notable in that they do not seem to address the criticisms leveled against the Gehry design by the Eisenhower family when it first announced its opposition in 2012.”

In particular, the steel tapestry (source of its “Iron Curtain” nickname) will remain but will be reconfigured to show the beaches of Normandy today. But the press release asserted that the changes will include increased focus on Eisenhower’s home state – a seeming contradiction, especially inasmuch as the Eisenhowers opposed the tapestry more than its subject, originally trees on a plain in Kansas, and argued that the memorial should pay less attention to his origins and more to his accomplishments.

Removing the tapestry – which with its mammoth blank columns reads more like the substructure of a highway overpass – would render the rest of the memorial much more acceptable to the public. But that will not happen because, to the elites involved in supporting Gehry, a victory for modernism is far more important than a memorial to a leader who is not quite the right cup of tea for most of them.

Anyway, just because the Eisenhower family has bought into a memorial likely to be perceived by future Americans as more about Frank than Ike does not mean that the public must do so. One of the chief arguments of the few supporters of the design was that the memorial should not be held hostage to the approval of Ike’s descendants. Whatever it may have been yesterday, the force of that argument is certainly no less persuasive today.

So those who believe the general should be honored by a memorial that citizens will love and respect should continue to oppose this travesty.

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“We’ll always have Paris”?

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Mary Campbell Gallagher is the founder of the International Coalition for the Preservation of Paris (ICPP) and continues to work with SOS Paris to save the City of Light from the barbarians already inside its gate, such as Mayor Hidalgo. Gallagher has written a brilliant cry of anguish from the heart. Published in France (and hence in French), she sent it (in English) as an email to the TradArch list. Here it is.


How Paris was destroyed

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When the masked thugs of ISIS swing their sledgehammers through Iraq’s museums and dynamite Palmyra, the world gasps and screams. But what if the vandal is a chic Parisian woman wearing high-heeled boots and talking like a visionary? What if her target is the world’s most beloved and most-visited city? Does the world gasp, or does it not even hear what she is saying? “We’ll always have Paris,” Rick tells Elsa in “Casablanca.” Yet now, Mayor Anne Hidalgo says she will “reinvent” Paris. Without putting it to a vote, she will replace the uniquely harmonious city we know with something “modern” and “contemporary.” She will pierce the low horizon with a dozen skyscrapers, replace classic stone facades with rivers of glass, and bury the famous zinc and slate rooftops under new construction. Mon Dieu! Doesn’t anyone get what Paris is doing to itself?

Wake up, world! Mayor Hidalgo will march through Paris like Sherman through Georgia. Cooing soothing words from the lexicon of global capital, she will dot that low skyline with bleeding-edge skyscrapers in bizarre shapes, one a triangle, one a stack of glass boxes, one shaped into two leaning towers. That’s “reinventing.” Right now, Paris is a city of stone. Mayor Hidalgo will add the same concrete-glass-steel texture that has made so many cities worldwide into banal clones. That’s “reinventing.”

Is the world really so narcotized, so mesmerized, by the words “modern” and “contemporary,” so intimidated by the stars of international architecture and commerce, so distracted by the mayor’s elegant appearance, that it can value Palmyra and forget Paris?

And can anyone really believe the mayor’s claims? Can any solar-panel magic make these glass structures sustainable? Will corporate behemoths really flock to Paris once another skyscraper, like the much-despised Tour Montparnasse, looms over the city’s six- and eight-story buildings?

As U.S. liaison for SOS Paris, the French preservationist group, and as founder of the International Coalition for the Preservation of Paris, I know this battle is just a skirmish in a larger war for Paris. We honor humanity’s delight in the uniqueness of beloved cities, Paris among them. Out-spent and out-publicized, fragilely-funded Davids, we fight for urban traditions that reach through the long and tumultuous history of Paris, defending against globalized, standardized, architecture.

The Goliaths in this drama are the deep-pocketed international corporations, star architects, and politicians at City Hall. They are the city’s free-spending promoters, pushing for a glitzier Paris. They call it a more “innovative” Paris. But that turns out to be a Paris that looks like New York, Tokyo, and all the other corporate capitals.

The mayor scored a big win last summer, when the highest administrative appeals court in France allowed City Hall to depart from the planning code and issue a building permit that

will rupture the beauty of historic central Paris. Giant luxury-goods purveyor LVMH, the court said, can plunk—if you can believe it—an enormous undulating glass wall among the rows of classic stone facades on a quintessentially Parisian street, the Rue de Rivoli. Seven stories tall, without doors or windows, and at 265 feet nearly as long as a football field, it will loom up like a spaceship in central Paris.

The appeals court stressed that this alien structure is “contemporary.” But as the lower court said, in this context, it is “dissonant.” Put it in a shopping mall near a highway, and it may be beautiful. In central Paris, the ideal of urbanity, that facade is the rowdy drunk who crashes the party. Now the Rue de Rivoli will lose its glamour by a thousand cuts, one facade screaming louder than the next.

Developers argue that without such intrusions, Paris will become a museum, like Venice. In fact, Paris is one of the liveliest cities on earth. Can a glass facade disrupting the Rue de Rivoli make Paris livelier? Attract international corporations? Show me how! We preservationists do not oppose development. And Olivier de Monicault, the president of SOS Paris, freely agrees that since we must continue to build inside Paris, “demolitions are unavoidable.” We want Paris to be vital and alive, to grow. In harmony with its traditions.

City Hall has traded French elegance for globalized disruptiveness. Let the world cry out as loudly for Paris as for Palmyra! Support the people of Paris.

It is heartbreaking to think what may be lost.


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Bodell subdivide on Tuesday

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Just a reminder that the City Plan Commission is scheduled to have the proposed subdivision of the Bodell estate on its agenda this coming Tuesday at 4:45 p.m., at the planning department on 444 Westminster Street. The address of the Bodell mansion is 25 Balton Rd., but the estate’s subdivision into five additional parcels to build on is listed as having a Rochambeau Avenue address. My earlier post on this, “The next Blackstone battle?,” ran on August 14. The CPC meeting scheduled soon after failed to reach a quorum so it was postponed until this month.

A strong showing of neighbors might help deter an outcome that, according to some observers, would be bad for the neighborhood. Subdivision might lead to unappealing new houses that diminish the historical character of the district, plus more traffic. A subdivision of the Granoff estate was thwarted by citizen activism a year and a half ago but a victory for the developers on Balton Street could lead to a reversal in the case of the Granoff estate, whose owner wanted to subdivide it into 12 lots. I wrote several posts on this.

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Lovely Rita, meter maid!

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Parking meters on blocks of shops in Providence are not only purging business. It seems as if lovely Rita the Meter Maid may be going the way of the Dodo. I hope not.

Friday I drove downtown to shoot the famous napkin that got the Providence renaissance really going. Architect Friedrich St. Florian safeguards it as a relic of civic revitalization. His office is in the beautiful Francis Building, built in 1894. My gorge rose, however, as I puttered down Westminster in search of a parking space, and realized it was Park(ing) Day. Spaces that I might have parked in were occupied by temporary “parklets” with young people lounging in chairs next to potted plants, chatting amongst themselves, listening to music and taking up perfectly good parking spaces. The idea, I think, is to promote carlessness, a laudable goal. I went carless by choice in 1999-2004, when I was living in a loft downtown, with a great view between City Hall and the Old Journal Building, before I found a wife, had a kid and moved in 2010 to the East Side. (“You can’t raise a child without a backyard!” everyone said. “Manhattan, anyone?” was my feckless reply). Carlessness was truly great, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. But I am a Rhode Islander. Do I not have the right to park within 50 feet of my destination?

My bile soon evaporated, however, when I found a parking space right next to a parklet. And it was free. There was no meter at all. Yesterday we visited the chalk sketchings at the skating rink. We found free parking on Exchange Terrace. But it was not really free. Someone had already paid and left with almost an hour on the meter. The meter ahead of us had even more time on it, but we did not realize that until after leaving the car.

Maybe that was because they had the same problem I sometimes have. On those rare occasions when I cannot find a “free” spot and have no quarters, I use my debit card to feed the meter. But I can’t figure out how to adjust the time I want to an amount below the $2.50 max. So I end up ripping myself off. But don’t worry: I blame Mayor Elorza.

These random parking thoughts remind me that a friend recently reminded me of the post I’d written, “The parking idiocy,” after Kenneth Dulgarian had written a Journal oped slicing up the city’s campaign to meter every parking space in the city. Downtown has lost all too many buildings over the years to parking lots, driving people out of town. If things had kept going that way, the only reason to go downtown would have been to park your car. Blessedly, the city had an unofficial moratorium on tearing down major buildings for parking. The moratorium lasted a quarter of a century, ending in 2005 under Mayor Cicilline, who virtually declared open season on old buildings, giving us five more “temporary” parking lots. Mayor Elorza seems to have the same cracked idea of city building. It is sometimes difficult for public officials to adventure beyond their first thought on a policy issue: Thought No. 1: Install meters to raise revenue! Got it. Thought No. 2: Piss people off and empty the city! That thought never gets thought: the unthinkable.

It appears that the parking meters are driving away business on Thayer Street, where they were installed not long ago. There are now 15 empty storefronts there, and spending at local shops and eateries seems to be down 40 to 70 percent, according to the estimate of my diligent friend. Wayland Square got meters in spite of stiff opposition. Federal Hill got them a while back. Wickenden Street has successfully fought off meters – so far. Upper Hope Street, near where I live, has seen the prospect of meters loom and then fade. For how long, nobody really knows. A parking-meter crusade must be carried out with a certain political deftness, but the city’s campaign seems to pit neighborhood against neighborhood. Are meters in Olneyville next?

There is also evidence that the meters cost so much to administer and maintain that the revenue they raise may be minimal, and probably not worth the angst or the suppression of business (and ultimately tax revenue). Regarding the Journal’s Sept. 6 story “On Thayer Street is the city’s busiest parking meter,” my friend writes: “Projo story today uses slanted numbers.  Cost does not include tax loss from failing business, meter maids and fmen [?] salaries and bennies, repair, and further loss of [city’s] business-friendly reputation.” My own experience with the meters suggests as much.

Some people think meters are good because they increase the incentive to walk or take public transit. And there is truth to that. But the city would probably thrive better under a regime of both free street parking and free public transit. Meter maids would walk around doing what they used to do, marking tires to make sure nobody parks for more than two hours, so that the free parking would not be snapped up by all-day parkers. The cost of free street parking and free public transit would ultimately be covered by the revenues of a city thriving on all nine cylinders. There would be a trial run, and people would flood in with the hope of proving that free parking and transit is good for business. People would have to squish into the city, and more would want to live there instead of having to drive in.

After all, heavy traffic is the sort of problem every city wants to have: It is the signature of success.

On Thayer, Dulgarian has finally removed from his theater marquee the call to sign a petition against the meters, which has so far garnered thousands of John Hancocks. I am glad we are back to movie titles on the marquee. If the Avon’s patronage has gone down of late, was it because of parking meters or because people couldn’t drive by to find out what was playing? Still, good on him for taking a stand, possibly at his own expense.

This just in! reports that Mayor Elorza’s staff advance car was booted on Eddy Street behind City Hall. (The grayish building in the middle distance is the Smith Building where I lived on the fifth floor from 1999 to 2010.)

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