The Catbird Seat

The Catbird Seat – by J.M. Eberhart

Looking to Seattle’s past and future from above the iconic public market

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From the catbird seat at Pike Place Market, I like to watch the docks.

It’s a reminder that blue collar work still exists in this increasingly central locus of the technology industry. The same reason I peer through the chain link fence along the ship canal path at hulking shapes in dry dock and watch the electric shimmer of the welders, forklifts spinning and wheeling and beeping, and the same reason I stop in the woods, the working forest, and poke around, trying to decipher the markings on the trees. To make sure I don’t forget. Down at the docks towering cranes loom like preposterous metal giraffes over ships the size of small towns, pulling, stacking, and moving metal boxes while 18 wheelers roar along frontage and BNSF engines rumble through the rail yard. Big data and cloud computing may be surging, but industry isn’t dead yet.

For me the catbird seat is the Alaska Trade Building at 1917 1st Avenue, a brick and mortar artifact from the age of loggers, grifters, and hookers. I work in an office there. Situated almost directly above iconic Pike Place Market, the four story historic building lies at the boundary of downtown and Belltown, open to sweeping views of Elliott Bay on one side and dwarfed by more modern skyscrapers on the other. Following our previous location hidden away in the ground floor of an anonymous apartment building near the University of Washington, the Pike Place location has proven almost unfathomably cool. Not only close to dining, cultural attractions and easily accessible by transit, but, as a former coworker put it, “with all this exposed brick and ductwork we’re liable to turn into a trendy tapas restaurant.”

Almost immediately the bosses claimed the window seats, and while senior leadership has expressed dismay at onshore flow in the work environment, during meetings or conferences when those desks sit empty we open the windows and luxuriate in the fresh air, the proximity to Pike Place. The sounds of the market and the smells of the Kells fryer and Cantina de San Patricio swell up the alley and suffuse our floor of the building. The market is a sort of welcome intrusion, chatter and aromas rising in the narrow notch of cobblestoned Post Alley, climbing the fire escape, sliding through the open windows and expanding into the corners of the corrals. I sometimes feel as though the voices and scents wafting from below activate something deep and vestigial within the mind, something from the Old World that has been lost to generations.

The view out of the windows facing Puget Sound mostly hypnotizes with familiar rhythms. State ferries to Kitsap County glide predictably back and forth throughout the day. The water taxi speedily shuttles commuters and tourists between downtown and Seacrest Dock. Bulk carriers anchor in the periphery of the bay. The slowly changing seasons are inscribed upon the maple trees of West Seattle across the water, visible only in aggregate as a mass of green, yellow, or brown as summer gives way to fall gives way to winter. Sometimes a police boat screams through the harbor, and occasionally a fireboat runs a drill, spinning in place, firing great jets of water in furious parabolas, preparing for a massive, maritime conflagration, perhaps on a gigantic container ship of the sort that regularly arrives in the harbor.

On a typical week, the mundanity of gravel barges and passenger ferries is broken a few times by one of these stupefyingly large cargo ships. It is faintly alarming to look out the window and suddenly see a ship that seems to occupy a disproportionate amount of the otherwise expansive Elliott Bay. Tugs escort the mammoth vessel past the office windows and into anchorage. Imagine parallel parking a car, only the car is at sea and itself carrying many thousands of other cars for delivery to dealerships across the region or who knows where. Logos such as Hyundai or China Shipping Line, sometimes just initials MSC or APL or OOCL, emblazon the sides of these metal mountains, stacked high with colorful boxes that will be unloaded, restacked, and scattered to the winds. No fanfare is evident to the general, landlocked public. Simply look up, look out, and you may see one of these goliaths plodding in to the port or out to sea. Or you might see nothing at all.

The windows on the other side of the building reveal something very different. Glass and steel reach for the sky with astonishing speed. Concrete forms, scaffolding, and fleets of construction cranes dominate the overhead view. The luxury tower next to our building was recently finished, with many more on the way. Vacant lots transform overnight into pits, ringed by fences draped in view-obstructing fabric and marked with general contractor logos. One day on my walk from the train station I was startled to realize that, where to the best of my recollection a building had stood just a week earlier, excavators were lifting the last bits of rubble into dump trucks. Across similar sites in the increasingly recognizable life cycle of a redeveloped city block, concrete shear walls inch skyward out of the encircled pits, now filled with a foundation, like the old computer game in which a snake increases in length one pixel at a time. Ironworkers follow, assembling the exoskeleton, and glassworkers hang sheathing that hides the carpentry and mechanical work from sidewalk-bound onlookers like myself.

The results are transformative. Amazon’s Doppler and Day One skyscrapers soar over the blurred boundary between downtown and South Lake Union and a line of Ubers four deep snarls 6th Avenue under the testicular bio-spheres: a sleepy neighborhood of warehouses, vacant lots, and historic laundries abutting downtown transformed into a temple for the ruthless efficiency of ecommerce. Bearded tech bros adorned with messenger bags and AWS shirts navigate temporary sidewalks amid ripped up pavement and cement trucks, swarming the public realm beneath glass and steel pillars that often disappear into thick, low-lying marine clouds. Young professionals spill out of new and crush loaded rapid transit buses like water cresting a weir.

Jeff Bezos once quipped, “Amazon is not happening to bookselling. The future is happening to bookselling.” I wonder if the same could be said for Seattle.

In this new knowledge economy of web apps and cloud computing – where visionary tech companies disrupt each other’s disruptions, gleefully tearing down the institutions of 20th century human existence to be replaced with palm-sized computers, server farms, and artificial intelligence – the continued existence of longshoremen, sea captains or shipbuilders seems almost quaint. Hasn’t Bezos created autonomous ships or ironworking drones? Won’t the sea captain of the future look more like a Nest thermostat than a grizzled, salty sea dog? If we’ve learned anything from The Flintstones and The Jetsons, it’s that there were no white collar jobs in the past, and there are no blue collar jobs in the future.

But I don’t know. I stand at the window, watching. A ship hailing from the Marshall Islands is moored at the grain terminal; the Harbor Island slips sit empty. A state ferry loads cars at Colman dock. A bulk carrier sits motionless across the bay. The water taxi sprints to West Seattle while jet planes fly low overhead on final approach to Sea-Tac or Boeing Field. Below in the market, vendors set up in stalls sell produce, fish, trinkets. Sausages and cheese and spices. Honey, preserves, art prints, bouquets. The happy hour crowd orders cocktails and appetizers; the hard luck crowd smokes weed at Steinbrueck Park. The selfies never stop outside the original Starbucks.

On my worst days I think that downtown is for tourists, lawyers, and homeless. On my best days I think that downtown will save us all.

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One afternoon we were smoked out by a fire next door in the upper floors of the Butterworth Building, an old and long abandoned mortuary rumored to be haunted. Fire engines arrived in a flurry of sirens and the authorities closed the entire block. Smoke billowed out of the windows. One engine raised a ladder to the roof, and fire fighters in full suits carrying oxygen tanks and axes charged in the front door. Hoses sprung taught and energized and it seemed like water was rushing everywhere. An onlooker from the market below captured a terrifying image of a fireball shooting out of the window next to the one I had been sitting behind. A crowd formed on the sidewalk and was shooed to the corner of the block. Eventually the smoke died down. The fire was extinguished. I was shaking with adrenaline and went home early, rather than wait to see if our building would be cleared for reentry.

The next day the market was once again bustling, noisy, aromatic. The line out of the ever-popular Biscuit Bitch spilled onto the sidewalk, like it always does, next to our building. Tour groups milled about Steinbrueck Park and business travelers snapped quick cell phone photos of the market sign. Right on schedule at 3 o’clock a standing wave of traffic formed on the viaduct, and, far below, the BNSF tracks screeched and howled and shook with engines and boxcars and tanks of crude. The state ferries dutifully sailed back and forth, churning away from Pioneer Square and streaking towards the towering, rugged majesty of the Olympic Peninsula, disappearing out of sight around corners into sleepy inlets and harbors before reappearing and returning. Cranes plucked containers off cargo ships at the seaport, and a few bulk carriers sat motionless, anchored out of the shipping lanes. Maybe the weather cleared and Mount Rainier commandeered the skyline above the stadiums, or maybe the ever present and frustrating marine layer refused to yield. Behind us, Amazon kept up its relentless march, and tireless programming savants with company issued backpacks continued writing the computer code that scaffolds the modern economy.

Hip professionals tasted samples at the wine bar downstairs. Crowds of commuters amassed a few blocks away, waiting for buses entombed in gridlock. Young women with yoga mats hurried along the sidewalks. Awkward young men bought flowers for their dates.

Another ship entered the bay.

The Demise of the Neighborhood Video Store

I have unexpectedly become a poster child for the Millennial Generation. With a college education I moved to a large coastal city — something I didn’t necessarily want to do but that’s where I could find a job — and find myself unable to afford living expenses. Or at least, I can only afford a unique set of circumstances. It’s hard not to get annoyed at the thinkpieces (I’m pretty sure a “thinkpiece” is just a rebranding of an essay) speculating on the arrested development of Millennials. Why aren’t they buying homes? Why aren’t they marrying? Why aren’t they starting families? I roll my eyes.

After running the numbers and realizing that I just could no longer justify paying the rent on a one bedroom apartment, I moved into a north Seattle two bedroom cottage with three other adults. We are all professionals in our 30s. A local realtor drops a market summary brochure at the doorstep once a month, and I read it for reasons that are unclear. The typical home sale is a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom, 2,000 square foot, mid-century craftsman house for $900k. Sometimes there is a sale or two in the seven hundred thousand range, but most deviations are on the high end. Last month the cheapest sale was for $865k, and the most expensive $1.8 million. The updated yet funky cottage we rent has a Zillow estimated value around $900k, and I believe it.

The kicker, the thing that makes this truly bizarre, is that this is not a luxury neighborhood. Or at least, it doesn’t feel as much. My home for now sits among a grid of unremarkable craftsman houses, with businesses along the busy corridors and a mildly quirky ambiance. Students from the nearby university can be seen waiting at the bus stops, jogging to the lake, drinking at the taverns. Pockets of extreme poverty persist nearby. Sparkling and faceless new money tech aesthetic cafes mingle with long tenured local shops. Many homes look desperately in need of a face lift. When a friend from Alaska visited and we were driving around I tried to explain how most of these homes would sell for a million dollars and he was utterly baffled. It just looked like unremarkable, garden variety housing tracts to somebody coming from Fairbanks.

A legacy of the neighborhood’s past is a video rental store. I honestly hadn’t even thought about video rental in years, assuming that Netflix and streaming had effectively killed the concept of a store that rents physical objects. It seems like video rental has been relegated to similar status as the record store: there is still a niche of tattooed hipsters selling used vinyl and waxing on the brilliance of Yo La Tengo and Arcade Fire, but most people just use Spotify. As it turns out I now live within walking distance of a video store iconic enough to survive, and at the risk of sounding like a retrograde shithead have been renting DVDs.

I think that the history of video rental is instructive. As a kid I absolutely loved our Friday night routine of driving into town for dinner at the pizzeria, a candy bar from the quick stop next door, and a movie from the store across the street. I didn’t think about it at the time, but, looking back, clearly the video store was created by somebody in the community who bought a bunch of VHS tapes, rented some commercial space, and tried to build a business renting movies. This is what politicians are always talking about with the “small businessman.”

The second phase was the corporate takeover. Using a franchise model and economies of scale, huge corporate entities moved into towns and drove the local families out of business, who just couldn’t compete. Neighborhood Video gave way to Blockbuster. That was the transformation of the previous generation: shuttering the local grocers in favor of a WalMart Supercenter near the freeway interchange. Tumbleweeds blowing through main street downtown while the crowds enjoyed abundant selection, favorable prices, and ample parking at the new shopping center by the 405.

But then a new shift happened. Alien had taken over, but Predator showed up. Technological advances in computers and connectivity gave rise to companies like Netflix and Hulu. Even the corporate juggernauts of video rental couldn’t keep up. I think this is consistent with modern technology companies that dominate industries with comparably little capital compared to their predecessors. Like, my quaint and outdated idea of a business is an entity that relies on capital and workers in order to produce goods or exchange services for money. A company buys DVDs, leases commercial space, hires clerks, and loans those DVDs to members of the public in exchange for money. Pretty straightforward. The modern business, however, uses other people’s capital and employs “independent contractors.” Streaming services are eliminating the need for a tangible product such as a DVD, and mega corporate retailers that occupy a physical space are being replaced by mega corporate retailers that occupy “The Cloud.” You have taxi companies that don’t own taxis, hotel companies that don’t own rooms, and as far as I can tell the “product” sold by Facebook and Google is the behavior of its users. It’s a neat trick to profit off of the capital and efforts of other people!

The Bezos-ification of consumer goods has made many elective purchases almost unfathomably cheap, which has corresponded, coincidentally or not, with necessities for living becoming unfathomably expensive. For a pittance I can subscribe to unlimited movies, unlimited streaming, access to every song ever recorded, while at the same time Zillow (another technology company whose business model I don’t understand!) estimates I would need a salary of $160k per year to buy a house.

Here in the neighborhood, where $350k houses have transformed into $850k houses in five or six years, I wonder about the local businesses. At five dollars for a week-long rental, how many nostalgic saps like me have to rent a movie for the video store to maintain their inventory, make rent payments, and pay their clerks a living wage with health care? How many violin lessons would you have to give to lease a studio, buy health insurance, pay the rent, and feed yourself? How does the guy who works at the local running store cover his costs? How many pairs of sneakers do they have to sell so the clerks can cover $2000/month for one bedroom apartment? How does the running store owner afford $700/month per employee for a health insurance plan?

It just seems like everything small scale is being strangled. With the cost of housing, health care, and education, I don’t see how anybody could make it save for Big Tech and companies that service Big Tech or its employees. As my brother describes it, the local business community seems destined for a collapse in diversity.

I can hear the Republicans out there lecturing me on “creative destruction” and “personal responsibility,” and I get those things. They’re important to understand. Just because I enjoyed going to the movie rental store as a kid doesn’t guarantee the continued existence of such stores. I fully acknowledge that reality. But are there choices that we have made as a society that should be examined? Do we want to live in a world where all of human knowledge is at our fingertips if we could just pay the rent? To paraphrase a joke from Lewis Black about the iPod, do we want to live in a world where you can shove 30,000 songs up your ass, but can’t afford to go to the doctor to have them removed?

I would describe the Millennial predicament thusly: go to a thriving city with jobs but no housing, or go to a small town or suburb with housing but no jobs, all the while figuring out how to deal with the backbreaking cost of health care.

Silence

I ran out of things to say.

An owl attack; a car crash. Sometimes it seems like the world is trying to do you in.

Standing in the bus tunnel, waiting alongside a brown-skinned woman wearing a head scarf, the 41 bus.

Reading quietly, a Guardian article on my phone.

Time falls through your hands, slips between your fingers, as you try to scoop it up and clutch it to your chest.

I drink coffee and run in the woods and read the New York City third wave feminist media elite, desperate for a female presence in the gold mining camp that is Seattle, Washington.

I ride the 554E Sound Transit Express to Issaquah, load my bicycle onto the front rack & board at 2nd and Stewart, rest my helmet and backpack on my lap, stare out the window, watch the people board at International District/Chinatown station and reflect on my status as one of very few white people aboard.

Read articles on my phone, of social justice and feminism, Black Lives Matter and toxic masculinity and cultural appropriation, safe spaces and triggers – I studied engineering in college so perhaps this is my retroactive liberal arts education? – and from time to time look up, lazily out the window, the sky and the clouds but mostly the walls of this concrete canyon, like a river that carries not silt and sediment and insects and fish but engines and sirens, stress and humanity.

I’ll lock my bike to a wooden fence and disappear into the ferns and thickets of Tiger Mountain: please oh please don’t throw me into the briar patch, the labyrinth of rocky and root-filled, winding and overgrown, hilly trails in the forest — a little pond in the clearing, creeks rushing down overgrown gulleys, radio towers standing watch on the hilltops. Here, I’m Brer Rabbit.

The return bus is full, festive – a Sounders match at the Clink? – suburbanites voyaging for a Saturday afternoon urban adventure. Families and groups of teens and the air crackles with energy, jokes, playfulness. We pick up more people at Eastgate and head across the lake. I’m falling into sleep…

I got stung by a wasp and fell in a mud puddle.

I think about letters I could write, to my heroes in journalism, expressing my admiration and appreciation. Tentative phrases form in my head, but I never put anything into writing.

I think about the woman coaxing her horse into the trailer, the runner lady who looked me in the eye as we passed each other.

Huddled out of the rain, listening to drops drum the glass roof of the bus shelter.

A brick of glass and semiconductors.

The people I’ll never meet.

The woman with a head scarf in the bus tunnel.

I ran out of things to say.

Just Running Around in the Middle of Nowhere

I was looking through some photos today, hoping for a specific shot to help explain a running route I was trying to explain, when I came across the following frame with the caption, “just running around in the middle of nowhere haha.”

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After further thought this struck me as profound, as a zenlike expression of my philosophy, and even my self. I’m trying to start over again in every minute. I have the luxury of starting over again in every minute. I’m just running around in the middle of nowhere.

One night last summer, on my way across the mountains, to the other side of the state, I stopped at the pass to scramble Snoqualmie Mountain. All the stress and pressure of the week was caving in on my mind, the mental equivalent of getting in the pool and feeling the weight of the water squeezing your chest when you first try to breathe. It’s funny how stress expresses itself. I zoomed up the mountain out of a slingshot, the laughable half trail goat path more of a fall line scramble up loose rocks and nests of tree roots. A couple thousand feet above the parking lot I broke out above the trees and totally lost control of my breathing, the last gasp of the stress monster being ripped off my back. I panted and sucked air uncontrollably, and stopped to try to settle down, mind racing, heart pounding, the cumulative mental burden of the fake world of freeways, concrete, mechanical roars, office buildings, computer screens, and recirculated air having scrambled my circuits. For a few minutes I thought I’d have to call it, and even started walking down, but I tried to focus on my surroundings. Single blade of grass, you know? The wind, some scraggly firs, scruffy green groundcover, a pile of rocks. Hulking stone triangles. The sky. Lake Keechelus stretching in the distance. I slowly relaxed. My breathing quieted. I walked to the top of the hill and took in the panorama.

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Mount Defiance in the Columbia Gorge most clearly expresses my ethos, as the mountain-less mountain. The summit push for no summit at all. I think it’s silly how mountaineers join ant colonies on glaciers, pay huge sums of money in an uncomfortably corporate relationship between rich westerners and indigenous peoples, put themselves and their porters at tremendous personal risk, to stand on a rock. Not any rock, but the highest rock, as measured by some government surveyors. This seems like some grotesque deformity of a goal-oriented psyche. I think that goals are irrelevant and unimportant. I would describe my life philosophy as “the journey is the destination,” but even that is couched in the language of those who I’m refuting, so perhaps a rephrase: “the journey is the journey.”

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Yes, the mountain of my mind was nicknamed Mount Doomsday by my Aunt Cory, after she saw the aftermath of my first trip, in over my head on a 100 degree August day, not physically prepared for a vertical mile of walking in the woods. I hiked with a full backpack, containing a one gallon milk jug filled with water, a grocery store ready-made sandwich, an apple, and a few chocolate bars that quickly melted. Enough provisions for sure, but I was hosed.

The essential comedy of Mount Doomsday is that it involves roughly 5,000 feet of vertical climbing for absolutely no conventional payoff. There is no summit glory, no postcard views, no glittering waterfalls save the ones along the freeway five minutes from the start, no meadows of seasonal wildflowers. None of the prizes that typically motivate energetic city folk to venture into nature. The trail starts from a freeway rest area along the Columbia River, climbs quickly through a transmission line scar on a steep, rocky hillside, and then plunges into thick evergreen forest for much of the first 4,000 feet of gain. Around 4,000 feet the trail emerges into a talus field and, while becoming less steep, becomes much more technical, with jagged rocks underfoot that are tricky to navigate quickly. By this time you have climbed so far above the river that you can barely even see it anymore. The last mile or so of the trail zigs across an access road, and when you finally reach the summit you arrive at the gravel access pad of some radio towers. Still mostly in the woods you can at least see Mount Hood on a clear day, but nothing more spectacular than you could otherwise see from a highway pullout.

Since there is no reward, the journey becomes the reward: the sweltering steps in the power line cut at the canyon bottom, where direct sun bakes the rocks and the whole swath feels like an oven; topping out on the first knob, the first respite after nearly clawing up dusty rises cut through green undergrowth, drenched in sweat; passing the sign indicating entry into the Mark Hatfield Wilderness; the dreamlike path zagging long switchbacks underneath evergreen canopy with haunting blank trunks at eye level; delicately dancing through the rock garden jumble high on the mountain; crossing the dirt and gravel of the access road and sometimes bailing up it to take the most direct route and just end this lunacy. Because sometimes you just want it to end.

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I worry that I don’t go big anymore, that I don’t do anything ambitious, unusual. The biological must be challenged or it withers. The inorganic sits there until it breaks. Hence the relentless reinvention, hence starting again. There’s that bit about the beginner and the expert, their view of the possibilities, many and few. Turn us back into beginners.

Back before I was jaded by the I-90 corridor; back when I saw the runners go by up Denny Creek and not come back, and wonder where they were going; back before I cynically avoided the conga line of the Enchantments, the frenzy of Leavenworth, when I had just heard it was a place with amazing mountains; back when the novelty of trail work parties outweighed my disdain for endless freeway driving; back when I thought new surroundings, new environs, new people, might lead to finding love; back before I realized that I can’t afford to live here. But then you just see it for what it is.

If this seems like a lot of rocks and trees and nonsense, that’s because it is, and that’s what my life is, or at least what I would like it to be. Probably less freeways and concrete, but the nonsense can stay. I’m just running around in the middle of nowhere.

The Twilight Zone on Bainbridge Island

Against all of my better judgment and wisdom, I went for a drive this afternoon. Typically I would unwind on a Sunday with a stroll around the neighborhood, or a bike ride through nearby neighborhoods, but today I felt a complete change of scenery would be more appropriate. This was, as always, a mistake, because it involved driving in the Puget Sound region. Never drive in or around Seattle. What’s the use of having rules, though, if you don’t break them once in a while.

I drove south on Highway 99, through downtown by way of the famously troubled Alaskan Way Viaduct, over the also famously troubled deep bore tunnel project, stalled for two years but recently brought back to life. One project I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while is a foot-level or bicycle-level photography project of the scar that is Aurora Avenue, the route 99 corridor, starting with the retail slums of the north and working down to the industrialized wasteland of the south. As aesthetically displeasing as it is, though, for the motorist it is worlds better than nearby I-5, which I had to cut towards at Sea-Tac to continue to Tacoma.

Across the awe-inspiring Tacoma Narrows twin suspension bridges, cruising past derelict destroyers at the Bremerton Naval base, Willkommen til Poulsbo, and finally I crossed the Agate Pass bridge to Bainbridge Island. This is where I would typically relax, and exhale.

It was a weird energy, though. Traffic felt unusually tense. Brief yet torrential rain showers had passed through earlier in the day. I was also traveling in the late afternoon, rather than the early morning hours that I prefer for Sunday driving. Rushed locals in SUVs kept tailgating me as I meandered the back roads of the island.

I had a vague idea in my mind of stopping at the Gazzam Lake Preserve, but an even vaguer notion how to get there. I think I missed a turn, was looking for the high school road but found it in the wrong place. Eventually I decided that I would just look for something interesting. But those locals kept following me! It’s difficult to properly Sunday drive, looking for parks and points of interest, with impatient drivers riding your bumper. In disgust I started making more or less random turns trying to shake traffic.

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At this point I should probably point out that Bainbridge Island is in some senses a labyrinth. A small island across Puget Sound from Seattle, Bainbridge has remained mostly free of the intense urban development on the other side of the water; a look at the satellite imagery shows Seattle in grey and Bainbridge in green. Hilly, lush, and in places like a jungle, narrow roads snake through dense woods and occasionally reveal sailboats moored near waterfront houses, lining quiet inlets. Come around a corner and you might see a bizarre pod of quasi-suburban development, a giant rock painted as a frog, an elegant old home with gravel driveway and magnificent garden, an informational sign designating the creek and watershed, a cafe, a church, or who knows what.

My random turns through all of this weren’t quite working. One SUV seemed to be following me, as there was little rhyme or reason to my path through the evergreen maze of Bainbridge, but this car copied my every turn. I became irritated and stressed: I came all the way here for the Sunday driving, the parks, the songbirds! Relaxation! Finally I shook all tailing traffic by veering onto a tiny road up a hill. Then things got weird.

The road narrowed and the center line disappeared. I slowed. An official-looking sign indicated a park and I almost whipped into what looked like the driveway, but was actually a chained-off mudhole. The next driveway held the largest little free library I’d ever seen, a box lifted on stilts, sheltered from the rain, and covered in Christmas lights. Other little dirt driveways disappeared into the jungle with No Trespassing signs. The forest floor looked pruned, as if someone had slashed out all of the undergrowth around a stand of cedars. The road was about a lane and a half wide, and plunged straight down towards the water.

At the shore, the road turned at a right angle and I found myself in the twilight zone. Barely wider than the wheel base of my car, the high tide line mere feet to the left and a wall of well-trimmed hedges mere feet to the right, I appeared to be on some sort of driveway. A very, very narrow driveway. This was not good. It appeared as though I had stumbled into a tony, private, gated community, an unwanted visitor to waterfront splendor. Some breaks in the hedges showed fancy cars parked in front of fancy houses. The sun was setting and a few container ships were anchored just offshore — truly a magnificent scene! — but I was mostly panicked and focusing on getting out of this strange place. To make matters worse, now there were a bunch of people in the driveway/road/private luxury waterfront facility! I crept along in first gear. An elderly couple stepped against the hedge and I very slowly inched past. A younger couple did the same, smiled and waved. I smiled and waved back.

This continued for a few hundred yards, me creeping in first gear barely faster than a walk, and beautiful couples obligingly melting into the hedge to let me pass. At the end of the straight stretch, the road jogged once, jogged twice, both at 90 degree angles, and then suddenly, somehow, I was back driving a normal road, two lanes with a centerline and a small shoulder. What in the world?

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How I Spent my Summer Vacation: a Quitting Song

Editor’s note: certain names and events have been fictionalized.

Year 1

I was supposed to graduate with a degree in engineering, just two semesters left. Some disagreements with professors and a frustratingly ill-conceived senior project, though, combined with the disappointing summer jobs of years past, convinced me that engineering was not my future. While home for Christmas, the slowed pace and relaxation allowed enough space and introspection to decide that I would not finish the last semester of the program. As part of the curriculum I had taken plenty of math classes, part of a plan to minor in mathematics. Instead of closing out the engineering degree, I declared, I would change course, with one semester remaining, and major in math.

I had already applied to graduate with an engineering degree. When I went to the Student Union Building in January to cancel that application, I ultimately had to speak to the manager at the registrar for such an unusual request. There was no form in place for outright cancelling a request to graduate, only a form to postpone.

Spring semester was glorious. Freed from the rigidly prescribed coursework of the engineering department I was allowed to take several classes purely for personal interest, as well as three senior level math classes to satisfy new degree requirements. I called it the semester of language: in addition to higher math, I signed up for French 101 and CS 101, the former solely as an indulgence, and the latter to acquire hopefully marketable skills. It seemed an incredible critique of the engineering curriculum that, after quitting senior year, I was finally able to engage in quintessential college activities like signing up for an introductory foreign language class.

Year 2

I never did find a summer job. The previous summer I had cold-called my way to a position with a local engineering firm, looking up engineering companies in my hometown in the phonebook, and calling and asking for a job. I had worked in construction administration, which mostly involved hanging around the airport during a runway reconstruction and getting screamed at by crusty old construction workers. Apparently I did a good job because I was good at standing there and taking it, not returning fire but also not backing down. I may have been able to return the following summer, but had absolutely no interest. As it turned out, though, the job market for aspiring mathematician was considerably weaker than that for aspiring engineer. A halfhearted job search came up empty, so I frittered away the summer enjoying the outdoors and drinking with high school friends.

When school started in the fall, I was presented with a dilemma. One course I needed for graduation was offered only in spring semester, guaranteeing a full additional year at the university. Now that my scholarships had expired and I was paying tuition completely out of pocket, I was not keen on attending (and paying for) two full-time semesters. My compromise was to go part-time in the fall and full-time in the spring, to satisfy credit requirements while also saving some money.

If the summer had been completely wasted, arguably fall semester was half-wasted. I registered for two senior level math classes and halfheartedly looked for a job (the halfhearted job search being a specialty of mine, apparently). Being a college town, the only available positions were low-paying and menial, and I decided more trouble than they were worth. Instead, I focused on performing well in the two unquestionably challenging math courses and spent my extra time at the gym, reading, or, to be honest, dicking around watching TV and drinking beer. Looking back I should have tried harder for a part-time job, regardless of how menial.

Spring semester I returned to full time and closed with a flourish, taking a full slate of classes but also frequently bro-ing out with one of my roommates: lifting at the gym, trying to flirt with Laura the grocery store cashier, drinking champagne on the porch. In some ways it was a redux of the triumphant semester a year previous, immediately after quitting the engineering program, with math, computer science, and foreign language. The yearlong gap between French 101 and 102 instigated running nightmares of showing up to an advanced language class having completely forgotten basic knowledge in the intervening time.

On the campus lawn the world had returned to life with leaves and songbirds and, dressed in a silly black robe, I thought back on the strange, disappointing trip of the last five years. The math degree carried a stigma of the engineering burnout — I was not the first to forge the path of engineering school dropout, leaving university with a consolation prize in mathematics. Still, an inchoate future with math credentials sounded preferable to a clearly defined career path in which I had little interest.

Year 3

I couldn’t find work in or around my hometown, so I expanded the search area. As the American economy works, an uncle helped me land an interview with a company in Portland, Oregon, and I got the job. For the first few weeks I stayed with friends of friends, and even my new manager, while looking for a place to live. I met with people who had advertised open rooms via craigslist, but nothing clicked. I ultimately rented a basement apartment from an aging hippie, Howdy, who was doing contract consulting for the company at which I worked, part of the Energy Efficiency Mafia in downtown Portland.

The house was a grand Victorian in inner northeast, converted into apartments. I lived in the basement and on the first floor lived a prominent member of the Portland symphony. Howdy resided in the attic and kept the second floor vacant as a space to fold the sails of his sailboat. Sometimes in the evening I would bring a six pack of Widmer up to the attic and talk to Howdy about his outrageous past, how things were going at work, or something I was reading. His mind was not wired in the way of an ordinary human mind, but somehow very different and beautiful. Sometimes I would grab dinner with Howdy at the Scottish restaurant across the street. I never saw him look at the check; he would simply put too much cash on the table and wander off.

I never found a groove in Portland. Never found a friend group, never fit in at work. I got swine flu, and then a month or so later an emergency eye surgery. In hindsight I would have loved running the trails of the arboretum, the remarkably large urban woods of Forest Park, or the entrancing evergreen canyon walls of the Columbia gorge. I would have loved the cultural opportunities of the big city, the theater, lectures, music. Nobody showed me the way, though, and I wasn’t smart or bold enough to find it myself. For the most part I was lonely and miserable.

Still, I found the urbanism of Portland enchanting. The red bricks of Pioneer Courthouse Square, the intersecting train lines around bustling and open public space. I rode MAX into downtown every day, past the Rose Garden, over the Willamette, and often bought coffee from the open air Nordstrom’s espresso stand. Sometimes I took phone calls wandering aimlessly up and down the peaceful green space of Park Avenue, or walked down to the river to watch people and life drift by. The food cart pods and the streetcars and the ubiquitous exhortations to “Keep Portland Weird” were indelible signatures of the city.

In the spring my projects at work wound down and I was transferred to another team. My new job was making cold-calls, conducting telephone surveys. It became quickly apparent that this new job was not for me. With nothing on the horizon but unsolicited telephone calls to unwilling strangers, I quit.

Year 4

I had been wary of my job with the Energy Efficiency Mafia the whole time, so over the winter I had taken out an insurance policy: grad school applications. I submitted applications for applied math programs at a smattering of universities, including my alma mater as a safety school although I had no real intent to return. Well, as it turned out, I quit my job and all the other applications were rejected.

First things first. I had quit my job but also had several months before school started. This is a wasted space, a blank space, in the story. I alternately hung out in a cheap apartment drinking coffee and reading novels, and drove around the northwest looking for far-flung and obscure places. I went for 20 mile runs in the inaccessible Wallowa mountains of eastern Oregon, hiked through massive burns in the Kettle River Range, where baby lodgepole pines sprouted thick like a carpet underneath ghost forest of grey snags. At the time this all seemed wondrous and valuable, but in hindsight was self-indulgent and largely unnecessary.

The unpleasant twist on the safety school acceptance was that, while I had sought applied math programs, this department was much more theoretical. Graduate work in theoretical mathematics was a punch in the teeth. One of the first weekends after school started, instead of starting Saturday by watching college football, I brought my math books to a coffee shop downtown and, armed with espresso, set out to conquer the arcana of sigma algebras and Borel Sets. It went poorly. I remember thinking, oh boy, what have I gotten myself into.

As the semester wore on, it became more and more clear that theoretical mathematics was not a road I was interested in traveling. Some of the professors were of the mindset that, for us to truly learn, they had to induce struggle. Which was fairly comical, because fumbling through Lebesgue measure and proving esoteric theorems on the convergence of function sequences is enough of a struggle on its own, without someone deliberately complicating the task. I remember in the fall my dad came to visit, and on a Sunday we went for a drive through the wheat fields around the little college town. The sun was shining, the air was clear. I remembered that life is an incredible gift, and that it is at times beautiful. I transferred to another department.

Year 5

It was a complete whipsaw. Whereas in theoretical math I had been deluged under work of which I was barely capable and uninterested in completing, in the new, more application-oriented department, there somehow wasn’t much to do. Rather than frantically grading papers all day, and spending evenings and weekends panicked over my inability to prove a challenging and obscure theorem, scrawling symbols on sheets of paper, crumpling them in frustration, and starting over, I streamed college basketball in my office, got shit-housed with the biology grad students.

I did find the coursework interesting, aside for the one or two inevitable hoser professors. One class on reconstructing evolutionary trees of ancestry from DNA sequences I absolutely adored, whereas the more computational-focused classes I could have done without.

There just wasn’t much happening in the lab, though, so I was bored, and couldn’t keep up with the hard partying social life of PBR steins and midnight whiskey shots with the bio students.

Things probably would have gotten better, but, again through my uncle, I learned that a company in the nearby city was looking to hire someone with my skill set. I interviewed and it went well. A change of scenery sounded refreshing, so I resigned from my fellowhip, packed up my stuff, and drove across the state.

I rented a small condo and essentially engaged in a lengthy detox.  At one point I touched no alcohol for four months. Instead I read and ran, did volunteer work. Watched jet planes descend from the vantage point of a poang on the porch. Sometimes at lunch I would walk to the arboretum, sit on a bench by the lake, wonder where it was all going, chugging along at an unsatisfying but inoffensive job. Quiet emptiness is better than outright misery, but it’s hard not to yearn for more.

Through the winter I found myself in a familiar position: working for a member of the Energy Efficiency Mafia, unsold on my future with the organization. I had tried grad school once and came away with nothing. I needed something to show for my time and effort.

Year 6

The new graduate program was terrible. Absolutely atrocious. The department held a lofty ranking — usually top 5 in the country, depending on the year — and I got my first, close look at how the other side lives. These purported geniuses really weren’t better or worse than average folk, they were just a lot more manic, myopic, and desperate for approval. Essentially the department used their prestige, mostly acquired through long ago published, hard-hitting Nature and Science papers from now emeritus faculty, to hire awkward supergeniuses by way of the University of Chicago and MIT, who could eat grant money and shit impact factor, but were utterly lost in mentoring young people or demonstrating leadership within the department. On the flip side, for students the department accepted only brilliant, Type A go-getters who could succeed in spite of the faculty rather than because of them.

I’m not exactly sure how I wound up in this mix. At least at my last stop the other students were, if anything, too much fun. Here I would get panicked phone calls in the evening from my buddy AD, frantically asking what I got on problem 7b of the homework, and I would explain that I didn’t do problem 7b, and wasn’t going to do problem 7b, and that at a higher level the completion of problem 7b was wholly unnecessary to furthering our education. Many students routinely pulled all-nighters working on recurring weekly problem sets, which was absurd, and again completely unnecessary.

AD grew up in the East Bay near Oakland, California, although his family was from India and he was born in Canada. He attended Cal Berkeley as a thoroughly Americanized, aspiring business major who loved rap, football, and sleaze. After becoming bored with the business curriculum, AD switched his academic focus to statistics, and even landed an internship with the Philadelphia Eagles. We were among the “Fee Based Master’s Students,” at the department, which was like being a grad student only worse. The PhD students were the favored children, treated with stipends, tuition waivers, and respect. AD and I took great satisfaction in routinely beating the highly-touted PhD students on exams, him in his Cal Berkeley sweats, and me in jeans and flannel. He would frequently make fun of my fashion, claiming that I must have been chopping wood on the way to class.

All of my instincts told me to quit after the first quarter. The program was obviously terrible, and obviously not going to improve. It didn’t help that I was self-funding by working part time, a fact that my academic adviser regarded with incredulity. I guess this time, for once, I decided to be stubborn.

Year 7

The act of working part-time while enrolled in an academic program explicitly designed to occupy every waking hour had worn me down the previous year. I didn’t think I had it in me to try that again, so I quit my job to focus full-time on closing out the Master’s degree. The program remained expensive and punishing.

It was a strange year. By this time I was renting an apartment across the street from the rail yard, next to a notoriously rowdy blue collar bar. Boxcars hooking together across the street shook my apartment like an earthquake, a reverberation of minor explosions. I slowly lost my mind, sleeping restlessly through each night over the whistling, clanging, rumbling, and roaring of the trains, or the shouting of drunks filing out of the bar at closing time.

My junker car died in a plume of blue smoke, although I rarely drove even when it was running and driving. I hobbled on crutches after surgery to remove a possibly cancerous mole from my big toe. Variously, I spent my time on the bus, in the health sciences library, working from home, or walking across the stressful, rail yard bridge, inches from traffic, on my way to buy groceries.

I didn’t go to graduation. Completing the degree was a Pyrrhic victory: I spent so much time and money on those two years, and can’t say that it was worth it. I had picked an odd time to take a break from quitting things.

Year 8

I briefly resumed work in the Energy Efficiency Mafia toward the end of the grad program, but had no interest in staying. At the end of the summer I quit and moved to the idyllic, coastal, college town of Bellingham, Washington to stay with friends Ruth and Cynthia while I searched for a new job, a new career.

My activities in Bellingham mostly consisted of trail running, submitting job applications, reading, and hanging out with Ruth and Cynthia. It was a welcome interlude after several years of mostly uninterrupted stress and panic. I don’t even know how to describe the exhilaration and majesty of sweaty August runs at dusk in the Chuckanuts: the steep hills, single track, ferns and cedars, thick canopy, hidden lakes, giant moss-covered boulders looming ominously up dark gulleys; the crunch of gravel, a portal through the trees; the bay, the islands, the farmland of the Skagit Valley. One afternoon I bicycled the interurban rail trail to the falls, the lake, and sat on a park bench watching the families picnicking, children splashing and squealing in the water, too cool teens on the grass tossing a football, jumping from the bridge, college students unloading kayaks and paddleboards from a van, canoeists launching onto the lake, and thought what a wonderful thing this life is. Every Monday I joined Ruth and Cynthia for trivia at the brewery. Most of the job applications drew no reply.

As always, the lesson is that connections are more important than credentials. Through a friend of a friend I discovered an opportunity at a biotech startup, interviewed, and got the job. I rented a truck, packed up (most of) my stuff, and hit the road.

Working for a biotech startup was a strange and stressful experience. Everything, it seemed, existed in an unceasing state of disarray. My day to day mood oscillated from panicked to furious and back again. I guess I’ll just say that I found the leadership lacking, and leave it at that. I made sure to give plenty of notice, finish all my projects, and leave on good terms, but couldn’t run out the door fast enough when the time came.

Year 9

Remember the character of Dennis Duffy from the television show 30 Rock? Liz Lemon’s loser boyfriend who greeted her, “Hey Dummy.” The Energy Efficiency Mafia was and has been my Dennis Duffy. Not great, but just good enough, and better than most of the alternatives. After quitting the biotech firm I was able to return to the Energy Efficiency Mafia on a one year contract.

Here we enter present day, where I find myself living in a small and expensive yet undeniably delightful top floor apartment in a grand old house converted into a triplex. My contract with the Energy Efficiency Mafia is up next month. What to do? What to do.

Climate and Energy, a Rage

For work, I assist research on energy efficiency in buildings. This frequently involves various configurations of heat pumps: ductless heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, ground source heat pumps, and even goofier concepts like wastewater heat pumps. The basic gimmick is that heat pumps don’t “create” heat — they don’t, like your gas furnace, convert one form of energy into another — they merely move it around. This is what your refrigerator does, move heat from one box into another. It turns out that moving heat around takes way less energy than say creating that heat directly by converting electrical or chemical energy into heat, so where feasible heat pumps often dramatically reduce energy consumption.

Another recurring task is trying to estimate the effect of some sort of efficiency retrofit. The idea is that you modify some component of a building, and then want to know what, if anything, the modification did. Because building energy use is tied up in things like weather and occupant whims, this actually becomes a somewhat difficult statistical exercise.

The main point of all this is allegedly to promote a built environment that uses less energy. It’s mildly interesting work and sometimes I even feel like I’m making a positive difference in the world. However, I’ve been growing disaffected by the myopic focus on buildings in isolation.

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I’m at the point in my life where I would like to set roots. College is fading in the rearview mirror, and I’ve been working some form of professional job for five years or so. As such, I spend a lot of time cruising real estate listings, and a lot of time looking at satellite imagery of communities. I also spend a lot of time exploring the region during weekend, recreational bike rides.

The short of it is that there’s just no housing here in my price range that I have any interest in purchasing.

First off, Seattle is experiencing an incredible wave of growth, and an incredible wave of accelerating housing prices. The growth plan in Seattle appears to be islands of luxury mid- and high-rise in a sea of detached single family. I don’t think that that does anything for affordability, and I think it does little for sustainability. The basic effect, though, is that due to scarcity single family homes are incredibly expensive, and to maximize profit margins the new apartment units cater to wealthy tenants. As the Seattle Transit Blog would say, doing nothing will favor the wealthy, enacting rent control will favor the well-connected and long-tenured, but the most fair thing to do is just build enough housing for the people who would like to live and/or work here.

In the meantime, the two basic urban forms here are the single family craftsman bungalow and the gigantic box of apartments. I could never afford a single family house, and have zero interest in living in a 200 unit box. Right now I rent the top floor of a triplex — an old house converted into apartments — near the Seattle Center. It’s pretty small, but has wood floors, granite counters, and a view of downtown. It suits me well, for now. It would also be an illegal arrangement in almost all of the city!

I would actually describe a lot of Seattle itself as a painful mixture of suburban and urban values. A good suburb would be spacious and quiet, with roadway and parking space for the residents to drive private automobiles. A good town or city would be walkable and bikable, have excellent transit, and a full spectrum of housing options. Seattle largely offers single family houses and automobile culture, but in a dense and noisy urban environment. It just doesn’t work. It makes no sense. Driving here is terrible, but transit is crummy and bicycle infrastructure is pathetic.

One of the buildings that the company I work for consulted on is in my current neighborhood. True to Seattle form it’s a 6-story box by the freeway, and has about 100 apartments. The building was designed and marketed as being “green” and eco-friendly. But as I said it’s next to the freeway. Like, there’s literally a freeway, and then twenty feet over is this apartment building. Renting a $2000 one bedroom “green” apartment by the freeway? That makes no sense.

Seattle has a climate action plan. It’s quite a remarkable document, and extremely ambitious. The plan calls for carbon neutrality by 2050. I was at first eager to dig into the plan, and see how my field, energy efficiency in buildings, fits into the puzzle. But, um, it turns out that — since Seattle City Light is mostly powered by runoff in the North Cascades — Seattle achieving carbon neutrality is mostly a transportation problem. Our buildings aren’t responsible for much in the way of carbon emissions, not due to any incredible foresight or leadership in constructing a sustainable built environment, but because some people built some dams a hundred years ago. (Setting aside the other environmental concerns of hydropower…) Most of what I took from Seattle’s Climate Action plan was that, for Seattle to go carbon neutral, or even just severely reduce carbon emissions, the problem is a built environment and culture that demands private automobiles.

What’s the way out? Super obnoxious technologists seem to claim that data is the future. Listen, as a statistician, data is simply not that powerful. Apps are not going to solve structural problems. You know what would make for a more effective city? Transit with 5-minute headways. Zoning that allows mixed use neighborhoods and a full spectrum of housing types. Those are largely political problems, and possibly insurmountable ones.

I’ve even heard rumor that the “Transit Oriented Development” around the light rail in the Rainier Valley may have caused even greater regional reliance on the automobile, by economically evicting low income, car-less residents in favor of car-owning gentrifiers, who could afford luxury mid-rise by the new train stations.

Personally, I can’t afford single family or luxury midrise, but I would certainly be interested in a housing type from the missing middle in a walkable, transit-served neighborhood. A duplex, triplex, rowhouse, townhouse, garden apartment. Basically any multi-family housing type this side of “giant box.” And, um, those simply don’t exist here. There are single family houses that I can’t afford, and studio high-rise apartments that I either can’t afford or have no interest in.

I do think that affordability and sustainability are intertwined. The logical, “ask-a-kindergartner” type solution to climate and energy would probably be affordable, efficient buildings in a walkable, bikable neighborhood.

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I recently read about a project to build “net zero” homes in a suburb of Seattle. The idea behind “net zero” is that, through sustainability measures like insulation, a heat pump, a rainwater cistern, and abundant solar panels, the home produces no net carbon emissions. It’s a laudable goal. I suspect as a society we’ll have to get there eventually with just about everything we do. But it’s also about context, and I just don’t understand energy efficiency of that ambition for suburban homes.

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This is a slice of what Seattle suburbs look like. Actually, swap out the evergreen trees for local vegetation and this is what pretty much all of America looks like. Net zero in this context makes no sense to me. I have a net zero home, in an inaccessible location that demands daily travel by private automobile? Man, that makes no sense.

The whole region, outside of a few central business districts, is comprised of automobile-dependent sprawl. It is incredible how much of this stuff has been built. I feel it acutely looking for fun bike rides, because you can’t escape the sprawl. I always imagine that I’ll burst out into a field on a country road, hay bales and maybe some cows, some horses, but instead it’s just more freeway lanes swooping overhead, more office parks, more strip malls, more tract housing, until I decide I’ve traveled far enough and turn around to ride home.

Look up housing on Zillow with 2 bedrooms for $300k, and all the results will be in areas that look like this (Google Earth).

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I don’t care how many PV panels you install. I don’t care how many heat pumps you sell. These communities are not and will never be sustainable. And that’s probably okay, or at least it would be okay if there were a viable alternative for people who would like a home in a walkable neighborhood. There isn’t, at least not around these parts, for somebody at or below the middle class. As far as I can tell this is all America knows how to build anymore. The houses are in one place, the jobs are in another, and the shopping in another, with enough freeway lanes and surface parking for everybody to drive.

This is not sustainable. Full stop. If you’re interested in human civilization over the long haul, this makes no sense. If you’re interested in climate justice, no amount of LED lighting in big box retail will do anything other than slightly change the math for the electric utility. Hell, if you’re interested in simply not wasting hours a day trapped in gridlock on the freeway, then this is a poor arrangement.

Whenever I try to talk about urbanism and sustainability with anybody over like 40, they automatically imagine drab, blank, Soviet-style concrete apartment blocks and overcrowded train cars of grim-faced people. What’s hard to communicate is that you can have urbanism with single family houses! Just don’t build them in pods by the freeway! Have a freaking town center with shops, apartments, and parks, and then build the SF homes around that center! Inspired by where my folks currently live in Oregon — in a single family house, no less — I have the “beer and brats” test of urbanism. Can you walk from your home to a butcher shop and growler fill?

As for myself, I know nobody asked, but I suppose my choices are either go for that studio apartment that I don’t want, go for that tract home I don’t want, or possibly as a last resort go to repopulate the rust belt. If you can’t build a new neighborhood from scratch, the next best thing is probably finding a real neighborhood that somebody built back when it was legal, but was subsequently abandoned.