The geographical improbability of Ferris Bueller and a limited view of Chicago

Ferris Bueller and friends see a lot of the Chicago region in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off but their journey is improbable:

Chicago is a big city. Like, really, really big. The makers obviously looked at what they wanted Ferris to do and decided to leave geographic and timeline reality in the dust as Ferris and friends drove away in a red Ferrari GT California Spyder.

Case in point: Ferris begins his day on the far upper side of Chicago, in one of those fancy North Shore neighborhoods past Northwestern University. He convinces friend Cameron—who lives in a different fancy neighborhood—to borrow his dad’s Ferrari, pull the subterfuge with his girlfriend at the school and then drive into the city. The clock is already ticking!

But then! A longish discussion with the parking garage attendants. Sightseeing at the then-Sears Tower. Lunch (impersonating Sausage King Abe Froman). More sightseeing at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. A Cubs game! (Games typically last 3 hours, by the way.) Then more sightseeing back downtown at the Art Institute, followed by an epic parade crash. By this time, it must be nearly midnight! But no, it’s back up to the northern suburbs (presumably during rush hour) followed by an emotional discussion about life and love with friends, a ridiculously long footrace home and… Ferris is back in his bed by the time the folks walk in. By our math, those shenanigans would’ve taken roughly, oh, two days! Or at least 26 hours.

This would not be the first time a movie took liberties with geography (see another Chicago example here). It is easy to think why a film would do this: they want to have characters move in places that are well known, they do not necessarily have to adhere to rules of space and time, and the point of this film is about teenagers having a crazy day in and around the big city.

At the same time, films (and TV shows that follow similar logics) present a distorted view of cities. I could see this working out in two ways in Ferris Bueller. First, they visit the most well-known sites of the city. These can be fun locations, full of people, recognizable around the world. Ferris and friends have fun there. But, this reinforces only certain parts of Chicago and the surrounding region, missing out on a lot of other interesting sites. Second, their visits are quick in and out trips. They drop in, see the most important parts, and leave. In other words, not only do they primarily visit tourist sites, they are the ultimate tourists: they consume and move on and then return to mundane daily life.

These issues are on top of the time and space concerns of the film. Perhaps most viewers do not care about any of these; Chicago looks like a fun place in a time when the city (and other big cities) faced major issues. But, if viewers see enough films and TV shows that do this, they take in a limited perspective of cities and urban life.

“War Over Hollywood Sign Pits Wealthy Residents Against Urinating Tourists”

GPS hasn’t just altered the lives of LA residents living on formerly quiet streets near the freewaysnow, neighbors of the famous Hollywood sign have convinced Google and Garmin to remove their street off their maps due to an influx of visitors.

Everyone involved agrees that the situation has become a powder keg. “Neighbors have been yelling,” says Tamer Riad of Rockin’ Hollywood Tours. Homeowner Heather Hamza, whose husband, Karim, runs a diving company servicing film productions, claims she’s experienced “aggressive” tourists “cursing and spitting at me.” She adds that, after the recent holiday period, “There is rising, palpable tension between the residents and visitors. Everybody is infuriated. I shudder to think if any of these people coming up here have weapons in their cars. One of these days someone will get shot — it is that bad.“…

A sign originally erected to advertise a neighborhood to the world has become that neighborhood’s deepest frustration, and affluent residents have been fighting back. Although several thousand houses lie in Beachwood Canyon and neighborhoods adjoining the nearby Lake Hollywood Reservoir, most of the clamor comes from a few dozen activists in the area. They have lassoed various government and commercial entities into doing their bidding. They’ve persuaded Google, Garmin and other tech giants to literally take their exclusive neighborhood, where the average home costs $1.5 million, off the map for people searching for the sign. They’ve pushed City Hall to enact strict new parking regulations and to go after tour-bus operators. They’re fighting for the closure of a trailhead gate to Griffith Park and the removal of one popular viewing spot. And they’re not done.

Some residents say that a key element in winning the hearts and minds of city officials is a 30-minute advocacy film that, according to its producer, former actress and onetime Hollywoodland Homeowners Association president Sarajane Schwartz, required “thousands of hours” of collective labor and the expertise of “professional editors who live in the neighborhood and donated their time.” The wry narrative includes an overlaying of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring as doofusy tourists ride Segways, light up in hazardous areas and take nude pictures or pose with liquor bottles. THR was offered a rare screening of the closely guarded documentary: “We thought it would attract more people [if posted online] because it would just tell people where to go,” says Schwartz. “And we didn’t want it to end up on The Tonight Show — you know, making fun of us.”…

“There’s this privatization of public spaces in L.A., where people who are affluent expect to be insulated from the public,” says urban design professor Jenny Price, a visiting lecturer at Princeton and veteran of the Southern California coastal-access wars (she created the popular Our Malibu Beaches app, to David Geffen’s chagrin). “But the scandal here isn’t the wealthy homeowners. It’s the city’s complicity. Not just in getting permitted parking but in intentionally disseminating misinformation about a park they own. That’s the scandal.”

A fascinating story that raises important questions for cities: who gets to control access to public spaces? The sign is on public land (Griffith Park), streets are for the public, and yet wealthier residents want to control access and even knowledge disseminated on maps.

The article suggests the city needs a coherent plan:

Absent amid all the long-shot concepts are coherent, actionable steps to oversee access and shape tourism around a landmark. The city never has moved forward with clear plans to build a visitor center, properly control parking, manage trail access, strictly enforce rules (about smoking and alcohol, for instance) and inform visitors how to interact with the sign in a way that is satisfying and sensitive to residents. Imagine this type of chaos at the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore (both are managed by the National Park Service).

Sounds like there is work to do to divert visitors, particularly if the city wants to respond to the wealthier residents while also keeping areas near the sign public (a visitor center just means people won’t really need to get that close).

Urban streetcars may primarily serve tourists

Streetcars once ruled American cities but more recent projects in many cities may primarily be used by tourists:

Some new figures further strain the connection between streetcars and core city mobility. Florida State planning student Luis Enrique Ramos recently led a comparison of ridership factors on U.S. streetcars versus those on light rail. (The work, not yet published, was presented at a recent conference.) What he found was that streetcar ridership was unrelated to service frequency, bus connections, and job proximity — the very factors that make light rail attractive to everyday commuters.

In other words, streetcars serve a completely different population of travelers than light rail does. Which population is that? Ramos and collaborators can’t say for sure, but they have a theory: tourists. Just look at the hours of operation for the Tampa streetcar — beginning at noon on weekdays? — and ask yourself who rolls into work after lunch. (And please do let us know, because we want that job.)

None of this is to say that streetcars aren’t necessarily worth it. Commutes make up a fraction of total travel in metro areas. Trolleys can operate very effectively in dense cores by running along a dedicated track, and when they arrive frequently they can promote a lively pedestrian culture. When paired with mixed-use zoning, trolleys can also lead to significant economic development (though arguably less than other modes, like bus-rapid transit).

That leaves emerging streetcar cities with a mostly-tourist attraction they hope will generate business — an amenity that feels similar in spirit to a downtown sports stadium. Again, sometimes city taxpayers conclude that an arena is worth it, and many cities no doubt feel the same about trolleys, cost overruns notwithstanding. But residents who hope the streetcar will improve mobility should be careful to consider whether they’re paying for a ride, or getting taken for one.

Some interesting factors to consider. Tourism is often seen as a significant force in many cities as it is a way to increase tax revenues as well as improve a city’s image. Streetcars can often be viewed in nostalgic terms, something that often fits a community’s appeal to tourists. Yet, if the streetcars aren’t an integrated part of a larger transportation system that serves residents and tourists, is the money spent worth it?

When streetcar use exploded in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was a driver of sprawl: it opened up development in new areas because it could cover more territory than railroads by using roads. In other words, the streetcars were pioneers. Today, building new streetcar systems also requires modifying roads and the neighborhoods already exist. The article suggests buses may be a more appropriate modification to the existing streetscape because they are more cost-effective and might better serve residents. At this point in time, streetcars serve very different purposes and it requires work to implement them into a community.

My first experience riding Chicago’s Divvy bikes

On a rare 50 degree Chicago day, I rode Chicago’s Divvy bikes for the first time. I made three relatively short trips: from Ogilvie Transportation Center to the Art Institute, from the Art Institute to Navy Pier, and from Navy Pier to Ogilvie. Here is evidence of my rides:

DivvyBikesChicago

My quick thoughts on the experience:

1. It is fairly easy to pay for and to get the bikes. It costs $7 for an all-day pass and rides under 30 minutes are free. There are lots of Divvy stations in the Loop so finding a stand near major attractions isn’t too hard. While it is a pain to have to wonder where other stations are when on the bike, I’m guessing $7 a day doesn’t cover a GPS with every bike.

2. The bikes themselves worked fine: big tires, nice fenders (otherwise I would have been quite splattered from all of the melting snow), good brakes, seats that are easy to adjust. The bikes only have three gears and this is limiting, but Chicago has a limited number of hills.

3. Riding near Millennium Park and Lake Michigan was easy. Riding in the Loop was not. I can handle it as I learned how to ride the mean streets of suburbia while a teenager (this may sound like a joke but we rode on a number of busy streets). Plus, traffic was pretty light in the middle of the day. However, I have a hard time imagining the average tourist wanting to do this. Some street have bike lanes but the only one I saw that was a protected lane was on Dearborn Street, a north-south street. Madison had a bike lane and I rode back to Ogilvie on Adams in the bike lane but both of these had plenty of double-parked taxis, cars, and buses. While drivers noticed me and took a wide berth, how tolerant would they be of slower groups of riders?

I would do this again, particularly in nice weather, as it is a different way to see the city and it can cut down on the time to get from attraction to attraction (less than 15 minutes biking from Navy Pier to the train). But, riding on busy streets is not for everyone and Chicago has a ways to go before having a street infrastructure that makes it easy for visitors to hop on bikes.

San Francisco street character, Bushman, dies

For years, Bushman could be found “interacting with” tourists in San Francisco:

For 30 years Gregory Jacobs spent his days at Fisherman’s Wharf hiding behind branches, often up against a trash can, silently waiting for unsuspecting tourists to come by.

When they did, and when they least expected it, he would push those branches towards them, often giving them a little growl. Almost always, without fail, they would jump scream and run.

It is one of those iconic San Francisco experiences. Few people can forget a run-in with the bushman.

But Jacobs hadn’t been in his usual spot lately. He’s been in and out the hospital with heart problems. Last Sunday, his family told KTVU, his heart finally gave out and Jacobs passed away.

The article goes on to note that there are actually two Bushmen so there will still be one at these tourist sites.

Bushman might be considered one of Jane Jacob’s “public characters.” Sociologist Mitchell Duneier discusses this idea in the introduction to his classic ethnography Sidewalk.

Not long after we met, I asked Hakim how he saw his role.

“I’m a public character,” he told me.

“A what?” I asked.

“Have you ever read Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities?” he asked. “You’ll find it in there.”

I considered myself quite familiar with the book, a classic study of modern urban life published in 1961, and grounded in the author’s observations of her own neighborhood, Greenwich Village. But I didn’t recall the discussion of public characters. Nor did I realize that Hakim’s insight would figure in a central way in the manner in which I would come to see the sidewalk life of this neighborhood. When I got home, I looked it up:

The social structure of sidewalk life hangs partly on what can be called self-appointed public characters. A public character is anyone who is in frequent contact with a wide circle of people and who is sufficiently interested to make himself a public character. A public character need have no special talents or wisdom to fulfill his function—although he often does. He just needs to be present, and there need to be enough of his counterparts. His main qualification is that he is public, that he talks to lots of different people. In this way, news travels that is of sidewalk interest.

Jacobs had modeled her idea of the public character after the local shopkeepers with whom she and her Greenwich Village neighbors would leave their spare keys. These figures could be counted on to let her know if her children were getting out of hand on the street, or to call the police if a strange-looking person was hanging around for too long: “Storekeepers and other small businessmen are typically strong proponents of peace and order,” Jacobs explained. “They hate broken windows and holdups.” She also modeled the public character after persons like herself, who distributed petitions on local political issues to neighborhood stores, spreading local news in the process.

While Bushman didn’t necessarily provide needed services for local residents, being a fixture for so long and interacting with the tourists in a unique way helped make him a feature of Fisherman’s Wharf. I remember seeing him in action multiple times. The first time was surprising and yet it seemed to be the sort of thing that one could only find in a big city: a local man popping out of one of the more natural features along this stretch of the Embarcadero (yes, tearing the Embarcadero Freeway down was helpful but a lot of this road is still fairly ugly) and poking fun at the many tourists who bring lots of money into the city. This is quite different from other odd characters in American cities like the Naked Cowboy in Times Square or the various gold or silver-covered street performers on Michigan Avenue and elsewhere who perform and then ask for money. The key difference is that Bushman had a direct confrontation with tourists who were often quite frightened – until they realized that people were watching them and this was all “normal.”

The dystopias right in front of us: “Sochi is Pure Dystopian Reality”

Much has been written about Sochi and its varying degrees of glitz and cover-up. This piece considers the dystopian aspects of Sochi and how it compares to recent fictional dystopias.

But here’s the best-worst part: no matter how many articles use the word “dystopia,” Sochi doesn’t just look like a hellish future straight off the NYT bestseller list. It’s a complete and active masterpiece—because despite all the plot markers, despite all the freaky realities that scream something is really wrong here, we still tune in. Just like the Hunger Games‘ Capitol citizens, Western audiences eat up happy-faced Olympic broadcasts as readily as we have since the games were first televised on a closed circuit in Berlin in 1936. We’ll read all the coverage as entertainment, make Twitter jokes about stray dogs, and laugh about it over drinks (even if it’s to keep from crying). Six thousand athletes will compete just as they did in London in 2012, even if tourists don’t quite make it out. The Olympics are the Olympics, after all. Sochi is the Dystopian Singularity because we accept it as reality—and thus are complicit in its success…

If this is really happening, though, at least we have a few protagonists. Members of the radical-feminist punk performance art collective Pussy Riot have been active, powerful critics of President Putin’s regime—which is exactly how they came to the West’s attention at all. After several members’ arrest and political imprisonment for hooliganism (after they performed a radical protest song in Moscow’s biggest cathedral), Maria “Masha” Alyokhina and Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova were released in December just months before their two-year sentence was up. (They maintain that their release was a Putin PR stunt.) While the pair have since split from Pussy Riot proper to pursue their own activism for prisoners’ rights, their association with the group and the media tour they’ve taken in the past few months has made many aware of the dire sociopolitical circumstances in Russia. Last week they appeared on The Colbert Report and at an Amnesty International benefit concert, where they urged people to boycott or protest the Games and the leaders overseeing them. There’s no quantitative way to measure Nadya and Masha’s success—and it’s likely that some might miss the point—but it’s a good bet that their story (and Pussy Riot’s message) has resonated with audiences even if it doesn’t affect their willingness to add to the ratings.

There are quieter acts of solidarity, as well, scripted straight from Katniss’s victory tour: Russian snowboarder Alexey Sobolev appeared to display a Pussy Riot member on the bottom of his board when he took to the slopes on Thursday; the same day, Google unleashed a pro-LGBT Doodle. One could even argue that Jonny Weir’s fashion statements are marks of resistance. But these won’t change the fact that things will probably worsen in Russia after the Games end and the world stops watching; the Olympics are notorious for draining economies dry and Sochi is the most expensive Games ever assembled.

Certainly, Sochi isn’t single-handedly decimating the dystopia YA marketplace, but it’s nonetheless a perfect example of why the genre is failing. It’s not because a shallow fad has run its course; it’s because the fantasies and the facts have become nearly identical. And that’s the problem — Entertainment is meant to be an escape, fantasy and science-fiction in particular; movies about poverty don’t do well during a recession because no one in the midst of turmoil likes seeing their suffering splashed onto the silver screen. And it’s not just in Sochi, either; from Snowden, to the American wealth gap, to the (thankfully canceled) prospect of DMX cage-fighting George Zimmerman on pay-per-view, to the world’s premier newspaper printing an accused pedophile’s “response” to his child victim’s account, there are countless examples of our satirical imagination matching the real world right at our front door. (And we wonder why people still get fooled by Onion articles.) The fact is, when the allegory starts looking like the reality, it’s time for the allegory to evolve.

Perhaps we should then ask what the average viewer/consumer is supposed to do in this situation. Ignore the Olympics? Engage in a more real world right in front of them? Insist the Olympics avoid countries with lots of inequality (Russia might seem like an obvious choice but others might argue this could rule out the United States)?

This also hints that the really important dystopias are not ones we imagine but rather ones that are right in front of us that we don’t notice. This might be like the tourist experience: we are often like visitors who hope to see the popular sights and are distracted by what is new and exciting. How closely do we look behind the scenes? (This is starting to sound like a pitch I would make in an Introduction to Sociology course.) A number of sociologists have voiced their concerns about “fake” places, often invoking Disney World or Las Vegas or Times Square, that tend to hide the real world behind consumerism and private spaces.

New York MTA: don’t post signs showing subway passengers where it is best to board

A new underground group has been posting signs indicating where it is best to board a subway train but the MTA is not happy:

There is a body of knowledge that New Yorkers gradually accumulate through years of hardened subway travel. If a train car is mysteriously empty, don’t get in. Savor your cheese. Beware sharks. But the most prized wisdom is the understanding of where you need to board a train to make your transfer or exit most efficient. For example, when transferring to the L line from the A/C/E or F trains, some use the mnemonic “Down in Front,” meaning you want to be in the front of those downtown trains for the fastest transfer to the L. But what if you’re a novice who hasn’t yet acquired such deep insight? A group of rogue good Samaritans is here to help the newbs.

The Efficient Passenger Project is on a mission to put up signs throughout the subway system guiding commuters to the best spot to board a train in order to make the quickest exit or transfer. The anonymous participants have been placing “Efficient Passenger Project” stickers on and around the turnstiles in select subway stations, signaling the presence of a plaque on the platform that tells you exactly where to stand to make your commute most efficient.

So far the EPP has only rolled out the signage along the L line, but the website promises “more train lines in planning stages, proportional to demand.” The founder of the group tells Transportation Nation, “It’s a public, civic service. [The subways can be] a labyrinth of tunnels and transfers and stairways. The project is an attempt to kind of rationalize some of that environment, and just make a more enjoyable, faster commute.”

The MTA, however, has vowed to remove the unauthorized signs. “These signs have the potential to cause crowding conditions in certain platform areas and will create uneven loading in that some train cars will be overcrowded while others will be under-utilized,” says MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz. “And yes, regular customers don’t need these signs to know which car they should enter.”

The tone of this story as well as many of the commentors is that this sort of prized information shouldn’t be given away. Instead, it is insider information that should be hoarded by those who regularly use the system and can use it to their advantage over others, particularly tourists who just get in the way.

Contrast this approach with the approach in San Francisco. I remember seeing this for the first time and being shocked: people line up for the BART at particular markings on the platform. The train car doors open consistently at those spots and people file in. This is quite different from most cities where it is a mad dash to the open doors.

Perhaps all of this does indicate that urban culture in New York City in indeed more dog-eats-dog…