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Monday, May 31, 2010



Editor's Note: On this Memorial Day, when we reflect on the memories of our dearly departed, we could have paid tribute to John Nolen, Daniel Burnham, Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs or an any number of great urbanists.

But since we try to trod off the beaten path, today we honor O’Neil Broyard, who spent nearly half a century operating one of the greatest gritty urban bars in all of mystical, magical, bizarre and historical New Orleans.

O'Neil's Saturn Bar was not in the fabled French Quarter, Garden District, Uptown, Warehouse or even Faubourg Marigny.

The Saturn Bar, it lives on, is in the Lower Ninth Ward -- never a sexy tourist spot and hard hit by Hurricane Katrina. The bar’s owner, O’Neil died in December 2005 while the place was still closed down in the aftermath of Katrina.

What follows is an exerpt of a story we wrote on the Saturn Bar and kindred soul O"Neil -- back when he was alive, thriving and a Category 5 storm handn't hit the Big Easy in ages:

Looking back on that final steamy evening, sipping locally-brewed Dixie beers at the Saturn Bar, that was the precise moment when we knew we'd finally achieved that perfect moment of vacation when you're a million miles away from the office, the bills, the lawnmower and the rest of life’s daily distractions.

We had reached that sublime level of distraction that all travelers seek when they plunk down the equivalent of a few week’s pay in return for an excursion to a faraway place.

The Saturn Bar, according to the proprietor who took it over in 1961 and transformed it from a nondescript neighborhood tavern into a shrine for easily 10,000 or more flea market trinkets, takes its name from a pair of neon “planets” on the ceiling over the liquor bottles.

They really don't look like Saturn, but the multicolored neon tubes lay the foundation for a showplace of second hand junk, a cornucopia of kitsch, although it’s unlikely any of the Saturn Bar regulars have ever uttered the word “kitsch” in their lives.

We're not sure if it was the mummy suspended from the roof near the single entranceway, the galaxy mural that covered the ceiling, or the scads of dimestore paintings hung over top of each other from wall to wall, but somehow the atmosphere of the Saturn provided a perfect ending for an eventful five days and four nights in the Big Easy.

We had downed crawfish at notable French Quarter restaurants and sailed the Mississippi on an authentic steamboat, but that final night with a half dozen Saturn Bar regulars put our entire journey into perspective.

Suffice it to say if the offbeat appeals to you, seek out the Saturn. Half the fun is finding it.

Located in a neighborhood our cab drivers politely described as "a bit rough," the Saturn is the essence of New Orleans away from he endless T-shirt shacks from the riverfront to the Quarter; and the fumes of some of the lesser quality restaurants that align themselves near the five star cafes in the Quarter.

If you must find it, the Saturn Bar is listed in the phone book, but we're not going to give out the address.

The Saturn doesn't depend on the patronage of every tourist that comes down the pike to keep it afloat. It’ charm is that it isn't within walking distance from any major hotel or overpopulated Bourbon Street.

Besides, we got the impression from O'Neil, the Saturn’s founder and chief barkeep, that if we encouraged the masses to flock to his sleepy little joint, the minute we return to the Saturn, he'll kick our Yankee keisters back to the North faster than one of his 60-ish regulars can smoke through a pack of Viceroys.


The Saturn Bar, like much of New Orleans, lives on beyond death, natural disaster and colorful polititicians.

It is at 3067 St. Claude Ave. 504 949-7532

Devotees have created Facebook and MySpace pages in its honor:


Saturday, May 29, 2010



By Heidi Johnson-Wright and Steve Wright

The American Institute of Architects hasn't met in Miami since the year we were born --1964. A few things have changed!

We'll start in Miami Beach, where the annual AIA convention is based, then point the way toward some can't miss attractions that don't show up in the typical tourist guides.

Miami has everything from historic Latin Quarters to Old Florida roadside attractions to chic shopping on the beach to waterfront dining while viewing the ever-changing skyline to the grandest subtropical garden on earth.

Miami’s culture, architecture and cuisine alone could entertain for a month, but for AIA visitors in town for a week or less, here are our can’t miss Miami attractions:

An Avenue You Can’t Drive On: A Stroll on Chic Lincoln Road

Once called the Fifth Avenue of the South in homage to the famous New York shopping district, Lincoln Road now earns mad props for its own unique sexy, hip flavor. This Miami Beach pedestrian mallway, with its lush tropical landscaping and eye-catching fountains, makes for great strolling, shopping and people watching any time of day. But after dark is when the Road’s brand of café society truly starts jumping.

Start near Lincoln Road’s western end at the Colony Theatre (1040 Lincoln Rd; 305-674-1040), a recently-restored art deco dazzler that now serves as one of the area’s best mid-sized performance spaces. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the theatre hosts performing arts, including stand-up comedy, film and opera.

Since South Beach is all about style, fab threads are always a good choice as a souvenir. Base (939 Lincoln Rd.; 305-531-4982) – with its minimalist European interior -- offers duds cut from fine fabrics, home accessories, CDs and more.

Searching for a good read about Miami Beach history or art deco design? Head over to Books & Books (927 Lincoln Road; 305-532-3222;, a delightful independent book seller with a cozy sidewalk café.

After some walking and gawking, cool, tropical refreshment is just the ticket. A hop, skip and a jump south of the Road on Michigan Avenue you’ll find The Frieze Ice Cream Factory (1626 Michigan Ave.; 305-538-2028), a name that playfully puns art deco design details and the temperature of its cool creations. Forget plain vanilla and sample a savory mango sorbet.

To truly experience the essence of Lincoln Road, a night cap or specialty coffee at a sidewalk table is essential. Drop by the Van Dyke Café (846 Lincoln Rd.; (305-534-3600) and take it all in: society matrons with Chanel bags and tiny, pampered pooches, club kids swooshing by on Rollerblades and starry-eyed couples sharing a moonlit stroll.

Calle Ocho: In the Heart of Little Havana

Ladies shade themselves from the searing subtropical sun while strolling to buy Cuban bread. Men in guayaberas speak animated Spanish while sipping tiny shots of powerful Cuban coffee. Youngsters sip frosty coconut milk right from the source – coco frio they call it – after a fruteria merchant swings a mighty machete to cut a groove into the shell.

Miami’s Little Havana is an enchantingly mysterious place of cigar makers, domino players, salsa singers and exile leaders. When Fidel Castro took over the island in 1960, tens of thousands of Cubans settled in Miami -- forever cementing the city’s cutting edge, international flavor.

Spanish is the language of choice in La Pequena Habana, but restaurant menus have subtitles in English and merchants are quite used to the “point and nod” method when gringos are shopping for wares.

Calle Ocho is the spiritual center of the neighborhood. Start at El Exquisito (1510 SW 8th St.; 305-643-0227) with a breakfast of pan Cubano, toasted to perfection in a sandwich press that melts the butter inside the long wedges of bread, and a big cup of café con leche – strong and sugary Cuban coffee lightened with lots of steamed milk.

The historic art deco Tower Theater (1508 S.W. 8th St.; 305-237-3010) next door shows Spanish language films, with English subtitles, on its two screens.

To see and hear top name Cuban and other Latin entertainers every weekend, head west on Calle Ocho to Hoy Como Ayer (2212 SW 8th St., 305-541-2631; The name means “today like yesterday,” as in a little club that exists in the present to showcase the best in Cuban cabaret music of old.

For a hand-rolled cigar made in the finest Cuban tradition, head to El Credito (1106 SW 8th St.; 305-858-4162) on Calle Ocho. It’s a stogie paradise stocked full with the famed La Gloria Habana brand smokes.

Ed’s Place: The Last Great Dixie Highway Roadside Attraction

Can love move mountains, reshape the moon, even transcend space and time? As the magic eight-ball would say: “signs point to ‘yes,’” and you’ll find this answer at one of the last remaining old Florida attractions, Coral Castle.

Unlike cheesy roadside museums featuring oddities such as two-headed calves and Fiji mermaids, Coral Castle is a testament to the love of a five-foot tall, 100 pound Latvian immigrant for his bride-to-be that never was. Jilted by his one true love, Ed Leedskalnin created a compound comprised of massive coral rock carvings with the vain hope that his creations would show his devotion, allowing him to win her heart back.

Apparently his sweetheart was one cold ice princess -- who wouldn’t be moved by a nine-ton gate so perfectly balanced it can be opened by a child, a one-ton rocking chair, a massive, heart-shaped table ornamented with an Ixora bush or a 23-ton wishing well shaped like a full moon?

“Big deal,” you say, “so some lovesick Latvian dude carved stuff from rock.” But here’s the kicker: Ed carved all of it without power tools, and moved every massive block of rock 10 miles from an original sight to the current one – by himself!

Did he use ancient principles of engineering? Magic spirits? The world may never know. And while Ed’s ladylove had a heart as hard as coral rock, visitors from all over have warmed to his mysterious creations. In 1961, camp queen director Doris Wishman filmed a movie here called “Nude on the Moon.” Eighties rocker Billy Idol was so inspired by Coral Castle that he wrote his song “Sweet Sixteen” about Ed’s plight.

To see Ed’s magical creations, you can telekinetically transport yourself – or just take the family sedan – to 28655 South Dixie Highway, Homestead, FL.
For the lowdown on admission, hours of operation, and other mundane earthly stuff, call 305-248-6345, or check out the fun factoid-packed website:

Live Like A King, Pay Like a Piker: Visit The Mandarin Oriental Hotel

For a millionaire’s view of Miami with but a modest price, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel is the place to be. There’s no need to book a suite with a breath-taking bill. Instead, make a reservation at the restaurant with the breath-taking vista.

The luxurious, Asian-themed Mandarin has several sumptuous places to dine, but it’s Café Sambal that provides the best eye-popping views of the ever-growing skyline along Biscayne Bay, including causeways and high-rise condos. The grounds are spectacular with a man-made beach complete with intimate cabanas. The hotel sits on a spoil island in the bay surrounded by its own skyscrapers that perpetually appear in the overhead shots in CSI: Miami.

Book the hot breakfast on a weekend morning -- for just $28 a head, and take your plate out to a terrace table. Although the view is worth the price alone, you’ll be treated to a superb meal with such fare as savory eggs Benedict, fresh blackberries and raspberries with granola and chocolate brownie-like muffins so good they bring tears to the eyes.

To walk off those calories, take a tour of the grounds, including the hotel’s magnificent lobby with its wood detailing, contemporary furnishings and Zen-like vibe. Venture out to the public walking trail that spans Brickell Key’s perimeter and stroll around for a 360 degree view

The Mandarin Oriental is located at 500 Brickell Key Drive, Miami. For reservations at Café Sambal, call: 305-913-8358. A hot ($28 per person) and cold ($20 per person) breakfast is served Saturday and Sunday from 6:30 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. Check out the hotel’s website at:

Botanical Treasures at Fairchild Tropical Garden

For a fascinating, tranquil and educational destination that the whole family can enjoy, look no further than Fairchild Tropical Garden. Since 1938, this leafy oasis has offered a world-class collection of flora, especially palms, cycads and flowering trees. Some of the specimens can trace their lineage back to a 1940 collecting expedition by the garden’s founder, who sailed from the Philippines to the Indonesian archipelago aboard a Chinese junk.

Narrated tours of the gardens aboard a charming, covered tram are available throughout the day, taking visitors throughout 83 acres that include paved trails, shaded seating areas and water features. Expect sightings of dozens of head-bobbing, bright green -- and sometimes orange -- iguanas, pesky invaders that pose a real challenge to the garden staff, but make kids squeal with delight.

At the end of your visit, stop at the garden’s gorgeous main building with a café and gift shop. Where else can you find a book on jackfruit, palm-accented table runners and flatware, richly scented candles and bug bottles for that summer firefly roundup?

You’ll find the lush serenity of Fairchild Tropical Garden at 10901 Old Cutler Rd., in Coral Gables, FL. For more information, call 305-667-1651, or visit the garden’s website: The website lists what you’ll see in bloom for each month of the year.

Johnson-Wright is an award-winning writer. Wright is an award-winning photographer. They live in the center of Miami and could compose a top 500 list of things to do in their adopted hometown. Contact them at:

Friday, May 28, 2010



Doug Farr, successful architect, planner, urbanist, was quite possibly born to be among the chief advocates for green buildings and sustainable communities.

Farr, President and Founding Principal of Farr Associates Architecture & Urban Design, was shaped first by the energy crisis of the 1970s and continually evolved through an awareness of transit, sustainability, restoration and other elements that make him a much in demand guru of green.

“I am a guy who grew up in Detroit, Michigan and did so at a time of great tumult in the world, the country and my hometown,” Farr said from his office inside Chicago’s famed Monadnock Building. “In the 1970s, I was a high school kid in Detroit when the oil shock hit. I was the kid who went around and turned out the lights; energy was something important to me.”

Farr said cities, town planning, revitalization and conservation were also on his mind as a Motor City High School student.

“Detroit, having the great highway system, decanted its vitality to the suburbs,” he observed, pointing out that the city had a population of more than two million in 1950, but the latest census shows a population below 900,000 in the once vibrant industrial center.

Farr went to college at the nearby University of Michigan, his restless energy took him through “every major in the world: pre-med, pre-law, limnology, urban planning, biology, botany…”

Graduating with a degree in architecture in 1980, Farr was determined to go to work in his battered and bruised hometown despite Detroit’s devastating economy.

“After graduation, I called the second largest firm in Detroit, expecting to get a secretary. The head of the firm picked up the phone and said `get out of town. We moved the firm to LA and I’m just here closing things down.’ He said to go to Chicago, that `things are better there.’”

That storm cloud in Detroit had a silver lining for Farr in Chicago. It further developed his sense of tradition, restoration, preservation and sustainability.

“I worked for John Vinci, a wonderful man who has played a major role in preservation in the city of Chicago,” Farr recalled. “He had just finished restoring the Sullivan Trading Room (artifacts from the tragically-demolished Adler and Sullivan 1893-94 Chicago Stock Exchange Building) in the Art Institute of Chicago. The second job was the Monadnock Building (a Burnham and Root classic where Farr’s firm’s offices are), then a Frank Lloyd Wright house.”

Farr’s next stop was more education at Columbia University, where he met Dan Solomon, one of the co-founders of the Congress for New Urbanism. That helped solidify Farr’s integration of green architecture with sustainable communities.

By 1991, Farr had his own practice back in Chicago, the site of the 1993 American Institute of Architects convention that helped spawn green building.

Coming out of the convention, Farr also worked with a group that created a master plan for transit-oriented development in Chicago. It helped sway the Chicago Transit Authority to saving the Green Line that connects the Loop to Oak Park and the West and South sides.

“We came up with a sustainable kit of parts – a menu of land uses,” he said of development plans for areas surrounding transit stations. “Finally last year, we finished the first building at Lake & Pulaski -- halfway between the Loop and Oak Park -- in an area with 70 percent disinvestment.”

In the late 1990s, Farr was part of the group that helped define LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building certification as a way of defining exactly what defines a high performance, green, sustainable building.
Farr’s firm went on to redesign the Chicago Center for Green Technology, a 1952 building that now uses solar and geothermal energy and boasts a rooftop garden and natural habitat to filter storm water. The city of Chicago invested $9 million in clean-up costs and another $5.4 million toward construction and renovation.
The Center for Green Technology became only the third LEED platinum building in the world. Farr Associate’s Center for Neighborhood Technology also earned that distinction, making Farr the only architect on the planet with two LEED platinum buildings.

Nationwide, Farr is pushing to synthesize green building into the New Urbanism.

“We are trying to get LEED to be more urban friendly. The green building guys do very good work emphasizing stand alone, drive to buildings with huge parking lots,’’ he said. “And New Urbanists are building great communities, but have no idea about green buildings.”

“In Rosemary Beach, they throw away two houses worth of materials for every house built. The houses cost a fortune to repaint, the air conditioners rust and must be replaced and there are other elements that are not as sustainable as they could be,’’ Farr continued.

“My goal is to get the urbanists to be green building guys and get the green building guys to be urbanists.”

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Jaime Correa (center) prepares for a final presentation at an architectural charrette for Chicken Hill in Asheville, N.C. Assisting him in the preparation is Roberto Behar from R & R Studios (right) and local architect Michael McDonough


By Steve Wright

Jaime Correa is one of those persons who can make you burst out with laughter one moment, then make you almost uneasy with the depth of his intellectual pursuit and the fervor of his revolutionary spirit.

He has been to the mountain top – or gotten damn close to it – but he can share his knowledge on a human level that makes sense to the simple villager in the foothills.

You get the feeling he approaches each day’s task with the weight of the world on his shoulders then unburdens himself by sharing his discoveries with an engaging demeanor that seeks to make you both friend and follower.

The founding partner of Correa and Associates, he also is responsible for teaching and coordinating the renown program in Suburb and Town Design at the University of Miami School of Architecture where he us the Knight Professor in Community Building.

Suggest that the Correa Report -- a sustainable urbanism newsletter that he publishes – is a marketing tool and he will reject that notion.
“Its goal is to bring about a conscious awareness of sustainability in our immediate environment,” Correa said. “This is not a promotional piece but an educational document; and as such, it has been received with great enthusiasm by the public, government officials and scholars in the social and design arts and sciences.”

Ask Correa how he came to the cradle of New Urbanism in Miami and you will get a deep and endearing answer.

“When I decided to leave Colombia and move to Miami, in 1980, my intention was not to look for good urbanism, beauty, order, commodity or traditional values,” he said. “I came to this city because I fell in love with a powerful yet sweet and tender woman, who eventually became my wife, and whose personal demeanor and beautiful nature awakened my revolutionary spirit.”

Correa only partly jests that Andres Duany hired him for his first architecture job in Miami because of a mutual infatuation with the work of the fabled designer from Luxemburg.

“Leon Krier was my idol and my professional god. He was the person for whom I had built a shrine with flowers and candles; a mythical saint in my own biblical group of characters,” he said.
Despite his connection to DPZ and the University of Miami, Correa has become a critic of DPZ’s transect theory of organizing land use into six categories of intensity ranging from urban core to rural pasture.

His iconoclastic nature has brought him to and broken him away from the influential firms of Dover Kohl & Partners and Correa Valle Valle.

“Talking about the history of the New Urbanism in Florida can be a very painful as well as a very joyful experience for me,” Correa said. “A change of paradigm does not come easy. And for those of us in the trenches of the New Urbanism, this new paradigm has had its moments of despair, its moments of intellectual isolation, its moments of confrontation and its moments of light when everyone else was in darkness.”

Perhaps his simplicity, lack of corporate ambitions, allegiance to family and tireless pursuit of creating true communities has allowed Correa to continue strong bonds despite contrary opinions and business partner break ups.

Correa worked shoulder to shoulder with his New Urbanism colleagues on the post-Katrina rebuilding of the Gulf Coast. His current focus is on creating a brand of New Urbanism that addresses the current environmental predicament with sustainability that goes far beyond LEED certification and green building.

As a thinker, he is a skeptic. As a passionate town builder, he is an evangelist:

“The New Urbanism in Florida was neither shallow nor the product of vanity,” he said. “If it really pays attention to environmental concerns, it will be considered to be the simplest reminder of what America can be in a non-distant future.”

“Florida has become the paradigm! Florida has become the land of opportunity!”

Wright has written for a living for 25 years, with nearly 5,000 published articles.. He lives in historic Little Havana and is very active in Miami’s urban issues. He and his wife of 20 years also are involved in making new and old towns more accessible for people with disabilities.


Jaime Correa and Denis Hector will present The Art and Science of Design for Coastal Hazard Mitigation Friday June 11 at the American Institute of Architects annual convention in Miami

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Riddle me this (urban) Batman

Why do we love cities so much?

Because even their graveyards contain great architecture, green space, human scale, art and history -- just like cities for the living do.

These three pictures are from the same cemetery, but very few visitors ever see these grand monuments.

Sign up as follower of this blog, guess what city of the dead these artistic burial places reside in and we'll send the first person with the correct answer a professional photo print.

Need a hint? Wow, that's a tough one. We could give many, but it would give the fabled boneyard's name away too easily. All we can say is it's not in North America or Western Europe. Good luck

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Thanks to everyone who has visited this blog about all things urban -- urban travel, photography, food, land use, architecture, green space, sustainability and accessibility.

We are humbled by the number of visitors and the number of folks who have contacted us to belief in the city.

We were going to go on a bit of a rant today about cities that allow builders to close sidewalks for years to accommodate construction (when Europe, New York, etc. have know for a century that pedestrian travel can be maintained with simple protective scaffolding overhead).

But we'll save that for another time and simply share a few beloved shots of Manhattan on a misty morning.

The photo was taken from the top of Rockefeller center by Steve Wright.

With the exception of perhaps a mugshot of supplied by a person profiled in the story on this blog, all photography is taken by Steve Wright.

Soon, we will have a link to a gallery of urban photos from America, Latin America and beyond.

Thanks for the support and don't forget to share our site with your friends.

Monday, May 24, 2010



Totonno’s Pizzeria Napolitano

Should you find yourself at Coney Island with an appetite whetted by strolling the boardwalk, playing skee ball or riding the world-renown Cyclone roller coaster, head two blocks north of the main strip to Totonno’s Pizzeria Napolitano.

A Brooklyn institution since 1924 and recently resurrected after a fire in March 2009, Totonno’s churns out succulent thin crust pies that are topped with creamy white, hand-sliced mozzarella. Each one is done to perfection in a few short minutes, thanks to the super-heated coal-fired oven. Best of all, the slices are pie shaped, the way God intended. The servers are friendly and eager to please, welcoming you like a paesano. And you never know who you might meet -- word has it that the godfather of punk, Lou Reed, is a big Totonno’s fan.

Lombardi’s Pizza

According to its website, Lombardi’s is the original American pizzeria, first selling its pies in 1905 before pizza became a ubiquitous part of the American cuisine scene after World War II. Whether they were first or not is irrelevant when you make pizza this good.

On my last trip to NYC, I stayed at the Millennium Hilton downtown near the World Trade Center Site, just across the street from high-end label discount shopping at Century 21 (a pair of Manolo’s at 75 percent off retail and a Pucci silk scarf for a song!) Upon check-in and weary from the flight, I dialed up Lombardi’s (advance research pays off) and had a simple pepperoni delivered, which my traveling companion and I devoured at a table near the lobby bar. The tasty, satisfying pie was molto bene and set the tone for a memorable, foodie-focused Manhattan adventure.

John’s Pizzeria

There are many places to get pizza in Greenwich Village , but they all pale in comparison to John’s on Bleecker Street . Bucking the NYC pizza by the slice tradition, John’s only sells pies, small (14 inches, six slices) and large (16 inches, 8 slices) for dine-in or take-out. And deep-dish fans be darned: it’s thin crust, coal-fired only in this delightful, little parlor.

Though the digs are a bit grungy, the garlicky scent wafting throughout tells you that you’ve found the genuine article. Regulars crow about the outstanding pastas and meatballs, but I say you can’t go wrong with a simple pie and a cold beverage of your choice.

Totonno’s 1524 Neptune Avenue, (718) 372-8606,

Lombardi's Pizza, 32 Spring Street, (212) 941-7994,

John’s Pizzeria, 278 Bleecker Street, (212) 243-1680,

Sunday, May 23, 2010



As a citizen of the Sixth Borough (i.e. Miami ), I occasionally get caught up in the whole romance/rivalry thing with New York . I love the alphabet city, but take pride in what my beloved Magic City has to offer.

NYC’s climate can’t hold a candle to MIA’s sunshine and balmy breezes, but New York definitely has us beat when it comes to delis. Back when there was a Wolfie’s on the Beach and the Rascal House, Miami was a contender. But those days are long gone.

Which is why, when I come to the Big Apple, my stay isn’t complete without a trip to Barney Greengrass. On my last visit, my dining companion and I ordered two Greengrass classics: chunks of flavorful sturgeon folded into scrambled eggs on a bagel and lox and cream cheese. The fish was heavenly and the bagels, perfection. Plus, we got to feel like real Upper West Siders, brunching while perusing the New York Times.

Brunch was followed by leisurely walk south along Broadway. Before we’d ambled even 10 blocks, we happened upon Zabar’s, the speciality grocery and food emporium referenced in a zillion and one movies and TV shows. We strolled the aisles with the best of intentions – to feast only with the eyes – but the sights and smells of this iconic “appetizing store” soon overcame our restraint. Before we knew it, we were feasting on those all-too-rare-these-days baked goods: those that taste as good as they look. A couple of creamy lattes went well with our decadent desserts.

The experience got me thinking about where I would find comparable gourmet cheeses, exotic olives, and first-rate baked goods in Miami . The answer was Epicure Gourmet Market, the newest location of which is on the site where the Rascal House once stood. Which brings me back full circle, ever-loyal to Miami but begrudgingly bewitched with New York.


Friday, May 21, 2010



The great American cities at the beginning of the 20th century relied on streetcars, trolleys, interurban and other transit systems that moved people and helped served rich and poor, young and old, with staggering success.

Cities and transit have never been the same since transit lines were abandoned for smelly, dirty buses and an ever-increasing dependency on automobiles.

Public rail transit is a failure. Only a tiny fraction of people use it and the fare box covers barely one fourth of the cost.

Americans have chosen the car as their mode of transportation and their suburban growth patterns have made it all but impossible to build light rail lines that have any prayer of reducing congestion or serving a significant percentage of the population.

So who’s right?:

The backers of the first two sentences, who say rail transit produces far greater economic impact than can be judged by the fare box.

Or the believers in the other two paragraphs, who look at the numbers and see light rail advocates as little more than “pork lovers, auto haters and nostalgia buffs,” as transit critic Randall O’Toole labeled them in his Great Rail Disasters research paper.

O’Toole excoriates transit with his research that claims “regions that emphasize rail transit typically spend 30 to 80 percent of their transportation capital budgets on transit even though transit carries only one to five percent of regional travel.”

Half of all rail regions lost transit commuters during the 1990s, he asserts.

“Rail’s high cost makes it ineffective at reducing congestion. On average, $13 spent on rail transit is less effective at reducing congestion than $1 spent on freeway improvements. Investments in rail transit are only about half as effective as investments in bus transit,” O’Toole’s study states.

Based on ridership and passenger miles growth versus growth in car use, O’Toole’s recent update to his research assigns letter grades to major rail systems.

By O’Toole’s count, even the transit-rich city of New York gets an “F” for declining ridership and modern transit darling Portland a “D”.because its ridership is not growing as fast as automobile use.

Rail advocates assert that O’Toole is off-base when he gives a “D” grade to a Portland system that has steadily grown and has fought sprawl and focused growth on urban hubs that have developed around commuter transit stations.

Todd Litman, in Evaluating Rail Transit Criticism refutes O’Toole in his publication created for the Victoria (British Columbia) Transport Policy Institute

“O’Toole assigns New York an “F,” claiming that transit ridership is flat. Yet ridership grew significantly between 1993 and 2001, and was projected to set new records until the 2001 terrorist attacks reduced regional travel activity,” Litman states.

Jeffrey S. Wood, a program associate with Oakland-based Reconnecting America, says there are dozens of light rail success stories.

He cited the entire Salt Lake City system plus the Houston Main Street, Minneapolis Hiawatha and San Diego Green lines as four rail programs that have exceeded 2015 projected daily ridership nearly a decade ahead of time.

“From Salt Lake City to Dallas and from Washington, DC to Atlanta, transit, and railbased transit in particular have had an unquestionably positive impact on growth and quality of life in our urban areas,” states the Center for Transportation Excellence in a paper penned exclusively to debunk O’Toole’s numbers. “Investments in public transportation yield tremendous benefits, including reductions in congestion and travel time and increases in economic development in the community.”
“If investments in rail have been `disastrous,’ as the report claims, how does one explain the fact that public expenditures in transit net a gain in sales of local businesses of three times that amount1? A return ratio of more than three to one hardly seems disastrous,” the CFTE report continues. “If investments in rail have been `disastrous’, how does one explain that the average downtown vacancy rates for cities without rail was 12.8 percent in 2000, but only eight percent for cities with rail transit.”

Robert W. Poole, Jr., director of transportation studies for the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, said he does not oppose public transit – he simply wants more bang for his buck.

“Transportation planners have the soul of reformers: they want people to do what they should do, not what they want to do,” he said from his Fort Lauderdale home office. “Rail often captures only half a percent of all daily trips. For new rail, about half of its riders simply switched from buses. That is not solving traffic congestion.”

Poole, who is a fan of HOT lanes, said buses bring a better return on investment than light rail. He said if buses are clean and run on an express route, people will use them.

“In Los Angeles County, the Metro Rapid is an express bus services that skips a lot of regular stops that slow you down. The Metro Rapid opened to huge success on Wilshire Boulevard. The buses have no dedicated lanes, but they do have signal priority time on traffic lights. The system saves a lot of time and it picked up so many riders that it has expanded to 17 other major arterials.”



Gasoline prices soared and will soar again.

Much public transit is less than adequate.

Various taxes are failing to keep up with inflation and failing to generate the funding needed for both maintenance and expansion of all forms of transportation – from highways to light rail.

Real estate has always been about location, location, location. But rather than the old saw applying to good schools, good jobs, good parks, etc., location may apply more to transportation than any other element.

When homebuyers talk location, they will mean they are concerned about: proximity to rail, better buses, pedestrian and bike paths, improved highways, public tollways that charge a premium at peak times to reduce congestion, public-private partnerships that have expanded roadways and even location in a state, region or municipality that is focused on transportation financing.

C. Kenneth Orski, Editor/Publisher of Potomac Maryland-based Innovation Briefs, said every source of transportation funding is falling short.

“Local and state jurisdictions are running out of money for transportation. All the money is used for maintaining what they have,” he said. “They are short of any capital that would expand the system. Everybody is scrambling madly in search of new financing sources.”

The main source for highways is the federal Highway Trust Fund supported mostly through the federal manufacturers’ excise tax on gasoline, which has remained at 18.4 cents per gallon for more than a decade.

“There is a huge political resistance to raising the gas tax in Congress,’ Orski said. “There also is resistance in state legislatures,” because states also heavily tax gasoline, but with high crude oil prices, state governments are reluctant to add insult to injury by adding higher gas taxes to spiraling costs at the pump.

Orski said that while tax revenue is basically stagnant, the demand for transportation is increasing very rapidly in terms of tremendous growth in both vehicle miles and number of cars on the road.

Several states are looking to fund transportation through: toll lanes with premium prices, privately-funded tollways and long-term leases of existing turnpikes to for-profit companies.

In Texas, the state converted some High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes into High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes.

While HOV lanes have traditionally been reserved for public transit plus car pool vehicles with two or more occupants, HOT lanes charge a premium price for the fast lane.

Buses and vehicles occupied by three or more people still ride free, but cars with only two people in them pay an extra $2 toll. The entire operation is cash and slowdown free, operated by transponders sold to a limited number of car poolers who qualify.

Other states are building new lanes or converting existing lanes into HOT lanes that will charge a higher price for use at peak hours. Public transportation and some car pooling gets a free ride, but individuals pay a much higher cost to use the fast-moving lane during morning and evening commute peak hours.

The idea is that HOT lanes: reward public transit and high occupancy vehicles, reduce congestion by charging a higher price for use and increase revenue to pay for expansion.

Texas is also leading a movement among the states to work with private firms to add lanes or build entirely new highways. In many of these scenarios under development or study, the private operator will finance construction in return for a long-term lease that allows it to charge tolls and fees to make earnings on its investment.

Cintra-Zachary, a Spanish-Texas consortium, won the first bid to build a highway from Dallas to San Antonio. It is the first of four Trans-Texas Corridors that will eventually include high-speed, limited-access highways separated for trucks and cars; tracks for high-speed rail, commuter rail and freight rail; plus space for utilities, maintenance and future expansion.

In Chicago, a long-established highway was virtually sold, via long-term lease, to generate dollars for transportation.

The Chicago Skyway, a six-lane, nearly eight-mile toll bridge that connects the Indiana Toll Road to the city’s Dan Ryan Expressway, was leased for 99 years to a Spanish-Australian group.

In return for $1.83 billion up front, the Skyway Concession Company will collect all tolls and concessions for one year shy of a century. The revenue to the city pays for many things, but it is not solely dedicated to public transit or highways, prompting criticism.

“It’s like mortgaging the house to go to dinner, said Alan Pisarski, a 40-year veteran transportation expert based in Falls Church Virginia. “Some future mayor of Chicago is going to look back and say (sarcastically) `what a good idea this was -- you solved your problems back then and now we’re done.`”

Pisarski said there is great danger in virtually selling off the transit assets of the future to pay for the pension costs and other budget shortfalls of today.

“Pennsylvania and New Jersey are heavily financially squeezed and their turnpikes will probably be sold. The Jersey turnpike will pull down maybe $20 billion. I have faith that the private sector guys will run it well, but are the lease proceeds being put into transit and transportation?,’’ asked Pisarski, author of Commuting in America III released by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences.

While new, creative financing options abound, several states and municipalities are expanding public transit through the tried and true means of taxation approved by ballot issue.

Art Guzzetti, vice president for policy at the American Public Transit Association, says the demand for light rail and other forms of mass transit is on the rise as 34 million Americans use transit each day and millions more are demanding it for their neighborhoods.

Guzzetti cites as evidence the Center for Transportation Excellence (CFTE) study Transportation at the Ballot Box -- Voters Support Increased Investment & Choice.

The Washington, D.C.-based CFTE research found that, from 2000 to 2005, communities in 33 states approved more than $70 billion in transportation spending -- much of it for pubic transit. In that span, more than 200 transportation issues went on the ballot and voters supported more than 70 percent of them.

Nationwide, voters fretful of their tax burden, approve only about a third of the spending measures in elections. But the CFTE study found such a support base for transit, that several of the spending issues were placed on the ballot via citizen initiative.

Voters authorized transportation spending via sales tax, property tax (new, increased or extension of existing in both sales and property taxes), bond issue, dedicated revenue source and other means such as tolls, surcharges and special fees.

The trend to support transit at the ballot box continued in 2006 when a small town and a location out west where growth came by way of the automobile-dependent development, both approved measures that will generate millions to billions.

The CFTE reported that: In Canton, Ohio, voters approved a one-quarter cent sales tax extension that is expected to raise at least $11.5 million annually for the next five years for a regional bus service. In Tucson, Arizona, voters approved a sales tax dedicated to transportation expected to top $2.1 billion over twenty years.

The trouble with transit funding at the state level is that different parts of a state have very different priorities. The urban area may need many modes of transit to serve its density, the suburban area may need a commuter rail line linked to downtown and other suburban job centers, the port cities require transit to move workers, goods and visitors, and one rural area may want highways and public transit to speed along development while another may snub transit in hopes of remaining pastoral and undeveloped.

These varying dynamics have hit hard in Virginia, where transit funding battles have been waged in the General Assembly for years.

The failure to address the diverse funding needs in the Old Dominion State is why Virginians for Better Transportation (VBT) was founded as advocacy group “working to implement statewide, multi-modal transportation solutions through increased, dedicated and sustainable funding and responsible business practices.”

“The benefits to transit are significant at all levels. Two income families where one earner can take the bus or train to work can save about $6,200 a year,” said Linda McMinimy, executive director of the Richmond-based Virginia Transit Association and a VBT steering committee member. To achieve national, state and regional goals, transit must be expanded. To manage and reduce road congestion, more public transportation service is the quickest, cheapest and most cost effective way to free up space on existing roads.”

“Most of the travel trips in Virginia are regional -- people getting to and from daily activities -- yet in many parts of Virginia, especially suburban and rural areas, transit service is very limited, inconvenient or not available at all,” she added. “Public transportation service needs to be expanded to provide better local and regional accessibility.

Expanded regional public transportation service needs to be frequent, faster and convenient to more Virginians. This will require a higher level of reliable, dedicated state and federal funding.”

Fellow VBT steering Committee member Nancy Finch, executive director of Richmond-based Virginians for High Speed Rail, supports inter-city heavy rail for alternative transportation that is “environmentally clean, saves fuel, reduces congestion, and is safe and convenient.”

“Rail cannot be a local government or even, totally, a statewide issue. It needs to be a federal issue supported primarily with tax dollars as we support air, ports and highways with tax dollars,” she said. “We need leadership on the federal level for a national rail program and federal funding. Already the new leadership -- with Senators Lott and Lautenberg’s legislation for Amtrak funding -- offers hope that a new day is here. “

Thursday, May 20, 2010



By Steve Wright

The flavor of Miami today, to anyone anywhere in the world, conjures up the aroma of café con leche in Little Havana, sushi on South Beach and grillot in Little Haiti.

Miami style means boastful, towering skyscrapers on Biscayne Bay and impossibly high-heeled models decked out in Prada on Ocean Drive.

But not that long ago, the flavor of Miami tasted more like tangy barbecue, fried frog legs and buttered grits. The city’s style consisted of modest, low-rise houses occupied by a shirt sleeve and dungaree crowd sporting farmer’s tans.

In the course of becoming one of the most exciting, most diverse, most international cities in the Western Hemisphere, Miami left its past behind in record time.

Various building booms and rich cultural changes following immigration waves have left little of the Old Miami in tact.

But if you know where to look, little remnants of the Old South, Old Florida and Old Miami can be tasted and enjoyed all over Dade County. Um, make that Miami-Dade County. Everything changes, even the county names, here in the fast and furious subtropics.

No place has stayed so much the same -- when so much change has gone on around it – as Shorty’s Bar-B-Q on South Dixie Highway. They’ve been serving up dirt cheap ribs, chicken, beef and pork since 1951 – that’s like 2000 BC in Miami years.

Folks still lineup out the door for smoky ‘cue drowned in warm Shorty’s Sauce, sides of sweet potato and corn on the cob and southern beverages such as iced tea and lemonade. Shorty’s was out in the middle of nowhere when it opened. Today, it sits below a MetroRail station and at the eastern gateway to miles and miles of suburban sprawl that is Kendall.

“The places that date back to when barbecue was king, those still hang on,’’ observed Miami historian Paul George. “They conjure up memories of when it was good ole boys drinkin’ beer and shootin’ pool and there was smoke everywhere. They represent the Miami of a generation or two ago, when people called it ‘My-Am-Uh.’”

They still do drink beer (by the can), play bocce (on outdoor courts – what could be more Old Florida?) and smoke (both unfiltered coffin nails that’ll kill you and succulent Marlin that makes for some of the best fish dip in the South) at Jimbo’s

Flipper used to roam the tropical lagoon where Jimbo’s is located. The faux Bahamian shacks were featured in Miami Vice. But the real Jimbo’s is a little shack of a building that opens about 6 a.m. and serves shrimpers who secure their boats on the rickety docks there. The beer goes for a buck fifty a can. Proprietor Jimbo Luznar has been smoking fish and on the same swath of city parkland, a stone’s throw from the sewer plant, for a half-century.

Soul food is an old southern staple and no one does it better than Jumbo’s in Liberty City. For more than four decades, the friendly folks there have been starting your day right with hearty breakfasts of biscuits and gravy. Jumbo’s is also open late night, to quench your craving for crackling fried chicken, breaded shrimp, fried conch and all the requisite southern sides of corn, black-eyed peas and beans. The iced tea is sweet, and the greens -- collard, mustard, kale, or turnip -- are salted with requisite bits of fatback.

The Coconut Grove of the present is defined by Bayshore Drive condominium towers and Main Highway retail boutiques, but the true soul of the Grove exists west of these addresses. In the West Grove, descendants of Bahamians who came there in the 19th century play dominoes, ride bicycles and raise children in an area that still has a hint of the Bahamas despite encroaching condo development from all sides.

The Charlotte Jane Memorial Park cemetery on Charles Avenue and Douglas Road is one of the West Grove’s treasures. The above ground cemetery is as mysteriously beautiful as any of New Orleans’ fabled graveyards. Several nearby streets feature shotgun shacks, named because a bullet fired through the front door would pass straight through house and out the back. These modest, but exquisitely southern and historic houses remain largely unadulterated – save for the addition of indoor plumbing.
Downtown Miami maybe be one of the most adulterated parts of the city. The stores, except for Burdines have moved to suburbs; the banks and law firms, for the most part, have moved to Brickell; and the street life resembles a Caribbean seaport – to the excitement of some and exasperation of others.
“When I think of the Miami my childhood, I think of the restored Olympia Theater,” historian Arva Moore Parks said of the last of the grand downtown movie palaces, now known as the Gussman Center for the Performing Arts.
“The others that come to mind are The Pit and Coopertown Restaurant, a pair of wonderful places on the Tamiami Trail,” she said -- lauding the barbecue joint famed for honey-rich sauce, crispy fry biscuits, corn on the cob and little to no air conditioning – and a down home cookin’ joint at an airboat launch deep into the Everglades part of Western Dade County. “The Coopertown Restaurant is probably the best old everything I know. It serves great frog legs and catfish.”
George and Parks, the city’s pre-eminent historians, both treasure Allen’s Drug Store at the corner of Red and Bird Roads. The pharmacy side looks like the apothecary of your grandpa’s era. Parks still revels in the soda fountain side and its “friendly service.”
In a town where last year’s hot, new, wait-three-hours-for-a-table bistro becomes this year’s shuttered has-been, there is something endearing about restaurants that have lasted for decades in fickle greater Miami.
The S&S Restaurant, just north of downtown and a stone’s throw the from historic old Miami Cemetery, is a throwback two-fer. Outside, the 12-foot-wide building boasts a wonderful Depression-era Art Deco design with multicolored glass arranged in horizontal and vertical bands on its facade. Inside, the tiny diner serves up sinfully pre-Atkins breakfasts of grits, eggs, bacon, home fries and buttered toast -- all washed down with good old fashioned coffee served from a giant urn.
“Up on 7th Avenue and 125th Street is the last remaining Royal Castle—a real old time treat,” Parks said in a burger-craving reminiscence. “They used to be everywhere -- 15 cent hamburger and five cents for a birch beer. I still eat my hamburgers like they fixed them with cooked onions, mustard and a pickle.”
Along with delis, diners and deliciously greasy little hamburgers, people seem to connect with Old Miami through its roadside architecture. Though much of Sunny Isles’ tourist eye-catching kitsch has met the wrecking ball, several World War II area-confections remain on the facades of somewhat seedy motor inns on Biscayne Boulevard. On Coral Way at 17th Avenue, a picturesque service station that blends elements of Art Deco Mediterranean Revival styles still serves motorists with petrol on a boulevard lined with stately banyan trees.
While great old tourist magnets such as the Serpentarium have been razed to make way for strip malls, and even Parrot Jungle left its perfect and leafy park for new digs at cruise ship alley, some of the old-time attractions remain. Monkey Jungle “where the humans are caged and the monkeys run wild” still draws the curious to its verdant grounds in South Dade.
Historian George misses the Rare Bird Farm and Crandon Park Zoo, but he said the granddaddy of them all still exists.
“Coral Castle has to be the best of the remaining old-time roadside attractions,” he said. “It’s a one-of-a-kind that stands way down there in South Dade and development is pushing up all around it. But when you get behind those rock walls, you are right back there in a marvel that looks the way it did 60 years ago – back with US 1 brought people to South Dade when it was home to some of the most unusual attractions in Florida.”
Wright is the perfect Miamian for the 21st century. His grandparents lived in Old Florida Coastal towns in the Jazz Age. His parents raised him in Ohio, the state that gave Miami Henry Flagler, Julia Tuttle and Mary Brickell. Brought up on barbecue, catfish, hush puppies and sweet tea, the award-winning writer-photographer now feasts on arroz con pollo, pan con lechon, vaca frita and café cubano – all available footsteps from his Little Havana home.

IF YOU GO (all numbers in 305 area code):

Shorty’s Bar-B-Q, 9200 S. Dixie Highway, 670-7732; Jimbo’s, Duck Lake Road on Virginia Key, 361-7026; Charlotte Jane Memorial Park cemetery, Charles Avenue and Douglas Road; Maurice Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E. Flagler St., 374-2444; The Pitt Bar-B-Q, 16400 S.W. 8th Street, 226-2272; Coopertown, 11 miles west of the Florida Turnpike on the Tamiami Trail, 226-6048; Allen’s Drug, 4000 S.W. 57th Avenue, 666-8581; S&S Restaurant, 1757 N.E. 2nd Avenue, 373-4291; Arnold’s Royal Castle, 12490 N.W. 7th Avenue, 681-5346; Coral Way Gas station, Service Station based on a prototype by Russell Pancoast, 1700 S.W. 22nd Street, 858-1020; Coral Castle, 28655 S. Dixie Highway, 248-6344.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010



By Steve Wright and Heidi Johnson-Wright

We were running late on a grueling, nearly 400-mile drive from Sedona, Arizona to a ranch north of Moab, Utah when we saw the signs pointing the way to Monument Valley.

It was supposed to be the final payoff in a three-legged western trip to Sedona’s red rocks, Moab’s Canyonlands and Arches, and Monument Valley’s fabled rocky pinnacles.

But while stopped to refuel in tiny Kayenta, Arizona, we gave in to temptation. We would have our dessert before dinner, even if it meant a couple hours delay to detour through Navajo lands.

So off we went, rolling up U.S. 163 until we could soon catch glimpses of the same famous formations that lured filmmaking legend John Ford to the area in the 1940s. We stayed for a few hours, sweating in the afternoon sun and snapping pictures that we knew would be washed out by that intense mid-day sunlight. But it was well worth it. The place is so beautiful, so magical, so spiritual – it was the worth every hour of driving time we lost on our late arrival beyond Moab.

The next three days, we marveled at some of the most beautiful country in the entire west – Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Professor Valley along the mighty Colorado River and Natural Bridges National Monument – but we couldn’t wait to get back to Monument Valley. We hungered to return to the Navajo Tribal Park visitor center, to a scheduled jeep tour of the valley’s backcountry, to a few nights’ stay at famed Gouldings Lodge.

On the drive from Moab to Monument Valley, we passed the quaint small towns of Monticello and Blanding, plus the spectacular geography of Mexican Hat, Valley of the Gods, the Goosenecks of the San Juan River and the Moki Dugway, a terrifyingly beautiful stretch of road carved from the cliff face and talus slope of Cedar Mesa that plunges hundreds of feet through sharp switchbacks and steep roadways. But we paused only briefly at these natural wonders, because any delay would cut into the precious 48 hours we had to spend at Monument Valley.

We rolled into Gouldings Lodge about an hour past noon, starving and excited. There are many famous hotels throughout the world and many with more 5-star amenities than down-to-earth Gouldings will ever have. But there may be no lodging on the planet so intertwined with the history of the nearby tourist attraction that it serves.

Certainly, for thousands of years before husband and wife Harry and Mike Goulding arrived in Southeastern Utah, there was a Monument Valley. The large blocks of sandstone were compacted during the Paleozoic era, while the effects of erosion through wind and water started during the Cenozoic era.

But it wasn’t until 1924, when the Gouldings established a trading post, that the wheels were set in motion to make Monument Valley world-famous. Struggling to make ends meet during the Great Depression, Harry and Mike scraped together their last dollars to travel to Hollywood in 1938 to persuade director John Ford to film his next western in the valley.

In 1939, Ford’s Stagecoach was released to great success, with John Wayne starring. Wayne became a big star and from then, people around the world recognized Monument Valley – first in movies and later in everything from television episodes to car commercials.

Gouldings has evolved beyond a trading post into a lodge, a few cabins, an RV park, a gas station, gift shop, museum and restaurant. The restaurant has real western food – think beef stew good enough to tempt a person who rarely eats red meat – and some Navajo influences such as fry bread, an Adkins-thwarting delicacy of quick fried dough that tastes best slathered in honey.

The rooms are small and simple, but that’s fine because no one in his right mind would spend much time inside when there’s so much to see out under those high blue skies. Each room does have a small terrace aimed perfectly at the cinematic Monument Valley skyline in the distance

Since we had gone to the Navajo Tribal Park visitor center during our brief detour through the area days before, our second visit to Monument Valley was via a half-day jeep tour chartered out of Gouldings. The jeep is perfectly suited for the rough, winding, axle-busting backroads of Monument Valley.

Our Navajo tour guide stopped at a half dozen places to let us get out and take pictures of natural arches, towering pinnacles and otherworldly vistas. The only stop that is the least bit touristy is John Ford’s Point, named for the film director who revealed Monument Valley to the world. At that spot, a few vendors set up shop to sell Native American jewelry and an old Navajo horseman rides up to the jeep and poses for pictures for a few sawbucks.

Other than that, the park is completely unspoiled. There are no McDonalds, Kmarts, Holiday Inns, IMAX movie theaters, or other modern blights. The visitor center is simple and doubles as a small restaurant, large gift shop, clean restroom facility and excellent observation area – especially for breathtaking views of the famed Mittens and Merrick Butte.

The Navajo Nation charges a $5 fee to enter the Tribal Park. In addition to the excellent visitor center, the fee allows visitors to travel a 17-mile loop road winds among the rock sentinels that tower 400 to 1000 feet above.

The road is raw, and unpaved, but that’s a good thing. In dry weather, drivers who creep along can negotiate the rough road without endangering their sedan. Lots of RVers and people whose idea of tourism is seeing everything from the blur of an 80-mile-per-hour drive often ask when the road is going to be improved. The Navajo workers gently roll their eyes and answer “not anytime soon.”

“The road being rough blends in with the scenery,’’ observes Stanley Crank, a full Navajo who grew up in the area and has worked at the Tribal Park for 15 years. “If you slow down, you see a beauty here like no other.”

“Every few minutes, you capture the sense of culture around here,” he said. “It’s very magical, every day is different. It all depends on the sun position.”

What Crank has enjoyed for a lifetime, we observed in two day’s time. Monument Valley is beautiful at sunrise and sunset, but those aren’t the only times for to see spectacular hues. From late afternoon till sundown, especially on long June days, the light is forever painting and repainting on the rocky fortresses out in the valley. Blues become light purples, then dark purple, then they are lit back up to sandy red, then fiery red, then back to a blackish blue. The effect is transcendent.

“To the Navajo, they all have a spiritual meaning, religious significance,” Crank said of the spirals, buttes, arches and other magical rock formations. “This is like no place anywhere on earth.”

Indeed, with its iron oxide-created reddish hues in the sand and rock and its manganese oxide-forged black streaks coursing down its cliffs, Monument Valley is a one-of-a-kind. No slick Technicolor motion picture, no artfully posed photo layout can do justice to the full vastness and simple beauty of Monument Valley.

You have to see it for yourself. And when you do, you’ll come for a few days, but wish you’d put down stakes for a month. There is so much wonderment to take in, that 48 hours spent in the relatively small park will race by like only a moment’s detour off the highway.

Monument Valley, the barely populated piece of heaven at the Utah-Arizona border will get in your soul. Long after you have returned to the Midwest, the East Coast, or wherever you live, you will daydream of Monument Valley.

You will be at your computer, and then suddenly visions of the majestic Mittens, the Three Sisters, John Ford’s Point, Merrick Butte and other magnificent monoliths will overtake you. You will fantasize of about leaving your workaday life moving into a little trailer on the outskirts of the Tribal Park because, as Stanley Crank, the Navajo supervisor of park fee collection workers so poetically observed, it “is like no place anywhere on earth.”

Wright is a Pulitzer-nominated writer and Johnson-Wright is an Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator. The multiple award-winning couple live in Miami’s Little Havana. Contact them at:


• Monument Valley’s remote beauty means it is hundreds of miles from any major airport. Las Vegas is about 400 miles away, Santa Fe about 350 and Phoenix just bit more than 300. Because we were going to Sedona on the first leg of our tour, we chose to fly into Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport – which is served by virtually every major carrier in the nation. Sky Harbor: 602-273-3300,

• To pinch pennies, we often reserve the smallest economy car available. But to drive through Monument Valley, you will want a sedan with a wheel drive – which is a cheaper, more fuel-efficient option to an SUV. Alamo: 800-462-5266,

• Gouldings Lodge is by far the best place to stay for Monument Valley Visitors. The place has incredible history and an outstanding staff. There’s a history museum, a multimedia show on the history of the area, a trading post, excellent gift shop, a gas station, a grocery store and a restaurant. Gouldings: 435-727-3231,

• The Stagecoach Dining Room at Gouldings has very simple, straightforward, reasonably priced breakfast, lunch and dinner served by Navajo workers. About the only other dining options in the area are the little Navajo Taco and broiled mutton stands in the little shanty-like craftsmen village on the road that leads to Monument Valley Tribal Park.

• Monument Valley Tribal Park is what it’s all about, the place where you can view the fabulous Mittens and Buttes and enter the 17-mile loop road for more up-close look at the rock monoliths. The entrance fee is $5 per adult. The gift shop has some fabulous postcards of the valley and the restaurant features a very nice view of the towering rock formations. Several Navajos charter jeep tours of the valley from the Visitor Center parking lot. Tribal Park: 435-727-5874,

• For more information on Monument Valley, Canyonlands, Goosenecks, Natural Bridges, Mexican Hat and other natural attractions in the area, contact the San Juan County Community Development Department at 800-574-4386, or



By Steve Wright and Heidi Johnson-Wright

It’s close to quitting time, the phone rings and the potential buyer on the line says he’s seen your signs and he’s interested in working with you.

But he has unique needs – he is disabled and may not even be able to make it up the steps of several potential houses, or he’s concerned about being able to secure so much as an accessible parking space at a condo building he’s interested in.

Quickly, your mind races and you have two basic responses:

A) This is too difficult and time consuming for you to take.

B) This is a golden opportunity to sharpen your skills as a great Realtor.

Clearly “A” would be the short-sighted response.

Those who choose “B” will be rewarded by tapping into a market that is growing as well-heeled aging baby boomers face mobility impairments and modern technology is allowing more severely disabled young people to become high wage earners.

Andy Weiser, a Realtor with 26 years of experience, starting learning how to sell to disabled buyers 18 years ago when he was “thrown into it” while working in Manhattan.

Now in Coldwell Banker’s Fort Lauderdale office, Weiser said the vast majority of his sales are to non-disabled buyers, but he takes a great amount of pride in understanding the needs of buyers who use wheelchairs for mobility or have other physical limitations that impact their housing requirements.

“Be direct. They know they have disability. They know what they need,” Weiser advised. “Talk about their limitations. Talk to the buyer. Find out -- does the person have great upper body strength? -- maybe they don’t. “They may say `no I don’t want ramps dammit,’ or maybe they will say `I don’t want to see a single step in that house, I don’t want to see a single incline that can’t be ramped’”

Weiser said a Realtor will go nowhere fast if he patronizes a disabled client by ignoring real needs or directing every question to the buyer’s companion, as if the person with a mobility impairment isn’t capable of following a complex conversation.

“You don’t have to TALK...SLOWLY...BECAUSE...THEY’RE...IN...A... WHEELCHAIR...” said Weiser, who has accommodated more than 30 disabled buyers with “compassion, not condescension.”

Weiser said Realtors interested in serving disabled clients need to do their homework and learn the basics of construction such as what walls can be moved to remove barriers, what code requirements might be in conflict with a need to enhance a house or condo’s accessibility.

When serving aging clients who do not see themselves as a person with a disability, Weiser said the work becomes more subtle.

“People say `hey, that master bedroom on the first floor would be great for guests,’ when they really may be thinking, but not willing to openly say, that there will be a time in the very near future when they will not be so able to run up and down steps to the second floor bedroom,” Weiser said. “People look at a smart design that has large up and downstairs closets lined up on top of each other and say `you know, if we put an elevator in that space, my elderly parents could use it’ when they are really eyeing that accessibility amenity for themselves.”

Weiser also advises Realtors to use common sense, such as:

• Taking into account the percentage of money the buyer will need for renovations.

• Reminding tough condo and co-op boards that prohibition on pets does not apply to service animals that assist disabled buyers.

• Working with multifamily buildings to make sure the common areas and parking garage are wheelchair-accessible.

• Knowing what you are talking about. If you say an architect can make needed alterations for $20,000, first make sure that’s accurate and that the structure can accommodate such changes.

"If you’re a good realtor, you can learn this,” Weiser said.

Palm City freelance writer Jerry Warmuskerken, a quadriplegic who uses a power wheelchair for mobility, has lots of straightforward advice for Realtors.

“Imagine yourself as being three feet wide, crouched down, with your hands at your sides and your shoes extend two feet in front of you,” he said, saying that visual will help a Realtor know where a wheelchair user would fit easily and where he won’t.”

When trying to figure out if a home can be made accessible, Warmuskerken said Realtors should rule out split levels and ranches with sunken living rooms and look for “bare bones accessibility: open space and easy transit from room to room.”

“Ninety-nice percent of the houses you show won't be decked out with total accessibility,” he said. “Look for: straight shots through doorways, no 90 degree turns through narrow hallways; big showers, not tubs; no more than a single step in and out of doors (easier to ramp); garage-to-house entrance as easy as the front door to use; parking space with side access to vehicles, like the blue spaces at the mall.”

Warmuskerken reminds that each potential buyer has different priorities, such as accessible kitchens, workout rooms, level ground outside, lots of floor space in a bathroom.

“A big Roman tub with whirlpool jets may be a nice item but someone in a wheelchair will see it and their first thought will likely be, `how much will it cost me to have that removed and have a shower put in?,’” he advised.

BevVan Phillips, a Realtor with Prudential Ambassador Real Estate and a licensed occupational therapist based out of Omaha, Nebraska understands clients’ priorities.

“Ask the client what he likes to do in his house,” said Phillips.

“If the client uses a mobility device – such as a wheelchair or crutches – will it limit him from doing things in the house?”

A certified aging in place specialist, a certification she received from the National Association of Homebuilders, Phillips also owns Home Access Solutions. The design company modifies homes for people with special needs or seniors.

Phillips has worked with both persons who are blind as well as clients with mobility issues. She suggests when working with blind or visually impaired clients that the client bring along a sighted family member who can describe the homes you’re taking the client to see.

In one instance when Phillips worked with a client who is blind, she visited the client’s current home and had the woman teach her how to safely lead her around the house. Phillips also studied the layout of the current house so she could later describe potential new homes in comparison to the floor plan of the old one.

“Remember: you’re not looking for a ‘handicapped house.’ You’re looking for a house that matches the abilities of someone who will live there. Look at the house as a tool.”

Jorge Luis Rodriguez, a quadriplegic who has worked one year for Watson Realty’s in Deland, teaches his office about disabilities but strongly suggests that brokerages should host an in-house training to educate Realtors on the needs of disabled buyers.

“We are a huge market…a strong niche market,” he said.

Rodriguez said familiarity with the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines – better known as ADAAG -- is the key to understanding housing accessibility.

“When I, myself was buying a house, I provided ADAAG to the developer. Knowledge is power. The more you know about disabilities and code requirements, the more power you have.”

Rodriguez said Realtors can also serve disabled buyers by asking specific questions about how wide doorways must be to accommodate a wheelchair, how large a bathroom needs to be to allow for easy maneuvering and whether a roll-in shower would best serve the client.

Russie Weidl, a Realtor for Watson Realty in Lake Mary for seven years, has insight into clients’ needs because she knows both sides of the coin. Weidl has lived with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis since age 11, has multiple artificial joint replacements and has grab bars in her own bathroom at home.

Weidl recommends asking pertinent questions from the get-go to zero in on what the client wants.

“Do they want a condo with an elevator, so there’s no need to physically do maintenance? Ask if they prefer single story homes. If they’re mobility impaired, look for a larger bathroom that can be modified to create a roll-in shower,” Weidl said.

Weidl’s clients have included a couple that was blind. She invested a lot of time finding just the right house.

“They wanted to be able to walk to a grocery store and didn’t want to have to cross a busy street. They also need to live in a certain area that was convenient for car pooling,” she said.

While showing homes to the clients, Weidl physically guided them from room to room. She described layout. When it came time for inspections, she had to personally check to make sure things got fixed as promised. At closing, she read some of the documents to the clients, while the title company employees summarize others.

“People tell me I’m inspirational”, said Weidl, who sometimes struggles herself with stairs and heavy doors.

Yet it’s clear from her advice that non-disabled Realtors can develop an understanding of clients with disabilities, with some time and effort.

“You really have to be sensitive to their needs. Make it easy for them to feel comfortable with you. It’s more time-consuming, but it’s really rewarding.”

Wright and Johnson-Wright are award-winning journalists who frequently write about real estate, smart growth and sustainable communities. They live in a restored historic home in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana. Contact them at:

SIDEBAR: For More Information

BevVan Phillips offers the following advice to Realtors who want to attract and work with disabled clients:

Increase your comfort level with and knowledge of disabilities:

• Get familiar with the concepts of universal design. Google the words “universal design” and visit websites of University of North Carolina’s Center for Universal Design or Iowa State University:
• Make sure you act in a respectful manner. Use “people first” language. A good website to refer to for terminology is:

At the initial client interview, ask direct questions about the client’s needs:

• What does he like to do in his house?
• If the client uses a mobility device – such as a wheelchair or crutches – what features in a potential house would limit him from doing things he likes to do?
• What special features must the house have?
• In the client’s current house: what works great? What is a barrier?

When trying to identify a house suitable for the client:

• As with all clients, start with the categories of location and price range. Then, if the MLS in your state has a category or label that designates a house as disability accessible, use it as a starting point. But don’t assume that such a designation means that house is perfect for your client. Sometimes this means a level entrance, lowered kitchen cabinets, a roll-in shower and other great features. Sometimes it means only that the shower has a grab bar, yet the shower happens to be in bathroom with a very narrow doorway. An accessible house that works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. There is no one size fits all because each person’s disability is unique.
• When using the MLS, limit your search by size of bedroom. Clients with mobility issues need more room than the average person for the bedroom furniture plus extra room to maneuver a wheelchair or crutches.
• Look for homes with a sizeable master bedroom and an attached bathroom, which is convenient for someone who uses a wheelchair or can only walk short distances.
• Look for the phrase “open floor plan” because that usually means more room for maneuverability.
• If the MLS has photos, look at photos of the main entrance. If it has seven steps at the entrance, a ramp or lift probably won’t work for providing access.
• Some people with mobility limitations move a bit more slowly or have limited energy. It’s a good idea to show them just two or three houses per day.
Once you’ve earned the confidence of your client, you can help narrow down the search by taking photos of potential homes and showing them to the client before scheduling a “go see.”

Things to look for when narrowing down the search for homes to show:

• Are doorways and halls wide enough or do they look too narrow? Bring along a tape measure to check widths.
• Would major construction – like tearing down a wall – be required to provide needed access, or could modifications be done without a major contracting job?
• In making such assessments about whether a modification is feasible, she recommends that an expert be involved early in the process. The expert should be chosen by the client and may be someone who is a contractor or has suitable knowledge and experience.

Phillips carries a portable ramp with her to provide access into homes she’s showing to clients who can’t do steps. However, she cautions that she is qualified to position and use a ramp because she is a license occupational therapist. Realtors who do not have a medical or allied health certification should not do so out of liability concerns, but they could have an able-bodied family member of the client bring along a ramp and put it in place. Philips also carries plastic carpet runners with her to put down on floors inside a house being shown. This protects carpeting from wheelchair tire tracks.

MUSEO DE JAMON by Heidi Johnson-Wright

MUSEO DE JAMON by Heidi Johnson-Wright

They hang from above by the score, like art deco ornamentation, with their curved lines and rounded dimensions. But these delicious objects are hardly mere window dressing. In fact, they are the headliners, the stars of the show.

They are hams.

Not “hams” in the overwrought, scenery-chewing, Rod Steiger school of acting sense. Literal hams. Savory hams, flavorful and enticing. Hams that make you forget all previous ham-tasting life experiences. Hams that make El Museo del Jamon -- the Jam Museum – a destination restaurant.

Oh, sure, they will tell you, you can find restaurants and cafes that serve quality ham all over Madrid . Perfectly good ham, in fact. But those other places lack the ambiance and the showmanship of the Museo.

Step through the doorway and you’ll sense immediately that this is a special place where local suit-clad businessmen, Japanese student backpackers and working class Madrilenos can enjoy a shared love of the pig.

Once you get past the initial urge to stare at all of those divine dangling beauties encircling the place, your eye is drawn to the show’s supporting cast: the vest-clad waiters that work from the massive square-shaped bar in the middle of the floor.

These are not the vacant “have a nice day” shove your latte and bagel at you servers. These men are showmen from head to toe, who can turn a mere placing an order to an artful and often comedic “call and response.”

Sounds promising, you say. But perhaps you hesitate because you’re looking for a quick bite and don’t want to bother with a sit-down meal. Or maybe your Spanish is rather rusty. Not to worry.

Travelers on a budget will be pleased to discover that many of the items on the menu are very affordable. Patrons who choose table service can head to the adjacent dining room and pay for the privilege. Stick to eating at the bar or at one of the stand up tables nearby and you pay less. Plus, you have a ringside seat to the action.

Ordering is made easier by pointing, if necessary, to photos of dishes displayed from above. And even if your Spanish stinks, you can surely memorize the word jamon.

And that is, of course, the all-important reason folks come here in the first place.

Whether it’s a dish made from Serrano (traditional bone-in ham, hung up to cure for 14 months), or Iberico (infused with the flavor of acorn, the food of these black-hoofed beauties), you’ll wonder you ever wasted one blessed moment from the past seeking out prosciutto di parma.

Order pan con Serrano (Serrano ham sandwich) and a cana (a small, ice cold beer served in a glass) as you belly up to the bar. Savor the jam, enjoy the show and rest assured that you’re experiencing a truly authentic Madrid moment.

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK essay by Heidi Johnson-Wright


They had played it just right, returning to Arches National Park an hour and a half before sunset, when the summer sun was now a wondrous revealer of shadows and shapes instead of a raging, life-draining inferno. As the rental car made its ascent up the drive to the park entrance, they intuitively knew that they had picked just the right moment to experience this vast, magnificent place. And they were exploring it together, so that the mental imprint of it would be forever part and parcel of who they were and the life they’d made.

Soon they reached Park Avenue, a cyclopean assembly of massive stone facades, named for the Manhattan street with its stretch of buildings that they resembled. To her, it was sheer magic that she was standing before these walls – the real ones! – which just days ago had been in minute two dimensions on her computer’s screen saver. She saw that he was captivated as well, and briefly entertained the fantasy of descending with him to the valley floor, to sit beside a campfire throughout the night.

But the park beckoned them on, and they returned to the car to continue the adventure. As they drove along, they could hardly believe that this was the same place that 12 hours ago had wilted them into sweaty submission. Now they found themselves giddy, woozy with delight instead of dehydration. Cruising along the main park drive, they felt like they were surrounded by landscapes straight out of Gustave Dorē’s illustrations of The Divine Comedy. Rock surfaces swooped and soared, ascended into infinity and back again. Everywhere were combinations of light and shadow that put to shame the greatest works of the Old Masters of chiaroscuro.

And the colors! The rocks stood illuminated in radiant shades of tangerine, burgundy, scarlet, umber and blood orange. The La Sal Mountains -- snow-capped and wreathed in clouds --appeared violet, charcoal and blue-black in the distance. Patches of lavender, moss-green and sage-colored plants dotted the earth all around.

It was at the climax of this fleeting twilight show of color when they arrived at the Cove of Caves and Double Arch. So different was the area’s appearance at this hour, it was as if they were seeing it for the first time. Double Arch looked close enough to touch and simultaneously so distant as to be unreachable; a non-paradox only because of the trompe l’oeil spaces of the American West. With just one hand, it could be blotted from sight. With just one gaze, it could transport one into a mood, a feeling that could be summoned and re-summoned over a lifetime.

Nearby, Balanced Rock performed its timeless levitation atop a majestic pedestal. Like a sentinel, like a yogi master, always on the verge of perfect enlightenment. They gazed and gazed, soaking it in, never wanting the moment to end. But the sun had returned to Hades for the night, and only a momentary afterglow hung in the air.

They returned to the car, and set out for one last drive. With windows down, the desert chill flooded in. Though the landscapes grew harder to discern in the vanishing light, legions of bats kept them enthralled. Swooping just above the car in choreographed waves, they bid the man and woman good-night. The bats’ nocturnal dance reassured them that this eldritch, untamed place would always be here: in southeast Utah and in their souls.


By Steve Wright

Clark Stevens may be one of the least likely candidates to save the American West from sprawled suburbanization, but that’s exactly what he is accomplishing – one ranch at a time.

Somehow, a Michigan-born, Harvard-educated Stevens is perfectly at home with Montana ranchers, fly fishing and watching unspoiled views from dawn till dusk.

Some way, the partner in Los Angeles funky RoTo Architects – known for modernist, “look at me buildings” boisterous even by LA standards – is leading the charge to rebuild streams and restore natural features from Wyoming to Hawaii.

Nearly a decade ago, Stevens launched a second career in conservation development on large parcels of land, primarily in the West. His New West Land Company rights the wrongs of play farms – places where wealthy entertainers and business people from Los Angeles and beyond had built out of place McMansions and re-channeled natural streams.

“These places were being abused by their owners. They were pushing the land, destroying the landscape, practicing overly intensive farming, ruining their creeks and drying up their water,” he said. We saw an opportunity to take these damaged landscapes and fix them.”

Stevens found places where land held by one family for more than a century was sold, chopped up into 10-acre lots and used maybe one weekend a month or less. The urban ranchers had carved up the land in a way that was killing agricultures and damage the surrounding landscape.

“People who were land rich, but cash poor were yielding to the local real estate broker who said `I can break this up into smaller pieces and make you money,’” he said. “But when you lose a fulltime farming family, you start to lose the community critical mass. Haying, farming – that needs a lot of hands. You can’t do that when ranches around you have been turned into weekend getaways.”

Steven’s solution is to preserve the vast majority of ranches with hundreds of acres by building a cluster of houses. The dwellings are sited in a way that the bulk of the natural features are protected and each home has its own private view – all the way to mountains.

“The ideal is you keep the land owner or collection of land owners on the land and organize a land use that optimizes the health of the community,” He explained. “If you harvest lumber, it’s for the long term – not just a short term gain that results in deforestation. If you are farming, you don’t divert a stream for flood irrigation in the spring – which kills the fish and ruins the stream bottom. You keep the stream bottom healthy for good trout fishing.”

On Hawaii’s Big Island, the 24,000-acre Kealakekua Heritage Ranch in Kona was once slated for intense development with 500 houses. But working with Stevens, state officials and a land trust, the ranch-owning Pace Family was able to create a landmark conservation deal that will protect almost all the pristine property.

The result will be development of 200 to 250 private inhabitation compounds in average of 4-acre enclosures, with the balance of a homeowner’s 20-acre deeded lot being leased to the public for a recreational and agricultural common area, according Stevens.

The Kealakekua Heritage Ranch will be the largest single conservation easement transaction in the State of Hawaii's history, involving nearly 9,000 acres, $4 million in federal Forest Legacy funding, and over $12 million value in donation.

Stevens said the final project will have 96 percent protected open space for orchards, pasture, and native forest. The one-of-a-kind conservation development also will feature hundreds of miles of trails remaining from historic logging and current grazing in the forest areas.

Stevens’ grand plans, some encompassing more than 150 square miles, have caught the imagination of several investors, such as Beartooth Capital, which assesses the development potential of properties within the context of their conservation value.

Stevens and Beartooth’s founder and principal Carl Palmer share the vision of conservation-based rural development, often called shared amenity ranches. Once the clustered housing is built, the preserved habitat and agricultural land is protected from any future development by creating perpetual land conservancies with local and national trusts.

The final hurdle, Stevens said, is to educate real estate agents about this new kind of conservation development.

“A project has all the attributes, but it’s hard finding a person who `gets it,’ who can sell an interesting project. “How do you get the MLS (real estate Multiple Listing Service) form to say `you buy five acres, but it comes with a protected and managed 5,000 acres of paradise?”

Wright has written for a living for 25 years, with nearly 5,000 published articles. He lives in historic Little Havana and is very active in Miami’s urban issues. He and his wife of 20 years also are involved in making new and old towns more accessible for people with disabilities.