Mapping the Midwest

How we define regions is fascinating. There are all sorts of cultural gradations that make one place more or less like another, and yet we articulate those difference with names that frame the differences as black and white.

In the past two years, I have enjoyed two blog posts looking at how different people define the American Midwest. The first, by Walt Hickey of FiveThirtyEight, surveyed 1,357 people on SurveyMonkey about which states count as “The Midwest”.

Indiana, Iowa and Illinois appear to be the core of the Midwest, each pulling more than 70 percent of the vote (that may partly be because of their substantial populations). Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota each pulled at least 60 percent of the vote, so we can probably put them in the Midwest without too much fuss. Ohio, Missouri and Kansas each got more than half.

The second article, by Aaron Renn of Urbanophile, gives a sampling of different attempts to map the Midwest, including Hickey’s.

What is the Midwest? There’s been a lot of debate about this question among folks passionate about such thing. But it defies easy definition. Here are eleven ways various people have taken a crack at drawing the map.

So here’s what I did

Following FiveThirtyEight’s suggestion that averaging different data points tends to get you a more accurate guess than looking at individual data points, I plunged into ArcGIS to combine all the maps cited by Renn into one map. I coded the different regions 1 or 0 if it was a clear “Midwest/Not Midwest” map, or intermediary values like 0.5 0.33, or 0.66 if it was a little fuzzy (e.g. it’s silly to say that the Great Lakes states aren’t part of the Midwest). I averaged all those together (let’s call this “AVERAGE 1”), and then I added some more!

  • A map of dollar bill circulation boundaries, suggesting natural social cohorts
  • A map of football fandoms based on which has the most Facebook likes per county.
  • A map of where people call, similar implications to the dollar bill circulation
  • A map of American dialects (apologies for the harm to your eyes that map may do; surprisingly it’s not the worst map of its kind). When a lot of people think of the Midwest, they think of the accent (a la Fargo). However, I anecdotily noticed that these dialect categorizations didn’t map well onto other delineations of region.

For these four maps, I didn’t code them manually as before, but took the average “AVERAGE 1” value for each region. In essence, this reverted the counties’ values to a mean based on their regions from these last four maps, weighting those delineations but not judging how Midwest-y they are.

Then I took “AVERAGE 1” and averaged it together with these four new values, producing “AVERAGE 2”, which is here mapped:
Some observations:

  • Yes I like averages.
  • Of course this process was not as statistically sound as it could’ve been, but this was just about getting a sense of social understanding, not seeking hard fact.
  • There’s no way that Western New York is more Midwest-y than northwestern Pennsylvania, is there?
  • While there’s less agreement on the southern counties of Indiana & Ohio, there’s a lot of agreement that Kentucky is not part of the Midwest. See how short the distance is between the 50% area to the <33% area there.
  • Are there gradations of Midwestern-ness in Central Kansas? Am I just an ignorant New Englander to not have any sense of that variation?

So yeah! Hope you like it!

The Givin’ War

At Swing into Summer the past two years, Arthur Davis has recited this amazing poem written by Mac Parker in 1986. It’s a little hard to find the text (Arthur found it from scanned photocopies of typewriter-written pages) so I transcribed it from said scanned PDFs. This piece is amazing, though apparently Parker himself was recently involved in a Ponzi scheme in Vermont that was pretty wacky. It’s so fascinating how art can be amazing even when created by people who have done problematic things (see H.P. Lovecraft).

The Givin’ War
By Mac Parker – January, 1986

People think about farmin’ ‘n they think about neighbors,
Fine, friendly people
Sharin’ life’s labors.

They think of kind people, who forsake sleepin’ at night,
To rescue dear neighbors
From some terrible plight.

They think of getting’ the hay in, or helpin’ with chores,
They think of old-fashioned barn raisin’s
With friends by the score.

Well, it’s true that us farm folks will give ‘til it hurts,
But when it comes to receivin’
Ain’t nothin’ we hate any worse.

The Judsons and the Larocques were neighbors, that’s true,
They lived ‘bout as close
As I am to you.

They could look out the window ‘n see each other’s hay growin’,
They knew when they was bailin’
They knew when they was mowin’.

And while it might be a bit harsh to use the word “spy,”
Let’s jest say that on each other
They kept a pretty close eye.

Oh, they always acted real friendly, they’d wave on the road,
But there was a tension beneath it
You could see it, it showed.

I dunno how it started, this two-family grudge,
But I do know for years now
Neither fam’ly would budge.

So, when Bess Larocque left a loaf of fresh bread,
On the Judson’s front porch
By the door, near the shed,

It caused quite a stir, it made the Judsons suspicious,
They scowled as they ate it
It was warm and delicious.

That was a damn nasty thing to do for no reason,
It weren’t no one’s birthday
Not even the holiday season.

It broke all the rules ‘n it made a real bad impression,
To do somethin’ so nice
Was a clear act of aggression.

Well, we won’t let ‘em get away with it, we’ll counter-attack,
We’ll go right on up there
‘N we’ll give ‘em something’ right back!

But there’ a problem, you see, in a real givin’ war,
You cain’t jest return what they gave you
You have to give more.

So, the Judsons all thought, ‘n the Judsons all schemed
They thought up more presents
Than you’ve ever dreamed.

What they decided was modest – nine fresh coffee cakes,
They’d show Bess Larocque
She weren’t the only one who could bake.

They left a nice note, “To our friends, with best wishes,”
Then they went home to do chores
‘N wash up the dishes.

They was feelin’ quite good, like a wrong had been righted,
But oh, they shoulda known
‘Twas too soon to get excited.

‘Cause that night it snowed, ‘n the wind it was loud,
But when the Judsons woke up
Damned if their driveway weren’t plowed.

See, the Larocques had a snowplow, ‘n as Pete stepped on the gas,
While plowin’ that driveway
He says, “Best wishes, my ass!”

This time the Judsons struck back jest as fast as they could,
They took that whole day
To cut ‘n split firewood.

Then they loaded the dump truck, ‘n that truck they did park,
Then they sat ‘round the kitchen
Drinkin’ coffee ‘til dark.
Then they drove to Larocques’ house, ‘n the roads was real slick,
To unload firewood real quiet
In the dark, was a trick.

But they left two whole cords there, all stacked in the snow,
With a nice hand-written note
Said, “Jest in case you run low.”

Well, good deeds was one thing, but these damn friendly notes,
Really steamed the Larocques
Sure did get their goats.

So, Pete knew what was next, ‘cause he’d seen broken glass,
In the Judsons’ barn windows
The other day, drivin’ past.

So, one day when the Judsons were with fam’ly in Maine,
Pete replaced all that glass
He fixed ev’ry last pane.

‘N though Pete in his life had never written one poem,
He now invented a short one
‘N said, “There, that’ll show ‘em.”

“I know you cain’t do ever’thin’, there’s jest too many chores,
So we have helped in one small way
I mean, what are neighbors for?”

Oh, that was really a good ‘un, Pete knew they had the upper hand,
The Judsons had a hard few months
It was almost more than they could stand.

They thought for hours, searchin’ for the perfect thing,
But they couldn’t find one friendly gesture
To really make their neighbors sting.

‘Til one sunny day in early May, John Judson had a stroke a luck,
He found Pete Larocque on his tractor
Buried axle-deep in muck.

Well, John, he stopped b’side the road, ‘n he got out very slow,
Then he called out acrost the field
“What’s the matter, Pete, won’t she go?”

Oh, Pete, he weren’t at all amused, ‘n he jest mumbled somethin’ about,
How he was gonna git his other tractor
‘N pull himself right out.
But John, he wouldn’t hear a that, ‘n his eyes they had a shine,
He says, “Ain’t no need for that, my friend
I’ll go up ‘n bring down mine.

“I mean, it ain’t no trouble, none at all, to pull you outta that goo,
‘N after all you done for us
It’s the least a neighbor can do.”

Like any war, it took its toll, you could feel the increased tension,
The signs of this were numerous
Too numerous to mention.

Peter Larocque, he couldn’t sleep, ‘n Bess had put on weight,
‘N Johnny Judson said his ulcers
Were actin’ up of late.

‘N all the kids on the bus were givin’ away their lunches,
Chicken, apples, potato chips
‘N cookies by the bunches.

Who knows what mighta happened, if not for a stroke a fate,
It’s lucky it happened when it did
It almost came too late.

Old Ed Foster, another neighbor, while cuttin’ his second crop,
He hurt his back so goddam bad
Even old Ed, he had to stop.

So all the neighbors gathered ‘round, as farmers always will,
When there’s somethin’ to be done
When there’s a need that they can fill.

So, the enemies, jest like that, were turned into allies,
They got the hay in, they did the chores
They baked Ed raspberry pies.

And animosity seems to fade, ‘n tension mostly melts,
When both sides in a givin’ war
Can give to someone else.

But now Ed is gettin’ better, least this is what I’m told,
So now your guess is as good as mine
Whether this shaky truce will hold.

Best keep an eye on this situation, I really think we need to,
‘Cause with world affairs bein’ what they are
Who knows what a givin’ war might lead to.

Pronunciation of PechaKucha


PechaKucha is an international event series, organized locally, where presenters provide twenty slides that are automatically cycled through, twenty seconds each. It is a short, fun, casual environment, with a “contractually obligated Beer Break”. I have presented three times at the Providence chapter (which, according to local organizers, may be the only chapter to hold an event every month.)

The Providence organizers always pronounce the name of the series (which is Japanese for “chit chat”) by stressing the second syllable, the “cha”. However, Rhode Islanders do pronounce things in strange ways sometimes, and it is unsurprising that Americans also often pronounce the word by stressing the third syllable, “ku”.

I did some internet sleuthing, and quite quickly found this page, which has audio of a number of native Japanese speakers pronouncing the word. Of the seven samples that were posted at the time of writing, one could plausibly be interpreted as stressing “ku” while the other six all stressed “cha”. Another distinction from default American pronunciation of the word, though, is that the clips mostly de-stress the third syllable, essentially pronouncing it as three syllables: “PechaK’cha”.

Q&A on the 6/10 Connector

6-10 Connector

First published on Rhode Island Future 6/4/15

With Governor Raimondo’s recent push for transportation funding, people are talking about patching up the 6/10 Connector vs. replacing it with a boulevard. Best practice in urban design recommends replacing urban highways with boulevards. But that would be something we haven’t done before in Rhode Island, so it’s understandable that some people have concerns. Here are a few questions I thought you might have about updating the 6/10 Connector for the 21st century.

  1. That’s a big change. Wouldn’t it be expensive to remove the highway?

    Governor Raimondo is proposing a tractor-trailer toll that would allow the State to bond for $700 million. $400 million of that (plus another $400 million RIDOT wants to get from the Feds) is earmarked for the 6/10 Connector repairs. That is expensive.

    Prices vary a lot for building highways, but urban highways with as many overpasses as the 6/10 Connector tend to be on the high end of the scale (and $800 million is quite high). Boulevards (think Memorial Boulevard in Providence, but more multimodal) tend to have a cost roughly ten times lower than an urban highway. Imagine how many structurally-deficient bridges we could make safe with an extra $360-720 million? That’s a very rough cost comparison, but what we can be sure of is that replacing the 6/10 Connector with a boulevard (even tripped out with the best complete streets features you can think of) would cost dramatically less than rebuilding it as a highway.

  2. So many cars use the connector! Wouldn’t removing it create massive traffic jams?

    Actually many cities have removed excessive urban highways and seen no marked increase in traffic. There are a couple reasons for this. Traffic is created through a process called “induced demand” where if you build more highways, drivers will use them. Conversely, if you eliminate an urban highway, fewer people will use it as a short-cut.

    “But wait!” you say. “I use 6/10 as a shortcut! You want to reduce my transportation options!” Actually, in other cities that remove urban highways, they see the traffic that previously used the highway spread out over the city’s other streets. And there’s less potential for traffic jams when drivers have lots of options. It’s like how bugs congregate around lights on hot summer nights, but out in the dark it’s less buggy. 6/10 is the bug-clogged light, city streets are the cool night air.

    And one more thing: our current transportation network overwhelmingly favors driving; it has big highways that cut swaths through neighborhoods that are uninviting to other ways of getting around. Leveling the playing field by making our street system more comfortable for more ways of getting around (RIPTA, walking, and biking as well as driving) gives you more choices and more freedom. Plus, it means more other people are choosing to walk or bike and they’re not clogging up the road in front of you.

  3. It’ll never happen. We can’t do innovative things in Rhode Island.

    I mean, this isn’t that innovative. And hey, we started the Industrial Revolution and moved rivers to revitalize downtown Providence. I think we have it in us to make a prudent economic decision to give Rhode Islanders more transportation options and safer bridges.

    Plus, you cynics, politicians like ribbon-cuttings and ground-breakings. It’s not as sexy to photo-shoot the replacement of an archaic 1950s-era project as it is to pose for the first complete multi-modal corridor in the State.

We can assume that because the 6/10 Connector is in Raimondo’s investment plan, now is the time that something will happen with it. The State should choose the approach that is best for the neighborhoods adjacent to the corridor, which coincidentally is the option with the best return on investment. Replace the 6/10 Connector with an urban boulevard.

Want to help make this happen? Transport Providence is organizing a walk around the area in question today at 5:15 with Providence City Councilman Bryan Principe. The best thing you can do is to talk to people about this. Which people? Especially your representatives (State, Federal, and City if you live in Providence), the Governor’s office, and RIDOT.

Minor League Baseball Attendance

Ted Nesi of WPRI 12 today had a good piece about the attendance numbers for the Pawtucket Red Sox (who are interested in building a new stadium in Providence). Ted’s great chart made me interested in digging deeper, so I looked at the attendance over the past ten years for all 14 teams in the International League.

  • Correlation between capacity & attendance? Nope.

    Minor League attendance 1There is 0.22 correlation between the capacity of a stadium in the league and the annual average attendance numbers for that stadium. That’s not much correlation. Basically, people don’t choose whether or not to go to minor league baseball games based on how big the stadium is.

  • A new park can be great for attendance! Or very, very bad.

    Minor League attendance 2Four of the fourteen teams in the league built new stadiums in the past ten years: the Charlotte Knights, the Columbus Clippers, the Gwinnett Braves, and the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Three of those saw attendance numbers go up (all three significantly, 5000, 2000, and 2000 per year) but the Gwinnett Braves’ attendance fell significantly after moving to their new stadium, by about 2500 per year.

    Also, the 2015 numbers are not for a very large quantity of games yet. It’s interesting to see that all the teams are down for 2015 in this chart. I take that to mean that the games later in the season are pretty universally more well-attended than games earlier in the season. That makes sense.

  • But what about the popularity of MiLB overall?

    Minor League attendance 3But what about the popularity of minor league baseball in general? How do we account for that when looking at an individual team’s attendance numbers? Here’s how: control for the total league attendance. This third chart, instead of looking at the number of people who came to each team’s games on average, looks at what percentage of the league’s total attendance was contributed by each stadium.

    If every team’s home games contributed equally to the league total, each team would contribute 7.1% of the total. Therefore, we can see which teams are over- or under-performing against the league as a whole by seeing whether their contribution to the league total is above or below that line. In this chart, you can see that the PawSox have been having good seasons for attendance relative to the league average ever since 2008. Their share of the total league attendance has been declining, but it is only in 2015 that the share has dropped below 7.1%. Keep in mind the note from before, though, that this year’s numbers are based on a smaller sample size and have a lot of opportunity to change before the end of the season.

the season.

Westminster Street facade inventory

I live in the Armory neighborhood of Providence, and mostly use the Westminster Street corridor to get from my house to downtown. It’s an up-and-coming commercial district, with the “hottest new bar” in Providence and many new businesses interested in opening on it.

But, as with even the best, most vibrant commercial strips in any city, there are some lulls in Westminster’s streetscape. Long, blank walls abut the sidewalk on buildings clearly not interested in people walking. Fences impart a “keep out” message. And the most street-deadening feature of all, parking lots either between a building and the sidewalk or worse, taking up a whole lot. When these subconscious barriers are present in a streetscape, they make the neighborhood less walkable, both by making it feel less safe and like it’s a longer walk than it is.

What features would be more welcoming; what could property owners do to encourage potential customers to stop by and spend money? Commercial buildings can have large unobstructed windows to encourage window-shopping (it works for services as well as products). Parking lots can be tucked behind buildings so they don’t create a vacant feeling on the street. And if a property must have a fence for security reasons, they can steer clear of chain link fences and fences that obstruct pedestrians’ view, instead preferring shorter, black ornamental iron fences. And the best thing of all for the streetscape is the presence of lively businesses that have a lot of people coming and going.

Westminster facade legend

I made a map of the bright spots and dull spots on Westminster Street on the West Side, from highway to highway. These assessments are subjective and perhaps incomplete, but are based on the principles above.

Westminster facade

A few zones of note along the street:

  1. On the east end of the street is Canonicus Square, at the Dean/Cahir crossing. This is the most vibrant part of the streetscape, despite the south side of the street being not especially welcoming to walk on due to the blank facade of the housing tower and the street-adjacent parking lots by the high schools. Why? Because it has a vibrant commercial strip along the north side. Many of these businesses have big windows that invite passers-by to peek and see what’s going on.
  2. The first zone in the middle of the corridor that makes walking less desirable are the one-two punch of the Citizen’s Bank and John Hope House parking lots. These two massive asphalt canyons on the south side of the street make the walk from Winter Street to Bridgham Street seem extremely long. There’s not much across the street from them to invite pedestrians, and John Hope even has an opaque hedge blocking your view. This section of the street sends the message that is for cars to get through as fast as possible and not for people to spend any time.
  3. The second zone in the middle of corridor that could use improvement is the north-side block between Courtland Street and Bridgham Street. There’s one massive vacant parking lot for sale with a big chain link fence around it, Paper & Provision Warehouse that is an active business but features a street-adjacent parking lot and a blank brick facade with no windows, and then another brick building whose facade is essentially blank. The primary two things I can conceive of making this better would be the sale of that vacant parking lot and its development as something people want to walk by, or the renovation of one or both brick building to add bigger windows.
  4. There is a welcoming zone on the western half of the street as well. Between Dexter Street and Parade Street, there are a number of welcoming facades, including the West Side Diner, Community MusicWorks, Loie Fuller’s, and Healing Paws. These good street frontages combined with other facades I classified as neutral (Mi Ranchito with tinted windows, La Perla Fruit Market with covered windows, WBNA set back from the street with hedges obstructing view) make the walk from Parade Street to Fertile Underground seem not very far at all.

Other factors that would make Westminster a more lively commercial corridor would be the addition of bike lanes and sidewalk bump-outs at crosswalks (especially at the wide cross streets Parade & Dexter). Also, it doesn’t take much to fill a dead space on a streetscape. If a really awesome business moved in to either of these dead zones, even across the street from the biggest problem area (e.g. Julian’s Pizza) it would do a lot to enliven the streetscape for the benefit of all businesses and residents of the neighborhood.

Getting around Providence using only bike lanes

The Washington Post just had a thought-provoking post featuring maps of the bike infrastructure networks in several major American cities. The maps illustrate just how difficult it is to get around safely on a bike in some cities.




I made similar maps for Providence. Here is what Providence’s bike network will look like when several planned projects are completed:


As you can see, it isn’t easy. They are so far just token bike lanes and paths, rather than a real effort to make a city where everyone feels safe getting around by bike. I am hopeful that that will change and the City and State will undertake many new projects for dedicated and protected bike infrastructure in the next year or two. The Mayor bikes to work most days, which is excellent. The City’s planning department leadership is also excited about bikes. Let’s get Public Works and RIDOT on board too, and get some paint on the streets!

No more traffic deaths in Providence

pedestrian-cartoon-imbedOn Thursday morning, March 26, a nine-year-old girl was hit by a bus and killed on Smith Street in Providence, walking with her father. The tragedy of such a loss cannot be overstated. My heart goes out to her family.

Yet how many people overlooked the tragedy as merely the sort of thing that happens occasionally? Even those who did pay attention would only have seen accusations about whether the victim was to blame (“why were they not in the crosswalk?”) or the bus driver.

It is time to stop accepting these horrific traffic collisions. It is time to stop blaming the individuals involved and take responsibility as a city for solving the underlying problem. Providence streets are designed to prioritize quick movement of motor vehicles before the safety of people using those streets. It is time for us to flip that prioritization.

We would not be the first city to make this change. New York and San Francisco are the two most notable American cities to have recently adopted what is called a “Vision Zero” plan. Based on a successful program in Sweden, such plans seek to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries for all road users in the city by a certain date. It requires leadership, collaboration, rigorous measurement, and above all, an adjustment of priorities.

I call for Mayor Elorza and his department heads to release a plan for implementing Vision Zero in Providence before another person is killed in traffic in this city. Enough is enough.

When will the snow end in Providence?

FiveThirtyEight, so often an inspiration for data journalism, recently published a piece looking at weather data to show when the last snowfall might be in the 50 largest cities in the United States. Unfortunately, Providence doesn’t make that cut. So I took the liberty of replicating their method to figure out when we can expect to see our last snowfall here:
Half of all winters since 1964 have had their last snow sometime between March 1st and March 29th. The average date for a last snow in Providence was March 17, which happens to be tomorrow. Here’s hoping.

Parking in Downtown Providence

In a recent post, I analyzed parking options near the proposed site on the 195 land for a new minor league baseball stadium. I concluded that there are about 7500 parking spaces within a short walk of the location, compared to fewer than 5000 near McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket. Many of those spaces are in private surface lots, and following on the work of Greater City Providence, here are other surface lots deadening downtown:

Good news for downtown

There is some positive movement in replacing desolate surface lots with more productive land use. These locations are colored green above:

  1. Recent news indicates that Buff Chace of Cornish Associates is planning to buy the old Providence Journal building on Fountain Street, as well as its two associated lots across Fountain Street. He plans to develop these two surface lots into multi-story mixed-use buildings.
  2. As soon as three purchase-and-sale agreements are complete on the 195 land, development of a parking garage next to Garrahy Courthouse can commence. The emphasis on ground level retail in this plan makes it good news, as structured parking can strengthen the argument for replacing surface lots. Without ground level retail, a garage would be nearly as bad for downtown’s street life as a surface lot.

More work to be done

There is a long way yet to go, however. Real estate development is not easy, and it is based on hard financial numbers. But based on their size and location, here is my ranked list of important surface lots to develop into buildings:

  1. Westminster & Snow: The two lots on either side of Westminster at Snow Street suck the life out of an otherwise vibrant corridor between Empire Street and Dorrance Street.
  2. Orange & Friendship: This intersection is in the middle of a bleak parking crater. The prime location near the river and Johnson & Wales ought to make this the perfect location for some street-activating land use.
  3. Weybosset & Union: The lot directly behind Grants Block receives a lot of exposure due to that parcel’s revitalized use as public space. It is also in one of the most active parts of downtown. A perfect location with many potential customers walking by.
  4. Washington & Snow: Washington Street is planned as a vibrant cultural corridor, and already has many excellent locations making it active. Despite its relatively small size, this surface lot next to the AS220 building sticks out because the remainder of the streetscape is so continuous.
  5. Clemence & Washington: Located behind the svelte, 13-foot-deep Arnold Building currently under renovation by the Providence Revolving fund, this lot is back from the main street (a quality that makes it less bad than lots that do front main streets) but its size and contribution to the sketch-factor of Clemence Street drive it up on my list. Besides, alleys like Clemence are sexy places to activate these days, and a structure connecting to the back of the Arnold Building and with attractive entrances on Clemence would be spectacular.
  6. Broadway, Atwells, and Greene: This intersection feels super dangerous when you’re walking. Part of that is because of the wide roads with a confusing traffic pattern, but it’s also partly because of the two massive lots serving the Providence Public Library and the Hilton Providence. There’s already a pedestrian barrier of the highway right next to these, and they contribute to an unattractive walk between the dense downtown and two of the West Side’s trendiest commercial corridors.

That’s my list for now. There are a number of other surface lots that could also do with redevelopment, especially in the Jewelry District and abutting the 195 land and the highway, but the above parcels are the most ripe for redevelopment.

On-street market pricing

Any mention of parking in downtown Providence would be incomplete without mention of better management of on-street parking. We have outdated meter technology that does not allow for payment by credit card. We have a flat hourly rate for parking, and free parking in the evening, which lead to the most desirable locations being inaccessible during the times when they are most useful. To fix this, we need new meters that allow for easy payment and easily adjusted pricing, and we need City Council to allow parking rates to change based on demand. There is no reason we should have to drive around for 15-30 minutes looking for on-street parking. The City should optimize parking rates for 85% occupancy of each block at all times of day.