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In Hong Kong on a Wednesday evening I am looking for a spray bottle. It’s our anniversary, the original one, and I’ve purchased a succulent to honor it. The succulent’s I’d gathered over previous years got moved from San Francisco to the East Bay, but not all the way to Hong Kong. So, at the end of our first year in Hong Kong I sought a new one, and then flowers, and now a spray bottle to care for them. In Tin Hau this search means walking down the street, eyes open. Eventually it means a ten Hong Kong dollar purchase from a store that sells stationary, toys, and basic household supplies. Tucked in the back near scrub brushes and a cutting board I find two sizes of bottle and opt for the larger one, in bright translucent colors.

For years now we’ve been evaluating cities, measuring them against our desires and needs. From the earliest days of this site, when smiles were my underrated metric for economic growth in boomtown Shanghai, I’ve been watching places. In Houston the bicycle infrastructure, or relative dispersal of it compared to Shanghai, was what struck me. Gas stations exist on every other corner while repairing a bicycle requires a mile or more of travel. This set of facts, once realized, described adequately the built environment, the preferences of locals, the density of jobs, housing, and food, and the danger of streets for pedestrians. After all, cyclists rarely cause death. And so Houston gave me a new way to consider cities, a way to review wherever came next.

In San Francisco I spent days considering elevation and microclimates, these subtle shapes of hill and weather that have huge impacts on residential desirability across the city. The fog is a force in SF, and neighborhoods are defined by their position relative to its reach. The Sunset remains affordable partially because, come evening, it is entirely within the fog bank. The rest, or what little affordability remains after twenty years of appreciation, is due to the lack of transit, either highway or train.

In Hong Kong for months now I’ve struggled to clarify my thinking. “I like it” and “It feels good” remain mediocre rationales. The cliche, while true, that we live in a city but can quickly access the mountains or ocean is not what pulled me here. Something else explains why walking home from our noodle shop in the evening makes us so happy.

And so my quest for a spray bottle. In America, a desire like this results first, usually, in an online search. In a location where travel is expensive, dangerous, and personally demanding, it’s no surprise to see delivery flourish and online shopping rise. This rise brings with it the lack of neighborhood unity due to decreased exposure to each other, the failure of local small-scale retail, and the creation of a poorly paid and utterly dehumanized delivery class to take the transit risks and bear the costs. For those reasons as well as the related sedentary health effects, it isn’t a culture that appeals to me. But how to express this preference succinctly?

In Hong Kong on a Wednesday evening I go in search of a plastic spray bottle. I walk seven blocks in eight minutes before finding one. In those seven blocks I pass three 7 Elevens, two grocery stores, one fruit stand, one vegetable stand, and countless small restaurants. I am never alone. Many of my neighbors are outside walking dogs, doing errands, chatting with friends, or coming home from work or activities. I purchase the bottle and then some sushi for dinner from a take out place. It’s a nice night. People are eating outside or in line for bubble tea near the train station. The whole city feels alive and engaged. Walking home amidst all my neighbors it strikes me: this search is a way to evaluate cities. In Hong Kong the fastest way to find something is to walk out of the house and start looking.

I remember coming home one day at the beginning of this year, not long after moving, excited with a discovery. “Troye Sivan is playing in May” I said, entering the house. “I saw a poster walking home.”

At the time we laughed about how learning about upcoming concerts and music releases from posters plastered on walls felt like New York in the 90’s. Now I think that for as long as we’ve lived here, we’ve learned by walking outside. That’s pretty new for me, a child of the American countryside. In rural America the fastest way to get anything, before Amazon, was to get in a car and drive 20 minutes. Walking was a good way to discover blackberries, and occasionally animals.

And so, one year in, I have a new way to evaluate cities, and a further explanation for why we love Hong Kong. What’s the fastest way to find something? It’s one more way to think about the places we inhabit, and what shapes the sense of life and community in each.

Trading neighbors

For years we live next to an empty building. It is not abandoned. The owners locked and secured it after having work crews strip out all interior fixtures and structure. As the sun sets over the Sutro we can see through it, just for a moment. The light comes cleanly through a space without doors or walls.

In San Francisco this kind of building is a lure, a place of few intrusions and no residents or office workers to complain. The same tents fill the sidewalk around this building for months at a time. A woman lives on a cooler in its shadow for over a year. Occasionally there are fights in front of it, or yelling matches. Low level harassment on walking by is a daily part of life. The children next door, who play on the street in the evening, do not go around the corner towards that building without larger family.

The cops sweep the street once a month, pushing everyone a few blocks over, a few blocks down. These rotations are no solutions, but they do provide quiet for a week until people begin to drift back to this building that is so clearly ignored. More frequently on our block the DPW crews come, reliable and without complaint, to pick up and sweep away the furniture, bags, clothing, and destroyed bicycle parts that are left along the fence that protects the empty building’s parking lot. These piles of random city trash are a regular scene, but their appearance is sudden. I come home one evening to three chairs and half a tent. They disappear overnight, replaced by two unmatching shoes and half a shirt. These too vanish, and the street is clean for a while. Several days later a cooler, a bag of poop, and half of a VCR arrive. The cycle continues. Sometimes outside I can hear people arguing about one or the other of the items. Eventually, always, only the bag of poop remains.

Suddenly one day in the fall of twenty sixteen the work crews arrive. They drive the large trucks of American dreams and chat outside my window before heading in to the building for work at seven thirty. They are reliable, working six days a week. They wake me up in the morning and are gone before I am home from the office. Other than the jackhammer days and the cement truck days, they are the kind of loud we can accept.

After about a month I notice the secondary benefits of these large men in hard hats and reflective vests.

I hear the window smash while drinking coffee one morning. It’s a common sound that does not grow familiar. The surprising part is what follows: yelling.

“Hey, get out of there.”
“Get the fuck out of that car.”
“Yeah you come back here.”
“Hey call the cops.”

The last is followed by the sound of booted footsteps running.

I go outside. The workmen have chased off the would-be thief and retrieved the target, a duffel bag. The car, they tell me, did not belong to any of these workers. Of course not. It is a small Toyota. Patiently the workmen wait for the police and file a report. The cops are as surprised as I was at the situation.

Break-ins grow less common on this block, as do tents. The later has as much to do with the jackhammering as anything.

This is not a story of gentrification. It is instead a story born of being woken at seven on Saturday by the cement truck’s unceasing turn and being unable to sleep again.

These shifts are not a permanent change, of course. Eventually the residents of this block will change again, to what I can not say. For now though I appreciate this rotation.

Or try to, given the noise and the hour.

Slow boat

Two or three days a week he reads the paper out of doors, no matter the weather.  Perched at one of the tables overlooking the water, he drinks coffee out of a battered plastic mug. With a duct-taped handle, it is big enough to have come from a gas station, years before. Sometimes he acknowledges other customers, hustling in and out of the cafe’s warmth. Other days he is engrossed in tiny print, the paper held close in front of his eyes.

Wide brimmed hat and overalls on, he is always dressed for warmth. Sometimes he wears a puffy jacket, the kind that goes past the waist. Sometimes only a sweater, though with layers beneath.

The cafe owners know everyone’s story, from the office workers to the dock hands. They know the sheriff whose skiff has a special motorized lift, the lawyer whose wife took the house in the divorce and who now lives on his boat. They must know the story of this man, in his layers reading the newspaper, strangely cordial with the dentist and men in suits that also occupy these tables in warmer weather.

His beard is white and big, bristly and a little wavy. Not thick and curly, broom like, each fiber having a visible strength. Beneath the hat and above the beard his cheeks are weathered, eyes hard to read. A lot of time out of doors, they say.

“My home doesn’t have a motor,” he tells a passer by one day, indicating one of the boats in the marina in front of him. “I just cast off and sit back, pretty soon I’m on my way somewhere.”

Some weeks he’s not there. Adrift somewhere down river, I imagine, on the long windy course to the bay.