Friday, October 2, 2009

Best Shopping Towns

It's so much fun to discover the ins and outs of a new town. Or to return to a favorite place and see what shops and restaurants are still there, new, or gone.
Way before the age of the blog, I've kept personal visual journals in my head of my favorite towns. What makes them the best? For me, it's walkability, beautiful surroundings, interesting unique local businesses, and the friends I make along the way.

Each one has become a sort of "home" town for me, and I look forward to adding new ones to the list.
For instance, Westhampton Beach, on the South Shore of Long Island, NY, is a Hampton that's often overlooked when people think of The Hamptons.

But it's long combined upscale shopping and dining with a simple, everyday life kind of atmosphere, and hosts one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It's also the closest Hampton to NYC, so the train or car commute gets you there much quicker.

Westfield, NJ , is considered one of the Best Towns to live in the U.S.

It artfully combines unique local shops and restaurants with upscale mall stores, which makes it a destination shopping and dining town for out-of-town visitors as well as locals. The street layout breaks out of the grid by featuring streets that open out on a diagonal, adding to the breezy feel of downtown.

Nestled along the east bank of the majestic Hudson River, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY , is one of the Rivertowns of lower Westchester County, NY.

It's a little village that time forgot, in terms of its quaint, walkable charm. Yet it's filled with commuters at the top levels of every profession, along with a large population of artists, writers, and musicians, who bring the sophistication and savvy of Manhattan to Hastings' cultural life. Along with the riverfront and its iconic views of the Palisades cliffs, Hastings-on-Hudson preserves a beautiful forest, called Hillside Woods, and the Old Croton Aqueduct, a linear park that runs through the town as it winds towards Croton-on-Hudson.

Sarasota, FL , is a cultural and geographical gem, curving graciously along the Gulf Coast of southwest Florida.

With over 7 live theaters, the world-class Ringling Museum of Art, several colleges, beaches famous for their crystalline sands and nightly sunsets, international dining, and dedication to providing a beautiful setting for every park, mall, and downtown street, Sarasota feels like a small town that calls itself a city.
In order to make some visual sense out of these wonderful towns, I've created a Blog for each one of them. If you want to see the updates as they happen, sign up to "follow" the towns you like the best. It's fun and it's free. Just go to Best Places to Shop & Walk to see the current list.
If you'd like to suggest a town for the Blog series, please enter it in the "comments" box to the right, and I'll add it to my list. Thanks!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Good Old Urbanism - Westfield NJ

Lots of New Jersey transit towns are compact and walkable in their center. But they are usually only bedroom communities for the people who live there and work in New York City. What makes Westfield NJ different is that it's a destination town. Because of its free-flowing layout and intentional mix of unique local shops and restaurants with well-known, upscale mall brand stores, it's both commuter town and vacation-experience wrapped up into an appealing package that draws visitors from near and far.

While parking is often a challenge, because of the town's popularity, it's not that difficult to find a spot if you're willing to walk a block or two. For instance, you can park on E. Broad Street, near Mindowaskin Park, (except for rush hour--note the signs) and stroll into the core. Westfield is such a pretty town, that it's pleasant walking anywhere, so avoid the congestion and find a handy spot along the way.

The main shopping streets downtown are E. Broad Street, Elm Street, Quimby Street, Central Avenue and North Avenue. Parallel to North Avenue, on the other side of the railroad station, is South Street, which has numerous service businesses and restaurants. Perpendicular to E. Broad Street and North Avenue, is Prospect Street, where you'll find a few shops and two popular cafe/restaurants: 16 Prospect Wine Bar and Rockn' Joe coffeehouse.

The NJ Transit train station opens right onto the intersection of North Avenue and Elm Street, so you can walk from there to any number of charming restaurants on Elm and Quimby Streets, offering an international potpourri of cuisines. Some of them are BYOB, so first pick up a bottle of your favorite wine at Cool Vines on Elm Street.

Westfield is a fashion shopping day-trip destination, with name brands like Victoria's Secret, Ann Taylor, Aerosoles, Eileen Fisher, Chico's, Esprit, Gap, Gap Kids, Williams-Sonoma and more.

What makes it much more interesting than simply going to the mall, though, is the one-of-a-kind resources you'll find there. For instance, stop into Rhain accessories and gifts on E. Broad Street to find a full range of styles and items in every category. Menina on E. Broad Street and Anais Boutique on Elm Street offer sophisticated clothing and accessories. For kids' clothes, there's Pumpkins & Petunias, near the movie house, on E. Broad Street. And for kids' bedding and furniture, try Poppyfields Home on Elm Street. If you're a knitter, Knit a Bit is a charming yarn shop with a nicely edited selection and instruction available, too. It's upstairs above the shops, on Elm Street.

There are numerous shoe shops in Westfield, for women, men, and children. Also luggage, photography, coffee, and funky 60s-ware (at Funk & Standard on Central Avenue).

Because of the many restaurants and cafes downtown, you can start in the morning with breakfast at Panera Bread on E. Broad Street, stop for lunch at Rockn' Joe on Prospect Street, indulge in gelato at The Chocolate Bar on Quimby Street, and relax over dinner at Splash Thai on South Avenue or Mojave Grill on Elm Street. Eat, walk it off, eat, walk, etc.

For a break from the shopping and deciding, walk around Mindowaskin Park and release your mind to the sounds of quacking ducks and the beauty of the trees and the lake. If you prefer lunching with a sandwich or burrito, get takeout from Qdoba on Elm Street. Fresh, delicious, and affordable. Or pick up your order from Vicky's Diner on E. Broad Street and enjoy it al fresco sitting in the gazebo in Mindowaskin Park.

Along with all the shops and restaurants, the basics are also located right downtown: Post Office, UPS Store, MotoPhoto, a fun Trader Joe's market, supermarket, banks, cleaners, YMCA, etc. You can easily park once and walk to everything.

About 10 minutes away on E. Broad Street is the Westfield Public Library, with lots of Internet computers, free wifi, and comfortable wing chairs and study carrels, in case you're visiting with someone who'd rather read and surf than shop.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

What Good Towns Have in Common

On our blog network, Best Places to Shop & Walk, we feature towns and cities that have walkable, interesting downtowns, with a good supply of unique local shops and restaurants. While uploading some new posts the other day, I realized that they all have something else in common: vital and popular farmers markets!

For instance, the Aspen Saturday Market spans two long city blocks, in an "L" formation. Starting at City Hall, on East Hopkins Street and Galena, at this time of year, you'll be met by the hypnotic aroma of the fresh-pepper-roasting contraption at the farm stand. You can buy bags of the stuff, hot off the grate.

Next to that booth is Sinful Sugar, which enjoys droves of locals and tourists lining up to indulge in the most delectable and artistically beautiful pastries, all reassuring themselves and anyone who'll listen that the calories and carbs are offset by the all-natural ingredients used by the talented family baking team.

Behind them, in the tiny park behind Aspen City Hall, is a food court with coffees, teas, wraps, and breakfast treats you can eat right there, sitting at picnic tables.

Continuing along E. Hopkins, you're drawn into the juried arts vendors' booths, where you'll ooh and aah over knitwear, jewelry, natural skin creams, pillows and throws, metal sculpture, pottery, and handbags. More produce, organic meats, flowers, and wine.

At the corner of Hopkins & Hunter, there's a convenient tent set up with chairs to sit and enjoy the live music performers playing under its shade.

On Hunter St., Cathy Crenshaw Jewelers and Rebecca Bourke Designs usually have loyal customers and new visitors poring over their jewelry displays, looking for gotta-have-'em special necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and rings. If you're still hungry after breakfast, or having guests over later, Louis Swiss Bakery's cart is laden with fresh breads, quiches, savory and sweet pastries. There's also a booth with frozen tamales (sooo good) and salsa. And fresh pastas, more flowers, childrens' clothes, leather journals, hats, women's clothing, more produce, all the way down the block.

From its early beginnings as a one-block farmers market years ago to the place to be in Aspen on Saturdays, the Aspen Saturday Market has come a long way.

In Sarasota FL, there are two thriving markets, the Downtowns Sarasota Farmers Market, on Lemon Avenue, from State Street to First Street, every Saturday year-round, 7AM - Noon; and Siesta Key Farmers Market, in the Davidson's Drug parking lot in Siesta Village, every Sunday year-round from 7AM - Noon.

At the Downtown market, there's a mix of produce, flowers, plants, prepared foods, and arts and crafts vendors. As in Aspen, this market has become the place to be on Saturday mornings in Sarasota, with the usual compliment of people and dogs of all sizes and breeds sampling the goods. During Season, of course, the crowds are thicker and more varied in native tongue, as tourists and snowbirds from the U.S., Canada and Europe join the fun.

The Siesta Key Farmers Market is smaller and feels a bit more specialized, with an emphasis on organics and including only foods and flowers, no arts and crafts. It also helps support local chefs by offering a Taste Of The Village with area restaurants serving farm fresh items from their menus. Located right across the street from a few of the most popular local breakfast spots, this market gets both destination shoppers and impulse strollers.

The Westhampton Beach Farmers Market sets up on Mill Road next to the WHB Historical Society behind the Westhampton Fire House. Open on Saturdays, from 9AM - 1PM until the middle of November, the market is mostly a food, produce, and flowers market, with a few craft vendors here and there. The vegetables, fruit and eggs are all organic. You can also find pickles, goat cheese, Mecox cheeses, flowers, honey, Fat Ass Fudge (!) , and other items from the 25 vendors.

In the Library parking lot next to the Municipal Building on Maple Avenue is where you'll find the Hastings on Hudson Farmers Market, on Saturdays from 8:30AM to 2PM, through the third week in November. At this all-food market, over 30 vendors ply their goods in categories such as produce, bread, wines, chutney, desserts, pepper sauces, coffee, lasagna, honey, muesli, pickles, fish, and knife-sharpening! There's also live music, and as the market has grown, it's now spilling onto the lawn in front of the Library.

The NJ Transit train station in Westfield NJ is a central feature of the downtown, and its major parking lot is on the south side of the platform, on South Avenue. That's where you'll find the Westfield Farmers Market
on Saturdays from 8:30am - 2:00pm through November 7th. You may be in suburban New Jersey at this market, but that doesn't mean you can't pretend you're on an island vacation when there's a booth like MauiWowi serving coffee and smoothies. There are produce, prepared foods, and baked goods vendors here, as well.

Finally, of course New York City has numerous farmers markets and huge ones, such as the fabled Union Square Farmers Market, which is open on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 8AM-6PM, year round. Wow. Check out the Web site of the Council on the Environment of New York City for locations and details about all the farmers markets in Manhattan and the boroughs.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Good Old Urbanism - Sarasota, FL

Continuing our exploration of examples of successful "old urbanism," existing communities that already manifest many of the principles of the New Urbanism .

Sarasota FL, a lush and quirky small city on Florida's Gulf Coast, is trying to use principles of New Urbanism to weave its various charming "old urbanism" districts into a cohesive live-work-culture-nature experience.

Blessed with a gorgeous location, nestled alongside the mid-Gulf Coast, an hour south of Tampa, protected by even more gorgeous barrier islands--here called "keys"--including Longboat Key, Lido Key, St Armands Key, Bird Key and Siesta Key--Sarasota is also the arts and culture capital of Florida.

In its very walkable and compact downtown, you'll find theatres, a beautiful opera house, a soaring modern library, a purple-painted waterfront concert hall, a municipal auditorium, upscale shops and restaurants, Whole Foods Market, and many art galleries.

A few blocks away, across the only scenic section of Tamiami Trail (Hwy 41), is the magnificent Sarasota Bayfront Park, lined each winter season with modern sculptures, and featuring a lovely tree-shaded walking path and park, impressive yachts, and two restaurants, one upscale and one of the sea-shack variety.

Several blocks south of Main Street, separated by a non-descript, pedestrian-indifferent office-building-zone, there is a charming antiques district, called Burns Square, along Pineapple and Orange Avenues, with restaurants and boutiques, an art movie house, and a neighborhood of artist studios offering monthly Friday night studio/gallery strolls.

Crossing Tamiami Trail and south a few blocks more, is the tiny retail crossroads called Southside Village, surrounded on one side by a lush neighborhood of old residental streets and on the other by the expansive Sarasota Memorial Hospital Center. Southside Village has been undergoing "upscaling" in recent years, and it's a delightful mix of lux gift shops, gourmet markets, restaurants featuring international cuisines, as well as cozy neighborhood bar-restaurants, bakery-cafes, hair salons and boutiques.

A few winding miles down the road is Siesta Drive, which crosses Sarasota Bay and winds through Siesta Key, a tropical paradise enlivened by Ocean Boulevard with its funky shops and restaurants, leading to an exquisite wide beach composed of soft, powdery white sand that is 99% crystal. Perfect for walking, swimming, sunning, parasailing, and sunset-watching and applauding, which is a nightly tradition on Siesta.

Heading northwest from downtown Sarasota, over a couple of short bridges, you enter the world-famous St Armands Circle retail district. It's a "circle" of short blocks that wrap around a park on St Armands Key. There is every kind of store and restaurant, as well as Lido Beach, a long and deep expanse of not-so-soft sand with unbroken vistas across the blue-green waters of the Gulf.

Over another couple of bridges and you're driving alongside the perfect lawns and landscaping of Gulf of Mexico Drive on Longboat Key, a golf-course- and luxury-high-rise-lined gold coast community with its own long strip of wild beach towards the north end. Cross another bridge and you're on lovely Anna Maria, a key of old houses and cute shops just north of Longboat and west of Bradenton.

All these bridges and keys, taken along with downtown proper, make Sarasota a diverting place to live. Within a few miles of any one spot is another with different views and amenities.

The urban design challenge for Sarasota is to connect at least a few of the downtown pedestrian districts with one another, so as to encourage walking and biking among them. Each district is charming, but one has to get into the car, drive, and find another parking space, in order to go from one to the other.

Another problem for retail and dining establishments in the area is the seasonality of their customers. It creates the odd phenomenon of a downtown filled with high rise luxury condominium apartment buildings and plenty of retail, yet lacking significant pedestrian street life. It's a very relaxing downtown compared to most, but not so healthy for the businesses trying to make a living there.

A step in the direction of energizing downtown Sarasota is the high-rise residential/retail complex anchored by Whole Foods Market. It has become a nexus for grocery shoppers as well as people working at their laptops either in the cafe within the store or at the tables outside. It's a lovely spot to grab a bite from the salad, soup, hot food, or deli counter and sit outside socializing with friends or simply watching the passing scene. There's a free parking garage on ground level right in front of the entrance to Whole Foods Market, which makes it easy.

Looking beyond the downtown core, Sarasota is a city of neighborhoods characterized by houses of many design styles and eras, most of which are serviced by convenient local shopping plazas. The commercial spine that links all the Gulf Coast cities in this area is Tamiami Trail (Hwy 41), a six-lane shopping strip with every chain store and restaurant and car dealership one could ever need (or not need!). It's convenient and also frazzling at times. Luckily there are ways to get many of one's errands done while mostly bypassing or simply crossing it at critical spots.

What's amazing about this city is that, from moment to moment, you can choose to be in a sophisticated urban downtown, or walking a soul-expanding white powder beach and staring out into the vast emptiness of the gulf, or sailing your boat on the bay, or enjoying a quiet life in a nice little house with citrus trees in your backyard, or taking advantage of theater and restaurants, all within a few minutes drive of wherever you started.

Residential real estate values, after soaring for a few years during the boom, have been battered by the onslaught of foreclosures sweeping the area, due to the current economic downturn. But as the real estate folks always say, "location, location, location," and the natural beauty and cultural richness of this town are still a big draw, especially to Boomers preparing to retire and longing to escape snow shoveling.

While the days of a $20,000 beach cottage on Siesta Key are long-gone, there are some real bargains to be had right now, if you can find the financing. With careful sleuthing, there are still good values to be found here, especially in older neighborhoods undergoing upgrading.

Part of Sarasota's appeal is that it's more age-diverse than other Florida towns--lots of young and middle-aged families, year round retirees, snowbirds, and singles of all ages. And it has an energy you can tap into if you're looking for things to do. It's also exceedingly laid back, requiring not much of anything if you want to kick back and enjoy gazing at seagulls and pelicans.

One other convenient feature of Sarasota is its airport, code named "SRQ": small, modern, and underutilized. It's only a 15 to 20 minute drive to the airport from downtown. Many travelers choose to fly into Tampa and take the 1 1/4 drive to Sarasota. But it's so easy and low key to arrive right in Sarasota, that it makes living here even more appealing. As soon as you're off the plane, you're "home."

More about Sarasota FL . . .

Amy A. Elder, Sarasota, 2003
Patricia Ringling Buck, et al, A History of Visual Art in Sarasota , 2003
Bonnie Wilpon, Bonnie Wildon, Sarasota-Bradenton, FL , 1999
Editors of Twin Lights, Sarasota, Florida: A Photographic Portrait , 2000
Chelle Koster Walton, Karen T. Bartlett (photographer), The Sarasota, Sanibel Island and Naples Book: A Complete Guide , 2001
John Howey, The Sarasota School of Architecture 1941-1966
Steve Rabow, Steve Rabow's Guide: Sarasota, Bradenton and Venice , 2000
Michael Brown, Streetwise Sarasota
Kevin C. Myers (preface), Buy It, Fix It, Sell It: Profit , 2003 (not specifically about Sarasota, but it's a thought . . .)

Friday, July 31, 2009

Good Old Urbanism - Hudson River Towns of Lower Westchester County NY

Continuing our exploration of examples of successful "old urbanism," existing communities that already manifest many of the principles of the New Urbanism .

The Hudson Rivertowns of Lower Westchester County , New York, are very popular places to live and, increasingly, to work.

These three small hill towns nestled between the city of Yonkers to the south and Tarrytown to the north are Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry , and Irvington-on-Hudson. They ascend steeply uphill from the eastern shore of the Hudson River and look across to the dramatic craggy face of the Palisades, sheer cliffs formed when seismic activity thousands of years ago caused what is now the riverbed of the Hudson to shear off and sink.

Historically, the Hudson has been a working river. Indeed, you can still see tugboats pushing oil tankers and barges up and down the river, as well as yachts, sailing ships such as the environmental sloops Clearwater and Ferry Sloops, small pleasure craft like sailboats, rowboats, kayaks, and motorboats. For many years it was an industrial dump, because most river towns hosted heavy industries on their waterfronts, and these, including such famed polluters as General Electric and Anaconda Wire and Copper, freely poured their toxic waste products directly into the river, leaving subsequent generations -- i.e., ours -- to deal with measuring and cleaning up heavy metal contamination and PCBs.
As the result of long years of lobbying and activism by environmental groups and concerned individuals, the Hudson is much cleaner than before -- there is even a swimming beach at Croton Point Park again -- but each village must still deal with its own waterfront pollution problems before it can proceed with redeveloping its precious acreage along the shore. The trend now along the length of the Hudson is for recapturing waterfront land for recreational and mixed-uses such as residential, retail, restaurants, and boating.

Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry, and Irvington are primarily commuter villages, whose residents take the MetroNorth railroad to jobs in New York City or drive to work in Westchester, Connecticut, or New Jersey destinations via easily accessible nearby highways.

The villages used to be much more evenly split between locally based factory workers -- mostly from immigrant families -- and professionals, such as lawyers, doctors, educators, administrators, etc., but since the demise of waterfront industries such as Anaconda in Hastings and the General Motors plant in North Tarrytown (now called Sleepy Hollow), the number of longtime locals still in residence has been steadily diminishing.

As former workers die or move away, newcomers taking their place mostly arrive from Manhattan or other parts of the country, attracted by the easy access to New York jobs and the excellent schools, abundant nature, and small-town life of the Rivertowns. This has driven up the cost of real estate to astronomical figures, further aggravated by the paucity of available houses and apartments to show prospective buyers and renters.

An attractive aspect of the Rivertowns is the stylistic diversity of their houses. Because buildable land has always been at a premium -- with a lot of "steep slope" conditions and because the villages are strictly bounded by north-south highways to the east and the Hudson River to the west -- development has historically occurred gradually. In recent years, several larger scale condo and townhouse complexes have appeared, but they do not dominate the landscape. Consequently, on an amble along residential streets, you might see a California Spanish style house next to a Colonial next to a very modern 1960s style house next to a Victorian or Cape Cod. The layered hillside terrain also keeps the mix interesting, so you never have the experience of acres of vacuous "little boxes" that make other suburbs so deadly boring.

The apartment stock is mostly old, especially in Hastings and Dobbs Ferry, although Irvington and the eastern edge of Dobbs Ferry have some newer condominium developments. Apartment buildings tend to be of the generic red brick variety, with traditional room layouts and not much in the way of terraces or decks. Cooperative apartment complexes abound, with all the attendant aggravation and uncertainty of one's expenditures and lifestyle regulated by the vagaries of coop boards. (And a word to the wise: Pet owners who can't afford to own their own home in the Rivertowns will find almost no rental or coop buildings available to them.)

The best things about the Rivertowns are how walkable and compact they are, how rich they are in parkland and other types of nature experiences, and how easy it is to access bigger shopping and other cities and places.

Let's take Hastings-on-Hudson, for example. When I lived there, my apartment was in the middle of the downtown, admittedly not where most people live, but everyone else was within a mile from town. I could walk to every type of daily shopping I needed. The three downtown shopping streets include supermarket, produce markets, natural foods store, delis, pizza parlors, Chinese takeout food, dry cleaners, stationery/toy/cards/gifts, bookstores (four of them), hair and nail salons, coffee/tea/sandwich cafes, banks, a flower shop, laundromat, hardware store, women's and children's clothing, toy shop, shoe store, diner, and several restaurants. The downtown also contains the municipal building, library, police station, a funeral parlor, and three churches. I may have left something out, but you get the idea.

Also within a few blocks of my apartment were the train station; the waterfront, with a park, tennis club, and restaurants; the Old Croton Aqueduct, a beautiful linear nature trail that traverses all the Rivertowns high up above Broadway and the Hudson River, crossing through backyards, forested lands, and estates; Hillside Woods, an old-growth forest with a fishing pond, nature trails, and a vernal pond; and, only a mile away, Dobbs Ferry, the next town upriver from Hastings. I could, and I did, walk regularly to all these places.

Hastings' waterfront is still an EPA Superfund site, and the acreage not used for recreational activities and dining -- that is, most of it -- is either vacant or covered with huge, decrepit industrial buildings waiting to be demolished for new uses. Even so, the ability to walk down to the water and sit next to the lapping waves, watch boats and ships passing by, and admire the looming Palisades cliffs on the opposite shore is a real treat and a great way to get away from the hustle and bustle of town.

Too much truck traffic passes through downtown Hastings, due partly to delivery trucks that service the commercial district -- a fact of life in any town -- but also to the huge semi tractor trailers that wind their way down the narrow downtown streets, on their way to a trucking company that leases space on the waterfront. County buses also drive through the downtown, as well as commuters and shoppers, with the result that it's more fume-laden than aromatic during the morning and evening busy periods.
In recent years, more local residents have decided to move their businesses from Manhattan to the Rivertowns, so they can live and work in the same place, with more time to spend with their families and recreation. Dobbs Ferry and Irvington each have former industrial buildings on their waterfronts that have been retrofitted into offices, design studios, and other facilities for yoga, dance, and light assembly and manufacturing. In Hastings, businesses such as a music studio, dance and exercise studios, graphic design company, architects, and law firms have found space in existing downtown commercial buildings or apartments located over stores. Due to the demand, these types of alternative work spaces are in tight supply.

Each of the three rivertowns has its own unique character, due partly to the idiosyncrasies of geography and partly to historic ethnic and economic features. Long ago, Irvington-on-Hudson was parceled out into large tracts of land owned by wealthy families and institutions For instance, Columbia University's Nevis Laboratories are located there, as is Sunnyside, the historic home of Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The streets on either side of Main Street, which runs from Broadway (Rte. 9) to the river, are only one block deep each, with densely packed houses originally inhabited by people who serviced the mansions and estate properties there. Irvington has a quiet, sort of buttoned-up feeling to it compared to the other nearby villages. Its waterfront features a large, beautiful park -- unfortunately strictly limited to Irvington residents only, who must show I.D. to use it -- as well as industrial buildings converted to office and studio spaces.

Dobbs Ferry has a very long commercial street, Main Street, which turns the corner into Cedar Street, a shorter commercial street. There are numerous restaurants, pizzerias, specialty shops such as picture framers, art galleries, cafes, recording studios, wedding apparel, cafes, women's clothing boutique, liquor store, gift shops, along with the usual hardware store, municipal building, post office, police station, supermarket, produce shop, and so on. There's an Italian flavor to this village, both in the "hill town" architectural style of many downtown buildings, and in some of the restaurants and cafes. Historically, Dobbs had a significant Italian population, mirroring that of Westchester County as a whole. At night Dobbs Ferry's downtown has some life to it, with restaurants and cafes open into the evening hours. There is a chronic overabundance of unoccupied storefronts, however, and the village hasn't yet figured out how to attract enough viable retailers.

Dobbs Ferry's waterfront is now entirely devoted to recreation, with sweeping views of the New York skyline and George Washington Bridge to the south and the Tappan Zee bridge to the north. A restaurant, two waterfront parks, and the commuter parking lot and train station share the site.

Dobbs Ferry has been struggling in recent years with deciding what to do with its "gateway," a rather unsightly multi-corner intersection at the intersection of Cedar Street and Broadway. Not a very attractive way to greet people arriving via Broadway, which up to that point is quite lovely and historic both to the south and to the north.

Even though Dobbs Ferry has more art galleries and a waterfront industrial building that is home to numerous artists' studios, Hastings-on-Hudson has a reputation as the "artsy" village, with a fair number of artists, writers, musicians, and other creative types in residence. (At last count, there were 82 published authors living in Hastings, approximately 1% of the village's entire population of 7,648.)

Hastings offers an art supply store, picture framer, a couple of galleries, a health food store, and several architecture offices.

Irvington and Dobbs Ferry built new libraries several years ago, and Hastings expanded and renovated its library.

The entire area faces the same problem that challenges other very popular and upscaling towns, which is how to provide affordable housing for longtime locals, such as seniors, who want to stay in their communities in the face of rapidly escalating property taxes and maintenance costs; emergency and school personnel; and young adults not yet in their peak earning years. These towns become more and more unbalanced economically, since only the very-highly-paid or multiple-income-couples can even consider biting off huge mortgage, tax, and maintenance payments.

In years past, the villages' tax base was a mix of residential, commercial, and industrial property taxes. Now, with the demise of local industry, there is too much reliance on residential property taxes, which must cover traditional municipal services as well as a growing school population drawn to the area by very high educational system ratings.

Like numerous other interesting former Rivertowns residents that I've known, I can't afford to live there anymore. And even if I could, the prices (and taxes) currently being paid for housing there are stratospherically out of kilter with the long-term value of those properties. I say this with the perspective of having lived in the Rivertowns for over twenty years, seeing values vacillate with recession and boom cycles.

Nevertheless, the Rivertowns are a naturally beautiful, walkable, relatively peaceful place to live, with easy access -- via the MetroNorth train that runs alongside the Hudson River -- to New York City, to the south; and via car to New Jersey to the west, to upstate New York and New England to the north, and to Long Island to the east.

As the real estate people say, it's all a matter of "location, location, location."

Good Old Urbanism - Aspen CO - All in One Place

Of course, no place is perfect, though several come achingly close to being ideal, if only . . .

And many downtowns are quite functional, though too many are tired and lack a contemporary spark, which robs them of their potential as stimulating gathering places. There's a huge difference between going downtown to cross off chores on a list and finding downtown warm, inviting, and socially engaging enough to want to hang around for awhile, watch the scene or chat with acquaintances and friends.

So let's get down to specifics and visit some examples of successful "old urbanism," by which I mean existing communities that already manifest many of the principles of the New Urbanism . None of them is perfect, and each of them has limitations that can frustrate a determined seeker like myself. If you can suggest additional places of interest, please let me know. This is a work in progress.
First stop is Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Functioning alongside the Aspen CO you've heard about -- famous stomping-ground of the rich and famous -- is the everyday Aspen of locals -- people who work and live there. It's really a less obvious, parallel universe to the glitzy destination resort experience.

It's interesting to live in a place that attracts visitors and residents from all over the country and the world and offers world-level culture, such as the Aspen Music Festival, Jazz Aspen Snowmass, dance festivals, Food and Wine Classic, filmfests, writers' festival, Physics Institute, and the Aspen Ideas Festival. At the same time, it's a daunting challenge to find affordable housing and meaningful or at least good-paying work in a town that's geared primarily towards mulitmillionaires and billionaires.

And, while most locals head downvalley to Wal-mart for the bulk of their necessities, I've found that Aspen provides me with everything I need for my daily living. As a native New Yorker, accustomed to doing my shopping on foot or via public transportation, I'll pay slightly more for the advantage of local convenience and quality.

While I briefly lived in Aspen at one time, I soon moved to the "midvalley." Once a day, I took the bus upvalley to Aspen, a twenty-five minute ride through breathtaking sky and mountain scenery.

Aspen's downtown is supremely walkable and mostly level. With the exception of a few landmarks such as the Wheeler Opera House, Jerome Hotel, Pitkin County Library, and St. Mary's Church, most of its buildings are only one or two stories high, so that wherever you walk or sit, you can admire the enormous mountains that ring the town. In summer they're carpeted with lush greenery and topped by a bright blue sky with cottony puffs of cloud. Aspen's uniquely sweet-sour fresh mountain air is intoxicating, making one feel like it's truly heaven on earth.
Even without errands to do, it's a wonderful place to simply sit and look, or walk and gawk. And since I'm a walker, that suits me just fine. However, for those who use a car (or, more likely, an SUV) to do their errands, parking can be a big annoyance.

Most of the shops and hotels within the downtown core, especially within easy walking distance of the ski lift and gondola, are extremely expensive, offering luxury goods rather than practical everyday items. Years ago, Aspen was famous for uniquely quirky one-of-a-kind shops. In recent years, due to skyrocketing retail rents, those stores have been replaced by national chains such as Prada, Fendi, Baccarat, The Gap, Banana Republic, ad-upscale-mall-nauseum. There are also furriers, art galleries, jewelers, tres chic restaurants, and high end purveyors of interior furnishings for second-mansion-owners. If you're not part of this world, it's easy to feel like you're always on the outside looking in.

What I've discovered, though, is that there's still a "basic Aspen" that provides me with a fulsome array of goods, services, and experiences. It's just not always obvious to the vacationer who arrives here in a busy social whirl.

For instance, there's a spacious, modern, post office, filled with natural light and powered by solar panels, with 24 hour access to mailboxes and friendly interaction with one's neighbors when waiting on line to send packages or get stamps. In the same shopping complex there's a hardware store, locksmith, Mailboxes Etc. (for copies and shipping), supermarket, video store (with lots of interesting foreign films and unusual movies), flower and gift shop, and two casual eateries. Also, a central plaza with picnic tables for eating, chatting, reading the paper, or staring at the mountains.

A block away is a beautiful linear walking path along the banks of the Roaring Fork River, so within a couple of minutes one can leave urbanity and enjoy nature. Two blocks the other way is a large park with soccer fields and a skateboard park.

Across the street is Pitkin County Library, one of the most comfortable, quiet, and well-stocked libraries I've found anywhere. A large video collection, free Internet access, and an extensive music collection round out its offerings. And the free local phone in the lobby is handy for checking back home about things to add to the shopping list.

Within several blocks are other staples, including a large pharmacy with a funky general store upstairs; a wonderful independent bookstore with a vegetarian cafe; an athletic club with a lap pool, steam room, whirlpool, exercise equipment, climbing wall, and physical therapy services, tucked unobtrusively in the basement of an office building.

On my way to the downtown bus station, I could shop at another supermarket and treat myself to pizza, unusual sub sandwiches at a funky sixties' style deli, or fresh made crepes at the legendary Popcorn Wagon across from the Wheeler Opera House, home of Aspen's various film fests. And there's the fun of looking for clothes at the Aspen Thrift Shop and at Susie's, a fashionable consignment shop, where one can discover brand new ski jackets, sweaters, and all kinds of fancy finds the rich discard, for a pittance of their original cost.

These are just a few highlights, and I'm leaving out hair salons, restaurants, shoe repair, photo finishing, dry cleaners, musical instruments, and pet supplies, among other things. The point is that, once I'm in town, I can take care of everything I need to do on foot. And if for some reason I'm too tired to walk, I can take the free buses that ply the downtown and go as far out of town as the airport five miles away.

So for walkability, view quality, fresh air, access to urbanity and nature, errands and exercise, and potential for what I call "bumpintas" -- bumping into aquaintances and friends and saying hello -- Aspen scores quite high.

The negatives start to creep in when the astronomical cost of real estate in Aspen requires that most people live "downvalley," in one of the towns anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 1/2 hours away by bus or car. It wasn't always thus, when both locals and tourists mixed in Aspen's famous "messy vitality" of years past. But with only a limited amount of affordable employee housing available in Aspen proper, and with entire neighborhoods, like the picturebook Victorian West End, empty most of the year, except for several weeks when billionaire second homeowners spend a little time in their Aspen houses, it's a sad lesson in the downside of urban sprawl.

It also means that Aspen's pretty quiet in the evening, despite its busy party scene late at night. With everyone leaving town to go home after work, the downtown core feels emptier than it should, given how built up it is. It's like walking through a Hollywood stage set, after the cast has gone home for the day.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the four-laning of Highway 82, which forms the spine of the Roaring Fork Valley, spanning between Aspen and Glenwood Springs, is a consequence of the relentless stretching out of the Aspen experience. It makes for safer travel than the old two-lane highway, but it also enables more traffic both into and out of town. It has inspired more downvalley housing developments than the area can really support, given the heavily tourist-based service economy. Especially during an economic downturn, one wonders where all the new homeowners will work, once they migrate to this beautiful yet fickle place.

So, in order to do all my errands, and get the inspiration and exercise I need every day, I, too, take the bus upvalley for a thirty minute ride each way. The bus service, called RFTA (Roaring Fork Transit Authority, pronounced "rafta" by the locals), is excellent and frequent and not too expensive, but it's not my first choice of how I want to live. To be a truly complete Best Urbanism experience, living here should allow me to step outside my door and walk directly to everything I need, and on that note, living downvalley fails the test.

Oh, yes, and sitting next to me as I type is my dog Snowy, who reminds me that my other frustration is not being able to take frequent walks around Aspen with her. Since I can't take her on the bus, she gets far fewer adventures outside the confines of our housing development, and that's disappointing for both of us.