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One of the true pleasures of living in Laurel Park is the independence from cars that it offers. In Laurel Park we can walk. We can bike. We can hop the bus. And we can get pretty much anywhere we need to be without the hassle  and expense of driving, and with the joy of activating our muscles in the fresh air. But more than just the freedom of movement and the improved health—personal benefits—there is a sense of community in Laurel Park that is difficult, if not impossible to find, in more car-dependent neighborhoods.

We know each other here because we see each other. We pass each other’s houses and apartments, wave or nod at a neighbor on a porch, let our dogs introduce themselves and us in turn. And we talk. We tell each other of exhibitions at art galleries or of a morning stroll on the beach. We argue about politics, local and national. We complain about roads and we propose that a little common sense could solve all the problems of the world. We build community.

The article excerpted below is about people choosing to live car-free in Los Angeles. It made us smile, because this is already how we live in Laurel Park.

Los Angeles once showed the world that the car equaled freedom. Our vast parking lots and spacious two-car garages offered the utmost convenience. Even our roads were named after the idea—freeways—that automobiles provided this feeling of independence as a personal transportation experience. It worked for awhile. That is, until those painted lanes choked with Sigalerts and gas nosed towards $5.00 per gallon.

“The freeways are not so nice!” howls Eddie Solis, [a musician and part of] the small but growing group of Angelenos who are choosing not to drive a car, and swearing that their lives are better for it.

Solis ditched his car for financial reasons but quickly started to see that living car-free offered a new creative outlet for his music. “Just through sitting on the bus or subway, I’d see the city from a new perspective, that of a bus rider, as a public transportation advocate. I was seeing different walks of life come on and off [the buses], and I would go through neighborhoods that I didn’t think had anything I was interested in, and I started getting inspired.” His most recent album, The New Los Angeles, is all about that idea of freedom that he started to feel. “For the people I hear who have to commute by car, it’s always a chore,” he says. “And I’m just freely moving back and forth, seven days a week. I’m very happy about it, and it’s a huge inspiration to me.”

I wasn’t able to find any definitive studies on how many Angelenos are choosing to live car-free…[but] anecdotally, I can say that I’m hearing a lot more stories like that of Peter Zellner, a Venice-based architect, who  swapped his two vintage diesel Mercedes Benzes earlier this year for a 1974 Schwinn beach cruiser and a single-speed racing bike. He says not driving is a better fit for his personality. “I have become a cycling fanatic,” says Zellner. “I love my bike, it’s like an extension of me, maybe more so than a car ever was.”

The effects have been more than just the financial boost that comes with shedding a problematic vehicle—Zellner has seen serious health benefits. “In short order I stopped driving, stopped smoking and then stopped drinking!” he says. “I have lost 15 pounds since I started cycling everywhere, I have more time to read and think when I am on the bus and I am never stressed out by traffic.” keep reading at GOOD.is

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The morning sun wakes me. It is warm but no longer carries the burn of summer; the orange light is pleasant, inviting. I wake gradually, as does the dog. The cat is stretched out on the wood floor in a bath of warm light. He half opens a single eye to watch me walk across the apartment and out to the porch, the dog following, but he soon grows bored and returns to his sleep.

I brew a pot of coffee and sit on the front stoop, the front door left open. The dog noses through the garden and along the sidewalk and I find the morning news on the radio. It is still early, the slightest chill in the air, and the sun on my face is lovely. I lie back on the wide top step of the front stoop and soon the dog and the cat both join me. My wife is awake now. She pours herself coffee and watches us. She smiles and begins her own morning ritual, watering the plants, reading over a piece she wrote the day before. The dog watches, sees when she has finished, and licks my face.

We walk through Laurel Park. Down Hawkins Court, slowly to enjoy the wonderfully car-free brick lane. We see the brick paving revealed on Madison where the blacktop has worn away and talk of how wonderful it would be if all of Laurel Park was again paved in brick. I would get rid of the sidewalks and invite everyone to enjoy the street. There is a stretch on Oak where several houses, instead of being set back, are built to the sidewalk edge. The effect is friendly, cozy. I find myself walking there intuitively, whether it is the direct way or not.

On Main Street we stop at C’est la Vie for croissants and a second cup of coffee. We both studied French in high school, and even if I can’t find the courage to speak it I enjoy its music as the waiters and waitresses banter, sometimes with francophone patrons. Several people, tourists and residents, stop us to say hello to the dog as we walk down Main Street toward Island Park and the bayfront. She ignores them good-naturedly. Sometimes she looks up at us and smiles, in her way.

Passing Media on Main we reminisce about Sarasota News & Books, much as the old-timers did about Charlie’s. We speak of the characters we’ve known there. Of the memories that have yet to fade.

The dog knows we are nearing Island Park. She loves it there, as do we. Other dogs greet her and us, other dog owners do as well. She and I trace the seawall and look to the water for passing fish. On the west side of the park we wade into the shallows and the dog barks at seabirds, bites gently at seaweed on the rocks. We can see Bird Key, Lido Key, Siesta Key. Longboat Key to the north. Cars and bicyclists and pedestrians are crossing the bridge to St. Armand’s Circle.

As we near O’Leary’s we find an empty bench and eat our pastries. We sip our coffee. We watch people and smile when they look our way. We again raise our faces to the sun. The dog busies herself at the water’s edge and we listen with our eyes closed to her snuffling and the lapping of tiny waves. It is a beautiful day.

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There are interesting stirrings afoot in the United States these days. From the Tea Party movement to the current Occupy Wall Street protests, Americans are making themselves heard. These two populist uprisings are generally thought to have opposing idealogical foundations, but maybe they share more common ground than is obvious at first glance. The Tea Party is a reaction to perceived government mismanagement, while the Wall Street protests are reactions to perceived corporate greed. In both cases those elected or appointed to powerful positions are being taken to task by the general public. Both are evidence that American democracy hasn’t gone the way of the dodo. Both are proof that we have not become an apathetic people. These are good things!

For those of you who might be interested in attending an Occupy Together event, whether in support or in dissent, Occupy Sarasota will meet today at 10am at the corners of Main Street and Orange Avenue.

While the individuals employed by Laurel Park Management have their own opinions (and will be happy to discuss them with you if approached on the street), LPM itself is more concerned with the airing and sharing of those opinions in a constructive manner—public discussion being one of the core attributes of a vital urban neighborhood—than with supporting any particular political party or movement. We hope Laurel Park will always be a place where neighbors of all political leanings meet and debate and challenge and uplift one another.

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Anyone who’s read this blog from its inception knows that we at Laurel Park Management are big supporters of bicycles and the folks who ride them. To clear up a quick issue of nomenclature, I tend to use cycling when I mean higher speeds, longer distances, stretchier clothes, and bicycling when I mean cruising around, running errands, dressing normally. I’ve written here before about how ideally suited Sarasota is to both cycling and bicycling—bicycling being the subject at hand—but I’ll repeat the key points quickly before moving on to the point of this post…that, for many of us, replacing a car with a bike is not only viable but really pretty smart (if you’re scoffing at me right now or labeling me as one of those enviro-wackos trying to destroy America, please reserve judgment until the end).

When my then-girlfriend and I moved to Sarasota several years ago from Los Angeles we sold one of our two cars and used the money to pay for the move across country. We had enough left over to buy a bicycle for each of us, pay off a credit card, and rent an apartment here in Laurel Park. My girlfriend usually took the remaining car to work up the trail, which left me with a bicycle to use for all my daily needs. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Sarasota is flat, the climate is spectacular, most roads have relatively low auto-traffic loads and speeds, and shopping and services tend to be clustered compactly enough to allow bicyclists to cross off several to-do items in quick succession. But it’s too hot during summer, you say? I bicycle year round and find that shade from trees keeps things sufficiently moderate even on the worst days. What about rain? Thankfully, our rain tends to be pretty predictable. I simply pay more attention to the forecast than I used to. Cars can be an issue, partly because the prevailing mentality of drivers here is, let’s say, Darwinian, and partly because most drivers just aren’t used to looking out for bicyclists. And despite the compact clusters sprawl can also be something to overcome. BUT…by and large, SRQ is a fine place to ride a bike, and it could become a spectacular place to ride a bike if we plant more shade trees, paint more (and wider) bike lanes, and take some simple steps to protect current bicyclists while encouraging new ones to join. Why would we want to do such a thing? Isn’t the car the American way (to get around)?

The honest answer is, sometimes. Cars are great for driving relatively long distances, for rural areas, and for a host of other situations. But in an urban context cars can be more trouble than they’re worth. Using a bicycle as a primary mode of transportation has changed how I interact with the city. I see more, hear more. My senses come alive. The world slows to a human speed. Errands have become enjoyable. And, perhaps surprisingly, I can usually accomplish them faster with a bike than I can by car. This is also due to the advantages of proximity that residents of Laurel Park benefit from, of course, but it still caught me by surprise.

Parking a bike is faster and easier than parking a car. It’s also free. Riding a bike improves one’s health, makes no noise, emits nothing smelly or toxic. Bikes take up roughly 1/10th the space of cars while driving, and as little as 1/15th when parked. Then there are the economic benefits: cars cost a lot to buy, and you still have to insure them, maintain and repair them, and fill them with gas. Bikes are cheap, repairs are simple, maintenance is minimal, and fuel costs are already included in your grocery bill. On the rare occasions when I need a second car I rent one. The cost and hassle are both substantially less than with ownership.

Since becoming a daily bicyclist I’m healthier, happier, and my income goes further than it used to. I’m not saying that everyone should get rid of their cars, but most households with multiple cars can probably get by just fine with one car and a new bike. Heck, a few new bikes. People in Copenhagen, for example, use their bikes not only to commute and shop but also to drive their kids to school (see the picture above) and do a million other things we don’t associate with bicycles.

People who haven’t lived there might be surprised to know that Copenhagen has a lot of cars and that the roads are, at times, filled with car traffic just like they are in Sarasota. The difference is mostly one of options…many people there recognize that certain trips are faster, cheaper, and easier to make by bike. The point of all of this is that there are options, there are solutions to every problem, some of which are so simple they escape our view. If you are looking to cut your expenses, improve your health, get more fresh air, and take better advantage of all that our beautiful city has to offer, I highly recommend selling your car (especially if you have more than one) and getting a bike. Or, if that just isn’t feasible, using a bike for as many trips as possible. You won’t regret it.

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Some places just feel right. The buildings, the street, the proportions, the trees, the aesthetics, the uses—in some places they all converge to create little nuggets of urban perfection. Certain medieval Italian vias and French boulevards come to mind, but so do many minor nameless roads in American towns and cities. These are the places people find themselves gravitating towards, sometimes for no more explicable reason than that they feel good to be in. Today’s post puts Laurel Park’s own Hawkins Court under the microscope.

Why? Because every time I walk it I start thinking about how cities are laid out almost exclusively for cars (and what a shame that is), about the variety of rights of ways that we rarely avail ourselves of, and about how important moments of discovery are to the urban experience. I start thinking about how and why this insignificant little road, barely more than an alley, draws me back again and again, and about what it can teach us about urban design. Hawkins Court isn’t flashy, but it suggests an alternative to the typical orthogonal gridding of cities and towns. It suggests how we might make cities not only functional but also lovable.

What
Draw a bow-legged stick figure with hands raised as if under arrest then rotate it ninety degrees. It’s the best description I can come up with for the layout of Hawkins Court, a charming residential lane that’s more than an alley but not quite a street.

Where
The Laurel Park neighborhood, bordered on the west by Osprey Avenue and on the east by Julia Place.

What’s nearby
Towles Court Artist Colony, Laurel Park, Payne Park, Burns Square Retail Area, Main Street.

General description
Hawkins Court is hidden from adjacent roads by alley-esque entryways that make narrow right-hand turns before joining the main 500 foot long, 20 foot wide right of way. It is mostly paved with brick, and features a number of charming single-family bungalows along its southern edge with mostly one and two story apartment buildings on its northern edge. A mixed-height tree canopy provides shade for the eastern half of Hawkins as well as sections of both east and west entryways.

Hawkins Court calls to mind Dutch woonerven, which allow autos to travel at foot speed through pedestrian space, as well as the (also Dutch) principle of “shared space,” in which all road users are given equal status and lines, signs, and signals are removed. Despite being only three blocks from Main Street, Hawkins Court manages to conjure something of the idyllic neighborhood vibe associated with the early days of suburbia and Small Town, USA.

How it is used
As a scenic throughway by locals on foot and bicycle and as an access road by residents.

How it might be used
As more of a community gathering place. For block parties. Possibly for neighborhood services and amenities.

What works
The sharp turns of the entryways (where the road narrows to 10 feet), the uneven brick surface, narrow lots, and minimal building setbacks privilege pedestrians and slow cars to a crawl. Lack of sidewalks make it clear that the right of way is to be shared by all users. Two-story bungalows and ample foliage combine to create an authentic sense of place and necessary shade. Overall design creates a buffer from nearby collector roads. It’s undeniably charming and feels safe at any hour. (more…)

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CHAPEL HILL, NC—A study published Thursday by psychologists at the University of North Carolina concluded that all American problems—from stuck jacket zippers to the national debt—could be solved if citizens just stopped, took a deep breath, and thought for two seconds before they acted. “We found that in 93 percent of cases, a positive outcome could have been achieved if Americans simply splashed a little water on their faces prior to dealing with an unfair boss, being out of clean spoons, signing on to direct a second Wall Street film, or answering a call from a parent,” Janet Mallory, the study’s lead author, told reporters. “Our data indicate that when U.S. citizens don’t take a second to compose themselves, they typically charge in like maniacs and hurt either themselves or several million Iraqi civilians.” Mallory said a good rule of thumb for Americans is to think of a plan, stop, and then do the complete opposite.

E.H. Gombrich, in his A Little History of the World, wrote of Caesar Augustus, “It is said that he never gave an order or made a decision in anger. Whenever he felt his temper rising, he slowly recited the alphabet in his head, and by the time he had reached the end he had calmed down.”

Sometimes as the Sarasota summer heats up our fuses shorten. But the next time somebody cuts us off in traffic or forgets to pick up after their dog or doesn’t take our order as promptly as we’d like it might be good to do as Augustus did and count our way to calmness. We’re all neighbors after all, whether we share a block, a city, or a planet. So, let the little stuff slide, neutralize hot tempers with cold drinks, and help Laurel Park Management keep paradise peaceful.

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It always feels a little strange to say Happy Memorial Day, since it is, after all, a day of remembrance of those who gave their lives. But even with such somber undertones it is certainly a day of celebration. Whatever your politics, the men and women who put their lives on the line (and sometimes lose them) deserve respect, support, and admiration. We can’t bring back those we’ve lost, but we can honor their sacrifice and let their families know how much their service means to us!

So, come out today for the Memorial Day Parade on Main Street (starts at Osprey) from 10am until noon!! The Laurel Park Management team will be there, as will many of our neighbors. There will be food, drink, and fun aplenty. See you there!

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