Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Ranches, Rowhouses, and Railroad Flats

Apartment living is suddenly back in vogue. Actually it never went out of style. It just changed and evolved along with changing mores and lifestyles and current economic trends. Apartment living, just like city living, is now back in fashion among millennials. I addressed that a while ago in Where Have All the Hippies Gone.

Major, mid-sized and even smaller cities are now being peppered with apartment projects where once condos held supreme. San Francisco seems to be leading the charge with its infusion of the ‘creative class’ and escapees from Silicon Valley.

Even though apartment living ebbed and flowed with evolving lifestyle choices and tastes, it has always been part of the American lexicon ever since its inception before the 1700s. Actually even before that period in American history with the pueblos of the southwest and Mayan cities further down south.

It’s no different around the world. Until recently in Europe, apartment living had been the norm for centuries. Multiple generations often lived in the same building. When I was hanging around Amsterdam in the mid-60’s, my good friend lived with his parents and girlfriend in first floor apartment, his grandparents occupied the second floor and an aunt and uncle were on the third floor. Europe,the Second Harvest.


For the most part, America had been a country of apartment dwellers up until the end of World War II. In her book entitled: Ranches, Rowhouses and Railroad Flats, author Christine Hunter chronicled the evolution of various American housing forms and the ways they shaped and limited the neighborhoods surrounding them.

For almost sixty years, home ownership was the zenith of success that many families strived to achieve. Burning their mortgage papers after the last final payment became a ritual that many of our parents and grandparents enjoyed. 

But the recession of 2008 and a different attitude among millennials changed the perception of home ownership and shifted desires toward more freedom of movement, downtown living and less perceived value in home ownership.

Like most cyclical trends, apartment ownership has grown and, in turn, waned over the decades. There was a period in the early 80’s when apartment buildings in the Twin Cities were appreciating at a very fast rate. Then tax changes by the Regan Administration eliminated many tax exemptions and other lucrative benefits of investment properties. Values plummeted and real estate was no longer an easy foolproof way to make money.

Yet the basics of apartment management never changed. Aside from the financial matters, managing apartment units is observing another person’s life under the microscope. It’s like studying the socio-economic behavior of subjects who pay you for your efforts. You can’t help but notice their living conditions, eating habits, mating habits and general lifestyle. 

For an introvert thrust into the lives of a lot of other people, there seemed to be just one business model that would work. It was driven by one simple philosophy. That was the idea that the owner of the building was not dealing with rental property or investment property or apartments for that matter. To my way of thinking, the obligation of a landlord became one of providing safe and clean homes for the residents. Semantics aside, it was an important differentiation.  In the same light, it meant categorizing the folks living in those units as residents and not renters or tenants.

But business is still business. Both parties understood their respective responsibilities. The landlord-renter agreement wasn’t a benevolent relationship. Residents paid the landlord for a place to live. The landlord’s part of the bargain was to provide a safe and clean living environment. He wasn’t their boss but he wasn’t their pal either. Hopefully they saw him as a nice guy who was fair but firm and one who responded quickly to their relevant concerns.

A landlord or manager gets to see other sides of your resident’s personalities, life styles, love lives and grooming habits that few other people see.

I was in the business for almost thirty years. Over that period of time and because of the transient nature of young folks, I dealt with more than several hundred renters. Ninety-eight percent of them were fantastic folks whom I’d rent to again in a heartbeat. In fact, there are several that still exchange Christmas cards with us each year. 

Some still stand out in my mind.

The fellow who came and stayed for over 16 years. At first glance, his unit seemed to embody the perfect definition of squalor. In fact, it was just dusty and cluttered. He had black garbage bags in every corner where he collected tin cans, paper, etc. Yet there was never any sign of rodents or bugs. His dirty dishes piled up until they filled the kitchen sink and only then were cleaned up. How he could live like that I’ll never know. But he did. He never caused any problem and always paid his rent on time
There was a wonderful couple who stayed for a few years, left for California only to return shortly afterwards. They were true urban pioneers. They didn’t own a car and their only means of transportation were their two bicycles. Yet they managed to get about the city in winter and summer on their trusty metal steeds.

A middle-aged woman moved in, got married several years later and stayed for over twenty years. She was an artist, her husband an attorney and she always had two dogs in her unit which she took for long walks even in the dead of winter.

Some of the young women needed a father figure to help them figure out how to operate their oven or change a light bulb. Others were neat freaks who cleaned the front lobby for something to do.

One mother and her daughter took over the yard work for a couple of years just to stay busy.

Many couples stayed for just one year and then moved on. I came to realize it was the transient nature of young people to never stay in one place for too long a period of time.

There were a few bad apples among the peck. But they were few and far between and always left after their lease ran out. We were both happy to see them go.

I could write a book about my experiences. In fact, I am working on what will probably become a Kindle Single about managing apartments. It’s tentatively entitled: ‘A Quick Start Guide to Practical Property Management.’

What I learned over the years can be reduced to one simple sentence. ‘Treat your residents and their units with respect and not as rental property.’ If you do that, 98% of your folks will respond in kind.

It was a philosophy that served me well.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Three Days out of Paris

After three days in Paris, we were on a river boat meandering south along the Saone River. The river cruise was a welcome respite for both of us. Sharon had been dealing with multiple issues at home centering on her mother’s recent move into assisted living. I hoped the cruise would be a chance for me to recharge my creative batteries while combing the crew, passengers and quaint towns and villages for new writing ideas. It would be a wonderful opportunity for both of us to erode mind-blocks hampering an otherwise wonderful summer.  In some strange sort of way it was deja-vu all over again for me.

It had been a long time since I’d been tramping the narrow streets and grand thoroughfares of  old Parie. Perhaps even longer than I imagined. Maybe that’s why I felt so comfortable there.
My lineage is French Canadian with a strong German accent. If I go back far enough; by Joe, I’d probably be home again.

Paris has always been a seductive mistress. As the song title goes, ‘The Last Time I saw Paris,’ it was a much different time and I was in a much place in my life. My first sojourn into the city of lights was supposed to be a simple pass-through as part of a full-blown retreat from the harsh reality of winter in Denmark.

The experience of living in Denmark had been exhilarating at first. But gradually the daily work routine had grown stale with a lack of friends and no clear direction in my life. Then as the first snowflakes powdered my apartment steps, I realized another Minnesota winter was in my near future unless I split for someplace warm. Compounding Mother Nature’s wrath were my own lingering doubts as to the wisdom of leaving home for living in a foreign land without any clearly defined plans or objectives. I was like a rudderless ship facing a coming storm.

It didn’t help that the few friends I had up north were all moving on themselves. Tina was leaving town for Istanbul and points east on her way back to Arizona. My Canadian travel pal was heading off for parts unknown.  My Spanish tutor Maria had left the laundry to go back to Spain. Heidi didn’t want me to go but that was a commitment I wasn’t ready for. I loved that country and its people but it was time to move on.

The south of France seemed a logical answer to a young kid who was ill-equipped and clothed to face that Nordic reality. Tall tales of warm sunshine, topless sun bathers and easy work was enough to lure me into the false sense of road security. I was assured that a quick thumb and ready smile would take me there in just a couple of days.

By the time I got to Paris, all bets were off.  I trudged through the city in hope of enlightenment but instead only got hustled by Gypsies. After three days of aimless wandering I was ready to cash in my pocket money for a ticket home and three steady meals a day. I found a travel agency, got a one-way ticket home and left on a silver bird the next day. Living in Europe was more than I had ever expected. Fortunately over time I was finally able to see it as a wonderful preview for travels to come. Snow White and theSeven Seekers.

 My second trip back through the fabled city of love was just another pass-through on my way to Amsterdam and the even-more fabled coffee houses on Canal Street. By then, I was working in television and ready to hit the European continent on much better mental grounds than before. Paris was a wonderful taste of foreign adventure before I even got to my favorite city across the sea. Amsterdam had that kind of draw for me. Europe, the Second Harvest.

My third trip was passing through Charles De Gaulle airport on our way to Vienna and the beginning of our river cruise from Vienna to Amsterdam over four different rivers. 94 Locks and a GoodCup of Coffee.

Paris has always been that stand-alone, a bit stand-offish kind of friend. At once it can be charming, brash, conceited, seductive, alluring and always surprising. Taken on its own terms, the city offers sunlight and sin on an equal basis. This fourth trip through Paris would mean three days in the city before we boarded ship for our cruise to Nice.


Our tour guide reminded us that Paris is always ‘in season.’ This just happened to be the height of the in-season. From our high-rise hotel, we could see the waves of humanity crowding the city sidewalks. Tour groups of every imaginable size, demographic, country of origin, level of sophistication and focus of interest had swept over the city in a title wave of humanity. There wasn’t a museum, landmark, art gallery, district, avenue, historical site or coffee shop that wasn’t inundated with foreigners eager to soak up the Parisian experience. Even the best ice cream shop in town had a line of buyers stretched out around the corner.

The city is different now than back in the 60’s. Ornate low-rise buildings have been toppled by towering glass hi-rise commercial enterprises. There are more tourist boats on the Seine than commercial traffic. Bike-sharing stations pepper the city with their light blue bikes while the new tour buses squeeze into narrow side-streets that even an old donkey cart had a hard time maneuvering. Signs of progress are everywhere but nowhere as dramatically as on the ring route and major arteries that are clogged with vehicles of every size, shape and purpose from morning to night.

The city has evolved and changed yet feels much the same as it did back in the Fall of Sixty-Seven. The locals have long grown used to the artists, vagabonds, tourists and people of the streets who wander by their doorsteps in search of enlightenment. The smell of cooking, cleaning and daily living still permeates the side streets and dark alleys.

I’m physically in a different place in my life but mentally it hardly feels as if I’ve left town at all.
The distractions are everywhere. From traffic that can clip you off your feet if you aren’t looking to Gypsy girls who study your every move for an opportunity to strike at your wallet. Still some things never change. All the young French girls and women are out in force, their low-cut summer dresses, short shorts or white flowing transparent skirts (short slips underneath) a marvelous distraction. One’s eyes can’t help but wander and wonder.

There’s a Parisian phrase that goes: ‘On the Left Bank, we think and on the Right Bank, we spend.’ I have little interest in the Right Bank where towering glass institutions of commerce and wealth line the Seine. My heart and my head are back on the Left Bank where Montmartre and the Latin Quarter still attract all kinds of creative spirits. While there’s no time to retrace Hemingway’s Paris haunts; I find the quaint cafes, dark narrow alleys and winding streets are still filled with the polished and unwashed alike. And while the new Bobos (bohemian bourgeois) fake their artistic lineage at gallery openings, true artists continue to live in squalor and strive to find meaning in life itself.

Montmartre still holds an allure for me. Climbing its hill brings back the same sense of wonder along with deep breaths and dampness across the brow. Parisians talk about the place the way New Yorkers talk about the village. Hemingway is no longer lingering at some corner café but other bohemians, artists and lost souls have taken his place.

Some places never change. Paris is one of them. Like other great cities that are constantly evolving with the times and different flavors of humanity that crowd its sidewalks and fill its cafes, the City of Love continues to hold an allure that is impossible to describe. Every visitor has their own version of its magical pull on their senses. For me it is the storied history of writers and artists and bohemians who have haunted its shadowy recesses since Celtic Gaul’s walked its shores.

The first time I stumbled into Montmartre I ordered a coffee at some small corner café. It was a thick black muck that gripped my spoon and burned my throat. No wonder all the pretty young girls were sipping theirs so slowly and taking forever to finish their thimble-sized drink.

This time around, I ordered a beer and slowly sipped it, taking forever to finish the warm liquid. Crowds brushed past my chair and dropped cigarette butts at my feet. The rush of humanity flowed unabated in a steady stream past our café. They were all looking around but not seeing a thing. It was just another day in Paris for them.

Me…I was home again.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

My Inland Ocean

Lake Nokomis always held a special place in my heart. Even before dropping out of college, entering military service and leaving civilian life behind, the lake was a magnet for my dreams, illusions and high hopes for my future.

Around the turn of the century, the lake and its development was a part of Theodore Wirth’s grand plan to capitalize on the string of lakes in Minneapolis.  He was one of the driving forces that transformed Minneapolis into a city known for its parks, lakes and outdoor recreational opportunities.

Lake Nokomis was the largest body of water near my home and while it didn’t chorus the siren songs of passing ships and meandering waters that crept to the delta, it did feed my psyche with its calm waters and the strange natives who inhabited its shores. 

It was often a destination point for my long distance bike rides and learning to be fleet of foot outside of high school track. It became my contemplative mountaintop without the elevation. It was a stolen glimpse into the wild and carefree antics of other youth who didn’t have the burden of a steady job and perhaps had more clarity toward their future. Nokomis became an icon for what I thought the future might hold for me. It became my inland ocean.

But instead of salt air, there was the sweet scent of pine. Instead of seagulls floating overhead, Robins stalked worms in a blanket of green. Instead of ocean waves crashing against the shore line, there was the gentle lapping of water moved only by a passing canoe. It wasn’t the same but in my mind it was about as good as it was going to get…at the time. That was before Uncle Sam took me away for two plus years.

By March of 1966, I was back in my old habitat…or so I thought.

After escaping the regimented confines of olive drab, I had quietly slipped back into the real world and of course had to return to my old haunts like Lake Nokomis. It’s like hearing an old song which brings back distant memories and a slice of your past life that is so real and clear you can almost taste it all over again.

The lake hadn’t changed much but I had. I was back in that old mire of dreams yet unfulfilled, a confusing relationship and travel dreams that were shacked with a year and a half of college to complete. Yet somehow the lake brought focus and clarity where the fog of reality clouded my vision of the future.

Circling the lake and meandering its shoreline brought out my contemplative nature and opened my world to all kinds of possibilities; both real and imagined. Even before that warm summer of ’66 had begun, I would venture over to my own inland ocean to walk the shoreline and imagine those frozen waters lined with bathing beauties and bronze gods. There was something magical about that expanse of water and shore line and meditative mounds where a young man could imagine what the real world might be like after graduation.

Would it include a continuing relationship that was still confusing at best or a career in advertising (Mad Men, here I come) or a return to my pre-hippie roots in San Francisco or travel around the world on a tramp steamer as I had fantasized about for years. Somehow Lake Nokomis brought all those wonderful thoughts, dreams and wild ideas to the surface even in the dying throws of winter.

The first warm day of spring would bring out the natives with their tank-tops and short shorts. Convertibles of every description would troll the parkway. They were usually driven by rich kids from the western suburbs. It was eye-candy for anyone like me with anything less than stellar wheels.

Lake Nokomis became my oceanic home away from home. I could look across the shore line and see Rincon Beach or Half Moon Bay or Huntington Beach or Sunset or Malibu or Laguna Beach. It was all there for the imagination.

I used to run and bike the lake back then going full-tilt against the wind. There weren’t separated lanes for pedestrians and bicyclists so I had to be careful passing the walkers. Nowadays there are separated blacktop for both walkers and bikers. The walking path is still full of walkers but the biking path is now crowded with bikers, bladder’s, rolling skies, 4 person cycle cars, tandem bikes, racers and other non-motorized vehicles.

The old unofficial unmarked high school beach is still there. The girls look the same except they seem younger now, show a lot more skin and most of them have an expensive iPhone glued to one ear or between their thumbs. The boys circling the girls look the same and still act as if they are all by themselves playing Frisbee or soccer. But now when the boys take off their shirts there is more exposed ink than a platoon of Marines or a bevy of truck drivers. Back then if you saw someone with tattoos, you’d turn tail because they were surely members of some biker gang.

Back then I was in my $110.00 Peugeot 10 speed feeling like I was Eddy Merckx. Nowadays the yuppies fly by in their $5000 - $10,000 road bikes (I kid you not) traveling at half the speed of light. Folks walking the lake would stare at me as I ran by and wonder how I could have gotten off the track or what I was running from. Now they pound by wearing all kinds of colorful outfits and no one gives them a second glance.

It used to be young white kids fishing off the pier. Now it’s more immigrant families hoping to hook an evening meal. I’m sure they were there back then but I never saw them. I noticed porta-potties in place of the bushes where we used to go. Couples still walk arm in arm like they’re in some three-legged race and oblivious to the world around them.

The couples pushing baby strollers around the lake are usually hipsters. He is in his press pants, white t-shirt and hat. She is sporting a flowered skirt or sarong. They’re pushing baby precious in their $800 stroller which is probably equipped with more accessories than my old Pinto. There are the obligatory latté cup holders, a pouch for all weather gear, IPhone holders, Wi-Fi and of course GPS.

In ‘66 the main beach was mainly for families and oldsters who would lie on the sand and soak up the sun. Now the main beach has a plethora of activities, refreshment stands and places to get a snack. You can rent paddle boards, canoes, kayaks, fishing boats, fishing equipment, sailboats and paddle-bikes. I guess Park and Rec. has to make a buck too.

I guess I hadn’t realized it at the time but Nokomis had become an icon for what I was seeking in my life. That summer of ’66 wasn’t quite like the movie “The Summer of ‘42” but it was nevertheless a pivotal point in my life. It was a summer of love and lust and confusion. Olive drab was replaced by Madras and blue jeans and the real world was slowly opening up to my young imagination. It came before that winter breakup and graduation and living in Europe. It came before my real world was augmented with loves found and lost, the sweet nectar of satisfying work, being a foreign correspondent on the West Bank and enjoying the ebbing foolishness of youth.

It came before I began work at Channel Two and met the nighttime receptionist there. A stunning blond who had focus and understanding and empathy and patience. She’s been one heck of a friend for the last forty-three years.

The lake is still a magnet for all kinds of people. They still come to play and rest and dream and enjoy the visceral appeal of what might be. It served that purpose for me. It brought comfort and clarity and finally closure to that part of my life. 

A body of water can do that sometimes.