Detroit: Alternative Future, Now

If, like me, you grew up watching bad (albeit classic) 1980s genre movies like “Robocop”, Detroit was the ultimate dystopian city of the future: gangs of marauding vigilantes roamed the streets; ordinary people eking out an existence hoping to avoid the trouble around them for one more day; mega-corporations peopled by amoral executives in glassy offices get rich off the chaos.

Now, the future looks a lot different. Could there be a clearer example of how the energy-strapped 21st century will turn out than that swathes of vast industrial power-house Detroit is reverting to agricultural use? Transport yourself back to 1945 and compare Detroit with Hiroshima: one of America’s largest and richest cities behind much of the industrial might that won the second world war vs. a city literally lying in ruins. Jump forward 60 years to 2009 and Detroit is de-evolving to the agricultural era while Hiroshima is a thriving mini-metropolis with bullet trains arriving every 15 minutes from Tokyo, world’s largest city.

Richard Heinberg devotes a chapter in The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies” outlining a seemingly-prophetic future in which energy concerns precipitate a drastic fall in population levels: a self-correction mechanism providing a more realistic counterpoint to predictions of never-ending population growth.

Rather than the doomed combination of an inexorable rise in numbers and cultural vacuum depicted in the movies, perhaps Detroit as the biggest (138 square miles vs. San Francisco’s 47) and earliest is simply the first real-world example of the eventual, benign, fate of many large cities: smaller, compact, partly self-sufficient cities. A number of excellent articles have recently appeared to discuss this “shrinking cities” movement, with Detroit as the study – worth reading:

Furniture Shopping in Zurich Without a Car

Unfurnished apartment living is a new world for a Dubliner newly arrived in Switzerland: while you avoid the possibility of inheriting a hideous couch, you had better find your own couch fast (and consider how it will look in your next apartment and how easy it will be to move). I spent a little time investigating the furniture shops around Zurich and found a pretty good cluster of shops in Dubendorf, easily accessible by public transport.

These are all served well by the Dubendorf local transit. To begin, take the S3, S9 or S11 (or #7 tram) from Zurich Hauptbahnhof out to Bahnhof Stettbach. After that, we’re on the 787 bus – the furniture bus!:

  • At the first stop, Ringstrasse, you’ll find something called “Wohnland”, which has Toptip, Pfister and Mobitare all right beside one another. A couple of minutes walk away is Interio.
  • A couple of stops later at Altriet you’ll find Schubiger Mobel (the #9 tram stops here, too).
  • Next stop, Zentrum Glatt, has Conforama.
  • Finally, after a few more stops on the 787, you’ll find IKEA at Industriestrasses.

The 787 runs every 15 minutes and all these shops open until 8pm during the week and 6pm on Saturdays (IKEA 9pm and 8pm, respectively) so it’s pretty easy to shop around here.
View Furniture Shops: Dubendorf in a larger map

For what they’re worth, I have the following mini-reviews to offer:

  • Pfister
    Nice shop with some good quality stuff starting at affordable prices. Good service and I bought a bed (and some nice bed clothes) here and delivery was pretty quick.
  • Mobitare
    I didn’t spend much time here; seemed less affordable than Pfister.
  • Interio
    Good quality stuff, cheaper than Pfister – like Habitat back home. I bought cutlery here.
  • Schubiger Mobel
    Great selection if you have a ton of money to spend and want furniture to last several lifetimes. A lovely shop, though, worth seeing.
  • Conforama
    A slightly more upmarket version of IKEA, though cheaper for many things. Good selection of couches at decent prices. I bought a kitchen table with chairs and a coffee table here and though delivery was slightly pricey it arrived within a few days and included assembly. They also sell electronics.
  • Toptip
    Similar to Conforama but perhaps more expensive; I saw one couch here I really liked for a better price than Conforama and bought it.
  • IKEA
    This IKEA has the honour of being the very first branch ever setup outside of Sweden (not incidentally, IKEA’s owner is Switzerland’s richest resident). I don’t like much IKEA stuff apart from Expedit shelves but also bought a mattress here: delivery with the wahrentaxi was a disaster and expensive.

Also worth considering around Zurich is Micasa, Migros’ furniture department, although it’s more awkward to reach by public transport than any of the above, and the second-hand stores dotted around the city.

Weekend Diary

A new beginning: an apartment has been found. Well, a new beginning of sorts: now the shopping begins. There are a few interesting looking shops around the wonderfully named Schmiede Wiedikon, where I’m currently camped, so I take a slow walk into town:

  • Brockiland
    A number of people have recommended the second-hand stores dotted around town. There’s one practically next door and I pop in for a second but spend almost an hour here. Their website looks dodgy; it looks dodgy from the outside; it’s even a little dodgy inside but this is Swiss-German dodginess, which is a little like bad French or Italian food. Inside, a huge converted slowly descending underground parking garage forms a kind of down-market Guggenheim devoted entirely to the re-use of perfectly good household items. This place isn’t much good for furniture (which is what I was really after) but is great for just about everything else:

    • electrical goods: VCRs, toasters and even Gaggia coffee machines
    • kitchen: cutlery, plates and saucepans
    • living room: coffee tables and a vast array of glasses of every conceivable type
    • random knick knacks: unwanted souveneirs and table ornaments
    • a ginormous selection of paintings, adding to the Guggenheim effect
    • books, complete with English section
    • clothes and bedsheets that I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole
  • Pile of Books
    I get derailed by the sight of an English bookshop. In contrast with Orell Fussli’s vast offering on Bahnhofstrasse, this is a charming little independent English bookshop that seems completely lost in this rather practical part of town. It’s great, though: I pick up Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” and find something of a treasure in the second-hand section: a hardback edition of Violet and Geoffrey Brand’s “Brass Bands in the 20th Century”, with a whole chapter by Eric Ball on the music of brass bands. A real find, I think. The owner is friendly and, since the market for brass band literature is small in Zurich, lends me a hefty discount and welcomes me to this “strange little country”. He also hands me a copy of something called “Prime Zurich Guide” (the outgoing edition). I’ll be back.
  • Lederand
    Vast, gorgeous, hugely expensive leather couches. I won’t be back…
  • Pico Bello
    Lots of expensive looking old stuff that would look great in a really old-fashioned house…but also some really, really, cool almost-affordable tiffany glassware lamps that would look great almost anywhere. I might come back here and treat myself one day in the future (and, by doing so, create a packing nightmare for one day in the distant future).

So, Schmiede Wiedikon’s not so boring and practical after all.

That night, I browse through the “Prime Guide Zurich 2008/2009”. This is actually a great little book, which I’m not the first to write about, full of recommendations for independent stores large and small just like “Pile of Books” and “The Travel Bookshop”. There’s 166 places altogether, at least 30 or 40 of which I make a note to visit. If half of them turn out to be worth visiting, I’ll be happy.

So, it’s pretty encouraging for this new resident that a city so apparently small is packed with random shops normally only found in much larger cities: fine beads, wool, buttons and buckles shops (one each); retro hi-fi equipment; a chocolate shop and café; and some totally bizarre combination shops such as the book and wine shop, the home-made chilli sauces and mariachi records store and, lastly, the shoe café. It could be fun filling quiet weekends with visits to some of these places. First, though: furniture!

A Free Saturday

First totally free day in Zurich for almost two weeks – since the few days I had free between arrival and starting work.

Almost totally free, apart from the continuing effort to find a place in which to live: the viewing ran from 12-2pm which, after a late night’s coding, I struggled a little to make. It was worth the “effort”: a glance at the map didn’t reveal what a great location this was, just a few dozen meters up a street feeding directly into the old town of the Niederdorf. Though the apartment isn’t the largest and its layout leaves a little to be desired, it’s got a nice feature in having shelving already built in under the windows and being situated on the third floor; to complement this, the building has an elevator along with the usual Swiss amenities of laundry room and plentiful storage space in the cellar. Yes, this would be a nice place to live.

After this, I check out a market I spied crossing the lake at BürkliplatzAddress:. This isn’t something I expected to find in central Zurich: an assortment of market stalls located apparently randomly around the square and spilling off into the streets around, right up the Louis Vuittons and Pradas of Bahnhofstrasse. Many stalls offer cutlery, trimmings from collections of china and glassware; others have clothes, others still sport goods peculiar to markets the world over such as postcards (this one sorts its cards by the regions of Switzerland) and mobile phones. Lots of stalls have DVDs – some of which you might want to own – and many have LPs – few of which anybody would want to own -; a few stragglers have VHS cassettes. No stall has any CDs whatsoever for sale.

Out of the ordinary offerings include stalls with hi-fi components, TV and audio equipment (with every AV lead imaginable) and a surprising number of antique stands. Or, this being Zurich, perhaps not so surprising: delving deeper reveals some hair raising prices on these same antique stalls and, presumably, on the fur coat stands (again, not a staple of street markets the world over). The postcard stall deserves a mention for offering an original Segeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (“UK, 1967”) and, of course, the hi-fi stand didn’t just have any old components: this was an old Denon home theatre system. A fine place, then, to spend a Saturday morning browsing and I hope it’s on every week; my only disappointment is that there isn’t a food market.

After this, I go in search of food and coffee: I spy people heading into something called “Picnic”, which serves a variety of choices from spuds, veg and meat through stir fries up to sushi served on a rotating conveyor belt. I bump into some Irish acquaintances from work and take this as an endorsement. After this, it’s back up to the Neiderdorf and something called Teecafé Schwarzenbach. First impressions are good – there is a delicious scent of coffee emanating from the attached tea and coffee shop; the café itself is packed, with many obviously camped there for the afternoon – and the rumours are true: this is by far the best espresso I’ve yet had in Zurich. Wishful thinking but…this and the aforementioned apartment would make a fine successor to KC Peaches.

There’s just time for a little shopping and I discover a couple surely destined to become favourites in the months ahead; unadorned names seem to be the order of the day here:

  1. “The Travel Bookshop” (and the map shop, next door) aren’t exclusively English bookstores but have many titles in English, such as Rough Guides and the harder-to-find-at-home Fodors and Brandt.
  2. “The Whisky Shop” is well off the main shopping street and was still open long after its advertised closing time of 4pm. A huge number of Scotch whiskies here, a few Irish (nearly all, I’m pleased to see, from Cooley) and a Yamazaki from Japan. I’ve noticed that although food is often impressively expensive here, wine to accompany it can be much cheaper than at home – sure enough, prices aren’t outrageous here at all, especially considering they mostly stock twenty year old bottles and some non-chillfiltered bottles (I’ll have to go back to discover what that means). Certainly no more expensive than the Celtic Whiskey Shop and they offer four tastings for 5 CHF.

Today’s last event was a trip to go see “Magnolia” in the Cino Xenix as part of their Philip Seymour Hoffman season. Xenix doesn’t look like much outside but into what looks for all the world like a prefab classroom (it’s located on Helvetiaplatz, beside a school and just down the road from the amusingly titled “red light district of Zurich”), they’ve managed to cram in a box office, a sizeable (if narrow) bar and a 110 seater cinema. The cinema is great: half its seats are of traditional type, the other a whole pile of couches and it’s got digital projection on a good sized screen with great sound. The film, of course, is a classic: a sprawling epic in the best sense of the word, with wonderful performances in a frenzied, exciting, meditation on how at various times we decide our own fate, how others decide it for us and how maybe there is no such thing as pure coincidence (“this is the part of the movie…”). Not forgetting the soundtrack, to which the film is really an accompaniment rather than the other way round.

Afterwards, at 12.40am, I can still get home by public transport in ten minutes flat. A good day.


Two viewings tonight. The first was pretty dismal: a boring two bed apartment with a boring view in a boring part of town. The second was much better, sited closer to the city center and fronting onto a busy street with a very quiet balcony at the back. Around, there a few signs of personality with a few good looking restaurants and a totally bizarre shop called something like “Hi-Fi Nostalgia” with nothing but piles and piles of high-end, expensive but old hi-fi components stacked up in the front windows and, peering inside, well into the back of the shop. Nothing but Sony, Denon, Technics, etc., tape decks, turntables and tuners – completely and utterly useless and probably highly inefficient…I loved it.

Inbetween viewings I finally sort out of annual travel card: I plonk 693 CHF on a “personal ZVV 9 o’clock pass for Zurich municipal and neighbouring zones”. Basically what this means is I can now use buses, trams and boats all over Zurich city center and in each neighbouring region (not the entire canton of Zurich but right out to the airport) for the next year after 9 o’clock on week days and all weekend.

There is a vast, bewildering, array of travel passes available; in fact, it seems to me like lots of things here offer a huge choice of options (medical insurance being another): my only guess is this all part of the culture of efficiency, allowing the individual spend only what they want/need/can afford and allowing companies fleece the rich but still extract some money from the not-so rich. At least, that’s what the first 50 pages of “The Undercover Economist” taught me. Anyway, I particularly love the idea of the 9 o’clock pass – it’s almost tailored for lazy late-rising people like me with no fixed working hours and it encourages people off the trams at rush hour. That sort of efficiency I could learn to like.

I did ask the lady at SBB about a 9 o’clock general abonnemente – I love the idea of being able to travel anywhere on the Swiss network but can’t see myself justifying a 3100 CHF travel pass; maybe they have a 9 o’clock version of that, too?  – but was told that, apart from some rumours in the media about it possibly happening which were basically made up (she didn’t seem to hold a very high opinion of the newspapers coverage of SBB), there is no such thing. Oh well.

Diary Entry

Two viewings tonight.

The first is fine but nothing special and is located out in the sticks – 20 minutes on the tram to the hauptbahnof, imagine! – but it’s memorable for the outgoing tenants, one of whom is a massive Liverpool fan and is the first native English speaker I’ve met in my house-hunting campaign. We have a good chat about the flat, receiving Sky TV in Zurich (all the channels are on cable, in every building) and the Irish pubs around town – apparently Paddy Reilly’s is the one to go for and not, as you might guess, the confused identities of “The Oliver Twist” or “Big Ben”.

Afterwards, I briefly think how I would have a great chance of getting that apartment if I wanted…then correct myself by reflecting on how the current tenant has almost no influence whatsoever on choosing the next: I’ve dutifully but pointlessly brought my references to every viewing – invariably, applicants are expected to send in their application after the fact. Standing out from the crowd is tough when you’ve only your references and cover letter at your disposal and if you don’t speak any German then you’re at a disadvantage on the telephone to many other applicants. Perhaps it takes some of the chance out of house hunting: if you can figure out the rules then all you need to do is quickly supply the right papers and wait for the offers…so far, though, I haven’t worked out the rules.

The second is a vast, palatial, high ceilinged two room apartment in a lovely old building in a lively district in the city center with a great layout in which a large kitchen and bathroom adjoin the living room. The ultimate bachelor pad and, sure enough, there’s an enormous pair of hi-fi speakers in the corner. It’s huge but still has a cellar, laundry and drying room and costs well under 2000 CHF/month. Needless to say, there’s a small army of house hunters filling out the forms there and then and I curse myself for forgetting to bring my references with me: the first time the owner has been collecting application forms on the spot and I forget the damn papers!

Of course, maybe it won’t really matter: my fax will reach the estate agent’s office long before any of those filled in in person and he or she wasn’t there anyway to meet any of us. I race back to the office to fax off my application and cross my fingers.

Recent Transport Articles

A couple of enlightening recent articles:

  1. A short but very informative article on the recent history of Dublin’s transport network from An Irish Town Planner’s Blog. Yes, Templebar was set to become a bus station but – absurd as it sounds – from reading this article it sounded more like the Japanese approach, combining bus and rail, shopping centre and offices in the dead centre of the city. Also, although we have had to wait over 25 years for it to reach Blanchardstown, it could have been even worse…the DART was nearly a Diesel train called “Bayline”…
  2. Tim Harford (author of “The Undercover Economist”) describes new research from a PhD thesis that argues that India’s legendarily extensive rail network improved its economy and was not just a more effective way to ship India’s wealth abroad.
  3. CNN talks about how China is spending $50 billion this year alone to expand their high speed network, making America’s $8 billion over three years look fairly tame by comparison.

Stark contrast between Ireland and India’s post-colonial  attitude to their rail networks. Having achieved independence, India kept theirs running, electrified all 60,000km and prepares a separate budget just for its railways while Ireland dismantled two thirds of theirs, ripped up the trams in its capital city and now plans to spend €34 billion to restore a small portion of it by 2015. It still won’t be as extensive as it was in 1920.

KDE – What Happened? (follow-up)

Lots of responses to my post from June, “KDE: What Happened?”, with some very fair pro-KDE points:

  1. Ubuntu doesn’t put nearly as much work into its KDE packages as it does into its Gnome packages. Excellent point: it’s probably Ubuntu’s look and feel I like rather than either Gnome or KDE.
  2. My complaint was really with Amarok rather than KDE, which I only used for about 30 minutes. Good point: but I’m glad it was clear I didn’t use KDE for very long before giving up.

Ignoring the less-valid suggestions of other comments that only inferior consumers can’t be “bothered” to customise their gadgets (as if this was a badge of honour, for consumer or provider), I clearly need to try a “real” KDE desktop from a “real” KDE distribution for some length of time (and it wouldn’t hurt to use a decent machine, too, although I don’t really have access to one; Ubuntu/Gnome has been happy enough on T41-era hardware for some years).

However, apart from the pure speculation that hackers have migrated away from KDE development, I think my other points still stand and I’ll attempt now to clarify them. Yes, KDE may still be under development; yes, it’s beta – but what software isn’t? KDE just seems to this semi-casual observer to have taken too many unnecessary sideways steps: the sound managers; the default themes; the stability.

I know how hard it is to develop good software but KDE (and Amarok) not only aren’t continually improving, they degrade at times – yes, in the name of long-term improvements but that’s not much use to this current-term potential user – and it’s this which I find most puzzling/maddening. Judging by the comments, at least, it seems I’m not the only one; I’ll finish by linking to this page which describes how to run Amarok 1.4 under Ubuntu Jaunty – solving my original problem:

Dublin Favourites #2: Ely

I could say “good pubs” but for several reasons Ely is a favourite. Besides, that would sound too pretentious. Of course, an awful lot of people seem to consider Ely a little pretentious. While they don’t actively dislike it, it’s bottom of a long list. Too fancy; too “Celtic Tiger”; too yuppy (and when did you last hear anybody use that word – it must really be bad!). I’ll side-step those fears with the simple observation that perhaps it makes sense to judge a pub or bar by the drinks it serves. I’ll even go out on a limb by suggesting that, in general, perhaps it makes sense to judge a business by the quality of its products or services.

At the risk of turning this into a rant (though it will serve to highlight why I like Ely so much), I’m careful to avoid saying Dublin pubs which, by and large, are a disappointment: Heineken, Budweiser, Guinness and Jameson do not a bar make and, despite living in a city where directions really are given in terms of pubs, Dubliners can count on their fingers the number of establishments that make an effort: the Porterhouses and “The Bull and Castle” for beer; Bowe’s and Brooks’ Hotel for whisky/whiskey; Olesya’s, Fallon & Byrne and, of course, the Elys for wine.

I’ll happily suggest going to all of the above at various times but – although it has inexplicably stopped serving O’Hara’s – Ely wins for its locations (a wonderful old Georgian house in the city centre and newer buildings in the docklands overlooking each of the canal docks); its interiors; its refusal to play loud music and, most of all, its book-like, often expensive but always fantastic wine list. I’ve also been known to enjoy their burger.

Dublin Favourites #1: The Beaches

No, we’re not Hawaii and I realise this may raise a laugh in some quarters but just think: from how many capital city centres can you walk out to the sea-side in just half an hour?

I won’t pretend the weather doesn’t put me off most of the time, too, but when it’s nice outside the beaches are absolutely without doubt my all-time #1 favourite thing about Dublin. Perhaps, however, I should be more precise and say the seaside. Sandymount Strand is actually the only Dublin beach I visit regularly; its low gradient affords it a vast expanse of sand (indeed, the sea is often miles out) upon which huge numbers of walkers spend sunny summer evenings in the shadow of Poolbeg Station, immortalised in every Dublin coastal painting in living memory. Combined with Irishtown Nature Park, it’s one of my favourite places in the world. BBC’s long-running series “Coast” made sure to visit Sandymount when they visited Ireland – worth catching on iPlayer when it appears again – in which a knowledgeable local makes the seldom-noted point that the beaches are one of Dublin’s best-kept secrets.


Beyond Sandymount, a stroll through Blackrock onto Seapoint and finally towards Dun Laoghaire makes for the perfect summer walk: the end of either pier at dusk is rather like a very pleasant version of the end of the world where Armageddon has been averted and actually everything wrapped up pretty well. Usually shared with a handful of determined walkers, you can look out onto the bay across onto the islands just offshore and out further towards the possibility of foreign soil.

Joyce knew the power of the sea: it’s no coincidence Dublin’s coastline is so prominent a character in “Portrait of the Artist”, representing as it does Stephen’s escape from Ireland – escape from the city, for the rest of us. It’s no coincidence either that the DART serves only this hallowed (i.e. wealthy) stretch of coastline: though it may be hard to believe, Dublin’s suburbs developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries in a reasonably sane, sustainable, fashion along its then-extensive transport network. That not-sprawl started with the DART (running at that time only between Westland Row and Dun Laoghaire), the oldest and only surviving part of that network.

Speaking of the DART, I haven’t even mentioned Howth yet…