Fun with Highways: Washington, DC and Maryland

Today our “Primary Highways” series continues with a visit to our nation’s capital and the neighboring state of Maryland.

The oft-used phrase “inside the beltway” literally means inside the Capital Beltway (I-495 and I-95), which forms a wide circle outside of Washington, DC through the surrounding suburbs of Virginia and Maryland.

From the western side of the beltway, we begin on Interstate 66 and US 50 heading east from Virginia over the Potomac River. I-66 turns north while US 50 continues eastward as Constitution Avenue, passing alongside the National Mall and all the national memorials and monuments, which are arranged around the mall and the parkland along the Tidal Basin.


[By Alex Boykov (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons]

On the north side of US 50, opposite with Washington Monument, is the Ellipse, a public park that borders the iconic south lawn of the White House. This building and the privilege of occupying it are the nominal reason we are doing this series.

Past the White House and Washington Monument, US 50 meets US 1, and the two continue as Constitution Avenue alongside the eastern half of the Mall. This section of Mall houses the many museums of the Smithsonian Institution. As a child visiting Washington, DC, the “Smithsonian” was synonymous with the Air and Space Museum. It was of course exciting to connect with all things space. Years later, I visited the Air and Space Museum again with my family (and saw a Star Trek anniversary exhibit), but also was enticed by a welcoming sign to the interesting circular building that housed the neighboring museum. The Hirshhorn Museum is the center on the Mall for modern and contemporary art, and a place I try to visit when I have time alone in the capital. It’s a been a while, so I would like to visit again sometime soon. You can see the Hirshhorn in the image of the Mall shown above as the cylindrical building just left of the center. At the far eastern end of the Mall is the Capitol.

The huge building serves as model for many (though as we have seen, not all) state capitol buildings. Though it had a long history of designs and changes before acquiring its current design and the large iconic cast-iron dome we know today. You can read more about this history here. Of course, the institutions housed inside have served as models as well, sometimes in a less-than-ideal way.

The Capitol is surrounded by several blocks of grounds, including the Capitol Reflecting Pool. While wandering around these grounds on foot, one would probably not suspect that there was a major highway passing underneath. I-395 traverses the center of the city in the long Third Street Tunnel, connecting to US 50 (New York Avenue) in the northern sectors. The densely packed residential sections of the Capitol Hill neighborhood can be found to the east, and a lively urban neighborhood to the northwest around Logan Circle.


[By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

I would be remiss if I did not mention the Black Cat, and institution for independent music that also happens to have a great name.

South of the Third Street Tunnel, I-395 continues towards Virginia and a junction with the Beltway at the Springfield Interchange (aka, the Mixing Bowl). Before crossing the Potomac, it intersects with I-695, a short connector to the Anacosta Freeway in the southeast section of the city. It is signed as I-295 and also as DC 295. It is the only signed DC highway that currently exists, but it is another thing that gives the District of Columbia the trappings of a state, except of course that it isn’t a state and doesn’t have voting representatives in Congress. Hence another state-like item, the district’s license place, continues to bear the Revolutionary War slogan “Taxation without Representation”.

DC 295 continues northeast to the border with Maryland…


…where it continues as Maryland Route 295, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The parkway is partly maintained by the National Park Service. In this segment, it is a wide road through wooded surroundings, although industrial and suburban areas are never far away. Further north, it becomes an expressway through the suburbs south of Baltimore as it heads towards that city. The parkway ends at a I-95. Nearby, a larger and impressive junction over water takes the short I-395 (completely unrelated to the one we just left in Washington, DC.) until downtown Baltimore, passing by Camden Yards and just to the west of the Inner Harbor.


[By Fletcher6 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0; or GFDL;], via Wikimedia Commons]

The Inner Harbor is considered an urban planning achievement, turning a moribund harbor in a major tourist and business destination. It look quite vibrant, with modern buildings and attractions like the National Aquarium.

Baltimore has quite a diversity of architecture and landscape. It is most well-known for its rowhouses. A particularly unique set is the colorful row in the Charles Village neigbhorhood:

Perhaps more typical are the long stretches of similar brick rowhouses. Sadly, many seem to be in disrepair, as along this street in a neighborhood west of the Inner Harbor.


[Photo by larrysphatpage on flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)]

One interesting view in the same neighborhood features this full overhead sign along an abandoned ramp that is used by pedestrians.


[Photo by larrysphatpage on flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)]

US 1 is in fact nearby, so the sign is accurate, but it could still be considered an example of a Thomasson, a maintained architectural feature that no longer serves its original function. It was part of the cancelled I-170 highway.

Baltimore is also home to Johns Hopkins University. It is of course a renowned research and medical university, but the division I know best is the Peabody Institute, as several musical friends and colleagues have studied there, particularly in their classical and music-technology programs.

We head south from Baltimore towards the Chesapeake Bay on I-97, where has the distinction of being the shorted two-digit interstate. It passes through hills and suburban towns to US 50 near Annapolis, the state capital. I remember visiting Annapolis in 1999 and 2000. The 1999 visit included walking around the historic district and into the statehouse, one of the oldest in the country with a distinctly colonial look about it, and watching July 4 fireworks on the bay. It was also during an intense heatwave, with some days over 100F. I didn’t mind the heat too much, and it made it great weather for swimming. The towns and cities along the bay, including Annapolis, seemed intimately connected to the water.

US 50 (with US 301) continues east on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Maryland’s eastern shore region. It then heads south, avoiding Delaware, before turning east again towards the Atlantic Ocean. It’s final terminus is in the resort town of Ocean City. The highway has a cerimonial terminus at MD 528, not far from the Ocean City beach and boardwalk, with a sign stating that is 3072 miles to its western end of Sacramento, California. I have seen the companion sign on the Sacramento side stating that is 3072 miles to Ocean City. Apparently that sign is stolen quite often.

Back in Baltimore, we return to the western neighborhoods, not far from the rowhouses we explored earlier, and head west on US 40. Just past Gwynns Falls / Leakin Park, we come to a parking lot that is the eastern terminus of Interstate 70. It was originally planned to go further through the city, but that extension was ultimately cancelled. In this case, we take I-70 westward out of the city.

This part of the state is quite sparse west of the Baltimore metropolitan area is quite rural and sparse, and in some ways would seem to be a separate state, more in common with West Virginia. I-70 and US 40 run together or nearby for much of the region. As I-70 heads northwest into Pennsylvania, I-68 continues with US 40 west through the Appalachian Mountains, including this cut through Sideling Hill.


[By Analogue Kid at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-2.5], from Wikimedia Commons]

This does seem a world away from Ocean City, and from Baltimore and Washington, DC., but in total Maryland is actually a fairly small state.

This concludes this edition of Primary Highways. We will next be visiting Wisconsin.

Fun with Highways: Super Tuesday, Part 2 – Ohio

Today we devote the second of our “Super Tuesday” Fun with Highways articles to the state of Ohio. Although the state is often known for its agricultural and industrial heritage, we choose to focus on its major urban centers here. Although not originally intended as such, it could be called “fun with bridges.”

We begin near Cleveland, the state’s largest metropolitan area. I-90 comes in from the east along the shore of Lake Erie. At “Dead Man’s Curve”, the highway makes an abrupt and rather angular turn to the south to become the Innerbelt Freeway along the edge of downtown.


[Burtcbl at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons]

The above view shows old and new aspects of the city’s skyline. The Terminal Tower is the classic deco skyscraper from the early 20th century is visible in the distance. The highly geometric and sleek Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a contrast along the waterfront. In between, the Key Tower, the tallest in Ohio, combines elements of both.

I-90 intersects with the northern terminus of I-77 at a rather complicated interchange before continuing across the Cuyahoga River on the “Innerbelt Bridge.”


[Photo by GandZ on Wikimedia Commons. (CC BY-SA 3.0)]

The bridge crossings over the Cuyahoga in Cleveland are numerous, and perhaps define the city as much as the skyline, if not more. Even the image above showing the Innerbelt Bridge carrying I-90, we see several others. There is a low-lying rail bridge crossing underneath at an angle. It is one of many low bridges that can be raised for water traffic on the river. I believe this one is no longer in use and is permanently in the raised position.

The most iconic of the many crossings is the Detroit-Superior Bridge carrying US 6 and US 20 across the river into downtown. The name seems a little odd, as we’re not in Detroit and Cleveland is on Lake Erie rather than Lake Superior. But it connects Detroit Avenue with West Superior Avenue and thus the name is quite appropriate. It rises high above the river and is quite picturesque against the downtown skyline.


[Burtcbl at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons]

Looking towards the lake from this bridge, one sees how closely packed the crossings are, and the diversity of shape, height, function, and level of disuse. In the picture below, we see the blue bridge carrying a major freeway, State Highway 2, beyond that a rail bridge, and in the front the ruins of the older Detroit Avenue viaduct.


[By Craig Hatfield [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

The viaduct, like the unused rail bridge shown above, are quite interesting as artistic subjects, and even qualify as “hyperart” as described in conceptual artist Akasegawa Genpei in his book Hyperart: Thomasson (you can find out more about it here). Thus, it should not be surprising that I would very much like to visit this part of the city for artistic inspiration, to explore the bridges both in use and abandoned, as well as other places along in this industrial riverfront section of the city known as the Flats.


[Photo by Chris Hamby on flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)]

Cleveland has actually long served as a magnet for artists interested in urban and industrial landscape, so this is nothing new. Indeed, the city has seen the same cycle of others where rundown or neglected neighborhoods attract artists in search of low rent and inspiration, and then the costs of living rise. But it still seems to have much to offer and I hope to get the chance to visit soon.

We depart Cleveland continuing on I-90, and then switch onto I-71 to journey diagonally across the length and breadth of the state. It winds through the suburbs, crossing many other highways before intersecting our friend I-80, which runs across the state as the Ohio Turnpike. The Ohio Turnpike is familiar from numerous cross-country trips, with the rolling hills and suburbs giving way to a much straighter road over flat terrain and farmland as one heads west. But in this instance, we continue south on I-71 towards Columbus, the state’s capital and largest city.


[Click image to enlarge.]

Columbus is in the middle of the state, and without much to get in the way it has developed the “standard” set of ring roads we see in many cities around the world: an outer beltway (in this case, I-270) and an inner belt around the downtown (a combination of I-70, I-71, I-670 and State Highway 315).


[Photo created by Alexander Smith on Wikimedia Commons. (CC BY-SA 3.0)]

Looking at the Ohio State House, it initially looks like something is missing: the dome that is ubiquitous on so many seats of government. It appears as if it has been shaved off. In actuality, this is part of the design, an older Greek Revival design that predates the current Capitol dome in Washington, DC, that was then used subsequently in most states.

Columbus does have its bridges as well, including the Lane Avenue Bridge which includes some classical elements in its otherwise modern design.

And of course I would be remiss if I did not mention Ohio State, as I have several friends who are devoted lifelong fans due to their connections to either the university of the community.

Leaving Columbus, we continue southwest on I-71 to Cincinnati.


[Photo by Rdikeman]

One stop we must make while in the city is to the Contemporary Arts Center. The CAC is perhaps most famous for its exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1990 that still resonates in discussions of “controversial art” (though honestly Mapplethorpe’s photographs themselves don’t seem that controversial anymore, I have seen on multiple occasions in recent years). But the museum is more recently known for its building with fragmented geometric sections designed by architect Zaha Hadid; and for programs that feature architecture and design.

The city is home to the Cincinnati Art Museum. It is a relatively conventional art museum with a wide-ranging collection, but it does include yet another piece by Mark di Suvero for us to encounter is this series. Atman is another large red metal outdoor sculpture, but without the typical rounded element.


[Photo by Adam Norwood on flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)]

Cincinnati lies along the state’s namesake river, which forms the border with Kentucky to the south. As such the city has its own set of bridges, though nothing to approach the density of Cleveland. The most interesting perhaps is the John A Roebling Bridge. One can see many of the elements that Roebling would ultimately use in New York for the Brooklyn Bridge.


[Photo by Rick Dikeman on Wikimedia Commons. (CC BY-SA 3.0)]

Another Cincinnati Bridge that has been in the news is the Brent Spence Bridge, which carries I-71 together with I-75 south into Kentucky. The bridge is featured prominently in the city skyline image above. It also one of the 15 bridges labeled by the Federal government as “structurally unsafe”, which sounds quite bad (indeed, President Obama used it as a backdrop for a speech about rebuilding our infrastructure). The bridge itself made the case in 2011 when chunks of concrete fell from the upper deck to the lower deck. Proposals are currently being considered for a replacement.

Transbay Terminal overpass demolition

I often walk by the overpasses that connect (or once connected) to the soon-to-be-defunct Transbay Terminal here in San Francisco, including the Fremont Street “bridge to nowhere” and the curving elevated road over Howard Street. Both have been featured in Wordless Wednesday photos on CatSynth the posts Fremont Street Overpass and Shine.

[Click the above images to visit the original posts.]

The bridge to nowhere used to connect the Fremont Street exit off of I-80 to the Transbay Terminal. The Fremont Street ramp, which included the last remaining pieces of the Embarcadero Freeway, was truncated and left this bridge hanging. It was a particular favorite “architectural feature” of mine in the city, and in fact qualified as a “Thomasson” or hyper art structure in that was present and maintained but served no purpose.

The elevated road over Howard Street continued to function as a bus entrance to the terminal.

This past week both structures were demolished, as part of the project to replace the entire Transbay Terminal with a new modern transit center. Thanks to a tip from a close friend, I went to shoot some photos of the demolition in progress.

The Fremont Street bridge is completely orphaned on both sides. Only the single arch remained.

In the second photo, one can see the “Buses Only” ramp that temporarily replaced the bridge. That ramp was completely gone already.

The Howard Street overpass was being dismantled in pieces.

One could see the metal skeleton amidst the remaining concrete sections.

Here is a short video of the Howard Street overpass demolition in progress:

By Monday, the Fremont Street overpass was completely gone. And Howard Street structure will be gone soon as well. It is sad to so them go. For me, they were landmarks, part of the architectural landscape of the neighborhood. However, in a city where people get upset easily about architectural changes and preserving landmarks, these seem to have gone largely unremarked upon. I am glad I got a chance to see the demolition and take photos before they were gone. Indeed, some of the images can be quite beautiful in their own way. There is something about aging and decaying urban infrastructure, even when it is being reduced to a pile of concrete rubble and twisted rebar. But I would have rather seen it preserved – I wonder if San Francisco can ever do anything as creative with its old infrastructure as New York did with the High Line.

I may post more images in the near future.

SF Thomassons Performance Tour

Two Saturdays ago, I attended the SF Thomassons Performance Tour, a collaboration by Kearny Street Workshop and Kaya Press that paired live performance art and installations with examples of hyperart, otherwise known as Thomassons, around San Francisco.

The tour was inspired by the book HYPERART: THOMASSON by Japanese conceptual artist and writer Akasegawa Genpei. Genpei and his colleagues began discovering instances of architecture, structures and objects that exist (or persist) outside of the original intended function, such as an inaccessible door leading out of an upper floor of a building, or a staircase leading to nowhere. Gempei named these objects “Thomassons” after the baseball player Gary Thomasson (incidentally, a member of the 1978 World Champion New York Yankees). Thomasson was recruited by the Yamamuri Giants and apparently paid quite well, despite the fact that during his tenure his bat almost never made contact with a ball. In addition to publishing an English translation of the Genpei’s book, Kaya Press maintains a Thomasson website that allows people to upload examples from around the world. We at CatSynth have actually presented several Thomassons in our Wordless Wednesday photographic series, including these stairs leading into the San Francisco Bay.


Our tour started at the Mint Mall in SOMA (South of Market). In the men’s bathroom in the basement, we were introduced to our first Thomasson: a small door in the wall of one of the stalls.

[click to enlarge]

The door purportedly opens to nothing, and contains nothing. Of course, we had to open it to make sure. It turns out that the door was not quite empty after all, and actually contained artist (and model-turned-actress) Philip Huang, who emerged bearing sake and assuming his role as host for the remainder of the tour.

We then boarded the official tour bus and proceeded to our next stop, the 3rd Street drawbridge (not far from AT&T Park), for a performance of a “living sculpture orchestra” by artist Anthem Selgado. In this piece, the familiar boxes for dispensing weekly newspapers become the members of a classical string quartet.

[click to enlarge]

The 3rd Street drawbridge crosses Mission Creek, you can see some previous photos from nearby sections of the creek here and here.

Our next stop was along 16th Street in Mission Bay (near the new UCSF campus), where a series of rusting pipes rise from the sidewalk. A sculpture and performance, again by Anthem Selgado, consisted of large balloons tied to the pipes.

[click to enlarge]

One set of balloons was attached to an old tape recorder with clips from the infamous “Balloon Boy” incident. The balloons (along with the Balloon Boy and family) were set aloft and last seen drifting towards the Pacific.

En route to the next stop, Philip taught us the Korean rabbit song “San toki toki…” complete with choreography.

We next found ourselves in a warehouse-heavy section of the Dogpatch neighborhood (not far from Pier 70), standing outside a loading dock that really no longer is a loading dock, given that it is completely blocked by plywood. This site served as stage for a dance/movement performance by Christina Miglino and Adderly Bigelow.

Although the piece contained moments of bold movement, I particularly liked this moment of stasis, with both dancers balancing against the former loading dock. With their pose and dress, they seemed to become architectural elements of the site itself.

We then moved on to what was advertised as “the largest Thomasson in San Francisco”, the former St. Joseph’s Church at the corner of Howard and 10th streets in SOMA. The church building has been vacant and closed for quite some time, although the gardens are still tended. Whether or not an entire building can count as a Thomasson was a subject of some discussion on the bus. Nonetheless, the next performance was in an alley behind the church grounds, and featured Rob Trinidad as a priest inviting the audience to confess their sins.

Our final stop was in the Mission, at the site of some large unused beams jutting out from the back of a warehouse – actually, this was the back side of the building complex housing Cellspace.

Kennedy Kabasares, an aerial artist specializing in static trapeze made good use of these beams with his impressive aerial choreography and gymnastics.

[click to enlarge]


Although the tour officially ended at this point, there was one more “bonus” stop that took us across the city to Crissy Field in the Marina District, not far from the Golden Gate Bridge. Here we found ourselves in the midst of a large pro-life rally and were treated to an impromptu performance of Philip “testifying”. You can see the full video here, or in the clip below. Incidentally, I think that is probably me shouting “l’chaim” at the end of the video.

Our actual destination was the Wave Organ, a sculpture along the waterfront where the action of the wave interacts with a series of pipes to produce very musical sounds. Although the pipes and architecture of the Wave Organ suggest a splendid ruin, this is a fully functional piece of architecture and thus is not technically a Thomasson. But it did make for a nice coda to the afternoon. Look for an image of the Wave Organ to be featured in our upcoming Wordless Wednesday photo.

Art and music notes. Friday, December 18

Last Friday, I managed to visit four different art and music events in one evening. Below are some reflections from each.

Our first stop was the offices of Kearny Street Workshop for their SF Thomassons Holiday Party. Readers may recall KSW’s APAture Festival and the Present Tense Biennial.

“Thomassons” are architectural elements that exist (or persist) outside of the original intended function, such as an inaccessible door leading out of an upper floor of a building, or a staircase leading to nowhere. The term was coined by Japanese conceptual artist and writer Akasegawa Genpei, and the Thomasson website allows people to upload examples from around the world. We at CatSynth have actually presented several Thomassons in our Wordless Wednesday photographic series, including these stairs leading into the San Francisco Bay. KSW’s “SF Thomassons” project involves photography and performance art centered around Thomasson sites in San Francisco. The party was a preview to coincide with Kaya Press’ publication of the first English translation of HYPERART: THOMASSON, and included a performance-art piece set at one of the largest sites in the city, an abandoned church at Howard and 10th streets that happens to be across the street from KSW’s offices.


After that, it was off to Gallery Six at 66 Sixth Street. The current exhibition, entitled “Every Single Where”, features new works by local artist Pakayla Biehn. The paintings each carried superimposed images that are similar but not identical, as if multiple exposures from a camera. According to the press release, Biehn has a congenital visual disability, and her paintings attempt to “give the viewer an understanding of her own optical condition.” Although they share the common theme, each work was stylistically quite different.

Actually, the work in the gallery that caught my attention was not in the featured exhibition, but on display in the back room from a previous exhibition, a small geometric print entitled “Bird’s Nest” from Charmaine Olivia’s Urban Managerie.


From Gallery Six, we then went to Gallery 16 for an exhibition celebrating the 25th anniversary of Emigre. Emigre was a combination digital type foundry and publisher founded by Rudy VanderLans and Zuzana Licko, and is known both for its typefaces and the design journal Emigre Magazine. The exhibition included examples from the magazine and other designs featuring Emigre fonts.

The prints had a very clean quality, with bold colors, large shapes, and of course text. I particularly liked the works based on Licko’s abstract Puzzler font, with it’s arrangements of dots and other elements into larger complex patterns. One of the large prints (again combining text and geometric elements) also featured a large barcode with a valid ISBN number. Thinking myself quite clever, I performed a quick internet search to find out what it was – I suppose I should not have been surprised that it was issue #67 of Emigre Magazine, although the cover image from the magazine looks nothing like this print.


The final stop was Cafe du Nord for a party and concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of KFJC Radio. This was the last of several events marking the anniversary, including the concert at FLUX53 that I attended earlier in the week.

Because of the busy schedule for the evening, we only caught two of the many bands performing. First was the band al Qaeda (I am sure they were aware the name was already taken). Their music combined driving punk-style drum and guitar elements with experimental electronics elements and electrical noise.

Al Qaeda was followed Arrington de Dionyso. I had seen de Dionyso perform in a trio at FLUX53, but this time he was with his band. Once again, he performed a combination of bass clarinet with various vocal techniques, including throat singing, set against standard rock drum, bass and guitar sounds. On the screen behind the band, increasingly complex black-and-white drawings (or paintings) were being created live.