/ Wednesday, May 16, 2012 /
Jackie Lewis on the sport climbing route in "The Shaft" by Manchester Oblique.
Manchester's sole rock climbing gym, Vertical Dreams, has become somewhat of a staple novelty for the city and a haven for rock climbers looking for a respite during the doldrums of the cold season. While keeping a clean gym, regularly refreshed routes and a friendly and knowledgable staff have all been pivotal to the gym's continued success, a certain fraction of that success can contributed to Vertical Dreams' most unique feature, a 70 foot elevator-like shaft that has been remodeled into one of the tallest indoor climbing walls on the east coast.

A view of "The Shaft" directly from above by Manchester Oblique.

Jackie Lewis in the "The Shaft" by Manchester Oblique.

Housed in the recently renovated Waumbec Mill on at 250 Commercial Street, Vertical Dreams' sits atop the fourth floor with the shaft extending down to the second floor. Access to the shaft is gained second floor, or if you're willing to suit up and repel, the forth floor, as well. It's kind of an interesting dynamic owning a business with such a unique form of vertical space, professionals and passersby wandering the mills hallways may hear a sudden "CLUNK" through building's brick walls as some climber takes a 10 foot whipper at the crux of a route.

When Vertical Dreams owner, Corey Hebert, was prospecting places for his business, he found the shaft by accident:

When I was first looking at the space to start the gym, I did not know about the "shaft" but after drawing a floor plan, I realized that there was some more space behind a wall. I got permission to do some exploring and to my surprise I found that there was more than a little space. This sealed the deal for me. We had to demo a lot of stuff to make it safe and climbable but it was worth it.
 Despite the common moniker of "elevator shaft", the original purpose of the shaft is not well known and I have only come across skimpy anecdotal evidence suggesting that it was ever an elevator shaft. Another story I came across was that the shaft housed a large vat for dye production during the mill's textile days and that when the mill was being renovated, a gentleman removed that vat for nothing more than the scrap metal value, which was considerable. This story seems to make a little more sense to me as large amounts of dye may have been noxious to work around and required a more direct route of ventilation, in this case, a shaft straight to the roof of the building.

Members of the Vertical Dreams Tuesday/Thursday Night Crew climbing "The Shaft" by Manchester Oblique.

Jackie Lewis on the sport climbing route in "The Shaft" by Manchester Oblique.

Now climbers ascend the shaft daily on walls of pocked with synthetic climbing holds and boyscouts regularly descend the shaft by repelling from the top in search of a merit badge. What was once a very utilitarian space is now a place where memories are made as fears are conquered, clinging to plastic rocks with almost four stories of open space below you.

NOTE: Thanks to the Vertical Dreams "Tuesday/Thursday night crew" for allowing me to snap a few photos of them.

Another member of the Vertical Dreams Tuesday/Thursday Night Crew climbing "The Shaft" by Manchester Oblique.

What makes a beautiful street?

/ Tuesday, May 1, 2012 /

What makes a street pretty or inviting? Threatening or tumultuous? Is it the captivating architecture or the clever use of green space? The site lines or the width of the sidewalks? Recently, asked the same question and on Valentines Day opened a project that would begin gathering data on what defines a beautiful street.

A screen capture of the Beautiful Street Project.

In a Hot or Not type inquiry, using two windows linked directly to Google Street View, you can decide which streets are better looking. Itemizing what makes one street more aesthetically pleasing than another will take some months of collecting data, but it's a really interesting question and an important one when planning and redeveloping cities, such as revitalizing the Queen City's downtown.

Out of curiosity, I recently picked three side streets off of Elm Street in Manchester and asked the same question, what makes these streets beautiful or plain? I chose Lowell, Amherst and Hanover and noted some of the details. I found myself less concerned with the quaint nature of the Palace Theatre's wonderful entrance but the weird, formless gaps in the other two streets.

Hanover Street, looking north at the Opera Block by Manchester Oblique.

Hanover Street, known as the "opera block" between Chestnut and Elm, is a great primer for any city planner. It is a somewhat ubiquitous opinion that Hanover Street is the most beautiful street in Manchester and is the one street that gives people the feeling that they are in a larger city than they really are. This effect can be best experienced walking westward on Hanover towards Elm Street. The combination of the Citizen's Bank building, on the corner of Elm and Hanover, and City Hall Plaza, sitting across the street, really help to define Hanover's space and gives you the sense that you're walking into a busy downtown. The definition of space is the foundation of creating a beautiful street and Hanover continues doing that by keeping the gaps between buildings to a minimum.

In Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities", the author makes the argument that circulation, the ability to draw pedestrians from one area of a city to another, is the most important mechanic in city planning and development. While the Opera Block only spans a mere quarter mile, it draws people up and down its sidewalks all day long and into the night with a mix of business and entertainment establishments, with living space to boot. The majority of storefronts on Hanover are under the same roof of one long, brick building creating a more uniform aesthetic and commercial experience.

A look at the consistent storefronts along Hanover Street by Manchester Oblique.

Vines slowly scaling the wall of Hanover Street pakring garage by Manchester Oblique.

The Opera Block's archway leading to a parking lot behind the building. A nice device in preserving access yet avoiding a potential alleyway. In the background sits the New Hampshire 9th Circuit Courthouse on the neighboring Amherst Street. By Manchester Oblique.

From there you can pick some of the more obvious details like the trees that line the wide sidewalks and the decorative lighting around the branches, making for a more whimsical night look. Even the parking garage behind the Citizen's Bank building is unobtrusive, camouflaged with vinery and darker cement.

In contrast, Amherst and Lowell Streets are both fine streets that have flourishing businesses but somehow lack the magical look of Hanover Street.

Amherst Street's entrance from Elm Street is narrow, including its sidewalks, and not as well lit at night giving the space a sense of unease rather than an inviting nightspot. Granted the latter half of the block between Elm and Chestnut are dominated by a courthouse and a parking garage, but there are jarring gaps between many of the buildings that make it feel like you're on the backside of downtown as opposed to walking down one of its lively side streets. If you're walking along the northern sidewalk and round the corner of Consuelo's Taqueria, you're faced with a strange, overly large, and often empty, side street that grants access to a parking garage. From there, you're forced to cross to the next sidewalk at an odd angel as Amherst Street actually widens to allow parking on both sides of the street. It sounds knit-picky but it makes for a dissonant pedestrian experience and give the street an asymmetrical quality.

The entrance to Amherst Street via Elm Street by Manchester Oblique.

While the 9th Circuit courthouse (the old Union Leader building) isn't without its historic charm, it's facade lacks a grand entrance facing the street and instead opts for a side entrance that catty-corners a tiny parking lock that creates a weird gap between the courthouse and the current nightclub next door, exposing the backside of Hanover Street. Lastly, on the south side of the parking garage facing Amherst Street, there is a ditch between the sidewalk and the parking structure to accommodate the sunken level in the garage. It's a kind of negative space left by the garage's construction and tends to be a reservoir for rubbish and weeds (cryptoforestry?).

A picture of the aforementioned ditch on the south side of the Vine Street parking garage. The tinted rectangles have been added to emphasize the space. By Manchester Oblique.

The gap standing between the NH 9th Circuit Courthouse and the current nightclub next door on Amherst Street by Manchester Oblique.

Lowell Street fairs better with few more accessible business facades (especially those in the Gauchos building), better lighting, two interesting looking apartment buildings, slightly wider sidewalks and greenery that defines the space a little better. But the street is also riddled with large gaps for parking lots. At one point before the Red Arrow, the planter of the adjacent parking lot protrudes into pedestrian space forcing the sidewalk to jut out into the street. If anything, Lowell Street harbors a lot of potential for development if the parking lots were to be sacrificed.

A picture of the interrupted walking path on Lowell Street by Manchester Oblique.

A picture of the 62 Lowell Street building that houses several businesses and updates the look of an older, classy look with simple, modern awnings by Manchester Oblique.

The entrance to Lowell Street via Elm Street by Manchester Oblique.

A picture of the Wellington Trade Center parking lot that spans the space between the Red Arrow and Wellington Trade Center Building.

This is, of course, a completely subjective analysis of these streets, but it is important to note the conscious and often times unconscious sensations flowing through our minds and bodies when moving through an urban environment. There are subtle borders, barriers, pathways, symbols and marginal spaces that help guide us through the city everyday. They're often convoluted and stacked on top of each other through years of building and rebuilding. Think about how often you might walk around a city park instead of cutting through its grassy meadows or why the Millyard feels so disconnected from downtown. What makes a street a "shortcut" as opposed to a "main drag"? A bypass instead of a destination?

What makes a street beautiful to you? Please, leave your thoughts in the comments.
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