A short recount of my two trips this month, to NYC/DC and to China!
New York City and Washington DC
Having been to NYC many times already, I thought that this trip would be mostly in/out for Stanford project work with some of my students, but there ended up being some really magical moments as well. First, this was my first time staying in Brooklyn, for better or for worse, in a brownstone in Bed-Stuy converted into at least 5 separate Airbnb rooms. But it meant that I got to see an area of Brooklyn I’d never seen before. I’d never really even been to Dumbo; the first evening we went to to Juliana’s for some incredible pizza, then walked around the beautiful parks and enjoyed the stunning sunset right below the Brooklyn Bridge… then went straight back for a second dinner at Shake Shack. We were hungry because we had flown right through lunch.
The next day we did an exciting workshop with folks at the Smart Cities NYC Conference in Brooklyn Navy Yards then had wonderful pasta at Forno Rocco’s in downtown Brooklyn, before heading to Manhattan to meet with the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. That was the end of the formal schedule, so I parted ways with the students and went to catch up with my best friend Dylan, who was busy studying for his Law School finals but took the time to go and grab a bite of pasta. I then headed back to Brooklyn to catch up with my friend Jason who’s working on a really important project called PennyPass.
The third day brought further uptown in Manhattan, where we walked around the UN Headquarters for a bit and then presented to a group at the United Nations Foundation. I then got to head to Wall Street and check out the BIG office, then briefly catch up with Stanford alum Stefan who’s now at NYCDOT. Then I was off to JFK, but decided to try a different route than usual on a bus through local neighborhoods that honestly are the real NYC. JetBlue ended up being delayed a few hours and I got to my go-to hostel in DC around 3:30am.
The next morning it was pouring rain but I met up with two new students and colleagues from SDSN, NYC, and Baltimore for a fascinating meeting in the State Department in which we had to leave all of our laptops and devices in old-fashioned lockers outside the room that were clearly made long before such devices were invented. It was a bit exhilarating to feel so close to the inner workings of an administration where inner workings are now under such scrutiny. I was half expecting to go into this “high-security” room and see a secret door into Russia or something.
Anyway, we then headed to another meeting with a big foundation and then visited the Cannon House where we shared our work with staff members of Rep Eshoo and Rep Lofgren from the South Bay. It turns out that the halls of these Congress buildings are some of the most passive aggressive places in the world.
That was it for the day, but I shortly thereafter got a text from JetBlue telling us that our flights back to NYC were canceled, so after some scrambling online decided that the best Plan B was to take a bus out of Union Station. Unfortunately, that bus ended up breaking down somewhere in Jersey, so we then had to wait for another bus, and the bus driver couldn’t quite figure out how to park in Penn Station, so by the time we got back to our Bed-Stuy Airbnb it was something like 2am.
The next day was a Saturday, and after a refreshing revisit to the High Line (where the Hudson Yards are really starting to shape up), a brief check-in with some planners from SF who were in town for the National APA Conference, and a tour of the Bloomberg Foundation office courtesy of Scott, I parted with the students for a free afternoon. My close friend Ivan and I treated ourselves to Derren Brown’s first live performance in the States, called Secret at the Atlantic Theater Company. If you haven’t seen anything from Derren Brown, just spend about 20 minutes on YouTube (here’s a perfectly good one to start with), but keep an extra 20 hours ready. Then, suffice it to say that his live show was everything you couldn’t possibly imagine and more, and that if you’re in NYC anytime soon, GO SEE IT. That’s all I’m allowed to say, given that the show’s contents are a secret.
Later I caught up with my friend Alison whose wedding I attended last August (turns out her husband has been living in the room next to Dylan’s for some time, unbeknownst to him, and she just happened to be in town the same time as me), then reconnected with my Stanford students for a night of stale improv and scrumptious Korean food. The next morning we had brunch in Bed-Stuy, I did one last event speaking on a panel at the APA Conference, then we headed off to Newark. All in all it was a great chance to be back in my definitive favorite city in the world and to see some of my favorite people.
Beijing and Chengdu, China
After just two days back in the Bay Area, I headed off for a second trip to China, having been invited by partners at Sichuan University to come engage with a group of students who are participating in a similar Sustainable Urban Systems Program. I had asked for a 12-hour layover in Beijing on the way in so I could catch up with one of my close friends Sam, who lives downtown in the financial sector. My neck and upper back were killing me on the whole plane ride over, probably built up knots from all the traveling the previous week. But great food and drinks and conversation made for a relaxing night in Beijing with a fellow lover of art and life.
The next morning I headed back to the airport for a short leg to Chengdu, where I made my way to Sichuan University campus where I had been two years ago with my dad. I joined a few of the teachers for lunch where I was quickly re-acquainted with the incredible kick of Sichuan peppers in hotpot. Then one teacher dropped me off at 太古里, the site of an old Buddhist temple which has since had a major luxury commercial development with some really high-quality architecture. One of the coolest stores there was a massive bookstore in which I bought my new sci-fi, The Three Body Problem, as well as All the Light We Cannot See, in Chinese to give as gifts.
The next day I met with most of the students for a field trip to “Crazy Ranch” (疯狂农庄) where an old Taiwanese woman has been perfecting self-sufficient agriculture. Having rarely been on farms in my life, it was great to see lots of design details like tire tubes being used as cheap drip irrigation, yellow sheets which caught flies, truly raised planter beds to prevent certain diseases, and an extensive water purification channel system. After a long day at the farm, I finally got to address that back pain with a good old Chinese massage.
One of the most interesting new things in China has been a wave of bikeshare companies that rely on WeChat for checking in and out of the bikes, so that they can be parked pretty much anywhere in the city. One company, Mobike, has an electronic locking mechanism, while the competitor, Ofo, has an analog combination lock. These really have become ubiquitous as they’re literally everywhere in the city, and it was stunning to see just how scalable free market technologies can be in a place like China. Unfortunately, I don’t think this works in practice in the States because of accessibility laws (these are literally left anywhere, including right in the middle of sidewalks).
On my last two days, I gave lectures at Sichuan University to students, ate more delicious food, and got to visit a few more iconic places in downtown Chengdu which I had missed the last time, including the resting place of 刘备, one of the emperors from the Three Kingdoms from Chinese history (my only knowledge coming from an old TV show I watched as a kid). On the last evening I biked with some teachers to an old industrial part of town which had been revitalized into a series of hipster art studios, cafes, and sports facilities, and we enjoyed some German beer on top of a shipping container overlooking a river as we swatted away mosquitoes and talked about the state of education in China and the U.S. It never ceases to amaze me how precious and interconnected life can be all around this great big planet.