City Hall web developer Gabriel Farrell wasn't always this boring - Technical.ly Philly

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Sep. 28, 2015 11:15 am

City Hall web developer Gabriel Farrell wasn’t always this boring

It's all relative — especially when your past involves bike protests, urban exploring and a “Condiment War” between Brooklyn art collectives.

Gabriel Farrell in West Philly's Cedar Park, September 2015.

(Photo by Juliana Reyes)

Product Hunt emailed us last summer. Subject line: Automate your life. But honestly? We don’t want to. We just want to live our lives … like humans. Tech culture can be so focused on work and efficiencies that it makes us forget everything else. Off the Clock is a series where we interview people in the tech scene but don’t ask any questions about work.


Before we start talking, Gabriel Farrell offers a disclaimer.

“I felt a little sheepish about this [interview] because I feel supremely boring right now,” he says.

He assures us it wasn’t always like this: The former P’unk Ave developer who’s now a civic tech engineer for the City of Philadelphia spent the last two decades going on whitewater rafting expeditions in Utah, exploring abandoned Philly ruins and flinging ketchup and mustard in an all-out “Condiment War” in Dumbo.

These days, he lives a quieter life in West Philly, with his wife and two-year-old son, Roan. He says he wouldn’t have it any other way.

We talked to Farrell, 37, on a breezy morning, right as Pope weekend was about to strike. He was working from West Philly coworking space The Fire Works that day, so we sat across the street, next to the playground in Cedar Park, where he likes to take his son. Farrell speaks softly and slowly — we caught ourselves interrupting him on more than one occasion — and laughs a lot. Throughout the interview, he sipped coffee from Satellite Cafe and picked at a four-seed cookie from the Lancaster-based Slow Rise Bakery. (The cookie is one of his favorites, he said.)

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You mentioned playing guitar around a campfire. Do you guys go camping or is that just just a figure of speech?

We’re usually just sitting around on our rug at home. We haven’t really gone camping. I got out the tent a couple of times late this summer when we went up to my mother in law’s place outside Doylestown, and they have kind of a big lawn and we camped on the lawn. But I do have a really excellent tent setup that I would brag about. [Laughs.]

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Tell me more.

I grew up in Utah and we would go camping all the time. My mom would drag me and my sister out to the desert and we’d go camping, so I grew up camping. So I’m pretty used to it and especially as I got older, we got into more of the hardcore camping where you’re backpacking in and you have to have everything on your back, including your water.

There’s an enforced minimalism to it that I like because I’m kind of a sucker for minimalism.

But living on the East Coast, before I had family, a child, I was really getting into the idea of doing the luxury camping.

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Whitewater rafting in Utah. (Courtesy photo)

Glamping.

Yeah, like the opposite of minimalism. So I have this tent that is great because it’s just a two-and-a-half-person tent and it has the little bars that go across and you can just put the hooks up onto it and the whole top is mesh and that makes it really fast to setup and you can see the stars.

Inside is just total nest. It’s a glorious display of lots of padding with Therm-a-Rests and wool blankets and sheets and pillows and more pillows and a down comforter. I just like to have tons of bedding in there so you feel this, like, cozy little, just little nest inside of a mesh tent. [Laughs.]

Where around here do you like to camp?

I haven’t been camping for a while but when I did, one of my favorite places was Pine Grove Furnace State Park, two and a half hours west of the city. It’s one of the few state parks that allows swimming.

How about in Utah, where would you go?

Growing up in Salt Lake City, you can drive up into the mountains and then just start hiking into the lower Wasatch Range and there’s these high mountain lakes that you can go to that are always very cold but fun on hot days to jump into. As far as southern Utah, I always had a soft spot for Goblin Valley.

As far as outdoorsy stuff, the thing I miss the most and hope to do again at some point is whitewater rafting. My stepdad and a lot of our family friends were river guides, so we would always do our own. I was lucky to never have to do a commercial trip, where you pay somebody and they take you. We always had our own thing.

There’s a lot of buildup because you have to get a permit, and a lot of times, you have to sign up 3-5 years ahead of time because they only allow so many groups on the river at a time. It’s very controlled. So, going up on the river with a little group and doing it all ourselves and especially driving an oar rig, which is a big inflatable raft with the oars and you’re usually carrying all the provisions and it’s just one person and you’re at the helm with the oars.

With whitewater rafting, you’re pretty much always camping in a place that you can’t get to otherwise, like there’s no way to get to that campsite with a car. It’s kind of the best blend of being able to get really far way from everything but still bring a lot of stuff with you because you can put it on the boat.

"We can't really imagine not living in the city."
Gabriel Farrell

And you’re continuously going down the river and then stopping to camp?

Yeah, the average length of the trip is one to two weeks. You do 10-12 miles a day on the river. But it’s been five years since the last one.

How old were you when you did your first one?

I think my first one was when I was maybe 12.

That’s intense. What’s that like, growing up in a place that’s more nature-oriented and doing all this outdoorsy stuff and now living in a way more urban environment?

First off, I’ll say that with having a kid, I definitely right away feel that kind of pull toward a more bucolic environment. Like, we go up to Doylestown and everyone has these big lawns and kids can run around and you don’t have to worry about them running into the street every time you go out for a walk.

But at the same time we really appreciate not having to drive everywhere and riding our bikes to work and the kind of, just, I think, a better mix of experiences a kid will get here in the city rather than if he was growing up outside of it. So we’re really committed to staying in the city. We can’t really imagine not living in the city.

I did grow up right in the middle of Salt Lake City so it’s a little different. But yeah, I think it’s really healthy to get out of the city sometimes and just not be around so many other people and buildings and stuff. It helps keep you sane. [Laughs.]

gabriel farrell bike

Farrell’s ’72 Peugeot (foreground). It’s a fixie he’s had since the early 2000s. (Photo by Juliana Reyes)

So you bike around the city? Like how into bikes are you?

I guess I’ve always been into bikes, pretty seriously. I was a messenger in San Francisco in 2000, 2001.

Is that really hard because of the hills?

Not really because I was on a fixie, so I wasn’t doing the longer package deliveries. I did deliveries downtown at Market and Embarcadero so [as far as hills] I was maybe going up Nob Hill.

I figured out from Sheldon Brown’s website and with the help of a bike shop there called Ye Olde Bike Shoppe in the Mission that I could convert an old Raleigh frame into a fixed gear.

When I moved to New York a few years later, with a little stop in Salt Lake City in between, my fall-back job was to try doing messengering again. You can always find a job as a messenger, they’re always hiring because it’s a lot of stress and you don’t get paid that well.

A lot of the friends I made [in New York] were through Critical Mass and a lot of bike-oriented craziness.

Massive bike protests, urban exploring and a 'Condiment War' in Dumbo.

Critical Mass?

Critical Mass is a thing that I think still goes on in major cities in the United States, where on maybe the last Friday of the month, it was always a Friday, a bunch of bicyclists just meet somewhere and bike around the city as a group. It’s kind of like a take back the streets, cycling sort of protest against cars, or against the predominant traffic patterns and everything that anyone who rides a bike around the city realizes — that they’re kind of pushed off to the side in most cases.

In the summer of 2002 — this all makes me feel so old [laughs] — the summer of 2002 is when I really started getting into it, the Critical Masses in New York were reaching 14-, 15-hundred people. There were times when we’d be on 5th Avenue, like at maybe 23rd and 5th, and as far up and down 5th Avenue as I could see was bikes. Police were getting involved pretty heavily. There was a big crackdown during the time of the Republican National Convention. It was crazy fun and there were a lot of bike gangs who were doing pretty cool stuff in the city at the time.

There’s certainly enough bike culture [here] from what I’ve seen. I’m sure people are doing cool stuff, I’m just not tapped into it.

The bike club that I hung out with the most that I was definitely not a member of, but I had friends that were in it, was Black Label Bike Club in Brooklyn and I was hanging out with an art collective called Toyshop. The most well-known member was a street artist named Swoon. She’s speaking this Sunday afternoon at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and I’m hoping to go to see her again.

Were you doing street art?

I was mostly an assistant in an auxiliary capacity. I would just help out with whatever we were doing. We would do these street events. One was this thing where we’d put together a huge badminton kind of thing and we dressed up as shuttlecocks and people in badminton, tennis-y outfits and just kind of took over a block of industrial Greenpoint in Brooklyn and I don’t even remember why but we just did it.

There was this bigger event involving multiple art collectives across the city called the Condiment War, right in the triangle of Dumbo. This was right in the beginning when they were trying to do all this pretty conscious revitalization or gentrification of Dumbo.

toyshop condiment war

The Toyshop crew before the 2003 “Condiment War.” Farrell’s on the right. (Photo by Flickr user Sucka Pants)

We did this “condiment party” and there were five to six art collectives from around the city who did it and everybody had built these big crazy machines and were wearing crazy outfits and stuff and just covering each other in mustard and ketchup and vinegar and baking soda, baking flour. It was … very messy. [Laughs.]

It was almost like this Battle Royale setup where we all started in corners and everybody just rushed in and threw food at each other.

People made machines?

Yeah, there were a couple of the art collective who were into industrial design so they built catapults that would throw whole bags of flour into the crowd.

Then we all went swimming in the East River. I was like 25 at the time.

The only cool thing I did recently was, a friend of mine had an installation at the recent popup shop inside the Divine Lorraine. It reminded me of times when we’d sneak around old buildings and stuff, except now it was with lots of guards standing around and very regimented. [Laughs.]

Were you doing that here in Philly?

That was mostly here when I first moved, you know, there’s so many great old ruins of buildings in Philadelphia.

Like where would you go?

[Pause.]

Oh, do you not want to reveal…

Well, we used to go to the Gypsum Building down by Bartram’s Gardens. There are some up by Manayunk, more family-friendly, not trespassing anywhere, really old ruins along the Towpath.

OK, I get now what you said, I hope you don’t find this offensive, about—

Being boring.

A newfound appreciation for 'Married with Children.'

Yeah, because your life was so crazy before.

I would definitely add that despite all of the boringness, you know, all the usual sentimental-sounding stuff about having a kid is awesome. This is a pretty great park.

You take your son here?

Yeah, Roan. He’s almost two. He just started at the co-op school right on 47th and Baltimore. It’s a pretty neat endeavor. It’s been around for 15 years and some parents just started it and it’s very much still run by the parents. I signed up to be the assistant to the lead parent. [Laughs.]

What does that entail?

So far not much because we’re still figuring out what I’m doing, but I pick up the logs and make sure that people are picking the kids up at the time, and that we’re getting the supplies that we need, going to administrative meetings to make smaller decisions around the school.

Yesterday we went to Smith Playground with a friend and his daughter. There’s a couple that we’re good friends with and they have a daughter and they’re expecting another soon, and we’re planning in December to all move into a house together to do a shared co-operative type of thing.

Why do you guys want to do that?

I think the main benefit is you get more space for the same amount of money. We live in an apartment right now. Whereas with this, we’d probably take the third floor and have two bedrooms and a bathroom but also the first floor and the living room and dining room and kitchen and we’d also be sharing that. So everybody gets a little more space because we’re sharing.

The other benefit is the possibility of having more adults around to do childcare. It’s actually easier sometimes watching two kids or certainly easier for one adult to spend two hours watching two kids than one adult spending those hours watching one kid. It’s a big benefit that we could help cover for each other and give each other breaks.

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Gabriel Farrell and his two-year-old son, Roan, outside their West Philly apartment. (Courtesy photo)

Everybody talks about how you view your time differently once you have a kid, and I think that for me comes down to the fact that there’s this little person that you’re, like, so incredibly protective of, and joyous about lots of little things that they do and, aside from whatever you’re trying to do as far as running around with them or keeping them from getting hurt and making sure that they’re fed and diapered and going to sleep and all the things you have to do, it’s a little exhausting because there’s this huge strong emotional bond.

You could even compare it to when you’re early in a relationship with somebody and there’s that intense connection, you have that very different kind of intense connection with a child and being around them is just exhausting because of that connection. So, little breaks, just being in the bathroom by yourself becomes this huge thing. [Laughs.]

I have a newfound appreciation for Married with Children and how his toilet was his throne. There were always jokes about him being up there all the time. I can totally see where they’re coming from now. That’s another thing that makes me feel really old. [Laughs.] That I can identify with Al what’s-his-name.

Give us your recommendations.

Smith Playground though it’s hard not to be a creep if you don’t have kids, but try going after hours.

I think I figured everything [bike-related] out by looking at Sheldon Brown’s website [back in the early 2000s]. That was a source of pretty much any bike information at the time. That’s an old-school classic recommendation.

Pickup soccer at the Penn fields on Tuesdays and Thursdays during lunch. If I have the chance I’ll go over there on my lunch break. Also, the People’s Soccer game on Sundays at the baseball diamond at 48th and Woodland.

The Code for America Summit in Oakland, where I’m going to give a talk with [fellow city developer] Mjumbe Poe.

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