Where the Sidewalk Ends

June 23, 2011

The small towns some of us remember were essentially urban environments. Think about it: a vital commercial center with buildings taller than one story and the best locations and most beautiful buildings reserved for public uses; surrounding core neighborhoods with sidewalks on both sides of narrow grid-like streets, on street parking, tree plots, alleys for servicing the houses, narrow side lots, with houses and porches close to the sidewalk, and mixed uses that included neighborhood schools, groceries and cleaners. In Indiana there are towns with populations as small as 2,500 with this pattern.

If you grew up or visited grandparents in this small town, you know a bit about new urbanism. Now think about where the sidewalks end. They end where suburbanism began, where the streets began to curve, the yards got bigger, the uses restricted, and the alleys and porches disappeared.

As much as I like the poems and children’s stories of Shel Silverstein (especially The Giving Tree), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) draws a rather grim and dark picture of urban living, from which children must escape.

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.

The promise of the suburbs was, indeed, to provide an alternative to the asphalt city, a life in the country, where nature abounds. In such an idyllic setting, who needs sidewalks?  

 In fact, nature does not begin where the sidewalk ends. The suburb exists between the polis and nature, in that liminal space which is neither. Isolation (single use) zoning creates homogeneous residential areas separated at a distance from such (urban) uses as stores, workplaces, health care, and even schools. Enter the automobile – the family truckster – to mediate the connections among these uses for every individual and family. What, for the resident of the town center used to be a short walk or ride to reach “nature”, now requires further effort (carbon-based fuel) to get beyond the intervening sprawl.

I believe that history will treat the classic suburb as a mistake in human design – see what might have been a hybrid as a mutant. I may be long gone, but I believe that small towns and cities will be reinhabited and restored as vital, however small, urban centers, encircled by natural features, and connected to the global village not so much by concrete as by digital highways.

The aging of our society can provide a significant point of leverage to recapture our small towns and cities. Lately, we have been spinning old people to the margins of our communities, building housing on the fringes and pulling out those worn but glowing images of a pastoral serenity that is supposed to be appropriate for old age. Let’s not repeat the mistake. Let’s look for ways to keep and bring elders to the heart of the community – make existing towns and cities the new “campus” for quality of life in old age.

A few days ago I challenged a smart group of long term care administrators to imagine such “continuing care retirement communities” without walls. I suggested that the gated retirement community on the edge of town will be a thing of the past. Some bought it, some didn’t. But all agreed that only a comprehensive community development approach where everyone takes a risk would work. Given the alternative – the death of small towns and cities – I think it’s worth it.


Walking as a Narrative Activity

May 11, 2010

In response to an earlier blog (March 15), friend Lyman Orton, founder of the Vermont Country Store, picked up on my comment about remembering old ladies and their small grocery carts coming home from the Jewel Tea store in my neighborhood. “Are these things still for sale somewhere?”, I asked.  Well, indeed they are, and it’s no surprise that the Vermont Country Store is the place to find them, visit the catalogue here and voila’ . 

The Vermont Country Store is the source for much of the “good” from the good old days. While nostalgia is fun, the store sells more than nostalgia. Simpler toys,simpler appliances, simpler (and often organic) products are the store’s stock in trade. For Lyman, and his family, the Vermont Store has come to represent an attitude towards life and an attitude towards community that values local activism, livability, and philanthropy. Indeed, the Orton Family Foundation has heavily invested in citizen participation planning initiatives that tap what Lyman calls the “heart and soul” of the community. (See Orton Family Foundation) Not just for the sake of pitching clothes lines in his catalogue, Lyman is also at the front of the “right to dry” campaign, which fights against covenants and ordinances banning clothes lines from backyards. In light of our national energy/environmental crisis, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could wish away the sight and smell and fresh air experience of hanging clothes in the springtime breeze. I should mention, I suppose, that you can also find those great old wooden clothespins in the catalogue, you know… the ones with the metal spring (which, as a kid, we reversed to create neat matchstick guns). You can even order pins printed with the “right to dry” slogan!

Now those little grocery carts don’t work too well if there are no good sidewalks. How is it that sidewalks came to be seen as “amenities” rather than part of the essential community infrastructure. Nowadays, we have to incentivize developers to include sidewalks on both sides of the street. I guess that’s a step (backward) in the right direction, but it galls me that we have to reward behavior that should be expected.

But a sidewalk is, after all, a means to an end, a conveyance. We should also consider, as we think about the quality of our communities, whether the sidewalk leads to valued destinations and, perhaps more importantly for people with time (elders and children) the sidewalk provides the journey. Walking, and maybe I should say strolling, whether on foot or in a chair can be a rich narrative experience. As we walk, the surrounding environment, built and natural, becomes part of our sensuous world. Being physically open to the world, we see, we smell, we hear, we feel, we belong in a way not experienced in the automobile. The time it takes to move through the environment enables us to reflect, remember, retell the story of the neighborhood to ourselves. Over the years, I’ve watched that root gradually lift the pavement; I remember that old lady in the bonnet who used to live there and tend to her flowers; I recall with pain the cinders that would grind into your knees when you fell off your bike in the alley; I react  with fear at the house where my friend’s mean Dad was taken away in the police car, his mother on the porch bruised and sobbing.

Years ago, I came across an essay by Michel de Certeau called “Walking in the City.” (In the Practice of Everyday Life, 1984) He noted that people in positions of power (city authorities, planners, developers) tend to be enamored of the “birdseye” view of the city. Their grand maps, looking from above, are a testament to their control, to their ascension. Yet, the meaning of the city, the story (text) of the city, the life of the city  is produced by people walking. This is how the city is truly inhabited. As William H. Whyte said, “the meaning of a place is a product of the users, not the planners.” As I see it, the first step in planning and creating good places to grow old (and grow up) is a literal one – a step along the sidewalk.

Awhile back we invited kids in the local public housing complex to “walk the neighborhood” with us. Before we started, we had the kids draw maps of their neighborhood and, typically, we saw “elevation” maps – as if you were standing on the street and looking out. After walking the neighborhood, the kids began relating to the birdseye view. They were “ascending” to power, if you will, and beginning to see the larger context of connections among the parts. This is a good thing, where citizens understand that “maps have teeth”,  in the words of geographer Doug Aberley, and take back the human cartographic impulse  from the professional mapmakers, who haven’t done such a good job designing our towns lately.


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