Monday, August 15, 2011

In Praise of Urban Neighborhoods

Years of experience and living in a variety of places, states, and countries has taught me that no matter what region or place I live in, I will be happy as long as I live in a distinct neighborhood. Living in a real neighborhood, like I do now, allows me to walk to go grocery shopping, to be a regular at local establishments, and to feel like I am a human being amongst other human beings.

The beauty and meaning of urban neighborhoods was brought home to me in two very different ways this weekend. I drove to Pittsburgh to visit some old friends, and was astounded by the city's beauty and livability. It was a city on a human scale. Built on valleys and steep hillsides of three rivers, the city naturally divides itself into unique neighborhoods. Its daunting geography may very well have saved Pittsburgh from the horrors of "urban renewal." While I was gone in Pittsburgh, I got the sad and shocking news that a building in my neighborhood burned down in a massive four alarm blaze. (Luckily, nobody died, and only a few were hurt.) The fire left fifty-eight people homeless, and in a testament to the bonds of community, money is being raised locally to help the victims. Two local businesses were consumed by the blaze, and as sad as that is, it is worth noting that people feel a loss. The same would probably not be said if it were a McDonald's that met the same fate.

The American Way of Life over the last seventy years or so has been one big massive assault on neighborhoods. The new cities that have sprung up in that time are built around the automobile, and those cities that came into maturity before the auto age have been gutted and dismembered by the mad zeal to accommodate the internal combustion engine. In the process, countless neighborhoods were demolished, and the roads helped spur the seemingly endless process of suburban sprawl. Only the recent housing collapse could stop the metastisization of the subdivisions.

Suburbanization allows for tight-knit neighborhoods only in rare cases. Usually it creates a world of people segmented into their own private little boxes, and where there aren't even sidewalks to walk on. I know from my experiences and those of others that travelling by foot or bike in America's sprawl zones isn't just difficult, it often means being heckled by assholes driving by in their cars. Increasingly, Americans are tied down to their homes and do little outside of them. To cite one striking example, kids don't play outside with other kids in their neighborhood like they used to, but are more likely to stay indoors or participate in structured activities. I will admit that there are suburban neighborhoods out there with real community, but the very geography and culture of suburbia work very hard to prevent them from blossoming.

Believe it or not, the prophets of the current American Way of Life had high ideals, rather than visions of shopping malls in their heads when they pushed the freeways and "urban renewal." One of the first advocates of the "radiant city," the Swiss modernist architect and city planner Le Corbusier, even proposed demolishing central Paris and replacing it with modern high-rises surrounded by parks and highways. (This was the so-called Voison Plan, one of the greatest assaults on humanity from where I stand.) Plans such as this were intended to liberate city-dwellers from the noise, confusion, disorganization, lack of air, and overcrowding that often accompany urban life. Who wouldn't want modern convenience in the midst of beautiful park space?

As is usually the case, it was the poor who got to be the guinea pigs in the experiment practiced via postwar public housing high rises. The people who were warehoused in these structures lost access to neighborhood living, with the inevitable alienating effects. A few patches of green were not going to make up for that. The white middle class, on the other hand, sprawled out in the ever-expanding suburban hinterlands. That phenomenon too had been predicted in advance with much fanfare and optimism. At the New York World's Fair in 1939, the most popular exhibit was Futurama, sponsored by General Motors. It predicted a future of megahighways and integration of urban and rural space. It was hardly surprising, of course, that GM portrayed the automobile as key to a liberated future. In a related fashion, the central exhibit of the entire fair was a diorama called Democracity that imagined a modern "radiant city" full of parks and bereft of neighborhoods. The imagined everyday "man" of the script worked in the center among the high rises and drove through landscaped parkways to his house at the edge. In these visions the neighborhood was absent. Like traffic, noise, and crowding, it was just another annoying and messy facet of urban life to be liberated from. I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that our current American Way of Life has not brought what it promised at its birth.

I actually feel strangely liberated living in a place where I can't help walking the streets as part of my daily routine. It's much more fun walking the dog when other people are taking their children out on their post-work/pre-dinner errands and the little ones light up with delight and yell out "bow wow!" when they see my dog. (She likes kids, and sometimes allows groups of kids to pet her while she sits still for them.) If I need to grab a little something at the grocery store, there is no ordeal of driving someplace else just to get a carton of milk, I simply walk three blocks to the local supermarket.

I also get plenty of free entertainment. Due to the cosmopolitan nature of where I live, international soccer tournaments bring a lot of fun. Right after Uruguay won the Copa America, a bunch of people wearing blue and white and carrying the Uruguayan flag converged on my corner, had a little party and sang their national anthem, and quietly went home. What struck me most was that practically everyone, from the revelers to the police who showed up to the bemused bystanders, was smiling. How can you beat a totally spontaneous moment of happiness on a Sunday afternoon? I'll take that over ready access to an Appleby's every time.

1 comment:

Brian I said...

Your post makes me miss my old neighborhood in Atlanta (Inman Park/Little Five Points), which was truly an interesting and walkable urban neighborhood. My new town is an older small city with a lovely downtown and nice residential neighborhoods--but it has been virtually swallowed by the sprawl of suburban Nashville in the last twenty years. Thankfully, my new place is in an older suburban area (1950s) that is still walkable to my job and to the old city square. Unless I need to go to Target or a similar store, I can mostly avoid the sprawl zone out by the interstate.

Being put in this new context, lately I have been reassessing my old life in Atlanta. My neighborhood had beautiful houses and parks, as well as funky shops, and I miss these things dearly. But I could never live there except as a renter overpaying for a smallish, decrepit apartment. (Also, even some people in that area didn't really bother to get to know their neighbors.) Since it was one of the most liveable intown neighborhoods in a huge city full of sprawl, it had gentrified and only the relatively rich could actually afford to own homes or condos, or even rent nice apartments, there.

While I still love that neighborhood, at a certain point I realized that it was untenable to ever be a full member of that neighborhood, unless I found a much higher paying (and permanent) job that allowed me to stay there. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of sprawl is that in many cities--especially Sun Belt cities unlike your own--only the upper-middle class can actually afford to live in real neighborhoods. I know this isn't necessarily the case with your own city, but it is still a point worth noting.

On a related note, my girlfriend's father recently made a very perceptive comment about new housing areas. Driving through a street of McMansions in his (mid-size, Upper South) city, he said, "This isn't a neighborhood; these are adjoining property values." I think it is true that many Americans no longer see themselves as living in neighborhoods--rather, they own property that merely adjoins others' properties.