Cities and Villages and Cars (on my!)

Brad Robertson Issue: Section:

"We have lost proximity, the essential ingredient of community. "

Whither city life?

Of all possible lifestyles a homo sapien in America in 2011 A.D. can choose, why this one and not that of the suburban American soccer-mom or, say, the Unabomber or perhaps the Nebraska hayseed?

Are we better, smarter, more good-looking here in the Big Town?

Perhaps, in a way, but not intrinsically so. The real question is, at bottom, whither the world, the human condition, this thing called Life. What of it and does city living somehow put us on a path to Enlightenment, connecting us to Truth and Beauty and a Life Well-Lived? What is this fundamental thing of value that gives our lives meaning?

I posit that it is, in a word found on the very masthead of this website, community. Human beings are not solitary creatures. Recall, if you will, that in prison the harshest punishment (short of the physical violence of torture or execution) is solitary confinement. We humans need other humans. We crave human companionship, interaction, society. No matter all the test-marketed, sanitized for your protection, American mythmaking claptrap about bootstraps, rugged individualism and the manly manliness of self-made Marlboro men and their macho manhoods. That’s all just advertising to sell pickup trucks and beer while anyone who is actually like that stereotypical male is somewhere between callous asshole and deranged sociopath. They make for entertaining action movie heroes, but very poor neighbors.

We need connection to live, to eat, to thrive and grow and prosper and share our good fortunes in our diverse, division-of-labor economy. In order to do that, we don’t necessarily have to pile into lofty towers straining to reach the skies above Manhattan (though it helps), a village is nice too and works in exactly the same way for exactly the same reasons. New York City (or Paris or London or Tokyo) also does the same exact thing as a small village, it just does so on a scale orders of magnitude larger, for New York (or Paris or London or Tokyo) is, if one zooms down really small, just a jumble of discreet, distinct little villages that just happen to abut other discreet, distinct little villages, all acting in concert or in conflict but always interacting and helping each other to become.

And at some level we know this, we know it is good and we know this with our hearts and our minds. Sometimes it is dismissed by self-appointed Clever People with a sniff and a hand flip as mere "nostalgia" for a time before Progress gave the Masters of the Universe down on Wall Street cellphones and expensive suits and the rest of us interstate freeways and Big Macs. But I think that formulation embraces a cynical view that the world has always been rife with ugly and violent people (which is true) while ignoring a more pastoral interpretation that maybe we have lost something when we zoom around in our steel and glass boxes on rubber wheels at 60mph with the radio blaring AM-band GOP approved hate speech. We have lost proximity, the essential ingredient of community.

The city dweller has proximity every day. Gobs of it. On the train. On the sidewalk. At lunchtime. And that proximity is not always, and in fact rarely is, among other people with whom one would ever normally interact by choice. So one interacts anyway, because one has no choice, and in so doing the stereotypes, the biases, the mean and angry proclivities lurking down below in all of us are leavened by exposure. And growth happens.

In America in the 21st Century, this only really happens in our cities, this forced proximity. 100 years ago, it happened in places other than our cities – not all the time, not always with the best of results and certainly not everywhere by a longshot – but it did happen because we lived in walkable villages. As evidence, I submit (strange as it may sound) the entrance pavilion at Disneyland, called Main Street USA, an homage to the all-American small town circa 1895. Yet, when was the last time anyone even visited a Main Street anywhere in the USA that looked remotely like that, much less actually live in one right now? And yet we have a nostalgia (there’s that word again) for a time and place when the rough outline of 20th Century Life was becoming recognizable and distinct from that of the 19th and even earlier. Because while we may speak of the joy of a quieter, simpler time with misty-eyed reverence as though it is lost forever and just too darn hard to get back to in this'n here modern life, the fact remains that we do lose something when we discount or forget altogether the human element and the importance of the physical space we design for ourselves in sustaining it. Those quaint little towns left over from the mid to late 1800’s are not just charming relics to be picked over for antiques by acquisitive suburbanites, they are a roadmap for how we ought to be trying to live in the here and now.

Because the introduction of automobility changed all that forced proximity in the blink of an historical eye. The car obliterated three millennia of walkable human-sized architecture virtually overnight. For three quarters of a century now, this country has erected practically every building of any size or consequence with the intent of being seen from a freeway at 60mph. And don’t forget they must all have plenty of parking.

Our nation's entrenched technology regimen of petroleum-driven pistons turning rubber wheels on pavement to transport people and goods across our vast continent will continue to erode the building blocks of community for as long as the black gold can be sucked out of ground and squeezed through a billion internal combustion engines to permeate our air and water and land. The dictates of the automobile will continue to shape our nation’s policy goals at every single level of government, to define the warp and weave of our daily existence and that of every other bird and beast on the planet, to control our land-use policy until we have no more land to use, unless and until we can, as a nation, as a species concerned about the planet, collectively decide to live some other way.

Which brings us back around to cities, why they exist and why walkable, human-scaled architecture is inseparable from healthy cities and a good life for all. I put forth that we don’t have to invent something new. We don’t have to look for science fiction visionaries to direct us to ever more fantastic living arrangements that require re-engineered humans to be plausible or functional. The answers, the solutions, surround us and have all along. In the boisterous pomp of a street fair and the quiet reverie of a community garden, in the tumbledown charm of a neighborhood sidestreet, we know how we ought to be living and oughtn’t relegate our enjoyment of it to the odd weekend outing, of course leaving early enough to get a good parking space.

If this little essay is to develop into something a little more like a series in the coming months, I hope to explore (with photos!) various examples here in New York City of the relationship between physical space and community and to illuminate why some arrangements work, why others don’t and to examine a little of how it got that way and why. I also hope for feedback and suggestions because I don’t want any of this to seem in any way like a lecture. It is a discussion. This is a community.

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