Town Beautiful

Is there such a thing as an “urban planning nerd?” Because if there is, then that’s what I am. I have not formally studied this kind of endeavor, so all of the information and conjecture I postulate is strictly founded on the predicate that “your mileage may vary.” But that won’t stop me from telling you exactly what I think. Lucky you.

When I drive around – which I do a lot, to a lot of different places, in hopes of discovering the history of the Red River Valley – I tend to notice what towns work, and which ones do not. By work, I don’t necessarily mean that I count how many manufacturing plants or how many businesses are located inside a town, though good urban planning will definitely help a town have both. I look to see if there are people walking, and under what circumstances. Are they having to use the street to get from point A to point B, or can they use sidewalks? Are the sidewalks actually maintained, or are they pitted by ruts and dirt? Is the grocery store far away from neighborhoods, or is it close by? Are houses well maintained, or do they look like perpetual yard sales? Are the town’s parks and other respite places in walking distance, or is a car to ferry the kids around mandatory?

shreveport peytons us 80 small

Before Texas Street ( US 80) in Shreveport was superseded by Interstate 20, this neighborhood epitomized compact and good urban design.

More than anything else, the environment in which we live has a profound impact on how we see and interact with the world. Neighborhoods that are walled and gated, for example, give the impression of fear and distrust. Strip malls that are half-empty and moated by huge parking lots (and sometimes, surrounded by ill-maintained car washes) look depressing and dangerous. Places with few or no sidewalks seem very discouraging, even suspicious, of normal human activity, such as walking and biking. This kind of atmosphere doesn’t lend itself well to enticing new enterprises to open shop, people taking success and schooling seriously, or citizens having confidence in their elected officials. While all of this may sound like common sense, I have to wonder, why is it that many towns and cities ignore these fairly basic tenets?

irving big state sign

Businesses should be at the street – not in the middle of a sea of empty parking lots – and neighborhoods should be compact. Well, I think so, anyway.

One reason I can deduce is that Southerners pretend not to like too much government interference. The opinion goes that no one – no neighbors, code enforcer, or some arbitrary rule – should preclude one from the enjoyment of one’s own property. And I can appreciate this, of course. But communally owned property, such as city sidewalks, business districts, parks, and streets, should be viewed not simply as necessities, but rather calling cards: “We live here and we love it here.” Compact streets in interconnected neighborhoods that are walkable, maintained, and close to what makes a place livable – such as parks, grocery stores, and libraries – give the impression of a working town. Not just working in the sense of people having jobs, but also in the ways that make life pleasant and beautiful.

Is beauty and harmony in the world a concept we should all strive for?  My little, unimportant opinion is that they’re the only things that make life worth living, and the most immediate way to achieve them starts in our own neighborhoods.

Advertisements
Published in: on June 8, 2015 at 7:58 pm  Comments (4)  
Tags: , ,

Moving and Changing in America

My family hails from the South… I mean from way back. They came from the slums of Middlesex, London, and after a generation in Ireland, they boarded a boat to Virginia, whether voluntarily or not. The next generation then squatted in the Bladen swamps of North Carolina, and the next generation after that moved further southwest to the foothills in upcountry Alabama. From there, the next generation dove south to Natchez, Mississippi, then 30 years later north to Shreveport, then 30 years after that my father was born in Fort Worth, Texas.

I’m mentioning this not because I’m a genealogist (I gleaned all this information from other family historians who are far more interested than I am), but because I’m fascinated by what makes America tick. And that tick seems to be movement and change.

This motel was once a busy stop when US 80 still hummed through Ranger, Texas.

Aboriginal Americans moved around, often for trade purposes or, in the case of Plains tribes, to follow food sources. African Americans, once freed from the bounds of slavery, sought freedom through courage by traveling to northern cities, joining cattle drives and the army, or simply by traveling to the southern schools under hostile conditions. Poor whites, like my family, constantly searched for better economic conditions.

Americans are a people with itchy feet. It doesn’t matter where their families originate, or how they got here… each generation is on the go, looking for greener  pastures and better opportunities. Living in a country that was founded and shaped by these restless people makes me see how much the US culture invokes this spirit of moving.

Abandoned cotton gin along LA 1

Often, it’s the physical landscape that reflects this quest for finding something better “just around the corner.” Think of the many abandoned cemeteries that scatter around haphazardly. In Europe, cemeteries tend to be associated with a long-standing church, and the congregation takes care of them. Not so in the US… families buried their dead on their own plots of land and then, when the next generation moved on, those graves stood forgotten and overgrown. Entire towns lived and died with the tide and ebb of economy and location. Certain cities grow, while others are barely holding on. Some schools are bursting at the seams, and others sport boards over their windows and doors. Buildings that once defined a community are torn down for newer construction that can be renamed by current movers and shakers. Big factories sit shuttered. Rail lines and roads become weed-strewn scars on the landscape as newer commercial byways change how towns function – think of industrial loops and interstates.

Our cultural legacy is constantly changing, too. Our history has had many wrongs – slavery, forced Indian removal, segregation and racism – and on the whole, Americans address these issues bit by bit so that my son sees people in various shades of brown, not black or white. My grandmother canned her fruits and vegetables, but I need to look up how to do that on the internet, and “foodies” are “rediscovering” recipes that thirty years ago were considered everyday fare. We fill our homes – in which most of us will not grow old  – with things that are cheap and easy, not necessarily long-lasting. Shoot, we think a phone or computer is obsolete when they’re over a year old…

Even churches aren’t safe from a changing and moving population, like this one in Atoka, OK.

I’m not writing from the perspective of a high horse here, either. I’m part of this legacy of change. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, my grandmother, who lived in San Angelo, saved enough money to buy 12 acres and a grocery store in Red River County, Texas. Years later, my mom and step-dad built a cottage on the land, the store having been abandoned long ago. Now, my mother has to sell the house and land that’s been in our family for three generations because my sister and I live and work in big cities, and we’re not willing to move back.

While the United States is a young country, relatively speaking, and is still defining itself, the definition seems to be one of transience. Our geography and culture reflect that. Maybe this perspective will lessen as the nation grows older, with fewer opportunities to start anew. Or maybe we’ll just continue to blaze new trails and leave our old worlds behind, whether that is in a new location, or in the fact that we forget how to bake a pie from scratch, or just because we’re always searching for who we are – when in fact, change is who we are.

 

Published in: on November 23, 2012 at 6:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,