Tuesday, June 29, 2004

accept these vegetables

Last weekend The Lotus' grandmother, who has never lived anywhere but in small towns, asked us about our neighbours: which ones we were friends with, which were particulary nice, etc. We took a moment to figure out that we knew none of them (except for one, a frightful stalker-robot of a woman who moved into our building in order to be closer to The Lotus). We explained that our friends and neighbours were not congruent sets - it would make for one sad and lonely Venn diagram - and she nodded, but I could see the grave pity in her eyes for us sad isolated urbanites.

Hard on the heels of reading Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities, I found the episode instructive. Cities, even relatively small ones, are, unlike towns, made of strangers. Having lived in a town of 1000 from the ages of eight to eighteen, I can attest to the difference. In the tiny blot where I spent my adolescence, the various families that lived there had spent the previous 250 years poking their noses into each other's business. Everyone who walked down King or Duke or Victoria Streets trailed a cloud of reputation that went back at least one or two generations. Even though you may have close friends from other parts of town or even in the city ('from away'), you knew who your neighours were. You dealt with them on at least a weekly basis: Mr. Rhyno wanted to buy the shed in your backyard; Mrs. Collicutt came over with something for your garden; Mrs. Bowser waved hello every day or so from across the street; Mr. Barkhouse was disputing a mutual property boundary. Sooner or later everybody in town had a reason to pull into your driveway, flag you down outside the pharmacy, stand around in your kitchen for a few minutes. It was alternately cozy and suffocating, but it wasn't really something you could withdraw from without making an incongruous island of your household. Besides, being a good member of the community buys you a measure of protection; a good reputation can leave you free to get away with all kinds of nasty things.

In the city, those small-town rules don't really apply. It's certainly possible to make friends with a neighbour, but relationships tend to form around communities of mutual interest or work. If I want to buy a shed I'll go to Home Depot. If I grow something in a garden I'll take it to the office (if I worked at the office anymore, that is... Ah-hahahaha). Frankly, I think it would be a bit creepy if I banged on people's doors and offered them zucchinis. "Please don't call the police," I'd say, "and accept these vegetables". This is due in part to the neighbourhood I live in, composed of apartment blocks, senior citizens' homes and small businesses. As far as I know, there are no young families in the area with their attendant tangle of children to provide a means of getting to know the strangers on the block.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this state of affairs. By virtue of the nature of cities, there is no reason for me to know the people across the hall or even across the street. We exchange smiles when we see each other or make small talk in the laundry room. What possible reason could I find to stand around in these people's living rooms? The mutual web of interest that operates in small towns is directed outward in cities precisely to accomodate the fact that large numbers of strangers have to live together and get along. Nonetheless, our street still has a life. Pedestrians come and go all day, people sit out on their steps, a steady stream exits and enters the mental health clinic across the street. Senior citizens walk to the nearby park, play shuffleboard or sit on benches. On Sundays the deck at Pavlo's is crowded. Joggers and power walkers file up from Wascana Park during lunch hour. My neighbourhood is, in fact, one of the few places in town where you can watch pedestrians. It's the mingling of nominally friendly strangers, each sharing a common space to conduct their business, that creates a healthy city life.

Most of what I'm saying is pretty much an echo of what Jane Jacobs was saying in 1961. It is clear, though, that people still haven't caught on to this basic fact of urban life. City planners design weird little faux-neighbourhoods with curling crescents and inward-facing houses, apparently unaware that the various residents have no pressing need to know each other (Has it ever occurred to planners that all those curvy crescents and bendy bays are dangerous? On straight blocks traffic and pedestrians are readily visible, but crescents afford no warning if you swing around a corner and spot a kid on a tricycle). The people who live in Albert Park, say, may have a similar income bracket and range of tastes, but they get in their Subarus and Mercedes SUVs every morning and drive off to different parts of the city to work, where they spend the day with a set of people who may or may not live close to them. In the evening they stay indoors or take their children to sports or highland dance classes or whatever. Poor kids. The parks that accompany these neighbourhoods stay empty. The little shopping plazas languish. The streets are dead empty. By any measure aside from the income level of the residents, these places are failures, vacuums of city life.

I'm not saying that neighbourhood relationships in cities don't exist, or that zucchini exchange between apartment dwellers is impossible. I wonder, though, if we have yet to understand what it is to live in a city, choosing as we do to live in oversized mansions in imitation towns embedded in urban environments or walled away at the city's edge. Meanwhile the truly urban areas are ignored, starved of funds, left to flake apart and thereby confirm everybody's opinion of the area as being dilapitated or even dangerous. What amazes me most is that the city-wrecking ideas and attitudes that Jacobs described in 1961 are plainly visible forty four years later in the development of the place where I live. Most of the semi-suburban areas here were built years after Jacobs pointed out the obvious - that cities are suburbs or towns, and that to design them otherwise invites disaster. It's true that Jacobs had other kinds of developments in mind, but the basic principles haven't changed.

2 comments:

schmutzie said...

I shudder to think what our neighbours might think if I went around offering them zucchinis. Especially if I referred to them as "girthy".

palinode said...

Recent studies indicate that girth is an important factor in maintaining a healthy city life.