Ridiculous Statement of the Week

We don’t want sidewalks. Sidewalks will bring crime.

This is something planners hear (way too many times) when at public meetings for suburban neighborhoods, meetings proposing sidewalks to be built where there are none.

I’m going to try to back up this comment for the people who have said it, since they skipped about thirteen steps in faulty logic to come to this conclusion.

  1. Sidewalks allow pedestrian access.
  2. Pedestrians are only pedestrians because they can’t afford cars.
  3. Poor people can’t afford cars. So they walk (for miles) to the outlying suburbs to shoot people randomly and steal stuff, but only if they hear that suburb has sidewalks.
  4. IF we have sidewalks, we WILL get invaded by outsiders and crime will rise at an alarming rate.
  5. Don’t even get us STARTED on apartment complexes. That’s just asking for low-class or black people crime.
  6. As long as we’re all in our cars, we’re all safe.
The Sidewalk. Bringing crime to the suburbs since 1942.
The Sidewalk. Bringing crime to the suburbs since 1942.

Sidewalks are public amenities that enable people to walk through a neighborhood without sharing the road with cars.

Sidewalks provide space with a buffer from traffic for children to ride their bikes on safely.

Sidewalks make natural exercise more possible.

Sidewalks send a signal: Yes, you can walk through here. Yes, we are actual people and not machines who drive everywhere. Yes, we have souls.

Cars kill 39,000 people a year on average.

(Since I won’t be able to say this to you when I have a job in the planning field,)  SUCK IT.

 

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Beautiful City

I work in southwest Detroit now.  My supervisor took me on a tour of southwest Detroit today. We drove around for an hour.

The neighborhoods have mature trees and houses that sit close to one another. Some houses are burnt to the ground. Some are fine. There is a large island of industrial landscape and it looks like some cynical writer’s depiction of the future. There are terrible pot holes with stories behind them. There are miles of railroad. There’s a historical Fort that should be a tourist attraction. There’s a river with half-sunken boats, and houses near the bank. There are stable neighborhoods where the residents have lived there for over 50 years. There’s a huge empty train station that you can see from many angles in the city. The more it crumbles the more beautiful it gets. There’s a newly-built bridge and market with new concrete and new design and no people. There are tires everywhere. There’s a foundation where a Propane truck careened off a ramp, exploded, and burned down a house. There’s a field where a baseball stadium was. There are birds and vines and weeds overgrowing and bricks falling down. There is life and death in a natural ratio; there is no discrete line where built meets nature. There are stories and history on every block.  This is the most fascinating and beautiful place I have seen.

How We Talk about Progress: Urban Terrorism in Grand Rapids

In East Hills of Grand Rapids, vandalism has popped up as a recurring problem. After some disturbing letters and threats, it is clear these “urban terrorists” believe Wealthy street and the nearby area are being gentrified. Gentrification is when an urban area gets revitalized and higher income people start moving in and renovating the buildings. This process frequently displaces lower income residents, especially in large cities like Chicago where entire low-income housing structures (ones that are not vacant) are sold and renovated as condos, leaving the former residents scrambling for new affordable housing.

Nothing this extreme has happened in Grand Rapids. The past few years has just been decrease in property values all over the city. But the reverse demographic shift (the people who moved out to the suburbs or a better life are moving back into the city for a better life) has finally hit West Michigan.  So when this neighborhood, with businesses like the Green Well, the Winchester, and Wealthy Street Bakery, which have sprung up in the last ten years, sees this kind of economic development, it is an exciting new trend for real estate statistics and has implications for Grand Rapids’ economic situation.

This whole state is in trouble, and we all know that. My point here is that gentrification is not happening in this area, but something else is. And we should pay attention.

It is tempting to jump on any band wagon that shows economic activity in a part of town that used to be more run down. It is easy to slap the “improvement!” label on any neighborhood that has an influx of white people and new businesses. We keep seeing articles about great things happening and the pictures show brand new stuff that looks old fashioned and hip, white people riding bikes fashionably, and the words “local first” everywhere, and we say it’s so much better than it was before. This is kind of like telling a person who lost a significant amount of weight how amazing they look now. The classic response is, “well geez, did I look that awful before?”  What are we implying when we say “wow, this neighborhood has really turned around!”

We have to be careful about how we talk about progress and improvement in neighborhoods. What was the neighborhood like before? Was it truly empty? Because there are neighborhoods in Grand Rapids (Burton/Eastern area) that have thriving businesses that aren’t related to stuff white people like, and are very diverse economically and racially. Moreover, when I drive through these neighborhoods I constantly see people waving from their cars to each other or meeting on the street. There is definitely a close-knit community among the black population in SE Grand Rapids and I fear we are ignoring this by only measuring progress by economic development.

I can see why this would happen though, because right now we equate, subconsciously, upper economic class with white people. We subconsciously think, “how can we get white people back into this neighborhood?” because we see that as a sign of the return of safety and vitality. And this might contain a kernel of truth sometimes, but this mode of thinking is more dangerous because it’s so insidious. This kind of thinking perpetuates the racism that still exists everywhere, the racism that cripples people from being happy about who they are.

Whether it’s The Green Well or Happy’s Pizza that’s a hopping place on a Friday night, we should call it good.

The terrorists could be anyone, from white suburb kids to old angry people. What they’re doing is incredibly wrong and they’re actually sabotaging a valid point with misunderstanding and fear mongering.

Old New Bad Good ???

Back in the 40s and 50s, old was the bane of all evil.

Now, we love old stuff. Old Victorian houses are Pricey, man. Antique stores crawling with people.

The key to making/keeping our world a nice place to live in is balance. Old and new need to coexist on our streets. Nature is full of old, new, dead, alive.  Dead trees can be more beautiful and useful than live ones. Without death there would be no dirt to support new life.

I love garden metaphors.

Look at this repurposed old warehouse.

The City: The First Suburbs Were Called “Green Cities”

I found The City, a documentary from 1939, at the library. Copland does a fantastic score for it, by the way. I wasn’t sure what the expect but what I got was truckloads of insight into why we have suburbs today.

Cities were hell holes.

The first part of this doc shows the Utopia of farm life. It functions well, the air is clean, and communities are strong. Then it starkly contrasts this dream with factory-laden cities where everything is filthy, there’s not a tree in sight, kids play in slums, smoke stacks, hunger, traffic accidents, poverty. “Smoke makes prosperity, no matter if you choke on it.”

The big shocker for me was the turning point of the documentary. It starts showing suburbs with plenty of trees, space, and sidewalks. It shows highways in a positive light, people biking and walking, and peaceful buses picking up commuters in the middle of nowhere. “Factories are set apart from living quarters, but close to rail and motor roads, with space to set about it. People can even walk to work and have lunch at home sometimes, just like the kids.”

After watching this, you can completely understand why urban sprawl happened. The motives were (if not racist and sexist) completely pure.

What do we know now that they don’t know?

Spread-out plans can cost more and eat up a lot of land, especially when population grows exponentially.

People like Robert Moses had to be born and car-obsessed, subsidizing cars so much that trains and public transit were pushed out of many communities.

Good planning doesn’t necessarily make good communities or happy people. Just watch the 9 million movies that cast a negative light on Utopian suburbia.

Schools would somehow become places for police supervision, even in the suburbs and subdivisions. Kids don’t walk to school anymore, even in suburbs and subdivisions. Somehow after building all of these suburbs and subdivisions we still don’t feel “safe.” Perhaps suburbs don’t create peace at all. Getting away from the inner city and the minorities who live there doesn’t create safety. (Didn’t Columbine poke a hole in that belief?) Maybe it just reinforces segregation and racism.

What they saw that we’ve lost sight of

Cities are (still) broken. No one should have to live with the messes that urban life can create.

Cities shouldn’t grow too large to be managed.

The “green communities” described actually fit the exact description of New Urbanism. “Houses clustered together, close to schools, the public meeting hall, the movies, and the markets.” Produce comes from nearby farms.

What went wrong

Suburbs became places only navigable by car, with garages shooting out to the driveways so that neighbors are less likely to know each other. Highways split part cities and, in Detroit’s case, somewhat killed them. Zoning compartmentalized commercial, residential, and industrial areas to be too separate, creating risky climates for success on the commercial properties’ part.

What we’ve done right

Putting farms and gardens back into the cities.

Moved industry away from living quarters (though we still need to cut down on pollution)

Local food is increasing in popularity by day.

Here’s a clip from the documentary, which is entirely on Youtube in four parts.

How Local News Could Be Better

I have always been encouraged to watch the news at 5. Sometimes I do, but most days I can’t spare the emotional expense. Every day, there is a story about a crime, a murder, or a deadly accident in Grand Rapids. Yes, it’s good to know about these things. I guess. It’s good to be daily reminded that there’s bad things in the world, and then offered no way of helping the situation or preventing future ones, the way we could if our local news served us better.

Billboards advertising different news channels keep calling their news “stories.” Bringing you the story. I don’t want a story. I want the news. I don’t want a narrative. Because the narrative of West Michigan right now is that our economy is failing, crime is rising, and living is getting more and more expensive. There are about three million ways to write Michigan’s story, and I’m not a fan of this one. It’s too pessimistic.

As news anchors put your focus on an unfortunate incident that happened on Fuller, they put less and less accent on future local polls and elections, and they don’t give us the information or resources to be well-educated on the issues featured. What if they posted “stories” of peoples’ efforts to fix things? Why do these Grassroots Grand Rapidian Superheroes have to use Twitter and Facebook to get their projects going?

I feel that it’s perpetuating a prejudiced and racist theme. Neighborhoods shouldn’t be called “bad” based on these stories. Places can’t be bad. There is no wicked city. Sodom and Gomorrah symbolize wicked culture and evil ideas, which form a structure that can be seen and felt when we enter a certain place. What’s really more dangerous than your neighborhood is your media. What is it really telling us?

Showing the snapshots they do of the neighborhoods of Grand Rapids and the stuff that happens in them really gives details and evidents of overarching trends locally and nationally. That is what I’m starting to notice about the news. But does everyone notice this?

And, as I mentioned in my Bus Rapid Transit post, why did no one fully understand what the Silver Line was?  Why did a bill get shot down two years ago that would have supported GRCC financially? The only ones voting in local elections are people who hate taxes. Taxes are vital to our way of life. They must be carefully allocated, and not be the reason to vote down a new project.

Suburbs Should Not Be Subsidized

ubsidizing suburbs is like subsidizing junk food, cigarettes, and bad movies. I don’t know why I threw in bad movies. But it works for me.

Some people want houses, yards, and driveways. People want easy access for cars. People don’t want to be friends with their neighbors. These people don’t need community in their neighborhoods, because, bluntly, they have Facebook. There are legitimate reasons for all of this and they are completely free to live how they want.

But these rights should never have imposed on the cities. Detroit is a mess because it’s spliced up by highways. The one highway cutting through Grand Rapids has ruined its surrounding neighborhoods. Who wants to be right next to a highway? Half the buildings in Grand Rapids, now, are parking garages. Boring wastes of space, still better than flat parking lots, mind you, but still boring and generating no revenue. Once a city is built for a car the city dies. Except LA. But LA has some weird mystical gods protecting it.  Cities, in general, are not meant for cars. They are meant for people.

And these rights shouldn’t impose economically on everyone else who chooses to live differently. Complaining about taxes? A lot of our tax money goes to supporting suburban developments, because the infrastructure of them is so spread out and inefficient that it costs more to build and keep homes and establishments in that way.

Before we even think about New Urbanism and bike lanes, we need to face the fact that our set-up here is unfair and silly. You are free to make choices that negatively affect other people, such as smoking in their presence, but it’s taking freedom a little too far when everyone has to pay money out of their pocket so that those choices, the ones that NEGATIVELY effect other people, are still possible. We have got to stop this now. Let’s have true free market here and stop holding up places that would fail otherwise. (Because a Logan’s Roadhouse in the middle of nowhere does not make any sense.) Let’s let them fail. Let’s build a new home for ourselves.

Physical Community and Internetworking

With the Internet being the primary way I communicate with people, and having grown up this way, I have to wonder why I care about the physical community around me so much. I can find people who have the same tastes, beliefs, ideals as I do on-line.

That’s the same argument that Randall O’Toole (he sure is) in his awful book called the Best Laid Plans or something like that. He was all, “why are planners all concerned with communities? We don’t need that anymore because we have the internet.”

Oh, okay.

The creation and extensive use of craigslist.com shows the marriage of physical community and internetworking. (Did I just make up a word?) Here, people can anonymously sell things, hire people, lease apartments, and post missed connections. People like it because it’s safe. You don’t have to have any contact information on any of your posts. They even finally have gotten better spam protection.

I think craigslist is a good start, but the same idea is going to have a different looking and working website in the future. It is great that it categorizes by location, but what if each neighborhood had its own forum? On Facebook, my neighborhood has its own page–but it only has 80 fans. You know more than 80 people in my neighborhood have Facebook.

Neighborhood pride went out when platte developments came in. Of course, I have met people who actually do know all of their neighbors. But in my neighborhood, one that had an annual block party only 15 years ago, this aspect is gone. Maybe an internet forum for neighborhoods defeats the purpose–we could simply knock on peoples’ doors and say hi, couldn’t we? In a span of ten years, it has become more easy and safe for people to post on a website than to initiate in person.

This confused post shows how big we’re going to have to dream as internet integrates more and more deeply into our lives.

Racism in Urban Planning

When driving through a city, people will say an area is blighted when they see houses that aren’t spiffy and a lot of black people walking around.

Taking my own advice from my “Reclaim your surroundings” post, I looked at my city in a new way and realized that this isn’t the case. These neighborhoods don’t need to be New Urbanised or even revitalized. At least not in the way we’d want to do it as planners or architects. When I drive up Eastern to Franklin, Hall, and Wealthy, I see people honking at each other out of greeting, people walking, people talking on street corners, people saying hi to each other. It’s a habit to look at this and say “oh they’re walking because they can’t afford a car.” But in reality, they are living a life I keep dreaming and writing about on this blog. Taking the bus. Walking places. These aren’t negative things.

Grand Rapids is still pretty segregated. I think there is racism on both sides. There are two different cultures going on. The white culture looks at old houses and wants to repaint them and make the neighborhood artsy and gentrified. Is it really necessary?  I’m not saying stay in your suburbs. Oh gosh, no. I got lost in a suburb section last night while driving home from work. Horrifying.

Are suburbs the new projects?

So this is the New Year and I feel tons different. TONS.

F irst things first, before I forget: there is an electric car in Grand Rapids that looks like a silver cylinder that drives around Easttown a lot and I have seen it on Plainfield at midnight one night this past fall. If you know anything about this or the owner please contact me! When I saw it, it was a very dark night and I thought it was an airplane without wings. Further sources have told me this is a bad description.

Sorry to contradict Ben Gibbard’s sentiments but I am feeling TONS different from my last post, which was written last year. Now I don’t know how to even phrase the ideas going around in my head.

A conversation I had the other day with a Taoist summed everything up: by playing part in this political game we are distracting and impeding ourselves and our kids from dreaming.

Good.is, and online magazine, features many solutions and rarely rants or fosters useless anger about problems. Another plus: it is not high on itself, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Their Ideas for Cities series makes you think outside the box, something we sorely need to do right now.

If you think about it, America is very young. We are a little over 250 years old. We were born yesterday. There is no reason to stick to anything that isn’t working for us.

I can translate the questions from my last post into ideas. For example: Why don’t we know our neighbors? I guess I meant this as a rhetorical question but it’s more effective if you try to answer it. What if instead of calling police about loud music, we confronted our neighbors politely?  Do we not think people will comply if we had even the shallowest of relationships with them? More rhetorical questions, but it’s more what I meant.

What if instead of waiting for crime to happen and then arresting and imprisoning people thus ruining their lives forever, we sent in interveners, who basically distract and dissipate a bad situation?  We do this with our kids all the time. All the time. When I cried/whined as a small child, my dad would hold me up to the mirror and I would see myself and start laughing. It’s not that hard to distract someone from what they’re doing, especially when they’re in a drunken rage.

(Side note on crime: the public eye is the best non-violent weapon against crime in a densely populated place. Rural areas don’t have a public eye. That is why guns are so valued out there, because if a girl is getting gas alone in the middle of nowhere, who is going to step in if no one sees some rapist approaching her? And how are we so sure crime won’t move to sprawling places as they become more and more dilapidated?)

If police officers walked the streets of a city again, they would be preventing more crime. Here’s why I think so: a police officer in a car has a literal barrier from the neighborhood around him; he becomes anonymous. When we see police cars, we think of their targets, which are usually speeding cars and drunk drivers, we don’t think of them as interveners in a house break-in.  A police car comes and goes in a neighborhood. A strolling officer lingers for ten to twenty minutes. And the citizens get to know him, too. He becomes a presence and everyone feels safer and more connected.

We don’t even need to leave intervening and patrolling to the police force. We can do a great deal of that on our own.  When I was in college, my boyfriend of the time told me that he heard a guy yelling at his girlfriend repeatedly in a very abusive manner. After some minutes of this, there was heard the voice of a very loud, very friendly sophomore who said “Hey! Whatcha doin’ out there?!” in a tone of loud curiosity without a hint of even threat. This dissipated the situation completely. When we intervene, we give people a self-awareness they didn’t have a moment before.

The crime issue is the issue with the most viable solution in my eyes right now.  Our issues with food, unemployment, homelessness, and the environment have livelittle solutions to them but will need huge reworking to deal with, and this change will happen beyond most of our lifetimes.

And it will happen, and change will happen in your life. Because at one point, we all decide to stop distracting ourselves and to live our tiny insignificant lives. Everything that happens to you in 2010 will be important in ways no one will ever recognize– not even you. The best you can do is live in your moment, appreciate the scope of your world and your mind, and to invite others into it.

If we start thinking like we’re going to be okay, maybe we’ll finally realize that we already are.