Daily Archives: April 25, 2006

Save Our Land, Save Our Towns

Dawn leaves work early Monday night to go to Catholic University to some library science class. She’s not taking the class; rather, she’s one of three members of a panel of some sort presenting to a class. My understanding is that some co-worker of hers was supposed to do it but had to back out at the last minute, and Dawn is filling in for her. Things go late so Dawn doesn’t get out until like 7:30, and then she doesn’t get to the Brookland CUA Metro stop until almost 8:00. I pick her up at Union Station at 8:20.

So anyway we get home late and have dinner late, too late to start an episode of Horatio or The Forsyte Saga that we’ve been watching. But we end up finding on PBS a documentary called Save Our Land, Save Our Towns, about suburban sprawl and land use planning. It’s utterly and thoroughly compelling.

It first makes me think how my brother every chance he gets reminds me that he thinks that DC is a special corner of Hell. And that makes me so fucking mad every time he spews that shit. First of all because it’s just gone beyond rude at this point, that he has to keep saying it. But then also because he lives out Route 7 in Loudon County in fucking grotesque suburban sprawl. And that sprawl is killing him and killing America.

The part we saw in Save Our Land, Save Our Towns talked about the postwar development of suburbs, and the decay of cities, as being a byproduct of fractured zoning laws among too many municipalities, as well as great subsidization of highways, and everything devoted to the automobile, at the expense of public transportation. Nowadays, of course, so many states and counties are realizing that suburbs are ugly and polluting and isolating places, and are not at all a good model. Hence the renewal of cities, as witnessed by the astonishing real estate market in my city, as well as the idea of mixed use, town-like development rather than awful Levittowns and strip malls.

And today I hear that Jane Jacobs has died. She apparently was the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. And I immediately like how that title has it, first death and then life. I really feel that, living in a city as I do, that life. My neighborhood is getting better, with fewer and fewer boarded up abandoned buildings. (The once abandoned and now grossly expanding house next door to me notwithstanding.)

And I really felt it today when Dawn and I were walking to work. We said hello to Rob a couple doors down as he was leaving for work. Around the corner we said hello to Tiffany, as she was getting on her bike and leaving for work. We said hello to the two dogs that we know, Simon and Rose, and we petted Rose’s head, and chatted with their owner, whom we know only as Mr. Simon or sometimes Mr. Rose.

We waved at the Jack Russel terrier who’s always in the upstairs window at 1347 Mass and whom we call Jack, and he gave us a friendly bark. We said hello to the guy at the bus stop at Independence and Massachusetts, whom we learned today is named Peter. We waved to the woman who jogs in Lincoln Park with her yellow lab. We saw our ballet friend Renee walking her two dogs. We chatted for half a block with the woman who owns the three English Sheepdogs that we think, and she agreed, look like pandas.

We waved at Ann in her minivan (okay, driving her kids to school); we see them and exchange waves a lot of mornings on D Street. And I chatted briefly with my friend from St. Matt’s on Connecticut Avenue on my walk from Farragut North to my building.

Meanwhile, millions of people in the suburbs got in their cars and drove to work, spending hours in the car alone, spewing pollution, without a kind word to or from anybody. Oh, except for Howard Stern on the radio, if he counts for kind words. Now, admittedly, we don’t see all those people every morning, but we do see somebody, one or two of them, every morning. Or we see and chat with Tiger the Yorkshire terrier and his owner. Or wave to the old white gentleman who buys the morning paper at the market at 4th and Mass. Or the old black gentleman who lives in the building next to the old Red River Grill. Or the homeless woman outside the Catholic Charities John L. Young Center. Our commute is really friendly.

But of course I don’t really know much about urban planning and land use, or know just a little, just enough to think maybe I know something, which is usually worse than knowing nothing, so I want to learn more. The Save our Land, Save our Towns website lists books to read for further reference. And I even know one of them, Edge City by Joel Garreau, having read a bit of it. I even met Joel Garreau when he came into the Crown Books at 22nd and M when I was working one weekend, when I worked for Tony Bell as a floating manager. I got Mr. Garreau to sign a copy for me, mostly because the book had these great photos comparing Tysons Corner in like 1940 to Tysons Corner today (or then, in 1990 or so). But I don’t think I ever finished the book. I’m pretty sure I didn’t, although it was a long time ago, so who knows. I’m sure I don’t have that signed copy anymore. The website recommends Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth T. Jackson as the definitive history of suburban sprawl.

Of course I want to read more about St. Paul, and more woodworking books and magazines, and keep up with my New Yorker subscription. And more about the Mexican Revolution and the Cristeros. More about land use planning? Then it’ll have to be in my spare time, my other spare time, the spare time from my spare time.

But my point here, I suppose, if I ever really have a point, is that living in the city is good for me. It’s good for my physical health. It’s good for my mental health, my psychic health, my cultural health. And it’s apparently good for the environment. Gosh darn it, it’s good for America.