The city we’re all looking for

From The Golden Age by Kenneth Grahame:

ALL the roads of our neighbourhood were cheerful and friendly, having each of them pleasant qualities of their own; but this one seemed different from the others in its masterful suggestion of a serious purpose, speeding you along with a strange uplifting of the heart. The others tempted chiefly with their treasures of hedge and ditch; the rapt surprise of the first lords-and-ladies, the rustle of a field-mouse, splash of a frog; while cool noses of brother-beasts were pushed at you through gate or gap. A loiterer you had need to be, did you choose one of them,—so many were the tiny hands thrust out to detain you, from this side and that. But this other was of a sterner sort, and even in its shedding off of bank and hedgerow as it marched straight and full for the open downs, it seemed to declare its contempt for adventitious trappings to catch the shallow-pated. When the sense of injustice or disappointment was heavy on me, and things were very black within, as on this particular day, the road of character was my choice for that solitary ramble, when I turned my back for an afternoon on a world that had unaccountably declared itself against me.

“The Knights’ Road,” we children had named it, from a sort of feeling that, if from any quarter at all, it would be down this track we might some day see Lancelot and his peers come pacing on their great war-horses,—supposing that any of the stout band still survived, in nooks and unexplored places. Grown-up people sometimes spoke of it as the “Pilgrims’ Way”; but I didn’t know much about pilgrims,—except Walter in the Horselberg story. Him I sometimes saw, breaking with haggard eyes out of yonder copse, and calling to the pilgrims as they hurried along on their desperate march to the Holy City, where peace and pardon were awaiting them. “All roads lead to Rome,” I had once heard somebody say; and I had taken the remark very seriously, of course, and puzzled over it many days. There must have been some mistake, I concluded at last; but of one road at least I intuitively felt it to be true. And my belief was clinched by something that fell from Miss Smedley during a history lesson, about a strange road that ran right down the middle of England till it reached the coast, and then began again in France, just opposite, and so on undeviating, through city and vineyard, right from the misty Highlands to the Eternal City. Uncorroborated, any statement of Miss Smedley’s usually fell on incredulous ears; but here, with the road itself in evidence, she seemed, once, in a way, to have strayed into truth.

Rome! It was fascinating to think that it lay at the other end of this white ribbon that rolled itself off from my feet over the distant downs. I was not quite so uninstructed as to imagine l could reach it that afternoon; but some day, I thought, if things went on being as unpleasant as they were now,—some day, when Aunt Eliza had gone on a visit,—we would see.

I tried to imagine what it would be like when I got there. The Coliseum I knew, of course, from a woodcut in the history-book: so to begin with I plumped that down in the middle. The rest had to be patched up from the little grey market-town where twice a year we went to have our hair cut; hence, in the result, Vespasian’s amphitheatre was approached by muddy little streets, wherein the Red Lion and the Blue Boar, with Somebody’s Entire along their front, and “Commercial Room” on their windows; the doctor’s house, of substantial red-brick; and the facade of the New Wesleyan Chapel, which we thought very fine, were the chief architectural ornaments: while the Roman populace pottered about in smocks and corduroys, twisting the tails of Roman calves and inviting each other to beer in musical Wessex. From Rome I drifted on to other cities, dimly heard of—Damascus, Brighton (Aunt Eliza’s ideal), Athens, and Glasgow, whose glories the gardener sang; but there was a certain sameness in my conception of all of them: that Wesleyan chapel would keep cropping up everywhere. It was easier to go a-building among those dream-cities where no limitations were imposed, and one was sole architect, with a free hand. Down a delectable street of cloud-built palaces I was mentally pacing, when I happened upon the Artist.

He was seated at work by the roadside, at a point whence the cool large spaces of the downs, juniper-studded, swept grandly westwards. His attributes proclaimed him of the artist tribe: besides, he wore knickerbockers like myself,—a garb confined, I was aware, to boys and artists. I knew I was not to bother him with questions, nor look over his shoulder and breathe in his ear—they didn’t like it, this genus irritabile; but there was nothing about staring in my code of instructions, the point having somehow been overlooked: so, squatting down on the grass, I devoted myself to a passionate absorbing of every detail. At the end of five minutes there was not a button on him that I could not have passed an examination in; and the wearer himself of that homespun suit was probably less familiar with its pattern and texture than I was. Once he looked up, nodded, half held out his tobacco pouch,—mechanically, as it were,—then, returning it to his pocket, resumed his work, and I my mental photography.

After another five minutes or so had passed he remarked, without looking my way: “Fine afternoon we’re having: going far to-day?”

“No, I’m not going any farther than this,” I replied; “I WAS thinking of going on to Rome but I’ve put it off.”

“Pleasant place, Rome,” he murmured; “you’ll like it.” It was some minutes later that he added: “But I wouldn’t go just now, if I were you,—too jolly hot.”

“YOU haven’t been to Rome, have you?” I inquired.

“Rather,” he replied, briefly; “I live there.”

This was too much, and my jaw dropped as I struggled to grasp the fact that I was sitting there talking to a fellow who lived in Rome. Speech was out of the question: besides, I had other things to do. Ten solid minutes had I already spent in an examination of him as a mere stranger and artist; and now the whole thing had to be done over again, from the changed point of view. So I began afresh, at the crown of his soft hat, and worked down to his solid British shoes, this time investing everything with the new Roman halo; and at last I managed to get out: “But you don’t really live there, do you?” never doubting the fact, but wanting to hear it repeated.

“Well,” he said, good-naturedly overlooking the slight rudeness of my query, “I live there as much as l live anywhere,—about half the year sometimes. I’ve got a sort of a shanty there. You must come and see it some day.”

“But do you live anywhere else as well?” I went on, feeling the forbidden tide of questions surging up within me.

“O yes, all over the place,” was his vague reply. “And I’ve got a diggings somewhere off Piccadilly.”

“Where’s that?” I inquired.

“Where’s what?” said he. “Oh, Piccadilly! It’s in London.”

“Have you a large garden?” I asked; “and how many pigs have you got?”

“I’ve no garden at all,” he replied, sadly, “and they don’t allow me to keep pigs, though I’d like to, awfully. It’s very hard.”

“But what do you do all day, then,” I cried, “and where do you go and play, without any garden, or pigs, or things?”

“When I want to play,” he said, gravely, “I have to go and play in the street; but it’s poor fun, I grant you. There’s a goat, though, not far off, and sometimes I talk to him when I’m feeling lonely; but he’s very proud.”

“Goats ARE proud,” I admitted. “There’s one lives near here, and if you say anything to him at all, he hits you in the wind with his head. You know what it feels like when a fellow hits you in the wind?”

“I do, well,” he replied, in a tone of proper melancholy, and painted on.

“And have you been to any other places,” I began again, presently, “besides Rome and Piccy-what’s-his-name?”

“Heaps,” he said. “I’m a sort of Ulysses—seen men and cities, you know. In fact, about the only place I never got to was the Fortunate Island.”

I began to like this man. He answered your questions briefly and to the point, and never tried to be funny. I felt I could be confidential with him.

“Wouldn’t you like,” I inquired, “to find a city without any people in it at all?”

He looked puzzled. “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand,” said he.

“I mean,” I went on eagerly, “a city where you walk in at the gates, and the shops are all full of beautiful things, and the houses furnished as grand as can be, and there isn’t anybody there whatever! And you go into the shops, and take anything you want—chocolates and magic lanterns and injirubber balls—and there’s nothing to pay; and you choose your own house and live there and do just as you like, and never go to bed unless you want to!”

The artist laid down his brush. “That WOULD be a nice city,” he said. “Better than Rome. You can’t do that sort of thing in Rome,—or in Piccadilly either. But I fear it’s one of the places I’ve never been to.”

“And you’d ask your friends,” I went on, warming to my subject,—”only those you really like, of course,—and they’d each have a house to themselves,—there’d be lots of houses,—and no relations at all, unless they promised they’d be pleasant, and if they weren’t they’d have to go.”

“So you wouldn’t have any relations?” said the artist. “Well, perhaps you’re right. We have tastes in common, I see.”

“I’d have Harold,” I said, reflectively, “and Charlotte. They’d like it awfully. The others are getting too old. Oh, and Martha—I’d have Martha, to cook and wash up and do things. You’d like Martha. She’s ever so much nicer than Aunt Eliza. She’s my idea of a real lady.”

“Then I’m sure I should like her,” he replied, heartily, “and when I come to—what do you call this city of yours? Nephelo—something, did you say?”

“I—I don’t know,” I replied, timidly. “I’m afraid it hasn’t got a name—yet.”

The artist gazed out over the downs. “‘The poet says, dear city of Cecrops;’” he said, softly, to himself, “‘and wilt not thou say, dear city of Zeus?’ That’s from Marcus Aurelius,” he went on, turning again to his work. “You don’t know him, I suppose; you will some day.”

“Who’s he?” I inquired.

“Oh, just another fellow who lived in Rome,” he replied, dabbing away.

“O dear!” I cried, disconsolately. “What a lot of people seem to live at Rome, and I’ve never even been there! But I think I’d like MY city best.”

“And so would I,” he replied with unction. “But Marcus Aurelius wouldn’t, you know.”

“Then we won’t invite him,” I said, “will we?”

I won’t if you won’t,” said he. And that point being settled, we were silent for a while.

“Do you know,” he said, presently, “I’ve met one or two fellows from time to time who have been to a city like yours,—perhaps it was the same one. They won’t talk much about it—only broken hints, now and then; but they’ve been there sure enough. They don’t seem to care about anything in particular—and every thing’s the same to them, rough or smooth; and sooner or later they slip off and disappear; and you never see them again. Gone back, I suppose.”

“Of course,” said I. “Don’t see what they ever came away for; I wouldn’t,—to be told you’ve broken things when you haven’t, and stopped having tea with the servants in the kitchen, and not allowed to have a dog to sleep with you. But I’ve known people, too, who’ve gone there.”

The artist stared, but without incivility.

“Well, there’s Lancelot,” I went on. “The book says he died, but it never seemed to read right, somehow. He just went away, like Arthur. And Crusoe, when he got tired of wearing clothes and being respectable. And all the nice men in the stones who don’t marry the Princess, ‘cos only one man ever gets married in a book, you know. They’ll be there!”

“And the men who never come off,” he said, “who try like the rest, but get knocked out, or somehow miss,—or break down or get bowled over in the melee,—and get no Princess, nor even a second-class kingdom,—some of them’ll be there, I hope?”

“Yes, if you like,” I replied, not quite understanding him; “if they’re friends of yours, we’ll ask ‘em, of course.”

“What a time we shall have!” said the artist, reflectively; “and how shocked old Marcus Aurelius will be!”

The shadows had lengthened uncannily, a tide of golden haze was flooding the grey-green surface of the downs, and the artist began to put his traps together, preparatory to a move. I felt very low; we would have to part, it seemed, just as we were getting on so well together. Then he stood up, and he was very straight and tall, and the sunset was in his hair and beard as he stood there, high over me. He took my hand like an equal. “I’ve enjoyed our conversation very much,” he said. “That was an interesting subject you started, and we haven’t half exhausted it. We shall meet again, I hope.”

“Of course we shall,” I replied, surprised that there should be any doubt about it.

“In Rome, perhaps?” said he.

“Yes, in Rome,” I answered, “or Piccy-the-other-place, or somewhere.”

“Or else,” said he, “in that other city,—when we’ve found the way there. And I’ll look out for you, and you’ll sing out as soon as you see me. And we’ll go down the street arm-in-arm, and into all the shops, and then I’ll choose my house, and you’ll choose your house, and we’ll live there like princes and good fellows.”

“Oh, but you’ll stay in my house, won’t you?” I cried; “wouldn’t ask everybody; but I’ll ask YOU.”

He affected to consider a moment; then “Right!” he said: “I believe you mean it, and I WILL come and stay with you. I won’t go to anybody else, if they ask me ever so much. And I’ll stay quite a long time, too, and I won’t be any trouble.”

Upon this compact we parted, and I went down-heartedly from the man who understood me, back to the house where I never could do anything right. How was it that everything seemed natural and sensible to him, which these uncles, vicars, and other grown-up men took for the merest tomfoolery? Well, he would explain this, and many another thing, when we met again. The Knights’ Road! How it always brought consolation! Was he possibly one of those vanished knights I had been looking for so long? Perhaps he would be in armour next time,—why not? He would look well in armour, I thought. And I would take care to get there first, and see the sunlight flash and play on his helmet and shield, as he rode up the High Street of the Golden City.

Meantime, there only remained the finding it,—an easy matter.

 

 

The Turmoil

Just finished The Turmoil, a fierce roar from a hardened lamb named Booth Tarkington who with it attempted to to take down the American heartland of 1914 and very nearly succeeded. For us transpo dorks, it contains fascinating descriptions of a society coming to grips with its recent surrender of safety, community and sanity to its new overlord automobile:

There was a heavy town-fog that afternoon, a smoke-mist, densest in the sanctuary of the temple. The people went about in it, busy and dirty, thickening their outside and inside linings of coal-tar, asphalt, sulphurous acid, oil of vitriol, and the other familiar things the men liked to breathe and to have upon their skins and garments and upon their wives and babies and sweethearts. The growth of the city was visible in the smoke and the noise and the rush. There was more smoke than there had been this day of February a year earlier; there was more noise; and the crowds were thicker – yet quicker in spite of that. The traffic policemen had a hard time, for the people were independent – they retained some habits of the old market-town period, and would cross the street anywhere and anyhow, which not only got them killed more frequently than if they clung to the legal crossings, but kept the motormen, the chauffeurs, and the truck-drivers in a stew of profane nervousness. So the traffic policemen led harried lives; they themselves were killed, of course, with a certain periodicity, but their main trouble was that they could not make the citizens realize that it was actually and mortally perilous to go about their city…

There’s something sort of naive and juvenile in his determination to make this charging, heaving, American machine take a breath and a look in the mirror, but he does it with a passion that’s charming. Worth a read.

ps he’s the guy who wrote The Magnificent Ambersons, which Orson Welles later filmified.

When is National Year Out?

Tonight is National Night Out, the one night a year where we block cars from certain streets so they can be used in a way that actually enriches the community.  The City has a list of all the “official” NNO events, and it’s fun to look at the column that lists the planned activities to see what people would use their streets for if they didn’t have to fear for their lives every time they set foot on it:

  • Grilling/kids games
  • sit in street, watch planes
  • kids riding bikes in the street
  • Johnny Cash tribute band
  • Welcom[ing] new neighbors
  • hanging out for adults, sidewalk chalk/colors for kids
  • Plant/book exchange
  • a lot of laughter
  • Gospel rap
  • Barbecue, pinata, water balloon toss
  • kids running around
  • discuss cute dogs
  • Basketball Tournament
  • Share how things are in the n’hood
  • Hopefully visit from fire engine !
  • Kids “own” the street
  • Zumba
  • Beers, Brats, Buddies
  • self defense demo
  • celebrate life of a long-time neighbor who passed away recently
  • schmoozing
  • chicks-on-sticks
  • Chili cook-off
  • Chicken Wing Contest
  • kids bike decorating
  • possibly tours of gardens and/or guitar playing
  • the kids like to ride their bikes/play games in the street

As you browse the 33 page list, it becomes almost overwhelming how many of the activities that people have to wait till this one time a year to use their street for are just plain everyday activities.  When I was growing up in the suburbs, we played in the street all the time.  City kids I guess can only do that once a year, and only if you jump through enough bureaucratic hoops, and only if your street is deemed “inessential for traffic flow.”

By far the most common activity listed is “socializing” or a variation of it.  Of course socialization happens on these blocks on other nights, too, but only in people’s yards, or squeezed onto a narrow sidewalk.  Since most neighbors drive, random socialization can only happen if no one’s listening to music, or no one is stopped behind your car.

Sure, driving is an easy and comfortable way to get around, but is it worth it?

Yes, I am sitting in my apartment on the computer instead of at NNO event.  Leaving now…

 

How to be good, if you’re the mayor

A little while ago I accused RT Rybak of being a not-good mayor.  This was done mainly as a way to show how the hundreds of millions Rybak wants to give to the Vikings Corp as locational subsidies could be better spent, but it also stems from noticing that there has basically been no improvement in urban quality-of-life in Minneapolis that did not have a national origin (i.e. crime, biking).

But having recently realized that my blog is exclusively negative, I decided to throw out a few ideas about what Rybak could do if he wanted to be a good mayor.  For the most part, they are not easy.  Rybak would have to show the dogged persistence and willingness to sail against public opinion that has been so evident in his fight to subsidize the Vikings Corp.  Here’s how the Mayor can earn the label of “good,” in order of likelihood that he’ll actually do it:

1.  Support cycling.  Minneapolis brags a lot (at least once a month, it seems) about what a great biking town it is.  But faced with a choice between parking and biking it almost always goes for parking.  Out of the 23 most recent bike projects, only five of them involved significant parking removal, and one of those five was cancelled because of that fact.  This may be due to the fact that it’s relatively easy to add cycle facilities without removing parking, and that explanation is supported by the fact that 10 of the 23 projects involved removing a through lane; for example in a road diet.  But it also suggests that only the low-hanging fruit is being picked at this point, and where the fruit turns out to be higher than expected, like on the stalled* Glenwood project, the City backs off.  A mayor as charismatic and persuasive as Rybak has the potential to change that.

Bill is a talented dioramist

He wouldn’t have to threaten to fire the Director of Public Works or pull veto shenanigans.  If he were to just show up to neighborhood meetings such as those held recently for the Penn Ave S reconstruction in the Mayor’s neighborhood, he could use his political talents to convince neighbors of the advantages of providing basic bike accommodations.  Since as Mayor he has repeatedly stressed that he wants Minneapolis to be a “world-class bicycle city”, I don’t see any conflict of interest in going to neighborhood meetings to work towards that goal.  The fact that he so far has never done so is the only thing that makes me think this item is unlikely; with all the talking Rybak has done about bicycling, you’d think that some day he’ll eventually work towards it.

2.  Green Downtown.  Sure, another small park or two would be nice in what is from 9 to 5 on weekdays by far the densest neighborhood in the city.  But an easier way to green Downtown that would have an even bigger effect would be to simply remove a through lane from all the overbuilt streets.  One lane provides enough room for a row of trees on each side of the street, and you’d be surprised at how many unnecessary lanes are scattered throughout Downtown.  I made a map based on the city’s 2005 Downtown Traffic Flow map, coding in green all 3-lane one-ways with a traffic count of 12,000 or less.  I cut out blocks that according to my experience have high turning volumes, but I may have missed a few due to not knowing by heart the average conditions on every street.  In addition I depicted on the map in yellow the handful of 2-lane two-ways that could be narrowed.  To some degree that’s my subjective judgement, but the narrowing of Chicago Ave in its recent reconstruction indicates it could be done in other places.  Finally, red indicates 4-lane two-ways that could be reduced to three lanes (all are less than 15k AADT and some are far less).

Let me explain what I meant when I said it would be easy to replace lanes with trees.  I know all too well that any reduction in car capacity is controversial, but I also believe that a tree has a bigger constituency than a traffic lane, especially if you can get a traffic engineer to say that the lane isn’t needed.  I feel like even the literally auto-driven Downtown Council would be in favor of a lane-tree swap outside of the Core, because they’re going to have to find some place to fit those 35,000 residents they want to add.  But replacing a lane with trees requires the curbs to be moved, which costs a lot of money.  So step one would just be identifying where the roads are overbuilt enough to lose a lane without disrupting sacred traffic.  I would think that Rybak would be eager to champion a Downtown Green Streets plan, since that would make it look like he’s doing something without actually changing anything and risking angering someone.  Once complete, it would be both backup and a time saver whenever a downtown street came due for reconstruction.

3.  Legalize space utilization.  I was surprised and pleased to read that Rybak in his state of the city speech fessed up to the population stagnancy uncovered by the decennial census.  Hopefully that means he’ll be receptive to the easiest and least disruptive way to add residents to the city: accessory dwelling units (ADUs).  The average household in Minneapolis is just over 2 persons, yet around 22,000 housing units have four or more bedrooms.  There has to be a substantial number of single-family homes that have an extra couple rooms that could be converted into a small separate unit, or garages that could fit a half-story apartment on top.

Minneapolis already allows accessory dwelling units, but confines them to Ventura Village.  I don’t know the history on this, but presumably it was an idea that came out of the neighborhood rather than this area being chosen as a test case, because I would think 10 years would be a long enough test.  I haven’t heard of any ADUs actually being built, and if that means there hasn’t been any, it may be because of the restrictions, such as that the principal structure must be homesteaded and that the ADU be built outside the principal structure.  While the former no doubt makes ADUs more politically palatable for neighbors, the latter actually may be counterproductive.  After all, if you allow the ADU to be built within the principal structure, it’s likely the neighbor won’t even notice a difference, whereas most people notice a half-story being added to a garage.  Unfortunately, regardless of whether or not neighbors notice them, they are likely to be opposed, or at least that seems to have been the case in Vancouver.  Because of the political force of knee-jerk NIMBYism, my guess is Rybak is unlikely to push this one, even though it’s a no-brainer if you look at it dispassionately.  In addition, Rybak doesn’t really have any way to implement it besides cheerleading at the council, so I’d say ADUs are a long shot.

Listen to the people, R.T.

4.  Respect pedestrians.  In 2006, a miracle happened in South Minneapolis.  I don’t know if it was an accident or an experiment, but Hennepin County added zebra crosswalks to the streets crossed by the easternmost phase of the Midtown Greenway.  Then, something even more miraculous happened: many motorists observed Minnesota crosswalk laws at these crossings (tragically, many didn’t at the 28th St crossing).

So respect for pedestrians may be one of the easiest things to accomplish thanks to Minnesotans’ already sheep-like driving.  A study in Miami Beach found that all it takes is enforcement to get drivers to obey crosswalk laws.  Traditionally in Minneapolis the Mayor has had the most control over the police department, so why shouldn’t Rybak lean on Dolan to do some crosswalk enforcement, including ticketing for stopping past the stop line and blocking intersections?  Well, because no one really cares about pedestrians.  The mayor seems to feel that promoting (but not really supporting, see above) biking satisfies his transportation alternatives cred.  Meanwhile, we already get ped-friendly awards by just not being as terrible as the rest of the cities in the sprawling country.  So this easy step is not likely to be taken and Minneapolis will continue to be relatively walkable in terms of density but rather unwalkable in terms of conditions on the street.

You might be able to tell that this list is just a bunch of stuff that’s been floating around in my head, hammered into a frame about what R.T. Rybak could do to meet my standards of goodness.  Franky, I have no idea how likely he is to do any of these things; after 10 years of semi-activism and obsessive attention to local government, I can’t really tell how much of his rhetoric is just politics in a pervasively but vaguely left wing city and how much he really cares about causes like cycling, sustainability and Trampled by Turtles.

I do know that if he actually showed up to meetings to advocate bike lanes, more lanes would get striped.  If he pushed a study of which streets could trade a lane for trees, Public Works would find the dough for it and the first step would be taken towards a greener downtown.  If he browbeat some councilor into introducing an accessory dwelling unit ordinance, currently wasted space could be used to grow the city.  And if he got the cops to enforce crosswalk laws, people mind find it less stressful and more convenient to walk, and do more of it.  So hopefully this post comes across less as a wish list, and more as a to-do list for a progressive city.

 

 

*It may not be stalled – the project page claims it will be built in 2012 – but if not, it is eviscerated, downgraded to sharrows for about a quarter of its length.

Departing Barmi, next stop San Rafael

Barmi in the 6th century, from Jordi Ballonga's website

For better or for worse, children are the future, and that’s why it’s important to get them started thinking about cities now.  Just like many children are unaware that meat comes from animals, many children are unaware that suburbs come from cities, or that many cities were once suburbs, or of numerous other urban paradoxes that seem to perplex even many adults.

My interest in cities was kindled in my youth by a series of books primarily written by a professor at the University of Barcelona, Xavier Hernandez, and primarily illustrated by Jordi Ballonga, “a specialist in the illustration of urban subjects”.  Barmi and Lebek tell the story of two cities in southern and northern Europe respectively from their founding to the present (well, the late 20th century anyway).  Measuring a good 9″x12″, the books depict every phase in the development of these cities in an amazingly detailed birds-eye perspective splashed over two pages.  You will never see Barmi and Lebek on an e-reader.

A detail of a cathedral in Barmi from Jordi Ballonga's website (alas the book is black and white)

As a child, I spent hours following the two cities on their journeys through time, with each era illustrated in such incredible detail that I seemed to never run out of new unnoticed details.  (Reopening the books many years later, I see that I apparently added my own details in the form of pencil-marked walls or buildings in places.)  Perhaps less linger-worthy but no less fascinating were the pages between the birds-eyes, which gave a narrative history of the era depicted and had detailed cut-away drawings of specific buildings or infrastructure, such as cathedrals, skyscrapers, or subways.

Barmi was the first book I got, and today it is the most yellow, worn and pencil-marked.  Sometime later I got Lebek, but I never was able to find the third book in the series, San Rafael, which tells the story of a fictional city somewhere “in the region that lies south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and north of Guatemala’s Sierra de las Minas, an area that includes the Mexican state of Chiapas, Guatemala’s central region, southern Belize, and western Honduras.”  Finally I got around to digging in the children’s nonfiction stacks at the Minneapolis Central Library, where San Rafael lay waiting for me after all these years.

Uaxacmal thrives in the 4th century

While the Central American city obviously represents a history far removed from those of the earlier two books, it has the same familiar format, including the gorgeous two-page birds-eyes alternating with narrative history and details of certain buildings.  San Rafael’s story begins in 1000 BC, when a small village of corn farmers cut into the jungle on the banks of a large river, and continues through the late 20th century, by which time the small village has been replaced by a sprawling metropolis centered on a Spanish colonial center and a cultural park of preserved Mayan ruins and ringed by factories, housing projects and slums.

The writing in San Rafael is concise and unadorned enough to avoid overwhelming younger readers, but not too dumbed-down or simplistic for adults (at least this adult) to enjoy.  Hernandez doesn’t shy away from more complex topics such as class conflict or religious persecution, but perhaps could have spent a bit more time on them.  But it’s not surprising that the focus is on the physical characteristics of the city that are so brilliantly depicted by Ballonga (with the assistance of Josep Escofet for this venture).

"The game of pelota has fascinated Central America's diverse peoples for centuries."

The depictions of Mayan life are probably the most interesting parts of the book to me as a result of my unfamiliarity with the topic, and so the lack of a bibliography is probably the most obnoxious intrusion of the characteristics of children’s literature.  Scenes of villagers in the act of constructing the famous pyramidal temples – “Stonemasons squared blocks with hammers fashioned from stone.” – will excite any adult with even a remnant of imagination.  The stimulating scenes continue through the Spanish military colonization and the American corporate colonization – I just can’t emphasize enough what a jewel this book – as well as the previous two – is to anyone with an interest in cities or history or human culture or life itself.

In the course of writing this blog post, I’ve found a fourth book in the series – Umm El Madayan, which apparently depicts a North African city and is not primarily written by Xavier Hernandez or illustrated by Jordi Ballonga.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to the library to check that book out.  I promise to read it quickly – I don’t want to interfere with any younger readers who may stumble upon it, kindling their imagination and stoking a lifelong love of cities.

Cross-posted to streets.mn

The Suburban Mind of 1946

While looking for dirt on internment camp builder and tract home kingpin Del Webb, I stumbled on an essay called “The Suburban Mind” from the April 1946 issue of Harper’s.  It was written by a guy named Carl Von Rhode, who besides apparently being an exiled aristocrat from mitteleuropa, has somehow also “lived in the suburban and satellite cities of two of our leading metropolitan American centers.”  Which means he knows what he’s talking about.

Anyway, it amused me to read about the ways surburbia has changed or not in the past 66 years.  Von Rhode describes the Exurban Escapism Paradox:

…every suburb passes in time through three more or less standard cycles – rural, urban, and metropolitan. By the time the urban stage is reached, the best homes have been built-and the churches have gone deeply into debt for imposing community houses. Then comes a decline in property values; while the apartment dwellers are creeping in at the front door the “suburbanites” steal out at the back door. A few home owners remain to fight a losing battle against “encroachment;” but the young people, and those who can sell, retreat to the new “Waverly Hills” farther out.

The jargon is strange, but what he’s basically describing is the frustration of the early adopter, who moved to the edge of town to get away from the city, only to have a new subdivision pop up nearby after a few years.  Many continue to move outward, feeding and being fed by the real estate speculation machinery that has long fueled the American economy.  Those who stay try to control, and that was true then as now:

Building restrictions insure the uniform excellence of the dwellings, generally prohibiting apartments and two-family dwellings, and “undesirables” are often excluded by a common agreement not to sell or lease property to them even if they can afford it.  Though the suburbanite is unalterably opposed to governmental control, there is one kind of legislation he approves of thoroughly – zoning. He invokes every kind of building and housing restriction to maintain the social excellence of his section, and to keep it inviolate.

Suburbia having run quite a bit further down its course in our own time, it seems the barbarians have finally stormed the gates.  As such, images such as this likely strike the modern viewer as quaint:

Not only have the suburbs picked up a bit more diversity in the past 66 years, the train has long ago left the station.  If people use park-and-rides, they’re taking a bus.  But this image also reveals the fact that Von Rhode was talking about a breed of suburb that was about to be killed by highways and mass-produced housing:

The new houses of Suburbia, especially the “additions” built in the nineteen-twenties, exhibit a contemporary version of escapism in architecture, what with the English half-timbered cottage types, the Spanish villas, the Cape Cod salt boxes, and other habitations as remote as possible from our everyday American contemporary life.

You call that a suburb?

Interesting to consider that the suburbia he’s talking about is the same neighborhood that we in Minneapolis now call the city: that vast swath of the southern portion of Minneapolis and the western portion of St Paul that lies between lakes and vales and is dotted with the revivalist mini-castles that were the McMansions of the era.  Being from “our leading metropolitan American centers” the author was more describing railroad suburbs, whereas our provincial equivalent was spread by streetcar.  But both are a bit different from the suburbia of the contemporary mind, which is more the product of mass-production than the escapism that bothers Von Rhode, to the degree that he predicts widespread abandonment of “sense of civic duty”.  Nonetheless, he concludes with 40s optimism:

Americans are sprung from a pioneering stock which has always met the challenge of new frontiers. Our hope for the suburb lies here. When the suburbanite becomes fully aware that he is not “out of things,” as he fondly supposed, but at the center of things, he may rouse himself from his lethargy to play his full role in the development of the stimulating, labyrinthian culture of cities.

66 years on, I’m not sure how many suburbanites have been roused to meet the challenge of the new, old, urban frontier.