Where Are The Sidewalks?

Among the reasons I choose to live where I live and love where I live are the sidewalks. My community is a very walkable one and I enjoy doing so when I take the care to. They are long urban blocks filled with curiosity, interest, activity, and things unchanged.

I walk to our local grocery co-op (2.5 blocks) no matter the weather. I walk to our local bread shop (4.5 blocks) and wine shop (4.75 blocks). On a nice day, I walk to a small independent bookstore I love (6 blocks). The great little park , recently refurbished after years of city neglect, where my daughter likes to play (3.5 blocks). When the time allows, I enjoy meeting a friend for beer at a great restaurant and bar with a fantastic selection of beers (5 blocks) which I enjoy more than the one with less selection across the street (100 feet). These places are designed for walking to. They have limited parking if they have any dedicated at all. In the time it would take to get in the car and navigate traffic, one could be there already on foot.

What I love most, beside the walking itself, is the occasional friend or neighbor I run into. And, even when I don’t, most of these shop owners and barkeeps are friends and neighbors as well. For this is where I find out the news that matters most — that which is happening right around me…

“Did you hear about the break-in just around the corner?”

“What’s the deal with the two seemingly competing chocolate shops opening on the same street two blocks from each other?”

“Mr. Councilman, sorry to disturb your coffee. Can I ask you about your vote against the stop reminder I asked about for the pedestrian walkway?”

Thus, though a walk may be only a few blocks it can sometimes take an hour if I’m in no hurry which is just fine with me.

Increasingly it seems, so many of us live in places without sidewalks. So many suburbs and exurbs we are moving to are without them. So many of these communities we build are purposefully absent this integral part (in my mind at least) of community. Though I can’t imagine a worse fate then to be somewhere without them, I increasingly feel in the minority.

The planners know that less people want them. They are moving out of the urban area for a sense of country living. Part of which means, in their mind, to have lawn that extends to the road. Even though that road may be a asphalt beach. Sidewalks are simply a reminder of all those things they are trying to venture from.

These concrete paths are not technically ours. They belong to the city — the community. Even the ones that are just in front of where you live you must share and allow others to pass through. As such, you must maintain them despite this domain. You must shovel them when it snows. You must keep them free of ice. You must pay the cost to repair if damaged. More people, it seems, would rather have a few feet of green space instead. One that they own outright and can tell people to get off of when crossed.

Because there are less sidewalks in these places, people tend to make their connections elsewhere. At work or at the kids hockey practice or at the dog park. They tend to know their actual neighbors less. There are few opportunities to do so since they never cross each other’s paths except within the protected bubble of vehicles and traffic laws. They drive to all the places they need to go. Which are the similar to the places I go but all decidedly further away and designed for cars. Upon return, they go straight into the garage and then shut the door.

They turn on the TV before dinner to get news that is happening half a world away and consider themselves informed. Why should’t they? For the news they may get from conversations with people who do not live near them might as well be the same distance and equally as relevant. And because these connections are with people who live not near us they must discuss what things we have in common which does not start with community for there is none.

I wonder too if our communities in the virtual world are following this same path.

My first sense of being “online” was on a dial up connection to a local BBS. I knew the people there offline as well. It was small enough that one could. The topics discussed were often a continuation of the ones we did when we were together. If there was a problem that needed sorting (or a quarrel that needed moderating) one messaged the sysop who, once again, was a friend as well as neighbor. There were sidewalks there.

Then AOL came along. The first suburb. A place where you could form relationships, of a sort, with people from all over the country. They were not neighbors or people you would likely see in real life. Yet, you felt like you knew them just as well. You felt like you were being informed about things that mattered. And, as long as you stayed there, there were sidewalks.

Now we have Facebook and Twitter. The exurbs. Communities and relationships that span the globe. People on the other side of the planet that we know better than those real humans right next door. We can now know the first hand, on the ground, news of a community in Iran in real time. Or assist in the search for someone we barely know who has gone missing and is feared dead. Are we building sidewalks here?

If you pressed me to come up with one reason I feel so drawn to a service such as Path versus the rest is that it feels like a sidewalk to me.

home/ books/ newsletter/ dash/plus/ archives/ info/ rss