Monday, March 21, 2011

Are There Also Suburban Myths?

Ann Bransom had a great column in Business Lexington on Dispelling the Downtown Myths which attempts to convince some our suburban residents that downtown is not so bad. I love being downtown and being part of the new vitality that has happened in the past decade.

I have worked downtown for nearly the past forty years and have seen a lot of changes over that time, most of the changes have been for the positive. Many of the old stores and restaurants that I frequented when I began working are gone, moved to the suburbs or replaced by others. Stores that I went to with my parents are long since sent to the mists of history. If I were to stop an calculate it, I feel that the decline began in the late'40s, at the end of the war, and any new stores after that time would stay in business only for 20 years or less. Those in the food and entertainment business probably lasted just 10 years, max.

I used to tell my friends that it took over 25 years to realize the downtown had fallen so far and that, even with Urban Renewal, it would take roughly twice as long for it to be brought back. It took no work at all to bring about the decline but it will take a huge effort to reverse it. Many who have grown up in the suburbs and have no knowledge of how it was, be it here or anywhere, may see it differently but the walkable sections which they call downtown were the epitome of the American dream in the early 20th century.

The combination of zoning and cheap energy led to the development pattern which we all call auto-centric sprawl. The culture today feels that driving a mile or more to buy groceries or other goods, even gasoline, is an inconsequential situation and just a fact of life. At the turn of the last century, those living in subdivisions similar to Aylesford area, and later the area just the town side of Chevy Chase shopping center, could either walk or take the streetcar to adequate retail and usually not travel over a quarter of a mile. Most subdivisions were located within a 1 mile radius of the court house up until the mid '20s which is when both automobiles and zoning began to take a major hold on urban development.

Farm folk, the original rural dwellers, are used to traveling distances to get to town, either to purchase supplies or bring their products to market. Even going to church meant a bit of travel just to get to the meeting house, but there was an ebb and flow of goods and services between them and the city folk. The direction of the flow of services now appears, to me, to be one way-- out of town, because I don't see these commuters bringing and goods with them.

The goal of the current subdivision dweller is to have a house on a good sizes lot, a decent back yard on a quiet street. One commenter said “Many people like living where they have a big yard and quiet streets where their children can play. Their is nothing wrong with that.” but from what is can figure, the typical lot size is roughly one third smaller, the house is one third larger and the street, unless it is a cul-de-sac, is not as quiet as our older areas. Streets are not a place for children to play, either in places like Meadowthorpe, Castlewood or Gardenside, although looking at historical photos of the old days it was probably a lot safer then.

I don't have figures but if more neighborhoods had more retail sites within walking distance, then there wouldn't be as many cars on the road, not as many parking lots and all the streets would be safer. Would you believe that just about all the streets in the previously named subdivisions have a 50 foot right-of-way cross section? Meadowthorpe and Gardenside were done in the '50s and '60s but the others predate the invention of the automobile. Woodland Park and Loudon Park areas date from the 1880s and could not have anticipated the auto, but their streets are wide and I can't put my finger on the reason why.

Many a suburb dweller will claim the they are tired of paying for the upgrades to downtown since very few of them will spend large amounts of their time there. I will assert that more of us taxpayers in older areas are paying extra for the services being delivered to the new suburbs. Since we all are paying equally based on property values and our infrastructures are already paid for(probably twice or more times over), then our taxes are going for the newer services benefiting the newer areas. What has the EPA all bunched up is that we are accepting lesser quality new infrastructure for the taxes levied.

All in all, I think that those downtown enthusiasts have had to live with the evolving downtown myths while the suburban area myths have been perpetuated as a desirable lifestyle based on unsustainable situations.

No comments: