Friday, March 12, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty Four

My cousin Katie commented in response to this post:

It's driving that causes you to miss the beautiful. Wilkes-Barre is a beautiful city and you've seen it and photographed it because you've always walked it, John. When you drive, the run-down seems to stand out. When you walk (or bike-ride as my Dad loved to do) you get to see the beauty in the details. I always try to get out and walk when I'm home. It reminds me why I was so happy growing up there. And that snow storm, on that particular day, was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

Well, there's so much to respond to here. While I will always prefer walking to driving, I do love the blur of the landscape passing by when you are in motion, whether on a train, bus or in the passenger's seat. It's one of the reasons why I don't often read on buses. I prefer looking at the landscape in motion. When I walk, it's more like I'm looking at still photographs, whereas in a car or train, it's more like watching a movie. But yes, walking or biking gives you the time to appreciate the details.

The other night, in response to a friend's comment that he could see himself living in Los Angeles (a city that I profess to "hate" even though every time I'm there I enjoy myself a great deal), I instinctively said "I couldn't live in a city where you had to drive everywhere and had no public transportation." My friend pointed out that LA had fine public transportation and he in fact had friends who lived there who didn't know how to drive and got around just fine. I suppose I was thinking I could never live in a city that was not conducive to walking. A common characteristic of everywhere I've lived is that the were all pedestrian-friendly: cities that not only invited but also rewarded walking with the little surprises and treasures that Katie refers to. (Another characteristic of the places I've lived; they've all been near and partially defined by bodies of water, whether the Susquehanna, Thames or Hudson Rivers, the San Francisco Bay or the Potomac. I suppose i don't ever want to feel completely landlocked.) I've lived in Brooklyn for almost six years now and I still miss being able to walk to work.

In America, cities founded before the invention of the automobile were based on a 19th Century European model: a central downtown area with a mix of commercial and residential buildings, designed with the idea that people would walk to their destinations. I was lucky enough to grow up in such a town. However, much of this country is now based on a Los Angeles model: urban sprawl connected by roads with the assumption that people will drive everywhere, and that driving is somehow inherently better than walking. Even Wilkes-Barre, where I grew up, now seems more of a sprawl of malls, industrial parks and suburban developments than a town.

All of which is fine if you love driving or are a real estate developer, but having grown up in a town where everything you needed was within walking distance, I find it a frustrating way to live. I have friends I have not seen in years and I believe one of the reasons is because I don't like being in their house. They live in a suburban development and there is nowhere to go, nothing to do, unless you drive. I feel trapped inside their house. (Full disclosure: it's possible I haven't seen these friends in years because they grew tired of me, but I really prefer to blame their house.)

Driving is for efficiency, but this efficiency is linked to economic concerns not necessarily in the driver's best interest. A number of years ago, I imagined people whose entire lives seemed to consists of driving an endless triangle between the industrial park where they worked, the suburban development where they live and the shopping/strip malls where they shopped. If you legally declared that those could be the only three places they could go, almost anyone would protest. Yet many people do spend their lives shuttling between these destinations.

Walking brings contemplation. It's also not as goal-oriented as driving, though God knows there is much pleasure to be had in cruising around in a car or driving on a dark highway at night. But one of the things that I feel so grateful to have experienced is growing up in an area in which I could walk anywhere. This brought an early sense of autonomy and self-determination, as opposed to having to ask my parents to drive me any time I wanted to do somewhere. This probably explains why I've lived where I have and why my life has had the shape it has: because I am determined to live in cities where the element of chance that accompanies walking as opposed to driving is primary. This lack of efficiency, this importance of contemplation and belief in significant chance happenings has a great deal to explain my mindset and life.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a town that had its economic peak during the early 20th century, when people could still afford to build beautiful buildings of stone and brick. We can't afford to build such buildings now. That's another feature of shopping malls and most suburban developments: they're ugly at worst, boring at best. Even if you did walk among them, you'd be bored.

Yes, Katie. The snowstorm the day of your father's funeral was beautiful. He deserved no less. Snow makes everything beautiful but I had forgotten how ethereal and glowing it makes my, and his, hometown.

1 comment:

Bob Fingerman said...

Well, as the friend in question, I will also say that the whole car culture aspect of LA is the part I do not like at all.