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Ken’s View: Where The Sidewalk Ends

Not everyone is a fan of new urbanism or is even sure what it means, I suspect. I get that. Nor is everyone a fan of cities, new or otherwise. Ambivalence and even hostility toward cities has been conspicuous in literature throughout history. Just read a Charles Dickens novel if you want a thoroughly negative depiction of city life, suggested John Torti, whom I interviewed for the foregoing article. And Thomas Jefferson thought cities were corrupting: “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe,” he said.

Maybe, but there have been plenty of stories about small-town corruption. I’m not here to argue the point, but I will say that I’ve lived in cities and, in the case of at least one of them, I found the convenience of having a grocery store, a hardware store, a dry cleaner, a pharmacy, an embarrassing choice of public transit, a public park, and a choice of eateries or a dive bar within walking distance mostly compensated for any corruption that wafted from city hall. A few blocks away, the Cardinal was cozy in his mansion, and just out his back door some of the wealthiest people in the metropolis were domiciled. A mile or two to the west some of the poorest subsisted. I don’t know that I’d call it new urbanism. Maybe it was just urbanism, but it wasn’t creepy.

That’s why I was startled to encounter an Internet headline that asked the question: Why is New Urbansim So Gosh Darned Creepy? Well, golly, gee willikers, I don’t know. Creepy is not something I have come to associate with new urbanism. Nor did the story exactly explain what was creepy.

I concede that the author may have a case against what could be seen as the artificiality and contrived nature of some of what passes for new urbanism, but she lost me at creepy. She describes a Colorado development that indeed does sound a bit like a theme park. I haven’t been there, but the place’s website says the development was designed with new urbanist principles in mind. I’m not prepared to say whether it’s new urbanist or not, but I was hard pressed to find anything creepy about the place.

The author further said the place had a freakish air about it (is that worse than creepy?) and dismissively reported that a store was playing one of “those jam band songs that lasts 23 minutes.” You know, like the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, or Phish. Ah, now I’m beginning to understand. Old folks listen to that stuff. Of course it’s creepy. And boring. Who has the attention span to endure a track that’s 23 minutes long?

The author made further note of a place where the newly poured sidewalk ended and turned into a dirt path through a vacant lot. Somehow this was a demarcation between the real and the fake, as the author puts it. Between the old and the new, that is. Is one of those necessarily unreal? Unfortunately, when old and new have met, especially in the recent past, we have been led to believe we must choose one or the other, the implication being that one is better, the other inferior. But which one? Is that even a useful distinction?

I suspect the author as a young child was traumatized by being read the poem “Where The Sidewalk Ends” by Shel Silverstein or by seeing the photo of him on the dust jacket. Silverstein was not a popular children’s author when I was young, so I missed out on such a reading, but I came across his books years later. The portrait on the dust jacket was indeed a little creepy.

Listen, kids, sidewalks end. They always do. They have to. They can’t go on forever. That’s just the way things are, OK? But is a new sidewalk necessarily a phony? Or does the end of the sidewalk signify the unknown that lies beyond—perhaps scary or perhaps a great adventure depending on your frame of mind? I can understand how the end of the sidewalk can seem ominous, an end to the familiar and structured, a gateway to the unfamiliar. Maybe even creepy. Or is it an invitation to adventure, an escape from the quotidian? Go ask your mother.

I mean, how should I know? Worse, how is a little kid supposed to fathom this? Maybe that’s the point. Nothing is black and white. Not old and not new. Not phony and not real. Good luck, kid, and thanks a bunch, Uncle Shel, for raising questions with no easy answers.—Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor

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