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Dante in the City

by Julia Sneden

Most of the towns along the San Francisco peninsula are lined up along a north/south road called El Camino Real ("The King's Highway"), which runs the length of California as US Highway 101. When I was very young, open fields or orchards separated those towns from one another. Driving by in the springtime, you could look between the trees down long rows filled with bright green grass and yellow mustard and orange poppies and blue lupine, all spread out under the pink or white blossoms of the trees above. It was a lovely sight. By the time you got close to San Jose, there were only orchards for miles and miles on each side of the city.

Then World War II came along, and California's population boomed as people came west to work in the shipyards and the defense industry. After the war, they not only stayed: they also invited their relatives to come out and enjoy the good weather, and the relatives stayed, too. Rather quickly, El Camino became one long strip of auto repair shops, hotdog stands, small businesses, factories, warehouses, etc.

By the time I left for college in the mid-'50's, the roadside views down the long rows between fruit trees had all but disappeared, and the urban sprawl that is now The Bay Area and Silicon Valley had taken over.

When I moved to North Carolina in the late 60's, I was delighted to see that the towns were still largely self-contained, separated by open countryside or small farms. As the population grew, however, those towns soon faced the kind of urban sprawl that California had seen. Surely, I thought, people have observed and learned a lesson from the large urban areas in the northeast and far west - but no, our small cities have replicated the poor planning and nutty zoning that have allowed the destruction of roadside beauty all over the country. We're right up there with the big guys. The roads that lead into our towns and cities are lined with fast-food joints and factories and car dealerships and shopping centers, so that reaching the center of town seems to take f-o-r-e-v-e-r.

Worse yet, when you get to the center of the town, there's often no there there. In far too many cities, stores and office buildings are shabby and deserted. Where has commerce gone? The answer is that commerce hasn't gone; it's in a state of flux as it moves farther and farther out of town. Radiating out from the edges of the city, like the circles of hell in Dante's Inferno, are shopping centers in various stages of desertion, decay, full service, or a-building.

The big towns and cities speak bravely of revitalizing their downtown areas. Commissions and committees of local citizens are appointed to consult about the problem. Sometimes outside experts are hired. All too often they come up with plans that fail or simply are never implemented.

Perhaps there's a simple answer for why they fail. The word is greed. Americans are stuck in the pioneering frame of mind that tells us we have a right to the land: a right to seize it, to own it and to do with it as we like.

Our suburban spaces give evidence of this greed in the proliferation of developments of what some wit has called McMansions, homes that are huge boxes sprawling into the countryside. Local landowners, many of whom are leading citizens, are only too happy to sell their families' farms and estates that lie on the edges of our cities. Those developments demand more shopping centers (heaven forbid that people who own two or three cars should have to use one of them to drive a few miles into the city to shop!) and lots of pavement.

The landowners and the developers wield enormous clout, and continue to obtain permits for their ever-expanding properties. Don't they ever look over their shoulders to see the mess they have left behind? At what point will we demand that they assume responsibility for the damage they've done as they press ever outward into what's left of our country?

I don't mean to imply that there's an easy answer to the problems of a burgeoning population. But when the private rights of a few trample on the community's right to clean air, clean water, and access to preserved esthetic spaces, surely the greater good should prevail.

So what can we do to enliven our cities and stop the sprawl? How long will it take us to learn that there's a difference between growth and improvement? Can we change that pioneering mindset? It will mean realizing that we need to stop building far afield, and start figuring out how to renovate or preserve what we have. If our downtown buildings aren't worth preserving, let's tear them down and build new ones on the same spot. The wise reuse of space already committed to commerce seems to me like a no-brainer.

It is painful to observe the failing shopping centers. The supermarkets are usually the first things to pull out. Their empty shells remain, paint faded and windows taped. They stand in large, mostly vacant parking lots, with perhaps a few small surrounding shops still open, shops whose owners are tied to leases or unable to afford higher rents. The centers that have been totally abandoned are the creepiest: a montage of peeling paint, broken windows, trash scattered about, parking lots that are used once a year for Christmas tree sales or charitable donation centers. They really do look like something from one of the rings of hell.

Alas, everyone seems to give lip service to the idea of city planning without following its precepts. In our area, a 40-acre tract of pines, old hardwoods, streams and a pond has just been destroyed by the bulldozers to make way for more offices and stores, right next to the "in" area of malls and roads, five miles from the city's center. Traffic there was already a nightmare; now, it will be a disaster.

It would be nice to think that our city Fathers could step back and observe the irrevocability of their actions. Once the trees are gone, they're gone. Once the land is graded, it's graded, that is unless someone is willing to spend considerably more than it cost to do the damage, to undo it. And a fat chance there is of that.

I know that there must be cities out there that have done a good job of urban renewal (San Luis Obispo, CA, comes to mind). Recently, the consultants for our latest downtown project have touted Memphis's Beale Street as something that our city should emulate. This seems to me to be a classic mistake, because what makes one area special doesn't necessarily transfer to another (and our area has a lively identity all its own). But at this point that's moot, because until we can stop the proliferation of those rings of hell, the shopping center syndrome with its pattern of build-and-abandon will ensure that any of our Downtown Revitalization plans have as much chance of success as an ice cube in you-know-where.



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