Livable City

The early-20th-century developers who platted Beacon Hill, a streetcar subdivision just north of downtown San Antonio, knew what they were doing. By its name, they signaled the site’s elevation above the city’s deadly flood plain, a topography of “fine soil, sweet-scented huisache groves and gently rolling surfaces” that also contained considerable cultural meaning. Dubbed “the home place beautiful,” its pristine atmosphere was of “pure ozone with no ill smelling disease,” the builders averred, and the ground was swept clean of the distasteful—”no objectionable characters, no saloons, no poorhouses or any insane asylums.” That prescription, they reasoned, would beckon rail-riding, middle-class whites up into the hills.

It worked. In the 1905 city directory, historian Maria Watson Pfeiffer has discovered, only six homes were listed in the area; 10 years later, 230 had been constructed. For the next 40 years or so Beacon Hill sheltered, in neo-Spanish manses and craftsman-style bungalows, the prominent and near-prominent amid a well-shaded landscape.

The ground was cut from under this secluded terrain with the postwar construction of what would become IH-10. Slashing just west of Beacon Hill, the freeway bulldozed residences and commercial buildings, but its greatest significance lay in its concrete message: New development was leaping well beyond the city limits, igniting a northerly land rush that has yet to subside. Cut up and cut off, Beacon Hill—like so many first-ring suburbs in postwar, auto-mad America—was left behind. Nearby businesses began to fail as their well-heeled customers moved up and out; the neighborhood, once filled with owner-occupied homes, began to contain a larger number of renters inhabiting now-subdivided dwellings. Formerly a white preserve, it also began to attract the very people—poor and of color—its initial developers wanted to exclude. The community’s present had inverted its past.

For that very reason, its future is bright. Now home to a startlingly diverse population of the advantaged and disadvantaged, brown, white, and black, gay and straight, young and old, Beacon Hill has an energetic neighborhood association that is working to reduce crime, rehab homes, redesign street infrastructure, enhance economic opportunities, and reconnect with local schools. When I spoke to them recently about the area’s complex history, the conversation swiftly turned from what was to what might be. My contribution to this lively dialogue would have been a lot more informed had I already read Toward the Livable City.

Its editor, Emilie Buchwald, is one of the founders of the Minneapolis-based, non-profit Milkweed Editions and its allied foundation that seek to alter our perceptions about and relationship to the natural and built environments. That broad vision is framed in a series of deceptively simple questions she poses in her introduction to this collection of compelling essays: “What is it about our city or community that we care about? What should we keep? And, what should we change to make living here consonant with our values and desires to live a good life in this place?”

To answer any of these queries requires a subtle psychological shift: We have to pay attention to details, to small moments that seem out of place. Like the call of an Eastern screech owl that caught Terrell Dixon’s attention on a late-evening stroll through Houston’s Montrose neighborhood. Startled that he could distinguish any birdsong above the “eight-lane hum of Highway 59 traffic just three blocks away,” and unaware initially that he was listening to an owl, he stood still, captivated. What had been just an empty lot now contained something mysterious, beguiling. Returning again and again, and armed with the knowledge of the bird’s vocal patterns and life cycle, he became attuned to its nocturnal behaviors. That this open space was crammed with other life also became clear. Out of a puddle “formed where tree roots break up the sidewalk,” tiny American toads took up life; death lurked high up another tree, as Dixon witnessed a red-tailed hawk “rip apart the squirrel pinned in its talons.”

Important by themselves, these fleeting glimpses also offered him an opportunity to draw larger conclusions about the relationship between human and natural ecologies. “Nature” does not just exist segregated in Big Bend National Park, for its dynamics are just as vivid in an overgrown city lot. That this is so taught the “die-hard environmentalist living deep in the heart of Houston, to see urban nature and the city” as a reciprocal envelopment that should make activists of us all. “Once we begin to really notice nature in our neighborhoods, it is but a short step to protecting what we have and requiring more of it.”

What Kristen Brennan thinks cities need more of are farmers and farmland. She grew into this idea through her work for the Food Project of Boston, an organization that, since the early 1990s, had been bringing together teenagers of all means to plant gardens whose produce is distributed to local homeless shelters. Started in the suburbs, this notion has flourished as well in one of the city’s most distressed districts, Dudley Street in Roxbury, an area of unconscionable neglect. Burned down, boarded up, ignored and frightful, its rough streets were mirrored in the devastated lives of its impoverished residents, an “environment filled with such a stench of decay… that people held their noses as they walked down the street.”

The scent today is of fresh-grown tomatoes and corn, green beans and red peppers, collard greens and callaloo. Sold off tables in the farmers’ market in Dudley Town Common, the bountiful harvest is grown on a two-acre plot but five blocks away, marking a two-fold reclamation process: Once the site of 22 houses that had been vandalized and torched, volunteers and residents cleared away truck-loads of rubble, revitalizing the land and its laborers. Their efforts bore fruit, for each growing season has produced more than 10,000 pounds of vegetables and has generated a wave of new, independent operations: Brennan has counted 165 gardens within a mile of the Dudley Street market, a collective “process of planting, growing, and harvesting… that creates the occasion—the time, the place, the activity—for people to deeply engage in urban life through the most basic of human practices, sharing food.”

Agriculture is not the only ritualized activity that can entwine urbanites. Much of what makes a livable city livable are the chance, face-to-face interactions that come from the daily foot traffic. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for instance, upwards of 24 percent of its residents walk to work; a quarter use public transportation. And, a number that will shock God-fearing, truck-driving, three-car-garage-owning Texans, fully 12 percent of households have no car. They may never see eye-to-eye, but Cantabridgians gaze on each other’s faces, and may even do the unthinkable—talk to someone they don’t know. So it was that Emily Hiestand, who never met a construction site she didn’t like, asked a couple of workers on Boston’s massive Big Dig project what they wanted in the linear park that will meander above the subterranean tunnel complex. “Jeez, I don’t know,” one piped up. “We’ve got this spot…. Pretty women talk to us. What more do we need?” His flirtation led Hiestand to laugh: “I love this answer. Not everyone knows when a lunch, a tree, some buddies, and a little urban frisson adds up to Enough.”

Not that westerners have had much experience with such pedestrian encounters; our cities are so structured around the automobile that getting out of them to put one foot in front of the other seems damned-near unnatural. That doesn’t mean car-bound Dallas, Houston, and Austin cannot change, and although they may never pursue the radical surgery that Mayor Jaime Lerner performed in Curitiba, Brazil in the early 1970s, his actions contain an important lesson for his northern-hemisphere counterparts. To curb freeway construction and put a brake on traffic congestion, Lerner declared Curitiba’s central core off-limits to all vehicles. Over one weekend, volunteers tore up the old concrete streets and laid down new cobblestones, creating a massive mall that drew in thousands of shoppers and reinvigorated the local economy. His agenda to “transform not only the physical shape of the city, and then… to reshape its citizens,” Bill McKibben writes, had this existential goal: “to unalienate people,” a laudable ambition that surely makes sense to anyone snarled in a Texas-sized rush hour on IH-35 or IH-10.

To reclaim the urban promised land requires steps, large and small, and many of the contributors sketch out what this would entail in terms of better and more affordable housing, better and more rigorous schooling, stronger and more sustainable economic development. It also requires thinking of cities as regions, Myron Orfield argues, an intellectual reorientation that must come conjoined with tax reform to promote fiscal equity and smart-growth regulations and land-use codes to stabilize downtown, slow sprawl, and protect green space. As alluring as these proposals are, observes James Howard Kunstler, what might actually bring about the greatest structural change to our cities is the soon-to-end cheap-oil age. As petrol prices rise, they will render “the suburban environment of America problematical, and at worse obsolete, and probably with startling speed.” One ramification of this, he predicts, is increased social friction due to the “shrinkage of our largest cities,” collapsing from “the fringe inward.”

This grim scenario contains hopeful elements. Those districts served by mass transit and walkable in scale, those neighborhoods framed around “street-and-block systems” and of compact dimension, and those whose demography is multi-ethnic and cross-generational, will be the “more successful places in 21st-century America.” That’s great news for Beacon Hill.

Contributing writer Char Miller directs the urban studies program at Trinity University and is editor of the forthcoming 50 Years of the Texas Observer, celebrating the Observer’s half-century of publication.

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Published at 12:00 am CST