TOWARD the LIVABLE CITY 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 activityfor 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 carb ound D allas, Houston, andAustin 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 northernhemisphere 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 smartgrowth 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 cheapoil 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 crossgenerational, 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. 6/4/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29
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