I have gotten just a little bit ahead of myself. Writing, speaking, and thinking as often as I do about ways to make my neighborhood more livable, more walkable, and more enjoyable, I have sometimes acted as if many of the changes I would like to see take place have already occurred. They haven’t.
I can remember back to struggles I was involved in while a member of the Armoury-Quadrangle Civic Association, and even before, which dealt with fundamental understandings of the urban environment which haven’t changed in 27 years such as prioritizing the person over the automobile and advocating for dense, walkable places. Two things have changed remarkably in just the last three years which have pushed me well beyond the comfort zone of merely “advocating”, and have caused me to be a tad over zealous in practicing what I preach: I have gotten re-married, and I have started this blog.
I have noted many times on these pages that I was drawn to the center city first, and only later came to see the elements that these places I loved had in common so it isn’t altogether surprising that the very first place I ever chose to live as a fully independent (well, married!) adult was downtown:
It worked for us because we could manage three jobs and continued schooling with just one car. The functionality of downtown living was practical, everything we needed to do was a short walk or bus ride away, and the overbuilding of yuppie residences in the late 70’s and early 80’s made rents cheap.
We moved here…
…just before Xela was born. It had a second bedroom, was across the street from a nice little park and still allowed for life to be lived with one car. Steiger’s (A huge department store), and Johnson’s Bookstore were still the anchors of what was a dying but still substantial retail core. There are still one or two items in my home that I remember getting at Steiger’s and Johnson’s, and we bought all of our new furniture from Kavanaugh’s and Max Okun’s.
The big move was to buy a condominium at my old high school:
We were looking not just downtown, and not just in Springfield, but we decided to live at the condominiums which had been carved out of my old high school. We already had one child, knew that more were likely on their way, and while Classical was a cut above the apartments we had lived in it was typologically similar: no lawn to worry about, shared maintenance, etc.. It also had, translated vertically, some aspects of a gated community within the downtown. Beautiful but enclosed common areas, on site parking, and a fair amount of isolation from the hustle and bustle of the city. The steeeeply discounted price we payed buying as back-up buyers at an auction (The Massachusetts Miracle having imploded just after the completion of the complex) was about 40% of the original asking price. The combination of low cost, high value, and the “gated” aspects were enough to bridge the gap between how my (now ex) wife and I wanted to live.
Therein lies the crux of my recent overstepping of the bounds. My ex-wife viewed downtown living, rightly, as a compromise between the two of us. She enjoyed living across the street from the library and the museums, and I remember walking the girls to the music school but that was really it. Despite what I said about Steiger’s and Johnson’s (where she worked for a time) most of our day to day life was lived no differently from any couple living in any suburban community. We drove to shop, we drove to eat (even to Red Rose just three blocks away), we drove to take the girls to soccer, to gymnastics, and to basketball.
I sought out opportunities to live the life I wanted, making excuses to walk here and there, but as a young family there wasn’t the money to go to many concerts or games, having two kids we didn’t have the inclination to go to the clubs, and the stores we didn’t shop at closed forever while we were buying in bulk at Costco and (*gulp*) Walmart.
Fast forward to 2011 and my new wife, Elizabeth, brings with her the energy of the newly converted. She had been raised in the quintessentially suburban Westchester County but had only recently moved to a neighborhood just outside the downtown of Middletown, Connecticut. We met, married, and she moved here:
I had told her how I felt about city living, its pleasures, its benefits, and it resonated with her because of how much she had enjoyed the relatively urban neighborhood she had spent the last two years experiencing in Middletown. She and her daughter threw themselves headlong into the experience here; walking to music school, to preschool, to the library, to the museums, to dance classes, and doing errands on Main Street. Being older we’ve had more resources for season tickets to the symphony, whole family nights out to hockey games, the theater…
But I have gotten a bit too greedy. You see, this neighborhood is still a mix of heaven and hell. It has the potential to be great, sometimes, but it is at best a “part time” paradise. It isn’t just that, like most places outside of the most vibrant cities like New York or Madrid, not everything that one might want to do is available at anytime. It is that there are many things that are not wise to do at all at certain times of day, or on certain days of the week.
The truth is, that is the point of the entire enterprise I call RationalUrbanism. If Springfield and other communities like it were fully functioning healthy cities there would be no need to parse the nuances of safety, schooling, and security as I do. People who enjoy urbanity would want to live here. The very explanation of the raison d’être of this website talks about distinguishing the perceived and sometimes imagined problems from the real problems which exist, which kind of presupposes that those real problems exist, and so we’ve come full circle.
I need to remember that this is still a pioneering exercise.
When LuLu’s rehearsal is extended to 9 p.m. on a Thursday evening for some theatrical production, perhaps driving the three blocks down and back is wiser than walking the streets of the city, which have been pretty much abandoned by all those not trying to be cast in the next Mad Max film.
Going for a walk on a Friday afternoon on a bustling State Street with its businessmen and lawyers, to the STCC grounds, teeming with students, can be fun. Doing it on a quiet Sunday morning gets you harassed by a crazy homeless guy who enjoys intimidating people he sees as out of place.
Events at the riverfront can be enjoyable, I should by all means go and enjoy the environs, but if there isn’t anything special going on, it can be horribly isolated.
I wish that these caveats weren’t in order, but they are. My desire to see this wonderful place functioning fully does not make this place fully functional. At some point being unwise could have a greater negative consequence than just a few uncomfortable moments on the street with some unsavory characters.
No one wants to say it, and it hurts to think it, but the truth is while this place has a great deal going for it, a few of the people who live here are not a credit to humanity and the rest of us have to circumscribe our behavior to avoid encountering them at the wrong time and in the wrong place.