Writing a blog on urbanism in the United States, and visiting Europe creates an almost unlimited number of “shooting fish in a barrel” opportunities for commentary. They would be essays which were fun to write but did not move us any further here in America to improving our cities. On the other hand there are insights which can be gained even from circumstances where Europe in general, and Spain in particular, have been at a disadvantage and yet still manage to outperform us.
With that in mind, one of the benefits of going on honeymoon to a place where you’ve lived for a time is that you can leave the well-worn path and head down some roads less travelled…at least by tourists. Visiting San Antonio de la Florida and taking a walk along the Manzanares was such an experience for my wife and me on our recent belated honeymoon. Leaving our hotel on the Gran Via near the Plaza de España and walking through El parque de la Montaña
to get to the Paseo de la Florida took us down paths where the homeless were living in makeshift tents, where graffiti artists were allowed to engage in political debate by obliterating their rivals messages, and where the evidence of many an act of “safe sex” left its traces. The pedestrian bridge over the rail lines dividing the park from the avenue was as heavy handed, unattractive, and scary as any in the U.S..
After viewing the frescoes by Goya which hover over his grave (it’s free of charge and there were only two other visitors the entire time we were there) I thought it would be fun for Liz, who grew up near the Hudson River, to see what passes for a river in Spain; it isn’t very impressive as a body of water, as a matter of fact it takes a series of locks and damns to give it even the appearance of a body of flowing water at opportune moments. The apartment buildings which run alongside the Manzanares are Spain’s equivalent of Levittown: the Franco dictatorship’s post war (The Spanish Civil War in this case) solution to the housing crisis. They are cold, artless, and some of them, unusually misaligned with the street.
After climbing up the stairs toward the Plaza San Vicente we were tired, hungry, and hot and decided to stop at the next café, which happened to be from the low budget chain “Cervecería la Sureña”, not of the privately owned bar types in Madrid where the food can be spectacular; nope, this would be the McDonald’s of tapas.
So, except for the frescoes, a pretty lousy experience all in all, right?
Not at all.
The park, El parque de la Montaña, is set up to be low maintenance, the trees were lovely, the fountains worked, the sand and pebble pathways were beautiful, and the huge number of visitors in the park made the presence of the homeless less intimidating than, say, along the Connecticut River in Springfield.
The hardscape along the edge of the Manzanares, as with its larger cousin the Seine in Paris, integrates the visitor, the city, and the water into a coherent oneness. The lack of such intentionality on many an American riverfront keeps our cities from engaging their most beautiful features, and instead make it seem as though the water has been accidentally misplaced. This is particularly ironic in the comparison between Madrid and the Manzanares, and Springfield and the Connecticut. Springfield exists as a city because of its river, and yet the river appears to be an afterthought, or an unnecessary appendage. Madrid, on the other hand was selected as a capital out of political expedience, in spite of its lack of a navigable river, instead of Seville, which boasts a river of much higher utility.
Even our dining out experience was marvelous. Sure, the jamón serrano with salmorejo on flatbread was average, but the tinto de verano was good and there were people everywhere. People of all ages and backgrounds. The Russians at the next table were clearly drunk out of their minds, but the Spanish were well dressed, convivial, and happy. When I walked out with our order an old man, a very old man, took great pleasure in holding the door for me. He ending up sitting near us on the “terraza”. He was all dressed up, had his “caña” (small beer) and was enjoying some people watching.
As we left the place I looked back. The building we had spent the last hour in front of, across from Príncipe Pío, was one of the ugliest I had ever seen: The architect should have been shot, of course, under Franco, he probably was!
But urbanism had trumped architecture. As with the river, they had done more with less and maintained a nearly perfect urbanism by just doing a better job of arranging what they did have. Not only that, it’s easy to look at the old neighborhoods, the plazas, the streets, the alleys, of Europe’s cities and think that the superiority of their urban lifestyle is due mostly to their inheritance, but when you see what many of their mediocre newer places do having had much less in the way of wealth it becomes clear that it isn’t just the arrangement of the elements either: It is the lifestyle. It is a lifestyle which not only demands that the urbanism function, but which drags the design into functionality whether it wants to or not.
The downtown of my hometown has a minimum of 5 plazas which are at least the equal of the Plaza San Vicente, 3 of them are clearly better architecturally and even urbanistically. Most of the time they are empty. If we ever had it we have lost the tradition of just being “out”. For the most part that is because the places we have created in which to be out as we live our daily lives are horrid. Why would we subject ourselves to them voluntarily? So we stay in and when we do go out we accept that the places where we will do our living will be unpleasant.
I’m reminded that just two weeks ago we bought shoes here in preparation for our trip. In Madrid my wife needed to replace a pair of shoes and we happened upon just the right shop as part of our evening constitutional.
We’re trying to maintain the prime condition our legs are now in after 10 days in Spain where we walked everywhere. Yesterday I walked down to Zonin’s to get some prosciutto to go with a melon we got from the CSA, and some sausage to go with the peppers ripening in our garden. It’s a start. I wish that I wanted to go down to the Riverfront. I can see it from my window. It’s a gorgeous morning. But the weeds will obscure the view of the river, the homeless in their makeshift tense will likely be the only one’s to join us down there. Instead we’ll hop in the car and drive to Forest Park. To take a walk.
I miss Madrid.