It was always the incremental autonomy of urbanity which drew me to the city. I was amazed that a bicycle, and later a bus could expand my world so completely. I had grown up nominally in a city, but surrounded by woods. I explored them compartmentally. We, which is to say “kids” did just play outside back then. Autonomy, then, was a given in a certain sense. While discussing issues surrounding walkable neighborhoods and schools with my mom I asked her once when she stopped walking me to school: “I don’t think I ever walked you to school”. She went on to say that she may have walked to school with me on the first day of kindergarten, but that would have been it: “The school was right there”. It was 1/3 mile away. I came home for lunch every day. On my own.
For my older daughters this neighborhood was theoretically walkable and they each attended 10 of their 13 years of public school within it, but they only explored it autonomously during their years at Commerce High School after my divorce. They played at the Quadrangle, but supervised, when we lived in the “gated community” which was the Classical Condominium. Xela, my oldest daughter, recently rented an apartment there, going back for the first time since we had moved as a family in 2004. She remembered every nook and cranny; the girls explored that quasi-public place very thoroughly; but the world outside was closed to them. Mostly.
Xela crossed at the infamous crosswalk to the Central Library a few times on her own, and I remember discussions about letting her venture to the Community Music School by herself, though I don’t recall the outcome.
I can feel very keenly now the difference that buffer, the buffer of the gated community, made in our experience with the downtown; passing from our space, to “common space”, to public space not only made it feel more distant, but also more strange. In retrospect it was also true that my then partner and I did not really share a vision of unsupervised urban autonomy for our children, a truth I don’t begrudge her given how differently mothers are judged relative to fathers in the raising and protecting of children.
In this house the membrane dividing us and the city is thin. I can easily sit in my living room and converse with someone on the sidewalk. If we both reached out, we could shake hands. I see much more of what goes on, the good, the bad, the insane, and I also have a sense of proportion that living 5 floors up and many doorways away never could give. Luna is at an age and of a mentality which makes getting away on her own, at least for a while, a way to focus her mind. She has crossed both Main and State streets on her wanderings this summer. It started with a walk around the house, and around the block.
Soon the question of walkability will focus more on my old age than the youth of my offspring.
30 years have transformed this place. The reasons to walk diminished over the first 15, but the beauty and ease of the walk have greatly increased over the last 15. Retirement is looming for me. Concern over increasing autonomy for my children is giving way to maintaining my own as I age. When Liz and I took our trip to New Haven last week we intended to walk to Union Station to catch the train, but hopped on the G-5 PVTA instead as, by coincidence, it was waiting at the corner when we left the house. Having a bus route that stops 20 feet from my front door and another 7 that pass within a block gives me optimism, an emerging commitment to rail travel centered 3/4 of a mile from my house expands the horizon.
Home has always meant something to me. Leaving was always part of a process of returning. I have been very fortunate to have always had a home that I wanted to return to whether it was in the woods or in the city. For me the freedom I have felt to travel has always been a function of the confidence I had in the place I would return. For those of us lucky enough to pass through all of the ages of man we experience our world first growing, then shrinking. Entering late middle age I’m still excited by what the future holds.