When we found out that we had about half the time we had been planning on for a long weekend getaway my wife and I felt compelled to switch our plans from Montreal to someplace a bit closer, so we found a cool hotel in the Hudson Valley and we started to make plans based on that. I’ve always had a thing for the late colonial period, stage coaches, and taverns and so Liz found a restaurant in a place we’d be passing through just around dinner time on Friday which brought together all of those interests and would provide a place for us to grab a bite to eat.
As we were arriving we had a little trouble getting our bearings and so we had to drive around the block once. We weren’t very focused on exactly what we were seeing mind you, but it was clear that this part of Kingston, New York had some interesting places to explore. After dinner we decided to walk around a bit. It was amazing. I mean, it was a Friday night and most everything was closed but, it was amazing. There was building after building after building with great programming at the ground floor, interesting window dressing, and even a few people wandering here and there to visit the restaurants which were open, to pop in to visit a friend who lived in an apartment above one of the shops, or to listen to some live music. There was one angry homeless guy yelling indecipherable things which added “local color”, and it was all knitted together by colonnades on street after street.
The streets themselves were narrow and the colonnades together with on street parking made them feel even narrower. The shops, cafes, and restaurants extended around…oh, my god, around almost an entire block and every side street seemed to have either historic well designed houses, or perpetuated the excellent mixed use habit of the main streets. I hadn’t seen a better or more three dimensional example of good walkable urbanism outside of Manhattan ever in the United States. (I apologize for using photos from Google instead of taking them myself, but we were having such fun just wandering about I didn’t want to alter the mood by stopping to pull out my phone)
From an urbanist perspective my weekend would have been complete, but the next morning we ended up in Nyack, New York, just looking for a bite to eat and some panty hose. We found panty hose and even a garlic press at a real local pharmacy. We ended up walking around the place for hours. The views of the Hudson were lovely, but the center of the town itself was yet another example of really good walkable urbanism combined with beautiful residential architecture, although you could see that a little bit more damage had been done here and there than in the Stockade neighborhood in Kingston during the post war period before the community started to take advantage of the incredible bones it had inherited.
As I read my friend Johnny Sanphillipo’s essays on his experiences in Memphis some comparisons began in my head. He was invited to visit Memphis from San Francisco by people who are hoping for some insight on how to revitalize the inner core of Memphis. The two are major league cities in the South and West, the former growing in population but struggling economically, and socially, the latter having come through a period of decline but now seen as, arguably, one of the most vibrant and certainly one of the most prosperous cities in the world. Memphis, Johnny remarks, has a real chance to create a vibrant urban space even if only a tiny percentage of people in the region are looking for such places because there is nothing, according to him, to compete in that regard anywhere near Memphis.
Contrast that with Springfield’s challenge in the Northeast. So much high quality urbanism not just to choose from, but for others to use as yardsticks against which to be found wanting in a region with negative domestic migration patterns; you can do it right, just not quite right enough and certainly not well enough to attract the sort of people who can choose to live anywhere, like artists for example.
I wasn’t asked to visit these places, they neither needed nor wanted any advice from me, and they are certainly not the sort of places that anyone would confuse with major league cities like Memphis or San Francisco: Understand the spirit of what I am about to say. I realize that my hometown could disappear from off the face of the earth and most people without a direct connection to it wouldn’t ever notice. The same is true of Nyack and Kingston, two very different places which have managed to create enjoyable, livable communities for very different reasons; but if two such otherwise unremarked upon places just two hours from my home can be so remarkable it makes it that much more evident that success in this endeavor to make Springfield livable will have to be done with the people we have and the resources we can bring to bear ourselves.
To become so exceptional that we will be sought after by anyone else is a pipe dream.