The streets used to belong to everyone. It was long before my time, and it certainly wasn’t part of a golden age in many other respects, but the hegemony of the car hadn’t yet been established at least. One of the most eye opening presentations I have ever seen was this one from CNU on just how much we’ve changed, and just how much of the public realm we’ve ceded to our metallic selves.
All we’ve left ourselves in most places is the crosswalk for the 23 seconds the little back-lit-white-man says we’re allowed to rapidly move into a portion of the sacred space of the Lord Automobile. In fact, our absolution lasts for only 2 or 3 seconds, after which the red numbers begin to count down to the moment our time in the Holy of Holies expires and we become korban, sacrificial flesh, for our gods to devour.
The first crosswalk my oldest daughter ever traversed on her own was the now nonexistent one between the Springfield Central Library and its parking lot. Not that she had driven there at 10 years old, she was walking “by herself” (Dad was spying from the Classical Condos northwest door!) from her home to the Quadrangle for the very first time. I had instilled in her a fear of the automobile. It was a litany in our home: “Good morning, Xela, good morning Mckenzie, remember, cars will crush you out of existence if you wander in their space. Have a nice day at school”. No cars were coming. Xela sprinted across State Street. I went back inside.
That crosswalk had always been a problem. Coming from the east there is only one traffic light over a stretch of about 3/4 of a mile, and the cars are coming downhill in a multiple lane scenario. If they catch the light at State and Chestnut, then they can also get through the light at State and Dwight and then only the light at Main Street remains to get through the densest part of downtown and make it to the interstate or the Columbus avenues. Cars go fast. The mentality is that of the highway.
The pedestrians at the bottom end of this raceway have to move across four ridiculously wide lanes in order to reach the library with its Dr Seuss themed children’s room, and the Quadrangle with its giant Dr Seuss characters. A number of crashes and near misses had occurred at this crosswalk over a number of years and entreaties were made by local residents for improvements. A barrel with a flashing light was added to the middle of the crosswalk. But it was soon crushed by a passing motor vehicle and its mangled presence seemed more of a warning to pedestrians than to motorists.
About this time discussions had begun over a new courthouse on State Street and about an overall improvement plan for the corridor. The Armory Quadrangle Civic Association, of which I was a member, and for which I worked as Community Liaison and later as a park and public space specialist, was happy to see improvements and beautification take place along the corridor, but above all we wanted an improved and enhanced crosswalk between the library and its parking lot.
I think I could confidently say that I spent dozens and dozens, perhaps even a hundred or so hours in meetings with public officials in the time I worked with the AQCA. None were as fruitless as the time we spent with the director of DPW in looking to improve and enhance that crosswalk. Right around this time another serious incident had occurred at the crosswalk, and the city had removed the barrel and painted over the lines in order to eradicate that crosswalk for all time. We asked for traffic calming. No. What about a pedestrian controlled traffic signal? No. A flashing light? No. A change in pavement? No. We asked if they, if he, had any ideas? No. It was clear, and I think that it was even stated outright, that traffic was the main priority, and that the speed with which cars had to move through this space was not safe for pedestrians to interface with, and so the city was going to remove its imprimatur on doing so by eliminating the crosswalk and then any pedestrian doing so couldn’t sue the city. That was it. When the “improvements” to State Street were completed the steps from the parking lot pointing directly across State Street to the library’s front door were removed, and mega-stairs were installed with the intention of funneling pedestrians to the intersection of State Street and Chestnut.
On the other side, the esplanade which ran from the front doors to the street was removed and replaced with a system of bollards, chains, and shrubbery intended to defend the library from J-walking patrons.
As my daughter noted in her video from the autumn of 2012, no one uses those stairs. Everyone takes the 14 second straight line route and not the 4 minute alternative which includes quite an uphill march. And now Destiny González is dead. Forever. No first date. No high school graduation. No college graduation. No wedding ceremony. No first child. No first visit to the library with her daughter. No watching her daughter cross the street by herself for the very first time.
But at least cars don’t occasionally have to stop twice over a 3/4 of a mile stretch to let little girls visit the children’s room. I hope the former DPW chief and the engineers who designed the unused workaround are happy with their work. And I hope they need to consult their attorneys very, very soon.