“You have ever been a herald of woe. Troubles follow you like crows, and ever the oftener the worse. I will not deceive you: when I heard that Shadowfax had come back riderless, I rejoiced at the return of the horse, but still more at the lack of the rider; and when Eomer brought the tidings that you had gone at last to your long home, I did not mourn. But news from afar is seldom sooth. Here you come again! And with you come evils worse than before, as might be expected. Why should I welcome you, Gandalf Stormcrow?”
(Theoden to Gandalf-The Lord of the Rings-J.R.R. Tolkien)
From the moment I heard Chuck Marohn speak I knew that his message was one that not only needed to be heard, but which could also be translated into action. If Jim Kunstler was John the Baptist raling against the American Automobile Slum, Chuck’s message appeared softer and less judgmental, less that is until he commanded your fig tree to wither and die.
Knowing that there was a Curbside Chat program that was ready to be presented to the public in communities just like Springfield I set about to get him here. Post tornado Springfield had developed a plan for recovery and had empowered a local non-profit development organization to spearhead the efforts; it seemed to me that DevelopSpringfield could use the “chat” to give people a broader framework for understanding what was happening, what had happened, and what was potentially going to happen in Springfield.
I was sincere about what I viewed as the importance of the message, but I also had a selfish desire not so much to meet Chuck, but for Chuck to meet Springfield. The further east he ventured from Minnesota the more he gushed on his blog and in interviews about the “good bones” for building Strong Towns that existed here; in Pennsylvania, even in North Adams, Massachusetts. I knew that I might finally meet someone who would see the beauty which I had always seen here.
Jay Minkarah, the president and CEO of DevelopSpringfield, took Chuck and his incredibly insightful sidekick Jim Kumon on a walking tour of the neighborhood and I was hearing what I knew I would hear: Chuck and Jim were impressed with Outing Park, a subsidized housing complex that looked more like a million dollar enclave in Manhattan; Jim made the whole group pause to appreciate the architectural detail of the façades of two buildings facing each other in an alleyway; later we bought grinders at Frigo’s and Chuck famously bought some pastries at La Fiorentina and went back to my house to talk about schools, cars, making America function again, and how it was that so much good food could cost so little money!
The chat went well. I was a little too passionate in my intro to Chuck but the rest of the program along with its Q and A were exactly what we had hoped for. Chuck had changed the bit about “believing that growth could solve all your problems” at my behest: No one in Springfield is infected with that mindset. Our problem is that we don’t see how our stagnation over the last 40 years has left us with a lot of neighborhoods and streets which, with a little TLC, could be transformed into truly prosperous places. The major take away from the chat and the follow up discussion on the next day was that the North End was a perfect place for the city to focus attention. It constituted a real small town Main Street on its own, but the beat up sidewalks, declining street trees, along with its isolation were leaving its potential untapped.
On the way out the next day I gave Jim and Chuck a quick auto tour of State Street. Jim laughed at our New England version of a stroad. We didn’t make it as far as the changeover from State Street to Boston Road where our Yankee stroadiness is as crappy as anyplace in the good ole U.S. of A. because I wanted them to tour the North End. They could see the potential we had discussed earlier. I told them that Holyoke was like the North End on a much larger scale. As an aside: In my opinion there is no better community in the Northeast in terms of its long term future potential than Holyoke, Massachusetts; I cannot believe that no one in Holyoke has thought to bring in Chuck.
But now we get to the sad reality of the aftermath of the Curbside Chat in my hometown, of the unforeseen consequences of that amazing visit by Chuck and Jim: Springfield has become a hiss and a byword. (Here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) One of the worst things imaginable for any neighborhood took place in my neighborhood on the evening Chuck was presenting the Curbside Chat, perhaps even while he was asking all of us what our priorities were regarding traffic engineering and design:
As fate would have it the crash occurred in the exact spot my own daughter had made a video about pedestrian safety in conflict with street design which I had sent to Strong Towns to be part of their “See It Differently” YouTube channel. I had sent it because another video had appeared on their channel with a much less impressive library on a much less impressive corridor; it was a humblebrag: “When we screw up our pedestrian-traffic interface we do it with City Beautiful architecture on historic avenues!”
Chuck, much to his credit has made not just pedestrian safety in this city, or in this neighborhood, but on that very street at that very spot his cause. He has made our decades long fight his fight without being asked to do so. I want to say “I don’t believe in destiny”, but under the circumstances I must use the more clumsy “I have no belief in the supernatural”. Chuck does. And I do believe that he sees or feels that this confluence of events: publishing the video, being in the neighborhood, crossing that street, giving the chat, and spending the night in a home all in close physical and/or temporal proximity to the death of Destiny González makes him somehow obligated to take up this cause both as symbolic and as an end unto itself in his efforts to protect the American people, and in particular American children, from the scourge of the automobile.
I’ve contributed something to this fight, but what I have “sacrificed” pales when compared to what the González family and thousands like them have sacrificed and what Chuck Marohn, Jason Degray, and countless other members of the Strong Towns movement have given to change everything from the overall zeitgeist of a continent to one small stretch of roadway in an insignificant New England city. From a completely selfish perspective it hurts to know that, in the short term at least, my efforts have redounded to the discredit of the city I love so much, but I also know that to enable and overlook is not to love; helping another to overcome their weaknesses and achieve their potential is love. May we prove worthy of it.