One of my favorite short stories is “Deutsches Requiem” by Jorge Luis Borges. The essence of the story is that, while the Nazis may have lost World War II militarily, culturally and philosophically they won the war because they obligated their enemies to become like them in their brutality and their wonton cruelty.
Quite a bit of what I write on this blog is intended to analyze in a reasonable, rational, and logical way the issues surrounding urban life in a city fallen on hard times. This post is more about the purely subjective. I love cities and I love my hometown. I love them for the way they make me feel. I am certain that there are reasons, scientific, psychological, emotional, which could explain why I am sensitive to the patterns and structures of urbanity, but at some point the causes are no longer important, and what is important, on a personal level, is that I love cities.
What seems to make the urban experience more enjoyable to me is that it is aggregated. It’s not that when forced to go to a restaurant in a strip mall that I refuse to enjoy the meal: if the food is good I appreciate it every bit as much as if the restaurant were on a walkable street. What seems to happen is that if events, like dining out, are punctuated with riding in/driving a car then they stand on their own In my internalization of the events, each one exists on its own if I can’t walk from one to the next.
It may very well be that other people do not experience this of course, perhaps it’s just me. Which brings us back to “Deutsches Requiem”. When I say that I want my city to thrive, it doesn’t mean that I want it to experience economic prosperity devoid of all other considerations. If becoming prosperous in the near term, or in the far term, requires becoming “like unto” a suburb, then I would rather Springfield remain a city in decline: if to defeat the enemy I have to become the enemy then the struggle has no point. Of course, I do think that long term prosperity will be connected to and require just the sort of traditional design that creates the sort of integrated experience that I love, but I must admit that even if it didn’t, I would wage the battle I’m attempting to wage, only perhaps differently.
Now and again I cruise past the city of Waterbury, Connecticut and every time I think: “Deutsches Requiem”. Right next to the highway, and sitting like a Dead Sea next to the older parts of the city are two malls. They are always somewhat busy and buzzing with the coming and going of cars and people to McDonalds, Toys R Us, and a dozen or more other stores. I do not doubt that (not withstanding the absolute validity of the Taco John’s comparison) the total retail sales of that area far outpace the retail sales of the entirety of the downtown of my much more populous(155,000 to 110,000) city. Even given that, I wouldn’t change places for the world.
I’m not just taking pot shots at Waterbury. Waterbury is exactly the kind of community this website is attempting to rehabilitate in the minds of potential residents. It has, from the exterior at least, the most beautiful church I have ever seen outside Europe, its train station, complete with campanile, is charming, and I wish the entire community well overall. But to gut an entire neighborhood to bring the sprawl experience to the heart of the city? I’d rather lose the war than achieve victory by becoming a suburb.