Why We Must Have Old Neighborhoods

Lewis McCrary asks a vital question in The American Conservative: What is a suburb? While he notes that this can be a difficult question to answer (since expatriot Europeans often see sprawl where Americans see urban charm), one of the key factors that he notes are these neighborhoods’ subservience to the automobile. He cites his own neighborhood as a contrasting example, or a sort of “New Urbanism”:

A 20-minute train ride from the center of Philadelphia, it boasts a retail and small office district within a short walk of most homes. Built before the car displaced the railroad, it now offers multiple modes of transport—including one’s own two feet—and while our family has only one car, there are some residents with children who choose not to have even one. The Economist contends that “as suburbs come to seem more urban, the distinction between central cities and their suburbs is blurring…” But in the case of the prewar suburb, the blurring began long ago.

All of the features noted help to make a neighborhood more aesthetically and economically pleasing than the sort we mean when we describe it as “too suburban”. Nonetheless, many of them also apply to suburban neighborhoods. During my time in the Washington-Metro area suburbs, for instance, I was within walking distance of commercial enterprises which provided all of my material needs. But, for all that, the area’s atmosphere still lacked the urban charms that enticed me back to Capitol Hill on the weekends.

When I lived in post-Kodak Rochester, within walking distance of the city’s nearly-abandoned downtown, I found myself traveling in the opposite direction, toward the historical towns of upstate New York, such as Geneseo, Pittsford and Warsaw which had maintained their traditional centers of gravity–complete with Main Streets and drugstores–even as the urban centers around which they were built collapsed.

All of this is to say that the first principle of aesthetic design, whether it is urban or suburban, is the sense that it is organic. This means having a sense of both the past and the future. In Moscow, the small Idaho city in which I grew up, it did not occur to anyone that the massive grain silos in the middle of the city were beautiful until they ceased to serve as grain silos. Only when they lost their use did the community begin to develop plans to convert them into theaters or shops. Cut off from its past, a silo is only a large aluminum can, but its cultural a historical significance can do more than serve as a sentimental reminder of things gone; it can connect us to that greater narrative that includes both the dead and the unborn. This connection, more than anything, is why we must have old things.


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