Home From Nowhere
by Lynne Jackson
As a child growing up in the suburbs in the sixties, I really wanted sidewalks. I could not understand why there were no sidewalks.
I envied the children who walked to school, and were even allowed to walk home at lunch. As I got older, I wished that I could take the bus, but as the bus stop was two miles from my house, along a narrow sidewalkless highway, it was not practical or safe. My mother was very kind to me, and, unlike many of my friend's moms, she drove me absolutely everywhere I wanted to go, which was a lot of places. Ceramics class, guitar lessons, church, church youth group, drama practice, school functions and, of course, environment club. She wasted thousands of hours of her short life in the car, driving me places.
According to James Howard Kunstler, author of the books, The Geography of Nowhere, and Home from Nowhere, the suburbs are great places for children up to about age 9. For everyone else, they do not provide the basic amenities that we need to have a thriving, living community.
Think about it, where would you prefer to take a Saturday afternoon stroll, Lark Street in Albany or Wolf Road in Colonie? Where is it most fun to go shopping, the main street in Woodstock or Crossgates Maul? When you think of "home town", do you envision the quaint intersection in Clifton Park of Routes 9 and 146 or main street in Altamont?
When you drive down "the strip" outside of anytown (pick one, Albany, Schenectady, Troy, Hudson, etc.), do you enjoy the view, looking for attractive architectural details on the McDonald's sign that catch the eye? Or do you close your eyes and ask how much longer? When I first lived in downtown Albany, I would often walk around Washington Park. I was fascinated with the beautiful detailing on buildings, and every day I found some new feature. Twenty years later, I still look for and find new embellishments on buildings I had not noticed before. However, I do not spend time checking for architectural detailing on Central Avenue.
For the past nearly 20 years, Save the Pine Bush has been saying no to building in the Pine Bush. No office complexes, no suburban housing tracts, no roads. No. Just Don't Do It.
We have always said "build downtown." But, we have never specifically said what or how building should occur downtown.
James Howard Kunstler, in his new book, Home from Nowhere, clearly articulates a vision for what we should be building in our downtowns. His vision is so obvious, and so clear and makes so much sense.
Take for example the idea that people prefer to walk down Lark Street to Wolf Road. It is so obvious that walking on Lark Street is a pleasant experience and no one can conceive of strolling down Wolf Road as anything but an ordeal. But why is this? Most of the buildings on Lark Street were built around 100 years ago, and most on Wolf Road were constructed in the last 30 years. Is it that we can't build beautiful communities anymore?
No, says Kunstler, its that we no longer build for human beings, we build for cars. The primary concern of our zoning laws is for traffic flow, our zoning laws do not even allow us to build a place like Lark Street today.
Kunstler writes extensively about the public realm. He says that the outdoors is like a room, and that human beings prefer to have well-defined spaces and walls. In the city, buildings are like the walls to the room. Buildings about 4 or so stories high, built close to the edge of a wide sidewalk, define the space. The public space is the street and sidewalks. The semi-public spaces are the shops that line the street, and the private spaces are in the apartments and offices above the shops.
This is why places like Lark Street are comfortable to walk around, they are built on a human scale, with clearly defined walks and public and private spaces.
To save our wild places, we need to make our communities and towns livable and enjoyable places. We need to build towns and cities on a livable, human scale. Kunstler gives us hope and goals in his newest book, Home from Nowhere.
Printed Feb/Mar 97