Skip to comments.It Has No Spirit
Posted on 06/29/2005 4:10:55 PM PDT by Lorianne
Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood
and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans;
aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical
diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone
will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.
--Daniel Burnham, Architect
Sitting at a Borders Bookstore in Marlton , New Jersey suburban nation USA I overheard a couple talking about the banality of living in the burbs. The young woman talked about the traffic, the generic houses, and the destruction to the wooded areas that not long ago made up the landscape where we are sitting. She summed up her point by stating: It has no spirit.
It has no spirit.
Marlton is your typical American suburb. Located in the Philadelphia Metro region, Marlton exhibits the same qualities of all suburbs, whether it is Kalamazoo , Michigan , Chattanooga , Tennessee , or East El Paso . The natural landscape has been replaced with strip malls with tenants such as The Gap, L.L. Bean, and Stonecold Ice Cream. Traveling two miles takes thirty minutes along the state highways. The moms drive the mid-size SUVs on their way to Target with their kids in the back, oblivious to the destruction outside their windows because they are too busy watching The Incredibles on the 5 DVD players implanted in the front-seat headrest. The dads drive the large gas guzzling SUVs on their way to the Home Depot or the Best Buy, thinking of how they will pay the next month's mortgage. The children are slightly obesenever having to walk anywhereand often eating McDonald's Mighty Kids Happy Meals.
This prototypical family all reside in cookie cutter single family houses the color of putty in subdivisions with names like Wooded Hills or Grassy Knoll with two car garages which they open with a touch of a button. They never use the front door, never say hello to their neighbors, and never breathe the fresh air. The communities they live in are void of any open space or parkland. Instead they are blanketed with gas stations, surface parking lots, and 50-foot wide residential streets, minus the trees and quaintness.
It has no spirit.
Besides the blandness of this suburban landscape, the problem with American suburbs is that they are now the dominant way of building. For the past fifty years, suburban designs have been the norm in our built-environment. Eighty percent of everything built in this country happened post WWII and most of it is generic, dangerous, and expensive. Large houses and wide and treeless streets have replaced small pedestrian-friendly and character-filled neighborhoods.
Across this country we are losing more and more of our natural environment and replacing it with a built-environment that has made us insular, like-minded, and sedentary. It is happening in New Jersey and certainly it is happening in El Paso . We are draining the soul out of our great neighborhoods Manhattan Heights , Sunset Heights , Segundo Barrioand creating a desert no-asis.
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I grew up in a 1970s fourth-tier suburb in the Lower Valley of El Paso in a subdivision known as Pima VillageLa Pima. My parents, recent Mexican immigrants, settled in what was then one of the newest neighborhoods on the east side of the city. Having come from a blighted neighborhood in Ciudad Juarez and a small, extended family-filled house, they were happy to provide my brothers with a piece of the American Dream: a single family house paid with the quintessential American thirty year mortgage.
La Pima was a community composed of mostly Mexican immigrant families, first time homeowners and who for the most part were slow to indoctrinate into the American way of life. This made La Pima an unusual suburban neighborhood with qualities of a great urban community: generations of kids played and grew-up together, mother's walked their kids to school, Lomaland Park was a block away, street football games were common on late summer afternoons, children were encouraged to ride their bikes to the Good Time Store, and the car garages were converted to family rooms or dens for additional family space.
At the time when I was growing up in the late 70s and throughout the 80s, La Pima was one of the last subdivisions south of I-10. Aside from some older communities in Ysleta and several other newer neighborhoods along south Zaragoza and North Loop , La Pima was one of the newest communities to be platted. Hardly anything existed east of Lomaland and north of I-10. Tinseltown, Las Palmas Shopping Center, Joe Battle, and the tens of thousands of square feet of commercial and residential land uses were dry and what seemed uninhabitable desert beauty.
Every day I would travel east on North Loop towards Zaragoza and stare out the car window into rows and rows of cotton fields and open space. Family restaurants and mom and pop stores with makeshift signs dotted North Loop 's right-of-ways.
To give the reader an idea: a K-Mart, a 7-11, and two shopping strips were all that existed on the corner of North Loop and Zaragoza . Agriculture was the dominant land use on the intersection. Today the same intersection has been replaced with a litany of corporate stores: Blockbuster Video, Chevron, Circle K, and other commercial enterprises. The serene and rural landscape was transformed into a consumer wastelandall within the span of ten years.
The History of Suburban Nation
If you had grown up in a community built or designed pre WWII, you would have lived in a neighborhood with character and charm. Your home would be a small and quaint duplex or row home in a small tree-line street devoid of cars. The corner store owned by local homeowners would be a short walk away and certainly you would not need to get in a car just to buy the Sunday paper or the morning coffee.
Parks and pedestrian plazas were the focal point of civic and community life; where children would play without fear of being hit by traffic, mothers exchanged recipes or who's-who's, and fathers debated local politics. Jobs and commercial activity would all take place in the city's core; as would all form of family entertainment and social activity. Public transportationeither an electric car or trolleywould be the most efficient and cheapest form of travel. The country side would be a leisurely Sunday adventure and the natural landscape a respite from the activity of urban life.
Remnants of this lifestyle are evident in El Paso 's urban core and central neighborhoods. Homes in central and south El Paso exhibit this kind of timeless architectural design.
In Manhattan Heights front porches and trees are the most evident design feature of the neighborhood. Segundo Barrio's street pattern is suited for pedestrians not automobiles. Several parks are within a short walking distance for the residents of Kern Place . Sunset Heights ' homes remind us that structures were built to last.
Downtown El Paso was the center of all commercial and civic activity (I still remember my mother and I taking the bus to el centro to shop for all the things that today people shop at Wal-Mart for; late lunch at Woolworth's Cinco y Diez culminated a day of shopping in Juarez or paying bills at El Paso Electric Company). La Plaza de los Lagartos (Alligator Park) or San Jacinto Plaza was El Paso's Central Park where families from the farming communities of Canutillo and Ysleta would come experience the magic and joys of the urban setting. The Plaza Theatre, dinner in downtown Juarez , and shopping along Mesa and El Paso streets were all part of growing up in El Paso .
Today, the streets of downtown are deserted along with the buildings; the only time San Jacinto is buzzing with activity is during Christmas for the lighting of the tree; houses in the urban core are dilapidated; and most jobs are now in the city's periphery in industrial parks along Zaragoza or Artcraft Road .
So what changed?
After the end of WWII, America 's optimism from defeating the forces of totalitarianism coupled with a rejuvenated spirit following the Great Depression took hold. Besides this patriotic fervor, other factors contributed to the transformation of the urban landscape. Chief among these was the increase influence of the automobile.
The car was the classic American symbol of freedom and opportunity. It represented mobility for many citizens and a cash cow for corporate America . With the demand for automobiles also came a demand for the raw materials to create the product. Rubber for tires, steel for the body, and petroleum for the engine began to shape the future of the U.S. economy as well as the future of our American lifestyles.
Now that Americans had their soul mobiles, they needed a place to go. And this place was suburbia. The suburb was much different than the urban core that mostly white and affluent people now had the freedom to flee. As white-flight began to take hold an influx of black Americans from the south and Latino immigrants from the southwest and Puerto Rico began to fill the void left from fleeing whites. The federal government also facilitated the exodus of people, capital, and goods to the suburban periphery. Through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the 30 year mortgage, the government made it easier to attain homeownership.
The idea of the American Dream with a single family home, white picket fence, and streets wide enough to accommodate the Buick or Ford was the dominant thinking of policymakers and American consumers. However, the American Dream was only available to a select few. Blacks and Latinos were excluded from owning homes through the process known as redlining. Red lines were literally drawn as boundaries of where mortgage lenders and realtors should avoid selling homes. Not coincidentally, these red boundaries happened to be in the urban core inhabited mostly by people of color.
The last piece of the puzzle came in the mid-fifties when President Eisenhower and the U.S. Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. Initially intended as a Cold War strategy in case of a nuclear attack, the Interstate Highway Act was designed to connect all states and most cities through a system of roads and highways. It became the largest public works project in the history of the world and the lifeline to suburbia.
The open road now led to large tracts of land where single family homes with two car garages began to take shape. Gone were the compact and dense neighborhoods with front porches and architectural uniqueness. Lifeless and generic houses with wide streets for the car became the norm. People, jobs, and most economic activity fled in the directions of the new highways and roads in pursue of the American Dream. Poor blacks and Latinos were left behind to fill a niche in the abandoned row homes and vacant buildings in pursue of the American Nightmare.
A negative causality of our country's automobile and commercial-driven obsession is the destruction to the environment. Byproducts of our suburban nation include the shopping strip, the gasoline station, the fast food drive-thru restaurant, the lack of green space, the deterioration of civic life, the surface and empty parking lots, and an unhealthy and sedentary lifestyle.
Market failures include congested streets and highways, high unemployment rates in our urban centers, economically blighted communities, depleting tax base, and a plethora of deteriorating and empty industrial buildings.
In El Paso, great buildings such as the old City Hall and Library were tore down and replaced with the concrete and glass designs of the new City Hall and County Courthouse (City Hall is not even finished). Downtown El Paso is idle with very few commercial, civic, and entertainment options. Electric streetcars and trolleys that once were dominant means of transportation, are now sunbathing out in the El Paso airport desert.
Great neighborhoods were left behind in pursuit of cookie-cutter houses on the west and east sides of El Paso . Commercial corridors such as Piedras , Montana , Yandell, Pershing, and Alameda , were abandoned for grotesquely obscene (not to mentioned inefficient) streets like Yarbrough, Redd Road , Zaragoza , Joe Battle, and Resler Drive .
Large acre parks like Memorial Park in Manhattan Heights and Madeline Park in Kern are nonexistent in the new subdivisions. Pristine Franklin Mountains and desert arroyos are threatened by homes with larger square footage. Children frequent Wal-Mart more often than they do the El Paso Museum of Art.
We are creating a city like all others in this country; in short we are creating a city with no spirit.
What We Can & Should Do
In the past several years, many communities and local governments have begun to realize the destructive nature of suburbia. Smart Growth initiatives and New Urbanism are taking shape as the antithesis to our development paradigm. Many state and local government entities are reconsidering the current way of building and exploring smart growth ideas and developing suburbs based on neo-traditional design: front porches, walkable streets, large parks, community centers, detached garages, and unique housing typologies.
These two philosophies are pitting environmentalist, new urbanism planners, and post modernist architects against the status quo factions of developers, old school planners, and traffic engineers. On the one hand you have a set of thinkers advocating for better ways of building using timeless and traditional principles that will make us healthier, happier, and friendlier. On the other you have suburban developers and politicians unwilling to acknowledge the mistakes of the past fifty years (because to do so would mean taking responsibility) and explore innovative and smart ways of creatingor recreatinggreat neighborhoods.
Several Smart Growth principles include: preserving open space by redeveloping the inner core, creating communities not subdivisions, building different types of residential units including single family detached, duplexes, and multi-family housing within the same subdivision; providing efficient and effective public transportation alternatives to include buses, light rail, bike and pedestrian paths; and changing the Euclidian zoning (separating the land uses) to mix use zoning (allowing the uses to mix).
New Urbanism simply stated means the creation of great and unique neighborhoods by employing traditional and timeless architectural designs. Some of these include: compact and walkable neighborhoods; narrower streets made mostly for walking not driving; detached garages usually in the back of the house; alleyways for cars to utilize; front porches that create a sense of security and community; mix use buildings to include residential and commercial or residential and office; mix income housing that allows different families of various incomes to live together; and plenty of open space and parkland for recreational activities.
On The Upward Spiral On a recent drive on I-10 from Canutillo to east El Paso , I noticed the evident past and future of our city and the obvious potential that awaits us. The past was on the bookends of I-10 both on the west and east sides of El Paso .
On the west side you have the slow creeping up of houses on the edges of the Franklins and the backyards butting against the natural arroyos (let's hope the arroyos win). In east El Paso you have the commonality of Any Burb USA .
The sight of neon signs and parking lots now dominate the natural beauty of the desert. I state that these recent residential and commercial developments are the past because we can no longer afford to build what we have been for the past twenty years. The true future of our city is in that stretch between Executive Center and Copia, essentially the heart of El Paso . In the center of our city we have the examples we need of how to build our new communities: the existing neighborhoods with all their charm and class.
Cities are said to go through an evolutionary spiral. The core of the spiral presents the young city, the beginning of a city. As the city develops along a circular path, the city's progress is measured by the tops and bottoms of the spiral.
In some years the city can stay at the top of the spiral signifying a healthy and vibrant community. In other years the city can be in the abyss of the spiral. The beauty of this theory is the promise guaranteed to those cities at the bottom; the promise to make it up the spiral towards the top.
In essence it is a theory of hope.
For El Paso a city almost everyone agrees has been lingering at the bottom for more than two decadesthe tide is turning upwards along the spiral. For El Paso this signifies an awesome opportunity to recreate our city and redevelop our neighborhoods.
It signifies an opportunity to preserve our spirit.
* * *
Carlos Gallinar is an urban planner working and living in central El Paso. You can reach him at email@example.com .
Legal or illegal? Show me their papers.
...Liberals who complain about how Wal-Mart and gentrification are destroying "Quaint and charming" neighborhoods that they wouldn't be caught dead in.
You can't create communities by willing them into existence. Of course, the same libs who are so hot to trot on Smart Growth and New Urbanism are the same ones who've done everything in their power over the last 40 years to destroy communities by destroying families, churches, schools, ...
And the Supremes just ruled that towns can destroy existing, real residential communities simply for greed.
It's a little-known fact that Burnham was an amateur pastry chef, and has been misquoted lo these many years. He actually said, "Make no little flans."
Remove most if not all restrictions on zoning.
Remove most if not all restrictive building code ordinances... did you know that any newly built street MUST be wide enough for two fire trucks to pass each other?
It is the ingenuity of each home owner and the work they put into their property that makes it unique.
Well said and true.
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