Sunday, April 15, 2007

Foot people and car people

I am reading, or rather I am lusting after the time to read, Jane Jacobs’s 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. One of the things that bothers the hell out of me in Greensboro is the sprawl/mall thing. Yes, there is a downtown, and I may move there a couple of years from now (why not sooner is outside the purview of this blog, which is not a personal journal) but the general culture in these parts is get in the car and drive.

My first year and three months here I was too poor to get a car, so ironically, I didn’t feel that sprawl-mall culture as much as I do now that I have wheels, because I didn’t get much of anywhere beyond my two or three major destinations –unless I could a) borrow a car or b) find time to take the bus, which is dreadful here, as in the buses only ran once an hour last year (I hear they’ve changed them to every half hour, but they still can’t take me from my house to the post office; there is no route that does that). I like riding the bus –and if you want to see the race and class divide, there it is: not a lot of white people or rich people on the bus. (Coincidentally, I read a newspaper article on this very fact today.) But the bus often takes time that a 60 to 75 hour work week doesn’t allow and it doesn’t go everywhere. I just didn't get to a lot of places and events last year.

So when I had the opportunity to get a cheap and not even used copy of the (1993) Modern Library Edition of Jacobs’s book, I jumped on it, because I knew this was the right time to read it, after moving from life in a series of sidewalk cities to life in the great sprawl.

I’ve always loved and been interested in cities. I love the country, too. It’s suburbia I don’t like. Worse: it’s not dislike as much as discomfort. I find suburbia and the kind of suburbia that gets called a city disorienting. To the body, to the mind, and yes, to the soul.

Stop right here: I’m not saying there aren’t good people in suburbia, exurbia, or spread-urbia, and I’m not saying there’s no good happening there.

But I already know I’m going to relish reading what Jacobs wrote about urban planning and development lo those four and a half decades ago. I’ve read about what she wrote, of course, and seen some of it up close in cities where I’ve lived and visited. But there’s nothing like going to the primary texts. I'm looking forward to reading the book, even if I only get to it once the academic year is over.

I already like a distinction Jacobs makes in the Foreword to the Modern Library Edition:

In a kind of shorthand, we can speak of foot people and car people.

The minute I read that sentence I recognized myself.

And my discomfort with the city planning here began to find a name and feel more legitimate.

This book, Jacobs continues, was instantly understood by foot people, both actual and wishful. They recognized that what it said jibed with their own enjoyment, concerns, and experiences, which is hardly surprising, since much of the book’s information came from observing and listening to foot people. They were collaborators in the research. Then, reciprocally, the book collaborated with foot people by giving legitimacy to what they already knew for themselves. … Conversely, the book neither collaborated with car people nor had an influence on them. It still does not, as far as I can see.

If you don’t understand what Jacobs means by “foot people” and “car people,” here is her previous paragraph:

Some people prefer doing their workaday errands on foot, or feel they would like to if they lived in a place where they could. Other people prefer hopping into the car to do errands, or would like to if they had a car. In the old days, before automobiles, some people liked ordering up carriages or sedan chairs and many wished they could. But as we know from novels, biographies, and legends, some people whose social positions required them to ride –except for rural rambles— wistfully peered out at passing street scenes and longed to participate in their camaraderie, bustle, and promises of surprise and adventure.

I’ve long said that I choose the place I live based on whether you can walk to two things: public transportation and a fresh loaf of bread. If those two are within walking distance, generally the rest is there, too. This time around I didn’t have the choice. And while I can walk to both, the public transpo is not a full system, and the fresh loaf of bread doesn’t count, because it’s in a supermarket and wrapped in plastic. So it’s not really fresh. Fresh means just out of the oven and bare bread, no plastic. Either someone puts it in a paper bag for you or you put it in a paper bag – or you just carry it out. And you can smell the oven. So for the first time in decades, I don't really have my two-essentials-that-lead-to-all-the-rest.

Yes, there are a few places like this in the United States. I've lived near them. But I did grow up on the other side of the Atlantic, where they are even more plentiful.


Caminante said...

Ah, une bonne patisserie française... I live in town so I can walk to the market (there used to be one 0.5 miles away but it folded so now I have to walk 1.8 miles to the only one). I will drive there when I don't have time or in really crummy weather, like today, but I do try to walk there often. So I am partly a foot person (well, heck, I walk the Camino de Santiago!).

Jane R said...

You are definitely a foot person.

I would love to meet you and Compa next time I am in Vermont (it happens every so often) -- another thing you and I have in commmon is our connection to France!

I've not walked the Camino - but I keep hearing it is undergoing a revival, including among European youth (and others from elsewhere and other generations) who have no active connection to Christianity but want to walk the pilgrimage way.

I did get to Conques, in central France -- marvelous abbey church -- thanks to a friend who introduced me to it and noted that it was on the pilgrimage way (or one of the several through France) to Santiago. It's way down in a vallon.

Nice photos of snow in Vt. on your blog.

Rev Dr Mom said...

Oh, I am definitely a foot of the things I loved about the city and miss where I am now is being able to walk to do things.

Jane R said...


Hey, thanks for stopping by,Rev. Dr. Mom. Good to have you visiting. Come back and chat anytime.