Friday, January 06, 2012

"I was just in the neighborhood . . . " III: The disquieting quietude of cul-de-sacs

New Year, newish-to-us neighborhood: Your correspondent and Scruffy take a brief pause from exploring the headwaters of Gypsum Creek in the wilds of east Wichita, January 1, 2012. That's the western edge of our neighborhood in the background. Image by the Mrs.

As I noted in my first post on our newish neighborhood, we now live in a neighborhood that might as well be a cul-de-sac: three streets form a loop whose midsection is traversed by three short streets; one north-south street provides direct access to Kellogg St., Wichita's major east-west artery; another street forms a T-intersection with the north-south and briefly runs east before abruptly turning north to intersect with Kellogg. Appropriately, that second street loops around a large car dealership. At any rate, a footbridge spanning the creek on the west side of our neighborhood provides the only other entrance/outlet. Significantly, though this neighborhood was built in the late '50s, the footbridge--intended to provide easy pedestrian access to the elementary school on the other side of the creek--was installed only in 2001.

As I noted in that first post, I have never lived in a quieter neighborhood before. In this post, I want to try to examine that quiet. I'm supposed to like it, and sometimes I do, but sometimes it leaves me a little disquieted.

This sort of space is a good place to try to examine the tensions between what people say they want in their living space and how much the requirements (and some of the unintended consequences) of the automobile actually dictate the shape of that space. That tension arises from our conflicting desires for removed-ness from others (limiting their access to our immediate surroundings) and for easy access to the world that others live in. The automobile makes it possible to meet both those desires, but because, in this country, most people have a car and, see the above conflicting desires, one clear result is that our typical post-WWII suburban neighborhoods are attempts to satisfy those desires: the sprawl of suburbs made possible by both the availability of outlying land no longer needed for agriculture and the automobile's ability to provide access to that land.

Enter the cul-de-sac. As it were.

Subdivisions designed around cul-de-sacs, with their vastly-reduced through traffic, certainly are effective at creating calm areas in the midst of large urban spaces while providing access to those spaces. On the surface, they would seem to be the ideal solution to meeting those conflicting desires. A closer look at some of their iterations, though, reveals something strange: The absence or near-absence of sidewalks in these places. The clear assumption on the part of these subdivisions' builders is that there's no reason to walk in these spaces, aside from going to other people's houses--and, recall, these folks are living in the 'burbs to be away from others; sidewalks would only facilitate interaction. Put another way: the absence of sidewalks mean that these houses' occupants aren't connected to each other, but (via their driveways) only to the street--only to the means of getting in and out of their neighborhood. Those few of us who actually walk or ride bikes through this neighborhood must do so in the streets, which are a bit narrower that suburban streets are nowadays and where many people park their cars (the houses' one-car garages a sign that when they were built, households tended to have fewer cars than they do now). The message is subtle but unmistakable: This space is not for people but for their cars.

Because it is the inherent nature of cars to both provide mobility for their occupants and isolate them from the space through which they move, and despite the physical closeness of these houses to each other, the absence of sidewalks feeds in me the overriding sense of the houses' existential isolation from each other.

Perhaps this is also true of at least some of their occupants. Several people who are out and about greet people who greet them; however, just about every morning for the five months that we've lived here, Scruffy and I pass a woman who walks her dog in the direction opposite that which we take. I long ago stopped greeting her; she never once has spoken to me.

I confess that I don't feel especially good about myself for having stopped greeting her.

This is, physically speaking, a cozy little neighborhood, but there's no feature here that can enhance that coziness in a more intangible way: no sidewalks, no park (the greenbelt along the creek, despite its width in places, has no tables, no benches, no playground equipment--its sole function, though an undeniably important one, is to help control erosion). I was wrong to assume in my first post that most of the people here are older; on the contrary, there seem to be lots of young families with kids here, who know and seem to like each other (back when it was warmer, they'd often be out and about in the afternoons), so it's not as though this is a neighborhood of people physically restricted to their houses. At least from this fairly-early vantage point in our stay here, it seems as though cars so define the physical form this neighborhood takes that it cannot help but affect the people who live here, too.

What does it mean to live in such a place? By which I mean, how does "I live here" get defined by these houses' occupants/dwellers/owners? I don't mean that question in an insulting way but in a genuinely interrogative way. I suspect that you'll see some occasional posts here that try to explore that question.


R. Sherman said...

Sorry I missed this earlier.

I think it's the American desire for our own space. Sidewalks in modern subdivision of postage stamp sized lots bring others too close to us. It feels like they're trespassing on "our" land, even though the walkways are dedicated to public use. Call it the last vestiges of the "home on the range" syndrome.


John B. said...

Hmm. That may be, and I admit to liking "my" space, too. But the other day, I saw a bunch of neighborhood kids playing together (good, obviously) in the driveway of a house that's been for sale since October (poignant--the "driveway" part). Safer than the street, true, but it shows to me the felt need/desire for a shared space, even as we also need/desire our own space. In this neighborhood, at least, the former isn't formally addressed at all, not even through the least common denominator of sidewalks.

I think that's my point: that "living" (in the neighborhood sense of the word) at its best should try to provide for both those needs/desires in order to be socially healthier. We should be striving toward enhancing a sense of community and not implicitly fostering a sense of splendid isolation, a collection of 1/8-acre fiefdoms.

But, you know. I like people, generally.

Gaia Gardener: said...

I've often equated the lack of sidewalks to a more basic issue: the developer didn't want to pay to put them in and the city didn't want to pay to put them in or to maintain them.

It would be interesting to see when sidewalks quit automatically being added to a new development. They are usually present in neighborhoods from the 1920's. I'd have to drive around the city to see if there's a correlation between age of the neighborhood and the availability of sidewalks.

It was after WWII that public transportation was downgraded to encourage the rise of the car. I suspect that's about the time the sidewalks disappeared.

It's too bad that there isn't a move to retroactively put them in. We all could use a little more community in our lives.