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Monday, September 23, 2002

Homeland Defense: The Urban Apologist

To a lot of Americans the idea of living in the city is filled with a lot of negative connotations. Cities are dirty and crime-ridden. The city represents the rat race while the suburbs represent a bucolic utopia. City life is impersonal and anonymous. People are unfriendly and traffic is hell.

Without any statistics at hand I would guess that perhaps only about five percent of the U.S. populace actually lives in a city. A lot of major metropolitan areas in this country support little in the way of urban living. Cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, and Miami come to mind.

More people live in the surrounding sprawl than live in Seattle proper. Fewer still live in the downtown area. I would guess that this is true of most large cities in the U.S. In my own feeble words I will try to draw a picture of what these people are missing. I urge anyone reading this to write about where you live to let me know what I’m missing.

The building I in live in was built in 1926. It is a five story brick affair that looks as handsome today as it will in another 76 years. There are 54 units in the building--home to about 70 people. This isn’t a huge apartment building but this is still a fairly efficient way to house 70 people.

When you step out of the front entrance of my building you can either turn right or left. Take a left and there is a spectacular view of the Olympic Mountains and the Puget Sound. I love seeing snow all summer long. Every trip I take to the mountains I make a point of hiking or mountain biking up to the snow.

Take a right out of my building and you can see the Space Needle through the trees. If this isn’t Seattle’s most distinctive structure then surely it’s the city’s most easily recognizable one. Every city skyline should have something that sets it apart from every other city. I like the fact that when you take one step out of my doorway it is immediately apparent that you are in Seattle. There are the overcast days when the mountains and the Space Needle are not visible. On those days it will be raining and then you really know that you are in Seattle.

About half of the times that I leave my building I do so carrying one of my bicycles (I’m not much of a walker). From my front door I pedal past the spot where I think I last parked my car, just to make sure that it hasn’t been towed. I don’t bother to lock it. If someone cares to borrow my radio I would rather they not smash a window in the process. Nothing has ever been taken from it and no homeless person has ever tried to sublet the back seat. I rarely lock the door to my apartment either--so much for the crime argument.

What I truly love about where I live is that everything that I need in my life is all contained in an area of about ten blocks. I hope that I am never forced to live in a place where driving an automobile, even for short trips, is a day-to-day necessity. My idea of hell is a place where I have a long car commute. How do people do it?

I hear traffic reports on the radio all the time and I shudder with fear. The voice from the helicopter conjures up images far more terrifying to me than anything Stephen King has created. There was an advertisement for a luxury car some time ago with the caption, “You can live closer to work or own the road in between.” That one is a no-brainer in my opinion. The rat race begins when you get behind the wheel of an automobile. I’ll just listen to it on the radio.

If you want to read a decent book on suburban sprawl check out The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-made Landscape by James Howard Kunstler.

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