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City Life 20 June 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Uncategorized.
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Sunday Night: Jazz in the Park

It’s been three weeks since arriving in Denver and already it seems like so much more time has elapsed. I’ve read that change and novelty tend to deepen memories, making tumultuous days, months or years so much longer. Like childhood: every year took forever—and then they speed up, a sprint to the finish line.

For now, though, the change is in the adjustment to city life and new, more challenging employment. Capitol Hill‘s not a sardine-tin neighborhood where folks pay $1300 a month for a closet, of course, but for Denver this constitutes the most “urban” spot around: the highest population densities, the greatest income diversity, the shops and restaurants right around the corner from my apartment, and–this being Denver–a Whole Foods as well.

Anecdotal or actual, the most recent population trend on the tips of demographers’ tongues has been a return to urban living among middle class and affluent whites. White flight had a certain ring to it, but I’ve yet to hear anything remotely quotable about white… return. An urban renaissance perhaps? Generation X and the millenials are coming back to cities regardless of what you call their move, and it takes little effort to surmise that the suburban boom reached its peak just a couple years back, right before reality pricked the housing bubble. Half completed subdivisions sit empty along the Denver fringe. This city’s not alone in that phenomenon.

But why should they return? What is it about city living that’s fueling an urban renaissance? Why should the 19th century mansion next door have remained vacant for years, unable to attract tenants, while developers built house after house in Highlands Ranch and Broomfield? Three years back, convinced that I’d someday become an urban planner, I studied the growth of metropolitan areas, trying to understand the rationale behind what environmentalists and big-city advocates denounced as “sprawl.”

Myriad reasons emerged: the interstate highway system that carved up central cities and shortened commutes; the mortgage interest tax deduction that made home ownership more attractive than renting, albeit at a cost (in lost tax dollars) more than twice that of welfare; low gas prices that bred a “drive everywhere” culture; a failure to internalize all the costs of new development that instead shared the expense of new water mains and new schools with existing residents. Good explanations all, but they painted suburban Americans as the victims of policy choices, herded into the suburbs without a clue as to why. Rarely does the anti-sprawl crowd admit that suburbanites enjoy(ed) large homes at low cost, big yards, and the safety of their securely upper-middle class enclaves.

At the same time, suburbia lost its sense of place. Who could tell the difference between Shimmering Oaks on the Knoll and Windsor Manor at Babbling Brook? For instance, tell where this is without looking at the location stamp. Subdivisions and neighborhoods ceased to hold any meaning in an ever-rising tide of gabled roofs and two-car garages. It was all suburbia. But a city is not all a city. (Same game: guess this location. Or, harder, this one.) Washington Park differs from Capitol Hill not only in its architecture but in its demographics. Back in St. Louis, you’d be hard pressed to describe meaningful distinctions among St. Peters, O’Fallon and Chesterfield. Point being, big city cores develop at different times and under different circumstances, but the suburban boom took place more or less at once, and a highway exit strip looks essentially the same everywhere. So does vinyl siding.

The role models of generation, the characters in our sit-coms and movies, made urban life look more glamorous. The cast of Friends met at the same coffee shop and dropped by each others’ apartments. Sex and the City made New York its sixth character. The baby boomers, on the other hand saw a sanguine picture of suburban life exemplified by the Cleavers, the Flintstones and the Jetsons. The car commute remained much the same from the stone age to the distant future. Only the 60s could support a show called My Mother the Car.

Living here, I anecdotally point to a vitality missing in the suburbs, a feeling my cul-de-sac lacked. Here I interact with folks on the porches of my street. There’s a street culture, a movement, a buzz. And if airy language isn’t enough, there’s the practicality: I can bike to work in 10 minutes, my grocery store is across the street, and I never drive to a bar. If suburbanites worry about safety, they should check their own streets for drunk drivers coming home from a night out.

The other day, in the middle of making a pasta, I realized I’d forgotten to get mushrooms. Leaving the stove on and the door unlocked, I walked over to Whole Foods—a five minute round trip.

City life is good.

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Comments»

1. Colleen - 27 June 2010

“Sex and the City made New York its sixth character.”

Fifth character….unless you mean, after “sex”?

magicdufflepud - 29 June 2010

I am, and always have been, bad at counting. This is why you never let me keep score during Taboo. Or any game that involved score-keeping, really.


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