Sunday, September 26, 2004

Why Some People Are Heading Back to the City

I had an interesting conversation last Wednesday with a woman who just might be an unwitting poster girl for the back-to-the-city trend.

At a wine-and-cheese party at a City Line Avenue hotel, I wound up talking with a couple of older women who live in Levittown. One of them, an energetic 74-year-old, told me that she enjoys getting out and going places. "I hop on the train and go into Philadelphia all the time," she said. "I take the Phlash bus around town. I like to visit the museums and go to the shops."

Without my asking why, she explained, "I come into Philadelphia because there's no place to go in Levittown."

In that sentence she captured the central flaw with the Auto Age suburb--it was designed as a new urban form, but without all the necessary urban functions. The people who built places like Levittown all over America had a certain model of suburban life in mind. That model can be summed up with the phrase "a good place to raise your kids." The ample yards and quiet residential streets of these large subdivisions guaranteed families ample space for their children to play without having to walk to a park or schoolyard. Schools were located near the center of neighborhoods to put them in easy walking (or bus) distance of all the students. Shopping centers on the edges of the developments provided most basic needs--and some extra ones, if they were large enough.

All this was just fine as long as the parents were working and the children young. The model did not work so well once the children reached adolescence or the parents retired, and the reason why turned out to be the same for both retirees and children: There were few diversions these people could easily reach, especially without a car. No corner taverns or eateries. No art galleries or promenades. No place to be in public, casually interacting or simply sharing experiences with one's fellow citizens.

If that Levittowner's comment can be taken as an example, there is still a need even in our privatized Auto Age suburban landscape for public places that serve recreational, cultural and entertainment functions. Many older interwar suburbs have such places in their central business districts, and their siting makes them reachable by a variety of means. Retrofitting such places into our newer suburbs seems a bit more difficult, but that hasn't stopped towns like Schaumburg, Ill., from trying. The movement of empty-nesters back into in-town neighborhoods is one way some Americans are trying to reconnect to the communal realm; it's quite likely that as the decades pass, our newer suburbs will, like Schaumburg, attempt to construct this realm in their midst from scratch.

Why The Press Did Not Out Jim McGreevey

This is a topic of a front-of-the-book article in the October issue of Philadelphia magazine, and after reading it, I believe the author--and Philadelphia's readers -- would have been better served if they had read one of Michelangelo Signorile's explanations of why some politicians
deserved to be outed and others not in the Advocate.

As it is, the article is competent enough: the point it makes is that nobody in the Trenton press corps felt that McGreevey's being gay was story enough in and of itself to devote throwing investigative resources at in a big way. Reporters did repeatedly ask the governor about rumors he was gay, which were routinely denied, and when the news of Golan Cipel's appointment to a post he was apparently not qualified for broke, the angle became more relevant and was pursued by more media outlets. But still nothing appeared in print or on air stating definitively that Gov. McGreevey was gay, and nothing would have had McGreevey not outed himself in his resignation announcement.

Of course, McGreevey outed himself mainly as a means of diverting attention from yet another unsavory tale of corruption; such tales have been staples of his term in office. But nothing else he did made his being gay relevant to anything else.

Which brings me to the reason why Signorile might have been a better person to answer that question. As the article fails to note, just about every politician who has been outed was kicked out of the closet by the gay press or gay activists bent on exposing their hypocrisy in supporting legislation or other state action that was hostile to the notion of equal treatment for gays. As McGreevey did no such thing, there was no real reason to reveal his sexuality against his wishes except in the context of some scandal where it might have influenced his decisions, as was the case with the Cipel appointment.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

The View from the Handlebars

For the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to experience Philadelphia on two wheels, since a friend with a bicycle took up residence here. Besides good exercise, it's given me an opportunity to roam a little further beyond my home neighborhood and see just how easy--or difficult--it is for bicycles and motor vehicles to co-exist.

My first observation on that latter topic is this: Bicyclists have a built-in advantage in much of the city, thanks to the narrowness of the streets--a legacy of the original 1682 city plan, which was extended into much of North and South Philadelphia. Narrow streets--especially when they have parked cars on both sides, as they do almost everywhere outside Center City--force motorists to slow down and be more cognizant of the environment through which they are driving. On some of the most crowded streets in Center City, I find I can actually keep pace with the cars and trucks.

My second observation is this: Bike lanes provide a false sense of security. Even though motorists do observe lane discipline, and by and large stay out of the marked bike lanes, there are inevitable conflicts by dint of their traditional location at the right edge of the travel space. If there is a parking lane to the right, bicyclists still run the risk of running into car doors that open suddenly. Motorists attempting to turn right must cross the lane to do so, and often, they will not look to see if they are cutting off a bike in the bike lane; if a bicyclist is traveling in a mixed traffic lane, this does not happen, as the motorist must pay attention to the bike just ahead of him in the same lane. And what happens when it's time for the bicyclist to make a left turn? There is still at least one lane--and usually more than one--of mixed traffic to cross. If motorists are not used to encountering bicyclists in the regular lanes, they will soon completely forget to pay attention to them.

Philadelphia's Streets Department has been very good about posting "Share the Road" signs on city thoroughfares, even those with marked bike lanes. Judging from the behavior of the drivers around me as I travel through the city, the message must have soaked in. Education, not segregation, is the key to making sure two- and four-wheeled conveyances can get along together on city streets.