I have never really liked cities. Perhaps it goes back to childhood memories of growing-up in Philly: stifling summer heat drenched in humidity, treeless streets, absence of playgrounds, intermittent rumble of the El, violence drifting like smoke from any corner or up an alley. My father and I watched a GI one day from our window being pounded by several youths; once, as a 10-year old on my way to school, I was way-laid by a gang, one of them excitingly waving a pistol. There were other incidents.
They didn’t open-up the hydrants like they do now to give relief to city children. Pa would give me a dime for the movie matinee, families would sit on marble stoops in row house streets into late evening, eager for incipient breezes enticing sleep. Occasionally, Donald, my older brother, would drive Pa and me to Atlantic City for a Sunday outing and the Jersey shore.
This solace more frequently turned regret on our evening return, stuck in bridge traffic, sweltering in the always faithful embrace of steamy asphalt. (No car ac back then.) Once a year, the first two weeks of August, we’d migrate back to New England, our family’s original homestead. If there was ever an Eden, it was New England with its spatial greenery of mountains, apple orchards with trees in soldierly row, tranquil dairy farms tucked-in neatly by boulder walls. At night, drowsiness descended easily amid the cadence of the nearby surf’s rhythmic thump upon the shore, Nature’s calm heart beat signaling all’s well.
Cities have their attractions. They provide an a la carte menu of things to do, sure to please any palate—a rock concert, a baseball game, infinite movie choices, museums, gargantuan shopping malls, even a zoo. You want it, it has it.
But cities are good at make-up. They excel at covering blemishes with their efforts to shampoo the dandruff of long neglect, redressing the urban core in mirror high rises nearly silver in their skyward reach and newly created green respites with their ubiquitous fountains. These are good, well-meaningful efforts. Still, they point to a human longing for relief from urban sterility with its jack-hammer noise; treeless streets; traffic-jammed arteries akin to arterial plaque, threatening well-being; multitudes of the anonymous with their latent danger. Around the corner, a clinging poverty of seedy neighborhoods of paint-peeling houses, boarded windows, good people trapped by race, unemployment, and few skills, reservations of the forgotten ransacked by thieves, addicts, and drug dealers, gangs providing substitute dignity.
In our down economy, the problems of the city have increasingly spread to suburbia, like some insidious infection, threatening an epidemic. New government stats startlingly reveal that poverty is now a growing fixture in metropolitan areas, once offering bucolic sanctuaries of relief from adjacent urban jungles. Doubtless, this new poverty is by-product of government programs to provide social mobility, or access to where the jobs, better schools, and ample medical facilities often are. The housing bust factors in, too, along with immigration. Consider that suburban poverty population has increased 74.4% in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metropolitan area; 121% in the Las Vegas-Paradise suburbs; 69%, Louisville-Jefferson County-IN; surprisingly, the Austin, TX suburbs at 150.5%. Metropolitan Poverty This scenario, alas, is nation-wide.
If our suburbs are proving to be a new semblance of beached hopes, where then do we turn?
For me, it’s never been about the city or suburb since my outlook has been largely shaped by memory. By disposition, I’m also pretty much a Romantic, maybe even defining the term. I cherish space. I like gardens, not malls. I’m keen on Jane, Joe, Mary and Bob. I’m afraid of people. I don’t like what crowds can do when they shed anonymity. My home represents safety. It shuts out that urban dissonance that headlines our daily news. Like all Romantics, I’ve always preferred distance to proximity.
Karen and I recently returned from San Francisco. When you think of San Francisco it’s likely to conjure up images of an idyllic setting on hills overlooking a foggy bay–cable cars, Fisherman’s Wharf, Telegraph Hill, China Town, the resplendent Golden Gate Bridge. And it’s truly this and even more, so far as cities go. Still, here as in all our cities, the toxic fumes assaulting lungs, its overweening traffic taking us more than an hour to egress to I280, the paucity of parking, sometimes at $20 for every three minutes, or $48 a day. Walking the streets was uncomfortable, even in daylight, accosted by panhandlers, beady stares, and sometimes vulgar comment. We took flight back to our car, locking our doors immediately, hurriedly making our exit from this, one of America’s most storied cities. Cities are inherent with danger.
I’ve lived in several big cities: Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago. I’ve been in many more. Put me down for an occasional cautious visit, but mind you this: what I like best about cities is not the getting into cities, but the getting out.