Wednesday, April 23, 2008

WHAT'S TO LOVE ABOUT A CITY

If you listen to the average planner or big city politician, you'd think that urban happiness is the product of massive redevelopment, sports stadiums and convention centers. Your editor lives in a neighborhood that has two stadiums on its edges but has happily managed to avoid much of the other manipulations that pass for urban progress, having been largely laid out in the 19th and early 20th century. Washington's Capitol Hill is a community characterized by row houses; it is almost evenly divided between owners and tenants (many of the latter living in basement apartments). It is about 60% black and in an area of a few square miles has 18,000 jobs, its own waterfront, a beloved hardware store and a farmer's market. It also has the third highest density in the city - over 15,000 people per square mile - but contrary to the developer-serving mythology of the smart growth movement, it accomplished this with few high rises (although brutalist planners of the DC have recently torn down much of its public housing and are replacing it with condo towers). Only 16% of the population lives in buildings with ten or more units. In other words, it is an urban community that works, has density without human warehousing and is quite self-sufficient. It is, in short, a good model of how a city should function - in no small part because it has done it itself without too much inference from the urban planners and pols.

A bulletin board for one of the communities of Capitol Hill, Hill East, recently asked readers what they liked about their neighborhood. The answers are exceptional only because they offer a good sense of what attracts people to any well working 'hood. Note that the only governmental contribution mentioned in any of the replies is the Metro subway system and the weekly testing of the DC Jail siren. The answers are a good example of why so much of what we hear and read has so little to do with what really makes cities work. Some of the replies:

I like Speilberg Park (even with its graffiti and trash).

I like walking and riding my bike everywhere.

I like the sausage and cheese from Eastern Market.

I like Frager's [Hardware Store]

I like Troop 500.

I like the long growing season in our urban heat island.

I like the racial diversity of my neighbors and the fact that my daughter doesn't seem to care about skin color at all.

I like the tall trees on E St.

I like our proximity to the Metro.

I like chatting with neighbors from my front porch.

I like all the well-maintained flower boxes along the sidewalks. I like maintaining flower boxes.

I like that Jennifer Howard organizes so many neighborhood cleanups.

I like that Jim Myer is always goading us into action.

I like that Scott Christian runs the "toxic drop-off shuttle" each time DC has a hazardous waste collection.

I like all the babies in strollers.

I like the lattes at Bread and Chocolate.

I love the salsa at La Lomita.

I like it when kids at Lincoln Park ask if they can pet my dog.

I like my neighbors; they say hello to me every day.

I like the man on his porch that asks me what I am cooking on my way home from Safeway.

I like the kids chalk art on the sidewalk.

I like the guy that sells Street Sense.

I like watching the basketball, hockey, football and others sports being played at the school on D and 12.

I like the crazy lights on the house around the corner.

I like talking to the artists in the Eastern Market.

I like.. . .

Being able to walk my dog in Congressional Cemetery before sunrise and watch the big sun rise over the ridge east of Anacostia River

Seeing a full moon also rise over the same eastern ridge

Seeing folks I know while in Metro and sharing a conversation with them while riding to work

Occasional sound of a train whistle when a train crosses over the Anacostia River

DC Jail siren tests every Saturday at 12 noon

Hearing the songs of mockingbirds

Level terrain throughout the neighborhood

Not having to mow a lawn

I like the provolone cheese at Eastern Market

I like the prosciutto at Litteri

I like the fish tacos at the Argonaut

I like the dance classes at the Joy of Motion

I like the people who ride the X8

I like the tree in front of my house, even though the roots are knocking our sidewalk bricks out of whack

I like . . .

that the Marvelous Market at Eastern Market stocks Skybars, which I haven't been able to find for years.

that we have an amazing book store like Riverby Books.

being able to say to friends when picking a place to eat, "Do you like Belgian?"

margaritas at Banana Cafe.

watching the 4th of July fireworks from the roof of our front porch and realizing that people all across the country are sitting in their living rooms doing the same thing.

Things I love about our hood:

The cute blond cheese lady at the cheese kiosk in Eastern Market who never lets me walk by without feeding me some cheese.

Walking my dog to Eastern Market and noticing how many people know his name and not mine.

The ladies in their fancy hats that come out of the Church by the CVS, along with all the singing that goes on during their service.

The moral: the next time your city government talks about "revitalizing" your neighborhood, ask the people who live there what they already like about the place. You may find it is pretty revitalized already.

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