Friday, July 13, 2007

A Walk Around My Neighborhood

I've been walking 5 miles per day most days of the week since early May. If I get up at 5:30, I can feed the animals and walk and be back shortly after 7, before my daughter is even up for school or camp. It must be said that you never really see anything unless you've walked by it. The details of the landscape may strike you as pleasant, or dramatic, or neither in a car. On foot, the scale is different, the sight lines are different, the world is different. My 200 miles of walks around my neighborhood in the morning have given me an incredible appreciation for it. In fact, I've concluded that it is perfect. So perfect that I don't know why every community in the United States isn't set up the same way.

My street is above -- tall trees, dark, quiet. I leave it for a main road and come upon this:

This old mansion has been around since the early 19th century when it was built by a wealthy industrialist. There's a lot of old mansions in the neighborhood, but that's not what makes it perfect. Here's the place next door to the mansion:

Though large, this is not a single home. It's split in the center by a single wall. There are tons of these in my city. Taxes used to be assessed on a home's "frontage" and these "twins" permit both a lovely overall footprint and a yard. Here's some examples of other twins and rowhomes I pass on a typical walk:

Real estate comes in smaller packages also. There are attractive apartment buildings:

and even two high rises I don't have pictures of. There are subsidized townhouses as well. The more modest dwellings do tend to cluster within a block or two of our central village shopping district
where you can buy books, clothes, records, antiques, groceries, get your drycleaning done, go to restaurants or visit the hardware store.

As you get maybe 3 blocks from the center, the houses begin to grow a bit.

And grow a bit again:

And some more:

I love the sheer variety and beauty of the place. Houses are similar, but never exactly the same. Nor does the place have the studied look of the development -- 3 styles repeated ad nauseum. Also, one of the things I find appealing about the houses (and I haven't even included pictures of the largest and most awe-inspiring) is the lack of prominent garage doors. Having grown up before the car, the most you will find is a carriage house somewhere. I find that this improves the appearance of everyone's place enormously.

The economic diversity is also thrilling. There is literally, in this maybe 6 square mile area, housing for a wide type of need -- single person, small family, large family, rich, not so rich etc.

This didn't happen by accident. Many of the grander homes are constructed of local stone. The owners imported skilled masons from Europe, mostly Italy, to come to the neighborhood to do the work. The masons used the leftover materials to build their own homes in the same neighborhood. As businesses developed in the Village, workers started building and moving into nearby homes.

There's a hospital, a college, a golf course, a community center, parks, and public and private schools all within the boundaries of the place. All of it is breathtakingly lovely. That it is all technically within the limits of a big city is astonishing, and, sometimes, one of its major drawbacks.

The place is not without issues, of course. But I can't think of another place in the country with this kind of mix of housing, landscape, and "walkability." I fully hope to live here for a long, long while and to think more about why it is that new communities cannot seem to replicate this incredibly successful formula.


Keifus said...

It looks lovely, and I agree about the garage doors. There's something to be said for architectural consistency as well as conservatism. (Betcha the place next door to teh mansion was once servant's quarters, btw.) I admire the two-family schemes your neighborhood has worked in.

There are communities like that up here. They represent incomes varying from rich to really rich, with maybe the obligatory "raggy row" somewhere near the downtown. Such places in the vicinity of Boston I'm sure are better. Certainly nicer than where I'm at, but I can't afford either sort of upgrade.

I think to get a neighborhood like that, it helps to be laid out on an old model and all at once (as yours is). Newer homes seem to be constructed with a lot less love and care, but maybe the old crappy ones just didn't make it a hundred years. Another thing you need is low turnover of the population and a sense of community. (Grouchier people may call that gentrificaiton.) That's something that my crummy town actually does have, but it's a community with a piss-poor collective aesthetic.

My imagination, or do you walk pretty fast?


twiffer said...

being within walking distance to a bookstore is very, very dangerous.

rundeep said...

Hey guys, thanks for stopping by. Yep, Keifus, I think you are right -- age of the community is everything. Because in the days before good roads, you needed to have everything near your community, which meant all of its constituent parts -- stores, workers, factories, homes, had to be in something like proximity. (By the way, the place next to the mansion is not servant's quarters. The mansions come with their own service quarters, which have often been converted into places to stick your teenagers until the hormones get under control.

It is a very tight community indeed, though that's good and bad. If you, say, wanted to put a new restaurant in the business district, you have to deal with the aesthetic division of the local community association first. For a while, nothing other than "colonial colors" were permitted for the exterior, and people complained if the window boxes weren't properly cared for. Seriously, it can get nutty here, and more than one business has refused to settle here rather than deal with the wackos.
That said, it remains in my view the best neighborhood ever. Slate's architecture columnist lives here, and in one of his books (which, by the way, are excellent), the last chapter describes it. Also in the neighborhood are Pulitzer prize winners, internationally recognized classical (and jazz) musicians, famous actors, college professors, poets, teachers, doctors, lawyers, heads of public companies, butchers, bakers, college students (there's a college in the 'hood also), train conductors and anything else you can think of.

Not surprisingly, the average house price here has skyrocketed recently (and unfortunately). But I really can't imagine living anywhere else (except the South of France.)

And I do walk fast, but not as fast as you might imagine.

Twif: damn right. We have a small library and we're out of space.

Keifus said...

I'm pretty depressed about the whole thing. I live in a historically blue-collar town. I get a little angry to consider how much money I make (okay, not super, more than many of my fellow homeowners I think), and how poor I remain. Fifteen years ago, you could get a big house at a third of the price at which I bought in, five years back. (My place is an overpriced ill-made little crap-shack.) When we walk, my wife and I try to imagine what the people in the spiffy new McMansions do for a living. They almost certainly don't work around here.

I know I've mentioned it before, but I'm growing in my conviction that good roads aren't at all the blessing they seem.