New Urbanism

The Big Mouth of The South, One

Speed kills sense of place. City and town centers are destinations, not raceways, and commerce needs traffic—foot traffic. You cannot buy a dress from a car. Even foot traffic speeds up in the presence of fast moving vehicles.  Access, not automobiles, should be the priority in city centers.  -Project for Public Spaces

July 5th, 2015.  Two vehicles, headed north on South Main street, are involved in a collision.  The rear vehicle rolled over and crashed into a pole at the northeast corner of South Main and Loomis street.  One motorist was pronounced dead at the scene.  

This display has been left at the crash site for the last nine months.  Flowers, crosses, LED lights, even an enclosed container for candles mark the place of the where the crash occurred.   In all sincerity, it’s an impressive tribute.  And, unfortunately, quite common. 

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You’ve seen displays like this in your city as well.  From my experience, I tend to see them near the roadside, usually on high-speed roadways where the posted speed limit is 45mph or higher.  Where did this particular crash occur?

Image courtesy of Google

Image courtesy of Google

 Main Street and Loomis Street is just 1.2 miles away from State and Main, our City center.  It’s an old, historic part of our city, and bears the marks of traditional urban development, even in its “Old and Blighted” state: A solid row of mixed-use buildings, on-street parking, walkable, and adjacent to dense neighborhoods.  In other words:  This is not a suburban area that was designed around the automobile.  

And still: One motorist drove fast enough to roll a vehicle over on Main Street and lose his life.  There are a lot of unknown variables here: Vehicle speed, condition of the cars, relationship between both of the drivers, and more.  I’m not suggesting that a burden of responsibility should not fall on the drivers; the risk of injury increases as speed increases, and each driver chose to take that risk.   I am suggesting, however, that the design speed of the street in general, and the lack of traditional traffic-calming measures in particular, actually causes motorists to drive well beyond the posted speed limit of 30mph, a speed limit that should not be causing rollover accidents. 

No one–pedestrians, cyclists, motorists–should die on Main Street.  No loved ones should ever have to leave a tribute like this, especially in an urban area.   Again: The space between your foot and the gas pedal is up to the driver, and not the traffic engineer.  I get that.  But from a planning and design standpoint, shouldn’t local governments do everything in their power to minimize the risk of traffic-related crashes?

The problem is that our Main Street is not really a main ‘Street’.  Even more: It’s not really ours.  ‘Route 2’ is the other name for our Main Street, which is owned and operated by IDOT.  

 I’ll take the next couple of posts to show you how our DOT does roads; I’m sure it won’t surprise you.  In the meantime, take a look at South Main before IDOT begins construction on this stretch in Spring: 

IDOT is only aiming to succeed at what we’ve tried to do for decades: Make each driver the King of Main Street, and all pedestrians his subjects.  Success like this, however, comes at a cost.  

From Andres Duany:  "The Department of Transportation, and its single-minded pursuit of traffic flow, has destroyed more American towns than General Sherman.”

More to come. 

Over the Rhine: "For the Kids of the Neighborhood"

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The students that I pastor live in a small, suburban town of 1300 persons just outside of Rockford. Each year, I plan short-term, service-oriented trips for my high school students to places that, well, are not like their own. Places with trajectories far different than their place. Places whose people invite them to think differently. 

This is the view from the LeBlond Boys & Girls Club in Cincinnati, one of several organizations we partnered with during a recent trip to the City.  Having taken Central Parkway in from the West, we didn’t catch a glimpse of the larger neighborhood we were serving in. This was our first impression: Vacant buildings, empty lots, no street life…at least at nine in the morning, that is.

But there was more to this neighborhood. As we were walking to a nearby park later that week, one of our Club students pointed out the new bike lanes and asked if we had any of those where we live (Answer: Not enough.)  Signs of life continue: Retail, public art, decorative houses, and more.  Minutes later, we arrive at Washington Park, an eight-acre oasis in the heart of the  Over the Rhine neighborhood. 

If you are an aesthete, there is much to love about Washington Park.  Beauty is everywhere you look.  Perhaps the most beautiful thing was how the park became a shared space for a variety of different people: Different ages, genders, occupations, and more.  It was a place where toddlers Otto and Flora (hipster names if there ever were any) could throw the football around with Club students Jobari and Chester.  And it was good. 

So which of these students’ parents calls this neighborhood home? Otto and Flora’s, or Jobari and Chester's?  Clearly, a large number of people are investing here.  And for good reason.  It’s one of the most intact urban neighborhoods in the country, and located just minutes from downtown.

Later on, I asked the Boys & Girls’ Club Director to tell me more about the neighborhood.  “Mr. Sanders”, as the students were instructed to call him, has been the Club Director for the past eight years.  When he first assumed the position, the neighborhood was generally unsafe.  To paraphrase, Mr. Sanders had to stake his claim on the street among dealers, gang members, and the homeless, declaring that this block is "for the kids of the neighborhood.”  

Has the neighborhood improved?  “Depends on who you ask”, says Mr. Sanders.  That week, the Club was leaving their facility in Over the Rhine and moving one mile West to another location.  Again, to paraphrase: The families of these kids have now been priced out of the neighborhood.  Rents are as high as $1800 per month in some places.  Instead of the corner store, you have the restaurant that wants to sell you Crab on a Biscuit for $12.  My kids don’t eat that stuff, says Mr. Sanders. 

So which of these students’ parents lives in the Over the Rhine?  I’m guessing it’s Otto and Flora’s parents.  And I suspect that Jobari, Chester, Malcolm, Maylani, and the many other Boys & Girls Club students live in another neighborhood.  Farther away from Washington Park.  Farther away, arguably, from other public assets.   

The word here is Gentrification.  Is it a good thing?  Mr. Sanders really says it best: “Depends on who you ask.” 

There’s a reason my Instagram feed is populated with OtR photos throughout our stay.  It’s beautiful.  It’s photogenic.  But there’s also a reason why Mr. Sanders responded to my question the way he did.   As I’m writing this, Mr. Sanders, Mr. Marvin, Mr. Moses, and the other Club employees are moving to another facility, and will have to start the place-making process all over again, “for the kids of the neighborhood.” 

Throughout our conversation, one of my students stayed back to listen.  I asked her afterwards what she thought.  All she could comprehend was the $12 Crab on a Biscuit, which did not sound appetizing.  Gentrification is complex; it’s messy; it’s comprised of movements that high school students cannot fully comprehend in one week.  But we talked about it throughout the trip.  We discussed its effects, how it impacts neighborhoods, and what it might look like in our neck of the woods.  This is why I do what I do.

Let me ask: Does the word Gentrification have a positive or negative connotation for you?  What does gentrification look like where you live?