Road to Somewhere: The education of a backseat urbanist

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.


The first thing you learn when you spend nine days in a car and on foot with Notre Dame’s graduate students in urban design is that there isn’t a big ego among them, just plenty of personality, life experience and strong opinions about buildings and neighborhoods.

The second thing you learn is that they love beauty, which may not seem exceptional until you consider much of architecture and urban planning in the United States since 1945.

The third thing I learned is how little I understand about our built environment and why it’s so consistently disappointing. America has had anxieties about “suburban sprawl” ever since the first modern subdivisions shot up 60 years ago, dragging strip-mall retail and office “parks” along behind them. But like most Americans, I lack the vocabulary to speak about buildings as something more than trendy, disposable shells designed for fleeting uses, or about neighborhoods as something more than the places we park our cars, eat dinner and sleep.

These thoughts started to jell three days into our journey while we were standing outside Regina Pizza in Boston’s North End. The eight of us—ND architecture professor Philip Bess, the six students in his fall studio and me, their embedded journalist—had dropped our bags in hostel rooms that reeked of feet and taken advantage of a glorious summer evening to walk across the heart of Boston.

Bess’s job was to be our tour guide and keep his students on their task of documenting good urban form. My job was to find a story to tell. After two-and-a-half hours of shuffling, pausing, and ogling terrific streets and old buildings along our two-and-a-half-mile path, I thought I might be finding it. Lucky for me, we had another half hour to wait for a table to open up. Regina, we were told, is worth it.

The loose, dinner-hour queue grew by the minute under Regina’s red awning on Thacher Street. It was Thursday, the sky a cloudless, calming August blue, the warm air dried out by a steady breeze. The conditions were perfect for a wander through Back Bay and Beacon Hill, across the plazas surrounding Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market and up Hanover Street.

Bess had brought us all the way from South Bend to see prime examples of civic-oriented urban design, the kind that was common in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. We’d spent an hour on Commonwealth Avenue—"arguably the best street in America," Bess claimed when we first met on campus—and seen amenities for families, young singles and retirees. Squares and plazas; playgrounds, community gardens and dog runs; narrow streets and lanes lined with shops and restaurants, many under second- and third-story offices and apartments; all in neighborhoods as accommodating to pedestrians as cars.

I grew up in a pleasant-enough suburban development that was wrapped around a man-made lake in the 1970s. It wasn’t like this. Our house was two-and-a-half miles from anywhere, and I wouldn’t have found anything on the other end like Regina Pizza to merit the walk. I’d have seen a lot of houses, a boxy high school isolated from neighborhood streets by a gigantic parking lot, nary a fellow pedestrian and nothing approximating a beautiful civic building.

After the Big Dig

Dawdling outside Regina prompted other reflections, too. We were maybe 500 feet from the greenways that have replaced the I-93 corridor above ground as it meanders through the North End. The neighborhood somehow survived the messy interstate highway surgeries of the 1950s that helped euthanize so many other great pre-war cities. I thought about the James Joyce class I took as an undergraduate and the observation that one could rebuild 1902 Dublin by piecing together Joyce’s descriptions of the Irish capital’s streets and pubs and neighborhoods. Today, after nearly two decades of the Big Dig, this part of Boston seems to be in good shape, but America sure could have used a Leopold Bloom walking the streets of its Philadelphias, Detroits, Baltimores, Clevelands and St. Louises in 1902.

Fortunately, the form of these cities—the way buildings and streets are arranged to create attractive public spaces—is often still intact. Apartments in Back Bay, Bess reminded us, were cheap in recent decades and could be affordable again. Such neighborhoods could be models of beautiful urban living that assure income diversity and social justice. We just need to build (a lot) more places like them and reclaim the many we already have.

Granted, that’s not so easy. But it’s worth discussing. Does the physical form of our newer neighborhoods nurture genuine community or serve the common good? Are they built to last? One hundred years from now, will anyone care whether our sprawl suburbs still exist?

We were told our table would be ready in another minute, and Bess mentioned that he lives on South Bend’s northwest side, 1.7 miles from the doors of Bond Hall, home of the Notre Dame School of Architecture. He walks to work listening to songs on his iPod and he loves it.

Even in winter?

“Especially in winter,” he explained, because in warmer weather he’d sooner take his steps on a golf course. He added that this winter, after a few years of commuting up Angela Avenue under multiple layers, he’ll invest in a parka so he doesn’t “look like a dork.”

He paused. “I think it’s important for the director of graduate studies not to look like a dork.”

Then it was time for pizza.

Maybe the dorkiness isn’t the layers. It’s certainly not Bess, whose baseball cap, dark-rimmed glasses, grizzled but neatly trimmed beard and ready smile make him look like the knowledgeable stranger you’d enjoy sitting next to at a ballgame. Maybe walking in suburbs is just inherently dorky, if only because the feeder roads and cul-de-sacs they’re built around so witheringly discourage it. It’s hard not to feel silly strolling an extra mile to reach the grocery store on the other side of your backyard fence, or being the only pedestrian whose clothes are getting whipped around by the wake of speeding traffic. It looks a little silly, too. Just where does that guy think he’s going?

Walking is perfectly normal behavior in cities like Boston and smaller communities like Nantucket and the New York villages of Skaneateles and Cooperstown, the other stops on our itinerary. Bess’s students had walked Chicago and spent their spring on foot in Rome, Malta and Bruges, studying classical and traditional European urbanism. This trip was as much a chance for them to take in urban design in a different region as it was what Bess called an antidote to their “tendency to depression” upon re-entering the United States.

A tour of Skaneateles

We did a lot of walking during our week together. We began in Skaneateles, population 2,600.

“Why the hell are you going to Skaneateles?” This was my father, two weeks before our departure. Dad knew the town well because he’d considered retiring there with my mother several years ago, but as a native Buffalonian who had lived in New York, London, Moscow and Washington, D.C., he didn’t seem to see anything like his idea of “urban.” I didn’t have an answer for him, because I was having the same problem.

The point of starting with a clearly defined, walkable rural town like Skaneateles is that formally it would function just as well if you dropped it into the middle of, say, Manhattan. Or, slapped it down on the site of a failing suburban shopping mall. It’s urban in the sense that it was built as a self-sufficient human settlement. Bigness, you might say, ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.

In fact, somewhere along our journey—maybe it was standing in Boston’s Copley Square while gawking at the incongruities between the one-of-a-kind Trinity Church and its 60-story neighbor, Hancock Place—the group considered the proposition that skyscrapers are anti-urban. If they concentrate too many people and cars into one place, they can logjam the city, working contrary to the classical urban purposes of prosperous, harmonious and secure common living.

But back to Skaneateles. Naturally, the first thing we friends of the common pedestrian do after passing 13 hours in two cars is drive around town.

As we began, the eight of us now crammed into one minivan, Bess explained that Skaneateles offers an almost perfect example of what he and his colleagues call the “urban transect.” In the abstract, the transect would be the gradual, formal transition from the edge of a neighborhood or small town to its center, with density increasing along the way.

Perched between students Will Dowdy and Paul Monson on the middle bench, I listened as Bess reminded the students that their purpose in Skaneateles and the other stops on our itinerary—Boston, Nantucket and Cooperstown—was to document things like lot sizes, setbacks, rights-of-way and provisions for parking and utilities that they might use to illustrate design possibilities for other communities. Turning around in the gravel lot of a convenience store outside the town limits, Bess reset the odometer. Dowdy kept track of the changes on the tenths dial and the group began its observations.

Even if we’d missed the wrought-iron signs that read “Skaneateles, Eastern Gateway to the Finger Lakes,” we’d have known we were there because the sidewalks leap out of the country grass like underground springs. Bess slowed the minivan to 30 mph, as much because of the subtly narrowing pavement and parallel-parked cars as the speed limit signs. A pair of graceful parks flanks the town’s three-block commercial core, hugging the northern shore of Skaneateles Lake as the waterline bends southward. A steady flow of foot and vehicle traffic continuously hums past shops, restaurants and second- and third-story offices, the cars calmed by crosswalks and timed signals.

The downtown area

Remarkably, the main thoroughfare, Genesee Street, is the local stretch of U.S. 20. There is no bypass. In the battles we assume have taken place between locals and state transportation officials, who professionally favor speed, the score appears to be Skaneateles Commerce 1, Engineers 0. Approaching downtown on Genesee, houses inch closer to the road and each other and the sidewalks broaden until houses mingle with shops and offices and the lake sidles up to meet the road.

Somewhere around half a mile, we reached the main stoplight. That’s a stretch past the urbanists’s ideal quarter-mile, center-to-edge radius, the distance most people will walk before they opt for the car, but when a place lives and looks like Skaneateles, who cares? You’d rather do as the locals do, which is walk—even in bad weather.

The light changed, and I was beginning to understand what Bess was saying when he’d picked me up at home that day at 4:45 a.m. and started talking about the difference between “space” and “anti-space” before I could find a cup of coffee. It sounded a little too sci-fi to me, but the distinction is significant to urbanists and should be familiar to the rest of us as well.

Main streets like Genesee frame a meaningful public “space,” meaningful in the sense that people have a sense of enclosure and location. Strangers could read a pre-sprawl community just by looking at its public spaces and could find most things without having to ask too many questions. Sprawl by contrast is anti-spatial. Buildings large and small are isolated in shapeless voids and oriented in different directions. You never really know whether you’re “there,” and being able to see your destination doesn’t mean you can’t still get lost on the way.

Even traditionally designed towns like Skaneateles, with their tree-lined through streets and sidewalks, landmark churches and grand civic buildings, aren’t perfect. Skirting the town’s northern edge, we found its modern, big-box public schools not far away from a new development of detached single family houses. A few more turns brought us to a “community center” where parents could drop kids off for ice skating or swimming lessons. Neither communal nor central, community centers, said Paul Monson, are “one of those great suburban word-tricks where they call a place something that it’s not, like a technology park or an office park.”

The next morning I learned what it meant to document a neighborhood. You get maps and information from the visitor’s center, town offices or public library. You talk to lots of people—often to disarm their quizzical glances—and visit Google Earth for its often surprisingly high-resolution satellite images. Then, you walk. You measure, pace, count your steps and calculate. You take pictures of prominent civic buildings and background buildings as well as alleys, fire hydrants and telephone poles and other things you’d normally crop out, and sketch things from every angle.

Since I’m not an urbanist, I picked two and followed them. Samantha Salden and Jennifer Stenhouse began their morning on Jordan Street, gradually working away from downtown Skaneateles, pacing streets and front yards and noting the placement of commercial and residential building types as well as changes in density. Street widths, sidewalks, planter strips and the availability of on-street parking, Stenhouse said, subtly affect people’s perceptions of a street. Precise measurements aren’t a top priority, she said. They know how long their shoes and their strides are and often that’s enough, especially when a car is coming.

“We’re used to being in Rome when we’d cross without worrying about [the] cars on the street,” Stenhouse remarked after yet another brisk dodge.

What the two don’t take time to sketch, they capture in photographs. In Europe, Salden carried a pair of two-gigabyte memory cards and brought home tens of thousands of images of building facades, architectural details, plazas, streetscapes, monuments and other features. The group agreed to take tourist shots first for spouses, moms and grandpas so they could focus on business. Studying architecture, apparently, can make you obsessive about it. “Paris is not the ideal location for a honeymoon,” she said.

On to Boston

Suddenly it was time to move on. Our itinerary allowed one full day in each destination. Boston was next, “as good a city as there is in the U.S.,” Bess had said, and I was ready to evaluate his bold claim for Commonwealth Avenue.

“Comm Ave.,” as locals call it, doesn’t disappoint. To stroll the mile between Charlesgate East and the boulevard’s eastern terminus at the Boston Public Garden is to need no expert opinion. Rush hour traffic on a Wednesday evening moves efficiently. I hardly noticed it at all, because I was looking up into the branches of the towering maples, elms and green ash trees that spring from and shelter the Mall—the generous, grassy median that runs down the center of the avenue, dotted along the way with an eclectic lineup of statues and memorials.

I was especially glad for the students’ company, because they were drawing my attention to details I’d easily have missed on my own. Paul Monson, who made stained glass in Chicago before enrolling at Notre Dame, talked about the irreplaceable curved windows on the corners of some rowhouses, and the Art Nouveau transom light above one front door. Lesley Annis pointed out the terra cotta detailing in much of the brickwork. “It was cheap once,” Monson later told me while examining similar relics during our stopover in Cooperstown. “It’s just clay, but it’s expensive now because nobody knows how to do it.”

Bess had more to say about Comm Ave., too, especially about its almost symphonic blending of automobiles and pedestrians. “It functions like a suburban arterial,” he says, arching his eyebrows, “But it’s different.”

The residential spine of the Back Back Bay, Comm Ave and its side streets have seen rising and falling fortunes over their 150-year lifespan. They’re still impressive today—our ancestors built durably where we resolutely do not. This fact should chasten a generation that has absorbed the reuse/recycle message about bottles, cans and cardboard boxes, but doesn’t care much when it comes to the big stuff.

Take the beaux arts Boston Public Library and its modernist annex, designed by celebrated architect Phillip Johnson and likened by some critics to a mausoleum. Maybe you prefer the non-conformist, expressive aesthetic of such modern and postmodern buildings? Consider Bess’s qualified concession: “It is true modern buildings can last as long as classical buildings as long as they are maintained. It is also true that it takes a lot more to maintain a modern building.”

As we made our way through the Public Gardens and up into Beacon Hill (“great 19th century urbanism,” said Bess) en route to the North End (“great 18th century urbanism”), Bess presented the students with Louisbourg Square. This quiet haven in the midst of the busy city is an American rarity: a residential square with a slender, gated private green of the kind commonly found in London. The square can’t be more than a couple of acres—rowhouses and back alleys included. Unfortunately, as Bess points out, “it’s hard to photograph a square.”

We were admiring the square in its twilit splendor, when Lenka Schulzova, a Czech student who will probably pursue her career in Europe, asked about affordability. Her friendly question pertained to the affluence of every community on our itinerary, but it’s one often used to challenge urbanists, who stand accused of designing and building and pressing their anti-status quo agenda for the benefit of the wealthy few. It was becoming clear to me that she and the other students don’t want to do that.

“Not only is it expensive,” Bess acknowledged, “but I think a lot of these buildings are owned by people who don’t actually live there.” Once again, the conversation turned to the question of durable form and changing use. Neighborhoods like Back Bay and Beacon Hill weren’t designed for the wealthy. They were designed as good neighborhoods.

It was our last long pause before we got serious about dinner and set our course for Regina Pizza. We had a full day in Boston ahead of us, and onward to the renowned tourist playgrounds, Nantucket and Cooperstown. So much to look forward to, and that’s ultimately what put me in that reflective mood on Thacher Street. Why is it so many of us are ready to settle for suburbia when the places we pay big money to visit look like this?

John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.