This week, as true winter weather draws nigh and the city (trees and other vegetation) is stripped naked, I've been thinking a lot about URBAN SPRAWL. Well, this evil spawn of "modern times" is always on my mind. By this, I mean to point out the fact I ride through A LOT of urban sprawl daily... en route to work. In my pack is a copy of David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries. I took a break reading that book to read And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks, which is the collaborative work of William S Burroughs & Jack Kerouac. Both books are (in their own ways) examinations of the human condition, our immediate environment(s), and the effects of one on the other. Hippos does this in a retelling of the event credited with acting as the catalyst of the Beat movement. Bicycle Diaries achieves its examination with a sort of Johnny-on-the-scene recording of what the author sees/thinks as he travels cities of the world on a bike. And this examination more directly relates to this edition of my ramblings.
*Note to reader: What you are about to read is a culmination of many commutes, and it represents the better route to work. The bright side to this story is I get to experience this in reverse on my way home. - @
The beginnings of my daily rides are pleasant enough. Despite the fact Milwaukee doesn't quite have its collective act together when it comes to urban cycling, we're slowly moving in the right direction. We have painted, not particularly well protected or maintained, bike lanes sprinkled throughout the city. And there are reasonably planned Oak Leaf Trail entrances/exits from many of our major city streets. Though it's evident our local government isn't looking to commuting by bicycle in Cream City as a viable means of personal transport... yet... there are a decent amount of areas to park/lock your bike in the downtown and immediately adjacent areas. So, the beginning of my commute is through a semi-dense city with a long history of... and long breaks from... bustling. It is evident people actually LIVE here.
Many of the local businesses of my childhood are gone. The good news is new businesses quickly occupy the vacant space in a dense city. There is always someone with what he/she believes is a killer, new idea. Seeing the "Opening Soon", "Now Open" and/or "Open" signs as I make my way to the nearest Oak Leaf Trail entry fills my heart with a warm feeling. I may not be the most social animal on the planet, but I love knowing I live in a breathing, beating and ever-growing community. It's one in which I can patronize locally... watering the seeds we call "killer, new ideas".
Once I'm in the trail, I join another segment of our bustling society... cyclists and pedestrians. It's a community of which I am extremely proud to count myself among. These are people who either begin their day with an early stroll/run/roll or a ride to their place of education/employment. They have, are or will contribute to the vitality of this city. And do so without necessarily adding to the pollution a "civilized" network generates. These are MY people. They've made a choice for which not everyone is up.
As we all ease and zip past one another (with occasional G'morings, 'ellos and nods), I can't help but take in the sights to my left and right. It is the history of my city from the viewpoint of a buried train track those who came before me once utilized to do just what I'm doing. I imagine them making their way out of the downtown area and thinking about expanding the city to these parts... The East Side/Riverwest... Shorewood... Whitefish Bay! And they managed this expansion without completely cutting themselves off from the city center and lake (Bayview mirrors this vibe on the southeast side of the city).
The trail spits me out near Bayshore Mall. It's a mall at which I've never felt guilty spending my hard-earned cash. I don't get the feeling I'm spending outside my community, although (technically) I am. I'm glad they've designed it to look like a small city, though. It appears a little more like the shopping arcades of Europe... without the amazing historical sites and people living above the shops.
On my way to reconnect with the trail, I must cross a fairly busy street. To make matters worse this street runs parallel to one of the key components of successful sprawl... a highway. For lack of a more profound manner in which to express what I feel when I see a highway, they kinda suck. Don't get me wrong. They have their place and usefulness. But, as if life wasn't hard enough to keep up with, highways get us from point A to point B faster. Sometimes I wonder whether highways are an evil tool used to shroud the blight on society that is urban sprawl. It's as if builders and planners sat down in some dark, secret, underground cavern and agreed, "If we can just get them to drive fast enough, they won't notice we're totally destroying the land they value so much to the point they won't even value it anymore".
Anyway, I get back on the trail and drive through the quaint little communities set up along and nearby the Milwaukee River. I'm already feeling lonely. There aren't many people to which to say G'morning or 'ello. And when I do spot people... and attempt a connection... they often give me a look I can only compare to what my phone or computer seems to be telling me when I can't get a signal... "Sorry, Charlie". I'm knee deep in the sprawl! People are already forgetting we rely on one another to make it through this thing called life. And the further north and west (away from The Lake and city) I ride the worse the situation.
I take a moment before turning into traffic and bid farewell to the squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, raccoons and birds. We've, no doubt, been on their societal nerves since we started building beyond the nearest water source. I pedal off the part of the trail which actually looks like a trail, and make my way back onto the streets. This is where the Oak Life Trail gets sketchy. The trail is marked by little, green street signs. There are no painted bikes lanes. And the view is absolutely depressing. This is Mad Max... but in the really real world. Never mind the fact the rare person I see is locked away from his/her immediate surroundings, the surroundings themselves are crumbling before my eyes. Yes! This must be it! It's the end game for Urban Sprawl.
Revolution after revolution turns the smile on my Chevy Chase upside down. The cracks, chunks of missing concrete/tar, variety of debris, and broken glass underneath me serve to remind NO ONE is really living around this part of town. When a business closes out here no one notices. How do I know this? Oh... the huge vacant lots'o'plenty provide plenty of understanding. When people aren't living in a place people don't maintain it. Think of the absentee landlord. Now, think of the absentee landlord who isn't collecting a dime on his/her property. Add to that the fact they can't sell the land AND still have to pay taxes. Does this land owner care whether the grass is green or whether the streets and sidewalks are people-friendly? Does this developer care whether or not a vacant car lot, an out-of-business "family" restaurant franchise or a lot vacated by a department store chain is a constant eyesore... a black eye... on the neighborhood? Can you imagine riding or walking in that environment?
The neighboring communities aren't obviously (psychologically) effected, because no one really lives there. Oh sure... they eat, shower, sleep and grow there. But that isn't all there is to living. To truly thrive a community needs local businesses at which people can work and take part in commerce. People need to walk/run/roll/pedal around and spread their wings. And that's when the psychological effect sprawl has on us reveals itself... we stop walking, running, pedaling. We drive, even when the distance to our destination is less than 1/2 mile away.
Okay, I will balance the previous statement by admitting it isn't all due to The Sprawl. Part of this strange behavior is a byproduct of U.S. car culture. We drive (even short distances), and we create reasons to drive (like, traveling to another community to spend money on things we could just as easily purchase in our own neighborhood). On foot or a bike you must first consider whether what you want to buy justifies the distance traveled, because the cost is immediate rather than shrouded in a gas tank.
Back to the absentee landlord bit...
Business owners in the city, as neighbors themselves, tend to give back to their communities. Why? They understand their business will sizzle as the immediate environment does. And patrons from the community love strolling into those shops, because they feel a vested interest in making sure that place continues to be a part of their commercial family.
You don't get that palpable interaction with a business owner who buys a huge lot in the middle of an isolated community. That investor is there to make fast money and get out faster. These blocks will be abandoned when there is no money left to spend. The communities are left penniless... with blocks of painted line lots.
It's not simply theoretical -- it's happening. And it's appalling.
This is URBAN SPRAWL in all its splendor.
I don't think people, in general, have the time to consider this stuff when they're traveling at warp speed in their gas guzzler(s). They're too busy consuming to consider. We see and feel it all on our bicycles.
"The truth hurts. Maybe not as much as jumping on a bicycle with a seat missing, but it hurts."- Naked Gun 2 1/2.