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Street-Life: Confessions of a Rust Belt child

Marc Lefkowitz  |  03/06/15 @ 10:00am

There is a growing movement in America that recognizes that streets are places. It is a way of saying that streets can serve human needs, and not just move things and people between places.

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Think about the street as university. How many of life’s lessons we did glean from the street where we grew up.

In a way the street was our first school, it’s where we learned the unwritten rules of how to be, real or made up. A street is more than concrete; it's a great social contract of space. Sidewalks, in particular, are an equalizer. We meet, converse, we exercise, we play here, and we get to places like school or the store. The street is for many of us our first lesson in environmentalism where treelawn, the understory of a mature tree canopy, the many variations of ideas expressed about yards, house colors and architecture, the variability of the street itself—brick or asphalt, straight or curved, parked cars or no, front porches, wide or narrow—the look and feel of streets shapes how we understand the world at large.

Some of us who grew up with a wonderfully diverse street environment wonder why that same “street as a place” environment doesn’t exist where they live today? And what can be done to “bring back” some of that street life you enjoyed as a kid and value so much as a parent?

What was it about our street that encouraged us to live front yard lives? Project for Public Spaces, a group that does “street repair” of a more existential kind has some great suggestions in this post. You can start small—like organize a block party and shut cars out for the day so that kids can run wild and basketball games can pop up in the street. Before you know it, you might be writing a letter to city hall about what they can do to make the street safer for walking or biking (see PPS’ Citizen’s Guide to Safer Streets for that).

Safer streets that are also more interesting places to live becomes more attainable as a goal when we break that down into small steps and little things we can do everyday.

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Jason Segedy is not only the director of Akron’s transportation agency, he’s also a poet of the street. Segedy writes passionately about the effect of growing up in the Rust Belt, on a street where the social contract was deteriorating because so many people pulled up stakes when they lost a job or chose to live in a distant land. He pinpoints how many of us Gen Xers have the “taste of rust” in our mouth when we talk about the time of our youth in Akron and Cleveland. Tinged with smokestack sepia tones, he gets to a truth about how the loss of street as a place sticks with us to this day, and may be the cause for why so many young adults don’t believe its possible to regain streets as living, breathing communities again. “The time and place (the late 1970s through the present, in the Rust Belt) is...undoubtedly a time of extreme transition. It is a great economic unraveling, and we are collectively and individually still trying to figure out how to navigate through it, survive it, and ultimately build something better out of it.” It’s a powerful admission, and one that needs to be revisited again since everything since the 1980s was geared toward covering up the pain of that time and place in our collective upbringing.

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What happens between the intention of building a corridor for new opportunity, and a street that builds up a community? In the case of Opportunity Corridor, a lot and too little. A lot of the good intentions expressed by the city of Cleveland for building this road should be evident in the design. A detailed analysis done by Rustwire has found some of that, but, as a whole, they find the soon-to-be-built $330 million road lacking in a lot of respects.

It’s too bad more community conversation isn’t happening around this huge investment, Angie Schmitt writes about the amazing silence, the abdication to highway engineers who are leading it. There is so much promise that a little more attention to making it a place as the name “corridor” suggests could bring. It is worth fighting for. Instead, it looks like Opportunity Corridor as envisioned today will be one of those “scary” big roads where the residents living near (40% of whom don’t own a car) will probably have to dodge around speeding cars because of wide lanes or have to try to cross really wide intersections and extra turn lanes. Schmitt writes:

“I think a lot of people’s attitude, as far as the design of this road goes — and these are people who don’t live nearby—is that the neighborhoods impacted are in bad shape anyway and so these kinds of details don’t really matter. And so we’re getting a potentially damaging and dangerous design for our $331 million public investment, instead of the multi-modal pedestrian friendly boulevard we were promised and we seem to be willing to accept that, unfortunately.”

Is it too late to save the design of Opportunity Corridor; to make it not a road that is dangerous by design but a place for opportunity and people to flourish?

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