The Mess We Have Made

An excerpt from the new book Cities Back From the Edge, published by John Wiley and Sons. 

By Roberta Gratz and Norman Mintz

The nation's built landscape no longer differentiates
between places.  The "look of anywhere" prevails. If people don't know and feel where they are, they don't know who they are.  A plastic road culture has replaced individual identity of place.  The "crudscape," as environmental designer Ed McMahon calls it, has spread across the country like kudzu (the rampant Southern vine that kills everything it covers), strangling everything natural, indigenous, and historic.  An enormous dissatisfaction with the character, or lack of character, of our cities and town grows.

Identity, personality, and place are inextricably
connected.  Your city, your town, your community is where you come from.  It has identity and character.  Like the work you do, it is part of who you are. It helps define you.  When strangers meet, one of the first questions they ask of each other is usually "Where do you live"?

A daughter of a friend reported this story.  Two young
women were sitting together on a train ride from New York City to Albany, New York.  One was from New Jersey, the other from Saratoga Springs, a treasure of a place in northern New York that was saved years ago from demolition and redevelopment by ardent historic preservationists. 

Today, Saratoga Springs functions as a well-rounded
downtown and a magnet for new growth.  The New Jersey woman asked the Saratoga Springs woman where she was from.  The Saratoga woman answered.  The New Jersey woman had never
heard of Saratoga Springs.  Seeking a better description of the location, she asked, "What is your mall?" "What?" replied the Saratoga woman, not yet understanding the query.  "What mall are you near?" clarified the New Jersey woman.  When the Saratoga resident named a mall less than an hour from her home, the New Jersey woman knew exactly
where that was.  Can a mall really substitute for an
identity of place?

The malling of America has so homogenized us, so franchised our places of work, residence, and leisure, and so separated our daily functions from each other that there are fewer and fewer places in downtown America and in the rural countryside where people can connect as individuals, as neighbor, as different people with an unchallenged capacity to develop a civic concern for each other regardless of differences.  Suspicion and fear of "them"
(whatever race, nationality, or minority distinction is the local "them") has replaced familiarity and comfort among neighbors.  Isolated homogeneous enclaves have replaced connected or adjacent heterogeneous communities.  Local stores owned by familiar members of a community have been replaced by anonymous corporate entities that drain resources from that local economy.

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