Thursday, November 12, 2009

Suburban Archaeology #6: The Buzzing Culdesac, A Secure Harbor

Often viewed as the tentacles of the evil beast named Suburban Sprawl, the culdesac gets a bad rap, and in some ways perhaps it's justified. After all, aren't gridded neighborhoods better than sprawling modern developments? New Urbanism evangelists seem to think so. In many ways they are right, but playing devil's advocate, I am here to defend my old pal Culdesac just a little bit.

I grew up on a culdesac as a youngster (with fond memories) and ironically now live on one again as an adult in perhaps the most unlogistic mecca to sprawl on earth: Eden Prairie, MN. Ask any civil engineer, town planner or subdivision developer and there arise clinical definitions of what a culdesac is and vehement hatred for them by the aforementioned philosophers for anti-suburbanism and I'll leave all that to them. But take a closer look, spend some time here - days and weeks even - and come to discover what makes them a lot more colorful than some clinical definition and certainly not as evil, or even as useless, as the naysayers suggest. Or maybe there's just something extraordinarily magic about ours.

What makes the difference is how it is used by the people who live on it. I crafted the illustration"The Buzzing Cul-de-Sac", following my family's first Summer in the new neighborhood to try and convey a not-that-exaggerated depiction of what happens here. Oddly, that drawing hangs proudly in our powder room years later and still does an amazing job of conveying what is good and right about the asphalt circle that fronts the homes of my neighbors and friends. Less of a vehicular turnaround and more of a public plaza, our culdesac has played host to bazaar-like multi-family cookouts and potlucks, 4th of July micro-festivals and even makeshift drive-in movies. Our children run and play here while the adults come out and greet each other with a cup of coffee in the morning or a beer in the afternoon. Lawnchairs are locked into position and stories of the week are related. I don't know about other people and how they use their culdesacs, but I know a good thing when I see it and I wouldn't trade mine for a leprechaun's pot of gold.

I still scratch my head in bewilderment some days when driving around this muddled ball of confusion they call The EP, with stop-and-start residential streets, most terminating in nowhere, many of which bearing the same name; and snaking avenues that offer no intelligently conceived or direct linkage to my destination. It makes me wonder some days why I chose this place and moreover why I choose to stay. There are several, more complicated answers to that question but one of the most deceptively simple is a love for my kids, my neighbors, my culdesac. I have only to arrive at my driveway and it feels really good; seeing kids riding bikes, skateboards and pedal cars around and around like crazy, happy little people in some juvenile whirling dervish. All the while in a safe, snug harbor that no gridded street system could pull off in a million years. I smile, re-emerge moments later, shirt untucked and beer in hand, and am perfectly right with the world.


Jerome Weijers said...

Living on the fringes of center city Copenhagen, it's quite obvious that the streets and sidewalks here are used for their proper and planned purpose, as thoroughfares leading from where ever a person is to wherever to wherever are going. People sitting at one or another of the numerous sidewalk cafes do so only while patronising the cafes- once they're done with their coffee, they walk away the tabe is cleared and al traces of their having been there disappear. The occasional blanketsale of outgrown toys held by neighborhood children in a small local square is there, then gone, leaving no sign that it had been there at all.

No one here in the city has any sense of ownership over the streets. This is made most painfully obvious by the large amount of litter seen everywhere. The streets have become something that must be braved during a passage from one safe harbour to another.

I grew up living in a house at the end of a suburban dead-end street, my own mini cul-de-sac, if you will. The street and surrounding yards were a stage for all range of activities, just as you describe. Old and young, we all belonged to to our dead-end-street community.

Looking back and comparing then with now, I wish there was a little dead-end street for my children and I here in Copenhagen.

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