We've never met, but I read with a mix of interest and anxiety your recent letter in the Highland Villager. In it, you castigate a "small group" of younger people who "jeered" at "what these old people built" during a recent meeting on the Ford site.
As a obsessive student of Saint Paul history, I was initially put off by your condescending tone. As I have done many times during the Ford site debate, I rolled my eyes and looked away.
Yet later I realized we might have something in common. Despite the fact that we disagree on the merit of the city's plans for the Ford Site -- I have called them "the best thing I've ever seen Saint Paul propose, anywhere" -- I see common ground.
In your letter, you describe the rich social connections that people have built over the years. You list things like PTA meetings, coaching baseball, gardening, attending funerals, and donating used clothing to frame what you see as a lack respect for older folks living in Saint Paul.
I, too, value of these kinds of social connections. When I think of the word "community", it is precisely these sorts of relationships that spring to mind. I love the weak ties of recognition that come from knowing one's neighbor, and I value the strong ties of kinship that come from sharing institutions like schools, churches, libraries, or even the neighborhood bar. (There are too few of these in Highland, by the way, but that's another story!)
However, I think there's something important that you might not yet recognize. I'm guessing you're in my parents' generation, born sometime in the mid-1950s, give or take a few years. That was right in the midst of the post-war baby boom generation when Saint Paul, and indeed all US cities, experienced rapid change.
Memories are a fickle thing, but in my research over the years, I am always amazed when I'm reminded how much denser and more populated Saint Paul used to be. In the 50s and 60s, our city was much more full of people. Streets were narrower. Higher percentages of folks took transit every day. People walked a lot more! And on average, every house in Highland -- and all through the city -- housed more people than they do today. Instead of 1, 2, or 3 people living in a single-family home, when you were born, there might have been 2, 4, or 6 people sharing the same space.
Just like you, I look back on those times (weirdly, before I was born) and think fond thoughts. I like to imagine Cleveland Avenue, Saint Clair Avenue, or a dozen other streets when there were a hundred local shops, foot traffic all day, and a rich world of street life. That seems wonderful to me!
The problem is that, since the 60s, public space in our cities has eroded. Instead of homes and shops, we have parking lots. Instead of big families, we have houses with only one or two people (and their pets, of course). Much of the time, instead of connecting, people watch TV, or stare at their phones. (See? I sound like an old crank!) The point is that the social propinquity that we both value has been changing for a long time.
What do we do?
On this we likely won't agree, but for me, a big culprit of this change is urban design.
I've talked about this before, but when we're swallowed up by private homes or driving around in our private cars, stuck in traffic or speeding past, we become the least common denominator of our social selves. In our cars, we have little way of communicating apart from a honking horn, a revved engine, or a turn signal. In our disconnected homes, with their quiet front yards, we have little way to engage apart from lawn signs. (Witness Highland these days!)
Instead, we spend our time inside private bubbles, driving or holed up in dens. We listen to private soundtracks or (worse) some idiot ranting about "garage logic." Meanwhile, Saint Paul's sidewalks, shops, and public spaces are frayed by vast parking lots, speeding cars, and the march of privatization. Meanwhile, Saint Paul continues to lose the density and social connection that made it a vital place.
If you don't believe me on this last point, I'd urge you to check out the sociologist Robert Putnam's book "Bowling Alone", about the what he calls "the decline of social capital." Putnam's social capital is precisely the kinds of relationships you describe in your letter. He shows that, since the World War Two generation (your parents), it's been disappearing. And one of the main culprits is our driving habit.
Putnam summarizes the causes for the decline like this [emphasis mine]:
First, pressures of time and money, including the special pressures on two-career families, contributed measurably to the diminution of our social and community involvement... Second, suburbanization, commuting, and sprawl also played a supporting role... Third, the effect of electronic entertainment - above all, television - in privatizing our leisure time has been substantial... Fourth and most important, generational change - the slow steady, and ineluctable replacement of the long civic generation by their less involved children and grandchildren - has been a very powerful factor.I encourage you to read the whole thing, or at least skim through the charts about picnics and Shriners' clubs. And by the way, it might surprise you to read some of the data on the Millennial generation. They are more interested in civic engagement and social connection than anyone has been in a long time.
The point is that I believe the city's plan for the Ford site matches our future needs and will strengthen the social fabric in Saint Paul. If Putnam is right, we need less "privatized space" and more everyday public space in which people can connect. If we want to keep the kinds of social ties and connections that you and I both value, we need less orientation toward cars and more social forms of transit and transportation. We need opportunities to walk around and encounter the diversity that Saint Paul has to offer. And most importantly, we need better housing accommodation for smaller households. Only then will we welcome the people who will become the next generation of PTO members, community gardeners, soccer coaches, and urban stewards.
In short, Saint Paul needs density. Building a neighborhood for the future can help Highland return to to the rich and dynamic social fabric that it had back when you were growing up.
Given how poisonous the debate has been over the Ford site plans so far -- I had to walk out of the recent church meeting because I could not tolerate the hostility coming from many of the "Say No" people -- I don't expect you to agree. I only hope others might read this with open minds and hearts. I hope Saint Paul might see a possible future for people of all backgrounds. I hope we can value what walkable streets, fewer cars, and more diverse kinds of homes might offer for our community.
I want to see our cities change, but I'm not trying to erase the past. On the contrary, in many ways, I want to return to it. I want those relationships we both value to thrive. I want a city where gardening, volunteerism, civic involvement, and small businesses flourish. I want a city where traditions are both honored and created anew, transformed for a future that includes the full diversity of Saint Paul's children. In the city to come, they will accomplish things greater than either of us can imagine.