We returned home to find the infrastructure work on Fifth Street nearly completed, and a new sidewalk in front of our house to replace the cracked and buckling sidewalk that was there before. I like sidewalks, and I'm happy to have a new four-foot wide sidewalk in front of my house, even though it brings with it the obligation to keep it clear of ice and snow in the winter. For me, sidewalks are an indispensable part of living in a community. In her classic study of city life and urban design, The Life and Death of Great American Cities (1961), Jane Jacobs talks at length about the important functions of sidewalks in the life of a community. They provide safety, contact, and assimilation of children. Even more so than playgrounds and parks, they are places where the children of a community meet and play together and move under the eyes of large numbers of adults.
Unfortunately, not everyone is as fond as I am of sidewalks. On the east end of Fifth Street, where there were no sidewalks before the infrastructure work began, some residents were opposed to having sidewalks installed. This opposition is common, especially in suburban neighborhoods, as a report in today's Star Tribune suggests. Sidewalks are regarded as an invasion of privacy, as a blight on the cherished American suburban landscape of broad green lawns and houses tucked secretively behind their multi-car garages.
It's a shame that American communities tend to be designed more for automobiles than for children, more for privacy than for interaction. The secrecy of the sidewalk-less suburban cul-de-sac is preferred to the openness of the sidewalk-lined urban grid. Northfielders have recently expressed concern and alarm over heroin use in the high school. Many of our newer neighborhoods almost seem purpose-built for such furtive and antisocial behavior. It takes a village to raise a child—a village with sidewalks, where children circulate under the eyes of a large number of adults who come to take an interest in their behavior and their well-being. As Jacobs argues, sidewalks not only provide opportunities for "surveillance" of children's behavior, they teach children to feel a sense of responsibility for their wider community.
When we arrived in Northfield after more than a year's absence on Wednesday night, we were met by the words WELCOME HOME in colorful chalk on the new sidewalk in front of our house. Neighbors came out onto the sidewalk to greet us. Before we even stepped into their privacy of our house, we had stepped back into our community.
My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .
Here's the poem I wrote and read for the student-organized International Day of Peace gathering in Bridge Square on Wednesday, Septembe...
The frontispiece from Countee Cullen's The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929). Illustration by Charles Cullen. Click to enlarge. On...
Two of my very brief essays were published online this summer. The first was the essay " Telephone ," which appeared in June in t...