By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down,
Yea, we wept,
When we remembered Zion.
– Psalm 137
A few days ago I went to get my hair cut at my usual place, which is in one of those suburban “outlet malls” which plague North America. After I parked, I realized I needed a bathroom break. The only obvious place for a discrete trip was the Walmart in the distance. The fact that it seemed necessary to get back into my car and drive to the Walmart at the other end of the parking lot should have been a hint of the epiphany to come.
Anyway, after seeking and finding relief, I walked back out into the sun. I faced west. The mid-morning sun was behind me and to the left. A vast treeless plain of asphalt dotted with a few cars stretched away before me. Around the edge of this desolation stood the low retail blocks done up in stucco and architects’ memories of childhood Lego projects. The haze of distance softened the contrast of faraway objects.
And suddenly I realized that the faraway objects weren’t a distant city on a hill or mountains or forests away at horizon’s edge. No. The haze of distance hung over the other end of this lifeless, horrid, inhuman parking lot.
Images of suburbia came into my mind. Of entire residential neighbourhoods turning their garage doored backs on the streetscape. Of rows upon rows of puce coloured boxes, no windows to the street, postage stamp yards. Or, next development over, monster houses with one acre foot prints on one acre lots with ubiquitous garage doors, as welcoming as closed Hell Gates, here four or five to the house, the public face of whatever family might try to find joy within.
I immediately said to myself, with a small and joyless internal laugh:
“In the parking lot of Walmart I sat down and wept.”
Then I tweeted it, because that’s what is done.
There is a tragic inhumanity about the architecture of North American cities. This inhumanity stretches from the design of the home all the way up to e the neighbourhood plan. The car is the reason for the layout of the home. The car’s room is the part of the house that greets the visitor. The car is the intermediary, the gate keeper, between the family and the outside world.
The streets are wide, the sidewalks narrow. I have seen couples our for walks in the suburbs unable to walk side-by-side on the single-file afterthought sidewalks. The parking lots are obscenely large and desolate, the parks, particularly in newer developments are pitiful token bits of green. There is no school or even space set aside for a school in many of these new developments.
I am writing this sitting at a table on the small patio at the front of my inner city house. This outdoor office/dining room is what welcomes visitors. There are trees filled with singing birds and chattering squirrels around me. Cyclists pass by in the bike lane. A car goes by now and then. People are walking side-by-side, chatting and smiling at each other on the wide sidewalks. Every house has a front facade punctuated by many windows and the front door. This is the open streetscape that is both welcoming to and engaged with the community of people who inhabit it.
Later this afternoon some neighbours will be getting together in the back alley, thankful that the warm weather has finally returned. Tables and chairs will be brought out, the doors of small detached garages thrown open. More neighbours will gather to chat.
Before that get together, I may walk over to the book shop seeking a second-hand Golding novel. I could walk to anything I would normally want or need: the grocer, the baker, the butcher, live music venues, live theatre, restaurants, bars, all manner of shops and parks and schools. . . .
When I stood outside Walmart and thought of Psalm 137, I certainly didn’t feel the shattering desolation of the Israelites taken in bondage to Babylon. But I did feel very strongly that with our unthinking automobile-driven suburban sprawl, with our simple lack of foresight and human sensitivity, we have exiled far too many urban North American’s from a truly humane urban existence.
Living in a large garage with attached house a short drive – but a long walk – from a giant parking lot with a scattering of indistinguishable chain stores built of polystyrene and ticky-tacky – appropriately termed “big boxes” – and working an hour’s commute away is decidedly not a humane urban existence.
I began with a Psalm. Let’s end with a song: