So, I have this friend James. James and I would, when we both lived together in Southern California, get in his Toyota pickup and drive to all sorts of weird remote places.. ostensibly to look for telephone company related crap (a lot of which is now gone).
One of the side effects of this extensive traveling is I’ve discovered I get this weird.. well, “Spidey sense” for urban planning. I get this minor “unsettled” feeling when I’m in a neighborhood and I haven’t seen what I consider to be the “normal” parts of a neighborhood. ”Is there something I’m missing,” is the feeling.
Even the worst planned neighborhoods typically contain a school, a gas station, a grocery store, a fast-food establishment (or, the seemingly Pacific Northwest variant of same: a coffeehouse), and a family restaurant somewhere within it. In post-war Southern California, the tendency was to build major boulevards about a mile apart on a Euclidean1 grid, put the businesses along those boulevards, and fill in the spaces between with residences.2
Since moving to the Pacific Northwest, I’ve noticed the trend is more or less the same. In Portland and Seattle, you need to think a little outside the box. The lines tend to follow old streetcar lines instead of the modern automotive street: in Portland, this has resulted in most of the major retail corridors being on east-west streets, and the pattern seems to imply the housing was built FIRST, and the commercial corridors added later.
The point is, if any attempt at urban planning is being done there is somewhere within a neighborhood some commercial development for people to buy food and fuel.
As a side effect of this observation, whenever I’m exploring a new urban landscape I always seek out these neighborhood commercial clusters, because they give you a great window into the demographic makeup of a given area. Five minutes in the grocery store and lunch at the neighborhood fast-food joint (or coffeehouse) will tell you more about a particular place than any map or Chamber of Commerce summary. You see (what the neighborhood considers) “normal” people doing the normal things people do.
I recently discovered a neighborhood in Bend that had me stumped. There was no commercial corridor here. In fact, it was kind-of an island by itself, a little bit disconnected from the city (although still very much IN the city).. but it puzzled me. There was no grocery store I could find, no gas station.. nothing. It was a little unnerving: I wound up saying to myself “where the hell does Mom get the sugar she forgot to get at Fred Meyer?”
Today I discovered the shopping district I missed. It was actually buried on the southern edge of the development. It didn’t have the gas station I would have expected, but it had the grocery store, the coffeehouse, and the sit-down restaurant I would have expected. When you looked at it on the map, you could almost tell that this wasn’t supposed to be where the city stopped, this was supposed to be near the center of this little development. The economic realities of the housing market bubble of the 2000′s stopped “progress” dead in its tracks.
It’s interesting that I’ve developed this sort of “sixth sense” for knowing that there HAD to be a grocery store / strip mall there.
But more interestingly, maybe if I spent less time as a young adult trashing around looking for phone company shit and more time with biochemistry maybe I would have cured cancer by now.
- Orange County went so far with this Euclidean madness they actually named a major north-south boulevard.. “Euclid St.” [↩]
- It’s worth noting that even in South Orange County, which attempted to get away from the “uniform grid” style of city building, does the same thing except the roads are curvy and often don’t follow any general cardinal direction: but the tendency to build commercial strips along them and fill the spaces between with residences is still the norm. [↩]