Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Naturalness of the City

Jane Jacobs discusses the sentimentalizing of nature in the closing to her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs asserts, “It is neither love for nature nor respect for nature that leads to this schizophrenic attitude. Instead, it is a sentimental desire to toy…with some insipid, standardized, suburbanized shadow of nature…And so, each day, several thousand more acres of our countryside are eaten by the bulldozers, covered by pavement, dotted with suburbanites who have killed the thing they thought they came to find” (Jacobs 445). The naturalness of the city is spurned for a vague, idealized notion of nature that people convince themselves is real. The real nature is destroyed as people seek to commune with their idealized nature and the naturalness of the city is forgotten. For the past decade Baltimoreans have fled the city in search of better education, nicer housing, and more “nature” and space in the suburbs. Catonsville, Columbia, and other areas around Baltimore continue to grow at an alarming rate, the trees and open space of Howard County, Baltimore County, and Anne Arundel County giving way to identical “McMansions.” Those who cannot afford to leave the city remain as the schools and houses that were left behind fall into disrepair. The city is neglected as people who see “only disorder in the life of city streets” (Jacobs 447) flee to the suburbs.

In her book, Jacobs describes the desecration of a park by “improvers on nature” (446). Instead of allowing the natural wonders of the park to flourish, developers demolished a slope of muddy clay on a strip of beach in order to make room for a retaining wall that extended that park’s lawns. This example is interesting for me to consider because my neighbors “improved” their property in the exact same way. They moved in next door a few years ago and tore down the original beach cottage that had served as the previous residents’ home for over fifty years. They built an enormous pier and razed the bamboo growing on a hill to make room for a retaining wall. The retaining wall also covered the natural deposit of clay that my brother and I collected as children, and that my mother and her cousins collected over thirty years ago. In their effort to enjoy nature, my neighbors destroyed the natural wonders that were already there. It is not entirely fair for me to criticize my neighbors because my family did essentially the same thing. My great-great-grandfather did not build a pier, but he did construct a retaining wall to keep the hill that he built his house on from sliding into the river. He fled the city and my grandparents and mother fled their row house in Dundalk every summer for the suburban house. Eventually they stayed in the suburbs year-round.

Jacobs notes that “Vital cities have marvelous innate abilities for understanding, communicating, contriving and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties” (Jacobs 447). It is time for us to stop fleeing the problems of our sick cities; we need to stay and make our cities vital so that they are able to combat their difficulties. Dundalk and other areas are suffering because the people who are able to make changes and contribute to the economy and life of the city are leaving.