Monday, September 7, 2009

Public Plantings: Mixed Feelings

It seems that there's something nervous-making about wide spaces and a lot of sky for some people, and so there's this tendency here to plant trees whenever and wherever possible. The funny thing is, though, no matter how many trees get planted on the plains, that big ole sky stays just as big. Witness this vista on the tail end of one of my regular riding loops:

I like this stretch of the ride, partly because I'm almost home at this point, but also because the streets are wide and empty of cars and, well, the xeric plantings that it boasts are just plain appealing. I also like the nifty little walking boulevard that runs down the middle of the street:

It's empty on this Sunday morning because all the good people in LBB are in church while the rest of us are out riding around on our overpriced bicycles enjoying the subtle shift from the unreasonably hot summer to the kinder, more temperate autumn. The truth is, however, that as appealing as it is, there are never that many people on the boulevard at any time of the day or week. I'm not really sure why this is. I have some thoughts on the matter, but they are not fully formed, so I'll keep them to myself for the time being.

It also has these pretty little benches up and down the boulevard, strategically situated in the shade of the live oaks, that--given our tendency to seek out a place to get out of the sun--ought to have people sitting on them, though I've never seen that happen:

But this is my favorite part, the view I see as I roll up to the stoplight right before campus:

Sitting next to this cheerful tableau (in the shade!) and waiting for the light to change never fails to make me smile.

This public planting is my offering to the "Out on the Streets" meme over at Veg Plotting. OOTS is a seasonal look at our favorite/not-so-favorite examples of the public spaces in our communities. I picked this example not just because I find it attractive, but also because I have some mixed feelings about it. Here are the facts: Several years ago, this area was a run-down, low-income neighborhood that was full of prostitution, crack-selling, and just plain crime-ridden scariness. But it was also one of the oldest neighborhoods in town, and people had their homes there--some had even lived there for all the many decades of their lives.

Along comes a local developer, father of the then-mayor, and the people who lived in the neighborhood were bought out one by one, the houses razed or (rarely) moved elsewhere, and apartment complexes, shopping centers, a multi-star hotel, high-end lofts, and big houses were built in their places. People of lesser means were scattered in an economic diaspora across the city.

How all this occurred was controversial and rather heavy-handed. People were compensated for their homes, but if they had no desire to sell, pressure was applied until they did. Things got very ugly for awhile.* All of this was in the name of "urban renewal," though I'm sure it didn't hurt that the developer stood to make some money off the project.

And it is a nicer section of town now. I probably would not have felt comfortable riding through parts of it a few years ago. The crime is down, the streets are cleaner, and things look all fresh and new. But there was some meanness and bitter feelings getting to this point. And I'm not sure crime has really gone down in the city; it has probably just moved elsewhere.

There aren't many long-term residents here now; for the moment, it is mostly a transient housing space for students. Maybe that has something to do with why nobody is sitting on those pretty benches; maybe, in spite of it looking like a neighborhood, it isn't one anymore. Maybe a neighborhood needs people who plan to stay awhile, to raise a family, to plant a garden of their own. Maybe a neighborhood needs to have a mix of families, elders, students, and others, and yes, a mix of incomes. Maybe there need to be dogs running around underfoot. I don't know.

So as a long-time, long-term resident, every time I ride through this area and see the pretty, empty boulevards, I remember this bitter time. But here is where I'm conflicted: I like the way it looks now. I prefer this view to the other. I believe in beautiful public spaces. I think they soothe our souls and make life better. And this one has done so many things right: xeriscaping, creating spaces for neighbors to sit and jaw, wide streets for cyclists, and boulevards to encourage pedestrian activity.

I just wish we could have gotten to this point without the meanness and suffering.

*This history is documented in the archives of the local newspaper, The Avalanche Journal, as well in documents housed in the archives of Texas Tech University's Southwest Collections Special Collections Library.


  1. Susan - this is a great and important post. I have seen reports on how improved public planting can improve neighbourhoods (and indeed help solve its problems re drug abuse etc) like this one was in its previous incarnation without the need to ship everyone out of them. It's a pity I don't have them to hand at the moment, but perhaps one of our readers might be able to chip in with something at this point.

    Your thoughts on whether a whole community is at hand I believe is key to the emptiness of this place. I believe you need a mix of ages, genders, race, families, pensioners, dogs, cats, the whole kit and caboodle to ensure that places like this and its plantings thrive.

    I wonder if it might become neglected over time as the developers move elsewhere and there's no-one locally to love it and tend it? Though of course by using xeriscaping etc. it should take a lot less maintenenace than some of the plantings you've shown us in previous posts!

    Mr Linky will follow over at my place soon. There were some problems with him over the summer and I had to deinstall the HTML code which enables him to work. I haven't got to grips with what's needed yet and because I thought I had plenty of time to do this, as no-one posted until the last minute last time, of course plenty of you have been good enough to post already! ;)

    I will add the link to your post as soon as I've got Mr Linky up and running.

  2. Thanks, Veep. I'd love to see those posts. There was never much doubt in most people's minds, however, that this project was not about "urban renewal" as much as it was about the developer making some money. And sadly, I'm afraid he didn't stand to make much money off of poor people, so their needs were much of the equation. They did get compensated for their houses, however. The real issue was whether they ever had any real choice in the matter, and whether you can force people out of a neighborhood for the sake of profit---hence the couching the development in terms of urban renewal.

    To be absolutely fair, the neighborhood is a nicer place now, and I do prefer to see it this way. This is the conundrum.

  3. EDIT: I meant to say above that poor people's views on the matter were NOT much of the equation.

    I'm a terrible typist...

  4. Hi Susan - it's a shame that profit has to come into the equation isn't it? But, like you I do like what's been put there and it must be great to feel able to visit an area and feel safe whilst doing so.

    Mr Linky's now sorted. I've added your post, but couldn't remember whether your prefer to be called Susan Tomlinson or The Bicycle Garden for these things. I've gone with the former, but can easily edit it if you want :)

  5. PS - I do like your new Avatar photo. Makes me smile every time I see it :)

  6. This is an interesting post, and reminds me of several local struggles. I have a question about the lack of pedestrians and bench sitters. Is there any destination for them or reason to rest on the bench? Are there stores or restaurants on the road? I know around here there have been attempts to create an urban feel in suburbia, but often they fail, because few in this auto dependent culture want to walk for the health of it without a destination in mind.

  7. Good questions, Les. There are shops nearby, including a famous coffee shop, two banks, clothing stores, restaurants, a Kinko.s, etc.

    I've given a lot of thought to this question, too, since I would like to see spaces that encourage us to be less dependent on the automobile. That's part of the reason this boulevard/residential development has intrigued me--it seems to have much going for it that would encourage pedestrian activity, but there seems to be little of that going on. Which leaves me to wonder if it is something else. THe apartment complexes make up the bulk of housing and they are all gated, with swimming pools and party houses, so it could be that there is just little incentive to walk around the neighborhood...

    In my neighborhood, which has a mixed demographic (students, families, seniors, low income to upper middle income) you see people walking and riding their bikes all over the place. We also hang out in our front yards and talk to our neighbors, too. Why is my neighborhood this way, and another is not?

    Thinking about doing a post on this...


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