My first and recurring experience of a city occurred at 1902 Avenue L off Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn, where I was born in 1944 and where I returned to live twice in my youth. Many details of that place have long ago faded, but what remains with me is an enduring mental map of a small piece of the world that included nearby Avenue M, Avenue J, Kings Highway, the BMT subway (today the F Train), Coney Island, numerous neighbourhood streets, the playground that was the centre of my small universe and my school, P.S. 193.
My grandparents had an apartment on the third floor of a six-storey building, and many other family members lived in this neighbourhood of apartment buildings and private houses. Ours was basically a one-bedroom corner apartment with a very small extra room off the kitchen. When we moved in, my grandparents moved into that small room.
My younger sister, Laura, and I slept on the couches in the living room, and my parents took the bedroom. It was crowded and uncomfortable in many ways, but there were compensations in the world outside. I remember hanging out on the roof on summer evenings, collecting butterflies and bottle caps on the streets below with my closest friend, stretching the dining-room table into the living room (with several extensions) for family gatherings, watching Ed Sullivan on the small TV with my grandfather and vacuuming for my grandmother while the radio blared.
We moved in with my grandparents again when I was in second grade. My little universe, the one I could navigate on foot and explore on my own or with friends, was defined by a stretch of Avenue L between the park at E18th Street and my school at E25th Street, where my aunt was a teacher. I often walked home to have lunch with my grandmother. All ages shared the park and playground at E18th. It was well equipped with concrete tables for playing cards (mostly pinochle), handball and basketball courts, a wading pool (which doubled for intense games of dodge ball), swings, see-saws and slides. It even had a park house with a staff and sports equipment to borrow. I spent all my free time after school there. Down the block on Avenue M, my uncle’s father-inlaw had a candy store near the corner, and we shopped in all the small food stores between Ocean Avenue and the subway station, including my favourite, the bakery, where I was sent to buy fresh bread, bagels and bialys. There was also the unforgettable live-chicken market, with its cages, noise and smells, where I shopped with my grandmother.
This small universe would be lost to me when our family moved on in search of employment and a place of our own away from the “crowded” and “congested” city. But now, many decades later and looking back, I can see this neighbourhood had many characteristics that city dwellers now value. At the time, though, we either took them for granted or didn’t have the words now used to describe them—words like “compact,” “walkable,” “transit-oriented,” “dense,” “for all ages,” “mixed-use.” When I returned as an adult, I was surprised to find that, physically, it had changed very little except that the Yiddish signs on some of the stores had given way to Russian. I do recognize that part of my positive feeling for this time and place rests on the fact that at a very young age, I was able to venture around the neighbourhood alone or just with friends. Sadly, times have changed. Even if the streets were safer and more human in scale, today, many parents still wouldn’t be comfortable with that level of freedom for real or perceived safety reasons. To what degree that trend is reversible is a poignant and open question.
Like many others after World War II, my family was experiencing the great collective antsiness, the urge to move to the greener pastures that were opening up outside the city. I was vaguely aware of adult conversations about how the city was deteriorating, while exciting new places to live were opening up in Queens, Long Island, Westchester and points beyond. This was a time of social change, with new emphasis on the nuclear-family household, wondrous new labour-saving devices and, above all, the freedom of the car and the irresistible draw of new highways. I was just as swept up as anyone in the excitement of a Sunday drive on the recently opened Grand Central Parkway or to Jones Beach, all of us packing into my grandfather’s new DeSoto. With a move out of the city, came an assumption of quality, value and status.
We first moved as a family to Fresh Meadows in Queens, a brand-new development funded by New York Life Insurance, and then a year later to a similar development on Brush Creek Boulevard in Kansas City, Missouri. These post-war housing developments were full of returning GIs and their young families. With walk-up apartments and townhouses, these developments were like halfway houses on the way to suburbia. Small, bounded enclaves that weren’t exactly city anymore, they represented the beginnings of the pulling away, the sorting out of the city’s varied population into something more homogeneous and controlled.
I witnessed here the creation of a more specialized world, intended only for living, while everything else, like working, happened in some other location. These new, surburban-style neighbourhoods featured their own parking lots, and leaving them usually meant getting in the car. At first, they were actually hybrids, still within the city fabric. However, as they progressively turned inward, their connections to surrounding streets and neighbourhoods started to disappear and their edges grew sterile. The layout of these projects began to reveal what I now recognize as early modernist urban planning (which I’ll come to shortly): “super blocks” with many old streets removed and buildings set well back from the sidewalks of the remaining streets but at different distances, so they appeared to zigzag creating a “sawtooth” effect. There was also one small supermarket, where the parking lot replaced the local shopping street as the main community focus. All the same, this place of business was still far more modest than today’s super-sized versions. The area inside the project was still walkable, but there was none of the variety found in my Brooklyn neighbourhood, and the traffic rivers on its edges were getting wider and faster. It fascinates me to look back at this development formula. As we now try to create less cardependent “urban places” within suburban settings, we sometimes cross paths with this earlier transitional stage, though we’re going in the other direction.
In 1954, we finally moved to real suburbia, to our own single-family house on Beacon Street in Newton, Massachusetts. Our neighbourhood was just inside the rapidly changing edge of older neighbourhoods where Route 128 had just been built, ringing Boston on the border between countryside and city. This place was closer to the suburban pastoral ideal. Waban Village Center on the commuter line (now the Green Line of the “T”) was a short distance away, providing a quick train ride into downtown Boston. At the same time this was one of a scattering of historic or historically inspired “urban villages” close to the countryside. There was still the smell of real farmland, collecting tadpoles and fishing in creeks and ponds was within my reach. But the landscape was changing rapidly, and in a short time the nearby countryside would fill in around us with newer suburbs.
Then, in 1958, an unexpected break took place in my family’s migratory pattern. My father had accepted an offer for a two-year assignment in Geneva, Switzerland.
We moved into a relatively new, modern apartment building on Rue Crespin, not far from the historic centre, and I made the liberating discovery of a city within the reach of a teenager. My world had expanded; I was no longer dependent on being chauffeured around. I had to get a bicycle licence and learn the rules of the road to pass a road test, but between my bike and the frequent tram service, I had the run of the entire city, including the nearby agricultural villages just outside its boundaries. I planned a multiday bicycle trip around Lac Léman with school friends, staying at youth hostels, and we also visited the Salève, a local mountain that towered over the city just across the border in France. I was enjoying the rites of coming of age with a degree of independence I couldn’t have experienced in suburban America. In short, my family and I were living in a culture where the city was clearly seen as something to enjoy, not a place to escape from. Daily shopping for our household happened practically on our doorstep—at the local Migros supermarket or after a short walk to Geneva’s other main supermarché
, Coop, or the nearby street market. My mother took courses at the university. My sister and I created an impressive stamp collection just by soliciting used envelopes from all the consulates and international agencies we could get to on our own. Even as a teenager, this shift raised a lot of questions for me, not in abstract terms but very practically. How did I want to live? Wasn’t this kind of life in a city more desirable than what I had experienced before, with a much more interesting world at my fingertips? This was the beginning of a revelation. What if all the things I’d been been taught to assume about the disadvantages of the “city” were only that—assumptions— and not immutable laws of progress? What if older cities weren’t bad? What if they could become “modern” too? Geneva certainly seemed to have modernized while still retaining its valuable older qualities.
After two years, we moved briefly back to my old Brooklyn neighbourhood, where I attended Midwood High School. I quickly began taking pride in myself as a New Yorker, starting to hang out in Manhattan. My grandparents’ apartment was crowded, but the City
was mine. When my family moved again—this time to South Orange, New Jersey, another older suburb on the rail line built around an historic village—I was ready to set out on my own. Amherst College in Massachusetts had already accepted me for early admission, but while waiting for the school year to begin, I was a fish out of water. Without a car in South Orange, I was stranded, but getting one was not the answer. I was still tied by an umbilical cord to Manhattan and found myself constantly running there on a bus or train.
How did my own early trajectory fit into the bigger pattern of domestic migration at the time? While I was jumping in and out of the suburban pool, massive change was afoot. Our outward moves were part of a vast transformation in which cities were stretched and hollowed out and their populations drastically depleted. In the two generations after World War II, the American urban landscape was profoundly reshaped, and when the dust settled, significantly more Americans lived in suburbs than in downtown neighbourhoods. Though there had always been out-migrations (from Manhattan to the Boroughs of New York, for instance), this one was different in magnitude and kind. As the rings on the periphery now began to dwarf the centre, the centre itself was being reshaped according to a radically different vision.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Walking Home by Ken Greenberg. Copyright © 2011 by Ken Greenberg. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.