Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Rogers Park's Identity Crises

One local blogger, Craig Gernhardt, is pursuing the parking issue in his attack on the new jazz venue proposed for blighted Morse Ave, and in a post that appeared about a month back, he suggested that the notorious gang redoubt at 1340 W. Morse be demolished and replaced with a large parking structure. He stated that local businesses 'need parking to survive', and completely bypassed the ongoing and obvious problem of security and safety, which is the true deterrent to development of Morse Ave., and the rest of the area. Parking is not the problem on Morse, for there are tens of thousands of potential customers living within a few blocks of the area, and at this time most of their money is spent in other neighborhoods and towns. Meanwhile, businesses flee the area because of public safety issues.

If there is anything that Rogers Park and other lakefront neighborhoods distinctly do not need, it is more parking or any other furniture, for automobiles. In fact, it is mass car ownership that has caused our cities to become blighted and unsafe to begin with, and it is the massive misallocation of tax monies at the federal, state, and local level to the construction and maintenance of roads and highways and other appurtanances for the comfort of cars and drivers, that has drained hundreds of billions of dollars from our cities and the civic amenities that make life liveable for all of us. Instead, we have redirected these dollars to Suburban Sprawl development, which unfortunately has engulfed our cities and dominates the thinking of our planners and officials. In fact, most of us can't imagine any other way of doing things.
Get this: Automobiles destroy cities. It doesn't get any simpler than that.The more convenient and comfortable the streets are for automobiles and their drivers, the less convenient and liveable they are for pedestrians, and for city life in general. It is very disconcerting to the shopper on foot to have to negotiate not only fast-moving vehicular traffic, but the wilderness of parking lots, curb cuts, and small intersections created by a string of suburban-style strip malls. This type of development makes streets much easier to negotiate by car than on foot, and thus kills the legitimate 'street life' of a city, as the streets are emptied of pedestrians and the small businesses that they patronized, and become a wasteland populated by criminals and other undesirables.

Rogers Park is now at a crossroads. The revitalization of this great lakefront neighborhood is taking place at an important juncture in American history, which is the permanent depletion of the world's oil and other necessary resources, and the necessity of downsizing and rescaling our lives in order to be able to afford the necessities of life. If we also want to be able to afford the basic comforts of a technological society, such as reliable electricity and some form of motorized transportation, we will have to radically alter the way we live, and make very difficult choices.

In sum, we will have to choose between running our cars and turning on the lights. Or, running our cars and heating the house. Or, we may have to choose between owning a car and having a place to live, which is already the choice thrust upon denizens of the Chicago region who make less than $9 an hour. As the world's supplies of oil deplete further, and as the price of oil surges, many more people will have to give up more amenities to meet their basic needs.
We can preserve most modern amenities in the face of steeply declining fuel supplies, but only if we arrange things differently, and realize that a manner of life dependent upon making six automobile trips per day and commuting 40 miles each direction to work will not vibe with new realities.

Residents of Chicago, particularly those who reside on the dense north lakefront, are singularly fortunate in that they dwell in one of the handful of areas in the United States in which a person can live a comfortable life with easy access to goods, services, cultural amenities, workplaces, and all the other accoutrements of civilization , without ever driving a car. The area is almost designed for the type of life that most Americans will have to adopt in order to live with comfort and technological amenity in the post-oil era to come.
Unfortunately, Rogers Park has an identity crises of sorts, and can't decide whether it wants to be a truly urban area, or another suburb. Most of us have, unwittingly, adopted the suburban model as our idea of how a city should look and function, which means that automobiles and their needs take precedence over every other consideration, most of all for the qualities that make a city liveable and attractive to begin with. The result is an urban environment increasingly lacking in walkability, convenience to public transportation, and beauty.
Other cities, such as Portland, Oregon, are far ahead of Chicago in limiting horizontal growth, and most important, in rebuilding themselves as traditional cities in which the citizens can live, work, shop, and relax within the comfortable confines of a half-mile walk. Toward this goal, Portland has vastly expanded its public transit, and has revamped its zoning laws to require multi-use (residential and commercial) buildings that contribute to the civic life by their design, such as the requirement for windows and retail at grade level.

Even car-crazed Los Angeles is awakening to the fact that the car-centered lifestyle is becoming unaffordable, in addition to making Los Angeles almost unliveable. The city is now building additional train lines as quickly as the money can be allocated and land acquired, though not quite as quickly as they tore up their 2000 miles of street-car track 50 years ago.
Chicago has been praised as the nation's 'greenest' city merely by virtue of environmental 'window dressing' such as 'green' rooftops and new parks, which, while wonderful, don't go far towards reducing energy consumption or enabling the city to survive, let alone thrive, in the energy-short times ahead.

We here in Rogers Park, which is supposedly a liberal, progressive neighborhood of 'tree-huggers', do still worse than the city as a whole and the other lakefront neighborhoods. There is a strong current of resistance in this area to real urban life, that usually expresses itself in opposition to high-density residential development, and the persistant demand for more parking, in an area where almost everyone lives within 8 blocks of the Red Line, and in close proximity to all-night bus service to the city and nearby suburbs.

We could begin real progress in the revitalization of Rogers Park as an exciting, attractive, and safe urban neighborhood by first of all demanding changes in our building codes that will prevent any more strip malls such as Gateway Center, as well as the numerous grungy little strips along Clark and Morse, from being constructed.

We can then rescind the requirement to provide parking for newly - constructed condos and apartments that are within eight blocks of public transportation.

These are baby steps in the journey toward reconstructing our community as a place that is friendly, beautiful and safely walkable, but they would constitute a large improvement over the current tendacy to imitate the suburbs in types of building and in placing cars ahead of humans.


Michael Harrington said...

Dear Laura,
Congratulations on the launch of your new blog, and you are doing it with some powerful writing! What a fine contribution to our community. Of all people, you definitely qualify as Time Magazine's Person of the Year. I look forward to reading more.
Peace, Michael Harrington

Fargo said...

Thank you!!! Well said. It's time to get out of our cars and use public transit (and keep demanding improved public transit) and ride our bikes and walk more. Building more parking and having more cars on the streets will only make overall quality of life worse for everyone in the area.