North America’s Greenest (and most fun) Neighborhood
By Jay Walljasper
Saving the planet is no longer just a noble and urgent cause—it’s a flourishing business judging from the stacks of green products now found in stores and websites everywhere. A shopper can match every conceivable consumer need to an environmentally friendly purchase, ranging from rutabagas (organic and locally-grown) to lip balm (cruelty-free with all-natural ingredients) to airplane tickets (carbon offsetting credits).
This comes as little surprise in a time where selling goods is viewed not simply as the engine of our economy, but as the underlying purpose of all human civilization. Yet most of us realize that we can’t buy our way out of the current environmental crisis. The fate of the earth depends on how we choose to live—as individuals, households, communities and nations—more than on what we add to our shopping carts.
I’m not here to wag a finger with puritanical zeal at the enjoyment many folks experience in shopping. Indeed I’m not immune from these pleasures myself, and spend many Saturday afternoons strolling past storefronts in my neighborhood business district—relishing the public life that arises as people pop in and out of stores, smiling, walking, talking, browsing, laughing, flirting, sitting down for coffee, stopping off for a beer.
I believe this scene, city streets filled with people happily going about their business, offers us a glimpse of the bright green future we need to create. The revival of classic urban neighborhoods—where people live comfortably in compact surroundings, where they can easily walk to the store and take transit to work—is critical to the fate of the earth.
This comes as a shock to many people, even dedicated, well-informed environmentalists. Cities have long been vilified as the 180 degree opposite of ecological sustainability—concrete cesspools that suck resources out of the land and pour toxic pollutants back in. A home close to nature out in the country or a leafy suburb has long been hailed as the hallmark of a green lifestyle.
But take a closer look. Nearly every activity in most suburban and rural communities, from picking up a quart of milk to visiting friends, means climbing in the car for a trip of 2- to 20-miles. Homes are usually single-family and larger than in the city, which requires more energy to heat, cool and power as well as more stuff to furnish them. Those wide green lawns are sprayed with herbicides, blanketed with artificial fertilizer and soaked by water sprinklers. Even power lawn mowers with their two-stroke engines spew a surprising load of emissions into the atmosphere.
Compare that to older urban districts (and densely settled areas of suburbs or towns), where in the course of each day residents generate less pollution and consume less fossil fuel, electricity and other natural resources—perhaps without even realizing it. To borrow a phrase from the high-tech world, the operating system of a traditional neighborhood naturally fosters a more sustainable way of living.
Unfortunately communities like these are often written off as havens of crime and poverty, or dismissed as hopelessly obsolete for their lack of modern amenities like two-car attached garages and huge lots. But as we now face the full impact of global warming and declining oil reserves, more people understand that any earnest effort to protect the planet must include campaigns to revitalize urban neighborhoods, to design new communities to resemble them and to reshape post-World War II suburbs for environmental sustainability.
With their efficient use of land and ability to accommodate walking, biking and transit, close-knit cities qualify as a sustainable breakthrough as much as solar panels and zero-emission vehicles. They also answer people’s needs for a stronger sense of community in an era when both economic and ecological challenges give us new reasons to break out of privatized isolation that has come to characterize North American life.
As a writer specializing in urban and community issues, I have been lucky enough to visit some of the most inspiring cities across Europe and North America that are laying the groundwork for a green tomorrow. I recently published The Great Neighborhood Book, which offers hundreds of ideas from communities around the world about how to implement environmental and social improvements. After the book came out, almost everyone I met asked: What neighborhood offers the best model for creating a better world?
I never had an answer ready. Each time the question arose, my mind would wandering across all the inspiring spots I visited from Copenhagen and Vancouver to Boulder, Colorado, and Freiburg, Germany. To settle the matter once and for all I drew up a list of all the neighborhoods that most impressed me. (I limited myself to North America so that no one here could discount the accomplishments of these places as not applicable to their city. However, I vigorously challenge the assertion that there is nothing we can learn from sustainable success stories overseas such as congestion pricing in Singapore, Oslo, London and Milan; bike sharing programs in Paris, Barcelona and Lyon; the downtown resurgence in Melbourne; the eco-city being developed outside Shanghai; the freeway torn out for a riverside park in Seoul; the bus rapid transit system pioneered in Curitiba, Brazil; the proposed freeway replaced with a bicycle path in Bogota; the trams in Zurich; the chandeliers in the Moscow subway; streets full of bicycles in Amsterdam and Copenhagen and Cologne…)
I then slowly crossed names off on my list until only Jacobsburg remained. It is, in my opinion, the greenest and most interesting neighborhood in North America.
To keep the sense of suspense going, I will let you figure out the surprising city where Jacobsburg is located. But here are the things I find inspiring about it.
Jacobsburg grew up in a variety of architectural styles between 1890, when streetcars first reached this wooded spot along the river, and 1920, when booming automobile sales opened up distant suburban tracts for development. Buses now ply streets where rails once ran, but the corner business districts that sprouted up to serve trolley riders are still the heart of the community although butcher shops and haberdasheries have given way to ethnic eateries and vintage clothing shops.
One of the traits I most admire about Jacobsburg is its knack for being old-fashioned and cosmopolitan at the same time. At one of my favorite street corners in the world, 19th St. and Holly Avenue, a delicatessen run by Rocco and his son Gus looks out across the intersection at an uber-hip coffeeshop with fair trade beans from 14 countries and the best selection of design magazines this side of Tokyo. On the other two corners sit the Mogadishu Star, a Somali restaurant, and Krazy Kat Komics, a used and rare comic book store. Within a few steps you'll come across a Reconstructionist synagogue, the largest fan belt dealer in the state, a Carnegie library, a Caribbean seafood restaurant once written up in Food + Wine magazine, a botanica full of healing herbs, and a laundromat made famous in an old R&B song.
Jacobsburg has long been the city’s musical Mecca, a center of syncopating rhythms since the days when Louis Armstrong regularly played the High-Hat Theatre. This old vaudeville house still hosts a regular calendar of indie rock acts, world music headliners, hip hop performances, spoken word showdowns, tango competitions and drag shows. Indeed, the whole neighborhood jumps, jives, swings, rocks, sways, shimmies, shakes and grooves with more than a dozen live music venues. Syncopation remains the order of the day with regular street dances and some of the best sidewalk buskers anywhere, one of whom recorded with U2 and many who signed record deals.
Years ago, the neighborhood was an Eastern European enclave with a sprinkling of Jamaicans who first came to the area as farm laborers during World War II. Later African-Americans, Mexicans and small-b bohemians (to distinguish them from the capital-B Bohemians who arrived from villages around Prague in the 1910s) began moving into to the brown-brick apartment buildings and two-flat houses. Today it’s a microcosm of the whole world, thanks in part to the nearby university whose diverse student body keeps the streets lively all day and most of the night.
Once considered a slum, rising rents are now a concern as Jacobsburg has became fashionable with the professional classes since the crime rate declined in the mid-‘90s. Fortyish parents pushing well-engineered Swedish strollers down the sidewalk and copies of Gourmet magazine for sale at corner groceries are now common sights—much to the amazement of long-time residents. Yet a slightly raffish mood still characterizes the neighborhood with streets populated by people of all complexions, accents, ages, and degrees of respectability in their dress.
Jacobsburg exudes a deep spirit of neighborliness, apparent even to a casual visitor. Old-timers explain that the neighborhood set aside its ethnic and cultural tensions in the 1960s and came together to fight a freeway that would have essentially leveled the place.
The community was threatened again in the ‘80s, when a local neighborhood newspaper revealed that chemical toxins were seeping out of an abandoned electrical plant, contaminating both the groundwater and soil. Public officials did not take the problem seriously until big protests hit the front page and TV news. Within a short time, Jacobsburg became home to the state’s first superfund site, where new procedures of bioremediation—deploying natural organisms to soak up toxic contaminants—were first successfully tested. The industrial site eventually earned a clean bill of health, and today is home to the Green Guild, an environmental think tank and research lab funded from the proceeds of a lawsuit stemming from the toxic leak.
A strong sense of civic engagement endures in the neighborhood to this day. The local business association sponsors an annual Spring Festival with a 30-foot maypole in the playground of St. Stanislaus School. Meanwhile a VFW Post, commedia dell'Arte theatre troupe, Baptist congregation, Mexican motorcycle club and a gay men's chorus are among the dozens of local organizations that collaborate to raise money for the neighborhood food shelf.
Plentiful trees shade Jacobsburg and the short blocks offer a pleasing sequence of two-, three- and four-story buildings with front stoops where people sit out to socialize on warm evenings. The neighborhood is proud of the newly refurbished Riverwood park (which everyone says was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, but wasn't) with its swan pond, skateboard ramps, weekend farmers' market, summer band concerts and a café with better pastry than you'll find in Paris.
The streets of Jacobsburg are worth special notice. They are places for people more than conduits for cars. From my first visit in the early 1990s, I remember being amazed at how liberating it felt to walk in a place where pedestrians take priority over automobiles.
Nineteenth Street, like urban avenues all around the country, was widened to four lanes in the 1970s but after two local kids were killed by speeding cars in quick succession, the community rose up demanding that the road be scaled back to two lanes. It took twelve years, but the traffic engineers finally agreed and the whole area soon blossomed into a favorite destination for visitors from all over town. They come to browse shops, dine in restaurants, drink beer, tour art galleries, see shows at the clubs, but most of all to simply be part of the crowd strolling up and down the sidewalks.
Parking is quite scarce but residents generally get around by foot or bike, and many visitors now arrive via the new light rail line connecting Jacobsburg to the university and downtown. Bike trails proliferating across the city are also helping lighten the traffic load. The streets still carry a lot of traffic in both cars and buses, but not at the expense of pedestrians. Careful attention has been paid to make walking a pleasurable activity. The sidewalks are wide enough to function almost as town squares, so you'll find sidewalk cafes, whimsical sculptures, flower patches, street singers and plenty of benches to sit down for a conversations.
Not surprisingly all this has led to a dramatic turnaround for locally-run businesses, which once had been given up for dead. Just fifteen years ago, the city floated a proposal to knock down nearly all the turn-of-the-20th-Century storefronts along 19th Street, replacing them with a series of glorified strip malls full of chain stores. Thankfully, the old buildings were saved intact and those same blocks today account for more retail sales receipts than either downtown or the big mall in a nearby suburb.
The area functions as a bazaar for international trade on the personal level, as immigrant merchants and well-traveled entrepreneurs offer goods from around the world. You can find the latest fashions from Italy and India, anime-style knick-knacks from Japan, folk art from Siberia and Mozambique, cutting-edge kitchen gadgets from Scandinavia, and luscious art books from around the world. The side streets just off 19th are dotted with small businesses catering to Trinidadian, Liberian, Bosnian, Ecuadorian, Tibetan, Ukrainian and Dominican tastes.
Worth a special look is the United Spice Emporium on Holly Avenue, a veritable United Nations of cooking ingredients. The shelves are lined with jars of roots, leaves, powders and granules from all corners of the planet. (Also on hand are herbal remedies for any ailment imaginable.) You’ll can stock up on everything you need for roti, jambalaya, paella, callaloo, sugo alla puttanesca, ceviche, kolache, and Peking Duck. The air is filled with scents of all the world’s flavors mingling in an aromatic stew. You’ll definitely experience the spice of life.
The necessities of modern life—groceries, clothes, hardware, household goods, health and beauty aids, furniture, coffee, wine, pizza, books, child care, fitness gyms, DVD rentals and ice cream cones—are widely available at a range of price levels a short stroll from nearly any address in the neighborhood.
Of course not everything available in Jacobsburg is so high-minded or wholesome. You can also procure Cuban cigars from under the counter at Fregonese’s Hardware and choose from an impressive selection in cheap brands of whisky brands at A-1 Discount Liquors. Crack and prostitutes are a lot harder to come by in the back alleys than they were a few years ago but a couple of local rastas said to be in the ganja trade still look prosperous, and tickets for the late night Friday neo-burlesque revue at the High-Hat Theatre must be reserved at least a week in advance.
One last thing I want to mention about Jacobsburg is the wealth of great pubs, which live up to an older sense of the word -- meaning "public house" -- rather than the current definition as "a place to drink." Families encompassing three generations can be found in corner taverns like The White Eagle or Syl & Althea's Place eating supper right alongside laborers celebrating quitting time and students commemorating the end of another day of classes. The great majority of these pubs share a virtue that English novelist George Orwell described as "quiet enough to talk" in a 1946 essay about his favorite London pub, The Moon Under Water.
But The Moon Under the Water existed only in Orwell's mind, a composite of the qualities he found in beloved pubs across England. And the same is true of Jacobsburg, a neighborhood I dreamed up out of the wonderful experiences I've had in many cities. I named this imaginary place after urbanist visionary Jane Jacobs.
Although Jacobsburg is fictional, I didn’t conjure it as an exercise in useless Utopianism. Everything I describe here exists somewhere in the world; Jacobsburg represents a future that's possible wherever people work to protect the planet and improve their own communities.
Jay Walljasper is author of The Great Neighborhood Book (2007, New Society). He was editor of Utne Reader for fifteen years, during which time the magazine was nominated three times for a National Magazine Award for General Excellence. He is co-author of the book Visionaries (New Society, 2001). He has been interviewed and quoted on contemporary issues in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and NPR.For more than a decade he was the American columnistfor the British magazine Resurgence, and also wrote a column about American affairs for the Belgian magazine Enjeux Internationaux. His articles have appeared in Mother Jones, Huffington Post, Preservation, The Nation, The New Statesman (London), the Chicago Tribune magazine, Philadelphia Inquirer magazine, Toronto Star, Tikkun, L.A.Weekly, Yes!, E magazine, Courrier (Paris), Australian Financial Review, Planeta Humano (Madrid), and New Woman (Australia). Previous to joining Utne he was Culture Editor at In These Times and a travel editor at Better Homes & Gardens. For many years he written about urban planning and public place issues. An extended essay of his appears in the book Toward the Livable City(Milkweed, 2003) and he writes the Town Square column for the PPS e-newsletter, Making Places. He examined positive urban initiatives in places likePortland, inner-city Boston, Copenhagen, and the Twin Cities for a series, “What Works?” in the Nation magazine (1997-2000). He lives in Minneapolis.