Friday, July 25, 2014

Nourishing the Seed of Civic Individualism

A couple of posts back, I mentioned that I was in the final stages of an annual trip with a pair of good friends.  Each year, we pick a different part of the country in which to spend a week moseying about, enjoying the minor league baseball and cuisine of the region.  This year, we visited New Mexico.

Being a moderately observant traveler who views the world through urbanist spectacles, I see stuff to share with my readers.  Today will be the first of several posts in which New Mexico and the tip of west Texas offer urbanist insights.

Scheduling a trip around the vagaries of minor league baseball schedules is an annual challenge, one that I’ve described as an adult jigsaw puzzle for travelers.  This year, the schedules demanded that we begin and end our trip in El Paso, a few miles south of the New Mexico border.  But that was great because El Paso has a fine new ballpark, well-located in the urban grid and with grand views of the scenic beauty of El Paso.

Given our daily routine of travel, noshing, and evening baseball, we often found ourselves looking for a final snack after a ballgame.  On this trip, we twice cruised the streets of El Paso after ballgames, looking for late evening nourishment.

In the course of those searches, we found that El Paso has a surprising level of late evening activity.  And I don’t mean drinking and carousing, but families out and about, enjoying the relative cool of the evening hours.

Some may hypothesize that the Hispanic segment of the population, building on a tradition of evening promenades, is responsible for the evening socializing.  But my observation was that the people on the streets as the midnight hour approached generally matched the demographic mix of El Paso.  From my few data points, I’d argue that the primary cause of the eventide activity is the desire to get outside after a day of remaining indoors to avoid the heat.

Whatever the cause, one evening we ate pancakes at an 24-hour IHOP which had a nearly full parking lot when we arrived at 11:00pm and in which a large meeting, perhaps a Bible study group, was still going strong when we departed near midnight.

Another evening, we had appetizers at a Village Inn which had a good crowd of families, including babies sleeping in carriers, despite the late hour.  As we left, the parking lot had amorous couples embracing in goodbyes, requiring the use of the back-up camera on our rental vehicle to ensure that we didn’t bump any of the oblivious lovers.  The restaurant was going to remain open until 3am.

Some may wonder if IHOP and Village Inn were really the preferred destinations of three middle-aged guys looking for evening refreshments.  And the answer is no.  One evening in particular, we went looking for a Chili’s only to find that it had closed at 11pm.

In a town with a surprising number of people out and about in the late evening hours looking for quiet refreshment, a restaurant well-suited to meet that need had inexplicably closed early.  The three of us scratched our heads and decided that a blanket corporate policy was the only possible explanation.

And that’s the point I want to make in this post.  Cities develop unique characteristics, whether the late night ramblings of El Paso, the fine dining of Napa, or the neighborhood meeting places of Petaluma.

And while we generally cherish those characteristics, with city halls often touting them as a reason for businesses to relocate to their communities, most cities simultaneously try to bury those characteristics under mounds of paper and plastic.

The paper is the zoning codes that, despite the best efforts of over-worked city staffs, often mimic the zoning codes of other communities, draining away local uniqueness.

And the plastic is the national chains that bring the same merchandise and menu selections to every town, overwhelming local character.

It’s not easy maintaining local character against those twin forces, but it is nonetheless a goal of urbanism, even if only to convince Chili’s to remain open until 2am to accommodate local social patterns.  Defining and maintaining local character is a topic to which I’ll return.

Before closing, I should return to a point on which some may be puzzling, which is why an urbanist is writing about national chains like IHOP, Village Inn, and Chili’s when I should be celebrating single-location establishments like Ray’s in Petaluma.  The answer is that late evenings in an unfamiliar big city is perhaps the one time when the safety of a national chain is a reasonable choice.

But at all other times during the trip, we aggressively sought out unique restaurants and pubs.  As a result, we had some marvelous meals.  I’ll summarize a few highlights in an upcoming post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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