Friday, July 17, 2015

Saying Goodbye to a Hometown

In my last post, I wrote of my mother leaving the long-time family home in Carmichael, near Sacramento.  It was a big change for her, but she’s handling it well.

It’s also a big change for me.  I may not be doing as well.

It’s often said that one’s hometown is where one attended high school.  I’m not sure I would have agreed early in my adulthood.  I still retained fond memories of other stops in my young life.

But over the years, the validity of the adage became evident.  The pre-high school stops in my life, although still pleasant memories, retreated into the mist.  My college years, although a time that I wouldn’t trade for anything, were a near-adult experience, unrelated to a hometown.  Plus, when I tally up the friends with whom I’m still in contact after four decades, the number of high school friends is greater than the number from all my other educational years combined.

Carmichael, where my family moved just as I began high school and where my mother continued to live until only months ago, is my hometown.

I’m ambivalent about leaving Carmichael behind.  I’m equally ambivalent about having Carmichael as a home town.

To begin, although not all would agree, I found the educational experience to be fine.  My wife, who was two years behind me, found our shared alma mater of La Sierra High School to be only fair.  But I was exposed to a pair of teachers, one who gave me a lifelong love of numbers and the other of words, whose influences have continued throughout my life.  Even if the other teachers were less gifted, those two were enough to move the needle of my education well above average.

And La Sierra could turn out well-qualified students.  In my class, of the nine students who applied for admission to Stanford, seven were accepted, a ratio far above average.  Of course, the only ones of those who could afford to go to Palo Alto were the two on athletic scholarships.  The rest of us went elsewhere for more affordable but superior educations.

Unfortunately, La Sierra is now closed.  Built at the same time as several other nearby high schools during the post-war housing boom, it became the odd man out when the dust settled and the district found itself with one more high school than it could justify.  The campus remains a community center, but the students have been gone for more than three decades.

I miss having an operating high school as my alma mater.  I wouldn’t know anyone on campus today, but I’d feel better if there were still students hanging out in the places where I learned life lessons and made good friends.  And I’d probably still check the internet every Saturday morning in the fall to see how the football team had done.

But the lack of an active alma mater isn’t the reason for my ambivalence about Carmichael as a hometown.  It’s the fact that Carmichael is adamantly and almost proudly anti-urban.

In writing about great streets, I’ve noted that the challenge for many cities is the adjustment after a freeway bypasses downtown.  That will never be a problem for Carmichael.  Centrally but distantly located between the diverging routes of Highway 50 heading toward South Lake Tahoe and I-80 heading toward Truckee, Carmichael is miles from the nearest freeway on-ramp, but nonetheless serves as commute route for many heading into Sacramento for work.

Thus, the southwest-northeast six-lane Fair Oaks Boulevard serves as both the commuter arterial and downtown core.  The Carmichael “freeway” is a surface street.

There are those who argue that many cities would be better served if urban freeways were removed and replaced with broad boulevards.  I generally agree with them, although it’s not a subject that I put high on my urbanism wish list.  But the caveat on freeway-to-boulevard conversion is that the boulevard must be well designed to serve as both thoroughfare and community front door.  Fair Oaks Boulevard doesn’t meet that standard.  It instead evolved without long-range design thought and has become a dreary street that barely serves cars and is remarkably unfriendly to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Despite the unappealing character of Fair Oaks Boulevard, local zoning was assigned per the post-war standard, with long strips of commercial zoning along Fair Oaks and other arterials.  The predictable result is aging strip malls that can only be accessed by car and that are steadily working their way down the economic vitality scale.

As if putting all of the retail in pedestrian unfriendly locations wasn’t enough, Carmichael is proudly anti-sidewalk.  Originally founded as a summer refuge from Sacramento, some in Carmichael still cling tightly to the name Carmichael Colony and revel in retaining a country feel.  Admittedly, there is something bucolic about driving on a street with narrow, raveling shoulders and open ditches beyond.  But the key is that it’s bucolic mostly from a car.  On a bicycle or on foot, not so much.

As if affected by this anti-urban background, the town seems to have more than its share of dubious or unfortunate land uses.  Several examples follow.  They aren’t meant to be the worst examples, but only the ones that have consistently attracted my eyes over the years and seem to reflect the nature of the community. 
  • ·         The coffee shop I remember visiting most often as a high school student is long gone.  (Being a franchise in the unfortunately-named Sambo’s chain didn’t help.)   Replacing it was a Burger King.  But to keep the Burger King population in check, another Burger King a mile away was demolished to make way for a super-sized McDonalds.
  •  ·         At the beginning of the street that leads to my former family home is a bank.  As I was departing for college, I saw an architectural rendering for a façade remodel of the bank.  The most prominent elements were horizontal projections from the roof lines, faced in vertical slats.  I remember thinking it would be an improvement.  I was wrong.  It was my first experience with the reality that architects and graph designers can make bad ideas look good.  (It’s skill that civil engineers have never gained.) After forty years, the slats finally needed replacement.  The new material was horizontal panels.  The drumbeat of mediocrity goes on.
  •  ·         Slightly closer to the family home is a church that was built during my college years.  A community group, including my father, met with the church building committee, welcoming them to Carmichael, but asking if they couldn’t upgrade the architecture.  The committee asked for forbearance, promising that, if the church could be built as designed, future funding would go toward architectural enhancements.  Four decades later, the architecture remains as it was, with the funding having apparently gone to concrete block monument signs and iron fences.
  •  ·         Elsewhere in Carmichael is another church, an imposing edifice surrounded by lush green lawns and yet another iron fence.  When passing by it several years ago, I was spotted a pair of signs hanging on the fence.  (I still regret not stopping for a photo.)  The first sign exhorted the congregation to donate to a fund for the youth of Central America.  The second admonished the nearby children that they were absolutely forbidden from playing on the grass.  That disheartening juxtaposition remains one of my enduring images of Carmichael. 

But I also retain images of Carmichael that I treasure.  I recall an evening when I was perhaps sixteen.  Having borrowed a family car, an orange-red ’65 Mustang with a three-speed transmission, I was driving down one of those faux bucolic streets, looking into the setting sun, off to hang out with a friend for the evening.  It remains an enduring image of growing independence.  (Coincidentally, I’ve been communicating with the same friend in the last few weeks about catching a ballgame later this summer, showing the staying power of hometown friendships.)

It’s hard to leave a hometown behind, particularly when, even after nearly fifty years, I still have mixed feelings about the place.

Next time, I’ll offer anecdotes from the world of baseball that illustrate changing attitudes toward cars.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

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