Looking through my archives, I can’t find evidence that I’ve ever written about my paternal grandmother. The omission shouldn’t be surprising, it’s hard to draw a line between Harriet Spear and urbanism, but it’s still a shame. She lived a life that shouldn’t be forgotten. Today, I’ve found a way to draw the line, but first I need to introduce her.
My grandmother was born in the late years of the 19th century in the oil country of West Virginia. Her family later moved across the Ohio River to a small Ohio town that I still consider one of my spiritual homes. At age 21, she married my grandfather in the downtown church known throughout the region for its double steeple. The young couple moved into a tidy little house a few blocks from downtown.
At age 23, she left the town, moving west while pregnant with my uncle, with the hope that Arizona would be therapeutic for my grandfather’s tuberculosis.
At age 26, she continued her movement west, this time while pregnant with my father, to live with family in Los Angeles while my grandfather battled his tuberculosis in a sanatorium.
A year later, she was widowed. While I knew the timeline of my grandfather’s premature passing, it took my wife to color in the picture for me. A month after her 27th birthday, my grandmother was taking a cross-country railroad trip while caring for two little boys, a six-month old and a three-year old. My grandfather’s body was in a casket in the baggage car heading for burial in the Ohio town where they’d wed. It must have been a desolate trip for her.
After the funeral, she returned to Los Angeles, working as a seamstress while helping her youngest brother get his degree in pharmacology. Eventually, the two of them opened a drugstore in a town west of Los Angeles. Her brother managed the pharmacy side while she ran the soda fountain for the remainder of her working life.
But her constant focus was ensuring that her two sons would live better, more secure lives than she had. She scrimped whenever she could, investing the funds in blue-chip stocks, and married a second time for reasons that may have been more about security than affection.
She was successful in her goal. Both sons graduated from the University of California with degrees in engineering and went on to long successful careers and happy lives, to her great pride and satisfaction.
I remember my grandmother as an austere woman who could be intimidating to a child, but who could show a glint of sly humor in the corner of her eye. I think I would have adored her in my adulthood, as my sense of humor grew to match hers, but in the way of many grandparents, she departed not long after I reached my majority.
I offer this short biography because it connects to a question that I recently posed to Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns.
Marohn conducted a webinar last week, specifically inviting folks who had attended meetings during the January StrongTowns/Urban3 visit to the North Bay. After giving a summary of the Curbside Chat, he opened the floor for questions. I posed a question that was roughly, “Accepting that the StrongTowns model can mean eschewing short-term, although false, prosperity in favor of long-term financial sustainability, how do we convince voters and elected officials to make the short-term sacrifice for the long-term good?”
Marohn chose to interpret my question as implying that there were no short-term benefits from the StrongTowns model and dedicated his response to noting the commerce and property tax benefits that can quickly accrue from citizen actions to promote bicycling and walkability.
I agree with his point and admit that I could have posed my question more artfully.
But I still think my question touched upon what should be a key concern to urbanists. Is this generation of parents as willing to sacrifice to leave a better world for the next generation? I’m not saying that this generation needs to don ashes and sackcloth, but perhaps to forgo a few consumer goods, dining experiences or travel plans that the false prosperity of drivable suburbia might have given them.
Let me pose a hypothetical question. Imagine a family, headed by a breadwinner who works in construction, living in a typical drivable suburban development. Now imagine that they’re given a choice between two possibilities.
The breadwinner could get three weeks of tenant improvement work on a nearby street, with the street then becoming an active retail neighborhood, giving the family a walkable destination for food and other goods.
Or the breadwinner could get a solid year of full-time work, including overtime, on a regional mall being built at the edge of town. The family would still need to drive to shopping, but would have enough income to take a two-week European vacation.
Which future would most families choose? If the families had no concept of the StrongTowns argument, I suspect that the overwhelming majority would choose Europe over walkable retail.
If the families could be induced to listen attentively to the StrongTowns argument about the eventual decline of the regional mall, the enduring value of the neighborhood retail, and the future effect on their town, I suspect that some would change their position, but probably not many. Instead, many would find ways to justify disbelieving the StrongTowns argument.
In contrast, how do I think my grandmother, if she were still alive, would respond to the StrongTowns argument? I think she’d sit Marohn down on an antimacassar bedecked floral couch, listen actively, pose good questions, and then decide, because it would leave a better world for her sons, to become an urbanist and to support the neighborhood retail.
And that’s the crux of the question I’m trying to frame. I fear that, unlike earlier generations, too many folks are willing to put their own immediate well-being over the long-term well-being of their children. And, if that fear is legitimate, the StrongTowns argument becomes a tough, near impossible, sell.
I know I seem like a curmudgeon when I write this, sniping about young folks. And I’d truly like to be proven wrong. But I’ve had too many conversations about urbanism with average folks on the street to ignore my concern.
However, I’m interested in the thoughts of others. Is StrongTowns an impossible sell because we don’t care enough about the finances at City Hall 25 years from now, instead giving priority to our own financial prosperity, no matter how false it may be?
Some may ask about my own credentials on the point. Having no children, I may not be a valid data point. But I have a passel of nieces and nephews now stretching into a second generation. And I care greatly about them, enough to live in a semi-walkable location, with plans to move downtown when circumstances permit, and to spend time preaching the gospel of urbanism.
I think my grandmother would give me a passing grade. And that makes me happy.
In my next project, I’ll write about the High Line in New York City. I love the project, but fear that it has distorted our vision of the possible.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (firstname.lastname@example.org)