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Growing Up City: Small Town America?

I had this H-O scale train set-up in the basement when I was young. I spent hours down there putting together buildings, adding landscaping, making roads, and configuring track.  It started out as a model train layout but really, the thing that drew me to this miniature world was the ability to study urban design.  The layout depicted a small town.  This was mostly because the buildings I had were of a small town type.
The town had a main street and several off-shoot streets. It was a town in transition.  It had a core of historic buildings that had been marooned by sprawl type development.  One corner had been taken over by a gas station.  Further down the street the urban fabric was gone, replaced by a motel and a fast food restaurant. I so much wanted to shrink down and walk those streets.  It was a great way for me to understand the development of our built environment at a young age.
Movies and literature have given us the image of small towns as the epitome of perfection in America.  The people are friendly, good-natured, and sincere.  Everything looks beautiful. Everything is perfectly maintained and the sun seems to simmer on every surface.  Vice President wannabe Sara Palin referred to rural America as “Real America,”  suggesting that the true values of our country reside in small towns and with small town folks.  I think that perhaps small town America is much closer to the Bedford Falls that was shown to George Bailey by the angel after he jumped into the river.  My H-O town was not the mythical American small town of perfect houses, white picket fences, and friendly people. It probably resembled real, small town America more closely. It was a messy place that was degraded from a nostalgic peak time we imagine and as fabricated by Disney.
That is not to say that some part of that mythical America does not exist.  I experienced much of that small town perfection growing up in the big city.  Even today, my family benefits from a wonderful urban street that holds many of the best qualities we expect from small towns.   The opposite of this small town myth is that cities are cold and impersonal; cities are dangerous and people do not know or want to know their neighbors.  This myth is often untrue as well.
The street I grew up on in Buffalo was really like a small town. It had many many kids who were always out playing on the sidewalks and various nooks and crannies of the neighborhood.  One great, old-fashioned tradition on our street was the use of a dinner bell.  Many parents called their kids in for dinner by stepping out on their big front porches and ringing a big brass bell.  Amazingly these bells could be heard from quite long distances.
The neighborhood swimmin hole was in my backyard.  We had a big oval pool with a large wooden deck surrounding 3 sides.  If my father was on the deck it was known to all that the pool was open to anyone who wanted to stop by.  He ran his own businesses so he had untraditional hours, meaning he was often at the pool on a warm summer day.  On those days we could have 15 to 20 people swimming and sunning in our yard.  We knew many but not all of our neighbors.  People looked out for each other.  An elderly couple lived a few doors down from us who had become unable to care for their yard so I cut their grass and carried out their trash.  I never asked nor expected payment but they always tucked a five dollar bill in my shirt pocket.  My parents are still good friends with people from that street decades later.  I can’t think of a place any further from the traditional image of the city as harsh, impersonal, and dangerous.
The city is not a monolithic.  Each street can be a community unto itself that is not unlike a small town.  Many of those streets come very close to the small town myth we cherish in this country.
Up next: Street Wise

Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

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