Our Town: Suburbia needs a new vision

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There is a new movement emerging in America called Reimagining Suburbia.

This movement may have been started with James Kunstler’s book “The Geography of Nowhere” written in 1993.

Kunstler described the housing boom during the post-World War II era which created cheap housing on the plains of Long Island for the returning GIs.

The concept of flight from the inner city was reasonable but he was one of the first to describe how impoverished suburbia had become.

Without  planning for art institutions or town squares and with the domination of car culture, strip malls and monotonous cookie cutter Levitt homes, suburbia had become a cultural wasteland.

Our wish for a walkable town where one would regularly run into neighbors for a friendly chat or a bit of gossip had been replaced by an angry drive to a mall where one would shop among strangers.

However the wish for a pleasant neighborhood life remains as strong as ever.

Witness the film “The Book of Henry” starring Naomi Watts, which will be released in June.  The film crew did lots of the shooting here at Hildebrandt’s on Hillside Avenue in Williston Park to capture a home town feeling.

Build a Better Burb is a website which talks about the natural desire to have a walkable town.

It describes how many Americans are turning their backs on car culture and prefer a walkable town where they can shop, work and live.

There are now things called  “pocket neighborhoods” which are planned groupings of smaller residences built around a courtyard or common garden to promote a closer sense of community and neighborliness.

Every Long Island town has its own architectural board, beautification committee and urban planning commission.

Years ago I interviewed the head of urban planning in Carmel by the Sea in California.

Carmel is an awe-inspiring jewel of a town on the Monterey Peninsula in California that has been the home of many artists including Doris Day, Clint Eastwood, Ansel Adams, Jack London, Sinclair Lewis and Robert Lewis Stevenson.  The town planner of Carmel  told me that these artists were attracted to the natural beauty of the town but conversely lent their aesthetic senses to furthering its beauty.   And now Carmel’s quaint shops and quiet peaceful charm attract over 1,500,000 visitors a year.

To find out more about who is looking over the aesthetic look of Williston Park I called upon former Mayor Doreen Ehrbar, who has been in charge of the town’s beautification committee since 1996.

When we spoke she told me that her crew in coordination with the village workers meets every other week to arrange plantings on the Hillside Avenue median, to plant trees and bushes in the parks and to establish “buckets of beauty”  in front of each store.

She told me that Williston Park has a small town feel.

I must say that when I interview local professionals or storekeepers  they always say they were attracted to Williston Park because of the decency of the people and feeling of safety of the town.

A town’s identity and brand is established by the appearance of the store fronts  and the look of the homes.

Anyone who takes the time to walk through the back streets of Williston Park will observe large homes with small sized yards that are immaculately tended.

Years ago I asked an urban planner to walk down Hillside Avenue with me and gave me her impressions of Williston Park’s main street.

She told me that it lacked a clear identity.

Some storefronts had wood like Peter Andrews, some had brick fronts and some looked old fashioned with old fashioned colors like Hildebrandt’s.

The police station had modern architecture right next to a brick Tudor home which  was next to the old Collins farmhouse converted into a restaurant.

So I asked Doreen Ehrbar about the issue of identity and she mentioned that just last week she was discussing this issue.

She had said that perhaps the stores needed the same color and type of awnings to establish identity but the opposing view was that the town displayed a feel of individualism or variety which served it well.

She then brought up the question of grants which would be needed in order to fund these changes.  I thought about the amount of wealth in Carmel which allowed the town to control all aspects of building.

Ehrbar told me she found inspiration from the Town of East Hampton.

One of the marvels of travel is that it opens your eyes to what is possible.

I just returned from a vacation in Capri. The entire island is a remarkable thing of beauty with  its gardens, villas and streets.

The town was built using the unlimited wealth of the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago.

And there are no cars on the island so everyone strolls along its streets at ease and in peace.

The moral of this story of Williston Park is simple.

It is possible to create a more beautiful town. All you need are three things.

You need able leadership, which we already have.

You then need an artistic vision but finally you need money as well.

In the Village Green newsletter there is a form which you can fill out and make a contribution.

In grad school I was a grant writer for aesthetic education in Suffolk County.

I think I could be talked into writing a grant that could also help us to infuse our town with beautification money as well.

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