Life is all about improvement. We all want to play better golf, make more money and live more exciting lives. In all likelihood, towns feel the same way. They want to become more popular, friendlier and more loved by its people.
I can hear Williston Park whispering to me every day, “I wish people would walk my streets more often and hang out on Main Street more often. And I wish the cars would slow down on Hillside!” So in an effort to figure out how Williston Park might improve upon itself, I called on one of the nation’s leaders in suburban design, Leigh Gallagher.
Gallagher is an editor at Fortune Magazine, but more importantly for our purposes, she is author of the new book, “The end of the suburbs: Where the American dream Is moving.” This book is the latest in a line of books about the failure of the suburban lifestyle.
When Gallagher was in college she lived in Paris for a semester and told me how much she loved the little shops where she would go to buy groceries, meat and baked goods. She had hoped to return to Paris to live, but New York City captured her. However, she, just like Ernest Hemingway, had experienced the moveable feast called Paris and I think she learned many things about what a perfect town ought to be.
Gallagher’s basic thesis is that the way our suburbs are designed does not lend themselves to social interactions nor to aesthetic pleasure.
She believes that towns need to be “walkable” which encourages one to get out of their homes, stop driving to strip malls and instead walk along Main Street to shop, mingle and bump into neighbors. She mentioned that towns need coffee shops, cool bookstores, restaurants, indie movie houses and gelato shops where people can hang out and bump into each other.
Gallagher also suggested that there is now a movement underway to build small-scale homes and cottages on small plots of land, exactly like the ones I marveled at in Carmel-by-the-Sea this summer. Homes with little porches, cute fences, small front yards and sidewalks that meander along and invite you to stroll. Small is beautiful and McMansions are slowly going out of style.
She told me there are now many examples of pretty, walkable, old fashioned towns like Charleston, S.C., Libertyville, Ill., and East Hampton on Long Island. These are towns that emphasize an aesthetic which draws people to them in droves. Carmel-by-the-Sea attracts about 1.5 million visitors per year. Such is the value of beauty.
In a way, Gallagher’s hypothesis is that if you build it they will come. Build cafes and cute bookstores and the townsfolk will use it.
But what about our busy schedules, our love of cars and our addiction to television? How can Main Street compete with TV?
We do live in isolation or with planned social events, but with very little spontaneity. I think that an ingredient that hasn’t been talked of enough regarding urban planning is the character of the shopkeepers themselves.
Thank goodness we have Suhwa and Minho Kim at Aroma Nails. And Luigi Suppa, our tailor, and John Robinson of John’s Variety and Allan Walsh of Pyramid Jewelers. There are Susan, Bryan and Eli at Hildebrandt’s, Steve Parmett and his funny staff, Anthony Mucci the shoemaker, John Riley, Larry Kane, Harry the Greek and the pretty Indian woman with those light brown eyes.
These are also important reasons we love this town of ours. The core of any American town is its shopkeepers, restaurateurs, doctors and lawyers.
So I conclude it takes two things to make a great town. It takes a user friendly, walkable and aesthetically pleasing environment with promenades and courtyards and small parks just like Gallagher said.
But let’s not leave out the character of the people that work in the town, because they are the glue that makes it all work.
When I see the staff at Hildebrandt’s walking to work at 7 a.m. every morning, I am impressed. When I see Minho Kim peddling his bike from Aroma Nails to Mia Nails to keep both shops running smoothly, I am impressed. This is the blood, sweat and tears that each and every shopkeeper gives to us every single day.
So there you have it. Towns need good design for sure, so thank you Leigh Gallagher for guiding us in the right direction and for writing this wonderful book. And thank you to the sweet shopkeepers that keep us fed, clothed, healthy and laughing each day as well.