Over the last year have written my Our Town column about only two things: the people of Williston Park or the town itself.
The people are easy to write about because as Richard Tedesco says ‘the stories write themselves.’
Most of the subjects are forthcoming and kind and sweet. Suhwa of Aroma Nails, Julie Asam the housewife, Eli who works the counter at Hildebrant’s and John Robinson at Johns’ Variety Store. These are easy interviews.
But what is far more difficult is to write about the town itself because it does not speak and offers me no quotes. It cannot answer questions about its history, its identity or tis future dreams and plans..
A few weeks ago I asked Hyeryun Hong who has experience in urban planning to walk with me down Hillside Avenue and to comment on our little town.
She mentioned that our identity may be confused. Were we going for the old-fashioned look like Hildebrant’s, the western look like Peter Andrews or the modern look like our police station or that neon corporate look like the CVS building. She said we didn’t seem to know what we wanted to be.
Well this week I went searching for a town that has a clear identity with the hope I could learn something.
I was traveling to the Monterey Peninsula in California for golf and what should I come upon but Carmel-by-the-Sea which many say is the most beautiful city in America.
I walked through its commercial area and immediately went to City Hall to find and interview their urban design chief Marc Wiener.
To walk along the streets of Carmel-by-the-Sea is like entering a dream. It has only 4,500 residents and a rather small 5 x 5 block commercial area. It is situated on a hill that gently slopes down to the beach with all that white sand and those wonderful cypress trees.
The residential area has paths rather than sidewalks, all sorts of interesting trees and the yards are gardens rather than grass. The plots of land are all small, maybe 4000 sq. ft. and the homes are really nothing more than cottages but this is a place where small truly is beautiful.
The homes have a fairytale cottage look with wooden shingles, strange looking fences and rounded roof tops. About 60 percent of the homes were owned and built by artists who devoted their lives to the aesthetic.
There are no McMansions and the building codes are strict. In fact each home looks like a work of art. The average cost of these little cottages is about $1.4 million.
Pines and cypress trees abound and some roads and paths have left the trees right there and you must drive around them. There is a feeling of great respect for mother nature.
The commercial section has the look of old Europe. The town was founded in the early 20th century and it was always an enclave of artists, writers and poets.
Major artists such as Sinclair Lewis, Edward Weston, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and more recently Clint Eastwood have lived there, all attracted to the cool Medeterranean summer climate and the rolling terrain.
There are not traffic lights but the traffic moves slowly because all the roads are small. The storefronts have window boxes and the sidewalks are brick. There are 42 separate courtyards and passageways and as you enter you get a feeling of adventure that Disney World does not match.
Inside the courtyards you find restaurants with people dining under the trees and the stars. There is tile work, grill work and many parks to sit and read and people watch. Some of the stores look like they are out of one of the Hobbit movies with names like Hog’s Breath Restaurant, the Tuck House, The White Rabbit and L’Auberge Carmel.
There are galleries and coffee shops and shopping and bakeries and outdoor theaters. The town loves dogs so much there are drinking bowls placed outside many stores and hitching posts for the dogs. Mr. Wiener told me that store signage is controlled and there are no formulary stores like Starbucks, or CVS or McDonalds.
All this results in a town which attracts 1,500,000 visitors a year who seek to look upon a town of astounding beauty. You leave here feeling that hope is still alive.
James Howard Kunstler wrote that modern suburbia is so depressing because it lacks charm. This may be true but Carmel has more charm than it knows what to do with. Mr. Wiener told me that urban planners from around America visit his town every year seeking to learn how to build a better town.
So what did I learn?
Well we may never achieve the elevated status of Carmel-by-the-Sea since we do not the climate, are not next to the sea and do not have a history of artists who founded us.
But we can learn things. Carmel shows a great balance between buildings and nature. They respect and love trees. They dislike pavement. They dislike neon.
They want a similarity of natural building materials and are strict about this. They love parks, courtyards and passageways which give the town a sense of mystery and adventure and discovery. They love flowers and plants more than lawns.
Above all they have a sense of the aesthetic and the result is a town of such beauty and grace that it has achieved the status of one of the great small towns in America.
So I propose we get a fund going and send our beautification committee on a fact finding mission to Carmel-by-the Sea.
And let’s hope that they return to us rather than staying there permanently.
I cannot think of a better place to retire to.