Last week, I took a walk through downtown New Rochelle, NY, both for my own sanity, and to see more examples of urban life under lockdown. . It was a cold day, but I was happy to see a good number of people on the streets, perhaps 25% of what there would be on a normal day. The vast majority happily wore masks—although sadly it was not yet universal. . The city was full of clever solutions, including numerous businesses which have changed to have a take out window. It seems that most restaurants are trying to make a go of it with take out and delivery only—and I wish them well. The one exception were Asian restaurants—a deeply sad reflection of not only workforce issues, but outright disgusting racism. . Perhaps the happiest place I encountered, however, was a fruit and vegetable store, where masked patrons moved freely in and out amongst the colorful produce. For a brief moment, things felt as normal a they could be, and that was beautiful. . It demonstrates the importance of finding ways of making urban life work during these times. We cannot and should not sacrifice the power of urban life as a cure. We need to find creative ways we can make cities continue to work for people as safely as possible, and we need them soon. . #urbanism #urbanplanning #cityplanning #cityscape #newrochelle #pandemiclife #urbanexploration
Last Friday, May 8 2020, I had to go to Midtown Manhattan. . To some extent, we are all becoming inured to images like these, but still, walking through it is eerie. It felt like a Sunday morning at 5AM. Still, the people out offered wonderful solidarity, from kind gestures to smiles behind masks. . Still, cities need to find a way to have a simulacrum of normal life, and we need it soon. . Images taken from Lexington and 48th to 5th Ave through an empty Rockefeller Center to Sixth Avenue, and then back to Third Ave (closing with the rare mirror mask selfie). . #urbanism #cityscape #urbanplanning #quarantinelife #rockefellercenter #newyorkcity #emptystreets
The New Rochelle skyline and—on Glen Island, in the white tents at the lower left—the first drive through COVID-19 testing center on the East Coast. (Taken yesterday while social distancing along the nature paths at Orchard Beach)
All of which makes coming to grips with Zionsville difficult. If this were a high school essay—or if I were in a cheeky mood—I might write that, In conclusion, Zionsville is a town of contrasts. Sometimes, an ambivalent reality demands a cliché—nothing else will do it justice. Zionsville is multiple places layered atop one another. On the one hand, it is an artificial piece of faux urbanism, supported by wealth, exclusionary policies, auto subsidies, and above all, the artisanal consumption of tourists and suburbanites. On the other hand, it is also a real town, made up of real people, which has managed to maintain a gorgeous, deeply walkable downtown and an admirably homespun, thriving local economy amongst a backdrop of subdivisions and chains. There are many contradictions. The town thrives on its urban qualities, but loves to promote its own small-town-near-the-big-city virtues. All across Zionsville are heartfelt signs declaring that every race, sexual orientation, and gender is welcome here, and yet the town rests in large part on policies of exclusion and inequality. There is a part of Zionsville that is constantly searching for an imagined history, but the town has accidentally managed to mirror the promises and failures of American history better than any attempted artifice ever could. In that, Zionsville could not be more American. . (Continued below...) . Part 7, the final part of my #ZionsvilleFoxWalk, and the end of the series #AFoxInIndy! Thanks for reading! . Read the whole essay in one piece now at thefoxandthecity.com!
Sadly, effecting such a connection may be an uphill political battle, thanks in large part to some uncomfortable history. One of the major reasons for the explosive growth of Zionsville—not to mention many of the other suburban towns surrounding Indianapolis—may well lie in a political decision made in 1970. That year, the city of Indianapolis and it surrounding county, Marion, were merged into one unified government—the ominously titled Unigov. Although the political union of city and suburb has long been advocated as a means of increasing regional equity, even at the time this union was often seen in stark racial and economic terms: it allowed a more affluent, whiter population to remain in control of a city that was fast becoming poorer and more racially diverse. Perhaps tellingly, while most city services were merged in 1970, school districts were not—and as with much of the country, they remain deeply unequal. Unigov *has* arguably had its successes: the larger tax base, for example, allowed the city to build a convention center, multiple major league stadiums, and downtown parks to reclaim the riverfront, all of which some credit with keeping the city on the economic map. However, it also allowed a distinctly suburban population to remain in control of the central city for some thirty or forty years longer than might otherwise have been possible. . (Continued below...) . Part 6 of my #ZionsvilleFoxWalk, part of the series #AFoxInIndy. . Read the whole essay in one piece now at thefoxandthecity.com!
Stepping away from the comfy confines of Main Street is also a wake-up call of a different sort: no matter how pedestrian friendly downtown Zionsville may be, the town as a whole is still fundamentally a suburban, auto-centric place. You don't even have to walk far to see it: South First Street, for example, which parallels Main Street one block away, is a deeply uninviting place. Once part of the old railroad right of way, it was at some point reworked into a wide road designed to allow through traffic to bypass the town. The street may well keep some traffic out of the core, but its dead-faced strip malls and lifeless parking lots are a far cry from the street life that exists only a few steps away. Of course, the rest of Zionsville is even more suburban. Subdivisions, shopping centers, and big box stores line fast, arterial roads, covering over the recently rural landscape. As a result, downtown Zionsville is very much a product of drive-to urbanism: most shoppers and workers must arrive via car. In that regard, the town has done about as well is it can. Numerous small parking lots sit just off of Main Street, which encourages you to get out of your car and walk, not circle for the closest spot. It isn't perfect—and a change to land-use regulation would be a far better long term solution—but given the small population living nearby and the absence of any transit options, it is an okay compromise. Still, if the Indianapolis region is serious about pursuing an urban future, it would be wise not to ignore Zionsville, which would still make an ideal stopping point for a reliable, regional system of mass transit—just as it was for much of its history. . Part 5 of my #ZionsvilleFoxWalk, part of the series #AFoxInIndy. . Read the whole essay in one piece now at thefoxandthecity.com! . #urbanism #urbanplanning #urbandesign #cityplanning #urbanimpressions #cityscape #Indianapolis #history #urbanhistory #railroad #Zionsville #ZionsvilleIN #InstaBlog #essay
Taking a step back and looking at it as a whole, however, downtown Zionsville is a maddeningly ambivalent place. On the one hand, there is no doubt that this is a rural/suburban fantasy of urban life—a real life version of Disney's Main Street USA where suburbanites can go to shop and dine in a comfortable, non-threatening, homogenous environment. Walking through the town, you *feel* the racial and economic uniformity. The shops paint an idyllic portrait of upper middle class life: the high-end used book and map store (dog included), the numerous clothing boutiques, the neatly organized antique stores, the art and yoga studios, the multitude of boutique bakeries, the high-end olive oil retailer, and more nice restaurants than I cared to count. At its worst, downtown Zionsville can feel like nothing more than an artisanal shopping mall. Even Lincoln Park's gazebo, which was being prepped for a summer wedding during my visit, felt spotlessly utopian: a picture perfect place for a picture perfect white wedding in a picture perfect white tourist spot. . And yet, try as I may, I can't quite maintain that level of cynicism with any honesty... . (Continued below...) . Part 4 of my #ZionsvilleFoxWalk, part of the series #AFoxInIndy. . Read the whole essay in one piece now at thefoxandthecity.com!
Today, Zionsville remains centered on its small, urban-scaled core, having carefully maintained and invested in its downtown even as its population has exploded. It's easy to see why: so-called Old Zionsville is an undeniably cute, almost aggressively pleasant place to spend time. For around half a mile, Main Street is lined with small, attractive buildings, bountifully filled with small boutiques and restaurants. The short blocks and the tree-lined streets combine to create an intriguing environment for walking, one which not only invites you to stroll from one end to the other and back again, but makes doing so feel effortless. Like Indianapolis's Broad Ripple, shops are not entirely limited to Main Street, and a number of side streets continue the retail theme, giving the urban environment depth. The building stock itself is both attractive and visually interesting. Evenly split between single story wood clapboard buildings and two to three story brick structures—both classics of American small town urban form—they tend to be painted in vibrant colors, creating an engagingly striated visual experience. Porches and sidewalk-covering, wooden arcades are surprisingly common for a Northern town, and even the buildings without them tend to have awnings or other decorative outcroppings. All of these protrusions create not only shade, but visual variety. Points of interest are everywhere: stores explode out onto the sidewalk with signs and displays, and pieces of street furniture, like benches, are ubiquitous. Of course, these welcome affordances also somewhat hint at some of Zionsville's exclusionary policies: the town has isolated itself enough that it no longer shares the (sadly common) worry about undesirables. Still, it's very easy to see why tourists and suburban shoppers flock here: this is an almost idyllic vision of urban form. . (Continued below...) . Part 3 of my #ZionsvilleFoxWalk, part of the series #AFoxInIndy. . Read the whole essay in one piece now at thefoxandthecity.com!
Zionsville likes to sell itself as a destination for both tourists and local suburbanites by playing up not only its physical form, and since history and form are so deeply intertwined, that is as a good a place to start as any. Founded in 1852 by William Zion, the town was essentially a product of the railway, growing up around a station on the then-new Indianapolis and Lafayette Railroad. This was not necessarily the most auspicious start—the tiny line essentially only connected tiny rural communities to the still small city of Indianapolis—but it would soon prove somewhat fortuitous. As was so often the case in the nearly unrestrained capitalism of the late 19th Century, the line would be merged and merged again, becoming part of ever bigger companies and ever bigger networks, eventually becoming part of the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis Railway—a mouthful of a name by any measure. Zionsville was in luck: the Big Four Railroad, as it was more commonly known, not only offered the town a direct connection to the rest of the country, but also a place on the busy mainline between Indianapolis and Chicago. . The impact of this national connectivity may best be highlighted by the name of a small square near the center of the town: Lincoln Park. Located one block off of Zionsville's Main Street, the park was not only the site of the town's original railroad station, but also its tenuous connection to Abraham Lincoln. The 16th president would indeed stop in Zionsville twice. The first time came in 1861, when the train carrying Lincoln to his inauguration stopped briefly in the town—long enough for the soon-to-be-president to give a whistle-stop speech. Lincoln would return, after a fashion, in 1865. This time, it was the train carrying the fallen leader back to his Springfield home that would momentarily break in the town, allowing mourners to pay their respects (on this visit, the president presumably did not give a speech). . (Continued below...) . Part 2 of my #ZionsvilleFoxWalk, part of the series #AFoxInIndy. . Read the whole essay in one piece now at thefoxandthecity.com!
To be honest, Zionsville, IN is not the type of place I would normally explore, let alone analyze in depth. In fact, had I not been staying in this small, rural-turned-suburban town just northwest of Indianapolis, I might not have paid it a second thought. Sitting right outside Interstate 865—the gigantic, square beltway that surrounds the city—Zionsville is one of the epicenters of suburban growth in greater Indianapolis. Its population has been exploding, nearly doubling in the past ten years alone. But while the town is mainly suburban, what makes it truly unique—not to mention economically successful—is its quasi urban core. Zionsville is centered on a quaint, compact downtown full of quirky shops—all of which are supported by acre after acre of nigh-exurban single family housing developments and big box stores. It should, by all rights, be a place I loathe, one that sells itself on its small-town-America charm, its driving proximity to central Indianapolis, and its tourist friendly nature. And yet, as with anything related to cities—even small ones—nothing is so simple, nor so clear cut. . (Continued below...) . Part 1 of my #ZionsvilleFoxWalk, part of the series #AFoxInIndy. . You can read the whole essay in one piece now at thefoxandthecity.com! . #urbanism #urbanplanning #urbandesign #cityplanning #urbanimpressions #cityscape #Indianapolis #Zionsville #ZionsvilleIN #urbanhistory #InstaBlog #essay