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Where Sidewalks End
A Heartland Without Heart

Jane Jacobs’ mind was like those ideal city centers she advocated in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” — vibrant, unpredictable, diverse beyond definition, full of surprises, always inviting. Her books reproduced the sounds of a city, of that “intricate ballet” she famously wrote about when describing the best city sidewalks, “in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.” She died last week defeated, as the title of her last book implied (“Dark Ages Ahead”): At so many levels, America is chopped up, subdivided into like-minded ghettoes, unequal, largely uninterested in bridging gaps of mind, money and power. What has made it so?

Leafing through “The Death and Life” again last week, I was struck by one paragraph as the beginning of an answer: “The tolerance, the room for great differences among neighbors — differences that often go far deeper than differences in color — which are possible and normal in intensely urban life, but which are so foreign to suburbs and pseudosuburbs, are possible and normal only when streets of great cities have built-in equipment allowing strangers to dwell in peace together on civilized but essentially dignified and reserved terms.” Jacobs wasn’t translating mysteries from the Oracle at Delphi . She was referring to sidewalks as literal and metaphorical generators of city life. Sidewalks aren’t mere connectors. They are the synapses that make city life spark, though a suburban sidewalk is a contradiction in terms, like one hand clapping. And there’s the heart of Jacobs’ hope and fear as she wrote in 1961: For civilization to sing, it needs what sidewalks imply: the dignity and civility of cities’ varied lives. But most of what’s been built since then has been suburban stretches of concrete slabs mimicking city sidewalks. The two don’t compare.

Urban centers are by nature more diverse, and by necessity more tolerant, than suburban and rural ones. They force neighbors to deal with each other on a daily basis. They force mass transit commuters to rub shoulders with strangers from varied and unimaginable backgrounds. They leave the car, engine of isolation and pollution, more often parked, and compel the walker to share the sidewalk and be part of its intricate ballet. They undercut prejudice’s favorite preconditions — distance from what’s being judged, ignorance, cowardice. It’s convenient to judge a gay couple a threat to civilization from the remove of a Great Plains hamlet, where the closest thing to a gay couple keeps closet contractors hammering away. It’s not so easy to judge the gay couple kissing on a street in Manhattan ’s West Village for the simple reason that the kiss is one “difference” competing with a hundred in your line of sight — if a “difference” it is: There are other things to worry about.

Cities make looking out for the general well-being of the community (because it affects your own more directly) more of a necessity than an abstraction. Jacobs believed that a “community” is not a geographic concept marked off by physical boundaries, but a way of life that requires integration between the shops and apartments on one city block and the neighborhood, between the neighborhood and the borough, between the borough and the city, and between the city and the country. The moment any one part is demarcated from the other, the sense of community is lost up and down the line. No wonder, then, that our sense of nationhood is fraying. Nationhood is community writ large. But look around. We’re all boundaries. Our cultural and political institutions are becoming gated communities, places of privilege rather than right. Empathy, the building block of supportive communities and political conciliation, has been degraded to that one-word anthem of disinvested tolerance: whatever.

The results were apparent in the last two elections, the two most partisan in history. The red-blue divide was as much a “conservative” versus “liberal” split as it was an urban split from the suburban and the rural. It was a split between those who can appreciate a city sidewalk’s dance, and those who fear it from behind gates and covenant restrictions. There’s a curious parallel between those physical boundaries on the landscapes and the political and cultural boundaries fragmenting the country — congressional districts gerrymandered into predictable pods of sameness, the 500-channel media spectrum as a sprawl of echo chambers, even universities’ surrendered to the disease of suburbanization, which in academe takes the form of exclusive over-specialization. In every case, consumption still binds but differences alienate, and integration beyond the token conventions of “diversity,” like color, are disdained. We’ve built a heartland without heart.

The salvation? Look to those “blue,” messy, genuinely diverse urban jumbles at the country’s rims. They’re the model, not the enemy, if it’s unbounded American values you’re interested in.

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