The blogger Atrios likes to highlight articles about the incongruities between urban life (with its walkability and density) and automobile culture (which demands curb cuts, parking spaces, fast-moving highways, and suburban developments). He’s especially giddy when drivers are driven mad by cities–because suburbanites perceive them to be unsuitable as places to live, yet they still want to visit urban attractions (or work their urban jobs). So when they can’t find a place to park, their frustration is palpable (particularly on internet comment boards). For an urban planner, the only solutions seem to be: a) destroy your city, or b) resist the suburbanites’ car-centric frustration, possibly by coming up with transportation alternatives.
Atrios highlighted an article on the parking shortage in Newport, RI, particularly this quote:
Though a modern streetcar system may seem out-of-place with the city’s colonial appeal, officials say it could actually be a throwback to the early 20th century, when trolleys operated in the city. Plus, Bronk said, there’s nothing quaint about the city’s traffic.
“Does four lanes of automobile congestion, is that in keeping with the colonial period? It’s not,” he said. “Is a highway downtown in keeping with the colonial era? It’s not.”
Of all the cities I discussed in Rebels Rising, Newport is the best place to discern a surviving colonial landscape and surviving colonial buildings. After that, I’d rank them as follows, from best to worst: Charleston (SC), Philadelphia (where Atrios lives), Boston, and New York City. (Obviously there were other cities at the time, but those are the five that got the most attention in my book.) Of those five, Newport has grown the least, economically and demographically, over the years, so it’s not so surprising that more of its colonial landscape survives. The other cities have also struggled with transportation access in a lot of ways, and I’m sure visitors to all these cities (and to all cities, really) can call to mind the highways that lead into these cities, the neighborhoods that have been blighted by modern highway construction, and the public transportation alternatives that exist (or don’t exist) in these places.
All this is making me very grateful that my fellow fellow at the John Carter Brown Library used to offer me a parking space at his father’s office whenever I was driving down to Newport for dissertation research.
UPDATE: Why preserve historic buildings? Because sometimes the findings are really cool.