Sidewalk Hate Runs Deep in Some Suburban Neighborhoods

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Not exactly a sinister scene although the thought of sidewalk installation makes the residents of some residential suburban neighborhoods rather uneasy. . (Photo: Ted Eytan/flickr)

I hail from a neighborhood in a mid-sized West Coast city with sidewalks as far as the eye can see.

My childhood neighborhood, the one I came of age in and where my parents will likely continue to live for the foreseeable future, was an older one — the kind they don’t make anymore: leafy, dense and neatly laid out in a traditional grid pattern with alleyways bisecting each block of comfortable and well-kept homes. Largely devoid of snout garages and flashy new construction, the homes themselves were a hodgepodge of sizes and architectural styles but mostly modest Craftsman-style bungalows, wood-sided foursquares and Queen Anne mini-mansions with sloping front lawns leading down to what, as a kid, was the center of my universe: the sidewalk.

It’s was here, on the sidewalk in front of my house, that I learned to ride a bike, rollerblade, pogo-stick and hawk lemonade. The sidewalks were what led me to the library, the local park and my elementary school — which was located, most conveniently, just two short blocks away up a short hill. A couple of blocks beyond that was a small but bustling business district complete with an old-school bakery, family-owned bowling alley, historic single-screen movie theatre, teriyaki joint, Radio Shack and two indie video stores. (Needless to say, the businesses are a bit different these days.)

As a kid growing up in a highly walkable neighborhood (Walk Score: 8), I took sidewalks for granted. I assumed that every neighborhood had them. After all, how else would you get around when your parents didn’t want to drive? Walk in the street? Never! And how on earth would you trick-or-treat?

In my mind, if you didn’t live in a neighborhood with sidewalks, you lived down a long dirt road in the middle of the woods on the other side of “the bridge.” Suburban subdivisions where sidewalks ceased to exist were foreign to me.

During my teenage years, I became more familiar with strange, sidewalk-less neighborhoods yet their appeal never quite registered. Sure, the backyards were more spacious and the driveways more conspicuous and things were a bit less orderly and confined to a grid. My friends who lived in these neighborhoods didn’t have any complaints. But I couldn’t help but notice that the houses in these neighborhoods functioned like isolated islands — unless you cut across the front lawn to a neighbors’ house or walked in the street where you had to remain alert, you were cut off. In these car-dependent neighborhoods with big houses and long driveways, privacy very obviously trumped connectivity.

Sidewalks, Tacoma, Wash.
Okay, so curbs would have been ideal but I know these sidewalks, the sidewalks of my childhood, like the back of hand. (Photo: Google Maps)

Okay, so curbs would have been ideal but I know the sidewalks of my childhood were pretty sweet. (Screenshot: Google Maps)

A heated debate in the 'burbs of Des Moines

To this day, my love of sidewalks remains strong. With the exception of a brief — and isolating — stint in the Hollywood Hills, I’ve never not lived in a place without a stretch of pavement reserved for pedestrian traffic. That said, it’s disheartening to hear about anti-sidewalks scuffles in which the longtime residents of sidewalk-less residential enclaves fight tooth and nail against them as an effort to keep things “they way they are.”

Generally, the drive behind such strong anti-sidewalk sentiment can be traced back to privacy. Some people don’t want strangers — or even neighbors — walking to-and-fro in front of their homes. A sidewalk-free neighborhood also allows for grass and landscaped elements to extend all the way down to the street, which, for many, has a certain appeal. Without that strip of pavement, these neighborhoods are often visually greener, more rural in character.

In a recent Associated Press article documenting a few NIMBY-flavored sidewalk battles in mid-century suburban communities, the resistance to change — even if said change promotes more active, healthier lifestyles, improves safety and leads to more close-knit communities — is surprisingly loud, even angry.

In the Des Moines, Iowa, suburb of Windsor Heights, many longtime residents have banded together in opposition to a proposed plan championed by the city council — a "haughty group of ne'er-do-wells" as one tongue-in-cheek op-ed describes the council — to install sidewalks. Judging by the fiery response of sidewalk objectors — a response complete with yard signs and heated city council meetings — you’d think they were tearing down old lady McGillicuddy’s house and putting in an Arby’s.

“Many of us older residents wish they’d go back where they came from,” Windsor Heights sidewalk opponent Chris Angier explains in reference to the sidewalk-pushing city council members, many of whom are recent transplants from Des Moines and other Midwestern cities.

“They tell us we have to get with the times,” John Giblin, a down-the-street neighbor of Angier's similarly laments.

“People are afraid of change,” City Councilwoman Threase Harms notes. “They are very passionate, but I think they’ve gone a little too far with their passion.”

Sidewalks: Representative of 'evil urban settings'?

While the anti-sidewalk activists of Windsor Heights (pop: 4,800) may have gone a little too far, they certainly aren’t alone.

In the tree-lined, exclusively residential enclave of Hawthorne in Washington, D.C., sidewalk-related squabbling has been going strong for years now. As the AP notes, “the fight has been going on for so long that supporters recently bought new pro-sidewalk signs because the old ones had weathered in the past decade."

Everett Lott, a pro-sidewalk resident of Hawthorne who is fighting for the city to install them, notes that, for the most part, the disagreement is generational — young families with children want them while older residents have embraced the “get off my lawn” mentality and are adamantly opposed to the idea. “People feel like it’s their land and they shouldn’t have their land infringed upon,” Lott, a father of a young son, explains. “They moved in 30 years ago and chose it for the look and feel, and they want to preserve that, but the city is changing.”

It’s a similar situation — that is, mostly older residents rallying against sidewalk proposals — in several other suburban communities across the country including Edina, Minnesota; Prairie Village, Kansas; and Delafield, Wisconsin.

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, an urban planning professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, drives home the privacy aspect, noting that many residents moved specifically to these neighborhoods decades ago because they lacked sidewalks and, in turn, were devoid of an element that largely defined city living. “Suburbs were marketed as completely different from the evil urban settings,” explains Loukaitou-Sideris. “Private, rural, very green areas.”

In the context of the AP article, these “evil urban settings” include places like Minneapolis, Kansas City and dreaded, no good Milwaukee, which is notorious for its sidewalk-using heathens.

Back in the Des Moines suburb of Windsor Heights, the AP reports that no finalized plans have been announced regarding the sidewalk installation scheme, although on Sept. 19, KCCI reported that the controversial initiative received full approval from the city council, whose members will no doubt continue to have a formidable opponent in the form of Chris Angier, who is very much not letting this one go: “Whoever runs against the mayor and council next time will be very well-funded,” he says.

Another Windsor Heights resident, Colleen Kelleher, believes sidewalks to be completely unnecessary, despite their much touted benefits. "I was raised in Windsor Heights," she tells KCCI. "I raised my children and my grandchildren in Windsor Heights. We've all learned to walk in the streets."

As the proud product of a sidewalk-heavy neighborhood who was raised learning not how to walk in the streets but how to cross them carefully, I can't help but think about my parents and their longtime neighbors who also raised their children in a similar fashion. Considering that they chose to live and start a family in a neighborhood that championed walkability over privacy, I can only imagine what would happen if their beloved sidewalks were removed. Compared to the fired-up "get off my lawn" approach taken by the anti-sidewalk brigade in places like Windsor Heights, my parents' reaction would likely be along the along the lines of "... you'll have to pry that sidewalk from my cold, dead hands."