If you’ve never been to Birmingham, Alabama, you might look at the picture in the banner and think how lovely this city must be. That’s the power of photography, to create a whole world in your imagination just from a little snippet. The technical term is metonymy. The picture serves as a metonym by which you construct the rest of the story. Nestled between low mountains, this really is a nice spot for a city, but the street in the banner is just one block long, called Cobb Lane near Five Points South. You turn out onto the streets on either end and you’re just on ordinary streets.
Cobb Lane doesn’t have any particularly special architecture, but what gives it the charm that it has is that it’s made of cobblestone and it’s narrow, which means that it’s not very convenient for cars. You can drive a car down it if you want, but people feel more comfortable on this street than cars do. If you’re in a car, you wouldn’t use this street to get to somewhere else.
What if a whole chunk of Birmingham was like Cobb Lane? Like say somewhere near downtown that is filled with nondescript warehouses or boarded up stores. Take a few blocks and turn it into streets like this. Wouldn’t work? Not practical? Maybe more visuals will help. Let’s looks at other places.
This is Mackinac Island (pronounced “Mackinaw”) in Lake Huron near where the two peninsulas of Michigan form the Straits of Mackinac. Since 1898, Mackinac Island has been free of motorized vehicles and the only way to get anywhere has been by foot, bike, or horse. Despite that inconvenience, this island with a permanent population of less than 500 people draws nearly a million tourists a year to experience this. I’m fortunate to have been one of them. I’ve been fantasizing about a car-free society ever since.
But Mackinac Island is just an island, you say? Can’t possibly be a model for a mid-sized American city? How about this mid-sized European city?
This is a car-free zone in the old center of Ravenna, Italy, a city just a little smaller than Birmingham. There is nothing going on on this street that cars would improve. The people are here because the cars aren’t. Note the width of the street. For American sensibilities, this street is so narrow as to cause an anxiety attack. So why do Americans spend their hard-earned savings to travel to Europe just to walk down charming streets like this?
This phenomenon of human-scaled streets is found pretty much all over the rest of the world.
Here’s Naraijuku, a small town in the mountains of central Japan. After they banned cars, it became a tourist attraction.
This is Guanajuato, Mexico, much of the center of which is car-free. They were more or less forced into this because the city is so tightly squeezed in by mountains. Yea, mountains.
For someone who admittedly has a thing out for cars, I wouldn’t mind if every car just mysteriously quit working tomorrow morning. But having to share this world with people who think cars are pretty neat (at least for as long as gas is cheap and the climate hasn’t wiped us away), I offer these examples of human-scaled streets with cars that yield to the people who still rule the street.
This is rue Cadet in Paris at Christmas time. Note the one car to the many pedestrians and bicycles parked along the side of the street. The people own this street and that car knows it.
These examples are all fine and good, but that’s how foreigners live, that’s not how we live in America. Right? Well, what about this city just down the road from here?
Everyone knows here. It’s another city with narrow streets, not exactly car-free, but if you’re in a car, these streets are sort of a nuisance. Again, from our ordinary everyday sensibilities, this place is all wrong. You can’t get anywhere very quickly, nobody has any yard space to speak of, and all the buildings are out of date. But if it’s so bad, why do we spend our vacations to go here and relax? Why do people spend a lot of money to live here? Why don’t you see people from the French Quarter spending their vacations in more convenient and practical places like this:
US 31, aka Montgomery Hwy in Hoover, or this:
US 280 past I-459 in the Birmingham suburbs? Why don’t we want to relax in these havens of practicality and convenience? Why not? Because they’re spiritually asphyxiating, that’s why. This is what we’ve spent our children’s inheritance to build in this country, places like this where no one in their right mind would want to be unless they had to.
Let’s rethink what we want in a community. Wouldn’t everything before the last two pictures be better than those pictures? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could walk down to our corner store, or pedal our bikes there, meet our neighbors, share some coffee with them on a sidewalk cafe, hop on a streetcar to go to work, proudly answer questions from all the tourists that flock here, and watch people light up when we say “I’m from Birmingham”? Fancying myself as a religious person, I can’t help but think “on earth as it is in heaven.”