In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg Murry travels from planet to planet in search of her missing father. One of the planets she visits is called Camazotz. Meg notices that all of the houses look exactly the same. She watches as all the children play in unison:
As the skipping rope hit the pavement, so
did the ball. As the rope curved over the head of the
jumping child, the child with the ball caught the ball. Down
came the ropes. Down came the balls. Over and over again.
Up. Down. All in rhythm. All identical. Like the houses.
Like the paths. Like the flowers.
Then the doors of all the houses opened simultaneously,
and out came women like a row of paper dolls. The print
of their dresses was different, but they all gave the appearance of being the same. Each woman stood on the steps of her house. Each clapped. Each child with the ball caught the ball. Each child with the skipping rope folded the rope.
This description of Camazotz is an enduring critique of post-war suburban conformity.
Urbanists tend to equate single family homes with suburbia. On some level, this makes sense. Levittown, was, after all, comprised of single family homes that all looked alike, much like those on Camazotz. However, single family homes have always been a part of urban geography. Even New York City has its share of single family homes.
What really makes a suburb?
Sidewalk-less streets and split-level homes are a part of the calculus, yes, but not the whole equation. In the famous horror novel, The Stepford Wives, Joanna Eberhart is uneasy about moving to the suburbs and leaving behind the "so-alive" city.
In the Loring Park neighborhood, we had a block that was "alive" with long-standing businesses and multi-ethnic cuisines. Salsa a La Salsa was owned by an immigrant family from Mexico. Uppercuts Barbershop had been on Nicollet Avenue for 17 years and was a hub of community activity. Ryan's Pub brought a bit of Irish flavor to the block. Asian Taste had an inexpensive-yet-delicious sushi bar, a full complement of American-style Chinese dishes and a quirky bar that had a disco ball hidden in the ceiling. This block was also home to a theater and a daycare run by Somali immigrants.
All of these businesses above fit the definition of "so alive." And they are all gone from 14th and Nicollet. The "so alive" block that we knew has been razed out of existence. A new development is replacing the old buildings. There will be less retail space in it than the previous building had. The developer's justification for this is that the residents of the new apartment building will need a large lobby to store all of their Amazon deliveries.
When the new development opens, what new businesses will replace the ones that we lost? Will we get a Chipotle in place of Salsa a La Salsa? A Regis salon in place of Uppercuts? A Big Bowl in place of Asian Taste? These are all things one can easily find in the suburbs. The developer wanted to put a gym on the first floor, which would mean the neighborhood would get nothing but a view of sweaty people on treadmills all jogging in unison. Those of us who live in the neighborhood pushed back hard against this. We will get a bunch of bland corporate chains to replace our beloved, bygone businesses -- if we're lucky.
Thanks to their un-nuanced view of the world, urbanists who promote density at the expense of existing neighborhood cultural centers are recreating suburban conformity in the urban core. Whether they are doing this unwittingly or apathetically, they are snuffing the life out of our so alive city.
A modern-day description of Camazotz might go something like this:
They sat in little boxes that were all the same size. They looked at their phones at the same time, ordered food at the same time, buzzed up the delivery driver at the same time. Each petted a small dog. Each opened a box from Amazon. Each changed into designer gym clothes and stepped onto a treadmill. Each exhaled. Each inhaled. Each put in earbuds and listened to NPR podcasts.