Living within walking distance — important for a great neighborhood

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We were looking for a house in West Hartford a quarter century ago, and were surprised to learn that houses closer to the town center were generally less expensive that houses further away. This made no sense to me.

I could leave the car in the driveway, walk to stores, restaurants, town hall, gym, library, etc., and enjoy the safety that comes with other people walking by, and pay less? Where do I sign?

Indeed, we bought a house in West Hartford Center. For the only time in my life, I was ahead of a trend. People are moving back to city and town centers. Pedestrian proximity is essential; a pillar of a great neighborhood.

That’s the thesis of an intriguing new book, “Within Walking Distance: Creating Livable Communities for All,” (Island Press) by New Haven-based writer Philip Langdon.

The book consists of six case studies of great neighborhoods across the country, and how they overcame a variety of obstacles to become great neighborhoods. Each started with certain advantages: “good bones,” meaning enough solid and attractive buildings to support neighborhood life; compact design conducive to walking and biking; and good local leadership, either from city hall, nonprofits, business groups or developers. But each had roadblocks.

Langdon lives in the East Rock section of New Haven, and rightly includes it in his list because it is a terrific neighborhood. Named for the traprock cliffs it borders, the neighborhood runs from the New Haven Green north along Whitney Avenue and Orange Street to Hamden, and features museums, parks and housing in an interesting variety of architectural styles.

What it lacked a couple of decades ago was “third places,” the author Roy Oldenburg’s term for informal public gathering places where, Langdon observes, people can find relief from home and work, the first two places.

To the rescue came a woman with a very cool name, Lulu deCarrone, owner of Lulu European Coffeehouse, who battled city hall in the 1990s and won outdoor dining, opening the door to what have become hugely popular gathering places.

The other neighborhoods Langdon explores are the Pearl District in downtown Portland, Ore.; Brattleboro, Vt.;  Center City in Philadelphia; Little Village in Chicago; and the Cotton District, in Starkville, Miss.

If we are driving to Northern Vermont we often stop for lunch or coffee in Brattleboro just because its Main Street is such a funky and interesting place. That didn’t happen by accident; Langdon says when it was threatened; townspeople fought back. For example, when a Home Depot opened nearby, the locals supported a local hardware store. The Home Depot closed. “A useful and attractive business district has staying power,” he writes.

The revival of Center City Philadelphia shows the ability of community-based organizations to effect change “and ensure that basic neighborhood-serving businesses are part of the revival.”

Portland wasn’t much to write home about until it began a series of continuous improvements in the 1970s.  Historic preservation, park improvements, a highway removal and the remarkable Portland streetcar system revived what had been a dormant industrial area known as the Pearl. It is home to much-visited Powell’s City of Books, the country’s largest new-and-used bookstore.

People who don’t know Chicago are surprised at how large the Mexican-American community is. Mexicans came to the city more than a century ago to work on the railroads, first settling in Pilsen and then moving to Little Village. La Villita is a dense, lively area with great restaurants and a zillion small businesses. Its residents have fought for jobs, brownfield clean-up and more green space, and fought against the gangs that plague the Windy City.

The revival of Starkville is largely the work of an outstanding developer, Dan Camp, a craftsman with a great eye for traditional architectural design. This walkable university town has one of the great street names — the Rue du Grand Fromage, the Street of the Big Cheese.

Langdon doesn’t fawn over these neighborhoods, he visits and analyses them. Where there are mistakes, he points them out. Even when a neighborhood succeeds, it often must face the problem of rising housing costs. He is a clear and insightful writer, has been exploring these topics for decades, and knows of what he speaks.

The book is timely; it is a good time to think about neighborhoods. With budget cuts at all levels of government, it’s more than possible that neighborhoods will be asked to take on new roles. For example, East Rock is one of six New Haven area neighborhoods in a program called HomeHaven, which helps older neighborhood residents remain in their homes.

One thing we Boomers who live in good neighborhoods might do is bring pressure on towns officials and developers to build more one-floor housing, so we can stay there.

Tom Condon writes about urban and regional issues for the Mirror, including planning, transportation, land use, development and historic preservation. These were among his areas of interest in a 45-year career as a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The Hartford Courant.

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