Elation, excitement, joy, amazement, wonder. The emotions I experienced on our trip to France all tended towards one end of the spectrum. Amber and I had long planned a trip to see the country that we had built up so much in our heads and hearts. Could it live up to the expectations we constructed from a thousand books, movies and Instagram posts? Would Mélanie Laurent really bring me a croissant and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc every morning on a Vespa?
Sadly, Mélanie was otherwise engaged, so this dream was summarily shattered. But in every other way, France exceeded our expectations. Our journey, as much as any other adjective I can insert, was eye-opening. Like Jean Valjean himself jammed little Eiffel Towers between our eyelids.
So, it caught me off-guard on the plane ride home that suddenly I found myself experiencing an emotion that was out to sea for the past 10 days. I was surprised to find that I was angry. More than just angry, outraged. We had to come home. I wasn’t mad that the trip was over, it had been entirely inspiring and we were ready to get home to our family and our lives. I was upset because now I could see how our system fails us so completely, so overwhelmingly, and we had to return to it, after seeing an alternative.
No longer could we walk out our front door and pop by a bakery, a patisserie, a cheese shop, a market, a butcher and a wine store. Which isn’t as crazy as it sounds, considering that this is how cities operated for the first 7 millennia of cities. This simple chore of getting provisions for the day, wasn’t just fun… it was an absolute thrill. When you walk in the store someone practically sings “Bon jour!”, and your senses aren’t just stimulated, they are smacked about with a folding chair. So many mind-blowing options for bread, meat, cheese, produce, dessert, wine. And nearly all of them were produced within the region.
How many cheese makers do you know? How many friends do you have that make their living as a butcher? Know any hotel owners? No? Me either. Because we don’t have any of those jobs anymore. There just isn’t room for them in the Sprawl Economy. We systematically eradicated the businesses that made our towns special, that made us proud, that gave someone meaningful work, that made our lives richer and kept more money in our economy. The best part of cities, the small businesses that once filled up our Main Streets, were sold out.
So here we are, back in western Pennsylvania, the Paris of the Appalachians, a moniker that sadly has begun to sting. We had to restock our fridge, as children apparently demand sustenance. But in stark contrast to the last week of our lives- this would not be a pleasurable jaunt down the street, passing by mothers on bikes with babies, and old men smoking and reading at cafes, we would not walk past the flower shop or see kids playing soccer in the street. No. We would load up the SUV make the mind-numbing drive to Aldi, to stock up as if we were preparing for a prolonged siege, and bring it all home to try and find places to store all the shit.
Nothing fun about that trip, nothing beautiful, no craftsmanship on display, no creativity. In fact, no life at all. A meaningless, monotonous trip, a pathetic and soul crushing endeavor that is the standard American way of doing anything and everything because this is the economy we picked. We decided a sprawl economy was superior to a local economy 50 years go and we are sticking to our guns on this one, no matter how awful the decision was.
So instead of local producers and entrepreneurs being afforded an opportunity to bring goods and services to market in their nearby neighborhood, city or village, we have almost entirely shut them out in favor of national chains, mega farms, and corporate developers. Where once, and is still the case in other countries, urban and rural actually bump up against one another and farm life and city life have a relationship- now, the two places are separated by an economic tape worm called sprawl that starves both the countryside and the town of the resources they so desperately need to survive. As they whither away, their failing health is painfully on display for all to witness.
Not only does the Sprawl Economy deplete our towns of jobs and wealth, but it robs them of joy. It steals from them the fun. This is the realization that hit me somewhere over the North Atlantic. I was returning to a joyless city.
For all its promises of convenience, what sprawl really does best is suck the joy out of life. It strips the built environment of its beauty. Take a look at a photo of your city from 100 years ago and tell me that’s not the truth. Not content just to ruin town, sprawl also makes rural areas ugly. Littered with vinyl trash, family farms on the brink of extinction. I have to drive an hour or more from home to find an unspoiled landscape, when our grandparents could walk or bike to such scenes in any direction.
It’s not just the loss of pretty places either, but the pleasure of popping into a store and knowing the owner and seeing their wares on display. Instead of picking from the 9 boxes of cookies that the Nabisco marketing team selected for me, I could ogle at the gorgeous confections a neighbor made. I could ask a butcher friend what cut he is most excited about. I could have a cheese monger tell me what Brie might go best with the entree I was serving. What once was a joyous experience of going about one’s daily routines is now so foreign to us.
I couldn’t even conceive of such a thing until I experienced it for myself and now that I have, I am devastated to lose it. I am crushed that we spent billions of dollars to build the roads that hauled joy out of our cities.
I think what hurts so much is that prior to our convenience obsession, we had it right, our cities worked exactly as they were meant to, and we are incapable of copping to the fact. Too much is invested in keeping our towns dysfunctional and devoid of fun. It’s a delight to see people on the street, but walking doesn’t sell any gas. It’s a pleasure to shop in locally owned businesses, but they have no shares to trade. It’s healthy to bike the kids to school, but big banks don’t make a pretty penny from financing Schwinns.
There is not a single good reason our cities can’t be full of joy. They are supposed to be. They used to be. In other places, they still are. We have been convinced by the sprawl industrial complex that life is just a series of meaningless purchases we must constantly maintain to keep the country from descending into anarchy. Contrary to the beliefs of finance professionals, humans, in fact, do want to enjoy themselves. They want to have fun, they want to have friends, they want to indulge in delicious food, to be surrounded by beautiful buildings, to feel uplifted in their everyday lives. This is what we want and damn it- it’s what we deserve. Our cities are failing us, BUT, they don’t have to.
I am pissed. I am sad. I am distraught and jealous. But I am also hopeful.
There will be a day, a moment when a group of city officials realize something profound. That the way cities used to operate is the ways cities still should operate. The town that turns its back on the Sprawl Economy is in for a very pleasant awakening. The savvy city that sorts this out is going to reap rewards beyond belief. Residents will fall in love. Pride will swell. Small businesses will grow exponentially and continuously thrive. Local wealth will build in bounds. Ownership will return to the hands of people that call the community ‘home’ and to people that give a damn about its well-being. Everyone will want to come see this town, everyone will want to come live in this town. This will be a city that brings people joy, it will be a city that people deserve and they will love it so much in return. Maybe we will all be so lucky to be here for the great American civic renaissance.
Just let me know when this happens so we can list our house.