Monday, July 22, 2013

Peace and quiet

My son Eli and I spent three days in Chicago last week, my second visit to the Windy City this year.
(Lakefront, looking north from Ohio Street Beach, 7/16/13)

Being in a more dense, urban environment than I'm used to means there are more people, a faster pace of life, and more ambient noise.These are part of what make urban life attractive to many people. Phrases like "sleepy old town" and "quiet evening at home" are typically not intended as compliments. Yet it occurs to me that (a) some people choose to live in suburbs and small towns because they want to live away from the crowds and noise; and (b) everyone probably needs some measure of peace and quiet in their lives.

We shouldn't overstate the contrast. It gets noisy in Cedar Rapids, too, even on the toney southeast side. There are car alarms, ambulances, outdoor speaker systems, barking dogs, unmuffled motorcycles and lawnmowers, not to mention several people seem to be in daily training for the leafblower Olympics, usually when we're trying to listen to music or have a conversation. But even if it isn't always quiet when you want it to be, you can always count on periods of quiet, often extended periods.

In Chicago the noise and hustle are more constant, though that statement begs for qualification. The River North area, where I usually stay, is less bustly than the Loop. I didn't spend any time in residential neighborhoods, which I'm guessing are quieter than downtown though still noisier than my neighborhood. [Truth in blogging notification: The last sentence was written while the author's next-door neighbor was vivisecting a tree with a chainsaw.]

As I pondered this an article appeared in the New York Times last week talking about noise in New York City. The main problem at present seems to be that building construction is occurring at such a pace that crews are working round-the-clock. That would seem to be a temporary problem, atypical even of large cities. The letters-to-the-editor that commented on the article were uncommonly interesting: one person recalled a car alarm going off night after night until a neighbor took a baseball bat to the offending car; another writer noted the problem of highway noise in rural areas.

While enjoying my visits to Chicago I've come to appreciate opportunities to step out of the urban flow and enjoy some quiet time. In April, for example, I enjoyed a movie at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and a church service at the Chicago Temple. Apart from the quality of the actual events, being in those places allowed me to slow down for awhile and recharge my batteries. You can find the same sort of rest-for-the-senses in libraries, museums, and where accessible natural settings. The restaurants, bars and coffee houses I've visited didn't quite qualify, but I imagine with some simple investigation you could find quiet places to hang out. [Note that sanctuaries or quiet places aren't the same as third places, which are places to seek interactions not solitude.]

So, quiet peaceful places exist, even in America's third largest city, to the benefit of all, I'm sure. But what about people who want more than an occasional respite? For now cities probably can and should seek future residents from the set of people who enjoy a faster pace and more interactions, and who can put up with a little noise. They may even find it a "Beautiful Noise," to quote the title of a Neil Diamond song and album. They can sell the advantages of the urban environment, and not try to be something they're not. And I'm certainly not advocating making people live in places they find unpleasant.

But, what if society changes in the way that some people are predicting: considerations of energy, environment, economy and/or government finance pushing the population to consolidate? If there are no jobs, what happens to small towns? If gas is $6.00 or $7.00 a gallon what happens to large-lot suburban subdivisions? And if people who'd rather be (relatively) isolated find themselves forced to relocate to a more urban area, what personal and social problems will that lead to?

FURTHER READING: Randolph T. Hester, Design for Ecological Democracy (MIT Press, 2006), ch. 15.

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