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The Literal Landscape
by Simmons B. Buntin, Editor/Publisher, Terrain.org

Urban Legends, of a Sort

It's a warm Saturday afternoon, especially for May in Denver, and I've just stumbled into the fresh sunlight from the Denver Public Library and the recent Congress for New Urbanism VI.  I'm greeted outside by the wild colors of the Cinco de Mayo festival, the warm smell of hot tamales, and the burning sensation to look for that most elusive of residents, the American alligator.  After all, Denver is the logical place to look for an alligator, no?

Sure, I spent my more formidable years in the scrub oak, slash pine, and slow waters of central Florida.  I admit we occasionally slid the aluminum johnboat out to shine the gators' eyes to red and green.  And yes, it's true that on our braver missions we'd drift up beside an alligator the length of a teenager's arm, plus the thick tail, and somehow manage to wrangle the swamp lizard in without losing an arm.

But alligators were supposed to be there.  Not here, in Denver, one of the driest and coldest urban areas this side of the Okefenokee Swamp.  Nor are alligators, of course, supposed to be in any other city north of the Louisiana lowlands.  You wouldn't find alligators running loose in Minneapolis or Boston or New York City. 

Or would you...?

There's a report in The New York Times, dating back to February 10, 1935, that Salvatore Condulucci, a rough-and-ready 16-year-old living on East 123rd Street, spotted an alligator in the sewer as he shoveled slush down a manhole that eventually led to the Harlem River. "Honest, it's an alligator!" he swore. 

"Alligator found in Uptown sewer," the Times reported.  "Youths shoveling snow into manhole see the animal churning icy water.  Reptile slain by rescuers when it gets vicious."

Fact or fiction?  True report or urban legend?

How the Congress for New Urbanism, this year with the dual focus of infill development and protecting the natural environment, got me thinking about gators, I'm just not sure.  Perhaps it was Stefanos Polyzoides's excellent presentation on building places to meet regional, cultural, and climatic uniqueness?  Perhaps it was the call by non-CNU environmentalists for a broader political agenda by architects, planners, and environmental advocates alike?

Nah.  It was more the thinking about urbanism, about what makes a good urban environment, and about how we people, and especially Americans, think about our urban, suburban, and exurban landscapes.  I'm interested in alligators because I'm interested in urban legends.

Urban legends, and specifically just how people think, and feel, about the urban environment, warrant consideration because many people still believe that urban equals ultra-density, ghettoes, slums.  I was surprised, frankly, by how many submissions to Terrain.org dealt with the urban neighborhood—this issue's theme—in a negative light.  I had expected just the opposite—such as in James Howard Kunstler's story "Manhattan Gothic" and Rick Cole's essay "Urban Design in Our Individual and Civic Lives."  Yet, well over half of the fiction submissions and many poetry submissions were obviously anti-city, anti-urban.  Even Catherine Mellet's story "Doll Baby"—a fine if not haunting story—is somewhat anti-urban.  Or, rather, it's anti-neighborhood, referring specifically to the neighborhood in which the children live and from which the family now makes its escape. 

There are many of these anti-urban legends, and most of them unfortunately stem from fear that is generally and wrongly based on the "news" media, the "entertainment" media, or what we hear from others that is never verified.  Some of those myths:  cities have intolerably high crime;  cities have poor schools;  cities have eroding infrastructure;  cities are unfriendly;  cities are eternally dark;  there is no wildlife or nature in cities;  cities are an economic drain;  cities are uncomfortable to be in.

Part of the problem, I suspect, lies in the fact that people have varying definitions of "city" and "urban."  There are official definitions by such entities as the U.S. Census Bureau and the League of Cities.  They deal with people per square mile and the like.  The average person's definition, however, is based more on the myths cited above.  What do we see as our cities?  Sadly, many see the city, or the urban environment, as the Gotham City in Batman and its many dark sequels.

When I asked a superb writer I've known for many years to submit to this new endeavor, he replied that the theme "The Urban Neighborhood" was unfamiliar to him, having spent all his life in small towns.  Odd, I followed up, because many of our best urban features and urban neighborhoods stem from and still exist in our small towns:  the village green, the center square, mixed-use downtowns, narrow streets and wide sidewalks, shade trees and small parks, historic and regionalized architecture.  The urban legend to this contributor—yes, his work is included in this issue—was that urban could only exist in the "big city." 

It's time to reexamine the legends many of us have created for the urban environment.  It is certainly true that there are city neighborhoods where crime is quite high, the schools are not so good, and most of us feel pretty uncomfortable.  But we cannot let a handful of neighborhoods define our cities when there are more than a boatful of neighborhoods that show how the urban environment really shines.  Larry Borowsky's Cheesman Park in Denver, highlighted in his article "Living at Ground Level," is but one example. 

That neighborhood, like thousands of inner-city neighborhoods across the country filled with residents who care about their built and natural environments, is comprised of plenty of beautiful homes, a small but thriving neighborhood commercial center, a well-used and multifunctional park, mixed-use, mixed-race, and mixed-income opportunities, and much more.  While it takes constant diligence to keep the neighborhood in good condition, and collaborative efforts from a diverse residency to ensure that the neighborhood sustains itself, the payoff amounts to a place that people want to be, an urban environment of which people are proud to be a part.  And there hasn't been an alligator sighting there in a good, long time.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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