Thursday, February 12, 2009

In the Middle of Nowhere

How do you build community when you live in a bedroom community in the middle of the exburbs? Urbanist Joel Kotkin says, in The City: A Global History, that all cities need the same elements to function: political, economic and spiritual. Security, commerce and a soul. There is a universality to the urban experience whether it’s New York or Beijing. And a sterile sameness to the suburbs that were supposed to save us whether it’s in Las Vegas or the Conejo Valley where I live. So how do you build community?

I live in the middle of nowhere. It’s very pretty, filled with open spaces, undeveloped mountains and good school systems.

And that’s it. No markets, drug stores, gas stations, book stores, movies. Nada.

Now those of you who know Oak Park or live here may say that’s not true. Why just 2 miles up Kanan Road we have markets and fancy hair salons and coffee shops. And just 2 miles down Kanan we have more markets and drug stores and shoe repair shops and alteration ladies.

But they’re not technically in Oak Park and you can’t really walk to them on a regular basis. And you can’t take a street car or bus. To the Costco or the Michael’s or the Staples. And you wouldn’t want to. How could you shop? My God! We’ve built ourselves into a corner with nothing but big box stores and miles of roads and houses.

We do have an Episcopalian church and a Chabad house. And you can go to the dentist, both adult and kids, and a pediatrician. Those I can actually walk to. How medically useful.

And I suppose the Starbucks strip mall technically is in Oak Park. But the movies are about 3 miles away. Wait, I just remembered we have a library we could walk to. It’s small but we’ll count it. Only not in the summer when it’s 100 degrees and it’s uphill all the way.

But the Macy’s, Barnes & Nobles, and Bed, Bath & Beyond, well I don’t think you can take a bus from anywhere near my house to get to them. Theatres, a university, a shoe store? Who am I kidding? Why do I torture myself?

I’ve just been to two local transportation meetings for Ventura County and talked with a lovely woman from the City of Thousand Oaks. I now know our problem - we don’t have density. And we’re an affluent area that skews young. The immediate needs seem to be the elderly and the low income folks.

I have no qualms with helping them out. Their needs are real. I would be happy to pay extra sales tax to build a transportation system that helps all of us. We are one county that doesn’t have that. Shame on us.

I hear that San Luis Obispo has good bus service and I know that Ventura, the city, is rebuilding its downtown and seems to have more transportation and walkability. They are compact. I should check them out just to see if Southern/Central California can even envision something besides a car.

Today I tried to hook up the City of Thousand Oaks Youth & Aging Services lady with the Oak Park online newsletter editor, both well meaning people who obviously love their towns. The TO lady was born here and the Oak Park guy does the newsletter and website for free.

I thought the newsletter could help publicize two upcoming meetings on soliciting information about what people want regarding housing, transportation and other services. While the morning meeting is expecting a nice turnout, the evening meeting only had one RSVP even with all the PR they’d done. They needed to get the word out. I believe Kanan Road runs through Agoura Hills, Oak Park, Westlake Village and maybe even Thousand Oaks. Our suburbs bleed into each other. Remember, I can’t get a quart of milk in my town. You’d think transportation would be high on everyone’s needs list after last spring’s $4.75/gallon gas prices.

So did the newsletter editor help publicize the city lady’s meeting? No. Only Oak Park events in the newsletter. As if we were all separate villages surrounded by forests and meadows instead of the sprawl we actually are. As if we weren’t all in this together. But then Agoura Hills didn’t ask my input about the new freeway overpass that impacted the surrounding communities for miles around. I understand the newsletter's limits, but I should have known.

Pending business meetings or family emergencies I will go to that transportation meeting. I will drive to this meeting. Maybe some of the same people will be there from the other two meetings. I’ll smile and say hello. I’ll put my secret plan into action. I’ll build my community one hi at a time.

They want Boomers’ input. I can tell them my dream. Maybe they share it. I can get to know fellow citizens who want to make the system work and talk about LA and the Valley and the Conejo – all sections of Southern California where I’ve lived for over 40 years and would stay if we had buses on the streets instead of coyotes. We’ll commiserate about the drought that was only dented by last week’s rain and the record string of 80 degree days in January and the state budget that finally passed before my teacher friends got IOUs as paychecks.

I don’t want bikes. That’s a bandaid and besides, I have bad balance with a helmet on. I want buses. I want to walk to the market. I want a city with a soul and a streetcar.

No comments: