Kathryn Streeter is a mom and a writer who has lived in cities all over the world. Today she's sharing a guest article on what Jane Jacobs taught her about her neighborhood. (Note: This essay's copyright belongs to Kathryn Streeter and it is not available for republication.)
In the Rainey Street District of Austin, Texas, a stranger approaches my dog, hand extended. "Puppy!" she shrieks at a weirdly piercing decibel, especially for the hour of day. My first thought is that she closed the bars and is drunk, but she isn't. She and her friend are in fashionable workout gear, probably all ginned up on coffee and ready for some speed-walking.
Otherwise, relative calm prevails early mornings in my neighborhood when I slip out the door to take Ezzy for her walk.
My neighborhood is a trendy downtown bar district, home to live music, food trucks, drinking holes and raucous partying. But early mornings, it's even better, with neighbor brushing against neighbor and work crews quietly coming and going, cleaning up what was left behind from the previous night’s revelries. I stop to put a beer glass on an outdoor table that someone has left on the sidewalk outside of Bangers and exchange hellos with the manager.
“How’s the girl?” Brian says. My daughter worked for him the summer before college. He wrote a warm reference letter on her behalf for a volunteer program she’s now involved with at university. When my husband and I stop in for drinks, Brian sometimes says they’re on the house and we trade stories about vacations and raising teenagers.
In the early 2000s I read Jane Jacobs’ magnum opus, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, on the workings of a great city. This 585-page hardback enjoys a prominent place on my shelf, dozens of fuchsia post-it-notes protruding like a child’s unruly tufts of hair, marking the best of the best sections from my first read. Jacobs was a long-time resident of Greenwich Village and she starts her book at the beginning, with the humble sidewalk, the fundamental building block of a city.
A high-performing neighborhood begins with active sidewalks, alive with people and commerce, a setting enabling random connection between people. For me, it’s more than a theory, a perspective, a view-point. This first section of Jacobs’ book is one I live and breathe. It puts into words all the beauty and functionality of a great many neighborhoods I’ve been lucky to live in.
My experience confirms Jacobs' assertion. Life on Rainey Street is added proof of this golden relationship between sidewalks, people and community Jacobs wrote about over fifty years ago. Having a dog and walking the area four times in a day all the more thickens the cord of community and my belief in life at the sidewalk level.
A familiar whirring grows to a crescendo and cyclists pour around a corner. Twenty to thirty bikers fly by on their weekly meet-up. As usual, Ezzy and I stop to watch. I bend down to scratch behind her ears because she’s the jumpy type. But in a flash, the cyclists disappear and the street is quiet once again.
Ezzy tugs, her nose leading her toward trash. Garbage bins are overflowing. Food remnants litter the sidewalk. This in part is due to the food-trucks on our street, but even more so, it's the price paid for being a famous Austin party destination. Sometimes it’s vomit we have to avoid. A homeless person wanders by asking for a cigarette and like last time, I shrug my shoulders and shake my head. Employees manning the entrance to the boutique hotel ask about Ezzy’s breed and again, I tell them she’s a blue-merle Shetland Sheepdog, not an Australian Shepherd, and yes, I'm sure of it.
I know I’m approaching Javelina because of strains of 80s tunes pouring from outdoor speakers and I bob my head approvingly, finding my spirits lifted. They scored a winner when they hired this cleaning guy, I think, as I hum along to Toto: As soon as my heart stops breaking // Anticipating // As soon as forever is through // I’ll be over you.
The large man swings to the music, a smooth dancer, hosing down the brick patio. He nods familiarly in my direction. Later, he’ll turn off the music and leave Rainey Street, but early mornings with classic 80s blaring, the neighborhood sidewalk has been our connection point, two people in the universe who would otherwise have never made eye contact. I’d like to add to the narrative and tell him that Ezzy’s picture appears on the bar’s website, taken by their photographer when we were enjoying happy-hour. But, I move along and leave him to sway to The Cars, Cutting Crew and Tears for Fears.
At the base of my high-rise apartment building sits a thriving grocer-café that opens at 7AM without fail. Tables and chairs line the sidewalk. The manager of Royal Blue loves the way — when given the opportunity — Ezzy huddles under the café’s outdoor chairs as if there, she’s safe and secure. “She’s an introvert,” I always explain when people attempt to engage her. Residents from the surrounding high-rises gather here, drinking coffee, smoking, laughing, connecting.
I play a part in this morning scene because Ezzy is less walker than watcher. On the sidewalk, we often sit, stroll a bit, then sit. She’s content to observe the world moving around her. A woman from my building stops. “I love your dog! I watch you all the time. If you ever need someone to dog-sit, let me know.” I believe this woman is a new resident. I’ve certainly never met her before, but today—on the sidewalk—Ezzy introduced us.
Jimmy is at the center of our neighborhood mornings at Royal Blue. He’s a 70-something divorcee from Florida, a chain-smoker and he calls his sweet river-front condo his cage. In his low monotone, he addresses me by name every morning. “Hi, Kathryn.” Weekday or weekend, Jimmy is a fixture. Jacobs translated what I was witnessing, making sense of the critical contribution Jimmy offered. He has a job: he’s a public character, she said.
Rarely alone, Jimmy has a way of making people feel comfortable like a resident priest. “Everybody wants to tell me their problems. You wouldn’t believe all I know,” Jimmy told me. He grumbles, but I suspect he enjoys the camaraderie.
A public character just needs to be present, said Jacobs. His essential quality is that he is public, and makes himself available to lots of different types of people. Today he has a circle of neighbors around him. Their talk is about who knows what — but there’s kindness, not strife, in the air. There’s a generous spirit of leaning in, not pushing away.
Several days once went by where Jimmy wasn’t in his assigned seat at Royal Blue. I realized I felt alarm for him — what had happened? Had he collapsed alone in his high-rise condo down the street? Should I contact first-responders? I didn’t even know his last name. Jacobs translated my angst: “[The sum of public contact] …is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need.” I recognized my need as well as responsibility for my neighborhood, starting with Jimmy.
I felt relief the next morning when Jimmy was back, a reassuring presence, puffing away on the sidewalk, saying hello to everyone. A young woman is sitting with him, and I know, through Jimmy, that she's processing a bitter divorce. They are there for hours, smoking passionately, talking.
My family and I are moving out of state soon and I wonder if it will cause mild panic: “Where’s that woman with the stubborn sheltie who doesn’t like to walk?” I know the neighborhood will notice our sudden absence because in a way, I’m a fixture, too.
There's a comforting rhythm, a reliability to my neighborhood setting that makes me feel a little less alone in this rattled world. In a society where fracture resides around every corner, this slice of neighborly life is a reminder that civility isn’t dead. Rather than focusing on differences, it’s as if this small community has instead chosen to approach each other in good faith — as neighbors and for some, friends.
Authentic kindness is welling up here. I see it all around me and its very reliability feeds my soul. I've stepped into a rich tapestry at the sidewalk level where I, too, contribute to this landscape of human decency. I wish I could capture this salve in a bottle and send it around the country — and beyond — to heal broken communities.
In fact, sharing my world with others increased my level of happiness and day-to-day satisfaction. Jacobs identified this sentiment the “marvel of balance” between the personal and the public. We need each other, as neighbors, employees, cyclists and dog walkers trying to do the best we can to face a new day. People leaning on people, our lives overlapping, spreading organic trust through general kindness, linking us together like an unbreakable human chain.
* All quotes and references attributed to Jane Jacobs can be found in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs. New York: Random House, 1993.
* Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
(Top photo of a porch on Rainey Street by Phil Whitehouse)
About the Author
Kathryn Streeter is a writer, mother and wife. Her writing has appeared in publications including The Washington Post, Austin American-Statesman and Paste Magazine. She has enjoyed life in many city neighborhoods besides Austin, including those of Atlanta, Indianapolis, Washington DC and London. Find her on @streeterkathryn or on her website.