Gainesville has several historic districts, one of which I have featured before, The Duckpond. The Duckpond is full of grand old houses that have been restored to better-than-new condition. It’s a beautiful place, but it has a very strong vibe of money, money, money, and it’s all just so perfect that there’s barely any story to tell.
Pleasant Street Historic District is almost exactly the opposite. This area has grand old houses, but it also has small- and medium-sized houses. Some have been renovated, some have not. These houses are each unique, with different histories and levels of care. Many of them have been subdivided and are rented out to students, but some of them are privately owned and occupied.
One thing that struck me as I was wandering about with camera in hand was how friendly the people in this area of town seem to be. Almost everyone greeted me, and everyone else they passed, warmly. And there were a lot of people outside, enjoying the amazing weather we have been having this spring. In more upscale and even middle-class neighborhoods, it is rare to see people outside, and even rarer for them to greet a stranger.
This is largely attributable to climate control, since the more money you have, the more likely you are to have and use central air. Some of it can be attributed to walkability as well. Often, poorer neighborhoods have narrow streets with houses built very close to the road. The wealthy tend to spread out much more (if you’ve ever watched HGTV, you have heard someone bemoaning the fact that they can see their neighbors). These older homes also have real, usable porches, deep enough to shade from the sun, and to enjoy, rather than the small concrete slabs that have been in vogue since the mid-century.
The porch is an object of considerable study among the architectural community, for all that it means. Porches encourage neighborliness by providing sheltered outdoor spaces where people can congregate.
Many new communities, such as Seaside on the Gulf Coast, seek to bring this to their communities, but they often fail to encourage the community spirit they seek. When there is air-conditioning, the impetus to sit on the front porch to catch a breeze in stifling weather just is not there. And without that, the habit of sitting on the porch is unlikely to develop. These communities also often fail to bring the necessities within walking distance because they seek to make neighborhoods all about housing. There are no jobs, stores or schools within the community for people to walk to, unless, like Seaside, they are art galleries and boutique clothing stores that don’t require trucks to drive through the neighborhood and disturb the peace.
Pleasant Street, also known as 2nd Street, is just two blocks from Main Street, where there are groceries, convenience marts, fast food, pharmacies and second hand stores. On the street itself are several churches (look at how wonderful that red is against the blue sky!). In short, everything you need to make up a community is here, within walking distance. It was not planned that way, it grew up that way because that is how communities happen.
Now that our communities are planned out by developers, we need to find ways to make that happen with planning, which is a much harder thing to do. As much as I love the idea of home-grown communities, it is unlikely that we will ever go back to that, so we must find ways to work within the system we have to make communities livable and walkable again.