During the month of July, I had the pleasure of producing a documentary film called The Hero Within. The work is a profile of Dr. Kay Sornmayura, a Hepatitis C expert who originally moved to the United States from Thailand in 1989. After years of working at multiple hospitals throughout Miami and ascending through the ranks in the world of nursing, she became a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) working at the Schiff Center for Liver Disease at the time of production.
For longer than I’d care to admit, I’ve felt as though I’m waiting for my life to start. I could blame it on a bad breakup that took much too long to get over; I could blame it on the fact that I only recently finished my bachelor’s degree in information technology or I could blame it on the fact that I had four or five different jobs in one year.
But the fact of the matter is I’ve been holding out for a salvation of sorts. Not a holy trinity kind of salvation, but more of a “I’m struggling now, but sooner than later all these things will fall into place” kind of salvation.
Last night I celebrated my 24th birthday in the company of my family. By some metrics, it would be considered a pretty low-key way of commemorating the occasion; especially those Miami metrics that consider anything short of an alcohol-fueled rampage at any of the city’s ritzy bars and nightclubs a bit of a bore.
But even if I didn’t “turn up” as hard as others would’ve in my place, I did take the time to reflect on everything that’s been going on in my life up until now and I must confess: the feelings in response to that reflection are mixed.
I’ve been reading a wonderful book about urban planning called Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.
In this politely harsh critique on the idiosyncrasies of modern attitudes towards city building and the backwards promises of suburbia, Andres Duany and his team write one sentence in particular that could easily sum up the main problem with suburban living:
Nothing interests humans more than other humans.
I’m sure you’ve seen images like the one here before.
Cookie-cutter homes, sometimes all built exactly alike, placed along winding “community” roads that don’t really lead anywhere. These “communities” promise high standards of living sometimes afforded by 24-hour security personnel, reliable maintenance staff paid for by money-hungry homeowner’s associations, and most importantly, a peace of mind that only a staid arrangement of homes, homes and more homes could offer.
But the negatives in these communities outweigh the positives. I see this happen even in a highly populated city like Miami, whose outlying suburbs – Kendall, Miami Lakes, Cutler Bay – cause traffic jams daily as commuters travel increasingly longer distances than they should to get back home from their jobs in the city.
Traffic is only part of the problem, though. The very idea of people jumping into their cars, tuning out the world until they enter the safety of their gated home within their gated community, is one that’s tearing us apart as a society.
In Suburban Nation, Duany explains that suburbia grew out of a mid-20th century distaste with dirty and cramped inner cities whose factories, sweatshops and tenements were but infant children of the Industrial Revolution. “Inner-city living” became a phrase befitting of people who couldn’t afford to live somewhere nicer.
Nowadays, the opposite is true, with people paying premiums to live in city centers even if the extant appeal of suburbia has blighted them into a shell of what they used to be.
Downtown Miami and its surrounding neighborhoods are great examples.
A formerly bustling area at all hours of the day, Downtown Miami is now a vagrant-ridden ghost town after 6pm. However, condominiums in and around the area are commanding insane prices that most of Miami’s population can’t even afford.
Why is that? Because the urban renaissance is upon us. People don’t want to live ten, twenty, thirty miles from their jobs or from places of entertainment, for that matter. The city life is the new chic, with the ability to walk to everywhere becoming the new way to live. Cities themselves are way cleaner and more attractive than they used to be when suburbia became a thing, meaning “inner-city living” is fast becoming something cool.
The most appealing factor of that city life chic, however, is indeed the fact that it’s so easy to interact with other humans. When people are able to walk to the majority of their daily destinations, they naturally encounter a greater amount of other humans than if they were to drive everywhere. Think about running into your friends or colleagues at a bar on your way to the grocery store, jumping into a fitness class at the park on your way back from work.
We need to ask ourselves, then: what do we really qualify as a high standard of living? For me, living in a gated community where there’s nothing to do is the exact opposite of a high living standard. Being able to meet new people simply by stepping outside my living quarters is a much more appealing lifestyle, and for obvious reasons, it’s also a much more sustainable one: think about how many pedestrians fit into the space taken up by a single automobile.
Suburbia, Duany and his team ultimately conclude, is a failed experiment that catered to specific circumstances of its time but ultimately did not deliver on its promise of better living. People love people, and putting up dividing walls, fences and gates between neighbors is not the way to promote that.
What do you think about living in suburbia versus living in the city? Let’s talk!
I haven’t posted here in a while, but for good reason. I spent the past few months interviewing for a job with Quest Corporation of America, a Tampa-based firm that offers an array of communications services to various transportation entities throughout the U.S.
Landing the gig has given me a chance to witness the progress of some of Miami’s roadway improvement projects firsthand; to literally see the city being revamped sidewalk by sidewalk, street by street.
I’m happy to report that the changes being made are moving us in the right direction. For example, the reconstruction of West Flagler Street and SW 1 Street in Little Havana – slated for completion this year – has replaced aging water and sewer infrastructure and completed important maintenance tasks. Most importantly, however, the project is adding pedestrian-friendly infrastructure such as bigger sidewalks and revamped crosswalks to a highly traversed Miami thoroughfare.
More on that in a future post, though. In the interim, I have to talk about this image here, taken by me this afternoon.
I caught one of the construction workers putting his finishing touches on a section of sidewalk made to look brick-like. At considerable expense to his back, the man used a sharp straightedge and a hammer to deepen the grooves coursing through the freshly poured cement.
He called himself a talented engineer when I took his picture, issuing a chuckle that gave levity to the situation I’d found him in. In earnest, I replied, “usted, señor, es un artista.”
Years from now, when pedestrians walk down that block to get a haircut, munch on a pan con bistec or hop on the bus, that man’s handiwork will be there still, weathering the test of time.
It’s a romantic notion that speaks to the beauty of city-building. Foundations are laid down by a unique trifecta of the most intelligent, the most affluent and the most hard-working, with some – but not all – of their names and legacies given immortality on street signs, buildings and monuments.
Anyone from a high school student to a rich executive might say, “I’ll meet you on Flagler Street?” “Find me at the coffee shop near the Alfred DuPont building.” “I’m right on Douglas Road and Coral Way; I’ll be there soon.”
It might just be my illusions of grandeur talking here, but the concept of participating in the design, the construction or in my case, the promotion of something as perennial as a sidewalk, a street or a city is something that appeals to me greatly.
I’m not sure if my contributions will ultimately earn me a nameplate somewhere. But I do know that strolling down the street today and catching that man at work was a daydream in disguise. As Lawrence of Arabia once said, “the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”
I’ll write some more about my latest exploits soon. I’ve got a lot to tell.