July 13th 2005-
Greetings and salutations, my compadres.
You know me pretty well by now. You know I can't leave this "Best Places to Live 2005" thing from CNN/Money alone. I've got to crawl underneath it, check the hoses, look for hidden rust and concealed damaged, and maybe loosen the oil drain plug a little before I come back from under there, just for mischief's sake.
I'm not alone in this, I see. I've seen this thing referenced all over the web, and I'm sure that's why CNN/Money goes to the effort of rating places to live and then hunkering down under their desks in anticipation of people disagreeing with their findings and throwing crockery.
My favorite item from the horde, perhaps, is this: "Pa. Town On 'Best Towns' List Does Not Exist." Apparently, Wexford, Pennsylvania is simply a Post Office designation for areas of four suburbs of Pittsburgh. There' s no such place, as it were. I will leave the effect of its non-existence on its suitability as a place to live up to the reader. I expect it's a terrific place for you to live with your imaginary friends from preschool. What's that? You had real friends in preschool? Well, get off the internet right now, this is a place for lonely shut-ins, not you. I also expect that despite the fact that the town doesn't exist, you'll still end up in jail if you don't pay your property tax to somebody.
I noticed Barrington, RI, is number six on the list. That's a short drive from where we are in Marion, Massachusetts, and that seaside town looks a lot like ours. I've got no beef with that one.
It's number three that really caught my eye, though. Naperville, Illinois. I was in Naperville two months ago. I have friends in Naperville, who moved there from Marion. A few years back, I directed the construction of two big service stations on the tollway there as well. Well, my friends took CNN/Money's advice, before CNN/Money even offered it, and moved to Naperville. And I'm in a position to tell if they've lost their minds, or lucked out.
Naperville is as far outside Chicago as Marion is outside Boston. Chicago is a great city. I'm not using "great" in the fashion of modern parlance, you know, swell, or nice, although it is a swell and nice city. I mean Chicago is a big, important city. I knew a lot about Chicago before I ever set foot in it, because I study architecture, and Chicago might be the most important architectural city in America. Louis Sullivan invented skyscrapers there. Frank Lloyd Wright annoyed the locals in Oak Park for a while, before spraying architecture all over the map, from Tokyo to Iraq and back. There are a lot of well known and notable buildings in Chicago. Boston is a great city, too, but it's very insular and small compared to a place like Chicago. Hell, there's only about 600,000 people living in all of what's called Greater Boston, which includes lots of suburbs. There's 130,000 people living in Naperville, never mind Chicago. Chicago is a big, booming, jostling, lively, friendly place. Even the panhandlers are polite. In Boston, even the beggars have a 'tude.
Well my friends have been in Naperville for a little while, and have meshed into the life there fully, and showed us around. They're not strangers to the midwest, and there's no fish out of water or Green Acres vibe to their story. They liked Chicago, and they sold their tiny house in Marion and bought an enormous home in Naperville, with money left over. They live on a quiet street, with neighbors who all share their approximate worldview, which is more important than many people think. Variety is not always the spice of life, and if you must get up to go to work at 6:00 AM, and your neighbor is hosting MTV video type parties outside your window every night, neither of you is going to be happy. He'll be dead, and you'll be in jail for killing him, or vice versa, eventually.
Variety isn't even always variety, now that I think about it. The guy annoying you next door might just be a jerk, but he might not even be an exotic jerk. And I often find myself more in tune with people who don't look much like me, at least as far as the census takers think. America, thank god, has always been a place where you left tribalism at the door, and coalesced into communities and institutions voluntarily, with people whose company you enjoyed. And everyone seems to be enjoying each other's company in Naperville.
Naperville had a very important story to tell city planners as well. The story is: mind your own business. Naperville got as big as it did because two big highways were run right through it, and made the bustle of Chicago available to it. My friend, oh, let's call him Mr. Smith, works in Chicago and lives in Naperville. CNN/Money had a few trite and ill advised comments on how Naperville is tainted by the big roadways filled with megastores that have sprung up next to the highways. What nonsense. Here's their own words:
Drive for two minutes out of town in any direction and you're likely to be sitting in traffic on an ugly highway.
Duh. It's that "ugly" highway that makes the whole thing possible. I cringe when I hear stuff like that, and it's everywhere, you've seen it too, I'm sure. The only bosh worse is seeing people in print refer to wilderness or farmland that's "lost" to development. "Lost?" Was it ground into powder and shot into the sun? Is there a black hole where it was before?
The word they should use, and never will, is converted. But converted doesn't have that pejorative connotation that "lost" does, and they think it's a shame that other people, people like the Smiths, have a comfortable, convenient and safe place to live. There's a whiff of "Let them eat cake" to the term "lost to development." Or maybe: "I've got mine, and to hell with anybody else." I disagree with the sentiment, and I don't like cake.
By the way, farmland is never "lost" to development. Any time you want, you can buy 100 or so of those houses, bulldoze them, and plant potatoes again. What's stopping you? What's that you say? That would cost over $100,000,000.00 to do? Well, maybe, just maybe, the land is being used for a more cost effective and important use than growing potatoes now. You'd have to grow A LOT of potatoes to make that 100 mil back. And this may be a surprise to you folks that think we're "losing" farmland, but out near that highway that you find so objectionable, there's dozens of supermarkets that I imagine you find objectionable too, surrounded by parking lots that I imagine you find objectionable as well, filled with decent, hardworking, busy people that you probably find objectionable to boot, and there's still plenty of potatoes in those supermarkets for you to buy. And everything else from kiwi fruit to bok choi. So put a sock in it.
That last paragraph made me realize it's probably unwise to ask a guy named Sullivan about potatoes.
Where were we? Oh yes; the real story in Naperville, besides the solid and decent Mr Smith, and his vivacious and attractive wife, and his four boisterous and lovely children, is the downtown. There's a walkway along the river, which allows you to promenade, and sit a spell, and cool yourself on a hot day by sitting in the shade, and get away from the cars, but still get to dozens and dozens of interesting places. The City of Naperville didn't try to pass laws against big box stores and all the other big businesses people love to profess hatred for and then shop at anyway. They zoned them out by the highway, on what we used to call "the main drag" around here, away from the downtown, where the acres of asphalt for multiple lanes and parking are a blessing, not a curse, because you drive there, and Napervillians can get what they need conveniently.
And those stores did what everyone fears they would do. They wiped out the little downtown businesses that tried to complete with Wal*Mart, and Home Depot, and all the rest. But why try to compete with those places? To extend that logic further, why not grow your own food? Get water from a well? Why not write plays and perform them in your back yard instead of watching TV?
Anyway, Naperville shrugged, got on with their more convenient lives, and used their tax money, including the massive tax receipts from those big stores by the highway, to improve the infrastructure of the downtown, and blessedly didn't try to put the area on life support.
And pillar to post, downtown Naperville is a wonder. Really good restaurants, one after another. Upscale, downscale, ethnic, coffee shops, everything; and you can walk all over, because the real traffic is out near the highway, where it belongs. Antique stores, really good bookstores, one after another. Real clothing stores, not just places with acres of drop ceilings above and linoleum below and polyester in between. Pastry, candy, toys, stuff and junk, store after store. Nightspots you might like to visit, if you could find a babysitter, and you can, because you live in a neighborhood where everybody knows each other. In short, the precise thing that every planning board, zoning board, and conservation committee in the country is trying to legislate, and never seems to achieve. And nobody's on business welfare, and they don't exist because they have enough pull to legislate competition out of their town. They are there only because they Naperville public likes what they offer, and patronizes them.
I could live in Naperville, and I'm fussy about where I live. I bet you could too.
But there's no ocean. Never mind.