|Friday, 28 October 2011 00:00|
Written by Ken Greenberg
Random House Canada
347 pages, $29.95
By Irena Karshenbaum
For the Jewish Free Press
In the early years, Calgary was not unlike the cities of Europe. Its streets were brimming with life. Homes were located close to work and, of course, it was possible to walk to shul on Shabbat.
But after a series of devastating events: the First World War, the Great Depression and the Second World War, Calgarians wanted to leave the ways of the Old World behind and with it how cities were built.
The post-WWII years brought unprecedented growth to the city. The once vibrant downtown, after years of neglect, was being abandoned for the new, fresh and clean suburbs. People wanted escape to the pastoral especially when the drive from Mayfair to downtown was no more than 15 minutes. No one gave much thought at that time that in 60 years such a model of continuous suburbanization would be unworkable. But then Calgarians weren’t unique in their thinking. Most other North American cities were on the same growth path.
Jane Jacobs was the first to observe in her 1961 monumental work, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” the devastation that was taking place with the flight of the middle class to the suburbs, the zoning laws and the massive highway projects which were creating urban wastelands and cultural sterility. She solidified her legend by going up against the then powerful, and now almost forgotten Robert Moses, who wanted to draw and quarter some of Manhattan’s oldest neighborhoods by plonking down the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Jacobs then repeated her magic by leading the effort to cancel the Spadina Expressway in Toronto as well as writing six more books about urban planning. Accepting few awards in her life time, her work catapulted her into the legend stratosphere as an urban planning goddess and spawned an army of inspired followers who more than five years after her death still revere her work.
One such follower is urban designer Ken Greenberg who, as a way to top off his stellar portfolio of work, has recently written, “Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder.”
For over 45 years Greenberg has lived and travelled in some of the most exciting places in the world taking on plum urban design projects. He has worked everywhere from Amsterdam to Paris to New York and even in Calgary, where he designed the Riverwalk Master Plan.
These platinum credentials, does not a writer make. Sadly, Greenberg’s book reads like a 347 page resume from a man whose ego is too big to endure the discipline of a cruel, yet kind editor.
The title of the book implies that his professional story would be intertwined with his personal story. After all, the best non-fiction books are about personal triumphs then failures followed by redemption. Unfortunately, there is little in the way of personal, let alone failures and certainly no soul-searching redemption.
The story starts out with a glimmer of promise as Greenberg recounts his childhood in Brooklyn living in a tiny apartment with his parents, sister and grandparents. These impoverished circumstances are compensated with a rich personal and urban life. His early story was not unlike many families in the mid 20th century who lived in crammed apartments surrounded by Bubbies and Zaidies but who with greater economic prosperity moved to more comfortable homes in the suburbs. Eventually, the Greenbergs moved from deteriorating Brooklyn to a suburban home in Newton, Massachusetts. We briefly learn of a first marriage, but the details of that disappear into a black hole with a later surprise appearance of wife No. Two, Eti.
It’s not enough that the personal story is as tasty as gruel; at least the book is made yummy with lots of name-dropping and career details that would cure his own children’s constipation. “After ten years I felt I’d accomplished almost everything I could from within city government. So, in 1987, I joined two colleagues from the city, Joe Berridge and Frank Lewinberg, to form a partnership called Berridge Lewinberg Greenberg (BLG), which we later renamed Urban Strategies. BLG was a consulting practice in city planning and urban design that would draw upon the practices and techniques we’d developed over the previous decade. While I had considered returning to an architectural practice, I discovered that the market in urban design was varied and interesting enough to sustain a professional practice.”
I should mention that it took me the entire summer to finish this book. I would put it in my beach bag and take it to my pool where I’d doggedly struggle through a few pages. Only 143 pages to go, 138 pages ... keep reading, Irena, keep reading .... One afternoon I managed to suffer through 50 pages. That was my most triumphal day. I thought of writing this review without finishing the book, but then thought that that might be intellectually dishonest. So I persevered because the PR person at Random House sent me a free review copy. The summer simmered and every time my friend, Galina, would visit me at my pool I was grateful. I could put “Walking Home” back in my beach bag.
And yet what Greenberg has done and the message he has is incredibly important for our time. He is talking about building exciting cities for walking, with mixed-use, interesting neighborhoods and friendly public transit. Only the message gets lost in his own self-indulgent navel gazing blathering, “Universities are emerging (along with other urban institutions such as hospitals and museums) as leaders in the move to more sustainable development practices, often drawing on their environmental research capabilities to do so. Previously hard boundaries between these institutions and their cities are rapidly giving way as mixed-use neighborhoods form on the edges of campuses to provide student, faculty, staff and visitors with housing access to other amenities. This benefits the universities, too, since they don’t need to provide so many of these services themselves.”
With writing like this who needs bureaucrats?
“Walking Home” is a lost opportunity for a post-Jacobs generation of readers to learn about how the best cities of our time are being built. It’s a particularly pertinent message for Calgary whose urban design practices are lagging somewhere in the mid-20th century and especially for us Jews when we yearn so much for the joy of walking home on Shabbat.
I have one question for the folks at Random House, “What were you thinking?”
“Walking Home” inspired me to continue driving.
Ken Greenberg, author of “Walking Home,” – good ideas in a dull package.