Baby Boomers

June 2010

Eye from Albany

Baby boomers and our cities: Part II

By Paul M. Bray

A couple of years ago I challenged baby boomers to get in the vanguard of reviving cities. Simply stated, it has been on their watch that most of our cities and their once vibrant downtowns have declined if not totally disappeared. It is their responsibility, at least in my mind, that they turn things around.

With the baby boomers came suburban sprawl, shopping malls and auto dependence as well as urban deterioration, urban food deserts and shrinking urban population. The “asphalt nation” as architectural critic Jane Holtz Kay calls us represents a terrible legacy for the baby boomers to pass on. In the words of Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, “Americans can drive from one ocean to the other, stopping every day for the same hamburger and every evening at the same hotel. Traveling in a straight line is not longer much different than traveling in a circle”. It wasn’t that way before the baby boomers.

Thinking back to the  ways of some baby boomers in the1960s, I imagined the baby boomers would rectify the situation by creating a rabble rousing organization like SDS (remember Students for a Democratic Society). Perhaps it would be SUS (seniors for an urban society) and it would be in the vanguard of not only restoring our depleted cities like Detroit and Buffalo, but of enthusiastically making all cities connected by high speed rail shine for their livability, creativity, caring amongst neighbors and diversity amongst other positive qualities.

I am sure you noticed we don’t have an SUS even though we have a President who was an urban community organizer. That is a remarkable development even though the blow back from the right wing President Obama is getting puts his promise in jeopardy.

Yet, even with itsy bitsy steps, there is evidence of baby boomers repairing their urban legacy. A retired couple from Washington, DC, for example, moved to the center of Troy, NY, a once (like 19th century) thriving industrial city, and restored a town house for their home.

The former President/CEO of the Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce, Wally Altes (Colonie having the first major mall in its region) moved into an apartment in a converted old department store also in Troy.  Wally loves to sing praises to his new urban home: “Troy has a very walkable downtown…. There are many amenities within easy walking distance-doctor, drugstore, restaurants, the river (like in Hudson river), quaint shops, parks, and what seem like endless regular events in the immediate downtown area….” 

On the other hand, Wally thinks of “hurricanes, horrendously high insurance, poor public services” when it comes to Florida. “The political climate of a state (South Carolina) that sends Jim DeMint to the U.S. Senate leaves me cold” says Wally, “in spite of the heat, and yes, the humidity”.

Senior organizations like AARP are hardly my imagined radical SUS organization, but they must be driving the highway designers and engineers crazy with their active campaign in Congress and state legislatures for “complete streets”.

Auto domination is being challenged by a “complete streets” movement. AARP, cycling organizations and others are advocating and taking to the streets in favor of complete streets. Complete street legislation in the state legislature provides “for safe travel by all users of the road network, including motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, and public users, regardless of age or ability, through the use of complete street design features for safe travel”. Across the state, AARP members are demonstrating at unsafe intersections. If complete streets is enacted, TU writer Tim O’Brien would no longer be reporting that “a study of dangerous intersections in upstate New York highlights eight Albany crosswalks as among the most dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists”. Of course, traffic flow would be slowed.

Increasingly seniors like Wally Altes are rejecting Florida retirement as well as the ersatz country estates that house senior living accommodations in northern suburbs. The buzz word amongst seniors and their advocacy organizations is now “aging in place”, in one’s home and neighborhood. If the home of baby boomers is in a city, it is good for the city being intergenerational. If their home is in the suburb, it creates pressure for traditional cul du sac suburbs to become more urban, to have sidewalks, to allow for infill housing and mixed uses or, in other words, to become more urban.

Aging in place doesn’t mean leaving seniors to fend for themselves. NORCs or naturally occurring retirement communities like one in a single family residential area of Albany are springing up to make urban residential areas senior friendly. NORCs get state assistance for senior support services from professionals and the senior residents themselves develop their own support system, so much better than isolated senior living in suburban greenfields.

This summer the NYS Office for the Aging is sponsoring two empowering communities for successful aging conferences (www.empoweringnycommunities.org)

Unlike their ways in the 1960s or like the French who take to the streets when they want to bring about change, some seniors are moving back to the future when it comes to replacing their suburban legacy with a restored urban legacy. Someday future generations may look back on the baby boomer era as a period baby boomers were part of the clean up the wasteful suburban mess they made and began the re-creation of successful cities throughout the land.

Seniors or baby boomers aren’t going to successfully revive cities on their own. They are going to need national public policy like the Secretary of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced “Our new policy for selecting major transit projects will work to promote livability rather than hinder it. We want to base our decisions on how much transit helps the environment, how much it improves development opportunities and how it makes our communities better places to live.”

They are also going to require millennials who want to live in cities with many starting up businesses there and couples I know who moved their children from the suburbs to Albany so these students could experience the diversity in the public high school, children who went on to ivy league schools.

If citizens of all generations can find their way back to cities, we may find the way to have caring, livable intergenerational neighborhoods part of entrepreneurial cities for the 21st century. I can dream.

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