October 4, 2013 11:35:59 AM
Cities live beyond our here and now. Beijing is about 3,000 years old; Paris is over 2,000 years old; Rome is over 2,500 years old; London is just under 2,000 and New York is headed to its 400th birthday. Starkville is officially 175 years old.
There is every reason to believe that one day we too will be hundreds of years old. We, as residents, impact how Starkville is currently perceived. What we have to accept is how we help shape what our city becomes in these next generations. It is undeniable that the life of the city molds the person as much as the person or people shape the life and future of the city.
Through my years as a Navy and Delta pilot, I have had the pleasure of strolling down the streets of many cities. That would not be possible without sidewalks. I could never have discovered the bistros in Paris, Essa Bagel in Manhattan, Newberry Street in Boston or the Art Institute in Chicago unless I could walk to get there. I believe in the message that sidewalks send to our friends and neighbors. No, Starkville isn't any of those places, but our future is written daily and there is no known end to its possibilities if we insist on our leaders believing in it as well.
Starkville has an ongoing controversy about sidewalks and how they fit into who we are and who we want to be. I have had a conversation devolve into a pretty serious disagreement in an aisle at Kroger and a development meeting at the city got heated over the requirement to install sidewalks as part of a business project. Our city engineer, Edward Kemp, and our building official, Joyner Williams, probably spend as much time trying to help developers and construction managers place the sidewalks on the property as they do any other aspect of a development.
City living is a social contract we make with each other. The inclusion of sidewalks should be part of that agreement. They are a part of the greater good that shapes the vision of the city. If sidewalks don't become a part of the landscape as the city develops, it is almost impossible to install them after the fact. There are more areas than not where Starkville needs sidewalks, but because they weren't planned for at the beginning of a project, the political will to do what is expensive and unpopular in someone's front yard doesn't exist no matter the long-term benefit.
The most recent mayoral election had much fact and fiction about sidewalks. Who would have ever thought that such a simple thing would shift the course of lives? I would even suggest that sidewalks were to an extent the genesis of much of the upheaval that resulted from the last election. The ridiculous catchphrase "sidewalks to nowhere" was spouted with confidence as an indictment of the incumbents running for election. The requirement to install them galvanized some members of the community who don't believe in their value. That made a difference in the outcome of the election and much that followed.
Vision is hard to convey when personal interests are the driving force creating development and wealth. The goal of a developer is not altruism, nor should it be. But the greater good must include an enlightened self-interest fostered by the community needs. Sidewalks promote economic development by checking the quality-of-life box for the business or industry considering moving to town. In most places they are an accepted part of the costs of creating a community. The developers from outside of Starkville were not who complained about installing sidewalks. The pushback came from those who remember Starkville as a rural community and accept "cowpaths" as good enough for those who walk. Sidewalks are an indicator of a city's humanity and a belief in its people and their future. They may be to "nowhere" right now but eventually they will connect to everywhere. Every opportunity not seized is potentially lost for a lifetime or longer. Most of the subdivisions in Starkville do not have sidewalks: Green Oaks, Longmeadow, Timbercove, and Greenbriar to name just a few. They weren't required so they don't have them. Now that they are developed, retrofitting them is almost impossible, both financially and geographically. How good would it be if the Green Oaks residents could walk to the theater or to Peppers or Mi Hacienda; or if the South Montgomery residents could walk to Oby's; or the residents on North Long Street could walk to Mac's or downtown without having to brave the traffic along narrow roads?
All of our new streets and projects currently include sidewalks. That inclusion sends the message that we care about our people. Some of the neighborhood streets are wide enough to walk in safely, but that is a message of tolerance not inclusion. Starkville should aim higher than simply tolerance. We need to keep our commitment to the human side of the sidewalk equation.