My three-year-old still has no directional sense. When playing hide-and-seek in the house, he asks me to make a noise so he can locate me (since I don’t like hiding in plain view, and he gets lonely). I whistle or hoot, clap or sing. He races right past me. No sense of how to pin down sound. How to locate a location.
Location matters. My city knew this, once. Evansville placed itself on a nice bend along the Ohio River, with something approximating intentionality. Now, as the city crawls eastward toward neighboring rich-kid Newburgh, the city hands out building permits to business after business, parking lot after parking lot––but are any of them connected by sidewalks? No. Even as the city begins, ever so tentatively, to dip its feet into the Global Warming debate, not a whisper emerges about how to interconnect the city for anything other than the private car. The other day, driving through the far east side and its disparate, disconnected strip malls, I had to swerve way out of my lane to avoid hitting a man walking to work. Walking to work in the road. He was headed to Los Bravos, a local Mexican restaurant, and I’d guess the man in question was himself a recent Mexican immigrant (we mostly have Mexican and Nicaraguans as recent transplants). I mention his background only to highlight how marginalized he is. I’m sure if he could, he’d walk on the sidewalk, but he, and all low-income retail and restaurant workers like him, have to drive to work, or maybe rely on our lousy bus system, because walking or biking is made almost intentionally difficult by our city.
Why doesn’t the city council order businesses to put in sidewalks, useful ones, as part of their building permit?
Why aren’t tax-payers given a tax break if they can demonstrate that they walk or bike to work at least, say, eighty percent of the time? Similarly, for those taking public transport, let’s give back: We should reward, not punish, those hardy souls. (My family and I have honestly tried to rely more on local public transport, but they don’t post schedules at any of the stops. Nor are routes posted anywhere except on line. For a public transport line to be used and useful, this kind of information needs to be on site. Ask anyone in Europe; it’s a no-brainer.)
In creative writing, setting the scene––the “location” portion of the program––is crucial, but it often doesn’t happen right away except in the visual arts, like film or theater. With the exception of the increasingly marginal form of “literary fiction,” place is typically secondary to action. Not by much, to be sure. What would Dickens be without London, or Tolstoy without Moscow and an estate or two? Where is Bradbury without Mars? Even so, description of any length tends to come second. First comes activity. This is true for Evansville, too. Drivers, walkers, commerce. Yep, activity we got: Now we need sober, long-term approaches for how best to channel and improve that activity.
And in the meantime? My three-year-old will grow. He’ll gain his sense of direction, his human equivalent of echo-location. Will Evansville? These aren’t expensive improvements I’m suggesting. They shouldn’t even be controversial. In fact, they probably aren’t. They’re simply BELOW THE RADAR. And that’s a pity. It suggests our policy radar is focused on the wrong things.
“Daddy, where are you?”
“Right here, kiddo. Just open your eyes.”