THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, December 4, 1994 TAG: 9412010403 SECTION: COMMENTARY PAGE: J1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY ALEX MARSHALL, STAFF WRITER LENGTH: Long : 219 lines
I went to Europe this summer looking for my ideal city.
It's a place where people walk from their homes to grocery stores, bars or friends' houses. It's a place where front doors open onto sidewalks instead of driveways. It's a place where the rhythms of life still reverberate along the paths of that well-worn institution, the street.
Here's what I found. Shopping malls. Gas stations with convenience stores attached. Curvy boulevards with multiple left-turn lanes and box-in-the-lot office buildings. Homes tucked away inside one-entrance subdivisions.
I found the Auchan shopping mall. It's as good an example asany of what is the real Europe. It's a long concrete box perched at the foot of the exit ramp off the freeway heading into Lyon, France.
There I found Nicole Depardon and Veronique Tassa, two young women who had come shopping at Auchan with their three toddler children and Tassa's mother. They sat on a typical backless mall bench in the mall aisle. Jeans shops, jewelry stores and fast-food restaurants lined the hallway.
Tassa's two children and Depardon's young son each sat in the top drawer of a shopping cart. A long, skinny baguette of French bread stuck out from a white plastic bag of groceries a few inches below one child's bottom. It was one of the few indications you were in Lyon, France and not, say, Lynnhaven Mall.
``We love it here,'' said Depardon. ``It has everything we need under one roof. The prices are low.''
``And you've got free parking,'' Veronique Tassa said.
The women had come from an outlying town in Lyon's metropolitan orbit. In just another 5 miles they would have hit the center of Lyon. One of my ideal European cities.
The women said they never went there.
``It's another world,'' said Depardon.
``It's too difficult to park,'' Tassa added.
This scene is not limited to the outskirts of Lyon. It's happening outside Copenhagen, outside Brussels, outside Cologne, outside cities all over Europe. The middle class has moved to the suburbs for shopping malls, garden apartments and meandering highways.
Call it Eurosprawl.
It's not a hidden world. But most Americans never see it because they don't go to Europe to see shopping malls.
Frankly, it's a frightening development. It means suburbia is not some evil product of vacuous American culture, but some natural product of the modern world and technology.
To be fair, my ideal European city still exists. Visit Paris, Florence, Copenhagen or Brussels. Just be careful not to look too closely at who lives there. And shut your eyes as you drive out of town.
Classic European cities are nice places to visit. But their splendor blinds us to the fact that the real action is going on in the suburbs. The jobs, the companies, the shopping, the living. Take away the tourists, and who is actually left in these beautiful center-cities? Junkies, rich people, a few artists, some Euroyuppies?
The average family now lives in the 'burbs. The European 'burbs.
As Europeans discover the joys of sprawl, their center cities discover the same problems that Norfolk and Portsmouth have. The departing middle class has left a weakened tax base. Immigrants, usually North Africans, have taken over many lovely, livable neighborhoods, hastening Europe's own brand of white flight. Crime and unemployment are - by European standards - high. MALLS R US
People hang out in malls in Europe, just like they do in the States.
Caterine Christine, 21, and Castaldi Bruno, 28, work in an advertising office about six miles from the Auchan mall. They drive Bruno's Citroen there almost every day. They behave exactly like some Pembroke or Greenbrier lawyer, driving or walking to the mall every day for lunch.
``We come here to eat, to look at the shops; it's relaxing,'' Bruno says. The two sit on a mall bench and eat pizza from a nearby stand. They hold greasy cardboard boxes in their laps.
Farther down the mall aisle was a small bar and restaurant called L'Absinthe. It had taken a French institution, the sidewalk cafe, and converted it malldom. It had small chairs and round cafe tables that spilled over into the mall aisle. Its name, L'Absinthe, was a nostalgic piece of packaging, like naming an American bar Joe's Olde Tyme Saloon. It was a sure sign that the real culture of sidewalk cafes, to which it pointed nostalgically, is on its last legs.
Jacques Martin, a balding man in his 50s, sat at one of the tables, reading the morning paper, Lyon Matin.
``I come here about once a week to shop, and to relax,'' said Martin, who was born and raised in old Lyon but rarely goes there. ``The traffic is too bad.''
People don't just shop outside the center cities. They work there, too. Lyon is one of the more economically dynamic cities of Europe. But most company headquarters and consulting firms are located in a redeveloped area of windswept concrete plazas, or in office parks perched around the city's freeway system.
Of the region's 2.5 million people, probably fewer than 20 percent live in urban-style neighborhoods where they can walk to grocery stores, bars or movie theaters. This is not too different from Hampton Roads, where only a fraction of the region's 1.4 million people live in Ghent, Park Place, Olde Towne or a few other urban-style neighborhoods in Norfolk, Portsmouth and Hampton.
The more affluent French suburbs isolate and shelter their residents from the world of commerce or from other citizens who make less money than they do.
One such place is La Terre Des Lievres, an exclusive suburb set into a hillside about four miles from Lyon. The winding streets loop back and forth in a pattern almost as confusing as those of an American suburb. They are narrow and lined with trees that form a canopy overhead. Lots of speed bumps. Hedges hide tasteful split-level homes. The trees rustle, occasionally a car glides by, but not a human is in sight or a voice heard. A typical suburb. The neighborhood owns and maintains the streets, just like in some locked-gate Florida enclave. Lawyers, engineers and college professors live here, the residents said.
``We like it here,'' said Madame A. Thomasse, a middle-aged woman wearing a crisp white T-shirt, heavy gold earrings and perfume, who came to the door of her brick home. ``If we need to go to the center, we have the metro nearby.''
An added advantage: A shopping mall was right outside the subdivision. CITIES STRUGGLE
Denmark's Copenhagen is a good example of how appearances can charm and deceive.
The city looks great if you stay to the right streets. The main shopping street that snakes through the historic section of town is crammed with people. Trendy nightclubs and Danish-design furniture stores occupy side streets. Wide bicycle lanes accompany every major street - and people use them.
What a great city!
But outside these trendy areas are neighborhoods of warehouse-like apartment buildings. Despite a century of age, they have little charm. The windows are too small, the brick facades too stark. The best are stable working-class neighborhoods. Others have abandoned, deteriorating units and plazas where drunks sleep off the latest bottle. The Danish consider such places dangerous.
This is becoming a pattern in many European cities. A city will often have an elegant shopping street that tourists visit. Nearby are noted museums, a cathedral. Marginal neighborhoods surround the pretty streets.
The standard diagnosis within Europe is that their cities could become as bad as American ones if downward trends aren't checked.
``Most of us do not need to be reminded again that our cities are in disarray,'' said Suzanne Keatinge, editor of European Urban Management, in an essay arguing for the need for more solutions to urban problems. ``We do not need more pages about urban blight, poor housing, poor education, inadequate health services, security and transport systems and a thousand-and-one other issues.'' ON THE HIGHWAY
So I went looking for a table at a corner cafe. Instead I found one at a food court. Where are we going?
Some road signs into the future:
First, Europe has the same tension between suburbs and city that we do. The main cause is that people like larger homes with fewer neighbors and more green stuff around. They move there to raise families. Some prefer urban living, but not enough to keep older cities healthy.
Still, European sprawl isn't American sprawl.
Even in suburbia, Europeans can step on a train or a bus and head downtown. Teenagers need not own cars, nor do parents need to be their chauffeurs as often. Development is planned, so the overall stain of suburbia on the landscape is less than in Hampton Roads. In Lyon on a good day, you could travel from the Baroque City Hall to open farm fields in 15 minutes.
But Europeans pay a price for their more organized, workable cities. They invest millions in mass transit systems (although less in roads), and willingly support exorbitant gas taxes that nudge people to use cars less and live closer to the center city.
Because European metropolitan areas are more compact, Europeans generally live in smaller homes. They pay more for refrigerators and home stereos, because a Wal-Mart with low prices can't always elbow its way in beside the nearest freeway. Americans, with their uncontrolled development, have bought themselves the biggest living rooms and cheapest coffee makers in the world.
In general, the health of center cities has become an accurate thermometer for the health of societies as a whole.
A good urban center brings us corner stores, cafes, art, ideas and the opportunity for easier friends and relationships. A bad urban center gives us crime, noise and dirt. How healthy a center city is depends on this balance of good to bad.
When the bad outweighs the good, people move - to the suburbs. The suburbs are not an impenetrable refuge from many urban ills. But if you must put up with crime, dirt and noise, at least you might as well do it in a larger house with a big yard. MEMO: Alex Marshall examined the suburbs and cities of Western Europe over 10
weeks last summer. His research was funded by a fellowship awarded by
the German-Marshall Fund of the United States. A longer version of this
article will appear in the January issue of Metropolis magazine. ILLUSTRATION: Color photos
Virginia Beach Boulevard? No, it's a nameless suburban business road
on the edge of Lyon, France. ``Hyper Cuisines'' advertises a
discount kitchenware store.
ABOVE: The center councourse[sic] of the Auchan shopping mall in
Lyon, France. People shop, hang out and munch fast food. Sound
RIGHT: The major difference between this cluttered suburban
boulevard outside Copenhagen and one in the U.S. is the wide bike
path that runs along the roadway. The white line on the right
separates it from the main highway.
ABOVE: New suburban homes encroach on farm fields in a subdivision
on the outskirts of Brussels, Belgium.
LEFT: A nuclear family living in a Brussels suburb. From left,
Marleen de Rudder, Sarie, Sam and Louis Van Gerwen. ``We don't know
the neighbors around us,'' de Rudder said. ``It's nice in a way,''
Van Gerwen said. ``There are no obligations. You don't have to
socialize. It is a pattern of the times.''
Some bored teen-age girls hang out in the Lyngby shopping center
outside Copenhagen, while families play miniature golf in the center
atrium of the mall.