Sometimes, well often, when I'm driving around un-beautiful Salem, Oregon, I look at the atrocity of Commercial Street, Lancaster Drive, or the shuttered stores of downtown, and think "Who the hell foisted this ugliness on us?"
It's amazing, really.
We've gotten so used to the sterility, car-centeredness, garish billboards, utilitarian strip malls, treeless parking lots, and people-devoid sidewalks of the typical American town, the monstrosity of it all has left us numb to truly noticing it.
The movie is about the rise of isolated cookie-cutter suburbs and the decline of creative urban neighborhoods with a genuine sense of community.
Now, we're not exactly poster children for the new urbanism. We live on ten acres five miles from the Salem city limits, sucking up fossil fuel every time we drive into town – notwithstanding our hybrid cars.
But someday, when maintaining our uneasy care yard and the rest of our property gets too much for us, I can see us comfortably settling into a condo or townhouse within easy walking distance of the necessities of life: a coffeehouse, natural food store, bookstore, parks, walking/biking trails.
"Subdivided" showed that lots of people much younger than us also want a lifestyle that isn't centered on a three car garage, a postage stamp yard, and fences (both physical and mental) that separate neighbors.
One striking image in the movie recreates the filmmaker's experience of suburban isolation. Here he describes it in an interview.
When I moved back to the Dallas area (after living in California), one of my first experiences with people in my new subdivision was when I saw this guy across the street mowing his lawn. I figured this would be a good opportunity to introduce myself, but as I walked across the street and the guy saw me, he turned and mowed his way into the back yard.
This is by no means something isolated to North Texas - during research for the film I learned about attitudes like this all over the U.S. in suburban residential areas.
Years later, it says in the movie, he still hadn't met his neighbors. To our neighborhood's credit, we're more tightly connected than that – largely because our development has a commonly owned area and easements for riding/hiking trails that meander behind most of the lots.
Architects interviewed in "Subdivided" point out that this is important: having a focal point where people gather. In suburbia, that doesn't exist. Stores are just a place to run into and out of.
By contrast, in the small town where I grew up, going to the grocery store was a social event. Almost always you'd meet people there who you knew well. Shooting the breeze was as important as buying the milk.
We've got some of that here in Spring Lake Estates, which makes our 1970's era development pleasingly different from most semi-rural neighborhoods.
A community lake and picnic area is our focal point. Laurel and I walk around it daily. Most of the year we rarely see anyone else, but during the summer children and families flock to the common property. Then, conversations are common.
Where is there anything like this in Salem? A public gathering spot that draws people not for a commercial reason, but simply because it's a pleasant place to be.
In college I spent a semester abroad, in a Yugoslavian town on the Adriatic Sea, Zadar. In the late afternoon and evening people would promenade along the seawall. I recall that girls would walk in one direction, and boys in another, for maximum meeting potential.
In downtown Salem youth hang out at the Coffee House Café and a few other "with it" spots. I enjoy seeing them in their black-clad, cigarette-smoking, body-pierced splendor.
Thank god, someone is on the sidewalks of Salem. I even enjoy being accosted by panhandlers; that's how boring downtown is most of the time.
Salem, like every American town suffering from the stultifying effects of suburban subdivisions, has a chance to come alive again. The riverfront area has the potential to be a gathering point now that the Boise Cascade plant is slated to be replaced by a mixed-use development and public areas.
Connecting with people. Disconnecting from cars. Getting out and mingling. Good urban (and suburban) design is pretty simple. We just need to do it.