Paradise Lost

With all due respect to Billy Joel and Barbara Streisand, if you take a New York State of Mind too far you get Joni Mitchell in spades.

Don’t it always seem to go,

That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,

They paved paradise,

And put up a parking lot.


Aren’t city planning commissions supposed to be the watchdogs against urban blight? Don’t urban planners graduate from college anymore instilled with a grand view of utopia? And yet a recent visit to Kansas City showcased an unfettered disfigurement of what was once a beautiful place to live. It seems the fox is guarding the chicken coop.


In Kansas City most two lane roads of yesteryear have at first expanded to four lane highways, which then morphed into six lane dragstrips. And, if only they actually were dragstrips, one might at least excuse them as a logistical convenience, getting you speedily from point A to point B. Instead they are either bumper-to-bumper parking lots with traffic lights every half-mile or a frenzied rush of exits and entrances careening off into a can of worms that make amusement park twisters and roller coasters look downright tame.


Every plot of green, whether big or small, has been covered with asphalt or dotted with parking lots which support, for tens of miles, every imaginable commercial establishment, as far as the eye can see. Forget about buffering all this mercantile delight with berms or trees or landscaping, at least providing some relief from the visual pollution. No sir; the parking lots come right up to the roadways with, of course, not a sidewalk in sight.


A GPS search for a Sonic restaurant produced over fifty Sonics within an eight mile radius and every other eating or shopping venue can also be found with equal frequency. Consumerism reigns and zoning boards have become the pawns of retailers and developers. Got to acquiesce to those who expand the tax base, they argue; look at all the additional roads we have to maintain. Who eats all those chili-dogs or buys all those cellphones and mattresses anyway?


Kansas City used to be called the City of Fountains, where a plaza with greenery and statuary invited visitors to browse bookstores and art galleries and first-class restaurants. Vehicular traffic was limited to the periphery so that strollers could walk the plaza streets without taking their lives in their hands. Being on the Plaza was a calming and refreshing experience where one’s humanity and senses could be charmed. Someone certainly had their act together when the Plaza was designed and laid out.


The Plaza was indeed the chic and trendy place to be, a true city center… until a chic and trendy shopping mall was built a mile away on a farmer’s field… and then the urban flight began. Over time, chic and trendy mall No.1 was replaced by chic and trendy mall No. 2, leaving a vacant ten acres of deserted stores in the middle of the city. And like a game of chess, the services that originally supported mall No. 1 jumped over it like a dethroned queen and nestled up with equal loyally to mall No. 2. What were once nice restaurants and shops surrounding the first mall became used furniture stores and oil and lube shops, causing the neighborhood gentry to flee the area as well.


And on and on it goes until the city is spread out over twenty miles, connected by the aforementioned six lane highways. Now Kansas City, like so many other American cities, resembles an amoeba, with no definition, no character, no identity. People live farther and farther away from the center, commute farther and farther to work, and make family time just one small variable in a Rubrik’s Cube of logistical complications. Why? Because developer’s money talks with a deafening whine and trumps quality of life concerns every time. And do you know what the scary part is? The really scary part is that no one saw it coming, or if they did, no one showed the wisdom or courage to try to stop it. As a result, we all lost a piece of our soul.


For the most part, European cities have not been equally seduced. There are a number of geographical and societal reasons for this difference. But in any case, thank goodness there’s still London or Paris and Vienna. And happily, at least places like our own Washington D.C. and Savannah, Georgia and Lake Placid, New York have not suffered this all too common American malaise.


What is your favorite city and why?



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