Tonawanda News

October 19, 2012

ADAMCZYK: Ahead of the curve

By Ed Adamczyk
The Tonawanda News

— The Congress for the New Urbanism convened its regional meeting last weekend at the Disneyland for intellectuals known as the Chautauqua Institution, confined except for walking tours to the facility’s grande dame of a hotel, the Athenaeum, a circa 1880 beauty so untouched by any century than its own, a guest expects gaslights and crank-driven telephones in the rooms.

“New Urbanism” is a concept sweeping the circles of architecture, urban planning and regional government. It’s the idea that communities should be for people; cars should not have precedence, houses should be built so the garage door is not the most prominent feature and priority should be given to the citizen walking, not driving. 

So all over America and particularly in small towns rebuilding themselves, the principles of New Urbanism are at work, and this weekend convention at the Institution, itself a very walkable community, brought 200 or so proponents of this very desirable municipal lifestyle together.

Some of the movement’s heavy hitters were there. Victor Dover. John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee. Mayor Dyster of Niagara Falls attended, as did television cameras, book sellers and people preparing for the CNU national convention in 2014 (in Buffalo).

The hallmarks of new urbanism, again, include a respect for people and a certain old-fashionedness about things (call it a return to civility in public planning). The city of Barcelona seems to get high marks from this crowd. To get from place to place, you tend to walk. Quirky buildings are tolerated; old and new architecture co-exist nicely. The idea of mixed-use neighborhoods, that you shop where you live instead of going to the mall in a car, is assumed. Sidewalks of main streets are lined with brick instead of concrete, with flowers on the lamp posts and frequent places to stop, sit and chat. That’s why this crowd is in love with Barcel ...

Wait a minute. This describes the Village of Kenmore as well. In a not-so-convoluted way, Kenmore, a development tract carved out of farmland beginning in the 1890s, is precisely what the New Urbanists have in mind when thinking about a thriving, human-scale community.

Kenmore was founded in 1899. It seems to be a mere 113 years ahead of the curve.

New Urbanists are proud of certain suburbs in America, the ones in which they’ve had a hand in developing. Kentlands, Md., is one. I’ve never been there, but picture close-together houses on narrow streets, broad porches, short trails that get you from your front door to the places you shop, small parks and park benches every few hundred feet, lots of trees and an old-timey feel to it. (“Neo-traditional,” they call it.) Founded in 1988, houses start at around $400,000 there.

Except for the date and the dollar figure it sounds vaguely familiar to this longtime Kenmore resident. Throw in the brick and the flower pots on the main drag (it’s called a “streetscape”) and all Kenmore needs is a gelato vendor on wheels to complete the picture.

What America is lusting after, if the topic is proper living, has been available in Kenmore since Old Man Eberhardt hired his first surveyor. The trip to Chautauqua simply confirmed it.

Downtown Hamburg turned itself into this sort of thing, and parts of Niagara Falls are working on it. North Tonawanda, you’re next.

These architects, municipal planners, students and dedicated hangers-on like me came together, from outposts as far away as Chicago and Long Island, to better figure out how to make communities more like Kenmore. The founders of Kenmore could better be described as real estate speculators than urban design visionaries, but there you are. Some blindingly smart planners of the American future (and me) gathered in Chautauqua last weekend to bat around concepts that have been demonstrated as workable in a community, here, that started up in the McKinley Administration.

Except for a lack of local hotel space, the conference could have been held in Kenmore. While Chautauqua has plenty to look at, the stuff discussed would have been available by looking out the window.

Tightly packed houses, the garage in back instead of in front, people running errands by walking to them, joggers and dog-walkers finding their needs fulfilled on Delaware Road, the aforementioned brick on the Delaware Avenue sidewalks, storefronts with windows instead of walls of concrete. 

You can say a lot of things about life in Kenmore, but “incredibly desirable, future-forward and ahead of its time?” That may be a new one.

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident whose column appears Fridays in the Tonawanda News. Contact him at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.