Monday, July 25, 2011

The Ritter's/Giolitti Paradox

Today, instead of trying to explain the problem of the American city using facts or figures, I’d like to share two personal anecdotes that really put the problem into perspective. These stories both happened over three years ago, but the contrast they set up will be around for decades more unless we begin to overhaul our urban fabric.

South Bend, Indiana. It’s 8:00 PM. We decide we want some good old-fashioned American custard. Of course, Ritter’s is the place to go. We schlep to the student lot, where we wade through a sea of SUVs and Camrys until we find our vehicle. We hop in, and proceed to make our way to Mishawaka, a “nearby city” that has been swallowed by South Bend sprawl. The trip is only about 6 miles, but we are hindered by awful roads, badly-timed traffic lights, a poorly planned street grid, and the general congestion that pervades suburbia. We make it though, and are excited for our custard.

We grab our desserts. Ritter’s does not have any indoor seating, so we choose seats at a round, prefabricated concrete table that is coated with some sort of wear-resistant compound, but is still covered in stains. The table is located in the middle of a vast “patio”, lit by sky-high stanchion lights that hum loudly as they beam down upon us. War of the Worlds, anyone? The concrete patio where we sit is in the middle of a delicious parking donut, which of course, in typical South Bend/Mishawaka fashion, is quite empty.

The Ritter's in Mishawaka. From Google Maps.

We have a simply fabulous vantage point from our concrete divan. Looking across an isolated field between the many stores (What’s next for this empty spot, another Wendy’s?), we see one of America’s other pinnacle organizations: Hooters. We don’t see any of the girls, but we do see… another parking lot! How convenient. From our vantage point, we also spy an IHOP, a Panera, a Houlihan’s, a steak restaurant, a tanning salon, a hotel, and a roller rink. Each one wades, just like we custard eaters, in a massive parking lot that is, at most, at 15% capacity.

Behind all of these we glimpse a metal roof reflecting a sea of fluorescent lighting. We realize that the source of the eerie white halo permeating the night sky is none other than Meijer, a Midwest hypermarket chain rivaling a WalMart SuperCenter in size, quality, and American charm. This Meijer measures roughly 350’ x 300’, and features an even larger parking lot.

Ritter’s and most of the other stores we can see front “North Main Street”, an apropos name for an American road that connects Walmart to Target and Meijer. How convenient that one road links everything together… we could even do all of our shopping and eating for the day by walking because everything is so close.

North Main is the perfect street for walking. It has no streetlights. It is four lanes wide with no shoulders and an occasional median. The road has a very safe and comfortable grassy slope to walk on along each side. We can perch ourselves on the soft footing as cars whiz by at our elbows! North Main features no crosswalks, curb cuts, or pedestrian signals, and routinely intersects with other major four-lane arterials that feature dual left turns and a never-ending flow of vehicles. All those turn lanes sure allow for some fun high-speed traffic.

Wisely, we decide that if we want to go further, we will drive to our next destination, even if it is just around the corner.


Rome, Italy. It is 8:00 PM and we decide to take a studio break for some delicious Italian gelato. Of course, Giolitti, arguably Rome’s best-known gelato, is the place to go. We walk out of studio and proceed up Via Monterone. The road is only about 14’ wide from wall to wall, and we have to squish against the buildings every time a car passes. Luckily, all of this occurs at a very low speed and with low frequency, so we do not mind the tight squeeze.

We proceed through Rome’s streets, passing four other gelatarias… we’re out for the best tonight. We also pass multiple churches, restaurants, bars, wine bars, banks, boutiques, and even a post office. As we go, friends pause to buy odds and ends that they need for the next day—this is Italy, there’s no rush! We reach Giolitti’s after our excursion of about five blocks, perhaps a ten-minute total walk. We enter and buy our delicious gelato.

But now, where to eat that gelato? Giolitti has a fantastic dining room with 19th Century decor. There are also some tables outside under calm lighting. The tables sit halfway into an 18’ wide pedestrian-only street, through which people constantly flow. The city is alive—people make their way home from work, off to see friends, or out to see a show or do a “passeggiata” around the city, chatting and people-watching. We are never alone.

Gelataria Giolitti, Via degli Uffici dei Vicari, Roma. Picture from here.

We decide to move a little further before finding a place to stop and eat our treats. We make our way just a few short blocks and find ourselves in front of the Pantheon, the masterpiece of Hadrian that has been standing nearly nineteen centuries. There are knots of tourists everywhere, not only admiring the building from below, but sitting in the restaurants that ring the space in front, or on the tiered steps leading up to the Bernini fountain that sits in front of the ancient building. This is a piazza, and it is hopping all the time.

We settle down on the fountain steps amidst the tourists, the pigeons, and the occasional beggars. The vibrant atmosphere is exciting, and there are people overflowing from every corner of the square, but we cannot help but feel that we are someplace contained, enveloped, almost intimate.

Why this feeling amidst such a crowd? Perhaps because Piazza della Rotunda measures just 150’ x 250’. It feels like a living room of the city, complete with a comfortable divan (the fountain steps), encircling walls, and a feature piece. It is also one-third the size of the Meijer building in Mishawaka, and perhaps one-fifth the size of Meijer’s cavernous parking lot.

Piazza della Rotunda, while it is touristy, is a microcosm of Italian life. It is full of people who live, work, sleep, eat, and play within walking distance. This scenario is repeated countless times throughout Italy, even in the tiniest country towns. Even more, it is a way of life that began centuries ago, and despite all of the conveniences of modern life, thrives in a way that is unimaginable to those who have never experienced it. We must ask: what is more sustainable? What should our future look like? Are Ritter’s and Meijer really our microcosm?

Mishawaka and Rome at the same scale (I swear), with Ritter's and Giolitti marked off. Bet you can't guess which is which. Both from Google Maps.