Robert Price

Saturday, Jun 22 2013 11:01 PM

ROBERT PRICE: It isn't just a block wall, it's a symptom

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    Robert Price is The Californian's editorial page editor. Email him at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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By Robert Price

Calle Privada. That's "private street," en ingles. Michael Hansen must have translated that name as literally as it can be interpreted when he bought his beautiful, sprawling brick home at the end of a cul-de-sac in west Bakersfield's upscale Stockdale Estates neighborhood. Perhaps he didn't notice the walkway along the far edge of his property, about 30 yards from the handsome double doors of his front entry. Perhaps he didn't notice that the narrow concrete path cut through an intentional gap in the masonry wall that separates Hansen's leafy cul-de-sac from a similarly quiet deadend street in the adjacent Amberton neighborhood.

Until I took a good look at what all the fuss was about, I had assumed Hansen might have been well within his rights to close off that path with a cinderblock wall, as he did a week and a half ago, much to the chagrin of neighbors for blocks around, many of whom have kids who get to Stockdale Elementary by way of that shortcut. Maybe, I thought, Hansen had a nonstop stream of skateboarders whizzing past his kitchen window every morning as he tried to spread the marmalade on his toast. Maybe unruly kids congregated so close to his backyard fence he could smell the stinky-sweet aroma of their daily after-school joint from his Adirondack chair.

Not hardly. That walkway, a good distance from the liveable space of his ample property, was clearly part of an effort by the developer back in the late 1970s to promote continuity where abutting cul-de-sacs would otherwise have restricted flow.

At least Hansen was smart enough to consult his Bakersfield City Council representative, Harold Hanson, before he started building his keep-out-the-Ambertonians wall. The councilman went to the relevant document, found the property line in question and declared, Yes, that's your land all right. Sure, a public access easement had been recorded on the Amberton side of the wall, but not on the Stockdale Estates side -- Hansen's side.

Well, Councilman Hanson blew it -- and not just because he failed to consider the possibility that a judge might declare that a half-documented public right-of-way might be enforceable. He failed in the macro sense too. He failed, as so many others in municipal government across this country have failed, because, given a chance to escape from the box of conformity, he instead defaulted to the way We've Always Done Things.

And now we're a nation of cul-de-sacs and dense residential mazes that, except for the most ambitious among us, are navigable only by automobile. Wonder why the U.S. is the most obese nation on earth? Look no further than a culture that favors cars to walking shoes and cherishes the illusion of privacy over the interactivity of community.

The design of our cities is killing us. We drive a mile to a supermarket that's just a quarter-mile away as the crow flies. We buy McMansions on the outer edge of the city's metro footprint and drive 10 miles to work, sending up emissions we needn't have produced. And we recruit city councilmen to help us block off walking paths near our houses because we're tired of seeing people actually out and about on our streets.

So many of our societal ills can be traced to a Calle Privada mindset. Half-acre lots with three-car garages on longtime ag land instead of smaller homes closer to work. Municipal tax dollars devoted to new roads, new sewers, new traffic signals and new utility infrastructure instead of public safety and the maintenance of what we already have. And homeowners who barricade their streets instead of developing neighborhood bonds that encourage cooperation, build trust and hinder crime. Cinderblock walls don't do much to facilitate any of that.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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