Wednesday, October 08, 2008

erasing the dirt road

Until the 1970s, my permanent home was in Warsaw Poland. The family apartment (where my dad lives to this day) was in the city center, but very quickly I discovered that this center also harbored a secret wee little neighborhood of homes along a dirt road. Strolling along that stretch of unpaved road, well hidden behind a city park, you could imagine you were in the countryside. It felt remote, insular, peaceful.

I was away from Poland for some years and when I returned for a visit, the dirt road and the homes adjacent to it were gone. So much so, that I really came to think I had imagined it all. No one talked about it. No one seemed to remember it. In a push for modernity, Warsaw had wiped the dirt from its landscape.

I do not recall ever seeing a dirt road in New York (where I lived afterwards), nor Chicago (my next residence). But something similar happened when I visited Beijing in China. Toward the close of the last century, I found myself searching for a neighborhood of huts and dirt tracts. I’d read about them in a book. No one seemed to be able to tell me how to find them. But I did find them. Here, this time I have proof (with apologies for the quality of the photo):

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Purchase photo 2086

Two years later, I returned with my daughter to Beijing. I wanted to show her this older, exceedingly tired neighborhood. But this time I really could not find it. I realized that it had disappeared. Erased from the city plan, it will survive for me only through this photo. In a push for modernity, Beijing had wiped the dirt from its landscape.

I learned this week that the block across from the condo where I live (in Madison) is no longer going to house a bigger and better Whole Foods. You need only say “the economy” to understand why. People nod and sigh and then they look to the big hole in the ground made ready for the store and wonder what will become of it all.

Today, for the first time, I went to a place that, until now, I hadn’t known existed: a community garden just next to the Department of Transportation building. Just down the street from my condo. The garden looks tired now. Some tomatoes still cling to spent vines and the zinnias are relentlessly pushing their color, but you know that the season is really over. You can smell the indifference to growth.

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Purchase photo 2085

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Purchase photo 2084

This garden has a dirt path. Not a road exactly, but a path. More than you’ll find in Warsaw or Beijing, that’s for sure. (Don’t tell me about parks. I know about parks. They are sensual. They are sublime. But they are not the soil that, for better or worse, covers your feet and gets under your fingernails.)

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I heard that the garden is slated for removal. Something about future development, bla bla bla.

My friend Barry thinks we should turn over the once meant for Whole Foods plot to the people who want to garden. A community place to grow things, right there, on the intersection of University Avenue and Segoe Road.

What a terrific idea! There would be something enormously gratifying to live across the street not from Whole Foods, but from whole fields of foods. And let me put in a quiet plug for a dirt road cutting through. No pavement, just dirt. With woodchips maybe, to keep the dust low in the summer. In Madison, progress means that you can think about making room for dirt roads.