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So Long, Jetta. Hello Avocado

by Eric Gershon | Feb 21, 2012 11:32 am

(5) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Environment, Food, Downtown

Kevin B. Dennehy Photo So there I am in the kitchen one night, making guacamole, when I realize it simply must have more pulp, which is to say more avocado. But I don’t have another avocado; I bought only three. Do I really want to go back to the store for one more avocado?

Yes, sir! Because I can hop in the elevator and practically arrive in produce.

That’s the beauty of living above a full-service grocery.

It wasn’t always this embarrassingly easy. For most of my life in New Haven, though I’ve always lived near the city center and liked to walk, buying groceries meant a trip in the car: There was no central grocery to walk to, a sad but common circumstance in small-city America. With the November opening of Elm City Market, life in New Haven improved for many of us.

For me, the opening of the market coincided (more or less) with the start of a new job, also downtown. These two developments brought a fantasy into focus – ditching my car. With food at hand and my desk nearby, the geography of my daily life shrank to a decidedly human scale.

God knows, the car was a liability. Crown Towing, Columbus Towing, Lombard Motors, Fountain’s Garage, York Service Center – they’d all towed the ’03 silver Jetta, some more than once. How many times had I made my way to their forlorn junkyards to pay grudging ransom?

But that’s all behind me now. One morning this winter a tow truck made off with my Jetta for the last time.

This tow truck, emissary of a future owner, had Rhode Island plates. Pulling to the curb at Chapel and Orange, the driver, a friendly fellow called Brian, hopped out and shook my hand. Peppering me with small talk as he unscrewed the plates, he reminded me DMV would want them back. He handed me a receipt, hauled the car off the street and drove off. That was it. After nearly eight years, I was carless and carefree.

I set off, afoot.

During earlier periods of city living, in Boston, San Francisco and New York, I took for granted the pleasure of getting around on my own steam. For five glorious years, I never needed a car for daily life and didn’t own one. I walked or rode my bicycle.

If it was critical not to arrive in a sweat, I took the bus, subway or streetcar. It was a simple, humane lifestyle, and an interesting one: On foot and bike alike, you’re exposed, part of your surroundings, hyper alert and open to serendipity.

The blissful days of self-propulsion came to an end when I moved back to New England, first to Cape Cod, then to Connecticut. These geographies lack meaningful mass transit. The carless life was over.

Connecticut at least had New Haven, and that’s where I eagerly settled. Fair criticisms are made of the Elm City, but it is indisputably the state’s most fully evolved metropolis – lively, cultured, walkable. Especially if you live downtown, there’s easy access to restaurants, museums and watering holes, a classy movie theater, a good public library, drug stores, dry cleaners, train stations. The Ecuadorians among us even have a consulate to visit.

The main wrinkle for me was that, until recently, I worked outside the city, in Hartford and Middletown. So, I lived a compromise: I drove a lot for work in order to walk more (if not enough) at home.

As with all compromises, there were costs. At 80 round-trip minutes per day for the commute to Hartford, I spent about 1,500 hours in the car over a four-and-a-half-year period – the equivalent of 62 days. That’s a lot of time unavailable for other pursuits, and a depressing load of resources for gas,insurance, maintenance, repairs, parking, parking tickets and towing fees. Also, I wasn’t exactly living green.

Eventually I decided I’d had enough. This was not a sustainable routine, for me or for the Jetta. I’d worked that car hard – 199,000 miles hard. Things were about to get ugly.

I saw two palatable options: Find interesting work in New Haven or decamp to another city offering both a good job and a good life, which is to say the carless life.

It took time, perseverance and luck, but it worked out – I’m happily employed in New Haven, living downtown, and getting almost everywhere on foot. This isn’t practical for everybody. But it’s increasingly so as developers add housing units near the Green and the trains, which can carry people to jobs up and down the shoreline. More mass transit would make the carless life possible, and appealing, for more people.

Walking or biking, I like the feel of sunshine on my face, glimpses of lancet windows and herringbone brick patterns, the smell of fresh-baked doughnuts, the sounds of Metro North rushing people into the city, unexpected sidewalk encounters with friends and acquaintances. It’s life experienced directly.

Distant places are as far away as ever, of course, and harder to reach. When it rains, I get wet. But the avocados are always close. And I never get towed.

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Comments

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on February 21, 2012  12:43pm

Nice article, thanks for sharing.

The best policies that the city could enact would be ones aimed at reinforcing New Haven’s historic centers and nodes. This can be achieved by encouraging development and planning practices that create distinctive districts and neighborhoods that all provide housing, shopping, and employment opportunities for every economic level and generation - from low-income to upper income, young to old - within a framework of a walkable neighborhood unit connected to other similar units with transit.
The downtown currently works as a regional center as well as being home to Yale, which is relatively insular (as are most College Campuses) and the growing Ninth Square community, which works quite well at a local level and should be encouraged to continue on its current path.
Fair Haven/Qunnipiac River Village and Westville are the other obvious centers that should continue to be reinforced and supported as distinct economic and social units that are connected to the city.
Other opportunities exist in the West Village/Chapel West (http://www.newhavenindependent.org/archives/upload/2011/04/Chapel_West_Zone_Change_Report_-_08-17-10.pdf), Church Street South (http://www.newhavenindependent.org/archives/upload/2012/01/mb/decdhudapp.pdf), and Dwight (http://www.ctdatahaven.org/know/images/e/eb/Dwight_Planning_Report_2007.pdf). And similar policies and planning efforts can be encouraged in Newhallville, Goatville, SoHu, Dixwell, Amistad Park, Trowbridge Square, Morris Cove, etc.

posted by: Fairhaven#27 on February 21, 2012  2:00pm

Elm City Market is great if you have not been there yet you must see the great produce.

posted by: HhE on February 21, 2012  2:19pm

Well said, Jonathan Hopkins.  My only objection to living in Newhallville is not being able to walk a short distance to the shops. 

I hear and will obey, Fairhaven#27.

posted by: shadesofzero on February 22, 2012  9:54am

Excellent article.  I really enjoy the idea of living downtown and walking to work.  Sadly, I love my job, which is in Wallingford, and my friends, which are scattered all over the state.

Nonetheless, there are parts of the city, like East Rock, where one can own a car and not have it constantly towed, and still enjoy the slightly less convenient walk to downtown.

Great article and I love to see people being engaged in the community and representing local businesses.

posted by: BenBerkowitz on February 22, 2012  10:39am

Feel the same way Eric. I dropped the car two years ago and its been great.

The SeeClickFix team enjoyed Whole G Croissants and Clementines from the market this.  Thanks to everyone who made the market happen and all who work there.

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