Jean Ranc: Italians know better

January 17, 2014 

From the window of my apartment last fall in Rome I could wave to a smiling neighbor on the other side of our narrow, winding cobblestone street.

Also, from my perch one floor up, I practiced my Italian with the recycling guys, the postwoman or the plumber who buzzed at our street door to empty the bins, deliver the mail or one morning, to repair the leakage into the downstairs hall from my bathtub! The latter task took most of one morning with the plumber often stepping back to the street to shout instructions up to me to turn the water on or off.

And throwing open the double windows in the morning usually provided an accurate forecast of the day’s weather and what to wear. October in Rome, with its palm trees and seagulls is hospitably balmy – with just enough rain to keep the parks and umbrella pines lush, along with the potted plants and flowers lining the streets and balconies.

So unlike Chapel Hill, where The Developers are marketing the illusion that non-stop “Redevelopment” will transform this historic college town into a low-tax Millennial City and Shopper’s Paradise with “affordable housing” (to pacify liberal critics?) and our very own Big Box Stores (generating out-of-state profits and ever-more congested traffic here). But the result so far has been boring, brick boxes lining Franklin and Rosemary streets with more to come ... also along Raleigh Road and the by-pass, not to miss one Lego-like, pale-yellow construction towering above the Carrboro border, as well as, a handful of readymade “villages” scattered about town and countryside.

Italians know better. But then they’ve had centuries to refine city living, while some folks here persist in building sterile Urban Renewal projects decades after we thought Jane Jacob’s “Death and Life of Great American Cities” had called a halt to such misbegotten endeavors.

One of the things Italians have learned about the art of living is to respect their history and heritage. So every day as I walked home from my Italian class in a 15th century palazzo, I was awestruck as I passed the 2,000-year-old Pantheon, then the Bernini fountains in the Piazza Navona, before stopping at one of our small neighborhood markets. Or likely why I seldom saw a fat Italian: because real urban living is a non-stop workout: all of that walking and biking (instead of driving) and toting home heavy bags of one’s daily bread, veggies, fruit and pasta plus bottles of wine and water.

Also, for my week in Venice attending the Biennale, the original international art exhibition founded in 1895, I had rented an apartment. But this time on long, skinny Lido with its beach and once-grand resorts only a brief vaporetto ride away from the main island. There, for less than hotel rates, I enjoyed a spacious, light-filled apartment with a terrace in an old villa within walking distance of the market, restaurants, shops and piazzas, where, Lido’s now mostly retired residents hang out and, on this flat island-minus-canals, ride their bikes between home and downtown. Plus, there must have been a couple of thousand commuter bikes tethered to fences and posts around the nearby vaporetto stop.

Now back home at The Gables in its green oasis, a prototype for graceful urban living designed and built in 1986 by our own Chapel Hill architect, Phil Szostak, I look out of my windows, not to wave at friendly neighbors but upon a constant stream of traffic along our MLK “in-town freeway.” And while I can easily walk downtown, all of the amenities I once loved are long gone, leaving next to nothing for those of us “over-30” except restaurants on West Franklin ... a long walk back after dark.

As a card-carrying UNC retiree, I ride my bike on the sidewalk to campus but wouldn’t trust the traffic to miss me on a trip to the Weaver Street or farmers’ markets. Yet I ruefully remember that once-upon-a-time, we had the fine Fowler’s Market right downtown ... in that brick building where we now have “Launch”-ing who knows what? And after a 13-screen multiplex with hand-stitched leather seats has replaced our last department store ... where will I buy my shoes, socks and underwear?

Jean Ranc lives in Chapel Hill.

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