Monday, July 13, 2009

Paramus, Umbria

Being born and growing up within five miles of the intersection of Route 4 and Route 17 in Paramus, New Jersey has conditioned my whole life. Route 4 connected Bergen County to the George Washington Bridge and Route 17 was a major highway, which carried thousands of New Yorkers to the Catskills on weekends throughout the summer. While other towns had severe residential zoning and restrictions on commercial development, Paramus was a free for all. Both of these four-lane highways came to be lined with stores of all kinds and from the 50’s until the 70’s shopping centers grew like cancer along both, rendering them useless for travel other than from one shopping center to another. Alternate highways, such as Route 80 and the Garden State Parkway were built at great expense to take traffic from the increasingly clogged older roads. This process was going on throughout the United States but I believe Paramus was the leader, the first and worst in the development of the suburban sprawl model. With the growth of the Bergen Mall and the enormous Garden State Plaza, the nearby downtown shopping areas went into irreversible decline. Hackensack, the county seat, was seriously impoverished, but the larger and once bustling city of Paterson, established by Alexander Hamilton to be the major industrial city of the east coast, simply was transformed into a large depressed ghetto. It took years but the wealthy neighboring town of Ridgewood eventually lost all its fashionable shops, replaced by a tidal wave of new restaurants serving the increasingly rich population of nobody’s ever home families.

How did all this condition my life? Well, Paramus was one more element that made me want to get as far away as possible, for example to a city or village where every movement is not necessarily by car. I’ve lived in Italy since the early 1970’s so I thought I had escaped, but one should never underestimate the power of progress.

Perugia sits on a big hill with the Tiber Valley passing below it to the east. One of Umbria’s main north-south highways, E45, passes through this valley connecting Terni and Rome to the south with Cesena and other cities to the north. The A1 autostrada is half an hour to the west and , except for some coastal roads, most north-sout traffic in Italy is on A1 or E45

Sometime following WWII, a Jewish philanthropist owned a large parcel of land in Collestrada adjacent to the path of the highway. He wanted to set up a summer camp for poor children on the land. Most Italians in such circumstances would donate their resources to a charity run by the Church, but being Jewish, he decided to entrust the land to the Comune of Perugia to be used as the site for the desired facilities. Alas, the city or provincial fathers knew better. They decided that the land could be put to better use by putting a big shopping center on it. There was some resistance but when large commercial interests are at stake, resistance has a way of being overcome.

Some scandals did come out of the construction of the center, built around a IperCoop market, with one of the developers doing some jail time, but they seemed to concern payoffs in the construction process rather than the misappropriation of the land.

The commercial center is less ugly than most and the COOP ipermarket is one of the best places to shop in the Perugia area. The Italians apparently learned something, a little at least, from Paramus. E45 is a limited access highway so there is no direct entry to any of the big stores that now line the road. Nevertheless, on major shopping days, traffic running up and down Italy on E45 is totally blocked near the Collestrada exits and there is no alternate route. The point of blockage is just a kilometer or two before the turnoff for the rapidly expanding Perugia airport, so if you’re flying out of Perugia it’s wise to check if your departure date is on a big shopping day or not. For shoppers, the whole idea of monster shopping centers is a leisurely wandering and choosing from the glut of stuff, so the delays are a minor inconvenience. For the long distance travelers, both private and commercial, it’s one more unwelcome incitement to road rage. As for those poor children, well, they never carried much weight in the deliberations over what to do with the land donated to their welfare.

1 comment:

Ruth said...

Robert -- Who was the philanthropist? and where/when? Where did you get this info? thanks