Sunday, December 18, 2011

UPS, Uncle Harry and the paramus of Todi

I wasn't the first in my family to go into architecture. My Uncle Harry had gone to drafting school and started working in an architect's office It didn't last long. Architectural work wasn't particularly remunerative even then but it might have afforded him the appearance of a more dignified calling, something which Uncle Harry couldn't care less about. He wanted to be outdoors. Harry was smarter than people gave him credit for. He thought that being confined to a drawing board under artificial light for forty hours a week was a bad deal with the devil, so he quit and got a job driving a truck for the United Parcel Service.

The Great Falls

That was in the days before Paramus NJ became the world's first and worst agglomeration of shopping centers. My mother, like most other suburban housewives in the area, would take a bus five miles to Paterson, with me in tow, to do her shopping. A few days later a UPS truck, often driven by Uncle Harry, would show up at the house with the clothes, furniture or whatever else my mother had purchased. I liked to go to Paterson. Not so much being dragged around the department stores but sometimes my grandfather would take me to see the firehouse he had worked in, showing me the hook and ladder with steering wheels at the front and the back and the shiny brass poles the firemen slid down from their upstairs sleeping quarters when the alarm sounded. Paterson also had the Great Falls, one of America's larger waterfalls, which just last month became a National Park, with Hinchcliff Stadium, the midget auto racing Mecca, just a stone's throw from the Falls. There were also Chinese restaurants where we could get Chow Mein to take home. There was even a street full of colorful gypsies. My parents warned us about them and when we went by car to Paterson, my father got through that one block of River Street as quickly as possible, making sure the car windows were all closed. That sense of urgency added to the gypsies' appeal but I was very much taken by the bright flaring skirts the women wore, so much more interesting than the dreary clothes of all the “normal people” around. The city had, and still has, a lot of interesting buildings, from the churches and institutional buildings reflecting the Dutch origins of many of the citizens, to the wonderful Victorian era brick industrial buildings. I can't say that as a kid I realized how rich that architecture was but I did sense that there was something there more interesting than in our manicured suburbs.

The Post Office
Everything has changed since then. Uncle Harry retired to Florida to spend his last several decades outdoors tending his grapefruit trees year round. The shopping centers of Paramus metastasized, killing off the department stores and smaller shops in Paterson, while turning housewives and their white collar husbands into part-time truck drivers. Even before the SUV (Shopping Utility Vehicle) had evolved, the monster American sedans and station wagons had the payload of about half a small UPS truck. The department stores of Paterson and Newark, as well as the shops of Hackensack, and even upscale Ridgewood, may have gone out of business, but UPS has only grown bigger. My positive feelings about UPS from Uncle Harry's time took a nosedive a few years ago when they kept leaving notes saying they'd unsuccessfully tried to deliver a package and then later that they had left my consignment of cigars with an unnamed neighbor who couldn't be found. This and their lack of pick-up points open on Saturdays led me to the firm conviction that, besides being more expensive, they are far less reliable than the US Postal Service, although Congress is doing its best to change that by eliminating the Postal Service. But back in the day, UPS provided a valuable service, which I'd like to see restored. In keeping with current economic trends, UPS and their competitors now seem to exist to service large corporations and they appear to be thriving.

A Pedestrian Entrance to Todi
Much as Uncle Harry managed to emigrate to a place in the sun, I too have emigrated to sunnier climes in Italy. Paterson, my birthplace, fell victim to suburban sprawl and urban decay. Here in Umbria we're following the same path, albeit at a slower pace. Medieval towns, such as our neighboring Todi, are seeing the shops on their narrow streets go out of business, as new commercial centers crop up on surrounding plains. Convenience is God and every person, not just every family any more, has a car. Despite soaring gasoline prices (about US$8./US gallon by today's calculation), this is not likely to be reversed any time soon. The tourist traffic, which brings in much of the region's income, will probably diminish as the beautiful town centers go dark. People will continue to go to the supermarkets in their cars. It makes sense. But why must all the other “stuff” that we buy have to be sold in big box warehouse stores that deface the landscape? Smaller shops, accessible on foot in splendid surroundings, can display whatever we need, and unlike shopping on line, we can try on the clothes, handle the objects, and discuss the products with a knowledgeable salesperson. Must we all be truck drivers? For my part I'd rather see an Uncle Harry show up at my door with the stuff I'd seen and bought in an attractive and healthy city.

"Masterpieces On The Way" in Ponterio
Todi is much smaller than Paterson but it has a longer history and deeper culture than Paterson could even imagine. I don't remember anything about Paramus, other than the horrible traffic. I expect that future impressions of Ponterio, the town where the sprawling commercial development is taking place at the bottom of the Todi hill, will be similar. Ponterio is unlikely to be a must see in any guide books that will bring people to town. Paramus isn't so much a place as a condition, and sadly, it exists all over the world. I would even suggest to one of those forums that document additions to the lexicon that “paramus” be considered a term for a zone, neither urban or rural, populated by few human residents but covered by commercial and warehouse buildings, accessed by high speed highways transformed into multilane traffic jams and to which pedestrian access is either highly dangerous or completely forbidden.

My real concern is whether Todi will face the same fate as Paterson. I've heard that Paterson has shown modest signs of a revival. I hope so. But wouldn't it be great if our towns and cities could come back without first falling quite so far.