Monday, July 12, 2010

Bolingbrook IL.

"What a nice day, I think I may go for a drive through the subdivision, then a few parking lots, so I can take a stroll through the city center complex"

It is Monday. Monday mornings combined with my inability to get to Good Beans before heading to the office often result in a very slow start to my work day. On days like this, I often go through the "Yahoo Stories" which tantalize me with colorful stock photographs and catchy article titles, and are placed strategically right under the summarry of my work inbox. So naturally, when given the choice of "Re:Re:March 2009 Board Mtg. minutes update 3a" or "Are Silly Bandz just a fad?" I tend to go the silly bandz route.

On this caffeineless Monday, I innocently clicked on "America's best places to live" and casually scrolled through the list of towns I had rarely to never heard of. The descriptions were vague, and the photos clearly directly from the board of tourism, but I wanted to see if any local burgs had made the cut. The 100 city list did eventually give Ann Arbor some love (the only Michigan city) but it was actually number 43; Bolingbrook, Illinois that caught my attention.

It was the photo that initially grabbed my attention. While most of the other profiles featured images of quaint downtowns, forested parks, or laughing children, this one was an aerial shot of a "lifestyle center" type shopping mall. Why would this manufactured cartoon of a traditional downtown full of national chain retail be chosen to symbolize what the experts(?) at CNNmoney chose as the 43rd best place to live in America? I quickly read the included description and conducted a little research on my own to figure out more. What I discovered was a town that was completely devoid of pre-world war 2, pedestrian oriented planning, and forced it's residents to rely almost completely on auto transport.

In fact the first large developments in Bolingbrook were two subdivisions built in the early 50's known as "Westbury" and the "Colonial Village" These were quickly followed by shopping centers, apartment complexes and housing subdivisions, all charmingly named. This mash-up of disconnected development of course leads to a lack of community identity, to the point that an atlas actually listed the entire town as "Colonial Village." Perhaps this identity crisis contributes to why this city of 70,000 people considers itself to be a "village"

Beyond Bolingbrooks issues with identifying itself, it also seems to be having a hard time figuring out what a town really is. As I stated earlier, the town does not appear to have any sort of traditionally built city center, so a mall development company was kind enough to manufacture one for them. The photo of this "lifestyle center" actually makes it look rather pleasant, it seems to have many of the attributes that urbanists appreciate in a place, narrow streets, on street parking, outdoor seating, and pedestrian scaled architecture....but then you take a look at the
big picture. What seemed to be a progressive pedestrian oriented commercial corridor is actually surrounded by acres and acres of paved surface parking lots. Even though the mall company released this p.r. photo to make the mall seem quaint and pedestrian friendly, what they ended up creating was a place that you had to be a motorist first, and a pedestrian second.

Other gems include the inclusion of a "fishing lake" on the "town center complex." Any time you have to refer to your town center as a complex, you know you are doing something wrong....and what kind of town center has room for a fishing lake?! The description includes such charming retail options as IKEA, and Macy's to give you that authentic one of a kind down home Bolingbrook experience. My favorite inclusion, however, was the disclaimer at the end of the article saying that event with all of these fabulous things, most residents of Bolingbrook must make the 30 minute drive to Chicago for employment.

...As you can tell this all touched a nerve...

Bolingbrook looks great on paper. The median family income is near $100,000, there is 21% job growth, and 66 % of the residents went to college. But aside from the statistics, the closest thing this town has to an identity is a "Town Center Complex" with a side of fishing lake. I have not spoke with any Bolingbrookians, but I wonder how they would answer if I were to ask them what their town looks like...feels like

Flint has not had a great relationship with top 100 lists, so perhaps I should not be so quick to pass judgment on this town. However, what I really hope to learn from this is how we define places as good or bad. As livable or hostile.

How would you define Flint?

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