A Concrete Concept

Summer sidewalks and driveways invite congregations the way kitchens do during indoor months. And the concrete conversations that spring up are the essence of neighborhood.
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At a party the other night, the last guests lingered in the driveway, talking at dusk. As neighborhood dog walkers and joggers passed by, our group chatted about the definition of “hipster” and the difference between lake and ocean waves in open water.

Summer sidewalks and driveways invite congregations the way kitchens do during indoor months. And the concrete conversations that spring up are the essence of neighborhood. So says international urban-planning consultant Enrique Peñalosa. “When you construct a good sidewalk, you are constructing democracy,” he recently told The New York Times Magazine. Around the world, he says, we design public spaces for cars, not people. “A sidewalk is a symbol of equality,” Peñalosa says. From childhood, sidewalks are pathways to socializing, the ribbon of concrete leading the way to friends and games.

This month, metro Detroit offers plenty of reason to experience life at ground level. Our City Guide highlights several late-summer events, including the Michigan State Fair, the Belle Isle Grand Prix, and local farmers markets. All are occasions that invite walking and mingling, two things that we do all too seldom in our arm’s-length, buffered world of tinted car windows, mute text “conversation,” and face time with glowing screens.

This month, we could be forgiven for lounging in front of the tube, however, what with the Democratic National Convention, the 2008 Olympic games, and the PGA Championship.

There’s a Detroit connection to those broadcasts, and our pages reflect that. It’s been a long time since Detroit played host to its only presidential nominating convention. It was in 1980, and Jack Lessenberry was there. He recalls the political intrigue and its local angle beginning on page 38.

This year’s golf tourney at Oakland Hills will put metro Detroit in the spotlight. Staging the event requires a Herculean effort, one that Lynn Henning examines, beginning on page 41. And when the Beijing games awaken our inner athlete, area sporting clubs may offer an outlet for turning virtual athleticism into reality.

Of course, just hoofing it around the Grand Prix circuit or State Fair midway is better than experiencing life via remote. Or, if you’re lucky and live within walking distance of a farmers market, you can buy local, get exercise, avoid using gas, and see neighbors.

On my last market jaunt, I did just that. Among the pedestrians I encountered along the way was a homeowner spraying liquid weed killer on the greenery invading his concrete seams. The unwanted flora could easily have been scraped out with a garden tool, making his stretch of concrete more neighbor-friendly. At least he was doing his toxic chore with full disclosure. Democratic sidewalks are a metaphor for “sunshine laws” that encourage official transparency. Once again, local headlines remind us that children, adults, and public officials can all benefit from taking it outside, doing what they do surrounded by 360 degrees of fresh air.

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