Perspective: From the Notebook of Pedestrian Pete

Jan. 16, 2018 URBAN PLANNING

A lifetime thinking about his hometown and beautiful spaces across the world led him to believe in the power of place.

Spaghetti Warehouse in Houston

A lifetime thinking about his hometown and beautiful spaces across the world led him to believe in the power of place.

In December, former Houston city council member and walkability advocate Peter Brown passed away at age 81. An architect and Houston native, Brown created a second identity for himself as the persistent Pedestrian Pete.

The Urban Edge wrote about his passing in December; “With an architect’s eye, planner’s sensibility and a fedora, he railed against thoughtless new development and what he called ‘litter on a stick,’ utility poles with a tangle of wires that sprout from Houston’s limited sidewalks like weeds in the concrete, only these weeds impede strollers, wheelchairs and walkers.”

His daughter, Cathy Halka, shared some of his writings that spoke to his time in Houston, his views on walkable spaces and community and, ultimately, life itself. Below, the Urban Edge shares excerpts of his writing, condensed and lightly edited for length and clarity.

On place:

Memories need a place to become. Mine reappear from a pale yellowish childhood bedroom, in a white, one-story brick house with two big arched windows, filtering from the pungent gardenia hedge lining the front porch, the street where I first practiced riding my bike. The grade school hallway with its terrazzo floor and worn wood paneled classroom doors, with those big bronze knobs, comes into focus like an image reappearing beneath the fluid in a photographer's lab. I remember the sounds and smells of overnight train rides during the war years to and from Houston to Oklahoma City. The most vivid recollections, often in fine photographic detail, stem from the indelible fusion of place and experience. One could not exist without the other.

Over my lifetime, I have experienced a profound and intimate connection with places where I’ve lived, with sharply defined, finely chiseled, replayable images like favorite scenes from an often watched movie.

Southern cities, with their distinct culture, climate, vegetation, and architecture--Houston, Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis--somehow retain an imprint of regional town flavor, so important to a sense of identity and belonging. These cities and towns have an after-image. I understand why most Southerners I know have strong attachments to their hometowns. They harbor an almost instinctive capacity for attachment, loyalty, and pride.

I do not believe it is possible to truly thrive as a person without living deeply and intensely in a place. Good places make us infinitely more human. The best ones inform us, in subtle ways, of what it means to be human. Bad places neutralize or defile us. This realization could be the motivation to make the world, and probably ourselves, much better. We relate to a place in a special, intimate way, by virtue of its uniqueness, or its geography. A good place feeds our soul; from it we can experience living in a genuine and authentic sense, realistically, affectionately and passionately, connected to something beyond ourselves. It is understandable how so many books and movies are held together by a sharply portrayed place, and what power and attraction that locale has over the characters who move in and out of its boundaries. Places are alive, never static; they grow on us, and in so doing, change us; they are also transformed by the subtle accretions of time, by voices and footsteps, weathering like an old copper roof.

On Riverside Terrace:

Until I was almost seven years old, I lived on Palmer Street in Riverside Terrace, in the North McGregor area of Houston, a modest upper middle class neighborhood of quiet streets, one busy boulevard, a nearby park, a strip of small shops with a grocery store, two churches, and a backyard railroad track. Most of the houses had front porches. The immediate neighbors on our street seemed to know each other. There were usually a few residents out strolling at dusk, or even after dark. The oval shaped Calumet Park nearby had a few steep slopes, which made for good bike riding. All sorts of people gathered there, enjoying the benches, picnic tables and metal BBQ pits, as well as swings and a jungle gym. I would say there were about 300 homes in the 40 square block area of Riverside Terrace. Nothing was more than a five-minute walk away, and out in the street there were a lot of kids my age. After school, there was always someone to play with. It was a friendly neighborhood, a good place to be a kid, before the war.

The neighborhood was a self-contained microcosm, which a child could comprehend. We learned quickly who had a new car or bicycle, who could afford hired help, or who just moved in to the vacant house. On the other side of the oval of Calumet park was a section of Riverside Terrace where wealthy people lived in stately houses, even larger than the homes on Southmore Boulevard. Though we rarely saw these people, their homes were part of our neighborhood and added to its importance and enchantment. Some of the wealthy children were in my first grade class; they didn’t seem much different than the kids on my block.

On River Oaks:

Our family lived on Tielway, from 1948--as I was finishing the sixth grade-until 1954, when I went off to college. It’s the longest I've ever lived in one place. I had a paper route, began to shave, started dating girls, learned to drive, owned several motor scooters, several cars and a boat there. I attended River Oaks Elementary and later graduated from St. John's Preparatory School. St. John the Divine was my church. I knew every street and intersection in River Oaks, which stretched for about two miles east and west and one mile north and south, covering over a thousand acres. River Oaks even had its own police force, an elite squad from the Houston Police Department. They got generous tips from the wealthy families at Christmas time and looked kindly the other way at kids’ pranks and shenanigans. Most of my parents’ friends lived there. It was the province of Houston’s newer “old money.”

The boys only seventh grade classroom at St. John’s School, unlike River Oaks Elementary, was formal, reflected in the khaki uniforms and black ties we wore. It took several years to feel at home there. That was in the late fifties, when Jim Crow segregation was still in effect.

On Houston:

My grandfather Robertson used to sit and read in an overstuffed chair surrounded by books, in the comer of the dark-wood Victorian living room at 109 Hathaway Avenue, a house he had built in the early 1900s. It was from this chair that he told pioneering stories to his grandchildren. It was his place, as far as my memory can tell. Other than his deathbed, where he spent his last months surrounded by tubes and green oxygen tanks, this was his place. Those two contrasting places-the one terrifying, the other comforting, are how I remember my grandfather.

So it is with people, families, and places, from past generations into the future; Houston was my grandfather's place, it became my mother’s place, and after a long journey of youth, growing up and returning home again, it became my place, too.

On building communities:

Toward the end of the 1980s, I started working on several new community projects in the Northeast, including Newton. Designed to reclaim the virtues of small town life, the model was a traditional mixed-use village, with a center you could walk to along “main street,” a town square, local shops with a dentist and friendly insurance agent occupying the spaces above, churches, playgrounds, and schools all within walking distance of most residences, and a wide variety of housing choices, all within the same community. Perhaps it was an idyllic vision, a nostalgia for the hometowns erased by 20th century progress?

The models for these traditional communities are found in old-fangled places like Princeton, New Jersey; Boulder, Colorado; Charleston, South Carolina; Santa Fe, New Mexico or lesser known towns like Amherst, Massachusetts, or villages like Oxford, Ohio; Newtown, Pennsylvania and Toms River, New Jersey.

There are also the wonderful old streetcar suburbs, still thriving, with their village centers around the commuter rail stations, epitomized by Ardmore, Haverford and Bryn Mawr on Philadelphia’s Main Line, where I lived for 15 years. These places have real functioning neighborhoods and village centers. Here, life seems to work better. It is safe, convenient, friendly, humane; families thrive, people walk in their neighborhoods, different social groups co-exist comfortably, the economy progresses comfortably, crime seems to be low or at least under control, and there is a noticeable civic spirit; democracy at work in its best sense.

So we planned these communities to be built from scratch as “new American villages” and settled on the terminology of “neo-traditionalism,” recalling the enviable paradigm of late 19th century and early 20th century town planning. Then in the early 1990s, a new movement in American planning and urbanism emerged, inspired by the words and work of Florida planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and their colleagues, today called “New Urbanism.” Their message is that the physical pattern of cities, towns and suburbs, with its haphazard array of congested streets and incompatible land uses, simply does not work. It’s inefficient, ugly and unhappy. I have taken a part in in the “New Urbanism” group. We need to rekindle the best ideas of the urbanism of the past; embrace the “traditional neighborhood” concept as the basic building block of community life.



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