Fresh eyes: Joel Landau

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From time to time here at Triad City Beat we invite community members to contribute to the conversation in a section we’re calling “Fresh eyes.”

Today’s essay comes from Greensboro resident Joel Landau, perhaps best known as the proprietor of Deep Roots Market for a couple of decades. Landau helped shepherd the market into its newest incarnation, the fancy downtown grocery by the ballpark, and left the business in June 2013. Joel has also run for Greensboro City Council three times.

Children of Sprawl

By Joel Landau 

 

Welcome to Oakland!

 

Well, not really, but more on that later.

I grew up in New York City, in the West Bronx near University Avenue and 176th Street. We lived in one of the two-story brick duplexes that lined our side of the street. On the other side, six-story apartment buildings stood shoulder to shoulder. A few dirt patches in the sidewalks sprouted the occasional tree, but mainly there were lots of people living close together.

One advantage of growing up in a densely populated area was that schools, playmates, shops and recreation were all in walking distance. The few destinations that were further away were usually easily reachable by bus or train. As a result, our parents didn’t have to devote hours each day to shuttling us to and from activities. This in turn helped us kids learn independence.  Outside of school hours I had to be home by whatever time Mom decreed, but other than that I could come and go upon my kid business, on my own schedule.

I have trouble pronouncing Rs. One solution is to ignore them. A former employee of mine loved how I pronounced “Saturday,” oblivious to the R in the middle. Sometimes she’d ask repeatedly: “Joel, what day comes after Friday?” She’d laugh when I’d answer, “Sataday.” I was glad to play along. If everyone could be so harmlessly and easily amused, the world would be a safer and merrier place.

When I was 11 years old I went for speech lessons at the downtown campus of what was then called Hunter College. Getting there involved leaving school early, walking five blocks to a subway station, taking the southbound train, getting off somewhere under the East Side of Manhattan, going up a level to catch another train, getting off the second train at 68th Street, coming out of the subway and finding the building entrance, then going upstairs to the right office. After my session I’d reverse the process to get home. My mom took me the first couple of times to show me the way, but after that I was an 11-year-old on his own. Mom had better things to do than escort me downtown and back — this despite my extreme shyness.

As a child I did not talk to kids I didn’t know, and didn’t talk to anyone older than me whether I knew her or not. But despite this shyness life in the big city enabled me to act independently and look out for myself. I’ve learned to be comfortable exploring new places and doing things on my own.

Which brings me back to Oakland.

Shortly after college I lived for a few months in Berkeley, Calif. One day I took the train into neighboring Oakland for a job interview. I’d never been there before and as I got off the train, which was underground at that point, I had an assortment of exits to choose from. Above ground there was a convergence of three streets. I wasn’t sure which way to go, so I started up one staircase that seemed promising. I asked a guy coming down if he knew which way I should go to get to my address. He stopped and launched into a tirade: “No, I can’t tell you that. You gotta go up there and look! don’t have time to give directions to people. If it was my job and I was being paid for it, then I could tell you, but I don’t have time to tell you which way to go! You gotta go up there and look!”

Wow. I was stunned. The guy had stood there for 60 seconds ranting about how he didn’t have 10 seconds to answer my question. Welcome to Oakland.

Believe it or not, this column has to do with our largely random approach to land development. We love to sprawl. I’m not about to address in this column all the pluses and minuses of sprawl, except for this one consequence: As we spread further and further apart, it becomes impractical to walk or use mass transit. When our kids need to go somewhere, they have to be driven. The children of sprawl don’t get the chance to find their own way. Both parents and children lose time and independence as the children of sprawl depend on adults to transport them to and from their activities.

I wonder what my mom did with those afternoon hours while I was riding the train downtown and back, learning to do things on my own. Whatever she did, I imagine many of today’s parents would be envious.

 Joel Landau lives in Greensboro.