Have you thought about sidewalks lately? In Mister Boomer’s constant examination of the boomer years (which he considers the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s — the heyday of boomers approaching adulthood), he recalled the sidewalks on his block some sixty-plus years ago. The entire idea of sidewalks has gone though great changes in the decades since the boomer years. So why ask the question now?
Mister Boomer contends that boomers didn’t think much about sidewalks; they were just a fact of both city and suburban life. Rural living didn’t have much need for sidewalks outside of the nearest town, but practically every area where multiple houses were built next to each other in the post-war decade were linked not only by roads, but sidewalks — paved passages, most often built parallel to roads, but intended for pedestrians.
How did we, as boomers, get to take sidewalks for granted in most urban and suburban locales? The story of sidewalks goes back thousands of years. Some mention Ancient Rome’s stone “ways” as among the first. Certainly Medieval Europe had forms of sidewalks in some areas — walkways constructed of slabs of stone or cobblestones. Our modern, western notion of sidewalks may have begun in London after the city was rebuilt following the Great Fire of 1666, when paved walkways for pedestrians were codified in city planning. European immigrants to the Colonies brought their notion of city design with them.
Mister Boomer recalls with no small measure of nostalgia, the sidewalks on his and neighboring blocks. He grew up in a subdivision built in the 1940s, while the War was winding down, presumably in anticipation of the need for housing once soldiers returned home. The sidewalks were striking examples of 1940s concrete construction in that they were filled with visible aggregate — stones, pebbles and seashells that fascinated a young Mister Boomer. When the county installed a sewer sytem in the area in the beginning of the 1960s, the wonderful sidewalks Mister Boomer enjoyed walking and examining were replaced by more modern concrete with a smoothed top surface.
In those early days, boomer mothers told their pre-teen children to stay on the sidewalk. Boomers learned to ride bicycles on sidewalks; they learned about respecting traffic and when to cross streets to sidewalks on the other side. Sidewalks became an area of play, for games like hopscotch to tic-tac-toe, and making chalk drawings. Still, sidewalks provided the safest, most direct way for boomer families to walk to nearby shopping, churches, friends and neighbors. Sidewalks were especially important before the idea of two-car households became the norm.
Walking was part of daily life, but as boomers aged into teenagers, car culture also grew. With it began the decades-long decline in the amount of walking people do on a daily basis. Consequently, by the 1970s, many new subdivisions in sprawling suburbs were built without sidewalks. That practice continued into the 1990s in some areas.
Today there is a renewed interest in sidewalks. From coast to coast people are asking whether we need more, and safer, sidewalks. Boomers, as well as Millennials and Gen Xers, are looking to live in communities that embrace walking, with accessibility for all, easy walking distance to goods and services, and livability as the goal. While concrete continues to be the most widely used building material on the planet, after wood, people are also becoming aware of the impact that concrete production has on the environment. Change is inevitable.
Boomers have witnessed the coming and going — and returning — of sidewalks in their lifetimes. The next generation of cities and suburbs will plan for more environmentally-friendly methods of building and production, but will definitely include sidewalks as a vital part of life — something boomers knew decades ago.
Do you have specific memories of sidewalks in your neighborhood, boomers?