February 18, 2005

Austin Notes: Sidewalks of Liberty

My neighborhood was considered a suburb a century ago, but it’s long been absorbed into central Austin, a mixture of single–family homes, two–families, and low–rise rentals a mile or two from downtown. One thing newcomers—and even oldtimers—think is bizarre about it is the patchwork sidewalks. At this distance from the business district, the city laid down sidewalks only on the main streets, and often only on one side of the street. On side streets, installing pavement is the responsibility of the individual property owner. So you’ll rarely find a block that’s paved along its whole length. Often you’ll find sidewalk in front of one house and no sidewalk in front of its neighbor. Sometimes you’ll find sidewalk in front of three or four houses in a row, and then it stops, like a road under construction. I imagine the homeowners meeting and deciding to spring for the pavement, but one house holding out. Most of the sidewalks are the standard cement kind, but you’ll also find cobble, brick, flagstone, and steppingstone–in–a–stream cinderblocks.

This is the purest manifestation I know of the dream of the single–family home as castle. Each house trying to realize its vision of earthly paradise—for one family a clean–swept suburb, for the family next door a rustic unpaved retreat—and for the most part not complaining to the neighbors.

That makes it vastly different from—to pick an example wildly at random—Madison, Wisconsin, where your neighbors will rat you out to the cops for not shoveling your sidewalk to the width mandated by ordinance. Madison is progressive but not libertarian. Austin is both.