Monday, February 19, 2007

Worth the walk

I noticed this Associated Press story in the newspaper today. Maybe it was published in your daily paper, too. It describes a university study that looked at ways to motivate older Americans to walk. The answer, it seems, is to give them a destination. A snip:

The benefits of walking and being active are well-known, especially for older people, but what kind of neighborhood gets seniors going?It's not necessarily one with lots of walking trails or parks. What matters, researchers found, are the destinations such as restaurants, grocery stores and even bars that are within a half-mile of your home.

I don't yet qualify as an "older person," but my motivation to become a utility cyclist was also directly tied to destinations. The library, the supermarket, the video store, the office — having a destination gave me a purpose. It made me feel better not to be riding around aimlessly.

What if the destination is a locally-owned seafood restaurant? Is this the kind of destination that might lure older people and not-so-older people out of their houses for a stroll? Is this the kind of destination that a community should encourage, if it wants lively streets and active and healthy citizens? I'd say yes. Others say no.

For a number of years, I lived directly across the street from Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room, surely one of the most famous and beloved of all Savannah restaurants. In Mrs. Wilkes' obituary, then-Savannah Mayor Floyd Adams was quoted: "Hopefully, her legend continues through her restaurant and family. She has brought international attention to the community and we thank her for that." Paula Deen called her a pioneer "for women in the restaurant business."

But let's imagine that Mrs. Wilkes was still living and decided to open a restaurant at 107 W. Jones St. in 2007, instead of 1947. Would she receive the enthusiastic support of local politicians? Would people call her a pioneer? I think she'd be called lots of things, but pioneer probably wouldn't be one of them.

I understand controversy over the seafood restaurant on 40th street centers on allegations that the owner agreed not to allow inside dining, but then subsequently installed tables anyway. Still, why should he have been made to agree to such a concession in the first place? What difference does it make whether customers eat inside the restaurant or order their food to go? The real question is this: Is a seafood restaurant, owned by a family that's operated a fish market in Savannah since 1946, a disruptive commercial intrusion that damages the residential character of a neighborhood? Or is it an amenity that makes a nice destination for a walk?

Photo: Stephen Berend, Savannah Morning News


Jim said...

Most of the residential neighborhoods in Minneapolis contain pockets of commercial development. That's why I can live just a few minutes walking distance from my business. Others live just across the street from my shop and the small strip of other businesses in the same building. Our favorite restaurant is 4 blocks away from home, immediately next door to some of the oldest, biggest, fanciest houses in town. I consider having these businesses within easy walking distance a major amenity, and I would be extremely reluctant to live in a place where residential and business districts were more segregated.

Dre said...

You would hope that by encouraging people to stay in the restaurant and eat instead of running in just to get their food and leaving that you were in fact making the area more attractive to nearby neighbors. Traffic, in any form, serves as a sign of growth, success and life. All of these things are needed and loved in Savannah. It is great to encourage creature comforts in surrounding blocks as it makes your home more valuable and creates a benefit and destination much like what John is talking about.
Having worked near Mrs. Wilkes for several years, that is a great example. Residents and employees always grumbled about the parking but they realized the benefit to the community.
If the tables are allowed to stay, in two years it may not be an issue at all; it will be called quaint and cute and serve as an example of what people can do with their communities.
Apparently a lot of people have been thinking about this recently as folks have been visiting this post that I wrote after returning to Savannah last spring. It made me realize just how much I appreciated those creature comforts after I was gone.