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 Tuesday, 18 July 2006
Tuesday, 18 July 2006 11:03:22 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00) ( )

According to this article, I'm living in a pretty good place. And I'd generally agree - lots of green areas, good walking and biking trails, etc.

All that said, it is still a suburb. There's no meaningful concept of "mainstreet", just the mall. There's no utility to the exercise trails - they don't actually go anywhere and so they aren't real useful if you want an alternative to driving. And the streets are designed to minimize traffic and noise, not to provide efficient travel from point A to point B.

Of course all those things have positive sides too - except the lack of a mainstreet... The exercise trails are beautiful, and fun to walk or ride. And having kids, I appreciate the inefficient streets because they really do minimize traffic (even if it does take 20 minutes to get pretty much anywhere in Eden Prairie...)

But back to mainstreet. I grew up in the small town of Aitkin - well, 14 miles outside Aitkin actually. But when we went into town every week or two, there was a main street. And on that street was everything you'd need - groceries, drugstore, hardware stores, clothing stores and the theater. A couple times a summer there'd be a big event, drawing the entire area's population onto mainstreet - quite exciting for a young kid! To this day there are events on mainstreet in the summer, and it is still a shopping center, though there's no grocery store there any longer (you have to go out of town for that - taxes are less there).

Later, we lived in North St. Paul, which is, in fact, north of St. Paul. But it was (and is) its own little town; including a mainstreet. On that mainstreet is a grocery, a drugstore, a couple bars, a hardware store - it is a real mainstreet. And sidewalks connect the rest of the town to that mainstreet, so you really can walk down and shop.

You know what happens in these cases? Even in a "town" surrounded by a city? You meet people. You become part of the broader community.

Now this happens in a suburb like Eden Prairie too, but it is fundamentally different. Since no one walks, you only meet your immediate neighbors and the parents of your kids' friends. Unless you specifically reach out, you never meet other people in the community. There's no chance of random encounters (beyond road rage encounters in a mall parking lot), and I think that makes life a lot less rich and interesting.

Sure, there were some quirky and odd people in both Aitkin and North St. Paul - but (unless they are dangerous), such people are the spice of life. When Aitkin's local garbage man died at a young age the community set up an educational fund in his name. Why? Though he didn't do well in school, as an adult he was constantly involved in raising money and support for the school. The fund was a memorial to his tireless efforts to help kids achieve.

Now this isn't to say such a thing can't (and hasn't) happened in Eden Prairie - because it has. Our mayor died unexpectedly a few years ago, and her name commemorated in a local and very beautiful park. But most of Eden Prairie's population never met that mayor - they knew her name from campaign signs and newspaper articles. Aitkin's garbage man on the other hand, was known to almost everyone in town - he was a gregarious and outgoing guy, who was involved in many activities.

But more importantly, the citizens of Aitkin were also involved. See, the ex-mayor of Eden Prairie was also involved in many activities - and yet she touched far fewer people - because the citizens of Eden Prairie rarely interact. The forum simply doesn't exist - there is no mainstreet.

And maybe that's OK, I just don't know. What I do know, is that some of my closest friends life hundreds, even thousands of miles away. I am closer to some people who live across oceans than I am to people in my own community.

So yes, I live in one of the best small cities in the US, and that's awesome. But I also live in several of the best virtual communities in the world, and that's truly incredible. And yet neither one really replaces that concept of mainstreet - of close-knit and random interactions with a broad spectrum of people within a tangible community...

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