Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Improving" our town

Last year, the borough of Highland Park tore out all the sidewalks along Raritan Avenue, the main drag, and built new ones. The old sidewalks, I should mention, were not only in good condition but practically new; they had been torn up just a year or so earlier to add new curb cuts at the intersections. But the new ones were apparently an integral part of Highland Park's Streetscape project, a $2.2 million dollar project intended to add new shade trees, bike racks and outdoor "living rooms" at the intersections. The project was slated to begin in August and last 6 to 8 weeks; in fact, the sidewalks were torn out for most of the winter. Finally, after months of picking our way along Raritan Avenue at our peril, we got brand-new sidewalks that looked almost exactly like the old sidewalks. The only visible difference was a series of rectangular gaps in them, presumably designed for new trees.

Now, I might have thought that all this was worth it for the sake of getting some trees planted along Raritan Avenue, because the street had very few mature trees and very little shade in the summer. But the new trees that they've just started planting are those skinny, frond-like kind (Zelkova, according to the sketches for the Streetscape project) that give no shade to speak of; the most they do is filter the light. And what's worse, the few mature trees that already existed along Raritan, providing the few small pools of shade we had in the summertime, have been cut down, leaving only fresh, raw stumps behind.

At the intersections of Third and Fourth Avenues, the sidewalks boasted some much larger holes—each about three feet deep, with the footprint of a large closet. The Streetscape sketches indicated that these were intended as "rain gardens," which help soak up rainfall and reduce runoff. Again, this sounded like a good idea. The holes sat empty, surrounded by orange plastic mesh, for some time; then gradually, they began to be filled in with layers of mesh, sand, dirt, and finally, as of last weekend, some tiny green plants. Walking along the street today, I observed that the newly-planted rain gardens have apparently found another use as trash receptacles. The newly-planted greenery was liberally strewed with juice cartons, candy wrappers, and cigarette packs. I couldn't even try to clean it up, because they're still fenced round with the orange plastic stuff—which is too low to prevent anyone from dumping litter in, but too high to allow anyone to reach in and pick it up again.

I guess we're lucky that we live far enough from the center of town that our neighborhood hasn't been slated for "improvement." I just hope they stop beautifying the rest of the town while there's still anything left of it.
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