Home > Appreciated Quotes, Chatter > Searching For The Inexpressibly Beautiful

Searching For The Inexpressibly Beautiful

Well Put

It was inexpressibly beautiful.  I drove transfixed.

~ Author Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America

This is Bryson’s comment upon driving along the Grand Traverse Bay in the early 1980’s. Strong praise from a book full of strong criticism of the sprawl seen across the country.

Traverse City’s downtown earned praise as well:

Traverse City looked to be a wonderful old town that seemed not to have changed since about 1948.  It still has a Woolworth’s, a J.C. Penny, an old-fashioned movie theater called the State and a timeless cafe, the Sydney, with black booths and a long soda fountain.  You just don’t see places like that anymore.”

Times Change, Sometimes

This passage of The Lost Continent was sent to me from someone relatively new to Traverse City and full of good ideas. He encouraged me to read the humorist’s take on things like box stores, parking lots, sidewalks (or missing sidewalks) and other place focussed observations. As we were recently discussing the attraction to and popularity of Traverse City, he added in his email this thought: “We should honor Traverse City by making sure the new, high density development occurs downtown.  We need to draw that “Portland line” around the city to keep farm and city separate, but close, and to keep our “wonderful old town.”

I haven’t read Bryson’s books, but in the 1980’s, our sprawl was just finding it’s groove. Bryson could have easily missed it. However, as a community we have often embraced sprawl as inevitable and continue to do so by making priority the servicing of that sprawl (South Airport, BLA…). I’d like to trust that we will alter that pattern in the next decade, however, I’m not certain we have it in us.

Yesterday, I bought a vacuum where buffalo used to roam and it certainly wasn’t “inexpressibly beautiful.”


Thanks for the thoughts W.C.–Ding!Ding!

  1. May 2, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Well, everyday life is not “inexpressively beautiful.” It never has been. My money says it never will be. It’s an absurd standard to be applying.

    And one that already has a long history–this is the same sort of moan we heard from the romantics about medieval life.

    Was going to the slaughtering field at Smithfield in London 1800 “inexpressively beautiful?” No, but it helped feed the town.

    Now of course, there’s little use left in Smithfield market, so it’s beautiful.

    Hostility to utility and convenience in the name of beauty to be appreciated mainly by those whose lives don’t require utility or convenience will get you precisely nowhere in fighting sprawl. So better start practicing those wistful romantic laments.

    For decades the romantics bemoaned every aspect of modern civilization in preference to a medieval pastoral playland that had never existed. They loved the land as aesthetic object, they cared nothing for the thousands who broke their backs working it. They loved craft and condemned crass manufactured goods (most of which we now consider to be beautiful), caring nothing for the fact that the alternative to mass production was greater poverty. I don’t think it’s a very good model to work from.

    If you have an “inexpressively beautiful” and practical replacement for the function performed by South Airport, let’s hear it. Meanwhile, welcome to reality: utility is not generally considered to be beautiful.

  2. Mike Grant
    May 2, 2011 at 9:17 am

    I worked with 1000 Friends of Oregon a decade ago and so got to see up close how the “Portland line” worked. The “Portland line” was an example of the urban growth boundaries (UGB) set up as part of the Oregon statewide land use program that was passed in the 1970’s (?). Each city above a certain size had, as part of the program, to establish a UGB inside which they had to provide urban services (water, sewer, etc) and permit building to urban densities, and outside which urban services would not be provided, and urban or even surburban densities weren’t permitted. I want to say that when I was there you couldn’t build on anything less than 40 acres if you were outside the UGB.

    I believe that when it started the cities were supposed to draw their UGB out to where they’d supposedly grow in 20 years. Portland was about the only city that took the UGB drawing seriously, the rest of the cities drew them way out where it was unlikely they’d grow in 20 years, if ever. Partly as a result of the UGB, Portland’s density increased markedly with infill and more dense development. Especially around the light-rail lines that were built in Portland. Of course, there’s also a huge debate as to whether or not the UGB increased housing prices. Last I checked, it was a bit of a wash.

    Oregon’s land use program was challenged repeatedly in the courts and at the ballot box. I believe that until I think last year it repelled all of those challenges. Partly because the program was the result of a grand bargain between rural farmers who didn’t want development pressure putting them out of business and urbanites who wanted to see rural land remain undeveloped. Also because Oregon doesn’t have townships but instead plans by large counties as well as incorporated cities. So there weren’t as many players involved in terms of zoning jurisdictions.

    Even though outside of Portland the program was not really a success in terms of adding density to other cities in Oregon, one definite plus was that the program essentially protected a huge amount of rural land from strip- and suburban development. Because you couldn’t build on anything smaller than some pretty large (like 40 acre) parcel. And it did this without the public having to go around and spend millions of dollars to buy people’s development rights away from them. Because once the program went in then people didn’t have those rights any longer.

    Aside from being imposed by the State, it would seem pretty unlikely to me that anything like the UGB is going to be viable in Michigan in the forseeable future. As the recent Grand Vision experiment has once again demonstrated, there is little appetite on the part of local zoning jurisdictions for any serious and voluntary re-examination of growth patterns that would change the prevailing model. Unfortunately, I think it’s far more likely that the State’s fiscal crisis could force consolidation of local zoning jurisdictions. And that’s also very unlikely, with the considerable political power of outfits like the Michigan Township Association.

    Or $6/gal gas prices could effectively start to do it, once people want housing/shopping/employment options that don’t depend on them owning a fleet of cars, and find that the current system poorly provides those options. But those folks aren’t exactly in a position to force density where it isn’t wanted.

    Mike Grant

  3. Mike Grant
    May 2, 2011 at 9:28 am

    One more point about Portland and the UGB’s. The other critical element to making the UGB effective in Portland is that it has an elected regional planning and zoning authority (Metro). Metro encompasses Portland itself, as well as all of the surrounding suburban cities and, I think, a good deal of the un-incorporated parts of the neighboring counties. Metro has been able to keep the UGB together and increase density in the face of its local unpopularity because it is a regional (not local) zoning/planning authority. And so it ties the fate of an entire region together.

    Michigan could have such regional planning/zoning authorities. Townships have no inherent power to zone/plan as far as Michigan’s constitution is concerend. But at least so far there’s been no political will to try it.

    Mike Grant

  4. May 2, 2011 at 9:55 am

    Yes, there are other models for South Airport that could see it still function largely as it does today and yet be more hospitable to people. This post was a quick reflection, not a prescriptive antidote. Beauty here isn’t simply an aesthetic, beauty is also an elegance and efficiency that we’ve largely abandoned in the pursuit of one perceived notion of utility. A more beautiful trip to the mall for me would have been a safe, comfortable and convenient way to get there without a car…something only partially related to a romantic version of beauty that you seem to be rejecting.

    If a more resilient community that is “beautiful,” again, in the broadest sense of the word, across the region is “absurd” than so be it, call me an idiot for dreaming believing we can do things differently. I continue to come back to the point that there are some of us who feel strongly that how a community functions is a choice and it’s best to raise that to a more conscious level than simply allowing what some might believe to be inevitable to dominate the discussion.

  5. Ashlea
    May 2, 2011 at 10:16 am

    what ever happened to “beauty is in the eye of the beholder…”

  6. Sharon Flesher
    May 2, 2011 at 10:29 am

    Have you read Bill Bryson’s essay on why no one walks in America?


  7. May 2, 2011 at 10:39 am


  8. May 2, 2011 at 11:16 am

    Not to say that we can’t have things different. What I’m saying is that, historically, whatever has been of particular use to the lower classes has been thought of as crass and ugly and stupid by the contemporary educated classes and those under their influence. This includes a great many objects, buildings and designs that later generations of the educated classes venerate as objects d’art and/or triumphs of form meeting function (assuming that said objects are outmoded and disused).

    My point: a lot of the aesthetic rejection of things like South Airport boil down to hostility for the hoi polloi, not an attitude I suspect will garner a great deal of sympathy in the influencing the planning process.

    If we had implemented a UGB the day after Bryson published his little piece, South Airport would, quite rightly, have been within that line. As would Hammond, I suspect.

  9. Greg
    May 2, 2011 at 11:18 am

    What was just said?

  10. May 2, 2011 at 11:25 am

    One the effect of very expensive gasoline. I think the hopeful scenarios (igh gas prices bring us all back to reason) are a bit sanguine.

    I suspect very high gas prices will have one predictable result that few have thought through properly: Very expensive core real estate values and a decline in peripheral real estate values.

    In the TC area this more or less boils down to the really rich not caring, the semi-rich getting richer and the bottom end of the home-owning market getting poorer and the rental market getting more expensive. You won’t see a lot of people moving inwards because they simply will not be able to afford it.

    Retail establishments in central areas will become relatively more expensive because of the upward pressure on property values. I’d guess the utility of maintaining a car will remain high even at $8-10 a gallon as it will become crucial to that class of people who have no choice but to travel to seek out better prices and make large bulk purchases. The major loss to outlying stores will be directly to gasoline (greater share of disposable income going there) rather than to any major change in where people live & shop.

    Anyhow, that’s one rather pessimistic scenario . . .

  11. Mike Grant
    May 2, 2011 at 12:28 pm


    I think that there’s an mistaken assumption that if gas prices continue to climb then we’ll somehow simply turn the clock back to the 70’s/60’/50’s/40’s in terms of land use and transportation. Especially retailing. I would agree with you, however, that such a dramatic and sustained rise in gas prices would be much more likely to adversely affect the smaller, local retailers than the larger, more national ones. The smaller retailers (think Tom’s) compete in terms mainly of convenience and service. They rely on similar kinds of distributed supply chains to source their products and I would think would be just as much or more affected by oil price increases than larger chains (think Meijer).

    In the short- to medium-term as fewer and fewer people could choose to shop on the basis of convenience and service, I would think that the smaller retailers would suffer at the expense of the larger ones. It’s really only at the point that people no longer have a car to take them out to the big box stores and haul all the stuff home that the smaller local retailers have some advantage based on their proximity to established residential areas. But, as you point out in a certain fashion, people living in those established residential areas would tend to look disfavorably on accommodating large numbers of lower-income people in dense housing. So, if gas prices do continue to climb, I’d agree the more likely scenario is that a lot of those lower-income folks would not be able to relocate in order to lower their transporation costs.

    Mike Grant

  12. May 2, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Geez: tough crowd here. I can see disliking my rather contentious post, but Mike Grant’s little even-handed treatise on Portland? What’s to dislike?

  13. Bill
    May 4, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    “I wanted to live in an apartment across from a park in the heart of a city, and from my bedroom window look out on a crowded vista of hills and rooftops. I wanted to ride trams and understand strange languages. I wanted friends named Werner and Marco who wore short pants and played soccer in the street and owned toys made of wood. I cannot for the life of me think why. I wanted my mother to send me out to buy long loaves of bread from a shop with a wooden pretzel hanging above the entrance. I wanted to step outside my front door and be somewhere.” – THE LOST CONTINENT-Travels in Small-Town America, Bill Bryson

    An Urban Growth Boundary is one way to ensure high density/mixed use development and thus multimodal transportation options, but certainly is not the only way. Other intelligent planning and zoning policies could create a similar result. Traverse City is no Portland, but we do have similarities. One of which is that we already have a lot going on here that is leading us in the right direction. The city, other organizations, and the residents have helped to keep Traverse City’s downtown a great success, and new developments here have been good fits for downtown. We also have a fantastic neighboring agricultural community, much like Portland does. Future high land sale values for strip mall and residential development might be tempting for even the proudest “Grown in Michigan” farmers, and some type of cooperation between the city and the neighboring townships has to be possible to preserve these lands as agricultural. The suburbia we have in between the farms and Center City will always be there, and always be auto dominated. But smart infill and some attention to basic non motorized needs/connections there are still important, and can be addressed by new policies that provide those needs as new infill arrives.

    Regional land use policies such as this will not be easy, but they are possible. It is certainly not too late. We do not know what our city has in store for it in the next 30 years. It could keep the same, relatively moderate growth trend that it is on now, or find some reason to take off. We should be prepared. Traverse City, with all of its faults that it may have, is a beautiful town and region. Let’s keep it that way.

  14. Bill
    May 4, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    And to comment on an earlier post, “utility is not generally considered to be beautiful.”

    “Utility” according to Wikipedia:
    “In economics, utility is a measure of relative satisfaction. Given this measure, one may speak meaningfully of increasing or decreasing utility, and thereby explain economic behavior in terms of attempts to increase one’s utility. Utility is often modeled to be affected by consumption of various goods and services, possession of wealth and spending of leisure time.”

    Hmmm, I love to watch the measure of relative satisfaction on the faces of those waiting at stoplights on suburban roads. Is a high density block in downtown or a strip mall in the ‘burbs more economically utilized? My brother in the outskirts of LA defines his leisure time as the time he spends driving home from work chatting on his phone. These suburban situations sound neither beautiful nor utilitarian.

    Some of the most beautiful things I know have the most utility, with an old fashioned downtown lined with trees, benches, wide sidewalks, and lots of people walking together being one of those. We must stop and realize what we saying when we think of jumping in our car to arrive 10 miles through the sprawl to get a cup of coffee as more utilitarian than walking several blocks through a well designed people-oriented town. Who came first, the car or its driver? Most now seem to think the driver is nothing without his car, and with modern “planning,” they appear to be right.

  15. Greg
    May 4, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Regional Land Use Policies? It’s sad to think there are people who would like more regulation instead of less. Personal Property Rights are disappearing fast enough without someone in the city dictating what can be done with property in “Suburbia”.

  16. Bill
    May 4, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    No, regional land use policies won’t necessarily regulate landowner rights any more than current zoning laws do now. It could make things more clear to landowners and residents though as we already have land use restrictions that change with the tide according to transportation issues, environmental concerns, political thoughts, neighbor concerns, or money. This creates a patchwork of unplanned results over the years that can create a bit of a mess. Also, one landowner’s rights ends where another one’s begins. A development here, a road there, and an industry over here and suddenly long time neighbors are all in a fuss because it is not what they thought the area would have ever become. Just look at the BLA.

    Regional plans are not new; the Grand Traverse area will likely join an MPO of some sort down the line. The problem is that once regional planning is set in motion, it takes a while of playing catch up to deal with years of patch planning to get on the right track. In that time, countless tax dollars are wasted because of chaotic infrastructure and services, transportation and environmental mitigation, and even from state economy and tax revenues lost because land was not best used. A well studied and thought out 30 or 60 year horizon regional plan can make things clear as to what will be where and how that will impact the region as a whole. This does not have to be a private property issue and regional plans do not necessarily create more regulation, but clear and purposeful regulation. We no longer live in just a neighborhood or a city or a town. We have larger footprints and larger areas to roam and we must plan accordingly if we don’t want to look back fifty years from now and ask “now how do we fix this?”

  17. May 5, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    With or without planning, the publicly shared, and publicly funded, built environment that services our private properties isn’t neutral. It has consequences and costs, and I support communities making as many of those value choices up front, instead of always having to react to decisions made in the past. Can we foresee everything? No. However, there is plenty of experience to show patterns of success and failure…we’d be foolish and wasteful not to apply them as regionally as possible.

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