Suburbia is inherently automobile oriented. It is a cultural landscape dominated by strip malls, subdivisions, and clogged transportation corridors that demands deference to cars. The people who moved to the suburbs brought with them cultural traditions that included a wide array of religious beliefs. As ranch houses and more immodest dwellings sprouted in residential neighborhoods after the Second World War, churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship were built for the people who lived in them.
Orthodox Jews, like their Reform, Conservative, and non-Jewish neighbors, rely on cars to survive in suburbia. Trips to the grocery store, to work, to school, to summer baseball games, and to the mall all require getting in a car to make the trip. Unlike their neighbors, however, Orthodox Jews must hang up their car keys for the weekly Sabbath and for other high holy days because of religious laws prohibiting certain activities that include work, carrying objects, pushing and pulling things, and operating vehicles.
These Sabbath prohibitions created new scenes and cultural landscapes in otherwise ordinary suburbs. As new suburban Jews began filling in cul-de-sacs and subdivisions off established transportation corridors after World War II, their densities created demand for new religious infrastructure and synagogues were built or congregations occupied repurposed church buildings whose congregations had moved on to bigger and better quarters in farther flung neighborhoods.
Despite assimilation in workplaces, schools, community organizations, and politics, the one place Orthodox Jews cannot assimilate is the Sabbath roadside between Friday afternoons and late Saturday evenings. It is where time and space collide in Southern suburbs as Jews walk to and from synagogue and to friends’ and relatives’ homes for socialization.
Higher densities and more trips exposed suburban Jews and laid bare their beliefs. Anyone driving in Atlanta’s Toco Hills area or Kemp Mill in suburban Washington’s Montgomery County well knows that on Friday evenings and Saturdays the sidewalks and unimproved road shoulders are crowded with the observant walking to and from synagogue. Some folks simply call them “the walkers.”
Planners, geographers, landscape architects, and residents recognize that suburbia is not the safest nor the most accommodating pedestrian environment. Yet, out of economic or religious necessity, people do travel by foot in suburbia. And when they do, they sometimes create their own infrastructure to meet new demands.
Sometimes this new infrastructure is as unobtrusive as an Orthodox Jewish eruv (see above). It may be little more than an eroded and compacted dirt line parallel to a road yet to the trained eye, it speaks volumes about human behavior.
Take this stretch of road on the west side of Briarcliff Road in Atlanta, Ga. There is a paved sidewalk on the east side of Briarcliff, yet people appear to have created an informal sidewalk on this side of the road.
The informal path is something transportation engineers and landscape professionals call a desire line or desire path: an ad hoc circulation system created by people traveling to new destinations not conceived in earlier plans or which appear when new pedestrian habits are formed, e.g., new pedestrian habits like those of observant Jews who walk on the Sabbath.
Desire lines entered landscape lexicon in the 1950s and first appeared in print in a 1959 Chicago metropolitan transportation study. In the 1959 study, desire lines described marks on a map to illustrate where users most wanted new transportation infrastructure and amenities. By the 1980s, desire lines had become identified as secondary circulation networks that consist mainly of “dirt foot trails that cut across the landscape,” according to the book Rebuilding Central Park (1987, The MIT Press).
Briarcliff Road’s desire lines may be attributed to people walking to and from MARTA bus stops and to other pedestrians who for whatever reason choose to walk on the west side of the road instead of the east side with the sidewalk.
Hidden among the anonymous pedestrians are the observant Jews who live in the neighborhood inside the Virginia-Highland eruv and who choose to walk on the west side because that is the side of the road that always remains inside the eruv boundaries where they are allowed to carry things (books, house keys, coats) and push things like strollers during the Sabbath and other high holy days.
The weekly use of unimproved suburban rights of ways by observant Jews has created desire lines throughout the nation’s suburbs. In Atlanta’s DeKalb County, they are so pronounced that a 2008 livable centers initiative (LCI) study for the Briarcliff-North Druid Hills area geared towards developing more sustainable communities firmly linked desire lines in neighborhoods with large numbers of observant Jews to Sabbath walking.
According to the 2008 DeKalb County study,
The collection of sidewalks in Briarcliff–North Druid Hills is nothing close to a network – sidewalks are scattered in random fragments all over the area. Consequently, residents cannot easily or safely walk anywhere; the automobile is accommodated above any other form of transportation. This is a particular problem for the large Orthodox Jewish population that lives in and around the area who are precluded by their faith from operating motor vehicles on the Sabbath. The many exposed strips of earth in the grass alongside the roads – the “desire lines” – reveal local demand for sidewalks.
Suburbia is a complicated place. Just as architectural historians are starting recognize great variability in what previously were considered homogeneous housing tracts, landscape scholars and geographers are recognizing more diversity among suburbia’s people and cultural landscapes. Sometimes the clues to greater suburban diversity are as simple as a well-worn dirt path alongside a busy road.
© 2013 D.S. Rotenstein