Given that we live in an age of TV and movies, most of the metaphors we use to describe our lives come from those media. One might take a look at my building -- where neighbors offer to pick up groceries for each other, borrow cups of flour, and fold each other's clothes in the laundry room -- and make comparisons to the classic small towns of television: Mayberry, Mayfield (home of the Cleavers), or Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. But I know I don't live in any of those places. I live on 123 Sesame Street. I hang out on its stoop.
I didn't set out intentionally to wind up on Sesame Street. It just kind of happened. When imagining the perfect home, I always tended to envision streets along the lines of Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny of New Orleans, Passyunk Avenue in South Philly, East 10th Street or West Fourth Street in lower Manhattan, or Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn. But I'm beginning to realize that it was Sesame Street I was looking for all along; always Sesame Street that I had in mind.
I've spent the last seven years in six different apartments in four separate neighborhoods, all in Seattle. I've moved so much not out of restlessness or dislike for the discarded apartments, but due to circumstances: accommodating an extra roommate, moving in with a girlfriend, breaking up with a girlfriend, that kind of thing. The constant moving kept me a stranger to the streets I lived on and walked down -- I rarely knew more than one or two people who lived nearby, and I hardly ever ran into them on my way to run errands or to catch a bus.
This changed last year, when my girlfriend got pregnant, we got married, and I became a father. In the middle of this whirlwind -- just after conception, and a few months before the wedding -- Betsey and I needed to find an apartment to share. We looked for almost two months, checking off ads, scouring listings from apartment finding services, and grilling friends on vacancies they knew about. That drizzly spring, we spent most weekends traipsing up and down Capitol Hill, with Betsey, who was in her first trimester, occasionally stopping to throw up.
It was Betsey who, late one night in March, found the apartment that would soon become our home. It was a pre-WWII building whose outside had been completely ruined in the post-WWII era, its clapboard walls covered with little stones embedded in a stucco-like base. The overall effect was to make it look like a building constructed of kitty litter. Betsey was drawn, however, by a sign on the door atop the high, long stoop. "Don't let the ugly exterior fool you..." it began. Pamela, the building's manager, was sitting on the steps, and offered to show Betsey the apartment, even though it was midnight. Betsey called me when she got home, pretty sure she'd found our new home.
It was a building so nondescript, not to say unattractive, that I'd never even noticed it before. It was just west of the intersection of Broadway and Denny, so I must have walked by it a hundred times. Upon actually viewing it for the first time, I kept my mouth shut. We obviously would have to keep looking. But my mind changed when I saw the interior of the apartment -- it was in good shape, with three rooms plus a kitchen, hardwood floors, tasteful moldings, a built-in glass-front china cabinet, and pocket doors between the dining room and living room, which we would use as a second bedroom. Most importantly, the rent was low for an apartment of its size -- due, I assume, to the building's exterior. We took it.
* * *
Shortly after Henry was born the following December, I found myself watching a lot more TV than usual. It was just something reasonably neutral I could do while taking care of Henry, before he could really do much other than gurgle, poop, and nurse. It was hard to read or work (let alone cook or clean) when Henry was awake, and staring at him, though fascinating, was not generally the only thing I wanted to do while attending to his needs. Betsey and I began watching children's shows with Henry. We took in bits of Teletubbies (a modernist utopia, with an Archigram-derived house/fallout shelter in the middle of an artificially bucolic, wired-for-sound countryside).
We also saw a few episodes of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, that endearing small-town paradise straight out of Andy Griffith or Dobie Gillis, but it didn't hold our attention for long. And we would dig frantically for the remote when that fucking purple dinosaur bobbed his head onto the screen. Mostly, we watched Sesame Street, mornings at 10:00. Betsey and I are about the same age as Sesame Street, which debuted in 1969. And we both grew up with the show.
Sesame Street was my first experience of a city. I had no idea where it was set when I was a kid, or even that it was in a city at all. I tended to imagine all settings as more or less equivalent to the small Midwestern city where I grew up. I was shocked as an adult to learn that Harriet the Spy, to take one example, was an Upper West Sider. As far as I was concerned, she lived down the block. I didn't realize how centralized American culture is, how little of America Sesame Street depicts. I didn't realize my life was considered provincial.
Sesame Street is supposed to represent a Manhattan street, which should be obvious to anyone who's watched the program -- though it wasn't to me until I asked the show's art director, Victor Di Napoli. I was thinking that it might be located in, oh, I don't know, Brooklyn or Philadelphia (it's actually filmed on a soundstage in Astoria, Queens). The folks at Sesame Street actually disagree over which specific Manhattan neighborhood the show depicts. Di Napoli, a longtime Sesame Street staffer, says it's always been based on the Upper West Side, though Joan Ganz Cooney, Sesame Street's founder, said during a 1994 talk at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York that she'd wanted to call the show 123 Avenue B -- in the late '60s, this now prosperous part of the East Village was called Alphabet City, and was considered part of the Lower East Side.
Whether or not I understood Sesame Street's setting, it stuck in my head as a model for how people should live: close to one another, in a place where neighbors knew, liked, and watched out for each other, where chance encounters were common and meaningful. And I've sought that out repeatedly in my adult life.
In Seattle, I couldn't find that sense, no matter how often (and because of how often) I moved. I'd lived in one apartment after another. I once lived in another kitty litter-covered building before this one, in Fremont, built on stilts over a parking lot. The local deli/convenience store was run by a friendly Yemeni family, but my relationship with them was exclusively concerned with discussing the Sonics. They were not going to be my Mr. Hooper. Wherever I lived, I tended to have exactly one friend whose house I could walk to.
I'd seen a wide range of Seattle's affordable rental housing, but never succeeded in finding the kind of urban environment I had stored like a picture in my head. That picture had a couple of variants: a second-floor apartment over a storefront, or the ground-floor storefront itself, adapted to domestic uses after its commercial potential had dried up; or a row house on a quiet street just off a main commercial thoroughfare, with a small, walled-in garden behind it.
I equated specific architectural forms with a looser idea of how I wanted to interact with the neighborhood. I wanted to be close to the ground and close to the street, and separated from it not by a lawn but by walls, which I find more friendly. Just as pedestrian-safety specialists favor on-street parking because it creates a barrier between walkers and rushing cars, I think walls close to a sidewalk make that sidewalk more comfortably contained -- they hug the sidewalk into existence. Like new urbanists, I like my buildings close together, but unlike them, I despise suburbs and think having a couple of boutiques within walking distance is no substitute for a genuinely mixed-use neighborhood that combines home, work, shops, and culture.
Like new urbanists, I think front porches are nifty, but steps are even better. A stoop finesses the transition between public and private spheres with much more grace. It's a passageway that doubles as a place to sit; it's open to the sidewalk, but creates a soft boundary between it and the building.
* * *
A block of row houses -- narrow, tall, brick- or stone-faced homes, connected side-by-side -- is my shorthand for city perfection. Once a widespread building style, it basically doesn't exist in Seattle. The cities and towns of England are dominated by them (where they're called terraced houses, and are the province of the working and lower-middle classes). So are the older neighborhoods in large, early American cities: Boston, Trenton, Philadelphia, Washington, Savannah, Hartford, Baltimore, Providence, New Orleans, and New York. Only in the better neighborhoods of the healthier of those cities are they coveted.
Blocks of row houses generate a perfect urban scale: large enough to support neighborhood groceries, bars, and shops, but not so dense as to create parking crunches or attract huge stores. The residents don't blur into anonymity, yet there are enough people around that you don't know all of them, preserving just enough distance and mystery. The row houses create a perfect street wall, broken by steps leading to each door, but not by driveways or parking lots -- making for a comfortable, pedestrian-friendly sidewalk, the nearby windows reassuring neighbors that others are present, giving the area a sense of observed security.
Sesame Street is built around a single row house. Despite the rich, dense, urban feel of the show, it really only focuses on two buildings: a tenement that houses Mr. Hooper's store and the Fix-It Shop on the ground level, and Bob and a few other characters' apartments above; and 123 Sesame Street, the show's iconic brownstone row house. A two-story building with a daylight basement, 123 is split into three apartments, like many formerly single-family row houses in cities across America. On the first floor live the Robinsons: Gordon, a schoolteacher; his wife Susan, who originally was a homemaker but became a public health nurse after protests from NOW (no kidding!); and their adopted son, Miles. Above them, on the second floor, are Maria and Luis Rodriguez, who run the Fix-It Shop, and their daughter Gabriela. In the basement is Bert and Ernie's place, with its twin beds and bathtub. They don't enjoy much of a view, since the building's trash cans are right in front of their windows.
To the left of 123 is the cobblestoned forecourt to a carriage house, dubbed the Arbor by the show's production staff, and used as a playground. It separates 123 from the tenement. To its right is a line of doors (demolition crews used to salvage the doors from buildings before tearing them down, then use the doors to fence off the vacant lot until a new building could be completed). In front of the doors is Oscar's trash can; behind them is Big Bird's nest.
* * *
These few locations serve as the setting for Sesame Street's loose parables and sketches. But the central place on Sesame Street, the one that's permanently fixed in my memory, is the steps of 123 Sesame.
They get heavy, near-daily use: In recent shows, Gordon read stories to children there; Elmo waited on the steps to meet Zoe for a play date; Bob and Maria taught some Muppets and kids how to sing "Happy Birthday" in sign language for Linda; Big Bird sat down to rest when the strain of tracking an ant (to find out where it was going) became too much for him. More generally, the steps serve basic functions: Muppets go there when they have problems they need to discuss; neighbors meet to make plans; Muppets with nothing better to do hang out.
I was thinking about 123's steps when I realized I live on Sesame Street. Our building's best feature is its long sequence of concrete steps, broken by two landings and ending with a third that serves as a porch. The stairs near the street are bounded by metal railings, while the upper part sports wide, flat-topped edges that are perfect for sitting on.
In my building, the steps' central function may be simply to offer a place to smoke -- an activity fairly prevalent among my neighbors. Hardly anyone who smokes still does so in their own home, so like office workers who congregate in front of their buildings on break, the people where I live go out to the steps to light up. But our steps have other functions. Mollie, a student who lives in the basement, uses the steps like a second living room, reading books and doing crossword puzzles there, sometimes hanging out with her friend Daria, who lives on the third floor. Mollie's three-year old daughter Sabina uses them as a play space, collecting various grownups to help her blow bubbles, collect rocks, compare different sizes of leaves, and jump up and down. Betsey and I sit on the steps to get a break from working, doing house chores, or from Henry while he's taking a nap. We often see our friend Jennifer walk by on her way to her nearby apartment, or catch our friend Matt when he's on his way to the Kinko's across the street to copy fliers for his art space. The steps are great for outdoor barbecues or informal Friday night parties when the weather's good.
For our building, and for 123 Sesame, the steps are a place of everyday use that brings us from our apartments to the bigger world; an outdoor living room, a vestibule, both public and private, connecting the two worlds.
I can also draw loose analogies between our neighborhood's residents and Sesame Street's characters. Our building comprises mostly couples, gay and straight, and most couples have a little Bert and Ernie to them. Whether or not you want to read Bert and Ernie as a gay couple or as roommates, they illustrate the value of mixing practicality with dreaminess in a relationship. My Mr. Hooper is the guy who runs an upscale but affordable Greek/Italian restaurant a couple blocks down. I wave to him when I walk by, and he asks about my wife and son if they don't happen to be with me. I don't know his name, but Big Bird couldn't remember Mr. Hooper's, either, so I guess that's okay.
Mr. Hooper's store itself is a different place: the family-run Super 97 around the corner from us, where you can buy beer, cigarettes, canned food, and a dizzying array of cheap plastic toys and tchotchkes. Sabina, the three-year-old in our building, is a perfect stand-in for Elmo, the three-year-old monster on Sesame Street. She's curious; her favorite word is "Why?" -- though she rarely pauses to listen to the answers to her questions.
We have a surplus of Grouches. I've always read Oscar as a stand-in for the grumpy old man, the neighborhood drunk, or the homeless guy. Our Grouches come in many forms: the street punks who hang out on the corner of Broadway and Denny, and sometimes use a walkway running alongside our building as a drug den; the homeless men who used to sleep on a grassy strip next to the post office on the corner, and who would come up the steps to fish half-smoked cigarettes from the large ashtray near our front door; and the drunk kids who party behind the Dick's Drive-In late at night in the summer, their yells pouring through our windows. Those kids are actually closer to the Muppet monster hordes that yell "Wubba wubba wubba," now that I think about it.
When I'm feeling especially intolerant, I remind myself that Oscar is often helpful to his neighbors, generally without meaning to be. In Sesame Street's 25th Anniversary Special, produced for ABC in 1994, Joe Pesci plays a Donald Trump look-alike named Ronald Grump. He wants to clear out Sesame Street and replace its small, worn buildings with a gleaming high-rise, sporting prominent "G" logos. He's driven away when Oscar, whose trash can is on city property, refuses to leave. How can you sell condos to the wealthy when there's a Grouch hanging out on the doorstep? You can't. Grouches are an effective tool against rampant gentrification.
Besides, our imposing stairs normally serve as enough of a barrier between us and the world; the building's residents are smart city dwellers, and they know how to encourage people to move along when they're encroaching on our space. We defend our steps because we want to use them, and we defend our neighborhood because we like it. We rarely have to call the police, and we're not out to create a sanitized environment where everyone looks and acts like us. But neighborhoods thrive when the people who live in them care enough to take care of them -- in fact, our building was much more run-down before our manager Pamela took over -- and that's what we do.
* * *
A city neighborhood needs green space, which Sesame Street's residents addressed recently by building a garden in a vacant lot behind the Arbor Court. The plan got underway after Gordon tried to read a story to some kids and Muppets, but was constantly interrupted by street noises: Oscar's pet elephant was practicing his tap-dancing routine, then a pair of Muppet construction workers started jackhammering the sidewalk.
Luckily, Mumford the Magician showed up. (Mumford's name may be a tribute to Louis Mumford, the architecture critic and urban historian who wrote for The New Yorker in the middle of the century. Mumford himself had no great love for the kind of urban density New York offers; he was aligned with the English Garden City movement, which called for new cities to be constructed around factories, with greenbelts at the edges. It was the kind of master-planned utopia that informed -- minus the factory part -- many of our planned suburban communities.) Sesame Street's Mumford is also a proponent of gardens. With an "à la peanut-butter sandwiches" spell, the magician conjured an image of the garden the neighborhood's residents should build. They cleared trash out of the vacant lot (Oscar was happy to take it), moved a big rock with the help of Herry Monster, got Snuffleupagus to stomp paving stones into the ground, built planters, and ta-dah! A garden.
We didn't have to build our own green space. There's a small park a block away, built around a city reservoir, that serves as a model of good urban interaction. Its tennis courts, swings, lawn, dirt running track, and athletic field are used by a dizzying array of people: kids from a nearby daycare center, gym classes from the small private schools in the neighborhood, tennis players, parents and their kids, street punks who camp there all summer, and Deadheads who live nearby in their vans. The park's equilibrium never seems fragile: The people who frequent it are committed to it, and are flexible enough to work around, and with, each other. A park is just a grassy wasteland if nobody visits it; I like to think of the various people using the park as active builders of the park, creating it through the act of using it.
* * *
What ultimately separates my living situation from those of the characters on Sesame Street is its impermanence. Television shows are often accused of simplifying life, creating problems that will all be solved within a half-hour or hour. But the beauty of Sesame Street is its permanence, even in the midst of constant, incremental change. Gordon the schoolteacher has been played by three actors, but he's always lived on the first floor of 123 Sesame Street. Hooper's Store isn't run by Mr. Hooper anymore, since the actor who played him died, and the store itself has changed from a soda fountain into more of a bodega, but it's still called Hooper's Store, and it's still just down the street from 123.
My own private Sesame Street won't last. My life, and that of my friends, is deracinated. We don't live near our families, we're ready to move at any time for reasons of business or pleasure, and we're unlikely to build up the dense weave of long-term neighborhood relationships over decades. I may end up moving temporarily to New York. When, and if, I come back, someone else will most likely be living in my apartment. Pamela and Taj, who run the building and are mostly responsible for its current atmosphere, are moving to Charlotte, North Carolina when Taj's employer leaves Seattle. The stores may all change their names and wares at any time.
I hold out hope that, since I've found it once, I can find Sesame Street again, here or elsewhere. I'd still like to live in a place where a brownstone like 123 is affordable (which becomes harder to find all the time). But I'm learning not to require perfection of form, not to think that finding Sesame Street relies on finding its exact architectural equivalent. More important is the web of uses people find for a specific neighborhood; the people in it and what they do.
To find Sesame Street again, I've taken a lesson from the note that precedes the text of Jane Jacobs' sprawling defense of the messy vitality of real urbanism, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Her book has no illustrations; the explanatory note reads, "The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us. For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger, and think about what you see."
Sesame Street suffuses her book, even though it was published in 1961, almost a decade before the TV show's debut. And like the illustrations to Death and Life, the program's manifestations are all about us, but not in any literal sense. The Sesame Street of the real American city is built from small details -- my stoop, the connections among my building's tenants, the guy who runs the neighborhood restaurant and waves when I walk by, the paths I take to walk to work, the things we notice as we walk through the neighborhood.