I spent last Wednesday morning working in the profoundly pleasant Prairie Cafe in Middleton Hills. This is the kind of unassuming place that you’d assume would make really first-rate breakfast and soups and maybe a heavily besprouted chicken-salad sandwich, but where you might hesitate to order a hot lunch. In fact, the corned beef hash, while homemade, was just so-so, while the reuben was really first-rate. The cold black-bean and corn salad that came alongside in lieu of coleslaw was even better, a crisp contrast to the thoroughly correct hot goopiness of the reuben.
Middleton Hills, it turns out, is a Duany Plater-Zyberk development in the “New Urbanist” style. Which means mixed retail and housing, walkability, density, stores fronting directly on sidewalks, cheap houses and expensive ones on the same block, and so on. Basically, if you take every feature of America’s soul-killing suburbs that people like to complain about, invert them, and build housing developments based on the result, you get something like New Urbanism.
As for me, I grew up in one of America’s soul-killing suburbs, and I like them! One of the nicest features of the Near West Side of Madison is that you can get on your bike and be in an authentically urban landscape in 15 minutes; or, after a 15-minute drive in the other direction, you can pull up in the oversized parking lot outside the even more oversized grocery store and load your station wagon until it groans.
Anyway, Middleton Hills. My first impression is that it’s charming; the houses all share a mild kind of Prairie style, but no two on the block look exactly alike. The main drag, Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, winds around a big and agreeably wild pond; lots of cattails, lots of birds, grass not too kempt. The street names do a good job of congratulating you for your participation in sustainable development — John Muir Drive, Aldo Leopold Way, and, best of all, Diversity Road.
My second impression is that it’s completely empty. You can see that the streets are laid out to encourage pedestrianism and unplanned human interaction, as in Princeton, a favorite town of Duany Plater-Zyberk’s, and mine. But at three in the afternoon, the only people I saw were a trickle of kids coming home from school, and a birdwatcher. The birdwatcher and I watched a sandhill crane for a few minutes. Then I sat down to continue revising a long-overdue paper with Michel and Venkatesh about sums of three squares. (Among other things, the paper features a careful explanation of the group structure — more properly, torsor structure — on the set of representations of a squarefree integer n as the sum of three squares. More on this when the paper’s finished.)
What makes Princeton’s streets lively and new-urban, of course, is that it has a big and interesting downtown, whose shops and restaurants serve not just Princetonians but residents of the surrounding towns. Middleton Hills has a grocery store, the Prairie Cafe, a pizza place, and a Starbucks — not enough to draw foot traffic away from Madison, or, for that matter, downtown Middleton. If this post pulls in a throng of reuben-lovers, I guess I’ll have done my bit for the New Urbanism.