The life of the boulevard

I contemplate, from here on my front stoop, the purpose of the city boulevard.

Boulevards are the no-man’s land between private and public property, the line where what-is-mine meets what-is-no one’s; strips of green or brown or mottled space running north and south, east and west, laid over the city like a criss-crossed counterpane.

Upon boulevards, we leave behind what we no longer value. They are the collecting places for empty things: condoms, beer cans, fast food bags, brilliant glossy bits of paper that once wrapped chocolate and nougat and peanuts. They are the resting places for dead things: a twisted black crow, a hapless squirrel, pocket bottles that once held whisky and rum. They are the amassing places for abandoned things: discarded tissues, half a newspaper, ends of cigarettes, one odd and soggy sock.

From boulevards, we take what we want. Reaching through the fence or over the wall to tug raspberries off bushes or the heads off lilies is morally less than bankrupt if we are, after all, just standing on the boulevard. Boulevards are experiments in socialism among capitalists. Someone else’s grass belongs to our dog. Someone else’s flowers are ours for the picking. Someone else’s peace in the garden is ours for the disrupting, with our arguments, soliloquies, and blaring music.

We are schizophrenic about our boulevards. They are at once ours and yours. Ours should be private; yours should be accessible. We could fence them in, corralling them in short black wrought iron like Chicago or fancy neighborhoods in New York — then there would be less errant dog leavings to clean up, anyway. But perhaps inebriated or age-unsteady evening walkers might trip and fall over the foot-high fence-lettes, impaling their ankles — then we’d have entire persons to scoop up in the mornings. Better the approachable, truly Minnesotan, unfettered boulevards.

In attempts to beautify boulevards, some plant flowers and with them, signs that beg pedestrians to grant the wee garden life. Some plant wildflowers, not knowing they are actually weeds, and create boulevards of three-foot-high ragtag allergy demons. Some plant rock and even concrete, and I’ve come to understand this response. In an attempt to minimize water usage, I pulled up the struggling grass on my boulevard and planted what was supposed to be ground cover impervious to the struggles of city life. But before any plant merges into groundcover, it is first a spotty colony of widely spaced individuals who haven’t yet learned to hold hands across the soil, and those are all too easily smushed into oblivion by passers-by walking five abreast and dogs who have recently eaten chili.

A boulevardier is a man of the world. There does not seem to be a feminine version of this word; perhaps men cannot be “of the world” unless women are sitting home being not of it at all, but that is the subject of another afternoon of sitting on the stoop and contemplating Truths.

A boulevardier is a man of the world, and perhaps that indicates that boulevards themselves are meant to be worldly, often ugly, reflections of the grit and gristle of city life. Our comings and goings, our transportings of ourselves, our movement and travels and explorations, leave behind a trail of things we do not wish to carry with us. And so boulevards accept us, and our foibles. They are our public byways, our paths through the heart of other people’s detritus, our access to walking mere inches away from each other.

Pamela Hill Nettleton lives in Whittier, where she writes books and magazine and newspaper articles and essays. She also teaches journalism and media studies at Marquette University in Milwaukee.