If you look at up-and-coming, small-to-midsize cities across the country, you might say they’re “evolving.”
Input Fort Wayne’s parent company Issue Media Group is built on sharing the stories of such comeback cities, as Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Cincinnati—just to name a few.
But what’s interesting to me is the way that people often talk about the changes happening in cities today.
The newly developed Promenade Park in downtown Fort Wayne is one recent example of evolution in the city's history.
In Fort Wayne alone, we’ve seen recent evidence of evolution. Within the last few weeks, the historic Landing district downtown opened its new pedestrian-friendly streetscape, closely followed by announcements about a downtown grocery store coming to Harrison and Berry Streets with hot-and-ready takeout items.
Even within my neighborhood of Southwood Park about 10 miles away from downtown, we’re getting a new Italian market and wine bar set to open its doors any day now. And when people talk about these changes, at least on a local level, they often attribute them to millennials—or the desire to attract more "millennials" (generally meaning anyone under the age of 40).
The narrative seems to go: Young people want Fort Wayne to have cool stuff like New York or Los Angeles, and as a city, we want to have more young people, so let’s appease them by bringing their new-fangled, big-city ideas here.
However, cities had concepts like pedestrian-friendly streetscapes and neighborhood grocery stores before millennials were even born. Actually, before the popularization of the automobile, downtown Fort Wayne looked shockingly similar to what we’re trying to recreate. People walked the streets by foot or hopped streetcars to get to work; they ducked in and out of neighborhood restaurants, grocery stores, and shops on their way home.
In other words, Fort Wayne was a happening place, so perhaps what we’re actually doing is summoning the spirit of cities' past in a spell of pre-automobile nostalgia.
This is another way I hear people talk about Fort Wayne’s revival. That, as a society, we crave a return to downtown and people-first design the way that hipsters crave vinyl—because it’s simply a better experience.
However, I've discovered that the truth of the matter goes deeper than that. In fact, the elements that make cities great aren’t a passing phase or a nostalgic trend. Instead, some of these ideas have been around for an extremely long time—at least 2,000 years to be exact. Just ask ancient Pompeii.
Me, being a tourist in Pompeii.
My husband and I recently traveled to Italy, and he wanted to tour the ruins of this ancient Roman city. I was initially a little creeped out by the suggestion.
As a quick history reminder, Pompeii was the Roman city (near modern Naples) that was suddenly buried—and miraculously preserved—in volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted next to it in August of 79 A.D. People were just going about their daily lives when, at about noon, the volcano—which they thought was a mountain because it hadn’t erupted in more than 1,000 years—suddenly blew its top off, sending a plume of ash, pumice, and volcanic gases an estimated 20 miles into the sky.
(If you look at my photo below, you can see how close Vesuvius is to the forum or city center of Pompeii. By drawing a line up from the mountain’s edges to meet in the center, you can see how big the volcano once was—and how frightening that explosion must have been.)
The ancient Pompeii forum was dangerously close to Mount Vesuvius, which is still an active volcano today.
Within a matter of hours after Vesuvius erupted, Pompeii and everything in it—all the people, animals, and buildings—were covered in ash and frozen in time exactly as they were in those final moments when everything came to an end—dogs writhing on the floor, mothers shielding their children, people covering their eyes and crouching low to the ground.
After the ruins were finally discovered in the mid-1700s, an 1800s Italian archaeologist named Giuseppe Fiorelli developed a way to preserve some of the animal and human remains at Pompeii by filling the cavities left by their bodies with plaster to create lifelike casts—some of which you can still see onsite if you visit today.
The bodies of ancient Pompeii residents have been preserved in plaster, like the one shown here at the historic site.
The images are chilling. I wasn’t sure I was ready for that. It almost felt invasive to gawk at people in their final moments. But what I found interesting is that, along with preserving the inhabitants of Pompeii, Vesuvius also preserved the ruins of the thriving urban life they created—a city that stretched for roughly 170 acres and housed an estimated 10,000-20,000 residents.
What historians tend to love about Pompeii is that it wasn’t an unusual city for its time either. It wasn’t a particularly wealthy or poor place. In fact, it was the ideal example of what a middle-class, Greco-Roman community was like, which makes it fertile ground to discover what life might have been like for the average Roman in 79 A.D.
Now I was intrigued, and when I visited Pompeii as a 2019 Fort Wayne resident, I was pleasantly surprised to see how little cities have actually evolved in the last 2,000 years.
Yes, Fort Wayne is an “evolving” place in the sense that we’re growing and changing. But many of the changes we’re implementing today are similar to features that made ancient Pompeii a great place to be in its heyday, too.
Let me give you a few examples.
Middle class homes and shops in Pompeii lined the pedestrian-friendly streets.
First, people in Pompeii lived communally. The structure of the ancient city was much less like our small-to-mid-size suburban communities today, and much more like what you might find in places like Manhattan or one of America’s college campuses, to be exact. If people wanted to get something to eat, or even use the bath, they simply had to walk down the street to a public amenity, and this, my friends, gave them that elusive human experience we often forget we need, but deeply crave: social interaction.
It would have been hard to go a day in ancient Pompeii without talking to someone outside of your own household or workplace. The city was designed for intermingling, which leads me to my second point: Pompeii was an accessible place.
The decorative floors and walls of some Pompeii houses have been restored. This was a wealthy home in the city.
As Rick Steves' Europe audio guidebook series puts it: "There were no posh neighborhoods in Pompeii. The well-off and not-so-well-off mixed it up as elegant houses existed side by side with simpler homes."
Neighborhoods in Pompeii were equipped with their own public bathhouses, too, where locals could hang out and exercise. Neighborhoods also had their own bakeries and (get this) “fast food” restaurants where the citizens of ancient Pompeii could pick up hot-and-ready, grab-and-go options on their way home from the bath. (Sounds nice.)
The remains of a "fast food" restaurant in ancient Pompeii. I'll have the chicken nuggets!
Speaking of accessibility, there is evidence that middle and lower class Pompeii residents had access to not just any foods, but desirable foods, so food deserts were not a thing. In short, the rich and poor alike enjoyed a life where quality food and amenities were never more than a quick walk away—even though chariots could have driven them across town.
Which leads me to my third point: The people of Pompeii consciously chose to build their city as a pedestrian-friendly place. In fact, they literally put boulders in the center of some streets to stop chariots and designate these areas as “pedestrian only” zones. Sound familiar?
(Yes, even the people of ancient Pompeii had to park the chariot and walk a few blocks from their parking spot occasionally—and they realized it did them good!)
You can still see the chariot grooves in the streets of Pompeii from 79 A.D.
As in modern cities, the main pedestrian-only zone in Pompeii was the city center, which was known as the forum. At the forum, residents could visit the market, pay tribute to the gods, or participate in civic life and local decision-making.
Which brings me to my final point: While neighborhoods had people's basic needs for health and survival, their downtown area was still where residents came together for entertainment and engagement. It was still the center of local life.
When people ask why Input spends so much of its time and energy on telling stories about downtown and near-downtown neighborhoods, this is the answer: Because city centers are where communities come together. They provide us with common ground, and if the heart of a community is not healthy and active, it will be divided against itself.
The city forum was the center of ancient Roman life.
Don’t get me wrong. Pompeii was not a perfect place or the ultimate ideal of what modern cities should strive to create. But perhaps the most relevant lesson we can learn from it is this: The changes happening in up-and-coming places like Fort Wayne today aren’t great, experimental advancements in urban development. They aren’t trends or fads or the starry-eyed whims of young people we’re trying to lure out of New York.
No. These ideas have been around—and shown success—for about 2,000 years now. So if you want to talk about new-fangled concepts in urban planning, you might take a look at the U.S. after the popularization of the personal automobile. These whippersnappers in the 20th century thought they were onto something when they abandoned their urban cores, started driving everywhere, and isolated themselves (usually by race and class) in neighborhoods, and spoiler alert, it isn't working.
Instead, this relatively young concept of a car-driven, suburban society has arguably made our communities more divisive and depressed—not to mention less healthy for ourselves and our global environment.
On the other hand, concepts like connectivity, accessibility, and people-first design are ancient history.