Where ownership society meets the sidewalk

[Editor's note: The original version of this story had an incorrect byline.]

I'm always on the alert for signs that my simple suburban lifestyle is starting to crack and fall apart, and that means paying close attention to the strip of concrete that handles pedestrian traffic in front of the house.

You can tell a lot about a neighborhood by looking at the sidewalks. Mine isn't in bad shape, and its lifespan probably caught a huge break this past winter because the jet stream developed a kink and sent much of our usual northwest precipitation south to California.

Rain and ice have an amazing capacity to erode, and eventually destroy, any kind of mineral-based slab that happens to be lying on the ground. My little enclave of ranch-style homes was built in 1957, and it's wearing out in some spots. Ground has a tendency to settle. Trees planted too close to pavement will cause it to shift or snap as the roots expand.

I decided a few weeks ago to improve the appearance of my sidewalk by spraying the whole thing with a power washer. It's definitely cleaner looking, but the high pressure spray also blasted grit and gravel from every nook and cranny, which makes even the smallest cracks blatantly obvious. The old saying is true: No good deed goes unpunished.

I wonder if President Bush has thought about how sidewalks fit into his vision of an ownership society? They occupy a sort of twilight zone right now. In my area, and many others around the country, the sidewalk is actually city property but it's my responsibility to maintain it. It's a system that citizens complain about all the time but has never spawned any organized opposition. Homeowners just grit their teeth and live with it.

There is one corner of my front yard where a tree is cause for concern. At its present rate of growth, it may buckle the walkway in two more decades, creating a major repair expense at the exact moment when I'm supposed to start enjoying my golden years. A friend suggested that I begin putting money into a special fund immediately to handle such a potential future crisis. Sadly, I do not have the necessary excess cash to start a personal sidewalk security account.

It would be easy to demand government help, but neighborhood infrastructure is not a political hot-button issue. I can't foresee a day when Halliburton Corp. will be awarded a nationwide contract to make aging American neighborhoods safe for pedestrians of all ages and walking abilities.

Cracked and crumbling sidewalks don't make the network news. They get repaired on a haphazard basis, depending on the hazard and the income level of the affected property owner.

Just because there's a problem doesn't mean there's a solution. Sometimes the only course of action is to move forward, keep looking for answers, and watch your step.

Jeffrey Shaffer is an author and essayist who writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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