What's that sidewalk snowplow pushing? Complacency, alienation, obesity...

It comes in the night, disrupts our sleep, blocks the driveway and rips the grass, and leaves in its wake what it touches at its point. I refer, of course, to the sidewalk plow.

When I was a lad in Holland, Mich., I use to thrill at the sight of the sidewalk plow, and thought it must be, along with Zamboni driver and professional baseball player, the best job in the world. I’ve grown to loathe these snow beasts, for they also symbolize how governments can disrupt the obligations, and thus the cultivation, of neighborliness.

They do not come cheaply. The city of Holland pays about $120,000 per plow and earmarks roughly $57,000 a year for the service. Under its sidewalk fund, the city of Wyoming in 2010 spent over $363,000 on snow removal. Then too, there is the problem of emissions.

A sidewalk, as part of a front yard, designates the brackish area connecting private and public life. We might rightly judge a person’s public spiritedness by how well he keeps his lawn trim or his house in repair. We wouldn’t expect the government to do those things, but we would rightly accuse the person next door who didn’t do those things of not caring about his property, and thus devaluing our own.

One could use the blunt instrument of the law to legislate those murky areas where public life and private life blend together. The Virginia Articles of 1610 insisted that “Every man shall have an especiall and due care, to keepe his house sweete and cleane, as also so much of the streete ... as will answere the contrarie at a martiall Court.” While we may be uncomfortable with this level of coercion, it does address the problem of how we might make good neighbors out of individuals, without which social life breaks down very quickly. Many municipalities do insist as a matter of law that individuals clear their walks. Ann Arbor, for example, has a clearing ordinance, but more importantly identifies the act as one of “courtesy and caring.” Is this legislating morality? You bet it is.

Which brings us back to the sidewalk plow. Government plowing a sidewalk attenuates rather than strengthens the sinews of neighborliness. A people who can’t keep their own walks clear are unlikely to take on the more arduous tasks of citizenship. And in an age where obesity is widespread, the health benefits of shoveling can hardly be overstated.

It may be objected that some individuals can’t shovel their walks. If we don’t know our neighbors well enough to know if they need our help, and if we do know they need our help and refuse it to them, then we are hardly the sorts of persons capable of self-governance, belief in which requires belief in self-reliance and care for one’s place. If growth in personal responsibility is not encouraged and attained, then the clumsy inefficiencies of participatory government will inevitably yield to a regulatory officialdom satisfied to rule over contented sheep.

It may be argued that I have no obligation to serve my irascible neighbor. G.K. Chesterton observed that the Bible demands we love our neighbors and our enemies because, more often than not, they’re the same person. Mutually maintaining public spaces on private properties seems a minimal expectation of free persons, whether they get along or no. When the government engages in acts such as clearing our walks it encourages a retreat into private life that destroys the public realm. It encourages selfishness.

The good citizens of Traverse City have this figured out. Recreation trails there are being cleared by citizen volunteers committed to ensuring people have safe places to walk. Even more impressively, El Grupo Norte Youth Cycling pulls behind bikes plows “built and designed locally by our neighbors, Mr. Otwell and Dr. Auer” to keep sidewalks and trails clear. As they say: "Pulling the plow isn’t easy though. You will work. Your legs will burn. Your heart will pound. But, you’ll have fun doing it. ... Get fit and help your neighbors in the process.”

An enlightened sentiment by an enlightened and free people who stay fit, save money, cut down on emissions, and serve their neighbors. Others should take note.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Bill McGraw
Fri, 01/24/2014 - 6:48pm
What city is shown in the photo? It's not Holland or Traverse City. I'm guessing Montreal.
Barry Visel
Sun, 01/26/2014 - 9:59am
Volunteerism is great...helping your neighbor is great...legally requiring people to maintain PUBLIC walkways (in most cases they are NOT on private property) which they may or may not use, or perhaps didn't want in the first place--not so great. This helps me understand why I'm more comfortable living in the country...no sidewalks! PS: I'm still engaged in my community, serving on our planning commission. Lack of sidewalks doesn't make me a hermit, or care any less for my neighbors.
Paul Stid
Sun, 01/26/2014 - 10:56am
Thank you Mr. Polet, "you hit the nail right on the head." While I appreciate the drivers of the snow plows and the initial bulk of snow they remove, I have the same thoughts about their cost as well as hundreds of capable people that could be out shoveling their sidewalks. I would also go as far to say, no snow blowers. However, in this society that has been weakened by mechanical machines that spew contaminants into the air, my comment about no snow blowers would probably be considered blasphemy. Also, I am not sure what our police officers here in Holland make per year but I would bet that the sidewalk snow plow budget would fund at least one officer if not two. That makes more sense to me. Take heart Mr. Polet, that I still shovel. I spent three hours yesterday clearing my sidewalk and other areas around my home as well as a couple of my neighbors. Maybe someday we can convince this great city of ours to disband with the sidewalk plows, and hire another police officer or firefighter as well as get more neighbors to know each other.
Matt Roush
Sun, 01/26/2014 - 11:41am
The HEALTH BENEFITS OF SNOW SHOVELING? Are you SERIOUS?! Does this writer know how many people a year die of heart attacks while shoveling show? It's absolutely the WORST thing you can try to do if you're anywhere north of 40! SHEESH!
Steve Bean
Sun, 01/26/2014 - 2:23pm
It's not the shoveling that causes the M. I., it's the crappy diet and lack of adequate exercise south (and north) of 40 that sets the stage for it. Correlation is not causation….
Marc Zigterman
Sun, 01/26/2014 - 5:04pm
Correct. And we should also shovel the road, maintain the sewer that serves our homes, teach our own children. Indeed, why stop at just shoveling the road. We should each build our own roads, this would certainly strengthen the sinews of neighborliness. Growing up in Holland I always had a cleared walk (about a mile) to school. Most people had their driveways done by the time I left, but not the elderly, not the people away from home, not the infirm. Today in Dearborn everyone gets their sidewalks done eventually, but you will see runners and walkers braving the road rather than the haphazardly cleared sidewalks. It would be a wise use of our tax dollars to invest in sidewalk plows. And if Holland needs an extra police officer I suggest everyone pay an extra $5/year in taxes. That should just about cover it.
Mon, 01/27/2014 - 6:30pm
This is excellent. Mr. Zigterman shows far more insight into the world than does Professor Polet. We collectively pay to have many things done because it is a more efficient use of our resources. Does a talented writer contribute more to the community by creating something that illuminates the world, or by shoveling snow? Some people claim that relying on altruism to provide bone marrow transplants is morally superior to paying donors because it provides people with an opportunity to exercise their moral faculties. But do the people who die for lack of a transplant find that policy so moral?
John S.
Sun, 01/26/2014 - 7:52pm
This is an interesting and thoughtful article. The old school plastic shovel is going out of favor, but as far as I can tell, gets the job done just about as fast. Perhaps measuring the percentage of houses with cleared sidewalks 24 hours after a snowstorm is a better measure of social capital within a community than the more sophisticated measures thought up by social scientists.
Mon, 01/27/2014 - 9:55am
I am a 60+ year old woman who lives on a block in Detroit where I am a relatively young person. There are several retired folks in their 80s and even 90s and that enterprising young man with a snow shovel that we remember nostalgically from our past is not around. At least he has not come to my door this year. I do shovel my snow, even though I am in that age group where people are busy warning of the dangers of back injury or heart attack. During the recent "big snow" I shoveled my snow 3 times, so I could do it in manageable increments. Up to a couple of years ago, I was shoveling the vacant house next door (now occupied, thank heavens) As much as I would like to, and I used to, I am not up to shoveling the snow of my elderly neighbors or of the several other vacant houses on my block. Our nostalgia for a more neighborly past is just that, nostalgia, for a time when we had not yet thought ahead to what was going to become of all those engaged, committed neighbors when they got to old and/or poor to maintain their cozy neighborhood homes and cut their lawns and shovel their snow. If you want to help out, grab your snow shovel and start shoveling (lift with your legs not your back, drink plenty of fluids and rest often). If not, shut up about the snow plow. I just wish we had one.