Bourgeois Deviant

Monday, November 28, 2005

Sprawling Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving at the ‘Rents in NoVa was a lovely time. The giving of thanks transpired, delicious food eaten, tasty beverages were imbibed, lovely weather enjoyed and relaxation was had by all. My Mrs. especially enjoyed the time away from the rat race of the five boroughs, as did the BD.

Something peculiar happened to me during this American holiday that is superficially about gluttony and the kick off of the holiday shopping season. I grew sad. Mind you, it was not the kind of depressive sadness that some members of dysfunctional WASPy families get because of their dysfunctional-ness. It came on slowly as I saw more of the place where I grew up. To the point, we drove west to Amisville, Va. to cut down a Christmas tree as is my family’s custom and all I saw pock-marking the rolling hills of Virginia’s countryside were strip malls and chain stores. 5 Guys, Starbucks, Lazy Boy, Einstein Bagels, Wal*Mart and the like were everywhere as far as they eye could see down the road. It used to be that Route 66 West and the offshoots from it lead to nothing but country. This is no longer the case.

Please do not interpret this observation and reaction as one betraying an anti-development stance. To the contrary, I am mad for smart development. However, what I saw in NoVa was anything but smart. Hegemony and unsustainable banality was the mainstay. It made me experience more of a malaise, really. Living in the five boroughs affords me a great deal of diversity in daily life. I can choose from dozens of restaurants and ethnic derivations of food at any time of the day or night. Local artisans hock their products in store fronts and on street corners. Non-chain business is the norm here. It is, it appears from my visit home, that this is increasingly a rarity in the rest of America.

This, in a roundabout downer way is to say that Northern Virginia is boring. As I understand it (from several sources) DC is getting better and more interesting, but still has a way to go. Meanwhile, NoVa is being developed at a dizzying rate and not in a good way. Subdivisions as far as the eye can see with nothing around them. You can’t walk anywhere and you certainly couldn’t even do so if you wanted to should that, in time, change. There aren’t any bloody sidewalks.

It is true that New York is a walking city. I happen to love to walk. Its good exercise and you get to know things better when they go by slow, to borrow the Poi Dog Pondering lyric. Slate just had a podcast about bicycling in Los Angeles that really resonated with me. Andy Bowers said that for people in cars, Los Angeles (and areas throughout the country like it) is insufferably crowded, but as soon as you start biking, you often move faster than much of the motor traffic. This is bearing rush hours as the prime examples.

Now, Northern Virginia, I suspect, has similar suburban living plans as would lead to oppressive car traffic and the like. So, pedal bikes would be a great alternative, right? Well, sort of. Los Angeles has the climatic advantage of little rain and moderate temperatures year round. So, should California residents in these sprawl type areas wish it, they certainly have the option to bike, time and bodily fortitude providing. My hometown doesn’t have as much of that particular luxury, really. The weather doesn’t provide for it. Heavy rain periodically, seasonal cold weather and longer distances to goods, services and even employment opportunities are certainly prohibitive. And yes, there is the sweat factor. Feel the humidity.

So, set aside the idea of the American Dream of having your house with the white picket fence, a car in the garage and a turkey in the oven. That has been a nice thing, but wrong headed. The local leadership of the nation is missing a bet by allowing all of this mcmansion and sprawl development to happen in the way that it has. If design were to incorporate the climate of the region, the topography and the colloquial uniqueness of place, not only would things be a lot more interesting, they would be a lot more sustainable and communities would be a great deal stronger. Small, local entrepreneurship could be more readily encouraged by state and local governments and this would stimulate more employment opportunities to open up for community residents across broad skill sets.

I have often contended that big business is analogous to cancer in our society. This malignancy is aided by space and environment (i.e. suburban sprawl). Slowly in some places, you see people downsizing, moving closer to work and they call it a luxury. In the current societal context, luxury is an appropriate term, but isn’t that sad? Rather, shouldn’t it be incumbent upon government and society to develop and to arbitrate development towards a positive and sustainable pattern? Clearly this isn’t the way things are going yet and that is disheartening. The greed of America isn’t sustainable and, according to some, is beyond critical mass. I believe that the rampant sprawl development I witnessed in Northern Virginia is indicative of what is wrong with our society’s development as a whole.

Consider what you think are the quintessential American values. Can do attitude joined with ingenuity and the entrepreneurial spirit have been among the strongest backbones that have built America into the positive and increasingly mythologized place that was the beacon of hope and freedom to the world. I fear that the country is now a shadow of those ideals at present. Strong communities with strong values, be they right or left leaning, and the right to express them openly in public debate have been a citizen’s birthright since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Greed and hegemony are undermining all of this and they are draining the uniqueness out of our places. Is profit really worth all that?

These are utopian statements that are more than likely not at all realistic, but what is the hurt in trying aside from some development conglomerate or chain retailer not getting their ideal profit margin to pay to their share holders. The positive and sustainable paths are right in front of our eyes. Complacency and ignorance are our biggest hurdles. The work is there for the doing and the choices are there to be made. Your dollar is the same a vote or endorsement. Buy smart. Don’t buy big because it is not always better. In fact, sometimes bigger is just more of a liability. Except when it is turkey.

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