Our recent power outages have got me mulling things over. First, why, in one of the richest counties in America do we have more and longer power outages than in India? But I digress.
I want to talk about place. Without power, and internet, one has a lot of time to mull, ponder, ruminate and consider. (Sorry, readers but when I’m mulling, that means a long post.)
During the recent three-day power outage, I traveled often to nearby suburbia, which had power. We spent lots of time in those generic, cropped-up-overnight “town centers.” You know, those tasteful, potted-tree-and-awnings centers where you can always find a Panera, Chipotle, Five Guys or Carrabba. Each lunchtime and dinnertime we found new, good food to eat. But after several days, I was feeling unsettled, unsatiated. I couldn't put my finger on why. The food was fine, tasty even. I knew that going in – that the food would be predictably delicious. A Chipotle burrito bowl or a Five Guys burger – delicious as usual. People were milling about, in a good mood. The settings were pleasantly designed and pleasingly lit with natural light, with well-thought-out seating plans.
It got me thinking about place, and what makes a place a pleasant place. I happen to live in an area where most restaurants and stores are locally owned. You can go out and eat at different restaurants and be pleasantly surprised (or disappointed) by a dish. Just five minutes up the road, you can find independent Thai, Chinese, Peruvian, and Mexican restaurants. (And Thai, Chinese, Peruvian and Mexican people eat there.)
And they all may be gone in five years.
You see, our area is about to be redeveloped, with a jazzy new town center, pedestrian walkways, new streetscaping and possibly hundreds of new “luxury apartments” over top of new restaurants and retail. It sounds exciting. Everyone wants to clean up the more run-down areas and revitalize. The town center will be shiny and new. Its mixed population will bring racial and socio-economic diversity to our town. Teenagers will have a new place to hang with their friends.
But what happens to the small local pizza joint that has been here since 1967, where all the firefighters and police officers hang out? Will the Greek father and son owners be able to afford the rent in the shiny new building? What about the women’s consignment store, whose owner I have known for ten years, and whose college-age son I watched grow up at the local pool? What about the bakery where the local owner knows my son's name and knows he likes the chocolate cupcake with chocolate icing? Or the shop where the teenage hipsters buy 1960s Valentine's Day cards and vintage sweaters?
What about the organic grocery in the low-slung, old 1950s town center, where one day the chef offers “quail eggs in homemade hibiscus vinegar w/ sea salt” and the next, “crispy turkey skin wrapped around andouille, sweet potato, and brussels?” Will it be replaced by a Macaroni Grill? Will there will be no surprises, no recipe to be tried, no new dessert introduced by a chef's whim?
I know what the new places will look like. Everyone does. They offer familiarity.
The cornices, wide sidewalks (for cafe tables and market umbrellas, of course) and “green walls” will please the eye. The brick will be the right color of brick, with just the right, tasteful amount of pink – not that cheap brick. Or maybe there will be a couple of towering sandstone-faced columns and the word “grill” or “rock” in the restaurant name. There will be at least one restaurant with a wood-burning fireplace. The ground level stores and restaurants will have 20-foot ceilings. Maybe the town center will have a retail store with whole timber beams. The heavy glass and wood doors will have clever handles, like canoe paddles or trowels. The pathways leading up to them will be of flagstone, flanked with thick, rock-covered walls and nice benches. The metal Victorian lampposts must be painted forest green.
But how will I know where I am? How will I know I'm not in Colorado or Virginia or Michigan? What of place?
Think about some of the places that are revered, that have been for many years. Think: Georgetown, Rhinebeck, Telluride, Santa Barbara, Athens, Burlington and many others like them. They don’t need “mixed use town centers” or manufactured “green space” and "pocket parks." We don’t know why, but we feel at home in these places. We walk on uneven sidewalks. We walk by imperfect windows filled with objects arranged (without a chart!) by local owners who know their customers. The downtowns were built slowly, over time, by locals. There are also good examples of new developments, which are not quite the same as the naturally occurring towns, but come close: Seaside, Fla. and Kentlands, Md.
Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have a Lebanese Taverna on my corner, or be able to buy a black Gap Favorite T two blocks from home - for a while anyway. But will my town's uniqueness, its sense of place, be lost?
Mixed use and dense, vertical smart growth are the New Urbanism planner mantra and the snoburbia development method du jour. Developer$ love thi$ approach, too, and they can $ay they are "green" to boot. (Bonus!) Our whole county is headed in this direction – and fast. But is this wise? [Read an article debunking Portland's smart growth here, and an article about the burgeoning debate between New Urbanists and the interloper Landscape Urbanists, here.]
I predict: The new high-end, the snoburbia of 2030, will be the places that resisted.