Wednesday, July 19, 2006

An Illusion Created for the Moment

My drive in to work each day takes me through a place called Brambleton, which is one of the seemingly millions of mud-and-Tyvek developments that constitute the Rape of Eastern Loudoun County. At a certain point on the drive, the modest, winding, wooded Ryan Road, which hasn't changed much since about 1945, suddenly opens out -- blannnnnnng! -- and becomes Loudoun County Parkway, a four-lane expressway that blasts its way through the ugliest and loudest suburban development imaginable.

At the very point at which LoCo Parkway begins, is a scene that, for my money, is positive proof that this country is headed straight for the wall with no one at the wheel. One the right side of the road is a shopping mall -- anchor grocery store, Starbucks knockoff, hair salon, what have you. On the left side of the road -- remember, a four-lane divided road where the speed limit is 50 miles an hour -- stands a condo development, what, about 300 units packed together, facing parking lots, the Parkway (now there's a view!), other muddy, denuded bulldozed lots where more of these hideous things are due to go up.

What's even more depressing than the architecture, though, is one simple fact that smacks me in the face every time I pass this way: There is absolutely no way to walk safely from the condo side of the road to the other to go shopping. No overpass, no underpass, not even a zebra-crossing painted on the road.

Even if you wanted to, you couldn't put the kids in a stroller or a bike-trailer and amble over to the Starbucks for a latte and a chinwag with the neighbors.

We've designed ourselves into Hell. A Polis without an Agora.

Joe Bageant drove through Brambleton recently, and had this to say, in another of his powerful and beautiful essays that I could only dream of writing:

...Brambleton is a real place. And today I am passing through it under the slowly arching mid-morning sun, which seems to be the only moving thing today in this development Northern Virginia development. There is not a human or even a car in sight down the long wide streets, just a crystallized silence occasionally nicked by the chirp of an unseen sparrow. My rusted out 18-year-old Toyota truck moving slowly along the streets, with its oxidized paint and a dead air conditioner sticking up from its bed gives all the more impression of some post apocalyptic scene from a not-quite-nameable film. A distinct eeriness pervades the sculpted green landscape and its too-bluish precast artificial stone retaining walls and artlessly placed trees, as though it were a movie set about to be torn down any minute, an illusion created for the moment. And in a way it is. Even something as timeless as a tree becomes a prop in places like Brambleton; they will be landfill in a few years because several feet of top and subsoil were scraped during site preparation. Trees won't ultimately survive in what's left, no matter how much mulch, fertilizer and watering is done. But they look OK now in a place where the average house is six years old, in a planned community with no communal memory, no sense of time's trajectory in which one can sense a future, or a common weal except through changes in real estate prices. CNN Money has called this place, 29 miles west of Washington D.C., one of the best places to live in America.
Joe hits directly some of the themes that I was more obliquely aiming at in this post. It's the same place. "There is a Buddhist principle," says Joe, "to the effect that the dream also dreams the dreamer. And that's what happened with the American Dream, which is why we are all sleepwalking through this escalating nightmare of meaninglessness, unable to shake ourselves awake." (Did I mention Joe's piece is a real cheerer-upper?)


Akatabi said...

"Mama Abja's sari bursts into a furious orange blur and you'd best get out of her way." (I can picture the dynamic oscillation of her midriff roll!)

Thanks for the post and the Joe Bageant link. To cheer myself up, I had to look up this bit on making the metropolis liveable. Sometimes zoning laws (backed by an enlightened populace) and incentives to developers can make a difference in our quality of life. Something as basic as requiring sidewalk access. (Also ban internal combustion!)

Kevin Wolf said...

Was just over at Joe's place catching up on my reading t'other day. Between Joe and James Howard Kunstler, I'm about ready to jump off a roof.

Except that, lucky me, I live in a walkable city with communal memory and historic sites (if also some cheesball touristy stuff) that is the antithesis of suburban development.

Thank god.

Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

Having lived in NoVa for 5 years (Tysons Corner, Arlington & Alexandria), I can relate. It's still tough for me to understand the draw of, say, the ubiquitous $450,000 town home in Fairfax -- those developments that seem to spring up like mushroom patches after a good rain. (Who's buying them, anyway?!)

But, every once in a while, a developer gets it right, right? I remember, for example, the Kentlands outside of Gaithersburg (probably the exception to the rule, sadly). Ever seen that development?

Loudoun, if memory serves, was a different animal -- much nicer country. Charming, even, once you got away from the hustle of the greater DC metro influence. I haven't been back there in ages, save one trip a few years back to the new Air & Space museum annex in Chantilly.

Sad to read the news about the place, but not unexpected.

Carl said...

I shopped at that very Harris Teeter last night, in fact. Didn't think of it at the time, but you're absolutely right--a fair number of houses in walking distance, but no freakin' way you could actually take that walk.

Love those big-ass houses that are five feet apart, too. Jesus, either build real single-family homes with real yards, or build townhouses. Greedy bastards.

Neddie said...

That's real inteersting, Carl... Where do you live? (I'm not looking for an address, just a town!)

nancy73 said...

I grew up not far from that area. I used to live on Minnieville Road. It was a lovely, twisty two-lane road with large houses and yards on one side and forest on the other, located somewhere in-between Dale City and Manassas. When it snowed, it was so quiet and peaceful. In the summer, there were trees to shade you from the sun and when it stormed, the view out of the front door of the house was ideal.

Now, they've changed the name of the road I used to live on and plunked it on a 4-lane monstrosity nearby. The woods, where an old bear used to ambulate and leave tantilizing footprints for me to find, are now row upon row of stale, oatmeal colored townhouses and single family homes. The winding country lanes I used to drive along with my friends, listening to music and dreaming about our futures are now paved over, renamed and straightened out. The place where I grew up now only exists in my mind. The geography of my childhood is now overlaid by mass-produced development that gives nothing back but unasthetic marketable space. That should be a crime, because it sure feels like one.

cleek said...

Money mag just ranked Raleigh NC #4 in it's best big cities to live in.

but, that suburban Hell you just described could be literally any neighborhood within 40 miles of downtown. it's all suburban sprawl, unwalkable, bike-hostile, cul-de-sacs, with housing and shopping completely segregated.

our development is one of the newer ones, and they left some space available for retail. but it'll probably just be crap like pet grooming, nail salons and dry cleaners.

and yeah, the soil sucks - it's all been stripped down to the red clay.

i live there anyway. it's too expensive to go anywhere else.

fgfdsg said...

I sometimes wonder if the illusion extends further, even in a more established suburban area like my own. Take away all the trappings, and aren't we all just in 'little boxes on the hillside'? I find it interesting taken with the 'nesting' instinct that's really taken hold in the last few years in my country.

The probably with being poor is you sometimes can't afford to put yourself in the surroundings you'd rather be accustomed too, even if it's just a shack out in the bush. Coupled with the myth that anyone can become rich by 'just working hard enough', there's not a lot of choice for some of us.

Sounds like Fred Bassett would be right at home there.

Actually, I had an experience a couple of years ago about housing developments that I suppose I should write up. It was mildly profound.

Magister William F.X. Glennon said...

Lived in a neighborhood like that twenty years ago in suburban Atlanta.

I used to walk the mile to the grocery store, and carry back actual brown bags of food. No sidewalks, either.

People used to slow down as they drove by and look at me.

Haven't been back to Atlanta in years. They tell me the sprawl goes all the way to Gainsville now.

Matt said...

No offense intended to previous commenters (really), but I hope never to say the words "my development" and have them refer to a large group of identical homes.

cleek said...

I hope never to say the words "my development" and have them refer to a large group of identical homes.

hey, my house isn't identical to the others! cause, ya know, not all of them are yellow - some are blue or green! and, there are like 7 different models. sheesh.

Will Divide said...

I have a development and I call him Little Xoualemv.

Matt said...

For what it's worth, cleek, I regret that comment.

I just saw the movie "Wordplay" last night. In it, the filmmakers interview a number of people about the NY Times crossword puzzle. Ken Burns speaks about the ways in which the puzzles are almost emblematic of New York, which he calls a city of boxes (referring to everything from apartment buildings to the rational, grid-like layout of the streets).

It reminded me that what matters is how one fills the boxes in one's life -- not what the boxes themselves look like on the outside.

Carl said...

I'm in Centreville. I don't schlep over to that HT all that often--not like there aren't other grocery stores closer. But they had really good specials last week. I almost saved enough money to pay for the gas I used driving there! :o]

Anonymous said...

Yeah, pretty much all the development in the past 20 years is very poorly planned. And it is regrettably true that the first step before construction starts is to remove all the topsoil. But there is no need to exaggerate as in these two sentences.

Even if you wanted to, you couldn't put the kids in a stroller or a bike-trailer and amble over to the Starbucks for a latte and a chinwag with the neighbors.

Trees won't ultimately survive in what's left, no matter how much mulch, fertilizer and watering is done.

Yes, I know you didn't write the second sentence.

Unfortunately based on what I've read here, exaggerating in order to make a point seems to be pretty integral to your writing style. These are very mild examples compared to what I see in other posts.

- anticipating a hostile response -

K. White

Neddie said...

- anticipating a hostile response -

[Cue SFX: Crickets chirping.]

Anonymous said...

You're a funny guy.

K. White