There is a road, not far from us, one we’ve traveled up and down many times, two lanes east, two lanes west, divided by a narrow, grassy median. It’s called The Fairway. Why? Not because it is in any way fair – lined as it is by car dealerships, shopping malls and underwhelming low-rises designed for senior housing – but rather because where it and everything around it is there once was a golf course, and this was a fairway in it. Unless you knew, there would be no evidence, no clues to its past life, except, of course, for the name. Oh, and the slight dogleg to the left, and the welcome sign made up of a gigantic golf ball atop a humongous tee, right near the American flag. Fore.
A few minutes from there is a suburban community where, once, a long time ago, a large tract of the land was cleared to build an amusement park. After that went belly-up, a big-box-anchored shopping center (and its enormous blacktopped parking lot) took its place, soon to be joined by scads of large and small commercial strips and clusters. And lots of predictable, suburban-ish houses. The area, as well as the big mall, is known as Willow Grove, but we defy you to find one willow, let alone a grove of them, anywhere within the incorporated limits.
As long as there has been a past and a language in which to frame and consider it, people have relegated places to it. It is not uncommon – in fact, it is commonly caricatured – for someone to give directions to a lost traveler by telling him to make a turn where, say, “the old Johnson place” used to be, even though the Johnson abode has been a ghost for decades; it is equally commonplace for there to be roads named for the properties or businesses that the roads were built to take people to: Hagy’s Mill Road, for example, or Old Forge Road – places long since gone, vanished before current memory, existing only in the names of the surviving byways.
It’s always been thus, this presence of the past, whether by design, or as an honorific, or just an apathy or reluctance to change. Names were given, and though, through disasters or deaths, economics or migrations, the places disappeared, the names remained, and gave these areas a kind of historical or folk resonance that they would not have otherwise: Germantown, for example, or Georgetown.
These were natural passings away, as all things do in time. But, in the 20th and 21st centuries, dominating developers have changed the rules, and, in so doing, have diminished both landscape and memory. It goes like this: They find a piece of land with some distinguishing characteristic – a stream, a gorge, meadows, a forest of a certain kind of tree or the dwelling spot of a certain kind of animal – then plow it all, gouge it, strip it, turn it under, level it, reconfigure it, build on it … and, with not the least sense of irony, name the new development after the very feature native to the spot but subsequently eradicated. It’s like naming a nature preserve after the animal you’ve just hunted into extinction there.
How many “communities” do you know of that have the word “hill” in their name but are as flat as a table top? How many “fields” with barely a blade of grass? Or “estates” with nary a manor house or signs of the presence of wealth and privilege? “Arbors” that are essentially treeless? Or “farms” bare of crops, animals or anything elementally similar to arable land? Or “park” with no place to stroll, no tree to sit under and nobody to interact with? What view has been bulldozed into oblivion to create a development with the word “view” in it?
Given our propensity towards naming locations with a sense of what they were, or once played host to, what perverse thing is there in us humans that makes us kill off the last remnant of the thing that attracted us to it in the first place, and then name the replacement after it? There’s something truly ghoulish or possibly cruel about such forensic categorizing.
By doing so, do builders believe that they are sustaining or re-creating the original placeness of a place that they have wiped off the face of the earth, merely by calling it by what they’ve removed – that words will trump the visual evidence … that marketing voodoo will make it so? It’s like the opposite of the movie “Poltergeist” – here, developers want to acknowledge that there’s an Indian burial ground under the townhouses. It’s a selling point.
Even in this world, where money talks louder than rational thought does, we need to leave some places alone – to allow their placeness to persist and ripen, or to permit them the time to establish a sense of placeness among the populace. Not everything beautiful needs to be commoditized, and co-opted to suit the needs of those who wish to profit from it. And let it not be up to our governments to set aside or legally protect certain selected plots of land for the common good, to preserve them (until businessmen convince the politicians that the land is too valuable to just sit around doing nothing productive). Let it be up to us to demand that meadows stay meadows, that hills provide fine prospects, that farms will be places where food is grown and animals tended. Let us fight for what we value, and for what, in the coming years, we will truly want and need, and desire to be in.
Until then – if such an idealistic “then” ever occurs – instead of beating around the bush (which they have, by the way, uprooted to put in the hot tub), let the developers just call their work by the most essential things that they have destroyed: let their developments be named “Sense” or “Aesthetics” or “Stewardship.” If they can’t be caring, let them at least be truthful in their dishonesty.