Tag Archives: developers

Not Easy Being Green

long viewIt is – or, rather, was – just an ordinary, unremarkable stretch of sidewalk, emanating from the end of a bridge for a block or two down a busy city street; its one distinction, if it can be called that, is that this straight ribbon of pavement had, for the 30 years we’ve walked on or driven past it, been lined by jungle-like and uncontrolled growths of weed trees and bushes and grasses, held as if prisoners behind a low-slung metal traffic barrier which kept pedestrians and vehicles from tumbling down the steep cliff from which this wild flora grew. The wall of green wasn’t pretty, really – only once a year, when a popular bike race whizzes by it, does it get any attention and minimal trimming – but, for those of us living in a concrete-coated city, and to the people who live in the houses lined directly across the street from it, it was a wall of green, a respite, something like an oasis, a natural amenity. Something left alone to be itself, and give its gift, meager though it might be. And, yet, it was a length of urbanness that, if you were mapping the street from memory, you might forget to put it in – it was that personality-less, that undistinguished. It was just there, negligible but subliminally felt.

tree line

Careful readers may have noticed the use of the past tense in the previous paragraph. Trucks with choppers and grinders and saws pulled in not too long ago, and by the time they left, every bit of green was sliced away to near ground level, leaving a rude and rough-hewn gash in the landscape. For the residents of the houses opposite, this must have been not only a shock but, actually, a bit of a pleasant one: for, though the greenery is gone, they now have, unobstructed, one of the best views in the neighborhood – the old town area laid out at the foot of the cliff, the canal and river beyond, and, past those, hills and an interstate highway in the distance. People pay a lot for that view and, suddenly, these folks on the street, after decades of gazing out at an impermeable green wall of leaves and vines, now have that great view, and on somebody else’s dime.

street view

viewEnjoy that view while it lasts, folks. People don’t just clear-cut a forest-y patch for no reason that doesn’t have to do with making money, and so it is here: Soon that gap will be crammed with a dozen or more new townhouses – the uninspired, same old/same old three-stories-and-a-roof-deck, stuccoed and sided ticky-tacky crap that every developer in this area seemingly tore out of a sample book and is stuffing into every lot and open space, and, in this instance, deforesting a swath for it. And, presently, that strip of road, once benefitting from a feeling of some openness, some connection with nature no matter how corralled and limited, will become somewhat more like a canyon, or, certainly, a hemmed-in byway.

And for the pedestrians, like us, who barely acknowledged the existence of this corridor that was the on-ground equivalent of a flyover, we will feel that even though this couple of hundred feet never had anything that one would define as placeness, and certainly nothing resembling art, its absence will generate a lost placeness in our memories. It will be different. It will feel unbalanced and missing an essential element, which it will. Though it was never exactly friendly, it will be decidedly less-so. The air will be different, blighted by the predatory parasitism of modern developers. The light will be different, too. What was undistinguished will now, by comparison, seem distinguished by its congesting mediocrity. We, who cared nothing for this piece of land, will now long for the past nothingness that it was and curse the something that it has been forced to become.

laid waste

You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone, someone once wrote, and this applies even if you didn’t notice it when it when you had it. Sometimes, perhaps, even more so. I never cared if that piece of the world existed or not; now I am outraged that it is going and gone, taken and lost. Is that placeness, or what?


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You Always Love the One You Hurt

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.

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