gall and gumption

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Nothing That Is Not There and the Nothing That Is

This got me thinking about my neighborhood.

The Tick Farm is located near the westernmost edge of the DC metro area, in Loudoun County, VA. Well, it was the westernmost edge last time I looked. More of it might have gotten eaten up since I came in from the grocery store. I see the recent displacement of a lot of small rural businesses -- some guy running a tree service or a welding shop out of his back yard. This is all in the process of being replaced by huge subdivisions, strip malls, office parks and big box chain stores. Land is for sale everywhere you look, and nothing but those things will be built on it. A couple miles from me a whole village is about to disappear. The old places get somehow converted into non-places when the subdivisions sprout up next to or on top of them. They have been rendered obsolescent, they are things that are there that do not exist in any way that merits consideration. Gives me the creeps. That's what gets me about "development" is this curious fictional nonexistence resulting from the way the subdivision degrades whatever it is next to.

The little older rambling house with the big fenced yard and the good old trees making the lawn shady, with the work vehicles all in back and maybe an extra smaller house for grown kids or in-laws, this is what you still glimpse around here. There’s a spot near me where the gigantic Stepford Subdivision has wrapped itself around one of these places. The subdivision is gigantic and the houses are also gigantic. The older houses nearby are low-profile and have sort of blended back into the landscape, as older houses will do. But you look at them now and you think, “Doomed.” This doesn’t happen with the older houses that are still on their own, the ones a couple miles out. The older house near a subdivision looks like the embarrassing poor relations left behind by the mighty processes of human progress. Might as well knock them on the head.

It’s like as soon as these big sterile places move in the old places are in the countdown to being obsolescent not only in imagination but in actuality. This nonconforming bit of reality will be bulldozed because reality is supposed to match the subdivision. And what I notice about the subdivision is how sterile it is. When I say it’s sterile I don’t mean it in any psychological or metaphorical sense, I mean biologically sterile. Down at the Tick Farm, just out of sight of the subdivision, there are birds in and out of my yard all the time, and above the woods and the meadow turkey vultures and hawks act like they own the place. Mushrooms grow on old logs, the dogwood tree and the old oak trees and cypress trees in the woods have lichens on their trunk, and even though the previous tenants have used parts of the meadow for garbage disposal on a truly astonishing scale, apparently the possums, skunks and rabbits have learned to live with this and they go scratching about in the weeds among the World’s Largest Collection of Bud Lite Cans. The subdivision looks biologically sterile because it really isn’t designed to co-exist with other earthlings. And it’s aesthetically sterile as well. I imagine a HOA rule book the size of a family Bible and about as notable for liberal-mindedness as the Old Testament.

But that’s OK because their fees pay for all sorts of exclusive services and facilities -- a mini-government, really -- not open to the public. It’s not a gated community but when I walk the dogs there I feel like an interloper. And here and there are signs reminding everyone that this is “Your New Hometown.” The design of it is in imitation of a small town – Mayberry, possibly. I mean, if Mayberry had nothing to walk to. And so you get this curious thing happen, where regimentation and conformity are the same as living in a neighborhood -- are represented as the essence of coexisting with others, and this is supposed to be a good thing. Do the residents believe this? I assume it is an architectural assertion, and I imagine that a lot of people don’t care about their surroundings that much and just conform because conformity has material benefits and then live their lives inside the house. Nevertheless, the bigger and more micromanaged the life of the subdivision is, apparently, the more prestige it has. I suppose you can go and brag to your distant relatives about how your HOA won’t let you plant a vegetable garden. It could all end up sounding like that old Monty Python sketch.

My late uncle, for instance, migrated to the U.S. in about 1970. He lived in places like this as soon as he completed his residency in obstetrics/gynecology. As soon as he started delivering babies and the money started pouring in, his life with my aunt (and after their breakup) was a steady progression from subdivision to newer and fancier subdivision. To live in places like this was to have arrived. Inside the house was where all the life was – and they certainly had lots of life there; outside the house, even though my aunt kept the small front garden very nice, was mostly just how you got to your car.

The subdivision near the Tick Farm got an enormous fire department/police station complex, this magnificent thing which I suppose the residents are encouraged to believe is for their exclusive personal use. Though what they use the police for other than settling domestic disputes I don’t know. There’s no crime to speak of out here. No, not because of the virtues of the subdivision; there’s no crime on my road either, other than dumping and, evidently, drinking Bud Light while driving and flinging the cans out the window.

The Tick Farm is doomed of course. I’m at peace with it as far as my personal life here is concerned. I just really really really hate that business of rendering the noncomforming nonexistent so that when you actually eliminate it you can say you have eliminated nothing and built something. That’s evil nonsense and I don’t believe it. I wish it didn’t win every argument.


At 11:24 AM, Blogger L7 said...

A friend of mine was visiting last week, and we spent a lot of time walking through the neighborhoods--which are still neighborhoods here, with the little bungalows and wooden shacks nestled among the newer boxy houses that are built to the very edge of the property line. My friend kept marveling at how charming all the little houses are. Where she lives (yonder in the east), it is all subdivisions, and I realized that these funny little beach neighborhoods are probably not long for this world.


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