Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Take It Out Back

As my week of writing in Old Salem came to an end, the snow melted away to reveal daffodils and I found myself very introspective about the level of productivity pure quiet can provide. My federal house retreat on Factory Row in Old Salem was warm and embracing (see above image). Every day I moved around the kitchen to capture the best light as I wrote and even found myself out on the porch only two days after the blizzard, refereeing our cats. I kept my iPod on shuffle all week and never even missed CNN or the Sci-Fi channel, which is something I did not anticipate, being as obsessed with TV as I am. I did have a few meltdowns - over one site calling me about a "green" carpet, about the loss of an email regarding a contract and about my perceived lack of progress earlier in the week. But now that I am back in Washington, busy at work and the usual non-productivity, it appears I actually managed to write quite a bit and feel mighty fine about it. And even had a full day of summer-like weather on Saturday hiking in the mountains and no guilt about not writing.

Old Salem blog on True Green got a lot of coverage, including getting picked up by Kaid Benfield on his "Switchboard" blog. The evocative images of Old Salem with snow and the promise of a friendly "hello" seemed to find a wide audience. I took another walk around town later in the week when the snow melted, this time to observe and consider the phenomenon I call “urban sprawl”.

My last couple of days
of writing were spent luxuriating on the back porch, admiring the expanse of green yard and trying to ignore the rows of condominiums that line the "gateway" to Old Salem, wondering why so many people with money have such bad taste and lack a sense of place. (See image above.) I thought about these really poor attempts at architectural synchronicity on Friday night when we went to a concert to hear a folk singer, Chuck Brodsky, weave his tales of irony.

One song called “Take it Out Back” resonated:

Take it out back and dump it in the river
Take it out back and throw it in the woods
Take it out back and chuck it down the hillside
Keep the front yard looking good

Let’s Look At These Poor Attempts at New Urbanism

So, I’m no fan of
New Urbanism as I’ve reported in other blogs. But I would sing its praises if New Urbanism could have come to Old Salem rather than the relentlessly banal and poorly done attempts at sympathetic design found in the developments that back up to the historic town, specifically backing up to Factory Row where I was staying on my retreat. Look at the image above of individual Federal era houses on Main Street which date from the early 1800s. Now look at the image below of the attached “rowhouses” behind Factory Row. What’s wrong with this picture?

Cultural Irony

So, we have developments that are completely out of scale, show no understanding of why the
original place they are mimicking so poorly works so well, and are located next to the original because it increases their property values and desirability. A developer takes some abstracted details from the original 5 unattached houses and places them all over a few pale copies, connects them all and multiplies them by a hundredfold. Now, an original street that has 5 individual houses is backed up to a street of the same length with 50 attached houses. It is both scary and sad. The development’s property values are high because they have views of our grand heritage, while the heritage is diminished in almost every way – their views, their context, their authenticity, the massive increase in traffic.

Banal Developments Push the Boundaries

Somewhere in the past fifty years we have gone astray and lost our way. Our rural wide-open spaces have been transformed into Levittown after Levittown. And our small historic urban cores are surrounded by urban sprawl.

And it’s not just in Old Salem; we see it everywhere.
Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico is ringed by suburban developments that have virtually destroyed the pristine views that inspired the early petroglyph painters – developments actually called “Petroglyph Park.” At Drayton Hall in Charleston, the National Trust has spent millions of dollars buying land to protect the viewshed and hire lawyers to battle zoning changes that would encourage suburban development along one of the great scenic highways in South Carolina. And the road to James Madison’s Montpelier is lined with suburban developments of builder homes with names like “Poplar Forest”.

One of the most important things the National Trust for Historic Preservation has done in its 60 years
has been to promote smart growth and battle sprawl. Encouraging urban growth and adaptive use is one of the core reasons that preservation equals sustainable development. And at the heart of this are our historic sites – the places that matter to all of us, the reason we travel to New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Buffalo, Albuquerque and Old Salem. The unquantifiable “social metrics” that make us feel so good to be there
. (See Old Salem College and the town green in the image above)

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