When every road starts to look like another
In our built landscape, as in so much of society, we're not keen on diversity
There’s a homogeneity in American life that discourages anything that might make us uncomfortable — including even a giant duck along the roadside. (Photo by Francis Vachon / Alamy Stock Photo)
About a mile from our place, as the crow flies, two fast-food joints and a convenience store recently replaced the last remnant of what was a family farm when we moved here a couple of decades back. We used to look forward to visiting that plot each spring to buy plants that an elderly man in overalls had raised in a decaying greenhouse. Across the road from there, on some prime bottomland that two growing seasons back was covered with alfalfa, cars are now filling a new supermarket’s five-acre parking lot.
If you were to complain to local officials about this sort of commercial encroachment on the rural landscape, you’d likely hear that yes, the added traffic congestion is unfortunate, but think about the tax dollars that will now come to our schools, and, after all, this is what people want and apparently need — because those businesses wouldn’t have picked our neighborhood if market studies hadn’t revealed some unmet consumer demand. It’s the implied shrug-off heard not just in our town, but everywhere: “You can’t stop progress.”
That makes me feel worse, though — the notion that my neighbors and I really need a new KFC and Wendy’s hard up against the existing Burger King, Popeye’s, Dunkin’ and Taco Bell franchises, and that the two other supermarkets and a WalMart SuperStore within a half-mile didn’t already fill our shopping needs. And what about that rich soil that my farmer relatives would surely covet? Well, for that farmer, it simply had to yield one last crop, this one of blacktop and concrete.
It’s surely just what we need, of course: more block buildings and bright signs with familiar logos, more commercial strips that are unrecognizably different from those I’ve seen lately outside Des Moines, Indianapolis and Minneapolis — or, I don’t know, maybe it was Omaha or Dallas or Milwaukee. It’s hard to know. But, really, is it progress?
Hardly. Real progress at this point of American life wouldn’t be more sprawl, since that’s become a trite tale over the past 80 years. It’s not surprising to learn that over a 15-year period, New York state lost 253,500 acres of farmland to development, according to the American Farmland Trust — which, AFT’s research suggests, would have yielded an estimated $288 million in annual farm output and sustained 7,200 jobs.1 And while those statistics are rather interesting, they represent what a journalist would call a dog-bites-man story, meaning it’s so typical as to be not very newsworthy.
Progress worth reporting — of the more interesting man-bites-dog variety — would be if we found a mass movement by Americans to reclaim land for uses more productive than holding the foundations of buildings. It would a good story if we discovered that our consumer tastes and aesthetic sensibilities were moving away from the homogeneity of all those commercial boxes that line our roadways, and perhaps toward the lively eccentricities of earlier times. It would be powerful consumer demand for authentic and bespoke products, especially in what we eat, rather than market-tested, minimally offensive fast food on demand.
Imagine what our society might be like if we weren’t so averse to surprise and so eager for conformity — that is, if we weren’t afraid of what we don’t really know.
This notion of conformity as the norm conflicts with our self-image, because we’ve always been told that America is a nation of individualists. Indeed, on the authoritative scale developed by the Dutch social psychologist Gaert Hofstede in the 1970s, the United States is now ranked as the most individualistic of nations, just above Australia and the United Kingdom.2 The notion that we can all succeed on our own is deeply embedded in the national psyche. It’s what powers a key pillar of the conservative political agenda: an aversion to providing too much aid to people living in poverty. That can be traced to a dominant theme of the nation’s story, that those who came before it made it on their own, and so can anybody else here.
But the capacity for individual action, which the Hofstede scale measures, doesn’t account for how people in fact use their freedom. And that’s where the myth of American individualism breaks down. A Brookings study last year underscored the fact that there’s less mobility up (and down) the economic ladder in the U.S. than in many other countries. “Wealth inequality is high. And wealth status is sticky,” the study reported.3 And, anyway, the tradition of relentless striving for wealth and status is in fact a cause of anxiety in society. It certainly is not a way to satisfy the human drive for comfort and security.
We turn for comfort to what’s familiar, which isn’t surprising, though it’s a bit ironic in a time when technology has made us able to see around the world and travel widely. That is, we have access to scenes and places that are very different from what we know, and often more attractive. But while we may agree that the new strip mall is ugly, its very familiarity and utility makes our lives easier. So we pave paradise, and put up a parking lot — which, you know, is not a new refrain.
If we weren’t so comforted by conformity and alienated by idiosyncrasy, there wouldn’t be 35,000 Starbucks stores, and counting, and we would be eating less food from packages and more from the earth. We wouldn’t be eager to move into suburban neighborhoods outside Cleveland that look just like the neighborhoods around Baltimore — into homes of similar design that are furnished, in both places, with faux Americana décor from HomeGoods.
It's not that we don’t get a kick out of the oddities that crop up around us. My Facebook feed recently included some childhood friends’ photos of The Chuck Wagon, a favorite restaurant in the little western city where I grew up that featured a genuine covered-wagon entrance. It vanished years ago. And anybody who has visited the East End of New York’s Long Island wouldn’t want to miss the Flanders Duck, a 20-foot-tall duck-shaped building constructed in 1931 of wire mesh and concrete, which used to house a roadside poultry and egg business. There were duck farms in the area in those days, and the Flanders Duck was one entrepreneur’s way of drawing attention to his. The duck’s eyes are made from the taillights of a Model T, and you can step inside (these days, to pick up tourist brochures). In my visits to 49 states, I’ve never seen anything quite like that duck.
But who would bother to build such a weird little store now? We respond nowadays less to oddities and eccentricities, and more to the amenities that are convenient. It’s as though we figure that there’s enough to challenge us in the world around, so let’s just get by with what works, okay?
And to many, that’s a viable view, with some advantages. The Dutch architect and philosopher Rem Koolhaas wrote in the mid-1990s that the development of a “generic city” was a boon to mankind — since leaving behind the history of varied urban areas could open societies to egalitarian development. Considering the core cities and their near suburbs that are the nature of community for most American these days, Koolhaas wrote that future urban growth would be “about expanding notions, denying boundaries… discovering unnamable hybrids.” It’s a vision of diversity thriving against a backdrop of rather anonymous urban development that’s freed from local norms.4
But in real life, the WalMart zones that have come to dominate American suburbs are sterilizing, rather than democratizing. Their popularity reflects a willingness to settle for what’s mediocre but familiar. That sort of environment contributes to a numbing of Americans to the opportunities presented by anything that challenges today’s prevalent consumerism and aesthetic conformity.
It may be one of the factors that has made us wary of individuality, rather than welcoming of it. Americans have never celebrated our differences as much as we have seemed to fear them, no matter what the myths of our history suggest. For many, the so-called melting pot of America has cooled into a congealed dish, and there’s no reason to introduce anything else into the pot.
That’s clear from the pushback arising in one state after another to the growing recognition of the unequal burden that American society has placed on people of color, LGBTQ+ people and immigrants. One example: State legislators across the country are so afraid of gender dysphoria — a medical reality that they apparently don’t understand — that they’ve passed bans on gender-affirming care that now cover more than one-third of the roughly 300,000 transgender high-school-aged youth in the U.S. 5 What possible benefit could come from politicians interposing their judgment about what is appropriate medical treatment between that of a doctor and a patient (or, in the case of minors, a patient’s parents)? What provokes such decisions, other than a lack of appreciation for the whole range of human experience?
Certainly, there’s not a straight line between the politicization of medical care for transgender youth and the yielding of farmland to a commercial strip. But both suggest a discomfort with what we don’t fully know, and a tragic lack curiosity and wonder at the range of the whole world around us. Rather than embracing or eagerly seeking out what’s challenging and unique — in individuals, and in the built world that is our home — we’ve grown comfortable with a life that reflects what we’ve known before, and a community that looks like Anywhere Else. It’s not just our economic status that is stuck; so is our outlook.
So we settle for a bland reality. These days, as my car crawls in traffic along that nearby commercial strip, I’m remembering the old man in overalls who sold us plants, and the silo and barn that used to flank the road. And I’m wishing that somebody had built a giant duck there, or something to similarly represent the uniqueness of the place. Anything, that is, that would reflect the diversity of our society, and that might welcome the many ways it may be presented.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Savannah, Ga. (Savannah Morning News, savannahnow.com)
Worcester, Mass. (Worcester Telegram & Gazette, telegram.com)
Peoria, Ill. (Peoria Journal Star, pjstar.com)
Alamogordo, N.M. (Alamogordo Daily News, sourcnm.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes most Wednesdays, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Climate-friendly, or hazardous polluter?
Advocates of the wood pellet industry say it is producing a fuel that helps the push to renewable energy because of the reforestation that follows harvest of the trees — meaning that there’s no loss of carbon-absorbing tree cover. But the Savannah Morning News reports that environmental advocates have concluded that the world’s largest producer of wood pellets, an Enviva plant in Waycross, Ga., is releasing as much as three times the allowable amount of hazardous pollution into the air — including methanol, a poisonous substance that can be absorbed through the eyes, skin, lungs and digestive system. Meanwhile, the newspaper reports, Enviva (which operates similar facilities across the Southeast) faces financial challenges that sent its stock price plunging from a high of more than $82 in April 2022 to less than $1 in November, fueling fears by critics of the pellet industry that cost-cutting efforts by Enviva will lead to more pollution.
Who owns all those minor league teams?
The image of local owners supporting minor league baseball across the country is exploded by reports about the pending sale of the Worcester Red Sox — or, as the team is known among locals, the WooSox, a beloved local franchise. Marco Cartolano reports in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that the team is about to join the portfolio of Diamond Baseball Holdings, headquartered in New York, which has quickly built a large portfolio of minor league teams, including 26 teams, more than 21% of the 120 teams in Minor League Baseball. And Diamond itself is owned by Silver Lake Technology Management LLC, which has approximately $101 billion in combined assets, including a significant stake in the parent company of Manchester City Football Club, one of the most profitable soccer teams in Europe. The following teams are currently owned by the group (read the team names for fun!): the Albuquerque Isotopes, Altoona Curve, Augusta Greenjackets, Birmingham Barons, Down East Wood Ducks, Fresno Grizzlies, Gwinnett Stripers, Hickory Crawdads, Hudson Valley Renegades, Iowa Cubs, Lansing Lugnuts, Memphis Redbirds, Midland Rockhounds, Mississippi Braves, Norfolk Tides, Oklahoma City Dodgers, Portland Sea Dogs, Rome Braves, Salem Red Sox, San Jose Giants, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, Springfield Cardinals, St. Paul Saints, Tulsa Drillers, Vancouver Canadians and Wichita Wind Surge. It’s all a long way from the much-admired Pittsfield Mets, who played in a fine old wooden stadium in the Berkshires, and the Rapid City Chiefs, a plucky team your correspondent here used to cover.
Regulating AirBnB’s — even where you don’t expect it.
With all due respect to Peoria, home of the Heart of Illinois Fair, the little city in central Illinois is hardly a place that you’d expect a lot of tourists to visit. So it’s somewhat surprising to find JJ Bullock’s report in the Peoria Journal Star that the City Council has voted to reject two new AirBnB’s and signal that it’s about to impose tighter restrictions on short-term rentals. The council rejected one application for being too close to a school — the extra traffic could be a hazard, a council member said — and one for being too close to another AirBnB. There are currently 46 short-term rentals operating in Peoria with a special-use permit. “We found there is an ugly side to it,” one council member said, without more explanation.
Controlled burns draw skeptics in the West
Climate change has made fire seasons longer and forests more vulnerable to fire all across the West, leading the U.S. Forest Service to use prescribed burns on a record 2 million acres in the 2022-23 fiscal year. But while experts say overgrown and dry forests represent a huge threat — a wildfire crisis that could cost hundreds of billions of dollars a year — local residents aren’t convinced. Alice Fordham reports for Source New Mexico, a non-profit newsroom covering state issues, that suspicion remains as a result of last year’s calamity: two prescribed burns got out of control and became the biggest wildfire the state’s ever seen, destroying hundreds of homes. Now, Fordham reports, under a wildfire crisis strategy, the Forest Service wants to treat up to 50 million more acres over the next decade or so with thinning and burning, in addition to what it already does every year. Studies by forest ecologists indicate that would begin to address the backlog in land that would have burned naturally over the many decades that fire has been suppressed.
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