Sunday, May 01, 2005

On New Suburban Developments

The summer before I left for college, my parents moved the family to a new house in Loudoun County, one of the faster growing counties in the country. Overnight, it seemed, a new place developed--schools, shopping centers, roads, and housing development, after housing development, after housing development. Whenever I returned home on break, I would notice yet another completed cul-de-sac and think about how very new everything looked. I knew that in twenty years everything would look pretty old and lame, but didn't really mind since I wisely waxed that this was the nature of new things.

Every now and then, while driving to Jerry's Subs and Pizza, I would pass an older looking house set off by itself. Its wooden exterior, the rusted swing-set in its side yard, and a very tall, thick, and old tree in its backyard all spoke to the house's other-ness. When I drove by the house, as a part of a long line of minivans, SUVS, and increasingly upscale sedans, I thought of how frustrated its owners must be with all the development in the area; all of these cars, after all, were driving right passed the house's driveway. I imagined how easy it must have been for them, just a few years earlier, to leave their house and their driveway without waiting for a break in the traffic.

I never though, however, that they were probably frustrated for other reasons too. The Washington Post has a nice piece on the alienation some older-house owners are feeling as more and more folks move into housing developments in the area.
Scattered across such rapidly suburbanizing counties as Loudoun and Prince William in Northern Virginia and Charles and Frederick in Maryland are scraps of communities left behind. They are remnants of places where people live the old-fashioned way: in a house, on a road open to other roads, forming a place that anyone might pass through on the way to somewhere else.

Increasingly, these places have become balkanized by self-contained communities, now the dominant form of home building in suburban America. In Prince William and Loudoun, for instance, virtually all new homes in recent years have been built that way.
As more and more folks move into more and more housing developments and subdivisions, there is an increasingly stark line being drawn between the newer houses and the fewer older ones:
While life inside such places as Brambleton often is vibrant with block parties, poker nights, book clubs and a sense of identity, life on the outside feels quite different these days, altered in ways large and small.

"I don't know what community means anymore," said Nancy Siler, who is retired. "Do they mean subdivision? Or can it be a group of houses spread out?"
Though the piece is too somber and mournful for my tastes--it probably romanticizes a few cases here and there a little too much--it does raise some interesing questions about place, class and identity.

Though it may have been implied, the article doesn't discuss one of the more striking differences between the new housing divisions and the older houses left in various pockets throughout the area: the new houses are filled with increasingly wealthy people. I think some of the uncomfortableness the older-home owners are feeling stems from the realization that all of a sudden an area formerly occupied by a few agriculture and blue-collar homes is being populated by whole lot of households annually earning six-figures. These new divisions and their houses are like wagons circled up at night, and the older homes must feel like coyotes.

How much, I wonder, can this new type of development and displacement sustain parallels between the older narrative of western development: settlers moving in who ignore the native people at first, only to eventually get rid of them? There is, it seems, given all of the developing homes, businesses, and infrastructure, a spirit of progress--even Manifest Destiny that seems inevitable, regardless of all "smart growth" talke--a phrase, it should be noted, that never denies the growth. And, at the same time, there is strong sentiment regarding the land and its beauty echoed throughout the discourse by those people left standing outside of the new developments:
In eastern Prince William, Anthony Mullins, who lives in a neighborhood built in the 1960s on a small hill in Woodbridge, is struggling with the effects of the changing geography.

"We're like an island," said Mullins, 42. "An island in dirt."

His back yard, which used to overlook trees, now overlooks a vast, dusty, denuded valley where a subdivision called Eagle's Point is being built. With no trees, the sun is brighter these days and the wind so stiff that once it blew over his weight-lifting bench.
And what of the communities formed by these new developments? In previous times, practices like redlining and processes like white-flight maintained and established geographical communities in response to the emergence of other peoples and identities. In other words, the geographic and material space emerged in response to the community's sense of identity. In today's situation, however, with older and poorer folks being displaced and ignored by newer housing developments, it seems that identity has emerged after the geographic and material space was created.James Kline, 62, noted that a way into the neighborhood is being sealed off because of increased traffic.

"We've been here all these years, but they're the ones who are going to benefit," he said, referring to new residents. "They're isolating us. They're penalizing us. The way they treat us now, I guess they call us white trash."
A poorer-house class has developed because a newer, fatter, and more contented-house class has emerged--a class that has probably developed because they are seeing the occasional lonely old wooden house next to the busy new roads they're driving on.


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