01
Sep
08

Polarity Rising

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of gentrification and upscale development; gated golfing communities, new “green” neighborhoods and condo complexes, etc.
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If change didn’t occur, a flower would be but a seed in the ground waiting to bloom. Change is a new beginning…

I recently stayed in a condo at a monstrosity of a golfing community on the South end of NC’s coast. St. James plantation is its own town, incorporated in 1999. After passing the security gate I spotted the sign containing the message above. The irony struck me – as though changing 4,000 acres of woods and wetlands in this fashion enabled any seed to realize their flowering potential. Aside from that confusing message, the development doesn’t claim to shepherd the land in any noticeable way. Newly constructed homes of predictable style litter the landscape. Young pines shoot straight up like the long skinny needles they deposit on the ground – the pines are perhaps the sole floral beneficiaries of clear-cutting. The grass lawns are soaking wet, certainly not from rain; the drought remains treacherous. The water pumps up from underground irrigation systems, spewing out onto the driveways and roads. I was surprised by the absence of wildlife. The chemical-treated lawns undoubtedly detract the squirrels and birds, but the absence even of mosquitoes in the humid August air was a bit eerie. Golf courses are well-known to be some of the worst soil and water contaminants; I suppose if I golfed I’d have noticed its bug-zapping qualities previously. The geographical location of this development, directly along North Carolina’s intra-coastal waterway, is a bit worrisome.

Beyond the environmentally-devastating effects, the self-perpetuating social atmosphere is further troubling.  Some would applaud this bit – containing the super-conservative super-wealthy behind gates, limiting their interaction with the outside world. These golf-playing, Lexus-driving martini-sippers are free to discuss their $30,000 membership dues or $50,000 boat slips or…whatever… without bothering anyone. This view is held by many of my more-radical acquaintances, and I sometimes find myself agreeing. But upon further contemplation I have to disagree. It can’t be healthy for these people to think that their “quality” of life is normal. I imagine the children growing up there, attending schools exclusively populated by citizens of St. James. This flawless upbringing would undoubtedly give rise to proteges of the uber-rich, unaware of the realities of the other 99% of the world and thus unprepared to deal with it.

This troubles me greatly – what will these kids be like? What does this mean at the macro level? Will America become increasingly socioeconomically stratified to such an extent that each extreme is all but unaware of the other?

Just as the ridiculously affluent must be aware of the abjectly poor to understand the extent of their fortune – like the fact that their membership dues to the country club exceed the average annual income in this country. Similarly, the impoverished must be exposed to the rich to develop ambitions to overcome these injustices. Don’t mistake this for an argument that the “poor” are somehow at fault, or in need of aspiring to affluence. Rather,  the visibility and acknowledgement of economic disparity is a vital component to social change. The greatest and most incremental progressions in human history have resulted from the tendency of the oppressed to rise against (perceived) injustices. Neither extremes are acceptable at current levels, and nor should they be segregated in ghettos and gated communities, respectively.

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A place designed to inhabit the land without inhibiting its true nature, revealing its wonder gradually, intentionally.

So reads the motto on the site of Briar Chapel, located west of Carrboro, just across the Chatham county line. Similar to its coastal counterpart, this town of a development spans thousands of acres – now clear cut to accommodate quick and predictable construction.  Unlike St. James, Briar Chapel (pro)claims to be “green”. Employing “green” builders and heralding fashionably environmental propaganda, Briar Chapel is clearly catering to the liberal affluence of the Chapel Hill area.

Recalling St. James’ welcoming message, I am struck by the contradiction. How, exactly, is the clear-cutting of countless acres — drastically and as quickly as possible it seems, paving and building — not inhibiting its “true nature”. Perhaps its true nature is a development, to be gradually and intentionally revealed via a massive-scale spec home project…  At any rate, they are constructing parks, schools (as per legal necessity), and leaving about 1000 acres of “natural” space. They claim to have an environmentally astounding stormwater management plan in place, high density housing, and sundry other environmental best practices. While I congratulate these efforts, I am a bit appalled at the inference that such construction, “…not only respects the land but creates a healthier environment for residents”. How have we come to allow, and indeed believe these messages portraying new home construction as the way to reduce our degradation of the natural environment?

I won’t dive too deep into my philosophy on the appropriate manner in which to develop, but suffice it to say the following: The point at which the reconstruction, renovation, or recycling of existing structures and their footprint, or the materials thereof is bypassed, the boundaries of green building have been irrevocably crossed. There is nothing green about clearing land. In fact, the environmental effects of building create an exponentially worsened atmosphere for the natural outplay of events (blatantly). At best, green building is better than constructing the mcmansions found in St. James-esque developments, but both must be categorized as some of the most destructve projects in the modern world of home construction.

It is dismally unfortunate that these well-intentioned volvo-driving, birkenstock wearings liberals are dupped into self-congratulation by these projects. Green has become one of the most lucrative endeavors; one of the deepest emerging markets across industries.

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Members of such self-decribed progressive neighborhoods as Briar Chapel are quick to criticize developments like St. James for their lack of energy star compliance, green space, etc. To some extent they are correct, the comparative energy-savings are probably considerable. The amount of chemicals leaching into the groundwater in Briar Chapel is probably dwarfed by the golf courses of St. James, and the use of natural, local foods at their restaurants is a great step. But how have these two types of developments come to be considered two ends of a spectrum? In reality, they are quite similar.

The folks in Briar Chapel, while perhaps slightly less-wealthy than the St. Jamesers, are probably not too far from that top income bracket. And while they may not have affected as many as a more urban gentrification project, the displacement of the previosu occupants of the land (farmers, undoubtedly) is mitigated little by the construction of green buildings…

The fact remains that the relative footprint of these developments is very similar. In both cases we’ve created enclaves of affluence displacing farmland and woods while countless homes sit for sale, manufacturing a growing surplus in the midst of a housing crisis.  I try to adhere to the “to each their own” mantra, but at some point it becomes maddening – green has outsmarted itself. Further, the economic disparity has full fledgedly contaminated the physical realm.

As I drive through downtown Carrboro, NC – close to my place of residence – a giant crater of a grading operation envelops about a square block.  A massive skyscraping crane stretches across the horizon, casting a skeletal shadow along a town now well-accustomed to the concept and practice of gentrification. To emerge from this barren hole will be multi-use complex. A shiny sign along the fenced perimeter reads, “Greenbridge”…

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