"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Why Place Is Important Part II–Circling The Wagons

I live in Washington, DC, a city of transients.  Every four or eight years a new Administration comes to town, and with it new people.  If a new President is ambitious, he will clean house from top to bottom – from the inner sancta of the White House, to his advisors and counsel, to Secretaries, Assistant Secretaries, and Deputy Secretaries. When Congress changes after elections, ex-members head for home and with them go their staffs and the the K Street lobbyists who depend on their patronage.

In recent years Washington has become an important national IT center, beginning to rival Silicon Valley and Route 128.  While still small in comparison to these techie nodes, the Washington information technology industry employs thousand of people and even during the recession added many more.  These employees, however, move quickly as opportunities open on the West Coast or abroad. 

The Washington metro area is one of the nation’s wealthiest and thanks to this economic advantage, families move internally as well as to other regions of the country.  They ‘move up’ all the time, trading in small condos for starter homes, then moving farther out to get more house, then eventually come back in for residence in sought-after neighborhoods. Retired couples may stay in DC, but more often than not move elsewhere at least to a second home. In short, except for the poor, inner-city neighborhoods, Washington is a wealthy, fluid place.

Community, therefore, is defined very differently in Washington than in other more stable, conservative areas like many parts of the rural South or wealthy enclaves of New England.  Although most of us readily identify ourselves as Washingtonians and have made friends whom we have known for years; and although we are practiced locals able to negotiate the traffic, the neighborhoods, Georgetown, Capitol Hill, and the Mall, we are still not from here and are likely move.

I was born, raised, and schooled in Connecticut; but despite my peculiar Central Connecticut New Britski accent and bits of my Italian-cum-WASP past still sticking to me, I am community-less.  I have no allegiance to New Britain or to Connecticut; nor any sense of place or feeling of belonging. I am right at home in Washington. I might be tempted by some aspects of small-town living, but my preferred home is an impersonal city, and my community is virtual, electronically-connected, and personal-at-a-distance.

I have spent a lot of time in a small Mississippi town with deep roots and cultural memories.  One day on an early trip there, a long-time resident drove me around the town.  Not only could he tell me who was living in every house, but who had lived in them, where the family money came from and who married whom.  There has always been something attractive about this social intimacy, and the familiar patterns of church, school, family, and neighborhood are appealing; but I always return to Washington.

Many of my friends, however, have a very definite sense of place and belonging. One whom I have known since our India days in the 60s retired to his old family place in the Berkshires, a summer cottage where they went every year until his parents died.  He tore the now ramshackle house down, retained the footprint to satisfy the zoning board, and built a larger, modern all-year-round residence.  The small western Massachusetts town where they live has always been home and will now always be.

Another friend returned to an exclusive New England community to live after many decades of summering there.  Her family was one of the first residents of the area and was responsible for much of its early development.  She is attached to the land, its history, its architecture, formal English gardens, and manicured lawns; and wants it never to change.  She would like to assure her children of family continuity. 

My West Coast friend to whom I referred in the first of my articles on place has a similar history.  She is from an old California family whose ancestors were some of the state’s earliest settlers. The small community where she lives is more than just the place where she was born and raised, but part of a continuing history that goes back over 100 years.

There is, however, a dark side to all of this. Plenty has been written about the ingrown, gossipy, and petty nature of small towns; but not much about their self-protective insularity – a circle-the-wagons mentality which is designed to keep out the outlier, the different, and the strange. For example, although sensible justifications may be given for trying to keep out new development, large dwellings, and associated upscale amenities – e.g. bad for the environment, the importance of open space, the need for a health serenity – the real reason is class.

Potomac, Maryland is a suburb of Washington which used to be a quiet, conservative, wealthy, old-school community.  The houses were of modest size and well-integrated into the landscape.  There was a pleasing balance between lawn, garden, and dwelling.  Many lots were secluded in wooded copses, gravel roads were common, and city services like water and sewerage deliberately delayed to preserve a traditional style of country living with artesian water and septic tanks.  The houses were usually one story, angled to fit the property, with lots of windows looking out to the gardens and trees in front and behind.

About twenty-five years ago large mansions were built along River Road.  These were not just large houses, they were the size of small chateaus.  All trees and greenery had been razed to make room from these houses; and even with the large lot sizes available in Potomac, the the dwellings took up most of the land.  These mansions were built side by side, and in offset developments. Each had its own character – some French Louis XIV, others Mediterranean, others Moroccan-Venetian – but they were all outsized, multi-storied, multi-garaged, and outfitted with pools, game rooms, gyms, and every kind of sub-kitchen, conservatory, and sitting room.

Soon these houses became the common butt of joke in every wealthy, traditional neighborhood of Washington – Spring Valley, Cleveland Park, Kalorama, and Wesley Heights. Although these areas have large homes, they are classically designed and built of Williamsburg brick or colonial white frame.  They are elegantly landscaped and keep their lawns manicured, trees trimmed, and flowers well-tended.

From this perspective of old money, tradition, and power, the Potomac ‘McMansions’ were absurd, obscene, and totally outrageous.  The talk quickly turned from size and design to the likely owners – Arabs with limitless oil money; shyster land developers; and New York (i.e. Jewish) investors.  To the WASPs of Upper Northwest, the McMansions signaled the invasion of a hyper-bourgeois, crass, tasteless, foreign materialism that threatened every considered, temperate, and modest expression of wealth in Washington. The mansions were bad enough, but the golf courses, tinsel-town excesses, fleets of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Hummers they spun off would degrade land, vista, and culture.

It wasn’t so much that old-time residents resented the houses per se, it was what and whom they represented.  In fluid and wealthy Washington where traditional community is not valued , all that is left is an outward community signifying status, culture, and position but serving no interactive needs. If community is not neighbors, common schools and churches, then it is only what it looks like.  If I lived in an old-monied area like Spring Valley in Washington, I could enjoy the shared culture and reflected sophistication of my neighbors and their homes. An intrusion of new money would erode whatever social and cultural identity I had created for myself.

About ten years ago, an oversized mansion-like house was built in Spring Valley.  As in Potomac, the land was cleared for a house double or even triple the size of anything else in the neighborhood.  It was constructed not of colonial brick or frame, but some yellowish stone and stucco.  It had a four-car garage, decorative overhangs, ornate entrances, and cobbled walkways.  Compared to everything around it, it was a monstrosity. 

“Do you know who lives there?”, was the whispered, conspiratorial question of neighbors.

“Arabs” was the answer.  “Has to be.”

The problem is that both the Potomac and Spring Valley houses met all current zoning and code requirements.  Nothing in local regulations said you couldn’t build a faux Moroccan palace or copy of the Chateau de Versailles.  Only in new, restricted-access gated communities and historic districts were exclusionary policies permitted. Otherwise it was a cultural free-for-all.

I sympathize with the residents of Spring Valley, Carmel, or Southport who are enraged at the invasion of new money; and I personally would not want a Sultan’s harem next to me; but I am annoyed at the self-righteousness of those who dig in their heels and fight ‘development’ because it is not their sylvan glades they are concerned about, it is Arab money. These are often the same people who rail against the One Percent and what they consider to be the depredations of the rich; but these activists are themselves wealthy – just with a different kind of wealth – and theirs is a protest against what others’ new money can buy.

By the same token, I know of a number of old-guard families in these enclaves who, having run through their trust funds, were more than happy to sell their tasteful brick colonial to the developer offering the highest price.  So much for community.

I probably would raise a fuss if some of this new money showed up in my neighborhood and if some new pimped up house started to be built on the next block; but I would not go to the barricades, believer in free markets that I am.  I might press for more restrictive zoning and push for regulations that took character and environment into consideration when granting permits; but I would keep my mouth shut about Arabs, New York developers, and real estate shysters. One of the best features of this country is its entrepreneurial dynamism.  It is hard to predict where this capitalist energy may lead – and in this case it leads to the mega-mansions of Potomac – but all in all it is a good system; and there is always the right of collective citizen action.

So while I appreciate the desire of wealthy traditionalists to keep things the way they have always been, I have never appreciated the elitism of the struggle. It is one thing to be self-preservationist – all human societies have been so – but it is another thing altogether to criticize only certain types of wealth.  After all, it was the same capitalist engine which produced old money and new money.

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