I remember a time when most of America looked like Rappahannock County. Oh, there were differences of course — the kind that come with regions, climate and architectural influences — but what was similar was the quality of rural life, small towns and the human scale of Main Street USA. Since that time significant economic and demographic changes have altered the landscape: the explosive growth of suburbs and the encroachment of exurbia creating mega-cities with their insatiable appetite for consuming farmland and open-space. As early as the 1960s parents were taking their children to make-believe main streets at Disneyland or Disneyworld, to rediscover the main streets they remembered from their own youth and which were disappearing with every passing day.
In leaps and bounds, caught between the Scylla of unbridled development and the Charybdis of massive social engineering projects, pre-war America was being improved into oblivion — buried under an ocean of concrete and asphalt. Railroads were ripped up and replaced with interstate highways. These roadways required much more space than the old railroad right-of ways. The automobiles that replaced the trains required infinitely more fuel which caused much more pollution as well as ushering in a staggering annual toll of travel-related injuries and fatalities. That many recurring battlefield deaths would have millions marching in the streets. Yet we blithely shrug it off as an acceptable cost of convenient mobility.
Also unforeseen in America’s love affair with the automobile was exposing the American people to the mercy of foreign oil producers — but on it went, decade after decade after decade – perpetuating the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind — from the world’s greatest democracy to a handful of despotic medieval regimes in the Middle East.
One wonders what might have been if Big Government had not literally paved the way for these monumental changes, if the federal and state governments had not subsidized the road-building lobby with tax-payer dollars, had not helped to put the railroads out of business. One wonders if thousands of main street USAs would still be standing had not federal and state governments subsidized the systematic demolition of the old down-towns of cities and towns all over America in the grandiose name of urban renewal — turning quaint Victorian streetscapes and urban shopping districts into parking lots, housing projects and empty lots.
I can remember the high- minded rhetoric of the time: the politician’s cant, the reformer’s gospel, the innovator’s assurances, the promise of how better things would be. If only we trusted them with billions of dollars of our fellow citizens’ hard-earned money. They would know best how to make America a better place. So we trusted them, these social engineers, these “big idea” people, we trusted them to remake America.
As Europeans rebuilt a railroad system that had been destroyed by a world war, we tore up our tracks. As Europeans created green spaces around their cities, towns and villages to protect local farming and the way of life that it engendered, we pushed out our farmers and paved over their lands. As Europeans turned their old town squares into pedestrian friendly spaces, we jammed them with parking spaces and traffic lights — that is, when they weren‘t pulled down altogether. As we tore up our quaint and utilitarian tramways and trolley-cars, the Europeans designed and installed newer, more comfortable, more reliable models.
We can see how these differences came to be. European countries had limited space in which to grow. Open space and productive farmland had to be protected. Their architectural legacy had to be cherished. If economic value were the only deciding calculus, Cathedrals would be replaced by office buildings, Chateaux by condos. Mid-Century Americans had a different optic. They perceived themselves to be the inhabitants of a limitless universe. They could, as the Mad Hatter in Alice’s Wonderland, just use one place setting after another, simply moving on to the next. After all, there’s always more room. Attention spans became as short as memories. No one cared to remember why this or that edifice had been built by previous generations. It was old, it was useless, it was in the way of “progress.”
In big city and small, all across the country, the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s was a time of wholesale destruction. No building was safe, no place hallowed by tradition, memory, inherent beauty or historical significance. Penn Station and the Metropolitan Opera House in NYC — torn down. Movie palaces and store fronts everywhere — gutted or demolished. Within the short span of a quarter century places would become nearly unrecognizable to those who had previously lived there. It’s as if everyone were turned into Rip Van Winkle, fearful that after a night’s sleep you would wake up to find yourself in a strange new world.
In 1982 I remember standing vigil in the falling snow in mid-town Manhattan, as for 24 hours a day well-known Broadway actors read from the great plays that had been performed at the Morosco, Helen Hays, Bijou, Astor and Gaiety theaters which were slated for the wrecker’s ball to make room for yet another hideous concrete hotel complex. The protests failed. As Munichers rebuilt their opera house which had been bombed in World War II, as the people of Warsaw dedicated themselves to the meticulous reconstruction of their old city which had been razed by the Nazis in the Warsaw uprising, New York real-estate developers and their hand-picked politicians were busy turning the elegant architectural embodiment of our theatrical heritage to dust.
One of the most egregious examples of government meddling run amok was the exalted experiment in affordable housing. Whatever the problems with tenements, they were places where generations of Americans had lived and yes, even thrived. We know their stories because they are legendary. Whether we recall the immigrant neighborhoods on the lower East Side of Manhattan or the rich culture of Harlem, these communities existed in a snug patchwork of streets, pedestrian centered and close-knit. Enter the social planners and community improvers. The tenements got knocked down and replaced by towering apartment blocks. The well-trod rhythm of the streets is broken. The shops at street level are gone. Thousands of people are funneled into a handful of dingy corridors and cold metal elevators. The scale dwarfs the human and humanity is crushed. And all this insanity financed by the taxpayers of America.
By the 1990s the lone voices of protest were starting to sound more like an outraged chorus of rebellion. The virtuoso violinist Isaac Stern led the crusade to save Carnegie Hall — just in time. Jackie Onassis rallied Manhattanites to save Saint Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue. Gradually, though it continues to this day, the demolition madness slowed down. Urban Renewal was seen for the urban blight it had fostered, citizens demanded responsibility and accountability from big developers and a new skepticism questioned the wisdom of grand tax-payer funded affordable housing schemes. By the turn of this century government- financed housing projects were being evacuated and dynamited. America admitted the colossal mistake. But the damage had been done.
We are homo sapiens. For countless millennia we lived in savannah and forest. We are accustomed to a scale which approximates our previous life among the trees and the fields. A mere hundred years of plumbing, electricity and high-rise buildings haven’t changed our hard human wiring. We require open space and an unobstructed view of the sky for our well being and our sanity. We need to see and hear the presence of the fellow wild creatures who share so much of our DNA and an ever diminishing share of our planet. We yearn for spaces which comfortably fit with the scale of our own size and being, with the dimensions of our stride and our glance and our grasp.
To my mind, the grotesque towering edifices at Dubai, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere are hellish visions of an anti-human future. Its no mystery that Paris and Rome are among the most visited cities on earth. Their scale is human. Their aesthetic is beauty. Even if we don’t understand the languages spoken on their side-walks, we feel instinctively at home.
Rappahannock County is one of those few places left in the so-called lower 48 states where the human scale has not yet been violated or obliterated altogether. It is a special place. This county has been protected by a lucky combination of benign neglect, visionary foresight and dedicated obstinacy. If its not to succumb to the quick buck, the short-term benefit or the improver’s zeal, its current residents and elected officials will have to recognize the fragility of its uniqueness and place its preservation as their highest priority.
Post-script: The good news: What’s left of the tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East side and of Harlem, deemed unfit for human habitation and so reviled by the social planners of the ‘60s and 70’s, have been gentrified and are now inhabited by the entrepreneurial, hard-working upwardly mobile citizens of a new generation. The bad news: Politicians of both parties continue to pore billions into road construction while balking at spending anything for rail.