Thursday, June 11, 2009

what does place teach us? (an essay)

Rockville Town Square, Saturday Evening
I spent a year and a half working in Rockville alongside a group of awesome kids, many of whom will be starting college this fall. It was 2007. Rockville Town Square had just opened, and between the countless grand opening ceremonies and infrequent customers that blew through that first summer, I saw firsthand how different their adolescent experience had been from mine just a few years earlier.

My teenage years revolved around “rides”: parents, friends’ parents, and eventually my two or three friends who could drive. Our lives were lived half-an-hour away: in the Olney 9; on Rockville Pike; at the Mall in Columbia. Senior year, the Majestic and Ellsworth Drive opened and we had a brief glimpse of how different our teenage years could’ve been for lack of a real place to “hang out.”

These kids had independence: a pair of feet to take them from home to work; a SmartTrip card that enabled trips on the Metro to school, to visit friends, to nights out in the District; a new civic stage on which to play out the great drama of teenage life. Only a handful of the thirty-odd kids at our store had cars.

Their stories are the same as any kid who grew up within a few blocks of Bethesda Row or Downtown Silver Spring. They were exposed to the world around to them – different kinds of people, different kinds of places – essentially city kids with better schooling. The brighter ones knew why it came to be that way. One girl had even written a term paper on Smart Growth for her sophomore Government class. “I think Rockville’s a really good place to live,” she told me. “Everything you could ever need is right here.”

Shopping Center Where Peking Used To Be
Route 198 in Burtonsville.

We’d had the Smart Growth unit in my sophomore Government class at Blake High School as well. In my room at home, collecting dust on a shelf, is the culminating group project: a scale model of a Smart Growth town. It looks like King Farm in Rockville: a neat grid of streets, a downtown with apartments, offices and shops, a broad greenbelt with parks and fields.

Ours was the only one, though. Most of the other projects in my class looked like East County: clump of single-family homes here, strip mall there, a collector highway, cul-de-sacs everywhere. Even before the unit was eventually gutted to make time for High School Assessment preparation, no one in my class knew what Smart Growth meant because they didn’t know what Smart Growth looked like.

Place means a lot. If your parents have the means, they move you to a place that will raise you as they would themselves. This usually translates to big yards and good schools; cul-de-sacs and great rooms; people who look like you and make the kind of money you do and will direct your kids in the right way, whether or not you ever speak to them. And the silent message of place will stick. My former roommate, a fellow architecture student who despised the suburban sprawl he grew up in, says he still loves Montgomery Village.

There is a passage from the Bible – that I first heard through Councilmember Valerie Ervin last fall – that basically says “We all drink deeply from wells we did not dig.” We build to illustrate what values we want to instill in the next generation. What do we seek to teach? That despite the threat of environmental ruin, we can continue to base our lives around the automobile? That people who do not look like us or make the money we do can be safely tucked away in garden apartments far, far away from our neighborhoods? That the farm down the street is only valuable as land that can be turned into a highway, or a megachurch, or a Wal-Mart?

Downtown Silver Spring has already come around from that, as have Bethesda and Rockville. But in places like White Oak and Burtonsville, these are the values we’re instilling in the next generation. I was wondering why all of the families in my neighborhood – four at last count – are picking up and getting out. Even if they don’t want their kids to grow up on top of a Metro station, they’re not happy with the education they’re getting on the east side.

UPDATE: Thomas Hardman asked about the Smart Growth unit taught in sophomore Government classes. Yes, it's true - or, at least, it was when I was in tenth grade (this was in 2003.) I can't find much about it online anymore, though there are some photos from the unit as it was taught at Blake in 2005. I also found a coloring book on Maryland's Smart Growth website.

1 comment:

Thomas Hardman said...


Usually you do top-quality blogging, but this piece is one of the best you have ever done.

Nice flow, good usages all throughout.

But I am a little freaked out by the fact that you had a Smart Growth mini-course back when you were in Blake HS. That would have been, what, 2004?

Even as far back as that, they were prepping you -- in taxpayer funded public schools -- to accept and to promote their vision of what District 4 would be? OMG. Your statement to that effect lends massive credence to the concept of "conspiracy theories".

And how do those conspiracy theories fit into the notion that some people just don't want people who look like them to be buying homes down the street?

Personally, and I hope that you personally will at last understand this: I don't care what people look like. I care deeply if those people hate my guts and work endlessly to destroy me and anyone like me because they and I don't share the same political vision. My idea of Manifest Destiny? Global population reduction, entirely voluntary as practiced by the majority of US-born citizens since 1972. Saving the planet through maintenance of population at Carrying Capacity.

Some people's idea of Manifest Destiny? Breed until it is assured that numerical superiority at the beginning of the population collapse assures that at the end of that collapse, only your kind survives. That kind of hatred that is willing to almost kill the planet to reclaim some territory, I certainly don't want to be living on the same block as people who don't just want me to die, they want to kill the world so that they don't have to live on the same block as anyone who looks like me. Because they killed us all first as they killed the world.

Be that as it may, however they live after that day, automobiles or any form of internal combustion engine won't be in the picture. Those days are long gone where we could sleep in comfort with our doors unlocked; those days are gone when we could let our kids camp out in the yard as a rite of passage; those days are gone where we can walk the streets of the suburbs of our Nation's Capital and expect people to both speak English and understand and LOVE the Bill of Rights's guarantee of Equal Protections of the Law and grant us passage without question or insult.

You're still a young man. You just got out of college and already you're bitching about "how everything is different now" from when you were in highschool. Wait until you're my age. If you manage to remain anywhere as close to calm as I have been doing, may you get high honor just for that.

Alvin Toffler, in his seminal work "Future Shock", declared that the future comes upon us faster and faster. Looking at the rate of increase of processing power and the deployment of ubiquitous computing -- not to mention the encroaching horror of ubiquitous law enforcement, I can't deny that Toffler was right, but only grasped the half of it.

Wake up, man! It's not about race or religion or language, but about other forces far more powerful and far more embedded in the creation of your future.

But if you're going to quote scripture, try Leviticus 24:

23 " 'The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.

24 Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.

Dan... provide for the redemption of the lands as you make your plans.

Because, you do know, don't you, that you have been chosen. To whom much is given, of much is required.

When you say:

That the farm down the street is only valuable as land that can be turned into a highway, or a megachurch, or a Wal-Mart?

-how do you feel about turning Aspen Hill Local Park into 234 units of "affordable housing"?