Monday, August 16, 2010

No Address, No Phone

Aki fukaki tonari wa nani wo suru hito zo

Nearing autumn's close,
my neighbor -- how
does he live?

-- Matsuo Basho

I chronicled, in "The Noise Boys," some of my and Bill's travels during the Health South project for ASCC Communications. It gave us good memories to share because it was that rare thing, what a job should be: adventure, challenge, a little danger, new people and places, and a chance to shine away from backward supervision and even more backward co-workers. That was one of the two ways to live free, on the road; the other is to hie yourself off to the deep woods, like Davy Crockett on the wild frontier.
We did the second, sort of, last week. Bill acquired a cabin he'd had his eye on for years, about six years ago, but I'd never seen it. He retired, like your humble author, but more recently. Having completed the big projects at home he'd set aside while still in the work harness, he called me up and we set a date to head west into the middle of Pennsylvania where the small villages are greatly outnumbered by bears. In mid-Cumberland county we were in (to me) unfamiliar territory, with town names I'd never heard. It's a good thing they have names, because they all look the same and if you might as well be in Mongolia if there were no state route signs and the occasional tiny post office to orient by. Every one has a pizza joint, a "beauty" parlor (probably more an aspiration than an actual product) and a metal building purporting to repair cars and tractors. Judging from the detritus surrounding them, not much gets repaired to the point of leaving under its own power.
But the charm lies in the twisty roads between settlements which slowly climb two mountain ridges, closely girded by green on either side. Like a great photo or painting or story, it's what's left out that makes the experience what it is. Once the hand of man is stayed, things settle out to that living equilibrium that old Ma Nature does so well.
Just before the borough of Three Springs, we hung a sharp left and in a few miles turned left again, leaving the named and paved road for a dirt and gravel cut that immediately begins its ascent up a hill. Despite a very hard rain last night, it was not washed out at all, due to skillful grading with cuts to direct the rushing water off to the side. I've seen private roads up similar hills destroyed by every serious rain, so the community of cabins and its loose association governance obviously knows what it's doing. An ex-SeaBee among the residents?
I see why Bill waited until this cabin became available. Next to the last one, it has its own long driveway and, at least while the leaves fill the trees, is out of sight until you're right up on it. Like most of the others, it has an outdoor pavilion with a stone barbeque, but unlike some has full indoor plumbing. The deck is up high and puts you in a perfect place among the hickory, oak and white pine trees; you can imagine yourself looking out for turkey or deer in an early morning, a fat mug of coffee grasped in your hands.
You've got recorded entertainment and books for the late night or the long winter, but you also have long walks, wood to get in and stack, no-rush chores and maintenance, and casual or serious hunting if that's your thing. It might be even if you don't find it entertaining, because there's no grocery or any other kind of store nearby. Mt. Union up to the north isn't much of a city, but that's your long-haul option to do any shopping; the Boy Scout motto about being prepared is something you had better already have made your own.
Several people live here, quite economically I'm sure, year-round. Next time you spend two hours getting home through traffic gridlock like Nancy did that same day, this arrangement (with all its potential hardships) might look pretty attractive. I felt a little guilty having such a good time while she had such a miserable one.
On our way back, we stopped at the one place in Three Springs there was to get gas, one of those home made convenience stores... a sort of reality check after enjoying the sylvan bliss. Now there's no grocery or drug store, so you would think there was a business opportunity to be exploited. I looked around, and there was nothing but candy, tobacco products, and six racks of chips. Hundreds of bottles of soda. The Altoona newspaper and tabloids, nothing else (remember half the year is dark and cold and only one TV station from Maryland if you're not blocked by the mountain). But the lack of entertainment could be easily replaced by nature and socializing; the lack of food not so much even if you were pretty good with the squirrel gun.
If you were healthy, not prone to bloody accidents, and had a sturdy 4-wheel drive vehicle with many years left on it, and were comfortable with your own and the limited local company, you could make a nice life in that cabin. The long drive to anything might just be preferable to four lanes of stopped traffic with billboards screaming at you on either side. Something to think about.

One week later: Karma smacked me on the back of the head. I was to pick Nancy up at work on this Thursday and we were going to the Hershey Grill. Due to two major accidents on I-81, it took two hours to make the 20-minute trip from home to Blue Cross, including a 32-mile detour. I thought the back route on route 39 to Hershey was the way to go, with all the usual routes just gridlocked, but found that we could not proceed past Linglestown (never saw road work just shut a town down before). So back we went all round the mulberry bush, spending an hour and half making what should have been a less than 20-minute trip to Hershey. That woodsy retreat was looking a lot better than this weekly Highway to Hell commuting.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Slash and Burn Real Estate

Richmond, Virginia is staying the same (it has always done that well) and changing incredibly fast. A visitor familiar with the past sees the distinctive neighborhoods with the same feel as ever, but often gentrified, with new street signs, even a changed demographic. The last is best explained by the exponential increase in housing prices (a $34,000 house back in the day going for 1/4 to 1/2 million now). If there is a student couple living on Park or Hanover, one is probably a medical intern, not a commercial art junior. I guess all the non-prime-time students (and there are a lot more at VCU now) are all living in dorms or at home. And racking up loan debt no honest person can pay.
Last year Cliff and I stumbled upon the new (yuck) governor's inauguration parade downtown while surveying the desolation there. I've seen more people in an all-night drugstore at 3 a.m. Next to the still-successful National Theater were restaurant and store fronts that had obviously been renovated, opened and closed within a few months. No place open except for, thank heaven, the Beatles-themed pub. But that's it. For the few residents in upper floor condos downtown, not even a grocery store. Who's going to pay rent and a big monthly fee to safely park their car to live in a downtown with absolutely nothing?
And safety is the primary of two essential issues. People shift outward to the stable older neighborhoods (and some of those, as in all cities, slip slowly and inexorably downward with more rentals and more shady characters appearing each year). A dead downtown means higher taxes for those areas, adding to the already inflated costs, and as families grow they move outward again. A family means a car (or two) and the need for more usable space, and the frustration with parking problems from downtown to Colonial Park make the tradeoff of charm vs. convenience no contest.
But I was not prepared for the nuclear explosion that is Short Pump, at the far, far west end of Broad Street. This wasn't even farmland sacrified for quickly built development, like around us here; it was just scrub, back in the day, with maybe three old wood buildings with peeling paint.
The picture at above right is West Broad Village, the boldest concept since the giant Innsbrook business park was built nearby, out beyond civilization, years ago (I didn't think it would work, so far from everything -- shows what I know). Behind a shopping center arises a new downtown that looks more like a Las Vegas mega-development than anything in traditional Richmond, with apartments, first floor parking garages, a pool, an Aloft Hotel and four-story homes with roof decks (again, like Vegas or New York, not our old town). Brick internal streets put the Southern stamp on it, though. Spaces (most empty at this point) on the first level for shops, restaurants, and even 668,000 square feet of offices make it a new downtown springing up like a June weed, all at once. To entice residents, there is a Whole Foods store at one end and a Trader Joe's at the other. So you can live 20 miles out of town and still get a whole lot done on foot (not that many of the BMW drivers will change their ways). Proposed, next to Whole Foods, is a garden and orchard with market, with gardening space for rent! Again, I don't see our lobbyists and executives sweating under the sun, but someone's trying to bring that idea of a new integrated community into reality, like the Columbia, Maryland experiment by Rouse.
This village seems targeted at the childless urban professionals or spunky rich retirees who might have lived downtown or between Cary and the river. The families will still have to move to suburban developments and drive everywhere; but growth and change follows the money not the needs.
It is odd, though, that this Short Pump phenomenon in the 21st century is so similar to the actions of stone-age tribes of the Amazon or Indonesia who cut and burn the forest to make a new village, soon enough deplete the resources and foul the environment, then move further on to do it all again. The difference is that something will grow back in the abandoned village and life will return, but not so with our old downtowns.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Skinny Ties

Being a little slow as usual, I didn't start following AMC's Mad Men
until recently, catching some of the Season 3 episodes before the Season 4 premiere. I knew it would be fascinating, but we now have 2,000 channels and I hadn't looked up where AMC resides (pathetic, but true), so it took a while. Well, I'm hooked now.
The decades pile on top of one another, you're distracted as the times change, and what was the latest style soon looks quaint and dated, like the early Sixties did after the rapid changes of the mid-decade. When Mad Men nails that 1960 - 64 look and feel dead on, however, the contradictions of that brief but clearly definable era just blow up in front of you if you were old enough to be paying some attention at the time. Like the British Empire in the early 20th century, it seemed so sure of itself, knew exactly what its values were, and did not allow questions or alternatives. These are the qualities a system or era always displays just before implosion.
I remember when my father wore hats to work and a briefcase was always part of the uniform. The suburban curbsides and driveways were home to American-made cars; the occasional scamp had a German one (people who had been to Europe, or anywhere other than relatives' homes). My Three Sons and Ozzie and Harriet and Ed Sullivan were on television's three channels (and Ch. 8 was far away and fuzzy). There was high-quality drama and comedy (Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs) that was above most of our heads -- actually, though, a buffet of good choices.
But there were off-notes beneath the era's theme music, I felt, but could of course not articulate why. Some of the vaudeville-type acts on Sullivan, like Topo Gigio, made no sense. Despite the catchy hooks and beat, the manufactured popular music seemed after a little reflection to be cheap and terminally silly. But there was a jazz scene that today's mess can only echo. Oscar Peterson, Coltrane, the bossa nova, and Brubeck. The contradictions made me wonder.
Maple Street where the Beav lived was the ideal; as I looked around, there were hardly any places like that (we didn't even know it was just a faked-up set back then; we were taught that everything was real, smoking was what everybody did, all criminals were caught by the Jack Webbs and Elliott Nesses, things were exactly what they said they were, and that if you were under your desk at school when the nuclear missiles hit you'd be O.K.).
We felt pretty good in our Middle Earth, between the danger and overstimulation of the big city jungle and the backwardness and deadly dullness of the rural vacuum. Willow Lawn "shopping center" was a new thing, even though the movie theater was useless since The Sound of Music had it locked up for over two years. There were no branch banks (you had to go downtown and do business between 9 and 2, weekdays) and no branch libraries outside the city limits. Parham Road between Three Chopt and Patterson was called Ridge Road and was a two-lane with no center dividing line, gravel and tar over packed earth. The sound of the white pebbles being crunched and kicked up by my friend's older brother's 55 Chevy sounded as fine as rain on an old metal roof. You could ride a bike along it, there was so little traffic. It was good to be a kid and easy to be an adult if you toed the line and conformed.
My father was a big-city guy, so he sort of fit the Mad Men type, especially when he and co-workers spent time at the tiny Executive Lounge near the (gone) office building facing Willow Lawn. It was a small-city Rat Pack wannabe type of place, with good wage earners rubbing elbows with night-life types who didn't fit into the daytime world so they hid out there. The company had a jet (we went on it to New York once and stayed in the company apartment on the Upper East Side), a threatening-looking fleet of black company cars (free to execs), and some high rollers at the top who made it an exciting ride if you were in their circle. Then as now, it's good to be king. Otherwise you'd better keep quiet and be content with that tiny house and used car. And that arrangement worked, but pressure built and it could not last.
Then -- as now -- we had no idea that it could all be turned upside down so quickly. It was like we had been sitting on the still carousel horses, secure, each in his own defined place, when the whole thing came to noisy life and started whirling around raising up those who had been down, and blurring our vision so we couldn't tell what was what.
The Danish Modern furniture went to the Goodwill, the skinny ties to the back of the closet, the beehive hairdos went natural, and I abandoned the crewcut look. The Mad Men put their hats on the shelf.
They might remember the days when you could buy an Oldsmobile downtown.