life between the pages

“I spent my life folded between the pages of books.
In the absence of human relationships I formed bonds with paper characters. I lived love and loss through stories threaded in history; I experienced adolescence by association. My world is one interwoven web of words, stringing limb to limb, bone to sinew, thoughts and images all together. I am a being comprised of letters, a character created by sentences, a figment of imagination formed through fiction.”
Tahereh Mafi, Shatter Me

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Your southern adventure

(An open letter to James Howard Kunstler, in response to a recent entry on his blog - to read, check archives here,) and scroll down to October 30, 2006).

Dear Mr. Kunstler:

Am trying to clear the calendar in order to make your visit to eastern NC on Nov. 6th. Your writings are always good for at least a giggle --if a somewhat exasperated belly laugh fails me. I appreciate your cutting insight and you do often hit the nail on the head regarding the glaring stupidity of many public policies & land use decisions.

As a land use planner by education & experience, and a native of the Commonwealth, and by that I mean Virginia-the-mother-of-all-states, I have always been somewhat mystified by the actions and tastes of our neighboring states. To be exact, I am from "southside Virginia," and not a native of that OTHER state, namely NOVA or Northern Virginia --which is actually a northern state and is not recognized as part of the Commonwealth by the rest of us. I began my planning career in the mid-80s in the most extreme southeast corner of Alabama, then worked my way thru rural Georgia to the Golden Isles, then up to the sprawling pock-marked metropolis that is Charlotte. Ugh. This city is certainly the apogee of Yankee-fed money-lust.

Although I share many of your opinions and some of your conclusions about southern culture, you really don't know what the bleep you are talking about. The myths and the reality are one here... Centuries of poverty gave us time to develop a deep and abiding love of the only thing we had: our inner and outer landscape. Most of us, you see, were very used to hard work. The smallest minority of us ever owned slaves or have ever been able to afford to pay someone to do our work for us. If we didn't work, we didn't eat. And believe it or not, many of us see the link between air conditioning and the influx of foreign culture --and in defiance we raise our cardboard paper fans with biblical sayings printed on the back and wave them silently in total bliss from the porch swing. The softness of a southern summer evening where the breeze is only a whisper is something too fine and ephemeral for most of you to ever even recognize, much less appreciate. What that does to one inside is akin to the deepening of the soul's ability to negotiate between money-based comfort and the control of one's own destiny. Whether you are talking about a shrimper out of Darien, GA or a tobacco farmer in Brown Summit, NC, you are talking about a culture that is steeped in tradition, a deep love of the satisfaction based in the fruits of labor, and an extreme distrust of outside influences. And you forget how much this was upended in the mid-19th century, and how you Yankees still tend to prove us right time after time. We see you, compared to us, as short-sighted, blighted individuals absolutely unconcerned for what you see around you. You cannot appreciate our scars and wounds and are too quick to point out our faults and foibles without a shred of concern or understanding as to what those scars and wounds stand for. If any of you would simply live anonymously among us for a time, you might come to see the subtler, substantial beauty that is the South. You might come to appreciate our deep concern and respect for our neighbors, that is entirely different from yours. Concern and respect do not even mean the same thing here as they apparently do "up Nawth." And so, again, I would offer that you just have to live here, silently, and observe. The south of William Faulker, Flannery O'Connor, Pat Conroy, Eudora Welty, and Lee Smith is not a vast, ugly, bank-supported empire. It is a natural landscape teeming with life and culture --and that is something you Yankees cannot change, not with all your money and your influence and your offers of "knowledge and assistance." I have gotten to where I would far rather see an honest 1970s era mobile home or concrete block farmhouse community out in the country than the cobbled-together false community of the subdivisions around Charlotte. God damn subdivisions after all --thank you so very much, Mr. Yankee. What a lovely idea those were!

Oh --and also, if you ate at any Mom & Pop diner out on the four-lane, you missed the point completely. Southerners do not reveal their secrets and their best selves to just anyone, even less to any Yankee with attitude who happens to drive into town. What makes you think you experienced anything in particular at that dive? Unless the town you visited is vastly different from most, no local eats there unless half-starved and against a wall, I assure you. First reason --they are too expensive and second, the food tastes terrible!! Those restaurants are for TRAVELERS, and they developed in the fifties by people like my great-grandparents who realized that hungry people from out-of-town on a long car trip to the beach or Florida will eat just about anything and pay lots of money for it. REAL home-cooked food is nearly always served waaaaaay out on on a dirt road in an old tumble-down shack or big Victorian whose last paint job was before the Depression, and is not accessible to anyone but the locals. Fact is, you got what you expected --and they got your money. That is the point. The cheap plastic icons of which you speak were put there after the advent of the automobile, but the south you saw was not the real South. You have to live here to know that.

One reason you see so many poor land use decisions here in the South, is that we still have lots and lots of land to waste --unfortunately for us planners. This isn't going to change for the foreseeable future --and yet, here in the South we have no city as ugly as Waterford, Connecticut --where my appalled southern eyes finally saw the truth of what rampant capitalism does to a landscape. God, what an ugly town --miles of concrete and dirty black asphalt --and not a tree or green blade of grass in sight. I high-tailed it back here as quick as I could fly, and have tried my best to warn my fellow southerners about what living conditions the Yankees are used to. They don't believe me. Here we still have trouble visualizing what our cities can and actually are turning into --where you can literally reach out your kitchen window and turn on the faucet in your neighbor's kitchen. Most southerners do not believe for an instant that these tract-home developments will abide for long. And correctly, many predict they will be "filled with 5 Mexican families each," before the next decade ends. Still, my frustrations are similar to yours --the love affair with quick fixes, the dirty old boys (and now women, too) in the smoky civic backroom making deals with developers so that Uncle Andy can retire in peace to the beach. While we may not be able to understand the cultural difference that you Yankees bring down here, namely, your absolute unawareness of how CROWDED you are --this, we sincerely believe, will be the downfall of the Yankee in the south. Eventually the market for living on top of one another will just dry up! Living so closely squashed together is anathema to our very culture --the Southern psyche must have room to breathe and shoot the neighbor's pigs to keep them from running rampant thru the garden --oh, and instead of going to therapists, we blow away the errant beer can or two on the fence with a .357 magnum. It is ultimately why TNDs and "urban planning" fail here. Having attended public hearing after town meeting after community information session for my past 18 years of public life, I see it over and over again. The locals see too many changes happening way too quickly and they rise up and say "No." No culture can assimilate the rapid changes that have taken place on the local level in even the past 5 years. I have seen that the locals do eventually realize what outsiders want to change --which is their very IDENTITY, and they do take back their towns and prevent any more change for a period of several years, until the locals have a chance to catch up. And then they do it on their own terms. They set up baseball diamonds, rejuvenate the canopies over the sidewalk on Main Street, plant trees and polish up the Confederate Memorial in front of the courthouse. In other words, we do get it. We just don't necessarily always do it the way you Yankees do. We like where we live, and in the end we'd rather remain an honest Third World Nation than subscribe to the soul's selling out offered by Yankee industrialists. While a few decision-makers at the top often can be bought, by and large the southern people themselves remain true to their culture. "Bloom where you are planted," pretty accurately describes our mindset. Not "Get thee to Dothan," or any other frame of mind involving leaving the place of your birth and going elsewhere to try to change what you really can't address in your neck of the woods. Because all in all, if you really liked it, you'd stay there.

No personal offense intended --and thank you for letting me get that off my chest. Looking forward to your next column, and perhaps I'll see you next Monday.

Best regards,
Susannah B. Smith, AICP
Principal Planner
Adair Fox Planning, Research, Advocacy & Design

"We are only the trustees for those who come after us." --William Morris

1 comment:

Rachael said...

That was beautiful, Susan. And so true...

I have a feeling that long after New York City has been left to the cockroaches and rats and Los Angeles has dropped off the map into the Pacific Ocean, Darien, Waxhaw, Plant City and even Pageland will remain darling little places where people can breathe, as well as a hundred other places across the South that I've never been to.

Did I ever tell you that when I was a little girl of about 3 or 4, I thought Plant City was called "Plant" City because that's where all the vegetables came from? LOL! It's the agro-center of Hillsborough County and the winter strawberry crop capital of the United States. But of course, it's really named after H. B. Plant, the railroad tycoon who brought the train through town in 1883. Oh, and they have a Primitive Baptist Church in town. Just noticed it the last time I was over there. Had no idea that they had churches as far as south as southern Florida.