Suburbanizing Rural America
When I was growing up, I loved going to an amusement park about 20 miles away from my home during the summer. To get there, we had to drive for what seemed like forever on a two-lane highway through what I thought was the middle of nowhere. I lived in a suburban area not too far from the mythic place Leave It to Beaver’s home was supposed to be located. The rural landscape felt foreign, someplace to drive through on our way to someplace else.
Years later, my mother moved into a new development a few miles past the amusement park. It was a big change from where I grew up, but had a retreat-like atmosphere. Similar developments sprang up in the area with names reminiscent of grand estates: Barrington, Hawthorn, and Hidden Valley to name a few. Off of two lane highways, each development features homes that are nearly identical in size, design, and color and include amenities like private lakes, club houses, pools, and golf courses. A five-star resort across the street from my mother’s development attracts corporate groups, weddings, and diners to the highly acclaimed restaurants on the property. This is a major change from an area of forests and farms and a far-flung amusement park.
I have watched this area morph into what some call “ruburbia”: a fully suburbanized community whose rural character is now more about style than substance. More commonly called exburbs, or outer-ring communities further removed from a central city than traditional suburbs. People who move there today will no longer find the small town lifestyle that likely attracted people in the past, but instead remnants of small town “charm” with all the amenities of most American suburbs: restaurant chains, fast food, big box stores, and eventually office buildings. In a region whose population has been shrinking over the last several decades, this area has seen a boom from just over 8,000 residents in 1980 to over 14,000 in 2005. While this growth has expanded the once small-town’s tax base—especially by drawing young affluent families—the shift into suburbia has brought with it some of the things residents might have hoped to avoid by moving to ruburbia in the first place.
One of the town’s initial attractions was its lush forests. When my mother bought her home, there were trees as far as the eye could see in her backyard, and realtors sold the property in part based on the serenity and privacy the trees provided. Now just a smattering of trees remain behind her house, and her view is mostly of house built a few years later. To add insult to injury, the homeowners often hold loud parties into the night during the summer. So much for serenity.
Of course, the environmental impact of cutting down trees trumps the inconvenience to the homeowners who once enjoyed looking at them. Deer with no place else to go often dart into traffic. The shade trees once provided is gone, so now people require greater use of air conditioning in the summer. And while it might seem as though the economic downturn might slow development, developers are still clearing land in hopes of attracting new business to the area. Acres once covered with trees have been cleared to make way for new developments like the one visible in the background of the photo below. For Sale signs, like the one in the foreground of the photo below, offer unoccupied land throughout the area.
Despite the signs indicating that several existing homes are for sale, many acres of land have been cleared to expand one housing development. While the housing bubble never affected this area as severely as other communities in the region, high unemployment in the state will likely make it more difficult to sell many homes, which can be significantly higher than the region’s median home price.
The acres surrounding big box stores, as pictured below, have also been cleared, leaving just a handful of trees and planting lawns in their place, which require a great deal of water to maintain. At one strip mall, two of the major chains, Circuit City and Linens ‘n Things, have gone out of business. The Linens ‘n Things store is still vacant, and yet a sign just beyond this open space advertises that the land is for sale in case retailers would like to build a new store in the space.
Before the development frenzy began, the landscape was dotted with small houses and businesses like the one pictured above, a store that advertises feed and live bait to passersby. I recently went inside the shop for the first time. It was empty and the owner was glad to have potential customers to show around.
She told us that the building was constructed in 1899, but may soon be bulldozed to make way for an office building. The owner doesn’t want to sell it, but she is afraid that eminent domain laws will force her out. I was surprised to hear that a building like this would even be considered for demolition, primarily because there were so many other areas of cleared land with no buildings, not to mention those spaces near the strip malls. Across the street from an outlet mall, the shop now seems to lend some of the rural authenticity that the new chain restaurants and big box stores do not. Even for those bent on new development, I assumed that keeping a few of these places around could add to the “small town charm” that could cynically be used to attract business.
I’m not bashing my mother’s community—I enjoy visiting and still find it a relaxing place to be (except when caught in traffic on the once rural roads now serving as major suburban arteries). What other social consequences of “ruburbia” can you think of?
Photos courtesy of Linda Sternheimer