Thursday, July 26, 2012

ON THE AVENUES: Bring it on home to me.

ON THE AVENUES: Bring it on home to me.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

Earlier this summer, unexpected circumstances dictated more than the usual number of visits up there, to the ancestral homestead.

With each passage through the vicinity of Georgetown, scattered random memories would come bubbling to the surface, demanding conscious attention. Given my ruminative proclivities, the curious aspect of these thoughts was an utter paucity of nostalgia. It seems I have no desire whatever to revisit those days of old, and advanced in adulthood, no particular eagerness to live “out in the country” ever again – not that it even resembles Green Acres, Petticoat Junction or Mayberry any longer.

The home where I spent my earlier years is situated at a gradual point of demographic and socio-economic convergence, where the open countryside to the west gives way to the cookie-cutter march of suburbia as metropolitan Louisville draws ever closer to the east. It has been this way for almost forty years, the paved-over pace quickening during “good” times and the ranch-style despoliation slowing when the economy is “bad,” leaving observers pondering a state of affairs that makes it difficult to discern which economic condition is worse.

This being L’America, sprawling gentrification inevitably would have occurred in Floyd County at some point during these decades, but those of a certain age understand, even if they don’t always concede, that the direct historical impetus for numerous subdivisions and developments occupying former farmlands -- culminating with the Woods of Lafayette and that atrocious quasi-strip mine on the edge of the Knobs off of Old Hill Road -- came about back in 1975 with the advent of court-ordered busing to desegregate Louisville schools.

What followed was white flight, plain and simple, and it was sufficiently repugnant that I could grasp it even then. Commencing with my sophomore year in high school, there were numerous new faces to meet, most of them recently arrived from Kentucky, and their pace of debarkation only accelerated in the months and years to follow. Some of them became very good friends of mine, and now I realize it was at least in part because they brought with them the dreaded urban cultural contagion, which in fact I was quite eager to contract.

But what it really meant was that an influential alliance of socio-economically dominant citizens (read: the white ones) and ambitious (“greedy” being such a quaint word) property developers exerted a politically irresistible “demand” in the marketplace, one as ever functioning far less freely than polemicists might lead one to imagine, and the weight of public policy, i.e., prolific subsidies, was placed behind the emptying of cities, which were left behind to serve as preserves for the less economically advantaged, while infrastructure for a pell-mell escape into the countryside was gleefully constructed in all directions.

It is forever instructive to contrast this metastatic approach with responsible growth strategies as exercised elsewhere, and to shorten the story, it should suffice to say that once I commenced my travels in Europe in the 1980’s, and saw first-hand the value of urban milieus when they are maintained with public policies, rather than intentionally gutted by them, it had a profound effect on me.

Until those journeys abroad became possible, my thinking was inchoate, and as long as I didn’t dwell on my existential discomfort very much, simply staying put amid what remained of the Floyd County landscape generally was okay by me. After all, that’s how I had been raised, and beer had a pleasant, if temporary, dulling propensity.

Well, wasn’t one supposed to live amid acres of grass to mow and maintain, as far away from the city as could be, and then drive dozens of miles to work (usually for national and multi-national corporations), before driving back again later the same day? It seemed almost scriptural in a “don’t you dare question this lifestyle” sort of way.

Fortunately for me, experiencing the urban scene in Europe set into motion an inexorable process of erosion as pertaining to personal values and a subsequent transformation, helping me to see what cities historically had been and might yet be, and to realize that concentrated urban amenities have a greater attraction for me than dispersal into the fields and woods – not to mention being a less wasteful application of resources.

In Europe, I might be residing in a youth hostel in central Vienna, hop a bus or tram to the train station, buy an affordable train ticket, and find myself within a short walk of the fields and woods whenever the mood struck me. A monthly public transportation pass might cost the same as a month’s parking in downtown Louisville. Urban density and rural sparseness on the continent were (and are) clearly delineated, and controlled by more stringent land use regulations than we typically experience hereabouts, where creativity-deprived families enjoy entire careers carving up cornfields into strip malls constructed with balsa wood and duct tape, or naming their subdivisions for whatever natural feature was obliterated to establish them.

Of course, aesthetic deprivation makes their conceptual discombobulation and bone-dry cash flow during recessionary times even more amusing.

There has been much talk lately about the fiscal life-and-death struggle of Floyd County vs. the city of New Albany, all of which strikes me as a remixed mash-up of arguments I’ve been hearing since childhood. In my mind, these present day disputes are aftershocks, as emanating from decisions made long ago to disproportionately subsidize the suburb/exurb at the overall expense of the urban core area.

Nowadays, in the current fiscal place and time, it makes a lot more sense to intelligently reuse the urban core than to subsidize sprawl, even when the outward movement is confined by the boundaries of such a small county as ours. Perhaps implicitly recognizing this, county government apologists like to say that city and county should act as one, with economies of scale suited to the specialized needs of the suburb/exurb, rather than the freshly revitalizing urban core, and this is precisely why New Albany’s mayor has been entirely justified in his prickliness on topics ranging from parks to emergency services.

It’s too bad, then, that a persistent Blinder Bloc within an otherwise improved city council seems intent on ignoring the evidence. But that’s a discussion for another time, isn’t it?

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