Sunday, March 19, 2006

The economics of sprawl

BILL BELLEVILLE HAS AN NEW BOOK coming out called The Economics of Sprawl. The title made me pick up the 3.14.06 issue of Folio Weekly, which ran an excerpt from the book with the same headline.

I saw Belleville two years ago at the Florida First Coast Writers Festival where he was as a workshop speaker. Belleville's room was packed, a testament to the appeal of his subject matter, and the author's ecological dedication. He'd just published a book on the St Johns River and the bulk of his workshop dwelled on the forces of commercialism and its impact on my state.

Sprawl goes in the same direction, depicting the very sad facts of overdevelopment, describing how land is wiped "clean" of original tree growth, how protected wetlands have become a realtors' sales challenge, how local governments advertise the glories of the natural state of Florida only to have that natural state removed forever with the onslaught of the mass development they solicit.

Belleville is good with numbers. He makes them matter. For example, I learned that in some years, 80 to 90% of Florida's population growth is not an internal creation as in babies being born but external as in newcomers settling here from out of state. I learned that each year, 275 square miles of land is lost to development. But what really hit home was Belleville's comment that "the native culture had been displaced by a society of newcomers."

Let me recreate a committee meeting at the local junior college last month. As I look around the room, I'm aware of two people who are native Floridians, and I'm one of those. And the other person is a maybe. The committee head is from NY state and it's her fine idea to develop a grant for an oral history project, a pre-gentrification effort to preserve inner city memories, sort of an urban anthology caught on tape.

The irony of this is fascinating.

The college is responsible for a portion of that urban displacement, growing at the edge of Jacksonville's oldest neighborhood: Springfield. Once an urbane locale, Springfield is today an admixture of Klutho-designed bungalows, rundown ghetto, ACLFs, street people, mental health centers and residents who bought cheap at low interest and have uncovered the beauty of many old homes with sweat equity, neighboring hands and federal grant monies. Springfield got a listing on the National Registry of Historic Places and economic prosperity began its slow accumulation, starting with individual homeowners and burgeoning outward.

City angels and new money helped resurrect old business fronts on Main Street, pushing an artsy motif on the facades of staid storefronts, bringing jazz and spoken word and gourmet style quick lunches for busy downtown execs and the local academic community. This is "The New Springfield," where the nuances of historic flavor are captured in a profit-making patina. We've gone beyond historic renovation now. This is the land of sunshine, grease my palm tree, please. OK, I like the new eateries. O so chic to head out and sit among 200 young execs in a ceilingless barn and yell at my tablemate over the clink of silver. yeah. Jacksonville is big time now.

What's happening with Springfield is analogous to what's happening in Florida.

Back to my topic sentence...

The campus is composed of five major centers, one each to a city block, and each made accessible by a parking lot. I don't know how much has gone under the bulldozer for the college's continual expansion. But I know what Kenneth tells me: a guy I worked with at the college. He points to a spot next to the bus terminal, across the street from Building A and tells me stories. That used to be his home turf, he says. And that over there, the ugly white building with a medical doctor's name painted in its side, that was a joint he and his friends frequented. They took their own record albums and their own liquor and hung out. That was haven for a black man returning from Viet Nam. His place.

When I drive down Laura street on my way home from work, it's my tendency to speed. Instead, I drive with a light foot and an alert eye. Why? Because while this heavily trafficked, multilane stretch may look like an inner city throughfare, it's actually something else. It's part of place, part of home; it exists in the minds of its previous inhabitants.They've been moved out of the way. But they haven't let go. And they haven't given it over. So I'm a cautious driver in their neighborhood, where they walk, oblivious to me and my car.

The oral history project is giving back to the community or more exactly, preserving what remains of the original community the only way possible - through living memory. I don't fault the project organizer for her efforts. I'm glad she had the idea. But when I examine this project, I'd like to believe it is community-based, that its intentions are high and that it's not simply a means for the college to assuage its collective consciousness. And I'd like to believe that its major participants and its primary beneficiaries will be the Floridians who've been moved out of sight.

Like Belleville, when I mourn the loss of Florida, I am grieving loss of land, loss of place, just like Kenneth. The organic icons that drew New Yorkers and Midwesterners and Garden State emigres to Florida were not expansive community colleges or neat retirement communities on islands but enormous live oaks draped in Spanish moss. They were the neighborhood pecan groves, the wild flowering phlox, the weird sinkholes, the chilly springs.They were squirrels, opossum, raccoon, blue jays, mocking birds, manatees, dolphins, pigeons, owls, the fabled Florida cougar, snapping turtles and gopher tortoises. The land of Florida and the inhabitants of the region are what makes Florida, Florida.

Just last week, to pronounce its separation from the land, its carelessness, its loss of awe, the college called out truck crews with those spindly mounted ladders and butchered two of the oldest live oaks on the campus. I watched as workmen pulled limbs and shoved them into a shredder. This was Florida being spit out in a million fragments into the black hole of a truck. These mammoth trees have stood for a century, haven and home to the animals that make Florida, Florida. These are the trees that give me comfort in the midst of all that barrenness, a respite, just as the manmade retention pond is such a delight, calling to it herons and cranes and anhingas. These provide habitat to all that is Florida. But the trees got in somebody's way. The word was the tree droppings were falling on student cars.

And that's my story of how my Florida disappears: chopped down and fed to a machine.

It's not irony anymore.

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