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Town Lite

by Christa Wagner

September 4,2005

A few weeks ago I visited a friend in Chapel Hill who lives in the Southern Village, a subdivision that, in the nomenclature of architects and planners, is referred to as a New Urbanist community. I like to think of Southern Village as a “town-lite.”

It has a square, where you might catch a Frisbee game or lie on the grass and read, flanked by a grocery store, restaurants and novelty shops. It even has a church. In fact, Southern Village has all the appearance of a real town, but it has no governing body (save the homeowner’s association) and nothing really to write home about. It’s orderly, but not organized in the way it looks like it should be if it is imitating a 1950s town in middle America as I assume it means to do. I wonder if the development of many of our communities and neighborhoods in America could be trending toward town lite—heavy on the immaculate landscaping and free parking, but light on the funky hangouts, eccentricities, and chance encounters between people of different classes.

Is town lite really a facsimile of a kind of community that used to exist in America? I mean, Southern Village has a building named “town hall,” but it just happens to be a place where you can grab a beer and a quick bite to eat, not where you’d go to get your marriage recognized. I wonder, isn’t a town supposed to be the coming together of a community? Then how come these town lites feel like one developer’s opinion of how people should live?

Trouble is it’s not just the way we’re organizing our neighborhoods, it’s also the way we’re marketing our cities through crass commercialism, as an experience that can be bought or sold.

For example, I remember my first visit to Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. Beale Street is famous for having birthed the Blues, America’s most authentic and original musical tradition. And yet what Beale Street was to me in 2002 was pretty polished, kind of sanitary, and had none of the roughness that I had arrived expecting to encounter.

And there’s Times Square in New York. Not that I have anything against the neon but the visual noise is overwhelming and something many of my New York friends think is a real dissolution of what the city’s epicenter once was. These friends tell me that neighborhoods all over New York are losing their unique character.

A French saying encourages us to “Vive la difference!” When considering the development of a city, I take this phrase to mean that the collision of two worlds, ethnicities, or economic groups is what makes a place unique. Difference should be embraced. It should live on.

I can’t help but wonder about New Orleans, a city that thrived on the collision of cultures, languages, and ethnicities that will be forever changed, ravaged by the recent hurricane.

I’ve never visited New Orleans, but I’ve started to wonder about how it will be rebuilt and whether I will have the same impression of its strange voodoo/gumbo charm as so many other Americans know and love when I do go and visit someday. Can New Orleans be rebuilt in the spirit of its old identity or will its new one be something shaped for the tourists -- a Disneyland-like caricature of piquant postcolonial charm? What if thousands of people who call New Orleans home never make it back to their city—wouldn’t that change its character indefinitely?

Whenever out-of-town friends come to visit me in Charlotte they always ask, “Well, do you like it here?” or, “What do you do here?” And I wonder if Charlotte is creating unique and vibrant communities with mixed races, mixed incomes and mixed cultures. Or are we slouching toward non-identity? If tragedy was to strike our city, would it be difficult to identify Charlotte’s special features? To know what to rebuild?

Charlotte is getting “cooler” as we’ve all heard. While we work on that aspect of our community, let’s keep asking ourselves “cooler…for whom?” A city that offers high quality of life for all of the cultural and economic groups living within its borders is a city that will grow a rich, treasured identity.

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