Sunday, July 27, 2008

Anywhere, USA

I'm in the middle of reading "The Geography of Nowhere" by James Howard Kunstler. It was written in 1993, which makes it even sadder than it is already, for the forces that are ruining our small towns and sense of community have never abated.

Perhaps now, as the economy slumps, the endless expansion of places to buy things will stop. It's already happening. Unfortunately, what we are left with is many vacant buildings on the outskirts of our towns. Ugly vacant buildings.

I had once tried to rent space in one of the near empty shopping centers. The rent was insanely high and so I did not. Now, of course, there is a small national franchise occupying this space. The rents downtown are barely any better. Who can afford them? The only locally owned businesses that thrive are ones where the buildings are owned by the shopkeepers.

As mentioned briefly in the last post, there are some new shops (if one can call them that). I once thought it nice that zoning in Belfast did not dictate too many things, but now I wonder how they could allow the new atrociously ugly signs. The city council members have scratched their heads for years, wondering why Belfast hasn't grown much as a tourist community. Why would anyone really want to visit it? It's got the same sprawl as any town in America.

Where once there were fields of hay or pastured animals, there are now fast food joints and industrial "parks". The huge businesses (Bank of America, Athena) may be set back from the road and hidden by trees, but their presence is large. At night, where there once was darkness, there is now the glow of lights emanating from the buidings, where workers toil away 24 hours a day in different shifts.

I find it all terribly sad. I moved here nearly 18 years ago and in this time it has gone from a rural area to something not definable. It isn't a suburb, for there's no city it serves. It's just a mess.

I can feel the change in the community (or lack thereof) when I do take a walk there. Once, simple errrands would take all day for one would continuously bump into folks with whom one would chat. If I was in a hurry, I would sometimes nearly curse that fact. Now, I long for those "good old days", not simply out of nostalgia, but because it is indeed a real loss. Many people I know have moved away. Most people know folks who have. They may have sold their land to developers or not, but either way, they moved to places (the majority of them) that hadn't felt the touch of sprawl yet or to real cities, where there were opportunities.

Some towns in Maine have been smart about development. This entire state is a place for tourists. We may not like that, but even our license plates reflect it: they read "Vacationland". As we ruin the beautiful places, this so-called vacationland becomes a no-man's land of the same ugliness that plagues the rest of the country.

I used to argue with young people about the changes that were taking place. "Why can't we have a Taco Bell?", I remember one fellow asking of me. I suggested to him that if he indeed wanted all the conveniences of living near malls, he should move. But his attitude has prevailed amongst the city planners (or non-planners). Let them come! It almost feels like they've given up in despair. Let them come, for we've already failed. Contrast Belfast with Rockland, an hour away, and one can quickly see why there's a sense of failure. Rockland, just ten years ago, was nearly a ghost town. There were sections that felt akin to slums. The sprawl outside the town was unstoppable. Add to that the fact that if one were driving down the coast, another route enabled one to bypass Rockland altogether. What could they do?

Now Rockland is more than thriving. I haven't seen an empty storefront in years. They've got a festival for everything - jazz, lobsters, classical music, blues, and the town itself. There's even a good art museum. People stroll the streets and they aren't just tourists. Folks live above the stores. They sit in outdoor cafes. The train line was refurbished and now one can get there from Boston (or New York). There is so much to walk to that one doesn't even need to rent a car.

Every time I think of Rockland, I want to kick myself. I saw the change occurring and thought "move there", but didn't. I was wedded to where I was. Belfast still seemed like a place of creative promise. Perhaps the final straw, the last nail in the coffin, was an event that went unnoticed by most: there was a building called the "Slack Factory", owned by a cooperative. People rented rooms there, to play music, to paint, or to live (thought that was not really allowed). There was an open mike night once a week, all year round. Next to this building was the bingo hall. They needed more parking, and I suspect they didn't like the strange people who hung out at the building next door. So, they offered to buy it, and a good sum was offered. This cooperative, once a bunch of local creative people, had scattered. The ones that left wanted the money and didn't care about the consequences to the community. There was a fight and the buy-out was put off. Urgent pleas for money went out: if the folks who had a stake in the sale could raise only 5000 dollars, the building would not be razed for a parking lot. The deadline loomed, and they were short some small sum. Within a week, the building was gone, new tar had been laid, and an era came to an end.

The open mike night moved to the UU church, and with that came some censorship. Once, the little "city" of Belfast was named one of the "hippest unknown places in America" by some magazine. Young people flocked here during the summers. Music was played on street corners. It's all gone now.

Or perhaps it ended the day an old friend left her family and farm to work for MBNA. She once churned her own magnificent butter. When she stopped, she revelled in the fact that she could now buy clothes in places other than second hand shops.

Ah, materialism - the streamroller that flattens everything and everyone in its wake.

Photo note: Where in the world is this particular Taco Bell? It doesn't matter.

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