(The usual winter travel schedule means fewer updates. Flickr is probably the best way to follow me around; see the photostream at right.)
A follow-on. “Even if you don’t move, the city will move around you.” — Mary Schmich on Chicago Public Radio, 7 January 2008
1987. My mom looks up from under a wide straw hat to scan the horizon for her two sons, romping with buckets amidst rows of strawberries planted atop sandy little ridges. I grabbed fat berries, sure, but mostly focused on plucking out the vigorous, blossoming runners that had taken root in the aisles — the better for propagation at home. (To this day, the occasional strawberry pops up as a weed in the back lawn.) Scrubby pine trees frame the farm on all sides, except for an old farmhouse with a gravel apron, now serving as gas station and general store.
The year I was born, the census counted 21,763 people in Cary, the sleepy town four miles down the road from this strawberry patch. The strawberries themselves were a sign of creeping urbanization. Years ago, this land was so prized for tobacco that J.B. Duke’s American Tobacco Company built a short-line railroad down this way from their Durham factories. However, the land was now too valuable for commodity crops, so the Sears family went with strawberries instead — aiming to profit off the burgeoning numbers of young families swelling the school ranks in town.
While I was in middle school, the adjacent forests began melting away to make way for development: hundreds of culs-de-sac lined with thousands of houses with brick fronts and gas grills behind, sand traps lining 7,011 yards of golf links, brown stormwater detention ponds tinted an inviting blue on maps displayed on model-home walls; long lines of brake lights arrayed at stoplights, obstructing a daily stampede of network operations controllers, plant geneticists, and copy-machine repairers to and fro their respective cubicles.
All through the Bush I economic downturn, Wake County chugged along with unemployment below 3% — a siren song calling across the land. The moving trucks kept pulling up to driveways, with the cinder-block walls of supermarkets, banks, and schools following close behind. Magazines proclaimed its charms in cover stories; later, eager refugees sought out answers to their thousands of questions on online forums.
Today, the country crossroads that I vaguely remember sounds more fiction than distant memory. The town of 20,000 now finds itself in the middle of a vast metropolis with nearly two million residents. A clock tower, fountains splaying at its base, announces the completion of the second of a planned quartet of shopping “villages” arrayed around the corner of High House Road and Davis Drive. Stone Creek Village takes the elements of a small strip mall and explodes them into an array of one- and two-story buildings surrounding a traffic circle, a broad boulevard, and other finely detailed if overly geometric public spaces. The entire ensemble squeezes into narrow downslope between the street above and a retention basin below — hence, perhaps, the ostentatious clock tower.
Across the way, the same architect placed blue gables atop Cornerstone — the first, and least fancifully embellished with urban ambitions, strip mall here — recalling nothing so much as the Magic Kingdom as they peek out from over the now-mature trees out front.
At the southeast corner and directly on the strawberry farm’s site, SearStone takes a more integrated approach (they even splash “New Urbanism” across their web site) to a senior development — with a few shops, a small hotel, and a continuing care facility among the walking-distance amenities promised to residents.
The newest, perhaps to begin construction soon, even provoked some dramatic political intrigue in what I had remembered as a town so sleepy and well-governed that the cops did away-on-vacation courtesy checks and pulled people over if their brake lights didn’t work. Charlotte-based Crosland, whose success with the Birkdale Village lifestyle center in Huntersville led CEO Todd Mansfield (recently appointed chairman of ULI’s board) led it to embrace mixed-use development, has plans for a similar development, although lighter on retail, at the northeast corner of the intersection. It went through months of acrimonious hearings as neighbors objected to its size. Ultimately, the threat of political backlash predicted at the final hearing came true: the ultimately approved development, even though it largely conformed with the existing comprehensive plan, became a contentious issue in the town council election and helped to contribute to swing the town’s political pendulum back towards slow growth.
It all sounds, and sometimes feels, completely random — countless other farms just outside countless other American towns look almost the same as they did 20 years ago. These farmers hit the lottery; but actually, they didn’t: the “instant city” was the work of many thousands of hands over several decades. How did this one intersection get to be the way it is? Why do cities arise in the places they do? Why do some regions prosper while others falter; why Cary, N.C. and not Napoleon, Ohio? And if smart people (of which the Triangle has no shortage) could design an instant city to house one million residents, to be built over the span of 20 years, would it look anything like what the Triangle looks like today?