Deciding Today What Life Will Be Like Tomorrow

January 30, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- When I was a child we bought most of our food from a rural store on Route 22 at Shucks Corner. It was about six miles from home, and although there were several other small stores a little closer, and what we called the chain stores in Bel Air and Havre de Grace, my family preferred this one.

The store at Shucks Corner had a good supply of canned goods and staples, some fresh meats, and fruits and vegetables

depending on the season. One day a week, if you called in an order in the morning, the proprietors would deliver it in the afternoon. This was handy for emergencies, but most people I knew liked to do their shopping in person. It was more sociable.

There used to be stores of this kind all over the countryside, but they're almost gone now. The Shucks Corner store has been out of business for years. After it closed, the old building had a succession of tenants selling antiques or whatever, but it had lost the vitality of its country-store days and always looked sort of sad.

Recently it was sold, torn down and replaced by a compact little McDonald's.

Around the neighborhood I heard some of the predictable grumbles -- unsightly, drive-thru culture, commercialization, now we're starting to look just like everyplace else, blah blah blah. But it seems to me an improvement. There's more life on that corner now than there had been since the store closed.

In certain more upscale communities, the resistance to changes of this sort goes well beyond grumbling. All kinds of planning-and-zoning heavy artillery is brought to bear to

persuade the authorities that whatever rickety old building McDonald's threatens to replace is of overwhelming historical or aesthetic significance. Generally this is all hogwash.

The Shucks Corner store, in its heyday, was an attractive and congenial spot in perfect harmony with its surroundings. But that didn't happen because the local government planned it that way. It happened because there was a need for a store, and somebody came along and filled that need. If a quaint little store were to open on the same spot today it might please the planners, but it wouldn't last long. Times have changed. Today's needs are different, and tomorrow's will be different too.

Planning is perhaps the most overrated of our modern governmental disciplines. And even with the gruesome example of the Soviet Union fresh in our memories, we plunge merrily along in the delusion that today's politicians and bureaucrats can -- and should -- dictate how our children will live tomorrow, and just what their communities should look like.

In city after city, village after village, county after county, consultants or planner-directed task forces issue their portentous reports: Coping With Growth, Channeling Change, Our Community in the Next Century and so forth. Inevitably, there are dire warnings that only ''planned growth'' can protect a community against ''sprawl'' or ''growth by default.''

There is usually plenty of public support for this process, because growth invariably creates problems, and the present always seems more complex than what we remember of the past. The trouble is, the solutions offered by the planners and the blue-ribbon committees are usually more likely to make the problems worse than to resolve them.

Back in 1961, Jane Jacobs wrote in ''The Death and Life of Great American Cities'' that what planners see as annoying disorder is really the dynamism of human society at work. Cities thrive, she wrote, only to the extent that the planners fail to control this fruitful chaos. The same observation can be made today about the suburbs.

One thing planners and zoning authorities almost instinctively seek to do is to separate residential from commercial areas. The costs of doing this are seldom considered, but they can be substantial. The farther you force people to drive to work or to shop, for example, the greater the need for expensive roadways or even more expensive public-transportation substitutes.

When the Shucks Corner store was established, its location was determined by market considerations. Today such considerations are generally subordinated to planning and zoning regulations, which is why a suburbanite who tries selling bread and milk out of his garage to people in his neighborhood is likely to be busted by the authorities faster than if he were peddling drugs.

Houston is the last big American city without zoning, which has for years been driving politicians (and both of the city's major newspapers) up the wall. Yet the people keep voting it down, most recently last November. Perhaps not surprisingly, the heaviest anti-zoning vote came from low-income people, those least at ease with the political process and most likely to find their lives disrupted by the restrictions zoning tends to bring with it.

But that's Texas. Here in Maryland, the planners and zoners are permanent parts of the official landscape, and about the most we can hope for is that they lighten up and use some common sense. At the Shucks Corner crossroads, the appearance of a new and cheerful little McDonald's where the old store used to be is evidence that some of them are doing so.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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