Rebelling against sprawl

April 20, 1999|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

IT WAS a crisp afternoon in October. By carefully reading the map that came with the rental car and meticulously following the directions from the real estate agent, we had successfully managed to become lost. A friendly passer-by put us on the right road, however, and soon, my wife and I found our destination -- a nearly deserted, semi-rural intersection tucked into a densely wooded area.

We paused there and listened in appreciation of the silence. I think we both knew, though we hadn't even looked at houses yet, that we were home.

That was four years ago. If you pause at that intersection today, you're apt to be rear-ended by a truck. And even if you could tarry there, you wouldn't find silence or many trees. Rather, you'd find yourself smack in the midst of golden arches, gas stations, boxy superstores and not one, but two, big hardware outlets.

It's like I went to sleep one night in Mayberry and woke up in Times Square.

Iowa revolt

Which is why I empathize with a group from Decorah, Iowa, that placed a quarter-page ad in regional editions of USA Today recently under the headline, "The Prettiest Little Town in North America Is About to Be Destroyed." It seems Wal-Mart is coming to town.

Actually, Wal-Mart is already there. What the Arkansas-based retailer proposes to do, though, is to replace its existing store with a Super Wal-Mart. According to the Decorah protest group, Citizens for Responsible Development, the new store would more than double the size of the old one -- from 74,000 square feet to 176,000 -- and sacrifice their town "on the altar of urban sprawl" in the process.

CRD member Thatcher Vagts says they've received more than 100 supportive e-mails and phone calls and have seen an uptick in traffic at their Web site. Many of the people he hears from, he says, are fighting the same battle in their towns.

As for Wal-Mart, spokeswoman Daphne Davis notes that the company has been in Decorah for 13 years, employing between 200 and 300 residents and strongly supporting local nonprofit organizations. Wal-Mart, she says, is a contributing member of the community.

Duly noted. But my sympathies still lie with CRD.

Of course, I'm biased by what's happened to my own town. By woods being bulldozed for townhouses. By traffic jams and crowded parking lots. By the fact that when I look at the trees in my backyard, I see spotlights poking through from the big multiplex on the main highway. Four years ago, all I saw was darkness.

I moved out here to get away from all this. Of course, that's the problem -- many of us did. And in the process we bring "all this" with us.

Yet even accepting that residents share the blame, it still seems to me that there's enough left over for pliant city governments, oblivious urban planners and rapacious developers. I had three movie houses within 15 minutes of home. Did I really need a new multiplex on my very doorstep?

I'd rather have the trees that used to be there. I'd rather have a community that looks like someplace rather than anyplace.

Yet this is where sprawl has brought us. Many of our towns have become interchangeable, all lit up and paved over by the same burger joints and discount stores. Small wonder Decorah strikes a nerve.

Gore campaign

A pundit recently mocked Vice President Al Gore for making the fight against urban sprawl a centerpiece of his campaign for the presidency. But my completely unscientific survey -- a flight attendant, an academic, a neighbor -- suggests that Mr. Gore may be on to something: People are sick of quiet, uncrowded places becoming noisy, over-filled ones. Sick of quirky, idiosyncratic towns being bulldozed into anonymity.

My neighbor's talking about moving. I may do the same when the kids get a little older.

I tell Marilyn our next house is going to be on top of a mountain somewhere. Consider yourself lucky, I say, if there's electricity and running water.

She thinks I'm joking and so do I, until I drive past a parking lot that used to be a strand of trees. Then I'm not so sure.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address: elpjay@aol.com.

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