Blighted Homecoming

One returning Mount Vernon native learns that progress stops at nothing

A fter graduation from Kenyon in 1990, this rural girl raised on cows and corn looked toward the beckoning city, specifically Washington, D.C., and its Northern Virginia suburbs. For me, Washington turned out to be a bright, beautiful, tempting fruit of a city--just the thing for a twenty-two-year-old who had lived her entire life surrounded by Knox County's farms and open meadows and beneath its boundless, starry skies .

At that time in my life, the city was what I craved. But nearly a decade later my needs changed again. I had grown weary of the hordes of people elbowing, pushing, and shoving me. I had grown weary of waiting in line, in traffic, for the bus and for the subway train. I had grown weary of everything that made the city a city.

Initially, the challenges of "life in the big city"--getting a windshieldful of parking tickets after dinner and a concert, finishing the abridged audiotape of James A. Michener's Chesapeake during the evening commute across the American Legion Bridge, or completing my income-tax return during a wait for the Orange Line to Vienna--were tackled with youthful vigor and worn like urban badges of honor to be shared with friends and colleagues. Eventually, youthful vigor dissolved into unrepentant crankiness, and all those challenges became ordinary hassles.

More disturbing, however, was the realization that, during all those mornings I was running to catch the train, my city had embraced Generica--that strip-mall, cookie-cutter development that transforms several acres of pristine, underperforming land into row-after-row of luxury garage town-homes in the Federal style that are priced from the low two hundreds and a mix-and-match assortment of big-box retailers, chain restaurants and convenience services. Suddenly, it didn't matter where I lived, because where I lived looked so much like where everyone else lived. We shopped at the same stores, we ate at the same restaurants, and we saw the same Hollywood blockbusters at the same suburban megaplexes.

One aspect of living in the Washington area that I had come to love was the blend of independent retailers, grocers, and restaurateurs offering one-of-a-kind goods. In many cases, this lively mercantilism was overshadowed or replaced by the promise of a bigger selection, a cheaper price, or a more convenient location. Like kudzu, these big-box retailers, their roots planted firmly in the asphalt topsoil, squeezed out the independents. I found myself at a cross-roads: If this was the future of the Washington suburbs I had called home for more than seven years, did I want to stay? Had anyone stopped to wonder if it was worth toppling those trees so we could buy deodorant for five cents less? Had anyone stopped to wonder to what extent we cheapened our lives just so we could choose from among seventeen different types of shampoo, toothpaste, and laundry detergent? Choice is what makes America a great country, so a larger store with more choices must be a good thing, right? I began to think otherwise. Still, the question remained: Did I want to stay?

The answer was no. Seven years after I arrived, I was looking for something different, again. This time I was looking for something more subtle, more solid, simpler and quieter. I wanted to go home.

Arriving at that decision was one thing; telling colleagues and friends was quite another. All were surprised; most were supportive, understanding, and maybe even a little bit envious. Others were caught off guard. What about the museums? What about the monuments? What about the shopping? Somehow leaving those behind didn't seem like the sacrifice it would have seven years earlier.

Ohio, they asked. Why Ohio? Why Ohio, indeed. Because I envisioned Ohio as an antidote to the sprawl, the congestion, and the pollution of Northern Virginia. Some viewed my decision to move from the city to what they considered primitive back country--because there isn't a Starbuck's on every corner and the closest shopping mall is forty-five minutes away--as weakness. I viewed my decision as an awareness that there was a better way to live my life. Getting to work didn't have to mean a ninety-minute commute each way; instead, it could mean sitting down at my dining-room table with my computer. Weekend recreation didn't have to be reduced to finishing errands that could never be completed during the week; instead, it could mean reading a good book. Enjoying nature didn't have to include dodging uncollected garbage, inhaling bus fumes or listening to jet planes take off; instead, it could mean canoeing down a scenic river.

So I packed up my house, my pets, and my husband and headed for Ohio and all points west via Interstate 68. Indeed, I was headed back to Mount Vernon, which came closest, I believed, to offering the quiet and simplicity I sought.

I t is nearly impossible to get lost in Mount Vernon, but seven years change a place nearly as much as they change a person, and much of what I once recognized has been altered. I think Mount Vernon's government officials might yet be able to fight off the temptation to allow developers to despoil the city, although signs of their weakness are visible. But for how much longer, I wonder, as I contemplate the development between Vernon View Drive and Upper Gilchrist Road on Yauger Road, where the landscape has been tamed to accommodate the Waters Edge cluster-home subdivision, the Woodberry Glen ranch-style condominium subdivision, and shiny, new medical offices. Then there is the Holiday Inn Express at the intersection of Upper Gilchrist Road and U.S. Route 36. Farther down that same corridor, along the ramparts of commercialism, Wal-Mart and the stores occupying the low-slung Knox Village Square shopping center eye each other and the city from their defensive positions. Now, Staples is joining the outposts of commerce. This is what visitors approaching Mount Vernon from the east on U.S. 36 see first. It's a fine introduction to a city that bills itself as "America's Hometown." How comforting for these travelers: Mount Vernon must look just like their hometowns.

Many people despise the development that along Coshocton Road--it is accessible only by car, thus it is congested, and it is ugly--but we all share the same dirty secret: We all shop there; we don't have a choice now. So who is to blame? The retailers? The retailers just want to bring their products to a public who wants to buy them. The developers? The developers just want to build the stores to hold the products. City lawmakers? City lawmakers just want to expand economic opportunities and increase the tax base. City residents? The rest of us just want to find everything we need at a price we're willing to pay with minimal hassle.

Does that mean we have to accept such development unquestioningly? No. It does mean we have to remain vigilant, we have to evaluate new projects, and we have to demand that local lawmakers establish an urban-growth boundary to corral development within the city limits instead of stretching them to accommodate every new project. We have to ask: Does this development enhance the quality of life for Mount Vernon residents or detract from it? Will this development burden future generations with excessive environmental or social costs?

One question I asked when I returned last October was this: Why did community leaders abandon Mount Vernon's downtown district in favor of contributing to the sprawling development on the city's east side? J.C. Penney fled downtown for a new, and smaller, store in the Knox Village Square shopping center. Hallmark and Radio Shack joined J.C. Penney at the new strip center. Big Bear and Kmart also abandoned their closer-in locations for Knox Village Square, pushing commercial development beyond even the Kroger supermarket--so far out when the store opened its doors on November 30, 1981, that people swore they would never shop there again. Now I hear people say the same of the new Big Bear.

In a community that changes incrementally and reluctantly, what has happened on Coshocton Road is seismic. Now there is an urgent need to upgrade Coshocton Road and that area's infrastructure--infra-structure that already existed downtown. Revitalizing downtown commercial property would have had far less impact on the environment. My suggestion: Local lawmakers need to encourage redevelopment of existing commercial property and rethink outdated standards that discourage such uses. Otherwise, more and more people will abandon their walking shoes for their car keys and bypass downtown altogether. Except for a few restaurants, the movie theater, and specialty retailers, there is little to coax time-pressed, bargain-conscious, convenience-oriented consumers to Main Street.

I 've come to this conclusion about development: No matter how skillful the landscaping or how inspired the building architecture, it doesn't make up for what has been lost in the way of wooded lots and wildlife habitat. Soon residents forget what was there before those cluster homes, that strip mall, those office buildings. It seems as if they have always been there and have more right to be there than the farmland that occupied the acre-age previously. This is the most dangerous aspect of development: the ability to make us forget. Often we accept such development as the natural order of things--inevitable, unavoidable, unstoppable. Some say that's just the way of it and I should accept it, but I fear what we've lost or may lose is greater than anything we may gain.

As an inexperienced twenty-two-year-old with a limited perspective, I didn't see the urgency of sparing farmland along with wooded hillsides and other open spaces. Who would dare to mar such beauty for profit? Now I know. I've learned that, at the rate of fifty acres a day, farmland in this country is denuded, excavated, and covered with asphalt or rooftops instead of crops and livestock. I now realize that preservation of open spaces has become an issue of national concern, as communities across the country try to curb development and preserve their local character.

Like other communities, Mount Vernon now faces the challenge of how to grow without compromising economic stability, endangering environmental quality, or creating social problems just at a time when, according to Census Bureau figures cited by the Wall Street Journal, the rural population in the United States has grown 0.9 percent yearly in the 1990s. This rate is slightly less than the population at large, but up from 0.3 percent a year in the 1980s. Urban dwellers who fled the city pursuing small-town values and comfortable retirements account for nearly half of that growth.

The city and all of Knox County need to stay several steps ahead of this change to avoid becoming another example of bungled development. Mount Vernon needs to take steps to avoid being surprised by change. Local officials should expect change, strive to understand it, and strive even harder to adapt to it in ways that won't strip the city of its uniqueness. I applaud the "Focus 2100" plan for Knox County. I'm encouraged to know that the area's community leaders are thinking about this problem. I hope their goals and initiatives can save the county from sprawl and protect its rural character.

I'm not opposed to growth and development; I'm just wary of it. Controlled growth and rational development are essential to maintaining a vibrant community. But they must not compromise the quality of life. Every proposed project needs to be scrutinized to make sure it will serve a need not being met by an existing business or that it will enhance the quality of life for all. It is possible for this area to experience economic growth by encouraging development in areas already served by infrastructure and exploring alternatives to sprawl.

While there are other pockets of development in Mount Vernon--primarily housing construction--the transformation of Coshocton Road into a mile-long continuous commercial zone accessible only by car remains the most vivid example of what can happen to an area if no one pays attention. Coshocton Road serves as a reminder to everyone to pay attention to Mount Vernon's growing pains, because how they are dealt with will determine whether this area preserves and enhances its strengths or whether the residents wake up one morning to find they do not live in Mount Vernon anymore, but in a new town called Generica.

Jennifer Hedden, a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group, lives in Mount Vernon, where she is a freelance writer.

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