March 15, 2010

The value of use

Since the driers in our community laundry room are terrible and take all day to dry one pair of jeans, we (by we I mean Heather) usually end up taking the clothes and towels to a Laundromat, which they quaintly call a Coin Laundry. Yesterday we (meaning me, Heather and Oscar) headed over to get the laundry done at a favorite coin laundry down the road a ways. It’s not the closest, but it’s the best; it’s a block from a great BBQ joint and three blocks from a dog park, where Oscar likes to incite canine rioting with his social awkwardness.

The dog park was closed, and I’m trying to stay away from BBQ for a couple months, so we ended up driving a bit further to another, less dog-friendly park. From the road I tweeted: “So much wasted space in Smyrna. Dead strip malls, out of business and for lease signs everywhere. Screams for community greening project.”

I come from the Baltimore area originally. I’m no stranger to urban wastelands. But this is different. Smyrna feels empty, even though I know it isn’t. I know there are a lot of people that live in the area, tucked away in little developments. But here we are, driving past enormous empty lots, warehouse-sized grocery stores and outlets, all empty. Nestled in between these spaces were garages and banks and some small restaurants that were miraculously, still open.

There were little leaguers practicing on the baseball fields at the rec park, which itself was in the shadow of another giant strip mall, half empty itself. We took Oscar for a walk around the park and extended our walk to circumnavigate a strange “Academy” that was situated in a large portion of the strip between an active grocery store and a completely dead and rotting wing of the school. The parking lot was ridiculous: It stretched out in front of the strip mall in a great valley, sweeping around and behind for loading purposes. Keep in mind this is only one of about five strips this size in a matter of five square miles or so.

The extent of that parking lot was appalling, so much wasted land, so much wasted potential. Here’s this cute little park behind a monstrosity of economic failure in a long swath of economic failures along the highway, and let’s be clear, these are not family businesses. These are corporate extensions, so there’s not even the respectful sadness that comes with the end of a small business.

It would be amazing to turn such a large portion of paved land into large tracts of grassland or managed forest buffering those baseball and soccer fields. It doesn’t have to be wild; indeed, there would be issues with crime if those areas were managed as refuges with thick cover. But the Chattahoochee River is less than 10 miles away, and if the tiny patch of forest behind our townhouse is large enough to accommodate daily visits from barred owls, red tailed hawks and literally dozens of species of songbirds, any amount of forest is better than these hideous boneyards strewn haphazardly around the Atlanta metro area.

Heather and I have talked about this at length, starting back in the days where we would take long drives in her old Beetle along the shore in Bay Ridge, Annapolis, after work, saddened by the giant cookie cutter mansions supplanting the old white cottages from the 1930’s, originally built and owned by crabbers, shrimpers and fishermen in a very different town. Wouldn’t it have been incredible to have the money to buy this entire peninsula when it was for sale, tear down the few temples of vanity that had cropped up and let nature take it back? Donate it to the city or the county, or some agency that could make use of it as an educational facility, and in the process, stop the unchecked, obnoxious spill of runoff into this portion of the river and subsequently, the Chesapeake.

I feel the same about this area in Smyrna. Something very special could be built in the remains of these soulless buildings, something beautiful and uplifting, but most importantly, something that people could use. The parks in North Georgia are wonderfully utilitarian, intended simultaneously as displays of the natural beauty of Southern Appalachia as well as well-maintained trails and recreational areas for boating, basking and biking.

So I’m curious if there are any NGOs working in suburban areas like these, combating this plague of empty buildings and parking lots. I wonder if anyone else has noticed these places, and how disturbing they are. I feel like they are a true detriment to the psyche, not just an offense to aesthetic sensibilities, especially in tough economic times like these. To be able to physically change these places would be an exhibition of control in a time where many have little.

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