Sprawl becomes a way of life

October 23, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

If ole Joni Mitchell were around Hagerstown today, writing her unique brand of commie-pinko odes to butterflies and truth, her lyrics probably would come out something like this:

They paved Burger Chef

And put up an AutoZone.

Perhaps you noticed that last week the old Burger Chef fast-food restaurant building on Virginia Avenue was bulldozed to make way for an Advanced Auto Parts store, which is necessary because there is an AutoZone right across the street, meaning the avenue is lacking in auto parts symmetry.

I, for one, am outraged.

I was always a huge Burger Chef fan. The Super Chef sandwich made us aware for the first time that culinary art form could be achieved by simply matching a hamburger with salad items and sun-ripened mayonnaise. No fast-food chain has equaled it since.

But more critical, our old, historic urban sprawl is being demolished to make way for new, soulless urban sprawl. And who is stepping forward to speak against this abomination?


No one. When a historic Exxon station was destroyed on Dual Highway to make way for a car lot, there were no picketers, no one throwing himself in front of the sheeps-foot roller in protest. When the classic architecture of a Rax rib joint is converted into a faux-adobe Mexican restaurant, where is the historic landmarks commission?

Other communities are much further along. Somewhere along the line, it dawned on them that a 1960s-era McDonald's was no longer a hideous abomination, it was a campy, historic treasure. And they've been protected.

Exactly when something stops being ugly and starts being historic, I cannot exactly say. I'm sure in the early 1900s some people felt as if fire towers along the nation's ridgelines were a ghastly intrusion on the viewshed. Now there are organized groups to save the historic fire towers. They are usually peopled by - and I know this because I am one of them - the same folks who despise cell phone towers as a blight upon the land.

Mark my words, in 50 years, after satellites have negated the need for tower-to-tower voice transmission, there will be groups organized to save our historic cell phone towers. Every time another cell phone tower comes down, people will scream louder than athletes at a Uday Hussein soccer practice.

Time does that. That awkward intersection at Dual Highway and Eastern Boulevard was brought about because people said the bridge over the Antietam was "historic." It was 50 years old, for heaven's sake. My idea was to demolish the old bridge, build a new bridge, then wait 100 years and IT would be historic.

But they didn't listen then, and they won't listen now as I plead for the protection of my beloved, historic sprawl.

Look, in four minutes I can get from my house to a movie theater, a home improvement store, a sushi bar, an L. L. Bean outlet store and my choice of three groceries. That's not sprawl, that's America. For the record, I never go to any of these places, but I could if I wanted to, that's the point.

Is it ugly? Of course it is ugly. Heck, democracy is ugly, just look at California. The problem is, we're addicted to sprawl. Pre-fabricate it and we will come.

People routinely talk to each other on their cell phones about how ugly the new cell phone tower is. They jaw about our vanishing farmland over a coffee at a Waffle House. I'm the main offender; I do it all the time (except for the cell phones; I don't even like real phones.)

Sprawl thrives because we will sit in traffic 20 minutes to get to it. We can't break the habit. There is no Betty Ford center for fast food, no meth clinic for Home Depot.

Weird thing is, it is now easier and less congested to shop downtown than on Wesel Boulevard. It is more hassle-free to go to Startzman's Hardware, or any number of neighborhood mom-and-pop retail outlets than it is to battle the crowds in the strip centers.

Ostensibly, sprawl succeeds because of its convenience. Now it's become as inconvenient as a one-oared rowboat, but we patronize it all the time because that's how we've been trained.

Which is for the best, because how can one live without an L. L. Bean outlet?

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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