What you could do with the land after purchasing a CT town

A recent email exchange about purchasing Johnsonville, Connecticut for $1.95 million prompted some thinking about what the new owner could do with their town. Here are some ideas:

-Create a wedding paradise complete with chapel/outside ceremony location, reception buildings, and accommodations for family and guests. The old-timey feel would appeal to many.

-Host a living history museum. This works better in some communities than others but Johnsonville seems suited for it with its older buildings and founding in 1802.

-This could be an ongoing set for films and TV shows. The buildings are already present, there are no residents to work around, and the property could be used for long periods of time.

-Be home to a haunted town. Haunted mansions and buildings are really popular around Halloween but imagine creating a year-round facility on 62 acres with older buildings.

-This could be an interesting paint ball course.

-Become a site for obstacle course type races. Imagine running a few miles while climbing through old buildings, swimming through the pond, hopping fences, and more.

-An artist’s colony or gallery or rotating exhibit space could be interesting. This could be a destination for those looking to create, visit, and/or purchase art.

-Have a retreat center with meeting places inside and outside and accommodations.

-Become a compound for a religious group.

I’m sure there are other possible uses for this property, including demolishing everything and building homes. When you are only a few hours away from both New York City and Boston, the possibilities could be endless (granted that local officials are willing to approve more unique options).

How a growing suburb plans to remain “a small town at heart”

Many growing suburbs claim to still be small towns in spirit. Here is how the mayor of Warrenville makes this argument while explaining a new development:

At the September 21, City Council meeting, nearly unanimous preliminary approval was given to a new development that will occupy a 4.3-acre site adjacent to the Warrenville Library called Settlers Pointe. this moderate dense development will consist of 34 single-family homes, 14 two-story and 20 three-story units, selling in the $350,000 to $450,000 price range. I believe this project will be a wonderful addition to Warrenville on many levels, but there was a time when I would have viewed this development through a different lens, and because of its density, would have been adamantly opposed to it as “not in line with the character of Warrenville”…

In the case of Settlers Pointe, it will be good for Warrenville in many ways. It is an attractive development being done by an accomplished and quality developer (google David Weekley Homes) who knows the market. You have told us that a very high priority is economic development. Essential to that goal is “rooftops”. Businesses will not invest in areas without enough people to support them. these new homes will help spur the redevelopment of our downtown, something else you have given us as a priority…

Rural may no longer be geographically possible for our town, but we have resolved to remain a small town at heart. this is the “character” that you have consistently told us that is most important to you to enhance and preserve. It is independent of housing style or lot size. The people who choose to come to Settlers Pointe in Warrenville will do so because they see who we are and want to be one of us: small town folks enjoying the best of all possible worlds.

This explanation seems to me to be a bit odd given the relatively small size of the development – it is a small site though centrally located – yet the way it is made is similar to pitches I’ve seen in other suburbs in my research. Here are some key elements:

  1. Americans generally like the ideas of small towns. As this earlier post put it, American politicians push small town values in a suburban country. The vast majority of Americans live in urban areas – over 80% – yet they hold to older visions of community life. Appealing to small town ideals is a safe move.
  2. Broader social forces have pushed a community past its old identity and the community can’t go back. Once there is a certain level of growth or enough time has passed, “progress” is happening with or without us. (Of course, there are plenty of communities where they try to freeze things in time. See this example. But, those who support new development often say this can’t be done – and they’re probably right in thinking about the long-term.)
  3. New growth can be good, even as it contributes to change and a newer identity. Economic reasons are typically cited: business growth is good, an expanded tax base is good, new attention from potential new residents is good.
  4. The development under approval is not too different from what already exists. If there is a group fighting the project, they will argue otherwise.
  5. Even with change and growth, it is possible to hold on to the “character” or “spirit” of a small town. Local officials typically refer to the actions of residents and community groups, implying that people still know and care for each other. For example, Naperville leaders suggest their suburb with over 140,000 people still has this spirit.

Of course, these arguments are often challenged by residents who don’t see it the same way. NIMBY responses typically don’t want a community to fundamentally change; the way it is now is why those residents moved into town. But, some change is inevitable so perhaps these arguments are really about the degree of perceived change. Will this “fundamentally” alter the community? Is this a slippery slope? This can be the case with development decisions but significant change tends to come through a chain of decisions and these patterns are easier to diagnose in hindsight. (See Naperville as an example.) Residents can also feel relatively powerless compared to local politicians or businesses who have power to make decisions while local leaders tend to claim they are looking out for the good of the whole community.

Change is not easy in suburbs. And it is often a process that may look different in its physical manifestations even as the elements of the arguments made both for and against development follow some common patterns.

From modest homes in a Canadian prairie town to McMansions

R.J. Snell returned to the Canadian prairie town of his youth and was surprised to find that its modest homes had been replaced with McMansions:

Having just returned from a two-week visit, I’m struck by the visible demise of modest restraint, particularly in the homes. Driving about the countryside, for this is what one does there, I saw many new homes of a preposterous scale, many thousands of square feet (one even had an outbuilding to house all the mechanicals), with multiple garrets and turrets, all jutting conspicuously from the fields and into my purview. They could not be hidden, nor were they meant to, and on the treeless flatness were visible for great distances.

Right beside them, sometimes just across the road, stood the old farmhouse, diminutive, overshadowed. In the towns, a kind of segregation had taken place, with the older neighborhoods a mix of homes smaller or larger (but of a kind), but new developments on the far side of town housing looming monstrosities dwarfing the older places.

This was not neighborly. This was not modest. This was a thumbing of the nose at those with less, a demand to be noticed, seen.  Roger Scruton writes of the bad manners of much contemporary architecture compared with older patterns, saying:

The principal concern of the architects was to fit in to an existing urban fabric, to achieve local symmetry within the context of a historically given settlement. No greater aesthetic catastrophe has struck our cities—European just as much as American—than the modernist idea that a building should stand out from its surroundings, to become a declaration of its own originality. As much as the home, cities depend upon good manners; and good manners require the modest accommodation to neighbors rather than the arrogant assertion of apartness.

Rod Dreher follows up with an interesting question:

The question is, did money cause this cultural revolution in domestic architecture, or did the arrival of wealth happen to coincide with a cultural revolution in the way people thought about themselves and their desires, causing them to build their houses in a certain way now as opposed to then?

Which comes first: the cultural values or the material conditions? If looking at this from the production perspective in the sociology of culture, changes in material conditions like how architects are viewed, how single-family homes are viewed (as Snell suggests, should homes fit into the neighborhood or stick out?), how houses are constructed, how the real estate business operate, how zoning laws and local regulation encourage or discourage larger homes, etc. In other words, architectural styles or consumer desires don’t just change because individuals desire this. Rather, they change in conjunction with material and cultural change.

I also wonder about larger factors affecting this community. Where did residents get this money to spend on bigger houses? I ask this after lecturing this week about the Ferdinand Tonnies’ ideas about gemeinschaft and gesellschaft as well as Emile Durkheim’s concepts of mechanical and organic solidarity. Both theorists were interested in the shift from small town life to more urban life. Both suggested urban life contained fewer strong interpersonal relationships and systems where people were joined together by interdependence and external constraints rather than tradition, family ties, and shared values. Is a similar process taking place in this prairie town, perhaps through suburbanization or the rise of a good nearby job source or the Internet which opens up more possibilities for residents to connect to the outside world?

States with the highest percentages of homegrown residents

The Census Bureau recently released statistics about which states have the most residents who were born in that state:

Nationally, on average, 60 percent of people are living in their native state. According to a Governing Magazine analysis, states in the interior South and Midwest tend to have a higher percentage of natives. Louisiana tops the list, with 79 percent of its population born there.

Among large metro areas, Birmingham ranks near the top: 74 percent of the metro population was born in Alabama, the 6th-highest percentage of homegrown residents among the top 50 U.S. metros…

Jim Williams, executive director of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, has spent years trying to persuade governments to adopt changes to governmental practices developed in other states. Progress is difficult, he said…

There is a lot of literature in sociology and psychology establishing that a lack of contact with other groups tends to maintain stereotypes, Fording said. Conversely, contact between groups tends to overcome stereotypes.

Here is the list of the top 10 states: Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Iowa, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Alabama.

It is a little difficult to look at this list and see the exact traits these states share. The regions and the cultures are similar in the South and Midwest though this doesn’t apply to Pennsylvania (maybe the western half but not so much the eastern half?) or maybe West Virginia. Other factors that may be influential:

1. Immigration rates.

2. Lack of world/global cities which tend to attract diverse groups of people.

3. Lower levels of education?

4. Density of population/more rural areas.

It would be interesting to ask residents of these states why they stay. It is one thing to stay because one likes the place versus the opportunities to move elsewhere are lacking. While Americans might romanticize small town life and talk about establishing roots, this likely varies from place to place. Certain values, such as interacting with people different from oneself or having access to cultural amenities or always being willing to move to follow job opportunities, could then trump geographic stability.

Thinking about the “fastest growing small towns”

Forbes has put together a list of the “fastest growing small towns” in the United States. Here are the top five towns:

No. 1. Fairbanks, Alaska (Metro Area)

2009 Population: 98,660

2006 Population: 86,754

Growth: 13.8%

No. 2. The Villages, Fla. (Micro Area)

2009 Population: 77,681

2006 Population: 68,769

Growth: 13.0%

No. 3. Bozeman, Mont. (Micro Area)

2009 Population: 90,343

2006 Population: 81,763

Growth: 10.5%

No. 4. Palm Coast, Fla. (Metro Area)

2009 Population: 91,622

2006 Population: 83,084

Growth: 10.3%

No. 5. Ames, Iowa (Metro Area)

2009 Population: 87,214

2006 Population: 80,145

Growth: 8.8%

An interesting list based on data between 2006 and 2009. I have a few thoughts about this:

1. To be a “small town,” a community had to have less than 100,000 people. This does not sound like a small town to me. When I think of small town, I think less than 15,000 people. In my opinion, all of the top five fastest growing should really be labeled “small cities.”

1a. If the list were labeled the “fastest growing small cities,” would people still want to look at it? Using the term “small town” invokes certain images of a place where everybody knows everyone and a quaint downtown where people regularly gather. This image is something quite different from the actual population of the community; I’ve heard people in Naperville, a suburb with over 140,000 people, claim it is still like a small town.

2. Is this growth a good thing? I wonder if the people living in these communities would like to see this growth continue for a decade or so. Since they are already not small towns, they will really not be small towns if this sort of growth continues. The shift from smaller to larger community is often not easy as it involves more newcomers in the community who have a different understanding of the place, new businesses (such as big box stores and chains), and possibly a declining sense of community.

2a. Do a good number of people move to places that are the “hot places” because there is rapid population growth? The Yahoo! story on this has links that immediately go to real estate listing. How many people click on those?

3. It might be useful to know what is “average” growth for communities over this time period. While these communities might be the top 5, what is the distribution among places under 100,000? What is the average or median rate of growth?

Celebration, Florida, built by Disney, has first murder

Many suburbs rarely experience a murder. In fact, many suburban residents might give this as a reason for moving into these communities: the crime, particularly serious crimes, is limited. So when a murder is committed in a model community, particularly one built by Disney, it will receive attention.

Here is a quick summary of what happened in Celebration, Florida:

Residents of the town five miles south of Walt Disney World woke up Tuesday to the sight of yellow crime-scene tape wrapped around a condo near the Christmas-decorated downtown, where Bing Crosby croons from speakers hidden in the foliage. A 58-year-old neighbor who lived alone with his Chihuahua had been slain over the long Thanksgiving weekend, Osceola County sheriff’s deputies said.

What is interesting to note is how the rest of the story describes Celebration. Some of the commentary is what you would expect from any wealthy suburb: this was an isolated incident, this sort of stuff doesn’t happen in the community, and the residents shouldn’t worry. But here a few pieces of the description about the uniqueness of Celebration:

The killing sullies the type of perfection envisioned in 1989 when Peter Rummell, then-president of the Disney Development Corp., wrote to then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner about building a new town on vacant, Disney-owned land in Osceola County.

The community would be a “wonderful residential town east of I-4 that has a human scale with sidewalks and bicycles and parks and the kind of architecture that is sophisticated and timeless. It will have fiber optics and smart houses, but the feel will in many cases be closer to Main Street than to Future World,” Rummell wrote in the letter.

Houses incorporated “New Urbanism” ideas such as placing the garage out of sight in the back and a front porch close to the sidewalk to encourage neighbor interaction. Restrictions on home color and architectural details also were in the community’s rulebook. Colonial, Victorian, and Arts and Crafts-style homes grace the streets; the downtown is a mix of postmodern buildings and stucco condos.

Residents arrived in 1996. Critics viewed it as something out of “The Truman Show,” or “The Stepford Wives.”

Fans saw other things. A return to small-town values. A walkable community. Safety.

So this is the media story: the murder that took place in the “perfect Disney town” (as the link on the Chicago Tribune’s front page suggests). A few thoughts of mine about this:

1. Celebration receives a lot of attention due to who created it and how it was created. Is there a point where this will become just another community?

2. No community is “perfect,” even one created by a company like Disney which sells its products based on this idea of joy and magic. The same AP story lists some of the problems from recent years including graffiti and a recent day when the local school was on lockdown.

3. Suburbs or small towns are not immune to crime, even of this magnitude.

4. It will be interesting to see how this story affects the marketing of the community.

5. This seems like an illustration for all suburbia: crimes like this can upset people’s feelings and attitudes toward places that they once considered perfect and safe.