It's not often many of us get a close look at the country we care for, except the tiny bit that is our normal environment. This past week, on a family car trip, I saw a different side -- several different sides -- of the southeastern United States, primarily North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
For one thing, we got off the Interstates frequently. I don't hate the Interstate highways; they have their purpose, usually the fastest way to get from one point to another, and sometimes that's what you want to do. The facilities you need (gas stations, restaurants, "rest areas," and all that) are conveniently located. Uninspiring? You bet. But for all the widespread and justified criticism of routes that endlessly repeat the same dozen chain and franchized fast-food outlets and motels, it's some comfort to know that amenities you can count on to be reasonably hygienic and safe are readily available.
Even so, it was fascinating to abandon the traffic arteries and drive two-lane national and state roads. It's a different world, sometimes no more than five miles geographically from the Interstates punctuated by Denny's and McDonalds and Holiday Inns.
This isn't going to be a sentimental posting on the virtues of rural Americana. There are good things to be seen from the two-lanes that carry so little traffic, comparatively, that it isn't worth any corporation's money to install housing developments or big shopping malls next to them. But there is a disturbing side as well.
What's enjoyable -- at least for someone just passing through -- is the greater variety. There are still mom-and-pop restaurants and service stations where the owner is the guy in overalls inspecting the car up on the hoist. You pass historical marker signs, memorializing events, institutions, and people that have been deleted from the nation's collective memory. (Unfortunately, there are rarely pull-offs where you can safely stop to read the signs; they seem to have been mostly planted in the 1920s and '30s, when there were fewer and slower cars on the road, and you could just edge over to the side a bit.)
The central sections of small towns contain solid old commercial buildings in a variety of styles, and often Victorian-era houses with gingerbread wooden trim (why is it called gingerbread? I never did get that), stained glass panels in doors and windows, wrap-around verandas and porch swings. It's easy to imagine that our ancestors' domestic environment was more gracious than ours.
It's hardly that simple, though. Small towns have always had a social gradient as strict as that of a Henry James novel. The well-to-do inhabited those lovely houses with the turrets and sloping lawns (probably still the case where the upkeep looks admirable). The former dwellings of the mill and factory workers have mostly been torn down as unfit or fallen into dust, but here and there you see them: plain, uninviting, seemingly small enough to contain only three or four rooms. And of course, back when the town grandees were building their Victorian castles, the black families -- kept at a decent distance on the other side of the railroad tracks or down the slope -- lived in even meaner shacks. Sometimes that was not the worst of their problems.
Along the two-lanes are towns represented by small dots on the map, but there actually are no small towns anymore. They have become highway strips. It's more economical for businesses to build along the road on the outskirts than to renovate buildings in the town center. I saw many a town and small city that has been "hollowed out" -- the expansion outward leaving a sickly, nearly empty downtown. It's sad to see these places, especially the ones that obviously were once thriving, as evidenced by elaborate buildings and public squares with statues of Civil War officers or politicians.
One small city we inspected curiously (I won't mention any names), apparently a county seat, boasted a magnificent stone courthouse complete with three-story Corinthian columns. It is presumably still in use, since the nearby offices mostly harbor law firms -- a sort of legal game park -- amid boarded-up storefronts and a few shops clinging precariously to life, selling wigs and plumbing supplies and renting videos.
Here and there, people have tried to revive these decrepit town centers with artsy-craftsy studios, boutiques offering hippie-revival fashions, and '50s-style, retro-decor restaurants. I admire the effort, but suspect it's only a holding action. With luck, they will preserve the old atmosphere until serious money moves in to create "historic" condos and offices, if it ever does.
Sooner or later, though, it's time to say good-bye to these slices of alternative America and return to the Interstate (if we hadn't, we'd still be on the road this time next week). Around the freeway exits, a new type of -- well, civilization isn't the right word -- has sprung up. You get dense, traffic-clogged slices of inner suburbia, spreading out from on- and off-ramps a hundred miles from nowhere. I don't know that sociologists have even coined a term for these places. They're not "edge cities": there is no city for them to be on the edge of. Yet they comprise pure specimens of post-'80s development: big malls, chain restaurants, long stoplight cycles complete with left-turn signals. In the middle of North Carolina, you could be in southern California or Long Island.
It's inevitable, I guess, that they should spring up to service ever-rising numbers of cars and people. The United States has added a hundred million to its population since 1970 (most of it through immigration). Rural sprawl is one result. Yet for some reason I have never been able to understand, the country remains addicted to booming population. USA Today recently carried a front page piece on the fastest growing cities, and their local officials beamed with pride. New York City's reigning idiot, Mayor Bloomberg, could hardly contain his glee at predictions that the city will add another million people in a few years. Politicans and businessmen see in population growth only more tax revenue and more customers, respectively; the rest of us see more congestion, less open space, and more herd behavior.