At the northern terminus of Sky Line Drive in the Shenandoah Valley sits the town of Front Royal, Virginia; a town of around 15,000 situated in one of most spectacular natural settings one can imagine. I visited Front Royal last week to facilitate a Civic Pride Workshop. The Director of the Chamber of Commerce, Niki Foster, reached out and said she felt her community was dealing with a number of the issues I discuss in my writing. She explained she was worried that apathy was taking hold of her town and was hoping to try and stir up some emotions. I feel like this is my calling in life and I was excited for the chance to help.
It was a stunning drive down from Pittsburgh, through Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia. Moody skies, winding roads and hundred year old farms guided the way. After checking in to my hotel, Niki gave me the tour around town. Taco Bell, CVS, Rural King, Dunkin’- the depressing suburban staples of commerce had not passed over Front Royal. The tour continued out to the new hospital, we passed by the subdivisions and headed back towards what seemed like the center of town, but we arrived at more sprawl. Growing a little concerned, I asked my host if there was, in fact, a downtown. I mean I was pretty sure I had seen photos of it before visiting, but I couldn’t figure it where I was in context to our tour. Niki laughed off my question and explained that we would be visiting downtown shortly, for dinner. Downtown was charming, a narrow Main Street with four of five blocks of two and three story mixed-use buildings filled with cute shops and restaurants. We dined at a fantastic downtown brewery and were joined by a some of the cities most ardent supporters.
On my way out for a run the next morning, I ended up on the front porch of my bed and breakfast, looking for some stairs. The scene was both stunning and depressing. The town is nestled in a valley and the sun was just beginning to peek over the ridge line of the range to the east. The scene would have been breathtaking if not for the enormous Super 8 and McDonald’s signs blocking the view.
I can imagine that not long ago, this old bed and breakfast would have enjoyed uninterrupted views across this picturesque valley with the Blue Ridge Mountains providing a dramatic setting for every morning’s day break. While still beautiful, certainly not the same. The development that has proliferated over the last 50 years is a scar on the landscape and in complete conflict to its surroundings.
There is no context to these buildings, no consideration as to how to blend in or interact with something so special. How could such a gorgeous scene ever been allowed to be so mistreated? How could so many paradises been paved and so many parking lots put up?
I continued my run with this stark contrast on my mind, knowing that development does not have to be at odds with its surroundings. For thousands of years, it wasn’t- and I decided to make this point in my talk later that morning. I took a photo of a downtown restaurant and a suburban one. I took a photo of some downtown shops and some suburban ones. I took a photo of a suburban plaza and a downtown plaza and I took a photo of a busy suburban street and Main Street.
Everyone always asks my impressions when I come to their town, so I made the decision to start my talk there. I explained that Front Royal had a lovely and quaint downtown and historic residential district that they appeared to be hiding from outsiders by placing trash all around it. This got me some questionable looks. I explained that the best part of town was nearly hidden to passersby. All the good stuff has been encircled by all the bad stuff and now it’s hard to find the good stuff. Nods of agreement, albeit some rather reluctant.
It’s hard to hear criticism of your town. I get it. Who really wants some outsider coming in to tell you what they really think? But that’s the job. I don’t believe we afford ourselves a chance to improve if we aren’t first honest about our problems. Sometimes things are great, sometimes we make mistakes. It’s okay, but we have to be able to admit them to address them. While I might be more popular if I were to tell towns how great they are, I feel like this would be a disservice to them and their efforts.
Front Royal had repeated the same mistakes of every American town and developed in a manner that facilities a loss of beauty, community, local wealth and local pride. It’s my job to help cities stem the tide of apathy by fostering civic pride. One of the ways this happens is through beauty and aesthetics, another is through local ownership. So with this in mind, I showed the crowd the photos I had taken that morning.
Behind me, on a theater screen, a photo came up of a locally owned restaurant in the downtown, then I put up one of a chain restaurant. I asked the crowd which one they preferred. No big surprise. Same with the set of shops- local stores vs chains. Again with a hotel, and a plaza and the same with Main Street and a sprawl street. In each case, the crowd nearly unanimously stated they preferred the locally owned older downtown version. I explained that they are providing the same service, but in a vastly different manner.
So I asked the crowd, if everyone prefers the locally owned, smaller, cuter, older version, then why do they only build the newer chain version that no one prefers? Why did Front Royal, or any town for that matter, stop building what everyone prefers and insist on building what no one likes?
This is the question all of us should be asking of our towns. How did we get into a situation where only the ‘stuff no one likes’ gets built? Why would a town decide to scar the immaculate landscape for a restaurant no one claims to like? Why do we only build the type of housing that people don’t seem to prefer? What the hell happened? Why are we building this trash?
We bought into a narrative and much to our detriment. We’ve been sold the idea that all development is good. That all investment is healthy and that to be relevant, a town has to take part in the sprawl Ponzi scheme. We squandered something beautiful under the guise that sprawl would bring us more jobs, more money and more convenience, but it has done none of those things.
Sprawl robs communities of their money, it replaces good jobs with bad jobs, the authentic businesses with cookie cutter chains, it pulls people apart and destroys natural beauty. It makes no attempt to blend in with the surroundings, it shows no concern for local taste or history, it does not give- it only takes. It adds nothing of value and takes everything of value.
The situation Front Royal finds itself in, is the same in every town across the country. We attempted something different with the built environment and simply put- it failed. It has been an abject disaster and we must accept that sprawl development will never make our communities better, it can only do them harm.
Going back to question I asked of the audience, why have they stopped building what people prefer? Someone answered “Demand.”, but the audience was nearly 100% in favor of type of development that is no longer built, so that doesn’t add up. Someone else said “Cost.”, and yes, sprawl is cheaper for those who build it, but exceedingly expensive for the community. Another person added money into the mix, but sprawl takes money out of the community. There was a lot of head scratching, really. What have we done?!
And this is where we find ourselves. Continuing to build in a manner that makes our places worse. We tried sprawl and it didn’t work and now we have to be able to say no to it. We have to raise the standards that sprawl depressed. We have to begin the process of pulling out the codes that only allow for more sprawl. We have to turn our backs on the people that continue to push this agenda and attempt to sell us something that is patently bad for us.
Front Royal is beautiful, it is special and it is a place that is worth fiercely defending. I am grateful for the community for inviting me and for spending a day with me to discuss these topics that I believe are vital to the future. What I would like to leave the residents of Front Royal with is this; it is your decision. The shape of your community is up to you. No one from outside can tell you what your community should look like and how it should behave. No developer or national chain should have the ability to destroy something you hold dear. No one gets to dictate how your community is built except the people of your community. Because the sad truth of the matter is this- with each parking lot, fast food joint and big box store, a place gets a little worse, the landscape a little less inspiring and a community becomes a little harder to love. With each new bit of sprawl, it becomes harder for residents to remember what once mattered about their town and harder to locate that sense of civic pride. As appearances decline and attachments dwindle, there is only one thing capable of filing the void, and that is apathy. And we must be vigilant in our efforts to stem the tide of apathy.