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I Am Living A Smart Growth Nightmare.

I am living a smart growth nightmare.
Warning: This post has nothing to do with our prefab house kit on the land, but our mid-century modern home on the edge of Richmond, Virginia.
(I am also keenly aware many of our friends do not have the luxury to even consider these options.  So please be gentle and remember this is me rambling on my blog about me, and how boring is that.)

Let me remind you how we got here:
I grew up with a family farm, Rotherwood. In my late twenties, I came home from New York for the holiday to discover it was no longer a family farm, but now owned by my uncles.
You move on.

Handsome Husband and I fell in love, married, and had children. The moment we could, we both, yearning for land to pass on, put everything we had into buying land.  We want to pass this on to our children, to their children, to give them the experience and identity with which we both grew up with (thinking both our family farms would remain family farms to be passed on) and counted upon.

[Note: There will be a post soon on passing on family farms, preserving them.]

Our strategy was simple:
Buy the land.
Pay it off.
Save up money for a house to live in forever (Taaaaa daaaaa! There is the off grid prefab house kit you all know!) while building slowly, over the years, a great, sustainable farm.

Once the children were older (they are in a special international program here until 5th grade) and the farm in working order, we'd sell the Richmond house (hoping everything by then was paid off) which would then pay off anything we had left, then save the rest as our retirement income (if and when we ever retired - I enjoy working too much and can telecommute anywhere!).

Then: instead of driving to the land on the weekends, we'd come in to visit our urban friends, and have them out to the land like we already do! Perfect party + solitude!

Over six years ago, with a toddler and baby on the way, we found the perfect mid-century house in the perfect "good school" area, convenient (supposedly) to everything.  

This is where the smart growth nightmare begins.

We are huge walkers. 
In our old urban neighborhoods, all we did was walk.
The architectural diversity and vibrant community was a wonder - in North Side and The Fan, there was always a neat house to discover, a new store to stop into.

Both neighborhoods, because of smaller individual lots, shared much community space - parks, sidewalks, coffee shops... and when you walk through, it is clear they are Front Porch Communities - where people enjoy looking out at the action in front of their homes, relax and socialize publicly on the front porch, have last minute potlucks and random offers of a beer passed through the front porch railings, and even better, groups congregating instantaneously together, spilling onto the sidewalk, on a summer afternoon.

Pretty much all of our friends live in either urban or extremely rural settings. 
What is it that makes these seemingly disparate environments so similar?
Strong communities.  In the urban environment, yes, there's crime. In the rural environment, yes, you need help with pulling out the tractor from the ditch or retrieving the escaped hog. You have to rely on each other, and if yer gonna need each other, you'd might as well make it fun!

In the suburbs, each nicely sized lot allows the neighborhood to be filled with each person's perfect oasis.  But that means, for us, isolation.  No sidewalks, no stores or coffee shops to visit (unless you want to cross suburban four-lane streets that are more comparable to highways), and no, no neighbors, at least during the day.

There are overwhelmingly different choices in lifestyle, and that is a separate issue to explore, later... I don't think the green movement is forcing women to stay at home, like this French feminist asserts; however I will say that in urban and rural areas you find more entrepreneurs, whether they be male or female, where they can work more flexibly to raise their children with and also while nurturing their business.

I adore working, pushing myself intellectually and professionally each day in my office.  But as I challenge myself, I can also look out the window, and see a beautiful garden, and watch happy children chasing caterpillars with their happy romping dogs.  I realize many people can not do that in their own professions, but I also see that there are more people that do live that way in urban or rural environments.

Here, like clockwork, the neighborhood minivans leave at 7:45 out their drives, to return at 5:45 just in time for the pizza delivery truck to arrive.  During the day as we quietly type on our keyboards in the office, the only sound we hear in the entire neighborhood is that of my own children playing.
This snow has been strange: For the first time in six years, I heard the sounds of other children playing outside during the weekday.
One night, in the last light of dusk, as I went out to close the coop, I saw one child, freshly suited up, running for the snow in their back yard to touch it, to embrace the cold, to feel the snow for the first time that day. My own children had been playing outside ALL DAY, and were wet, tired, and warming up with dinner inside. So: There are children in this neighborhood, all over the place; yet my children rarely see them because they are not physically here until after 5ish, when my children, after a day of play, are inside readying for bed.

During the snow, with schools closed, I observed the freaky scenario of my children playing happily in the front yard, while the across-the-street neighbor's children were playing happily in their front yard, yet none of them looking at or acknowledging each other. My children were so not used to seeing other children during the day, it was like they didn't exist, the road, which they are not allowed to cross, dividing them like a dark curtain, hiding them from consciousness.

There is a shopping center two blocks away we can't walk to. Sure there's cross lights, but YOU TRY crossing the roaring four lane-in-each-direction Patterson / Three Chopt Avenues, with traffic blindly screeching around the corner hurtling away, much less thinking of letting your children do that one day unaccompanied.

And then we consider all of our friends, in the center of the city, within walking distance, many of them home in the afternoons.

Don't get me wrong, I take full blame for not being more integrated into this neighborhood.  Face it, we're The Freak Family.  We have different schedules than our neighbors- coming inside as they're just getting home, and leaving each weekend for the land. We have weird-looking dogs. We live differently. Heck, they even think we're gross because we have a few chickens. (One parent, upon learning about our eating an unexpected rooster by throwing a Coq Au Vin dinner party, where he fed seven people after living a grass-fed, free range existance, assured her horrified daughter, "No, honey, they did not eat their rooster." Lied to her daughter, in front of me. Where do they think meat comes from, Costco?)

But if you look at the study and practice of smart growth and intentional communities, this could be a case study: 
  • no sidewalks
  • no shared spaces
  • differing lifestyles / values / even eating habits
  • commuter culture vs. a work and living habitat
In moving back to an urban environment, we'll also face the reality of crime and bad, yes, bad, no-comparison-to-the-county schools.  We would have to count on getting into magnet schools, getting German tutors, until we move to the land.

Even if we stay here and make this mid-century home even further our dream home, our oasis and homestead until we can turn the land into the farm, the reality is that we would be in a dream house surrounded by no sound during the day and away from all our friends, whether they be in urban Richmond or rural Pamplin City. Are we ok with that? I don't know.

As I pondered this tonight, discussing it aloud, my 7 year old put his arms around me and said, "Momma, we don't have to move. It's ok just playing with my sister, it's ok...we have fun!" And they do.

We just really miss our friends. We have our strong community on the land, and we have *tons* of urban friends we never see because we're stuck in this No Man's West End land of: "Oh, if we move here we'll use the club every day (hate it) and see my parents every week (more like every 4 months)."

Time to start living, regardless.

Here's the farm house we found in the center of the city. 
It would be a heck of a lot of work. 

But even if we make our current mid-century fully our dream-home-for-now...
it's still lonely. 

What to do, what to do.

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At 2/16/10, 1:48 PM , Blogger claiborne said...

As someone who does the urban/rural split, totally agree with you about community and the potential isolation of the suburbs (so many friends who moved from city to burbs lament this). But, one thing we miss in the city, for lack of a yard, is being able to turn the kids outside to play--outdoor play has to be more planned & structured, and that's frustrating.

Good luck whatever you decide, and PS: Brooklyn would totally get you and your chickunz!

At 2/17/10, 7:17 PM , Anonymous Margaret said...

Hey Copeland,
I was living in the suburbs and traded for an urban house and a rural cabin and that was the best decision I ever made.
Go for it!

At 2/17/10, 8:20 PM , Blogger Passive Solar Prefab Homes said...

Thank you *so* much for your encouragement! This essay has been a miserable realization that the reality of my coming home to Richmond, being nostalgic... I actually don't *want* what many people / my childhood friends want here.

We still have to consider that the children spend *so* much time outdoors each day in this great yard with the chickens & dogs, we'd seriously be reducing the outdoor space / food production we have here (but that's what the farm is for, and will be built into).

The house we're considering is very poorly made, no insulation...a LOT of work...(it's a duplex, we'd have to convert it and SO MUCH MORE) and we have spent the fall insulating the mid-century house (We laughed at our heating bill this month! It was awesome!)...

But who are we kidding? A farmhouse in the city? PERFECT for us!!!!!

It's just so hard when you're such community people, coming from great communities and *close* neighborhoods (all those people in the neighborhood picture where we lived almost ten years ago in the post above? STILL FRIENDS.) to... this.

Enough whining. Thank you all for listening.

At 2/6/12, 4:33 AM , Anonymous solar energy said...

How's the decision turning out so far Copeland? It's been almost 2 years. I hope it's going well for you.

At 2/6/12, 6:55 AM , Blogger Passive Solar Prefab Homes said...

Ironically this is the perfect time to revisit this post. We have just sold our beloved but isolated-in-the-suburbs mid-century modern home.

We ARE getting a farmhouse in the city... but not this one! Stay tuned at where I will be posting more on that today!


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