Huntsville street names have a disturbing fluidity that I've never seen in any other town. Roads randomly change names at intersections, as they cross highways, or when the urge struck the builders. How else to explain that University and Pratt are the same roads, just on different sides of Memorial Parkway? Or that Zierdt Road is Shelton Road, and that Madison Boulevard is the old Highway 20, and Rideout Road is now Research Park Boulevard?
Right. Makes my head explode, too, and I live here. No wonder it took me so long to learn how to navigate this town. When street signs change on unpredictable whims, it's hard to know if the road you're currently on turns into the road you want to be on, or if you really did miss the turn entirely.
Thus, one afternoon, as I was driving west on Highway 72 (which, in that part of town, is known as University Drive), I very nearly blew past an intersection I'd passed many times before, but could have sworn had a different name. I'd known that road as Indian Creek for several years, but I could've sworn that the sign said something like "Providence Main Street."
To quote Will: "Meh?"
University was down to one lane in each direction, owing to the beginnings of some truly horrendous (and desperately needed) road-widening, so I opted to swerve north on Indian Creek for a few miles to get off of University and avoid the worst of the traffic mess. Except that, unless I had mysteriously lost my ability to comprehend the written word, that sign didn't say "Indian Creek" anymore.
I muttered the phrase "stupid Huntsville" about eight times, got to where I was going, and didn't think about it again until later that evening, when someone told me why the street was renamed. Huntsville had gotten itself hooked on the crack that is New Urbanism. God help us. Ever heard of this? Let me quote:
New Urbanism promotes the creation and restoration of diverse, walkable, compact, vibrant, mixed-use communities composed of the same components as conventional development, but assembled in a more integrated fashion, in the form of complete communities. These contain housing, work places, shops, entertainment, schools, parks, and civic facilities essential to the daily lives of the residents, all within easy walking distance of each other. New Urbanism promotes the increased use of trains and light rail, instead of more highways and roads. Urban living is rapidly becoming the new hip and modern way to live for people of all ages. Currently, there are over 500 New Urbanist projects planned or under construction in the United States alone, half of which are in historic urban centers. (newurbanism.org)
Beautiful idea, isn't it? It's what we all dream of when moving to a city: being able to live, work, and play in the same place - a place that is filled with people from all walks of life. People who aren't necessarily like you, but whose differences will enrich your life.
This particular blight that is invading the Huntsville-Madison area has a name: Providence. (Those of you who are familiar with the TV show The Prisoner will find the bicycle logo both funny and excruciatingly appropriate.) It was charming to see the lofty, but interesting, ideals of New Urbanism taken out to the back yard and spanked so:
Imagine the convenience of shops that are within walking distance of every front door in the village. Providence is attracting a variety of shops, restaurants, bakeries, doctors, lawyers, architects, churches, and banks. We want to serve residents who are interested in walking to work or living above their store.
Like the historic towns around the country, Providence will offer homes in a variety of sizes, prices, types and styles. This will create a beautiful visual diversity within the village, and will also give all generations of a family a place to live in the same neighborhood. ("Providence, Our Vision")
I'd just like to raise my hand and ask something of the Eminently Intelligent† planners: With expected house prices ranging between $200,000 USD and $2,000,000 USD, exactly what kind of diversity were you planning on promoting in Providence, exactly?
Does it count as 'diversity' if the lawyers live next to the doctors, who live next to the management/CEO types? I wasn't aware that 'diversity' equated to large groups of upper-class professionals, with varying degrees and permutations of wealth, banding together to shop at their own little stores while avoiding the proletarians who have to shop at the Wal-Mart or Target down the street?
Those of you who live in larger cities/metropolitan areas (hi, Heather and Andy!) may not understand my consternation and disgust with these house prices. Two hundred thousand dollars may sound reasonable for a house in a metropolitan area, but it virtually guarantees a truly obnoxiously oversized house in the Huntsville area. Out here, a very spacious three or four-bedroom home (not a townhouse, mind you) on about a half-acre of land can be had for less than $130,000 USD, and depending on how far out of the city you are, as little as $100,000 USD.
In Alabama, salaries and cost of living are both some of the lowest in the nation. Huntsville contains dual realities: a college-trained professional (given the nature of this town, usually an engineer) can live in very definite comfort, but those who are poor are truly poor. The difference between the over-planned snobbery and flagrant whiteness of Hampton Cove, and the poverty of nameless neighborhoods in north Huntsville couldn't be any more evident...
...or so I thought until I heard about Providence.
Huntsville is rapidly acquiring the definite beginnings of the 'doughnut effect' that Little Rock had: poor, borderline-genteel, but rapidly-decaying neighborhoods in the center of town, surrounded by concentric rings of successively posher suburbs overwhelmingly populated by white professionals trying to avoid living in areas with declining property prices. The end result was known in Little Rock as 'white flight': overwhelmingly white and affluent suburbs surrounding a bleak, blank, and black center.
I agree that New Urbanism has the right idea: the only way to bring the people (and their dollars) back from the ever-expanding suburbs is to create areas where people can live, work, socialize, and shop without need of any other transportation besides mass transportation or their own two feet. Only after major investment has Little Rock begun to reverse the trend of 'white flight': the trendy, arty Hillcrest and Quapaw Quarter neighborhoods have now been supplanted by the shopping/living/entertainment area known as the River Market area. Given a reason to move back - good housing, proximity to businesses and restaurants, and tax breaks to encourage investment in the area - people of all walks of life are moving back into downtown Little Rock.
But to pervert that idea, to create yet another obviously-exclusive neighborhood that caters to the affluent under the guises of "creating a city center," does nothing but what Huntsville needs no more of: further separating the citizens of this metropolitan area into the [mostly] whites who "have" and the [mostly] blacks who "have not."
Now that's diversity.
† - according to the American Dream, they must be more intelligent, because they're making far more money than me. I can't find corporate sponsors for me to wander the country and write, and they're capable of finding corporate sponsors to build this monstrosity, so evidently they know something I don't.