January 23, 2006

Journey Into the Exurban Jungle

On Saturday, my travels happened to place me in Gainesville, Virginia around mid-day. I'd been driving for a while, and fatigue and hunger convinced me to pull off the road at a shopping center called "Virginia Gateway," near the intersection of I-66 and Route 29. I came in search of a decent lunch, but I came away with new insight on the state of our culture today. All for less than 15 bucks.

A bit of background for non-Fedroplexers: Gainesville is located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, near the western edge of our ever-expanding megalopolis. Until recently, Gainesville was a sleepy little southern town which served as a significant railroad shipping point. When the rail business finally died out in the '60s, the town hung on, no doubt helped by its location at the intersection of 66 and 29 and the resulting typical strip of roadside gas stations and fast-food joints catering to weary travelers. But there wasn't much to do or see there; it was just another drive-by town like the thousands of others that litter the landscape near highways all over America.

In the last few years, though, the combination of DC's red-hot housing market, the outflow of jobs to the area around Dot-Com Canyon, and the apparently-universal desire to have a lawn big enough to make a country squire jealous have turned Gainesville into "the new boom town," as one town Web site puts it. The combination of large houses on rolling lawns, decent-for-DC prices and reasonable commuting distances is like heroin for young Fedroplex families, and they've swarmed on Gainesville in droves. Nowadays, you can't swing a dead cat by the tail without hitting an SUV with a "My Child Is An Honor Student At..." bumper sticker, whereas ten years ago, you could have swung a dead cat by the tail a hundred times without hitting anything, other than maybe an Exxon or, on a good day, a Wendy's.

But, of course, you can't lure two-income professional families out to the sticks with cheap housing alone. You also need to provide them with the basic necessities of life, such as convenient shopping. Which brings us to Virginia Gateway. From the outside, it appears unremarkable, another one of those just-add-water retail centers that appear virtually overnight and grow like kudzu in the suburbs. It has the same mix of stores that all the others do, designed to appeal to yuppies-on-the-go: hip fast-casual restaurants, kiddie gym, hair salon, eyeglass shop, bank, cell-phone store, mildly bohemian home-furnishings boutique, tanning salon, dentists and doctors, and (of course!) a Starbucks, all done up in the same bricky neo-retro look you've seen a hundred times. Nothing in particular caught my eye as I navigated the center, looking for a decent place to spend my lunch dollars.

I spied a Mexican place called Qdoba, which I'd never been to before, so I drove toward it to find a parking space... and suddenly I found myself someplace different. For this, I soon discovered, was Atlas Walk.

Growing up in the Fedroplex as I did, I am intimately familiar with the standard suburban strip-mall. Architecturally and aesthetically, they have little if anything to recommend them. The identical-looking shops, the breezeway connecting them that protects you from rain so long as the wind isn't blowing, the canned music piped through tinny overhead speakers spaced too far apart to be useful, the focus around the vast expanse of parking lot in the middle, with at most a few spindly saplings to break up the monotony... the strip mall is purely, brutally utilitarian. Few people willingly spend one minute more there than they must. And why would they? The only thing the strip mall does well is to allow people to drive in, visit a lot of stores relatively quickly, and leave.

The town I grew up in was actually better than most in this regard, since its shopping centers were designed as communal gathering spaces. My town has an extensive network of walking trails, and the shopping centers were all pedestrian-friendly. They had pavilions and plazas and mature trees and were actually pleasant places to spend time. Of course, the utopian ideal of the "village center" eventually gave way to the reality of suburban life; the centers were generally not auto-friendly, and the car-centered residents began deserting the village centers. In the end, most of the old centers were extensively remodeled and now look very much like traditional strip malls. Every time I see one of them, I want to cry. But such is progress.

Progress has its discontents, though, and the old strip-mall model has worn thin. The utilitarian ugliness and the atomizing effect the centers have on communities are all too apparent. People yearn for the charms of small-town life, even as small-town retail is driven out of business by the big-box stores we can't seem to live without. We want the best of both worlds.

Community planners and developers have been trying to strike compromises. My town has constructed a town center that is walkable and suitable as a communal gathering place, yet has ample parking garages and lots. (Perhaps, ironically, the town center's success helped drive the old village centers out of business.) Other shopping centers have designed to include plazas, fountains, tree-lined walkways and other homey touches. Critics say the centers feel a bit like amusement parks, but they're certainly more pleasant places to visit than your typical strip mall.

Atlas Walk is a little different. It's designed like a small-town main street, with tree-lined sidewalks, a bit of architectural variation, and on-street parking. Many of the shops have awnings over the doors, a nice touch. I found a spot next to a shop with the delightful name of Corks and Forks. As I got out of my car, I was greeted by music, a medley of nostalgia-oriented middle-of-the-road hits emitting from quality speakers, speakers placed by someone with a decent knowledge of acoustics. As I walked up the street toward Qdoba, I noted with pleasure that the music didn't fade in and out as I walked up the street, but remained at a constant volume, loud enough to be heard and understood but quiet enough to be tuned out if you didn't happen to like the song being played. It was a warm January day, and I was gliding down the street humming along with a Chicago tune and feeling fine. Atlas Walk looked so nice and clean! It reminded me a bit of Sea Haven, the town from the movie The Truman Show.

I noticed a Coldstone Creamery next door to Qdoba, and thought to myself, At last I can see what all the fuss is about! For, until Saturday, I had never in my life been to Coldstone Creamery. I'd driven by a couple, and of course I'd heard the rave reviews from my reviews. I was assured that Coldstone's signature cake-batter ice cream was worth sacrificing, at minimum, an arm for. So I made plans to cap off my pleasant rest stop with a cup of primo ice cream.

After a pleasant quesadilla lunch, I made my way over to Coldstone and ordered the cake-batter ice cream, with an Oreo mix-in, in the "Like It" size (a designation so pretentiously cute I nearly gagged, but whatever). It was delivered to me in a portion so generous as to overflow the edges of the cup. I sat down and began working furiously on the sides, so as to prevent it from melting onto my hands. Delicious! Every bit as good as advertised. I sensed a new addiction taking shape before my eyes.

But after a couple bites, I looked back out at the cheery scene on Atlas Walk, and thought, On such a nice day, in January no less, I'm going to sit and eat ice cream inside? I changed my plans on the fly, and after getting the overflow situation under control, I slipped out the door of Coldstone and back into the ever-pleasant streetscape.

I took a few steps, took a few bites. A Stevie Wonder song began to play. I almost felt like dancing as I strolled along. Viva Atlas Walk! Sure, maybe it lacked a little of the character of a true small-town main street, but what does "character" mean here, really? Urban decay? Abandoned storefronts? The threat of criminal activity? Nostalgia can be overrated, though. Atlas Walk provided the possibility of all the advantages of small-town charm without the drawbacks. What could be wrong?

I walked along another half-block, kept eating. You know, I thought, this ice cream is pretty rich. Really, really good, and they give you an awful lot of it. An awful lot. It wouldn't have hurt if they'd given me a little less, maybe... Also, Atlas Walk was beginning to remind me of The Truman Show for another reason. Maybe it was the way the light was shining, but it all felt a little like a movie set. It was just so... clean. And so... nice. My eyes darted around a bit, searching for some initials scrawled in the concrete somewhere, or a weed sprouting through a joint in the sidewalk, or a little crack in one of the brick facades. No imperfections to be found. Of course.

Still, I'm complaining because they gave me too much ice cream? I'm finding fault with a shopping center for being too perfect? It seems absurd. Still, I couldn't help looking around for cameras...

And my sense of the place as movie set gained considerable force when, after two blocks, Atlas Walk just... vanished. The streetscape disintegrated into a grassy median. Ten feet ahead, I saw a chain-link fence designed to keep kids off the railroad tracks. And it was jarring. I felt a bit like I'd walked off the edge of the earth. I looked behind me and saw the beautiful, well-scrubbed streetscape. I looked ahead and saw weeds, fencing, the railroad tracks, a run-down service station. I felt a little queasy, a little dislocated. Where was I?

Also, around this time, the ice cream was starting to really get to me. The cake-batter taste was nice, sure, but it was so... sweet. And so... cloying. It was like eating a bowl full of real cake better, only denser. How on earth did they expect me to finish the whole thing? It was just a little too... too.

Having run out of Atlas Walk, and not really feeling like retracing my steps, I wandered around behind it. This didn't take long, as in addition to being only two blocks long, Atlas Walk consists of only the one "street." I half-expected to see rigging and catwalks and key grips running around on the backside. What I actually saw wasn't much more welcoming: blank brick walls and traditional strip-mall surface parking. Only a few signs announcing the names of the shops on the other side broke up the monotony. The contrast between the inviting warmth and faux-charm inside and the featureless and shadowy outside couldn't be more stark.

I took a couple more bites of ice cream, but it was getting hard. I felt like I'd been gorging in a candy store too long. I'd had rich ice creams before -- I love Ben and Jerry's and I've enjoyed Haagen-Dazs in my time -- but this stuff took "rich" to another dimension. Who could eat all this? And this was the small size! If I was having this much trouble with the "Like It" size, who eats the "Love It," or even the "Must Have It"? Football players? Paul Bunyan? The Jolly Green Giant? My appetite takes a back seat to few men, but I was already sensing that I was overmatched by this ice cream.

My gaze turned away from Atlas Walk, and as I cast my eyes across the parking lot, I saw the Loch Ness Monster. Actually, it was a row of big-box stores which are also part of Virginia Gateway. They seemed a bit hazily distant, and I sensed that they were supposed to feel that way: the big-box row was separated from Atlas Walk by a road, not to mention several acres of parking lot. "Pay no attention to that Target in the distance," Atlas Walk seemed to be whispering to me. "Nothing to see over there. Come back in here... we've got ice cream!" I ignored it... I couldn't take my eyes off of the gallumphing, ungraceful row of stores on the other side of the asphalt ocean. There's really no way to make a store like Target or Bed Bath and Beyond look attractive or welcoming. The mega-stores are too big, too function-first. They can't be integrated into a Main Street. They just... exist, squat and elephantine, gobbling up acreage, surrounded by their moats of parking. The row I was looking at, which couldn't have been more than three stores, was longer than all of Atlas Walk. Even though it was off in the distance, it seemed to dwarf the faux-streetscape behind me. Atlas Walk seemed even smaller, flimsier, and emptily pretentious than before. Plopping a fake small-town street next to the behemoth across the street is like wearing a tuxedo to work at a factory and calling yourself an orchestra conductor.

I'd had about enough of Atlas Walk and Virginia Gateway, and I'd had about enough of my ice cream. But I decided to walk down to the other end of the streetscape, just in case I'd missed some redeeming quality, like an extra block or two. But as I rounded the corner again, I discovered that Qdoba was, indeed, at the end of the street. The only part of the plaza I'd missed was a restaurant and a small brick plaza with a bench covered by an archway. At the time I visited, the bench overlooked a highly scenic pile of dirt. I presume that something else, perhaps a fountain, will be there eventually, but on Saturday the dirt pile only enhanced the feeling of dislocation. I stood on the plaza and looked around, to see the limits of the illusion. Ahead of me stood cheery Atlas Walk... and, not out of sight, the chain-link fence and the railroad tracks. To my right, parking and the the looming bulk of Target. To my left, the cars whizzing by along Route 29. Behind me, the plaza and the dirt pile. Effectively, Atlas Walk is an island, marooned in the middle of standard suburban sprawl.

As I spun around and took everything in, I was struck full-force with the essence of the sham. Sure, you can have your nostalgic Main Street fantasyland... but it needs to be surrounded by the big-box stores that have driven real-life Main Streets out of business, or it won't be economically viable. Sure, Atlas Walk is a nice walkable shopping area... but you have to drive to get there. You can't walk to Atlas Walk from anywhere. All the houses are somewhere else. Sure, Atlas Walk evokes the small towns where everyone knew their neighbors and gathered together downtown... but apart from shopping, it has none of the civic or communal features that made people want to congregate on the Main Streets of old. There's no reason for local kids, for instance, to get together to play or hang out there. (And given the attitude of most upscale shopping centers toward kids who aren't buying things, they'd probably be chased off if they tried.) There really isn't much more reason to spend a day, or even a whole afternoon, at Atlas Walk than at a typical strip mall. It's prettier, sure, but it's all for show. It's attractive and well-designed, but it's an empty shell. A gleaming, polished, empty shell.

I started to walk back up the street, but I couldn't take any more. My arteries felt clogged with lead. The combination of the smotheringly-sweet ice cream and the neo-Mayberry streetscape were giving me saccharine overload. My body threatened to revolt if I shoveled another spoonful of Cake Batter down my gullet, and my sensibilities threatened to revolt if I stayed any longer at Atlas Walk. So I chucked the ice cream cup (still half-full) in the trash and walked to my car and got out as quickly as I could. As I merged back onto 29, I took one last look at Atlas Walk. From the road, I noticed, the streetscape was obscured from view. Instead, I found myself staring, largely, at a blank brick wall much like the one facing Target. There were signs identifying the stores, and a few windows and even an awning or two to break up the monotony, but the overall effect was depressingly monolithic, as I couldn't tell where one store ended and another began. It looked like a fortress, a bulwark defending Virginia Gateway from the visigoths on the highway. It was as forbidding and cold from the outside as it was cheery and welcoming on the inside. I took the hint and drove away, headed home.

Will Atlas Walk succeed? I don't know. Perhaps the retro charm will win people over. Or perhaps they'll ignore it in favor of the big-box stores on the other side of the center. It certainly does have its plusses: it's attractive, it's clean, and it has a reasonably good mix of stores, as far as I could tell. But I couldn't stand to go there often for the same reason I couldn't stand to live in Gainesville: I can't keep up the fantasy in my mind. I can't narrow my eyes and pretend it's a real Main Street. And I can't narrow my eyes and pretend Gainesville is a real town. The center doesn't hold, because there is no center. It's a town of convenience, only it's not a town at all; it's a conglomeration of subdivisions and shopping centers plopped down with no rhyme or reason, all because it's close to the highway.

Is this as good as it gets, though? After all, people vote with their feet, and they've demanded the big-box stores, their convenience and low prices. And our insistence on big houses and big lawns, on convenient shopping, on separating housing and commercial developments, and on being married to our cars forces certain constraints on planning and design. Given everything we demand, real small-town Main Streets aren't necessarily practical, at least not in the Fedroplex. Maybe a fragment of faux-small-town charm surrounded by asphalt and concrete is the best we can hope for. I continue to hope, though, that we can do better.

Oh, and as for Coldstone? I'm willing to believe I just picked wrong, and that there are other flavors that are just as addictive and divine as everyone claims. If anyone has a suggestion to make my next visit less cloying, feel free to leave a comment.

Posted by Mediocre Fred at January 23, 2006 12:44 PM | TrackBack

To bad you didn't keep on going down south on 29 to Warrenton. There you will fin a real small town downtown!
Sure, a couple of strip malls on the bypass, even a Cold stone creamery,Panera's, and Borders, but also Tractor Supply and a fantastic hardware store. There is a legit stainless steel diner (Frost's) and a local burger joint (Foster's) just across the street that can't be beat.

Gentrification is setting in. The Loudon spill over is rapidly approaching down Route 29, you saw it in Gainesville. Hopefully, Warrenton and Fauquier County will handle the greedy get rich quick developer crowd better than Loudon.

Until then--

Posted by: Russ brown at February 15, 2006 07:20 AM

Hi Russ,

Thanks for the comment! While I didn't visit Warrenton on this particular trip, I have passed through before, and I'm a real fan. I love the way that Warrenton has managed to preserve a lot of its authentic small-town feel, even as it's grown somewhat. The Frost Diner is a particular favorite of mine... when my dad and I went hiking in the Blue Ridge, we'd often stop at the Frost on the way back for a great meal cheap. Warrenton strikes me as a great place to live, and I wouldn't hesitate to move there.

Like you, I'm a little anxious to see what happens to Warrenton and the rest of Fauquier as the sprawl starts moving in. Fortunately, we have the example of Loudoun and Prince William to show what happens if you let the developers run rampant. Hopefully Fauquier can resist the pressure.

Next time I pass through Warrenton, I hope our paths will cross!

Posted by: Mediocre Fred at February 15, 2006 08:08 AM
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