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Real Estate & Property Law

: Kelo and Beyond

Roots

By Greg Alvarez

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Working full-time can be a real drag on the reading queue. I have several shiny books that I have yet to crack, all on account of this pesky occupation I've chosen. Right now (and for the past six months) I'm in the middle of a volume that isn't all that glossy, as my wife picked it up for me at a used book store. It's called Cities on a Hill, by journalist Francis FitzGerald. Not the most outstanding book in the world, and, by this point, it is quite outdated. Nonetheless, what it has done (at least to the point I have gotten) is set forth how certain societal groups have used land use to create identity and a self-contained world for fostering their beliefs and ways of life. Together these communities have established what they see as "roots" in a place they call home. So far I've gotten through the sections on the Castro District in San Francisco, which is often considered one of the first "gay neighborhoods" in America, and the section on the late Jerry Falwell and the empire he had created for himself in Lynchburg, Virginia. Both areas were emblematic of how like-minded individuals could come together and define themselves by defining a place as their own.

Despite the unity exhibited in these two close-knit communities, a stronger force continues to seek to rip them apart. A recent account of the Castro district pinpointed for me the way in which the inexorable land use process tends to govern even the most principled of community experiments. Sure, the death of the Castro has been voiced on many occasions, several times by those who wished it to occur. The resilience of the neighborhood endured, yet the economic and demographic realities of land use have chipped away at the identity of the area. Expensive condominium developments have attracted straight infiltrators to the neighborhood for its "new eclecticism." The gay populace has fanned out to other neighborhoods in the city, and the suburbs. What this really means is that the Castro's initial life as the center of gay culture has evolved into a tourist attraction for the history it represents. Francis FitzGerald noted these trends twenty years ago. Even back then it was the scourge of land use demands that kept the neighborhood shifting and changing and reshaping itself. The same forces will continue to push it into the future, and new directions.

The whole idea of "roots" seems impossible to me in a world where land use forces govern so much regarding the places in we live, work and play. The myth of one's "roots" is further highlighted by the changes that take place to lands that at one time contained not neighborhoods, but instead real-live roots, and the trees that rise on their foundation. For instance, in the Adirondack Forest Preserve, quandaries exist over what to do with 161,000 unbroken acres north of New York City, which were recently purchased by the Nature Conservancy. A good many people want to see the land continue to exist as it has before memory, serving today as excellent camping and hunting areas (for those into that sort of thing). However, because the environmental group has taken on a hefty financial obligation to acquire the lands, the Nature Conservancy has had to concede that it must also be in the logging business and the real estate business. It may even sell off some of its booty to be developed for residential and commercial uses. Even the most high and mighty realize the need to feed the beast.

In a lot of ways, it's tough to see things go. And there must be restraint exercised whenever possible. But there's a reason all of these upheavals happen from the center of San Francisco, to the Adirondack highlands. Only a desire, and big sword, to slay the land use monster can prevent us from continuing our never-ending pursuit to change things from the way they were.

Full post as published by Kelo and Beyond on October 31, 2007 (boomark / email).

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