A Placemaking Journal

Fake, or So Real it’s Blowing Your Mind?

Okay, so the headline here is a semi-inside joke. Last week, on vacation in Rosemary Beach on the Florida panhandle, I Facebooked a photo of the town’s Main Street, together with this comment:

The idea that a traditionally-planned community is somehow “fake” reflects a particular American pathology: the belief that incompetence is akin to authenticity. Or maybe we just prefer ‘keepin’ it real’ in the strip mall parking lot.

Yes, as the NRDC’s always-insightful Kaid Benfield cordially pointed out moments later, I was grossly over-simplifying a complex issue but, in my defense, Facebook doesn’t exactly leave a lot of room for nuance. But that aside, I did have a larger point.

In short, the initial skepticism people tend to have towards a place like Rosemary — the almost visceral sense that some sort of illusion is taking place — is, in my opinion, misplaced. It’s lazy. It’s less about the true nature of authenticity and more about a particularly modern — and perhaps fleeting — perspective on what’s real and what’s not.

What’s going on?

At first I thought these types of post-cynical critiques emerged based on scale and character — the way a coherent, master-planned TND can appear, seemingly out of nowhere or in the midst of an otherwise sprawling landscape — but then noticed similar suspicions cast at the level of urban infill. Even a single house — a new, traditionally-styled home built within a long-standing traditional neighborhood, for example — can find itself philosophically in question.

The prevailing sentiment in these objections seems to be that something reminiscent of another time yet freshly constructed is, in and of itself, suspect. And maybe it is. But surely there is a point where the exploitation of memory ends and the incorporation of collective wisdom begins.

Even within the preservation community — whose stock-in-trade is historic buildings and places — there are differing positions and prescriptions. Sometimes new construction is called upon to honor context in the form of style and materials. Other times, stylistic clarity as to a building’s modern era construction is the mandate.

Clearly, what we see as real is subjective and rooted in context. We’re reading clues. Who’s building it? What are their intentions? How much does it differ from the same-old, same-old and how long does it take to be completed?

But maybe we’re asking the wrong questions.

The right questions

Also among the commenters to my Facebook provocation was Clay Chapman, who offered this:

Funny that simply ‘attempting’ to improve our state receives pointed scrutiny that thoughtlessness and disregard does not.

Regular readers here might recall Chapman from a previous PlaceShakers post profiling his predominantly traditional effort to construct a multi-century structural masonry home for $80/square foot. I think he’s on to something. Namely, why does the strip mall — unabashedly cashing in in the easiest way possible, with no real acknowledgement of local commerce and its larger role in who we are and how we’ve organized our communities over the long haul — fail to incite similar examination?

Why don’t we say, “That’s just a box of chain merchants, totally disconnected from the life of the community and built to last but a decade or two. It reflects development patterns imposed for tidy order and easy financing with no relationship to how human beings have come to create cities and towns through the millennia. Fake!”?

Instead, we cast scrutiny upon efforts to restore these connections, as though that’s where the real threat is. The strip mall or the subdivision is what we’ve come to expect, which has apparently set the bar for how real something is. But I disagree. To me, the litmus test for real should reflect different priorities. Namely, how well does something connect to lessons learned over generations, especially as they relate to climate, landscape and, yes, human fulfillment, while still addressing our unique place in history? How well does it connect us to each other and to our ability to live richly varied lives in shared, interdependent proximity?

How well does it capture the rhythms of humanity in lasting ways?

Through a different lens

In that respect, Rosemary Beach fares pretty well. Where the cynical skeptic might suggest that its architecture bears no relationship to its mid 1990s groundbreaking or its place on Florida’s route 30-A, I’d counter that it actually incorporates lessons of Caribbean life and all its climatic challenges (as many historic places along the Gulf did), in ways that conventional, tourist-strip practices do not and that its masonry, balconies and deep eaves are not nearly so much about arbitrary style as they are about function and performance.

Thus, it is more real, because it embodies who we are, where we are, and what we’ve discovered over time.

That might be countered by the criticism that the entire town was essentially built out in only 15 years — surely contrary to the pace of growth under more organic, real conditions. However, authenticity is not so much about time as it is about diversity. After all, the entire Upper West Side of Manhattan was laid out and constructed in only ten years (h/t Ellen Dunham-Jones) and no one considers it inauthentic. This is because, despite its rapid construction, it reflects the work of many hands rather than the centralized, controlling hand of a master developer. Hundreds, if not thousands, of individual design decisions were made, day after day, by different people. Each with their own taste and priorities.

This too is the case in Rosemary. Like Manhattan, it was laid out by master design but each individual building within it was custom designed and reflects not just the prevailing character of the town but the taste, preferences and economics unique to each owner and their architect.

Compare this to the more conventional, master developed projects nearby (projects that get a pass because, as goes the typical criticism, they’re not “trying to be something they’re not”) and, again, the degree of authenticity falls to Rosemary.

Not getting a pass

One thing to make clear, however. Though I do believe we lob charges of fakery in an unfair and superficial way, I do not think that projects such as Rosemary Beach are above scrutiny and critique. Only that such critique should be rooted not in the jaded cynicism of a Disney-weary world but, rather, in whether or not a project successfully heeds the lessons of yesterday and the realities of today to establish meaningful and lasting solutions for tomorrow.

A great example of this is this year-old Rosemary Beach review from the Old Urbanist, an occasional critic of new urban efforts — not so much for their failure to embrace traditional solutions but for their failure to take them far enough beyond our present auto-dominated reality. Here, unlike lazy, and more common, charges of fakery, the debate surrounds the degree to which Rosemary Beach successfully serves people through the disciplined application of traditional lessons and principles.

That’s exactly where it should be, of course, if you’re genuinely concerned with keepin’ it real.

–Scott Doyon

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