Local questions rage about zoning here in the little woebegone burg that once held fair hopes of fair politics. It seems that in 2001 a comprehensive plan was hammered out that would control growth, and then nobody paid a bit of attention to it until a couple of months ago when Wal-Mart, quite within the limits of the plan, announced it would build a mile or so outside the city limits.
At the time the comprehensive plan was put in place, I was on the then-active Historic Preservation Committee, which got up in arms about there being no consideration of historic buildings within the plan. The basic bones of the plan, as I understood it, was to encourage "a village concept," meaning to zone for mixed residence and business within neighborhoods. I thought at the time it all sounded fine, but it's one thing to zone for a small neighborhood grocery and another thing to find the sweet mom-and-pop willing to sacrifice everything (like an income) in order to operate one. It struck me as doomed to fail from the outset.
What certainly did fail was any attempt at preservation of Fairhope's historic cottages and buildings. They've just about all been replaced now, only five years later, and the town has a sleek, smart look, where it once had a funky charm.
Quoted in the Baldwin County section of the Mobile newspaper yesterday, City Councilman Dan Stankoski -- who has lived here all of five or six years -- said, "Everybody wants it to be 1950, but it can't be. There's going to be change."
I'm here to say I don't want it to be 1950. I want it to be 1920. Fairhope has always been political. There is no reason to duck the question now.
Early settlers were unhappy with the status quo in America. Followers of Henry George, they set out to prove his theory known as the Single Tax by establishing a colony to demonstrate it. They had no doubt that their Utopian dream would be realized as surrounding towns and visitors from all over the U.S. and the world would see how well the Fairhope experiment was working.
Sadly for those political idealists, this never happened, and over the years the town grew indifferent and even sometimes hostile to the noble experiment at its heart. What attracted new residents to Fairhope was its breathtaking natural setting, and the extraordinary little school that was in the forefront of the Progressive Education Movement. The school appealed to both the Left and Right politically. The Liberal element felt that giving freedom and empowerment to children would develop their inherent talent and self-confidence; the Right felt that in such a setting the cream would rise to the top and the best leaders would emerge. All were inspired by the speeches and the persona of Marietta Johnson who loved Fairhope's dream of an ideal world.
Mrs. Johnson and her husband Franklin were both Socialists in a day where it was not considered subversive. Many early Fairhopians were. They were ardent believers in Henry George's theory, and Mrs. Johnson's own sunny view was that her school would pave the way for a new educational tack in the world, one that would bring an end to war. She felt that politicians and other people who sought power over others were cases of "arrested development," which her system of education would eradicate from the face of the earth. If she could only see us now.
Of the Single Taxers in Chicago, Clarence Darrow (sometime visitor to Fairhope, by the way) wrote, "This club met regularly every week for several years. In due time I realized that at every meeting the same faces appeared and reappeared, week after week, and that none of them cared to hear anything but a gospel which they all believed. It did not take long for single Tax to become a religious doctrine necessary to salvation." Darrow said, after a particularly effective speech he made early in his career, "I went to my office earlier than usual...No customers were there. Some of my Single Tax friends and Socialist companions began coming in to congratulate me on my speech. This was pleasing but not profitable. Socialists never come for business; they come to use your telephone and tell you how the world should be organized so that everyone could have his own telephone."
That is one of the anecdotes from the chapter on Darrow in When We Had the Sky, excerpted in the Winter 2006 issue of Alabama Heritage.
In the 1950's in Fairhope, Verda Horne took up the Liberal cause and was one of those teachers at the Marietta Johnson School who made us think about politics, at least a little. We struggled with the moral dilemma of segregation, and, while segregation was in full force in lily-white Fairhope at the time, we teenagers were the ones who knew it would be our generation that confronted the many problems it caused. Just before Mrs. Horne, there was a charge that some of our teachers were Communists -- which, in Joe McCarthy's era, was the cause of some alarm. The political climate was among the issues that prompted a band of Quakers from Fairhope to leave for Costa Rica and establish their own colony. This group included several people I knew and some who are still in my circle.
Today's political conflicts here are weighted for my side to lose. We are talking about proposals for $540 million subdivisions at Point Clear. The City Council is talking about a moratorium while they consider all the options. My friends who urge me to get involved in politics seem almost naive to me. All that old-fashioned-civics-class stuff about "One person can make a difference," is of a different time, a different place, a place where hopes of fairness was enough to build Utopia.