Thursday, September 14, 2006

A Storybook Town

September 14

It has come to my attention that Fairhope is billed in the promotional literature as a “Storybook Town.” It has also been called such things as a “little Norman Rockwell town,” and a “Disneyland town.”

Aargh. I am doing what I can, by harping on the subject of Fairhope history on this blog, to keep it from becoming any of those things.

When I first moved back in 1988, there actually were some remnants of Norman Rockwell cottages, little houses that had been built between the two World Wars -- modest houses that looked as if nice families lived there. Fairhope had an undiscovered quality that I would hardly have called “storybook” in the sense of the charming little Tudor homes of California or the New England farm houses, or the Midwestern carpenter gothics of the 1800’s. It was almost unreal in its quietness. The last of the fabled hotels of the town, The Colonial Inn, stood decrepit in its prime spot overlooking the bay, all but abandoned, awaiting the wrecker's ball.

There was very little to do on a Saturday night. There were a few eateries, but only one really nice one, a remodeled old farmhouse out behind the new shopping center, known as Dusty's. It was owned by a local character who had had a career as a cocktail pianist and had a young, creative wife who put the restaurant on the map, thereby giving parched little Fairhope a first-class place to take visitors or a special date.

A novel had been published in 1959, written by a young man named Robert E. Bell, who had been so entranced by what he called the magic of Fairhope, that he set his story in a fictionized version of the town, renaming it Moss Bayou, and smothering the setting with such phrases as "Somewhere after a turn down the street, he saw a glimmer of water, gold-flaked through the trees; the frond-dragging palms bent with the curve of the road which heat-danced ahead of him, charging the sky with its electrical glare." The title of the book was The Butterfly Tree, and it was not the last book to drench Fairhope in the mysteries of the imagination of an outsider.

An insider, I worked with Bob many years later on a book that I hoped would present a more realistic picture of the Fairhope I knew, incorporating his lyrical prose describing a town projected from his memories with my own workaday knowledge of what it was like to grow up in the little enclave that I found neither magical nor romantic. The book we collaborated on reflected two sensibilities and embraced Fairhope from two sides. Its title was Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, and if you've read much of this blog or if you click on the link, you'll know almost all there is to know about it short of actually reading it.

Both those books may have contributed to the myth that Fairhope was some kind of ethereal, enchanted locale, a Brigadoon that only appeared in the line of vision of the fortunate few. Charming as that image might be, it simply isn't true.

Fairhope was a very real town, founded on the principle of providing economic parity, especially in housing. Land was available on a 99-year lease basis, with a low “rent” or tax, to be paid to the Colony yearly, to be determined by what would be considered fair market value. Each family could build what it could afford on the land leased from the Colony. Little houses were built by the impecunious couples who wanted to participate in the Utopian experiment known as the Single Tax Colony, and these houses were expanded room by room as the families grew. That is why so many of the early cottages had small rooms and lots of them. Those little affordable abodes grew with the families that inhabited them.

The Single Tax experiment could hardly be called a rousing success, especially after the Federal Government established an income tax on all citizens in 1913. It was a sound principle that eventually was proved wildly impractical, perhaps especially in Fairhope, the town that was created in order to prove the opposite. Apparently greed is human nature, and the selflessness required to ensure cooperative individualism -- the term used by E.B. Gaston, Fairhope's founder to describe his ideal economy -- was soon overshadowed by the wave of opportunists who learned how to exploit the very land he fought to preserve.

If Fairhope is a storybook town, the story has been rewritten too many times to be of much consequence. Even the historical cottages, for the most part, have been demolished and replaced by monuments to the prosperity of their owners -- huge, ostentatious houses that compete with each other for attention and blur the landscape that was once authentic, meaningful and charming in spite of itself. That it is still a storybook town is the greatest fiction of all.


Benedict S. said...

[I feel reasonably certain that Miss FF will not share the view of Fairhope that I saw when I arrived there in 1957. Maybe she will like it that it's not quite so purple as Bob Bell's, but in either case, here it is. (Excerpted from my book, "The Invisible Substance of Horses and Men.")

When I showed up in Fairhope, 74 years into its history, the Colony was still in business, but now it functioned primarily as a gathering place for the nostalgic residue of "old Fairhope," within which the idea of a free people freely choosing their own form of government could find repose. Unlike the peonry produced by other socialist schemes -- which appear to have been based on shared misery -- the Fairhope colonists lived a life of relative ease. Maybe we have to overlook that the lands controlled by the Colony had been severely gerrymandered by unenlightened property owners who still held to the reactionary idea that working wouldn't be worth much without something truly valuable to work for, like owning a home and the land it stands on.

Nevertheless, the Colony still retained its identity, its coterie of true believers ignoring that Fairhope's endearing image traced in large part to a slightly out-of-phase magnetism that had attracted several other brands of eccentricity. Even the town's famous Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education (where I took up "summer residence") based its curriculum on the strange notion that, in a proper atmosphere, children might actually enjoy learning; that field trips into the town's gullies and to its beaches might be fun ways to learn geology; that building bookshelves and lamps, while training the children's hands to work in a coordinated way, might also teach them basic arithmetic; and that fun things like folk dancing and tie-dying parties might actually provide a setting for development of the children's social instincts. Like I say, a strange idea.

But there was also genuine strangeness: a mail order house that specialized in home-made primal screams; a two-legged dog; a cross-dressing lady writer living in a streetcar who costumed her cats in tutus and taught them ballet (their
pas de chats were the cat's meow). There was an architect who went barefoot year round; another lady who lived in a tree house; an artist who painted animal anuses; two self-employed numerologists (both doing quite well); and even one or two crazy people who, in this paradise-come-to-earth, still found something to complain about.

[Some of the "occupations" I gave the F'hope denizens were fictitious.]

Finding Fair Hope said...

Some of the occupants were themselves fictional, too. In Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree I dealt with the real ones, who I think you'll agree were more interesting than these flights of fancy.

I might quibble with "paradise-come-to-earth" if I were in a curmudgeonly mood, but it's the kind of storybook image Fairhope has always had to shrug off. I like the idea that those who quibbled were the real crazies.

Benedict S. said...

It seemed like paradise to me, but then maybe I'd seen a bit more of Hell than you had ... at the time.

Finding Fair Hope said...

"Paradise" is less bothersome to us old Fairho's than "Storybook Town," I suppose because it implies something deeper than the surface, a town with a heart and a soul rather than a lot of cute houses. I can live with "paradise." Especially when talking of the Fairhope of the past...

jon said...

Being from another small town, Montevallo with similar traits to F'hope, it appealed to me when I first saw it as a teen living in Foley for the summer with a Dept of Ag. job. It was kind of a recessive dream to live here, especially after discovering more about what F'hope was about. Mere chance found the love of my life who was a F'hope native while we attended Alabama College at Montevalo. With her family here, we spent most holidays and any vacation time here or at Gulf State Park (another story of loss). We even came before we married. I met a guy who became one of my closest friends while at Alabama College. His mother and five sibs welcomed me to stay with them on Pier St. I felt, and still do feel,almost family. People seemed friendlier, more open then, rather than like now. There seems to be a look of greed or fear in the eyes of many, and discontent is wide spread, even with the neuveus written about here in the past. The "housing boom" threatens many who in the past were happy to be where they were, including me. What with the greed of growth, established areas are sacrificed for new building promising to "relocate" those of us who are forced out by the politics of eminent domain. Others sell and try to avoid the oncoming population from the boom, where their quiet streets become thoroughfares. Yes the friendly town draws people in and keeps them if they have enough money. But, the "town" only occupies a small acreage. I have heard of the idea to establish it as a kind of gated community not unlike a fief of the middle ages surounded by serfs' quarters. With that in mind, friendliness has fallen to attitudes associated with superiority, if money does that. The peoples of F'hope past dwelt in other areas of susperiority.
Herenow, many think it is bought.

Anonymous said...

“….unenlightened property owners who still held to the reactionary idea that working wouldn't be worth much without something truly valuable to work for, like owning a home and the land it stands on.” Unenlightened is the key word here both for the author and those whom he describes. 80% percent of Americans chose to live in the rich and invigorating social environment of cities and consider their fruits of their labor to valuable to waste on living out romantic fantasies of, “Little House on the Prairie” and “Fourth an Acre and A 40 Mule Power Lawn Mower”.

FF: An interesting insight into the expansion of the “American Dream” in terms of house expansion. Try comparing the homes in beginning episodes of “Extreme Home Makeover” and the giant behemoths now being constructed on the program. Incidentally the only “Family” not get their own home on this tear jerking, feel good, program was a homeless family, whose five year old kids were forced to sleep on public transportation to keep warm.

Here’s an article of support for your blogging efforts.


John Sweden said...

Link didn't work and I think I found out why but have no way to correct it. It seems that a string of five digits and symbols are added to the begining of the web address just ahead of the www in the process of going to the site. This makes the address invalid. If you remove them in the invalid address notice and click go you will get to the article.

How do we solve this problem all you computer savy bloggers?

Finding Fair Hope said...

I agree with Anonymous here, as benedict predicted I might, that the sarcastic characterization of "unenlightened" property owners (meaning those who might object to being asked to contribute to the common good of the community by participating in the Single Tax experiment) is not only condescending but unfair. "Something truly valuable to work for" is the description, in fact, of the work the Colony was trying to achieve, and the opposite of that of the self-absorbed interlopers who have successfully won bey breaking the promise of the Utopians. The latter were truly committed to the betterment of the world rather than the self-aggrandizement implied in "owning a home and the land it stands on."

I would see those who were working to preserve the original intention in the period of benedict's book as noble rather than stupid, or blind, or whatever the writer is looking down on with his unenlightened prose.

The fact that eccentrics were attracted to the town was probably because it always was a home for ideas, brave and challenging, and not for the ordinary or the expected. Moreover, the real eccentrics were teachers, writers, readers, artists, and craftsmen and directors of amateur theatre. Not so colorful as designers of mail-order primal screams, perhaps, but more real and more to the point of what Fairhope used to be.

Benedict S. said...

Anon & Miss FF: I'll stick with my characterization of ordinary people as those who would like to be homeowners. Miss FF may recall that the original draft of this (circa 1992) did not include the qualifier "...and the land it stands on." She pointed out to me that the colony's rules permitted one to own the home, but not "the ground it stood on." Hence, the change.

I will not argue that there may be something "unenlightened" about the countless millions who own their home "and the ground it stands on," but there does seem to be a defensible logic to their condidtion.

Taken to its economic extreme -- as Henry George did -- ownership of land can become a sticky wicket. But like all "problems" that grow out of assumptions of the Malthusian sort, the solutions are usually worse than the problem they "solve."

Finding Fair Hope said...

Benedict, you didn't say "ordinary people who would like to be homeowners." I assume from what you write that you think the basis of the Utopia that Mr. Gaston and others founded was worse than the alternative, which is the ability to "trade up" for one's own gain with no thought to the collective individualism of the whole.

No doubt about it, millions are being made at this very moment by owners of historical cottages who are bettering themselves by blighting the landscape of a one-time paradise with unsightly structures where the funky cottages once stood. This is truly valuable in the eyes of some, this money-grubbing that has made affordable little Fairhope a relic of the almost-forgotten past. Fairhope today is priced out of the range of the very people it was created to serve because of the assumption that owning the land was man's god-given right.

And look at the rest of the planet! It's ours to destroy, isn't it? What's wrong with that?