Monday, October 23, 2006

The "Wow!" Factor

October 23

I have for years watched the Home and Garden cable TV channel and shows like Flip That House and Sell This House and Restaurant Makeover. I have built a house to sell and sold it, and am in the process of updating and restoring a 1916 house, which in Fairhope is a real oldie.

I was on the Historic Preservation Committee when its mission was to stop the destruction of the quaint bungalows and genuine architectural treasures of Fairhope’s history. The committee lost its case in the public eye about six years ago, and almost all of the older homes and cottages have been replaced by really big generic houses, some of which affect a “cottage” appearance but none of which would look out of place in any location in the United States or Canada.

A huge new library is about to be occupied. A huge new Baptist Church has been built to replace the old one (which was very very large, but not what I would call huge). The old high school building in the center of town, now housing kindergarten and the first grade, will soon be torn down and sold to commercial interests, under great protest by picketing moms who think (as I once did) that they can stop the trend – and that Fairhope respects its heritage and admires the appearance or at least the presence of its older buildings.

Those television shows and all the shelter magazines celebrate what they call “the WOW factor.” Homeowners – and particularly those planning to sell a home or building – buy into this idea, that a buyer must say “Wow!” when walking into the house. He also must say “Wow!” when viewing the kitchen for the first time. He also must say “Wow!” when viewing the outsized master bedroom with its obligatory luxurious adjoining bath.

Everywhere we look we must say “Wow!” There is no room in today’s world for a quiet street peppered with charming cottages with rabbit-warren rooms. Every house must astound from the curb, and in it, every bedroom must have walk-in closets an adjoining bath. And every room must be big enough to elicit at least one “Wow!”

I think that’s why our public buildings in Fairhope got so big. Committees were formed, committees headed by people from Mobile who wanted to be sure their friends would be impressed with the state-of-the-art, “Wow!” buildings in Fairhope.

The Performing Arts Center, originally planned to be built adjacent to the new high school and to have a 2,000 seat main theatre and several smaller houses along with classrooms, had to be downsized to one 1,000-seat mainstage – but, probably to increase its “Wow!” factor the committee decided to plunk it right in the center of Fairhope. (The school board refused to ante up sufficient funding, and I suppose it was assumed that a central location might help the fund-raisers to save face.) The building is now slated to be on the Faulkner campus so as to be near the envisioned hub of activity in the downtown area. Never mind that the space they selected was set aside in perpetuity as a memorial to Charles Rabold, a beloved citizen of Fairhope of the 1920’s, and the man who brought folk dancing to the Marietta Johnson School. Mr. Rabold is all but forgotten except for a few of us old diehards, and what would be the “Wow!” factor in keeping a greenspace as a silent memorial?

Fairhope is full of structures with the wow factor now. The Wow! does not connote admiration, however, so much as astonishment that such a building or house stands where it does.

As in, “Wow! What happened to this town?”


Officious Oaf said...

In the natural transition of things there is always a cycle: the new becomes old,and the old becomes new. What is happening today in Fairhope is that the old drag along memories of what once was as the new, the new push in front of them visions of what could be, and will be. And Fairhope's transition is no exception.

It could be argued that the transition is taking Fairhope to a garish new, one steeped in egos buoyed up with affluency being manifested, one void of philosophical direction, in other words, if you 'got it, flaunt it', as appears to be the case.

About the only things the founders of Fairhope had was a vision, a strong belief in it, and sufficient funds for a rudimentary start. I would imagine that if there had been more money at the beginning, there would have been a bit more flaunting...but they didn't have it, so they did the best they could with what they had. Ego suppression is not something any young generation is known for.

If Fairhope is transitioning to something undesireable, part of the blame has to be laid at the feet of the so-called upholders of Fairhopian values. Comfortable and proud in the accomplishments Fairhope had obtained, they erroneously felt that such greatness would be recognized and self-perpetuating; a gross misjudgment of human nature. What a newcomer, be it a new generation of Fairhope born or an "outsider" moving in, sees is the finished product, not the process. And the finished product when seen in a different light, regardless of the struggle that went into it,obviously has flaws, and needs correcting...and so it has been, much to the consternation and disappointment of the upholders of the old.

By failing to wisely promote the values of what made Fairhope so outstanding, there was left a vacuum of raison d´etre for the community, which was filled by more active and fresher blood people with their own reason to be. The upholders's stance was more of what was wrong with the new wave, rather than showing how the new, which was needed and coming anyway,could still be new without the loss of the valuable old.

Well, it wasn't handled that way, so Fairhope is taking on a 'new'look and a new philosophy. The question is, Is it too late for the money minded flaunters to realize that traditional values are ultimately more valuable than "wowing" others for the moment? What will the next generation have to say about all the "wow" of their predecesors? I suspect it will be 'What a vain bunch of fancy sauce dishes! Where was their profoundness? Let's do something new and with a philosophical base under it.' And the cycle continues.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Somebody dropped the ball! Was it me?

That Fairhope was fated to become something other than a Single Tax Colony -- a Utopian community proving a good theory right -- was sealed when the Fairhope Single Tax Corp. allowed the incorporation of the City of Fairhope in 1908. At that moment there became, according to historian Paul Gaston, "two Fairhopes," ever confusing to outsiders and newcomers. It took some 98 years for the rift to become complete, with The FSTC a mere shadow government, providing the city with green spaces and a schizophrenic nature. It is difficult to explain the concept of a pure Single Tax community (or collectively individual community, as Gaston would have it), and more people who moved to the reasonably pleasant settlement were indifferent to Single Tax or downright hostile to it.

It was a Socialist experiment, in its way, and the citizens were never house-proud or inclined to flaunt great wealth. The idea was the opposite. Of course we cannot recapture that early mood of altruism that once prevailed and contributed to an enlighted intellectualism. It's almost unfortunate that the setting was so beautiful, and that that aspect attracted the multitudes once most of the Single Tax trappings were swept away by court cases.

Now it's a Republican town, pretty much lily-white, and extremely upscale in every way. The town fairly crackles with the sound of new money. Anyone who is interested in learning more about the reality of the town's origins or philosophy will have to go to the history books. The Internet touts Fairhope's modern amenities, and the Single Tax Corp. cannot be said to be one of those.

As for the new generation, they are homogenized, overprivileged, and unaware of the origins of their town. I'm told there are serious drug problems at Fairhope High School, which has something of a snobbish cast to it these days, and just up the road is the ultra-snob Bayside Academy, founded as a Seg Academy and now a guaranteed prep for any of the most expensive schools you want to send your child to.

Marietta Johnson's school is struggling to find a base of support, and the town itself has wiped out all commitment to egalitarian and almost all hope of fairness.

Who cares? I really don't know if anyone does. The critical mass has been working against us for almost a hundred years.

Robin said...

miss ff, that is truly a sad story, but in reality one calls it progress but then the question becomes progress for who? Fairhope sounds like a wonderful town back when you were young and living there.

It's all about greed and money these days, I am sorry I wasn't around in those days to have been able to know Fairhope.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Hmmm...sounds like an opportunity to hawk my book...I think you can probably pick one up on for about 35 cents, or email me directly and I'll send you an autographed copy for $15 including postage.