Monday, May 21, 2007

The Story That Fairhope Isn't

May 21, 2007

Browsing on my blog I find the following post which bears repeating:

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 collective 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.


John Sweden said...

Interesting topic. I have to disagree with “apparently greed is human nature”. There are many who would love to believe that storybook fairytale of life. You could have just as easily and more accurately written; that the truth of human nature, its selflessness and it’s continued devotion to ensure and create successful models of collective individualism -- the term used by E.B. Gaston, Fairhope's founder to describe “an” ideal economy -- was soon “undermined” by a wave of “aberrant” opportunists who learned how to exploit the very land he fought to preserve.

Today, in my former land of opportunity, I literally move into the 60’s. Next Monday, I hope to do it historically, in my current land of collective individualism.

Last week I had one of those rare moments in the life of those who dedicate their lives to planting the seeds humanity. I opened up the Sunday paper to find a long article on the city’s planned bid to be Europe’s Culture Capital in the year 2014. And what was I reading?…My own words.

After 10 years of presenting ideas, engaging in artistic experiments that promoted and demonstrated the concepts and theories of a Participatory/Kultur and advocating for the creation of “City of Artists”, the leaders of the initiative were virtually quoting, the basis for the city’s application, word for word, from the material I have been presenting to them.

True they didn’t give me the personal reference…but they didn’t have to…as I give my art away...I do it by ending every presentation of an idea to them with “Please feel “Free” to use any of my ideas in any manner you wish…as it is the idea that is important not who does…it or originates it.” and a reverse copyright.

They will receive an opportunistic letter from me today, on my American 60th birthday, asking that they consider me as a candidate for one of the project leader jobs being created.

Monday on my Swedish 60th birthday, I will be expressing my collective individualism by calling the person in charge for an appointment. This is a person who ten years ago when I presented my ten Social/Artworks in “City of Artists” proposal as a theme for the city’s millennium celebration called me, “A Man with Visions” and included my “Self-Portrait of City” Social/Artwork as a featured and one of the most successful parts of the celebration.

Why do I bring this up? E.B. Gaston was not a utopian or an idealist, words that are used in this post and in society in general as negative putdowns; he was seed planter of humanity. A practical visionary who put, heart and sweat (sweat being the operative word in Fairhope) behind his vision of a better more humane world, along with others such as Marietta Johnsson, in Fairhope.

I cannot tell you all of the negative, kind and unkind , patronizing, putdowns, active resistance and blocks to funding I have received from the culture authorities of this city, simply for advocating and planting the seeds Participatory/Kultur or the cultural version of “collective individualism”.

We, who plant the seeds of humanity and all those who work patiently and daily for a better unselfish world, will !!!always!!! WIN in the end. For we express the true unselfish nature of what it means to be human and it our visions that ultimately shape the nature of human civilization.

Mary Lois said...

How wonderful to have prevailed through the arts to bring your new country to a vision of Utopia! Congratulations, John (and, I might add, at so young an age)! I know it wasn't easy.

You were the one who pointed out to me that the words idealist and Utopian were negative in most vocabularies...growing up in Fairhope I never thought of them as anything but the way the whole world should be.

As I've written here, Fairhope isn't that way any more, and I don't expect that it will ever be again. I once had such hopes, when I moved back in 1988, but things have changed, and not just the new Wal-Mart which is scheduled to open next month. (In fact, as everybody knows, I don't have any objections to the new Wal-Mart...but the new library offends me to the core.)

It's just that Fairhope, the place immortalized in Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree was all too mortal after all, an easy target for those who would exploit it and make a buck. All around there are "For Sale" signs, and the newcomers revel in nothing more than the safety and flowers artificially planted downtown to distract from the corruption beneath the surface. It's a sad place for idealists. Particularly sad for those with a long memory.

sinjap said...

loved your post (as always) and the comments...but i find the term collective individualism an oxymoron...either mr. gaston was very ambitious or just very naive...collective equates with socialist (mine is yours and yours is mine) and individualism conjures up everything that is american - teddy roosevelt, manifest destiny, etc.

and like me dating a rock star, those two ideas are highly incompatible

Mary Lois said...

And so sinjap discovers our paradoxic beginnings. When you get to Fairhope you can discuss the finer points of Single Tax vs. Socialism with the rest of us. I hope you know that Marietta Johnson and her husband were Socialists, and that was was what attracted her here. E.B. Gaston had his own take on it, as you see, having it both ways very neatly.

Mary Lois said...

I'm embarrassed to read this blog four years after posting it and see the error I made--but I must take this opportunity to correct it here. E.B. Gaston's theory was called "cooperative individualism" and not collective individualism. He was a socialist, but he was not insane.