Beyond Buildings


Home for the Holidays

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For many of us, the holidays mean a trip to the suburbs. It is where many of us are from, and where our families live. It is more common for us to travel from our small to smallish in-town dwellings to the places where the parents or in-laws have the kind of spacious residence that can accommodate large gatherings and, in these days of global warming, even a late touch football game.

For me, suburbia is Cooke’s Hope, a suburban development a few miles outside of Easton, Maryland. Developed with a vaguely New Urbanist tone (interestingly enough, I have not been able to find out who the planner is), it is better than most: in the area where my mother-in-law lives, the houses mimic a vernacular, albeit probably more Connecticut than Maryland, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder to create what looks like a neighborhood. Only the absence of any store or messiness makes you realize this place was, only a little over a decade ago, a pasture. Trails lead off into what remains of wetlands, through neighborhoods of townhomes and palatial residences sitting on the uplands, all the way either to Route 50 with its traffic, big box retail, and Section 8 housing fenced off from us, or to an old railroad bridge that recalls the days when things were made and grown here.

Downtown Easton has also gone through quite a transformation. Once a sleepy little town that came alive with the influx of boaters in the summer, it now sports several large supermarkets, a Target and, in town, a farmer’s market serving up local greens and fresh bread. The downtown has managed to survive by becoming an upscale enclave.

Easton, in other words, is fairly typical. Talbot County is richer than most (average houses cost more than $350,000), and the Eastern Shore of Maryland is atypical in that it is the refuge of the Washington, Baltimore, and even Philadelphia elite in their search for places to moor their yachts. It is, however, also an exurban bedroom community and a regional center that sprawled into ugly and wasteful developments. In many ways, however, things have improved here more quickly than they have elsewhere. The quality of food and objects you can buy is much better, as is the variety. The use of land in a place like Cooke’s Hope is more logical than it was in previous sprawl developments. Every house in Cooke’s Hope now has an Internet connection, though most jealously guard their WiFi from each other (which is why you might be reading this a bit late).

Of course I am writing from a privileged viewpoint, at the kitchen table in a 3,000-sq.- ft. home where the leftovers have just been cleared. There is poverty in Talbot County –8.8 percent live in it, and a large percentage of them are African-American. The use of land here is still wasteful, and the whole place is dependent on the existence of metropolises in order to exist. The movement of goods, people, and information that lets me enjoy my crisp bread, my warmth, and the presence of my family is extensive and not very good for the environment.

How much more comfortable and sane it is, however, than when I first visited here twenty years ago. Then, culture was far away, the quality of the food and the goods you could obtain here was miserable, and the isolation between social and racial groups much larger than it is now. Houses and cars were considerably less efficient, and there was no online news, let alone Facebook or Twitter to keep us in touch with each other. At the end of this year, I remain optimistic, with however many caveats I might have to attach to that sense of good cheer. The world may be going to hell in a hand basket, at least in part through the way we live in places like this, but these places are becoming better. We should start here to improve our world. Mixing retail with living, not sectioning off Section 8, providing better public transportation, and preserving the wetlands would be a good start.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.