There’s a renewed interest in American cities. For a half-century, at least, it was a given that the culmination of the American Dream was a house in the suburbs. When you pulled your Buick Regal into your two-car garage, the kids playing in the yard, the scent of freshly baked meatloaf wafting in the air, it was a sign. You’d made it. You’d graduated. This was all there ever could be, and it was yours.
Not so fast.
Did I just die and go to heaven? (Edited. Original photo by Andy Arthur.)
Today’s young adults, clad in American Apparel and discounted Target duds, have taken flight back to the city in an epic reverse migration. For the first time in decades, many older urban cities are actually posting population gains. Ever so subtly, the tide has shifted. The urban sprawl many of us grew up in is now typecast as a soul-crushing, resource hogging, culturally suffocating growth that needs to be cut off like the cancer it is and always has been.
Of course, critics contend that all the cocky twentysomethings currently shopping for kale at the local farmer’s market will vacate their dingy industrial lofts the second they have to send the kids off to grade school. That’s when the suburbs will rise triumphant again – well, as much as a ranch house can be said to rise.
Maybe they’re right.
Whatever. We’ll see.
This is our future! (Edited. Original photo by Todd Dwyer.)
Still, it’s with a typical, hypocritical anti-sprawl mindset that I bring up Jamestown, Virginia. You’ve probably heard of it. It’s that little town Nathaniel Bacon burned to the ground, where John Rolfe married Pocahontas, Captain John Smith cemented his legacy, and tobacco assumed its outsized role in the rural Southern economy. Going back to 1607, it was the first permanent English settlement in America and the former capital of the Colony of Virginia. From a small fort on the banks of the James River, it soon blossomed into a bustling village after a few unfortunate mishaps.
Jamestown is where America began, our deepest roots. Comparatively, any other city is sprawl. Certainly the early Indians saw it that way. Here were some of the country’s earliest row houses, the holy grail of urban development. What’s more, Jamestown’s inhabitants frequently reused materials from old structures when building anew. Some even had small farms. Everything hipsters are trying to accomplish today, colonists were successfully doing 4 centuries ago.
So why did we ever bother to move on? Why didn’t we just build up Jamestown?
(Edited. Original photo by Ken Lund.)
One problem was location. Situated on a island, Jamestown was a highly defensible port, but that’s about where its geographic strengths ended. Farming was difficult. The land was swampy and mosquito-infested, the water almost undrinkable without modern filtration systems. And as if that wasn’t enough, the Powhatans had seemingly made it their goal to turn the English settlers into a subservient tribe of gunsmiths (the English, in turn, demanded obscene amounts of food and land from the Indians in exchange for trinkets).
Yet Jamestown persevered. Though thousands died, thousands more lived. The Virginia Company of London, the outfit funding the initial operation, kept throwing men and money at Jamestown, desperate to establish a base from which the company could exploit the vast riches of the New World. Tobacco cultivation, pioneered by John Rolfe, brought financial stability to the settlement, and laws forcing merchant ships to dock in Jamestown made it a busy shipping port.
Two events, however, did Jamestown in: 1. England revoked the Virginia Company of London’s charter in the 1624, taking sole control of its American possessions. Jamestown, rather than a center of an important commercial enterprise, was now but a cog in an expanding British Empire. 2. Nathaniel Bacon. When he led a group of rebellious farmers into Jamestown and burned it down in 1676, the Virginia government was forced to reconvene at Middle Plantation, now known as Williamsburg. Though Jamestown was rebuilt, it never regained its former stature and the capital was permanently moved to Williamsburg in 1699.
Jamestown quickly faded into obscurity. Soon, it was unremarkable rural area, practically forgotten. What remained was gradually lost to neglect.
(Edited. John Smith was arguably the first hipster. How could we neglect his legacy? Photo by Freddycat1.)
Meanwhile, the world around Jamestown boomed. A great nation was born, America, with major cities popping up from sea to shining sea. When we finally decided to try and preserve Jamestown in the 1890s, our heritage, about all that was left was an old church tower and the ruins of a mansion.
Miraculously, archaeologists eventually uncovered numerous brick foundations, which were then covered again and reconstructed on site for tourists. It creates a sense of place, sure, but at the end of the day Jamestown is just a park – though probably our country’s best – with gently rolling grass and artfully spaced trees.
(Edited. Original photo by Ken Lund.)
But in it, my friends, I see more than that. I see the glimmering beauty of possible gentrification.
Turn back dear hipsters, I say, from your bloated, distant cities. Come hither to the center of this country, our original, true port of entry. Concentrate development. Together, we’ll laugh at the suburbs and heap scorn upon the tourist trap of Williamsburg, where we’ll venture only on occasion to score the purest MDMA from that shady dude in breeches. But that’s it.
Who’s with me?
May Jamestown’s historic taverns serve craft brews, its ancient streets give way to the fixed speed bicycle!