What poses the greatest threat today to the Old Dominion—mother of Presidents, a state secure and renowned for precious memories and aspirations? No person or foreign power, but a vast impersonal force already despoiling cities and states around the globe, a force that I call “sploge”: unregulated, unchecked growth, fueled by the three G’s—Greed, Glitz, and Glut. It despoiled great cities like Cairo, Bombay, Rio de Janeiro, and Mexico City, then crept into the United States: Los Angeles, the New York-New Haven corridor, central New Jersey. Having infected Washington, will it move south into Virginia? How will the traffic, pollution, confusion, and congestion change our way of life?
I set out to seek answers, starting with the fast-spreading sploge already linking Blacksburg and Christiansburg on Route 460. (Three-digit highways seem to breed sploge. Have you ridden on Virginia’s 220, 301, or 360 lately?)
Just outside Blacksburg, the tightly packed line of unsold cars, fast-food outlets, service stations (which don’t give service), and ticky-tacky shanties stand doorway to doorway as cars move bumper to bumper. Passing what used to be a lovely arboretum, I reach the humbled intersection of 460 and 116: I call it Indigestion Junction, from the cluster of fast-food outlets spliced with used cars, a cemetery, a huge bowling-alley complex, and automobiles pouring in and out of the nearby Wal-Mart and Big K-Mart. Soon, I’m at another jumble where 460 meets 1-81: This speed-death trap is so sploged that the governor stationed half of the state patrol ears there. On Sunday, February 21, 1999, they gave out over 100 speeding tickets. Who can say how many they missed?
I dodge in and out of truck convoys, yearning to get to the Route 50 exit—a two-laner in Northern Virginia through Paul Mellon country that has resisted every sploge attack (at least until 50 hits Fairfax County). Mellon might well be the Virginian of the Century, not only for his philanthropy but for keeping a whole area safe and civilized: playing a major role in restoring Monticello, preserving the landscape, being a responsible Virginia citizen. He cared.
Paul Mellon graced 91 years of the 20th century. Had he lived longer, he would have faced another formidable problem—the speculative construction taking off near Dulles Airport. A new super-sploge threatens Mellon’s Northern Virginia; nearly 8.5 million square feet of office space (as much space as in downtown Miami) is being built, financed by millions of “speculative dollars.”
Fairfax County already has twice as much available office space as the downtown cores of such cities as Boston, Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta. Where will this building boom land us? “You never really know,” a key Virginia developer, Chris Walker, admits. “It’s sort of like the stock market.”
“Spec” construction is a dicey, take-a-chance scheme that can bring in big bucks—or fall flat (as it did throughout southeast Asia) and leave environmental nightmares. But even successful megaexplosion results in crowd culture, with its traffic jams, bankruptcies, legal battles, junk mail, flimflams, virtual reality, and honking horns. Push, shove, and curse; it doesn’t help. Join the crowd in this brave new world, and lose your identity.
Beware the glut, not only of cars, paper, and electronic information, but also piles of garbage. Would you believe that Virginia receives 5,000 tons a day from New York City, dumping it onto land adjacent to one of our most precious spots, William Byrd’s Westover Plantation? I had intended to go see for myself—but I haven’t the stomach for it. Instead, I take Exit 156 off of 1-95 into historic Prince William County to visit Potomac Mills—which my “fact sheet” describes as a “super-regional mall encompassing 152 acres featuring live potted foliage.” I could shorten that hyperbole to one word: sploge.
Potomac Mills—a 1.7 million-square foot center with parking spaces for over 9,000 ears—”aggressively markets” not only domestic travel, but also (again, quoting my fact sheet) “international tourism concentrating on UK, Germany, South America, Brussels, and Amsterdam.” Come one, come all—get your free shopping bags and discount coupon books with a value of over $400! Hungry? There are 23 eateries (an appropriate word), shopping-cart rentals, and hard floors “most conducive to walking.” And, of course, spending.
Are there any malls like this in other states? “Oh yes,” a well-rehearsed tour manager assures me. “We have malls in major cities all over America, and plan to expand. Who knows—we might build one near you. Where are you from?”
She drags out her map. “Never heard of it. What’s it near?” /p>
“Is that near Richmond? Oh. Here it is, just off I-81. Well, someday we may put a super-mall between Roanoke and—where did you say you live?”
“Never mind,” I reply, walking quickly away. Puzzled, but still smiling her perpetual smile, she hurries back to her pack.
Is there a future for Virginia’s past? Of course—if we help to defend, explain, and preserve it. Groups like the Preservation Alliance of Virginia can play a key role. They have a daunting task. Nearly 40 percent of those living in Virginia today are non-natives; since World War II, we have grown ten percent every ten years. It is estimated that, by the year 2030, Virginia will have a population of over eight million. What will the “Virginia tradition” mean then?
The wheeler-dealers, splogers, and mailers will dismiss my case as sentimental and nostalgic. “Get a life,” they will say. “Get off your narrow backroads onto the Information Highway. Think tomorrow!”
I have tried, and I’ve found a good deal of misinformation and virtual nonsense. I’m worried about today. I side with former University of Virginia President Edwin A. Alderman: “We Virginians are sometimes laughed at for our sensitiveness to local things and our pride of state. We will not be laughed out of these things.”
Of course, we must seek middle ground, accepting some change and inevitable growth. But we will take our stand and remember our heritage. Our traditional state song (“Carry Me Back to Old Virginia”) is gone, but the birds still warble sweet in the springtime. We intend to keep Virginia green. We will not trade our white dogwood blossoms, blushing redbuds, and masses of mountain laurel for 30 pieces of silver.
I find my car in the auto jungle and head home. To avoid I-81, I cut off on old Route 11 and travel through Salem, Shawsville, and Elliston. Later on, I might just go to Blacksburg’s community center, Abingdon’s Barter Theater, and Galax’s Fiddler’s Convention. As I pull into my driveway, a sassy blue jay chirps a greeting, and Edward, our gaudy golden retriever, comes running out, tail wagging.
It’s good to be home.