I recently returned to my hometown of eight years (the longest our family has stayed in a place, and decidedly our final root-system), after a stint of living in Manhattan. And I found myself investigating its sense of place: What is the health of localism in Waxhaw, North Carolina?
Of course, what, in the name all good things, is localism? A good question: a question which needs an essay (truly, several essays) to flesh out. In the meantime, let us consider Waxhaw, and see if something like an answer starts to emerge.
Located within the middle-southern curve of North Carolina, the town of Waxhaw dates back to 1889. It’s an in-between sort of place; consider the geography. Thirty minutes southeast is Andrew Jackson park, named after our seventh president, known for his democratic fervor. Thirty minutes northwest is the rising, crystalline point of the city of Charlotte, named after Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, queen of the United Kingdom and wife of King George III. Waxhaw exists between democractic Jack and her royal highness.
In downtown Waxhaw, planted on either side of a bisecting train-track, are the town’s pubs, restaurants, an antique shop, a coffeehouse (and roaster), a women’s club, an art gallery for local artists, a bike shop, a hardware store, and the rest.
A proper history of Waxhaw, I’m unprepared to write. And I don’t think it should fit into an essay. I grew up with its July 4th parades, with friends at the well-respected JAARS headquarters, and have sipped more than a few cups at Crossroads Coffee and Roasting-house. Waxhaw is my local town. I’ve seen it grow, change, age. I’ve seen its commerce, its community, its churches spread, thicken, merge, exist.
But something got my attention this summer when I visited, home from college. One image to introduce it:
Turn onto Shannon Road – once the warpath of the Waxhaws, whose winding and straightening course is today the same, only paved over for cars – and drive easily a little through the tunnel of deciduous green; the pillars, arches, and ceiling of a long passageway into some fairy’s forest. At the far end of this natural narthex, over a small bridge where the creek can sometimes flood over, if we could stop the car on the road to look out, we could see a contrast on display. On the right side of the road is a wide and deep clearing into the forest: about 50 acres worth, planted to corn. This we especially notice during May, when the farmer lays over the field a mushroom compost for the approaching season. Dead fish smell lovelier; this stuff shocks the nostrils. Yet, in late July and June, the corn-stalks feed from the enriched soil and generous sky. And often we’ll watch the farmer harvest two, even three, cycles of corn in one season.
To the left of the road and up, built upon a hill, is the street of a recent housing development. A few words to describe the architecture: vinyl siding, duplicate floor-plans, sand-colored driveways, no real front porches, perhaps short walk-ins, a spot near the beginning of the road where the children gather for the yellow bus; on and on for as long as the road goes up and over the short hill.
Before another car turns in behind us and we have to drive on, take another moment to look left then right, and consider. Does something similar stand on one and the other side of other streets in other towns across the country? What lies here, looking at each other across black asphalt?
Along Waxhaw-Indian Trail Road, from which we turned left onto Shannon Road, to one side rolls the quintessential cow pasture, complete with a brown brick farmhouse settled far from the road; long grass and a short pond in the distant, the “back forty” (the whole pasture is in the hundreds of acres). Trees grow thick-trunked and round-canopied, ornamentally decorating the landscape. It is a place you might find on the outskirts of the Shire.
To the right of the farm, over a dividing, high, wooden fence is a shopping center in one section of a busy intersection. Across the road from the farm are conveniently placed houses (conveniently close to the shops, that is). The farmer sits, we can be sure, upon valuable land. To his sides and for his front-porch view, there’s something less agricultural, less neighborly, something oddly contrasting.
History, also, seems to stand against something like suburbia or modernity. Weddington and Waxhaw-Indian Trail Road make an intersection, and three of that intersection’s four quadrants now have shops for all your needs, real and acquired: pharmaceutics, groceries, cosmetics, clothing, fast (and slower) food, and the rest. At the corner of the fourth quadrant, alone and caught dramatically in the gapping mouth of the shops, is Siler Presbyterian Church, est. 1895. It remains. The laws of North Carolina declare its property to be historical, and therefore not up for sale or re-appropriation. What would have become of the Church, at what handsome price, and how soon, otherwise?
What story is caught in the mesh, what seems collides in these intersections?
Then it seemed to me, that Waxhaw spreads – and is this the theme of more than Waxhaw? Is this the pattern of modern, American towns to be so spread? – into something like a quilt: a quilt which sews these unsettling juxtapositions into surprisingly intimate designs.
Few towns, it seems, have devolved completely into shopping centers; few have returned to their former status as genuine local communities. Some have. Most stand somewhere in-between. Most towns have two cultural expressions looking across at each other. Most places, it seems, have this pattern: across from the manufactured, the agricultural; across from the fluorescent fast food, the window into a home’s glowing dining table; across from suburbia, the farmhouse. This is at least the moment of Waxhaw.
I might here begin to lament how suburbia has won, or how localism is struggling, or that we’re doing well enough with what’s we’re up against. I could finish with meek defeatism, “the shops keep growing, without stop.” or mild rebellion, “like the farmer, we shouldn’t sell our land to consumerism.” I could answer that way, and would be responsible for the implication: what we see is the extent of what there is.
Those juxtapositions are the noticeable things, and precisely the wrong things to feel when looking for Waxhaw’s pulse. It would be to check someone’s clothing to find out whether they were alive, their sheets to find out whether they were asleep, their mustache to find out whether they were masculine. I’m grateful people wear something when they go out, and cover themselves with something when they sleep, and I’d be grateful if I could grow a mustache. But I assure you, with my naked upper-lip, that I am masculine. We’d be mistaken to confuse the clothes for what’s essential, the fabric for what’s flesh, the sheet for what’s dormant, the mustache for the soul. But some things are wonderfully accidental. Clothes, sheet, mustache: how a person appears gives an unfinished description of who he is.
So, perhaps in another form, what is the state of Waxhaw’s soul?
Look inside. Meet the neighbors, be invited into their homes, go inside, and see how families enjoy the meals and arguments come from strong affection. Go into the shopping center and hear how often the customer knows the clerk’s name, how often someone goes into the bank or fast-food instead of using the drive-thru, just so they can catch up with the server. Consider whether the farms have regular customers, and consider how the purchase of tomatoes will drift into a conversation about good books to read. Do the baristas know the orders of those who arrive in the morning? Do the grocery-boys hang out afterwords? Does the church hold pot-luck dinners? Do cul-de-sacs host block parties?
Suburbia, localism, tradition, modernity – these words have lost their usefulness if they can’t help answer the more serious question: how’s the soul? Concerning Waxhaw’s soul, and this I do think pertains to localism’s (much needed) definition, often it is quite apart from their surroundings that people remember and make special efforts to use each other’s names. This, more than their clothing or the architecture that they inhabit, says something of their spirit. A neighborhood may have the most traditional history and yet have no resident who knows another but for their passing car; or it may have a modern, suburban look, and people who know each other’s names, the names of their kids, the names of their problems and joys. Names known have the influence to change architecture, as much as what lies within the soul has the power to keep or contort or redeem the body.