Lamenting the post-tornado development of Tuscaloosa.

The plan for Tuscaloosa’s future.

Since the tragedy of the 2011 tornadoes, Tuscaloosa has been rebuilding itself in accordance with the Tuscaloosa Forward Plan, a visionary document filled with the trendiest and most attractive aspects of sustainable development. Only the gnarliest curmudgeon would find the plan’s designs unappealing.

The description of a winding greenway, lined with trees and sidewalks, connecting various parts of the town, opening the possibility of increased pedestrian and bicycle transport, was thrilling. Alas, areas previously designated for the greenway are now being sold to developers in the process of building yet another fancy Melrose-Place type apartment for university students. While it’s nice that today’s college students will have the opportunity to live in what could only have been sitcom-style luxury during my college years, all the massive new buildings and apartments are edifices of transience- a tremendous outlay intended to make fast money from temporary residents of what no longer feels like a town.

Of course, “community” is not much of a concern to outside developers. Orlando’s Pat Chisholm threatened the City Council with what might arise in the stead of his plan for a Hilton hotel in a heart of downtown Tuscaloosa. Unfortunately, Chisholm’s one-track mind fails to see the costs of more hotels for local hotel owners- he has only to drive a few miles to see at least four abandoned hotels and lodging areas along McFarland Boulevard. And, of course, why should he care? Chisholm just wants to “develop Tuscaloosa”, to “help recovery”, to “provide consumers with the best possible product” and maybe to make a little money on the side.

Filed as an LLC in the state of Florida on October 14, Chisholm’s “The Balcony Tuscaloosa” promises to add nothing that does not already exist- except money that will flow into Florida, of course. And maybe a little cash for local contractors over a brief period of time.

But it’s complicated, this rebuilding process. Part of the complexity comes from the very fact that Tuscaloosa needs to be “rebuilt” in the first place. All the associations and memories related to specific places- all the insider landmarks and pieces of local history, all the evocations- must be reforged as well. In addition to the horrors of physical destruction, natural disaster tears open a hole in our sense of community and shared history.

Walking through the treeless streets of east Tuscaloosa where the ground was covered in power lines and homes turned to rubble, we were all disoriented- nothing we knew stayed the same. It was hard to recognize our “place” amid the turmoil and destruction. So many brave people, groups and individuals, struggling to find and create a new context in which the stories of Tuscaloosa lives could continue. So many humans fighting despair with a unassailable, generative hope. So many community activists finding ways to serve people outside their social circles and economic milieus. It was all the more stunning because the sentiments, undergirded by this fantastic hope- were genuine.

So it is all the more disturbing to see the endless assortment of lifestyle apartments and condos lining the streets. All the more wrenching to see the plethora of empty lots in Alberta City abandoned by businesses who can no longer afford to build or rent there. All the more disappointing to discover that, well, it’s just business as usual here in Tuscaloosa, Alabama- and business as usual, of course, explains why the wealthy and the poor inhabit different parts of town.

Our values rub shoulders with our personal desires. A better way to express this would be to admit that we are so rarely ready with our recyling box that we find ourselves having to drive it to the drop-off rather than putting it out for the waste management companies to pick up. And that’s on a good week. We are less perfect than we presume. Teaching my kids about sustainable living is a constant reminder that we could be living more sustainably. While we’ve managed to get rid of paper towels and napkins, we still can’t get our act together on recycling. No one is perfect. If you catch yourself thinking that you might be the exception, sit down and read some Howard Zinn with your kids. That ought to clear your mind real quickly.

The inequality continues. The uneven distribution of educational resources diminishes the likelihood of the neighborhood schools which would require less cross-town traffic and less air pollution. Those who aren’t zoned for Rock Quarry set their hearts on the Tuscaloosa Magnet School. Again, there are no easy answers. Every parent wants the best for their children. Every parent hopes their child will do “better” and accomplish more. Yet some children, born into families without money and time, are trapped by the inequality of opportunity. Every time a child hears adults complaining about “welfare moms” or “single moms”, he is taught that kids from families on welfare are worthy of his scorn. Few parents say this directly, but no child is so dumb as to misunderstand the difference between what we say publicly and what we mutter in the privacy of our own homes.

Marian Wright Edelmen, one of the most inspiring Americans that comes to mind, has always argued that being born into money is a matter of luck, not value. We agree in theory, but our actions often contradict our beliefs. It is living among other people- some richer, some poorer- that weaves a web of shared concerns and identity. We live in communities. Sometimes these communities prevent us from loving others in the world.

Sometimes those communities require rebuilding. Sometimes those communities are torn in half by special interests who see dollar signs where others see a park for their grandchildren. And sometimes the profitable option is not the ethical one.

As more condos and apartments sprout up to replace the trees torn down by the tornados, I wonder why not even tragedy teaches us the value of a tree. The homo sapiens sapiens has left a legacy of destruction and devastation across the planet. Just say the words “improved property values” and everyone will leave their ethics at the door. It’s hard to be hopeful when I look around at where the post-tornado planning has left us in East Tuscaloosa and Alberta City. One thing is certain- the hope always returns. And the way in which it returns has nothing to do with the promises of local politicians and everything to do with the way my kids gobble up everything still beautiful in our world.

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