A white Chevy glides into the afternoon sun, through the maelstrom of Tysons Corner, bound for Loudoun County. From the shotgun seat, a man peers at the universe of new beyond the windows.
"Look at this stuff, look at this stuff," Richard Moe says softly, repeating himself as he does when amazed. "Famous Route 7."
Route 7 is an asphalt IV tube, feeding growth into quadrants that morph radically between your last visit and your next. It's a place giddy with establishments serving America since early today and with houses sheltering their very first owners.
To find Richard Moe in communities this freshly baked is to find Martha Stewart at Wrestlemania. Moe runs the National Trust for Historic Preservation, patron of things venerable. He works out of an 83-year-old Beaux-Arts marvel of a building downtown that has no competitors along Route 7 and probably never will. If George Washington ever bedded down out here, the site is a Blockbuster now.
But in his mind, if not in the flesh, this is where Moe spends much of his days, in raw suburbia, in the world of all the Route 7s of the nation, whatever their number or name. Moe has taken his history-keen bunch into the thick of the hot national chat we're having about sprawl and added its prestige to calls for a saner way to grow. The Trust pushes legislation and programs. It urges officialdom to repent. And it baffles, or did, some of its own members.
"There were people," says Constance E. Beaumont, the Trust's director of state and local policy, "who said, 'What does this have to do with historic preservation?' "
Get ready. It's a big answer.
Sprawl, to Moe, robs Americans of intangibles every bit as worthy of salvation as any old house or storied battlefield. Things like neighborliness, beauty, a sense of living in a town with a flavor all its own. Sprawl consigns them to time-gobbling commutes and indistinguishable landscapes.
"You see fast-food outlets and office parks and shopping malls rising out of vast barren plains of asphalt," Moe said in a California speech nearly three years ago. "You see residential subdivisions spreading like inkblots, obliterating forests and farms in their relentless march across the landscape. You see cars, thousands of them, moving sluggishly down the broad ribbons of pavement or halting in frustrated clumps at choked intersections or parked in glittering rows in front of every building. You see a lot of activity, but not much life. You see the graveyard of livability."
Who could stand it?
"That's rhetoric that gets us nowhere," Charlie Ruma, president of the National Association of Home Builders, says of Moe's words. "I don't think Richard Moe, if he's making these statements, understands the American people. . . . I see American families enjoying where they're living."
That's the thing about the suburbs. They fulfill basic needs. They're affordable. They're safe. Their schools are good, houses big, governments efficient. They offer a bit of earth to garden. Bowie or Capitol Hill? A snap choice for most folk. Moe and the Trust might have an easier time fighting the national addiction to chocolate.
A Vision of Community
Three things, according to Moe, about Americans:
We like to move.
We like the new.
We believe land and resources will never run out.
So we're always swapping where we live for where hardly anybody does. We left the East to conquer the West. Now we leave the cities and inner suburbs to subjugate nearby field and forest.
"Oh, there it is, there it is," Moe says, spotting an encapsulation of all this.
Alongside Route 7 is an old, discarded barn. The silo bears a newer sign, red with white letters: "Now Selling." It's not the barn being marketed. It's the single-family homes around it, assembly line stuff. It's as if the barn has been granted clemency as a token of old Virginia.
"Kids are going to come along some day and say, 'Mommy, what's that?' " Moe says, but he's kidding.
Moe lived in a suburb once. But it was Chevy Chase, which hardly counts because it's been old forever. Now he lives in Washington, in part to show he's no sprawler but a true city guy who walks the talk. But he says he's not contemptuous of those who call suburbia home.
"Obviously, people should exercise choices," he says, stopping to better inspect the incongruous marriage of barn and subdivision. "I'm not critical of people who live here. I'm critical of public officials who allow this to happen."
Because it isn't living, he says.
Whatever happened to arresting architecture? To town squares? To the serendipity of bumping into a friend as you walk home from an errand and swapping the news? To spending more time with family than car? Whatever happened to Duluth? Moe grew up in Duluth, in a neighborhood that had corner stores and sidewalks, in a household that had only one car at a time.
"He has a vision," says Julian Scheer, a communications consultant and an old friend, "of seeing neighborhoods, people sitting on stoops and kids playing stickball, and neighbors walking across the street to talk to neighbors."
It's corny, except most of us would probably love to live that vision. It's what you might expect from someone whom friends describe as old-fashioned, fond of history and raised in the no-flash, good-government ways of Minnesota. Moe's ancestry is Norwegian and "we tend to be frugal," he says. Frugality, in fact, is at the core of his anxiety about sprawl.
The nation, Moe says, already has places to live--its cities and inner suburbs--and already has paid for the sewers there, and the gas lines, streets, schools, libraries. By moving and sprawling, it walks away from its investment--actually, it drives away--to pay anew for infrastructure farther out. What national profligacy. Sprawl, Moe says, "is not a liberal issue. It's not a conservative issue. It's a waste issue."
And one of community. Moe's favorite notion may be community, not in the sense of a place on the map but a place in the heart. Community is links to each other, to a past, to a spot. It is, Moe says, "a sense of belonging, of being part of something, of shared experience. . . . People feel good about being there." And he doubts you can easily get community in places as new, as cookie-cutter, as diffused as our fresh suburbs.
Harry McPherson, a Johnson administration official and an old friend, says Moe imagines "a rather more orderly and more sensible and more caring country. . . . He's got a very--I wouldn't say artistic sense--but it's an aesthetic sense, of what America should be and what it shouldn't be."
Moe is 62, of medium build, a man whose face and hair share a pale tone. He has three adult children. He has a weekend home by a Calvert County creek, and a boat to fish the Chesapeake Bay with his wife. He does not have the national urge to reveal too much of the inner self.
"Dick really has that sort of pre-baby-boomer-generation sense of decency and decorum and politeness," says Carter Wilkie, a government official in Boston with whom Moe wrote a book on counteracting sprawl. And Scheer says that in a hot-rhetoric, big-ego town, Moe "has been a very civil person for three decades. . . . His values seem to be very deep-rooted in the country, in the Midwest, in Washington, in American history and politics."
He comes out of Minnesota's Democrat-Farmer-Labor tradition, arriving in Washington in 1972 to serve as then-Sen. Walter Mondale's administrative assistant and becoming his chief of staff when Mondale became Jimmy Carter's vice president in 1977. No one can spend that much time in capital politics without irritating somebody, but it's a task to find anyone who will say a discouraging word about Moe. He seems the rare combatant who can keep disagreements professional.
Mark Pacala, a former Disney Corp. official who encountered Moe several times when Disney proposed the creation of a theme park in Northern Virginia, calls Moe "a real class act," even though the Trust fought the park relentlessly. "It was enjoyable being around him," Pacala said.
When he arrived at the Trust in 1993 from a law firm he had joined after leaving government, Moe's love of community and the older things hadn't coalesced into concern about sprawl, he says. But they soon did. And he credits Constance Beaumont.
Once upon a time, the Trust did "house museums," Moe says. Find a historic house. Make it a museum. Its efforts expanded long ago to saving neighborhoods, downtowns and small burgs. To Beaumont and others, though, those efforts weren't enough. The great job-and-commerce engine that is suburban sprawl was vacuuming the daylights out of the grand old cities and rolling over the small towns and quaint rural vistas. Saving an architectural gem--saving an entire block of them--began to seem futile if everybody in the neighborhood had bailed for Levittown.
"The surroundings have got to have an economic pulse," Beaumont says. "If that pulse is being killed by the gravitation of stores and offices, and all of the would-be users of the buildings have moved out to sprawlburg, if all of that investment is sucked out and gone to the edge of town, what are you left with? . . . Private property owners cannot maintain and rehabilitate and make a go of it if the entire urban economy is crumbling around them."
Sprawl isn't as obvious a threat to cities as the urban renewal demolitions of the '60s. It's a more insidious one, unfolding slowly, over the horizon. To preserve what's old, the unfolding argument went, you have to combat what's new.
"Nobody had quite articulated this before," Moe says. "I mean, the sprawl was out there, growth was out there, and we knew it was impacting existing communities, but nobody had really quite put it together."
The new emphasis in the Trust's philosophy became nationally visible when it placed all of Vermont on its annual list of endangered historic sites because growth threatened to overwhelm the state's lovely towns. It became nationally famous in 1994, when the Trust threw itself in front of Disney's desire for a new entertainment complex in Prince William County.
No historic buildings were at the proposed location. Nothing of note had happened there. What was threatened, then? "We did it on the grounds that it was the collateral development emanating in all directions," Moe says. The ticky and tacky of fast food, malls and subdivisions would inevitably follow a project so big, transforming a lovely countryside little changed since the armies of the Civil War contested it.
It was a coming-out of a sort.
"A lot of people who had supported the Trust for years just never dreamed that you'd have had the Trust on the front lines," Scheer says, adding: "All of a sudden, they were in a street fight, and not only that, in a street fight with Mickey Mouse."
"I guess if there was a moment, that was a moment of transition and change," says Nancy Campbell, chairwoman of the Trust's board. "It was taking on an American icon. The outcome was by no means certain."
Eventually, Disney beat a retreat, although hardly because of the Trust's efforts alone. But ever since, the Trust has risen in prominence in the sprawl wars, maybe because it is not a gang of greenies predictably opposing developers, but a very Establishment bunch under a very serious guy. If this leader of this organization is troubled by this issue, this must be serious.
"He may not be the Rachel Carson of this movement," Scheer says of Moe, "but if there are four or five people who are sort of responsible for bringing the issue to the front, I think he's one of them. And I suspect he's going to be the person most people turn to."
"What's been real special about Dick Moe," says Chris Miller, executive director of the Piedmont Environmental Council, "is that he's a progressive thinker and a big thinker and he's been willing to take the lead in expressing, 'Hey, guys, we've got a problem here.' "
The Reality of Sprawl
"Am I in favor of sprawl?" Charlie Ruma says. "Absolutely. Somebody has to wave the flag for what 80 percent of Americans want."
The home builders association's president grew up in Boston, with bad schools and crime, and the day his family moved to the suburbs "was one of the greatest days of our lives. I have to tell you, my mother cried."
There are others, too, who don't share the laments about sprawl. In a March article in the New Republic, Gregg Easterbrook fingered an ugly reason some Americans move to the suburbs: to escape minorities. But that's not the sole reason: "Detached homes, verdant lawns, lower crime rates--for many millions of Americans, including many millions of minority Americans, such things represent a lifelong dream," Easterbrook wrote. "People of all races seek the sprawled areas because that's what they like."
And George Will:
"Seventy-five percent more families live in suburbs than in cities because they like using the freedom conferred by the automobile to make their habitats in low-density communities," the columnist wrote recently. "This preference has long dismayed many liberals, who rather resent the automobile, which allows ordinary people to move around without the supervision of liberals."
Another verity of the suburbs is that people do make community-like connections. On soccer fields, if not in bistros; at homeowner association meetings, if not in town squares. To some critics, Moe and others are elitists who would deny opportunity to the masses through social engineering.
But even Ruma says of sprawl:
"Now, are there problems associated with it? Absolutely. Is it possible to do it a better way? I think so."
Maybe the sides aren't so far apart.
Like Ruma, Moe thinks it's possible to build better suburbs. He doesn't want to ban them. He's not anti-growth. He knows that, short of proscribing procreation, there will always be more people and they will have to live somewhere. Nor is he out to deny a family's right to live in a home on a half-acre.
"This is America," he says.
But he pleads guilty to wanting to shape where and how people live. Government policy always reflects society's priorities, he says. And so, to combat sprawl, the Trust backs legislation to foster public and private investment in cities. It backs policies, like Maryland's, to steer public funds for roads and such toward "smart growth" areas. And the Trust's own "Main Street" program, now in 40 states, helps local groups refurbish downtowns to make them palatable alternatives, a step into the future through a step into the past.
As much as anything, though, Moe's tool is talk.
Using the Trust's prestige and visibility, he argues that sprawl is not inevitable, not the only choice. He argues that residential sprawl is so affordable because government underwrites it through highways and utility lines. It practically requires it, he says, through zoning that mandates huge parking lots, deep setbacks and wide streets, and a strict segregation of residences, shops and offices. Governments don't create inviting public places. They don't encourage sensible, old-time design. They don't emphasize investing in older communities and the cities.
Ah, the cities.
"I get much more excited here," Moe says.
Than out there, on Route 7. He is walking. With Beaumont, he's strolling west on U Street NW toward 13th in Shaw. The housing stock is so fine. The sidewalks are alive. The Metro's right here. Shops are, too. Cities are so efficient, intimate, strollable.
"People love neighborhoods like this," Moe says.
People do. But enough to move?
The anti-sprawl movement can't make people racially tolerant. Or make city schools better, city crime less and city government more efficient. Or make the nice city neighborhoods affordable. The suburbs remain mighty tempting chocolate.
And yet . . .
Maybe not as tempting as before. Few topics are sizzling hotter than the quality of suburban life and growth, as if there's been some grand jelling of frustration with traffic and blandness even among suburbanites. By the Trust's count, 240 stop-sprawl initiatives were on ballots last year, and 29 governors talked of growth in speeches this year. Congress has held hearings and Al Gore's jumped aboard.
Maybe it's catching, Moe's notion of preserving character, beauty, neighborliness.
"I defy anyone," he says, "to show me a sense of community in a strip mall."
CAPTION: A sign on this barn along Route 7 in Loudoun County ironically heralds the spread of suburbia.
CAPTION: (Photo ran in an earlier edition) The Cascades in Loudoun County. "You see a lot of activity, but not much life," Moe says of subdivisions. Many disagree.