“This is not cool, man.“
“This is bullshit is what it is.“
“At least they left us our tire swing.“
“Well at this point it’s really just a tire.“
My friend and I stood at the end of the trail that once led to our old stomping ground in the hills above his house. We’d discovered it back in third grade on one of our outings, and, now 14, had returned every summer since. But what appeared before us now was neither ours nor ground (though it was certainly stomped). And that didn’t sit well with either of us.
The trail led to a clearing in the forest about a half mile up from his backyard. Arising suddenly from the thick Manzanita undergrowth and black oaks, the break in the brush and canopy opened up to a view of the valley and plain hundreds of feet below; we could see our houses, our school and the S-shaped sidewalk that never did look quite right from the ground.
Directly behind the vista point there was a small meadow about the size of a baseball diamond surrounded by Douglas fir, the relative youth of the place broken only by a giant oak that surely pre-dated the Union. A bit further on were outcroppings of granite boulders, winding deer trails and a creek that usually ran until May, leaving behind a narrow ravine over summer.
Over the years we hauled up plywood and four by fours to build a fort, a dilapidated bench and table, and some rope and an old Firestone for a tire swing. A lantern hung from a crude hook in the fort’s ceiling for when our parents let us camp out.
The time we spent there defined my passage into adolescence. We talked about our first crushes and our first heartbreaks. We learned how to use a hammer and a level. We learned the difference between centipedes and millipedes, flies and horse flies, gardener snakes and rattlesnakes.
He told me about the divorce. I told him about the drinking. We got cuts and scrapes and bruises on our palms, on our legs and most importantly on our egos.
Not only did we grow up there, but it grew up with us. The caterpillars turned to butterflies with the seasons, and the trees that we dwarfed just six years ago now dwarfed us. We saw generations of birds use the same nesting sites, and the same bobcat had been patrolling the area at least as long as we had.
But now, as my friend and I stood at end of that trail, what lay before us looked more like Mordor than the Calvin and Hobbes wilderness we remembered.
We saw a dusty, gray landscape torn apart by man and machine. We saw bobcats and caterpillars of an entirely different sort; bulldozers, backhoes, dump trucks. Everywhere we saw roots twisting up through the detritus as though gasping for breath. And gone, too, was the soundtrack of the forest’s contests; the droning buzz of insects, the woodpecker’s staccato, the rustling leaves punctuated by silence.
All that remained now was the wind; carrying dust from one corner of the desolation to another, as though it mattered where it went.
And lying at our feet like a corpse was our tire swing; the severed rope draped limply over the tread.
What my friend and I didn’t know until later was that there were people interested in this place long before we were. The city council for one, and the developers who financed their campaigns, wore their wedding rings and sent their kids to the same private schools for another. It was “prime real estate,“ they said; a growth opportunity, an unused resource. And over the next few years, we saw what happened when an unused opportunity gets realized.
With the council’s blessing, the meadow of our childhood was plowed, paved and partitioned into sprawling suburbia, complete with 3,000 square foot stucco houses crammed onto a quarter of an acre (starting in the “low“ $600s), gated communities, homeowners associations and backyard pools and vineyards.
We called it the city on a hill.
Because when Jesus told his followers, “You are the light of the world; a city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden,“ the destruction of natural ridgelines and incessant light pollution probably weren’t what he had in mind.
But all’s fair in love and interpreting the Bible.
So those who came to this mount seemed to have heard an entirely different sermon; one of vanity, entitlement, consumption. Truly, they were the light of the world, and they did not intend to hide it.
Normally, the hillside development ordinance and general plan would have required such a project to follow certain regulations; the ridgeline could not be broken, homes would be “stepped“ to follow the natural grade, trees replanted and materials selected to match the surroundings and minimize visibility.
But the city had approved their temple under “planned community“ zoning, which allowed developers to skirt those regulations. The result: a scattershot collection of hill-top McMansions where steady stands of forest once stood visible from over 10 miles away.
There was outrage, of course, but the uproar wasn’t much of a concern to Mayor Janet Condron who dismissed it blithely: “At this point, the houses are built and there’s not much we can do.“
Thus, the city gave developers carte blanche. And it’s no wonder; they bankrolled around three quarters of the $24 million project, taking the burden off the city and then passing costs on to homebuyers (who could, around that time, get a negatively amortizing adjustable rate mortgage with no money down).
The result was the scarred earth policy my friend and I faced at the end of that trail. And it was by no means unique; the pattern of deception and destruction was repeated without hesitation across the country, incentivized by the lending and securitization practices that currently cripple Wall Street.
Then as now, all that was left to do was to take stock and press on. So after some time of standing in silence, my friend reached down for the Firestone and motioned for me to do the same.
We left dragging our tire through underbrush and grass, over rocks and dirt, hoping that there was still somewhere else to go; hoping that they hadn’t taken everything.
At least not yet.
K.C. CODY waxes lyrical: And the path that once was lit, by the moon and the Milky Way/ will never again be traveled, because progress is always paved. Wax lyrical back to firstname.lastname@example.org.