Glenn Uminowicz - September 2009


It’s Harvest Time in Ruburbia
Glenn Uminowicz

Where is this curious landscape of clashing images, this zone of hay and Harvard graduates, of pigs and Porsches, of pancake breakfasts and imported cheeses? This is ruburbia, a geographical mezzanine between the rural and the suburban.
– From J.D. Reed, “Welcome to Ruburbia,” Time magazine
(September 12, 1983)

   Can you get behind the wheel of your car and see a big cornfield just yards away through the windshield? Within ten minutes, can you be at a Starbucks ordering a latte? If you can, then you are living in “ruburbia.”
    In 1983, Time magazine columnist J.D. Reed coined the term to describe areas on the American landscape that retained their rural character while also exhibiting suburban development. The Eastern Shore may well stand among the nation’s first examples of ruburbanization.
    In the late 1920s, for example, the Talbot County Chamber of Commerce produced a promotional brochure entitled Talbot: The HEART of the Eastern Shore. The publication began with “AN INVITATION TO YOU” from the Chamber, presented as a series of questions. Are you a farmer? Then moderately priced productive farms near urban markets could be had. Are you a city man? Beautiful waterfront home sites were there for the taking.
    Tourists could access the Shore on concrete or tarred macadam roads to enjoy a stay at a boardinghouse or hotel catering to the needs of “summer vacation-seeking folks.” The county’s long coastline proved a paradise for yachtsmen. Hunting and saltwater fishing awaited sportsmen. Epicures feasted on rockfish, oysters, crabs, quail and duck, along with fresh fruits, vegetables and poultry with a finer flavor than they would have the next day in city markets.
    Not everyone, however, proved welcome on the Shore. The Chamber’s brochure posed the question: Are you a real estate speculator? The reply read, “Frankly, we don’t want you! We will use every effort to prevent any wild ‘boom’ with temporary inflated values and a final smash.” The answer was an obvious reference to the Florida land boom of the early 1920s. Audacious developers actively promoted Florida real estate to eager investors across the nation. Property values soared. Eventually, however, speculators intent on flipping properties found it difficult to entice new buyers, as negative reports concerning Florida investments began to appear in publications like Forbes magazine.
    In January 1925, the real estate bubble burst. In contrast to the Sunshine State, the Talbot Chamber expressed its resolve to “safeguard the investments of those who come to make their homes in Talbot County.”
    The Chamber also sought to correct popular misconceptions about the Eastern Shore. Its brochure included a testimonial from a city man who had built a waterfront home fifteen years earlier. He had always visualized the Shore as “a sort of backwater of civilization—marshes, sand dunes, log cabins and oxcarts.” In fact, he discovered that Talbot County sported a country club, yacht clubs, and several movie theaters. With its fine old gardens and mansions, the area exhibited “eighteenth-century charm linked to twentieth-century progress.”
    Retaining local community character stands among the attractions of ruburban life for newcomers. In 1983, Reed observed, “The ruburbs retain specific flavors, unlike the homogenized suburbs.”
    In addition to commuters, the ranks of ruburbanites swelled as home computers freed increasing numbers of professionals from daily treks to the office. The ruburbs also offered an alternative to “retirement meccas where senior citizens shuffleboard toward the inevitable, surrounded only by mirror images of their decline.” In short, ruburban communities retained an authentic sense of place and relative diversity in terms of the age range and backgrounds of their populations.
    That diversity, however, sometimes resulted in conflict. Reed noted that Federal-era and Victorian homes provide variety in ruburban housing stock, unlike the uniformity of suburban architecture. Like historic clashes on the American frontier, he observed that ruburban standoffs often concerned land.
    He wrote, “The environmentalists sweep into town from the cities, demanding that nothing change. Movements to create historic districts are started by ruburban newcomers who want codes to protect the small-town flavor that drew them there in the first place. But longtime residents proclaim their right to add vinyl siding and aluminum tool sheds to their property.”
    The “clash-of-culture” tales between natives and newcomers include the effort by James Rouse to develop Wye Island in the 1970s. Born in 1914, Rouse spent his early years in Easton. He went on to pioneer the development of enclosed shopping malls and planned communities like Columbia, Maryland. In Wye Island: Insiders, Outsiders and Change (1987), Boyd Gibbons described Rouse as a keeper of the ruburban dream. He observed, “Jim Rouse is incurably sentimental about the upper Shore of his boyhood, its orchards and haystacks, workboats and ferries and of small-town Easton where he grew up, which lies less than eight miles south of Wye Island. Rouse still clings to those memories, hoping to make them come true for others – at a profit.”
    Boyd insisted that the main reason Rouse decided to construct housing on Wye Island was to demonstrate that sensitive shoreline development could protect the environment and still accommodate the increasing numbers of families migrating to the Shore. The response by native Eastern Shore residents, however, ranged from apathy to hostility. Boyd recounted that one native told him, “The Eastern Shore used to be right nice, just farmers and watermen. Then they built this goddamn bay bridge, and now we’re invaded by a bunch of fancy investment bankers. Rouse is just going to bring in more of them. Ordinary people are gettin’ squeezed out.”
    Boyd correctly pointed out that “foreigners” had been migrating to the Shore for more than a century, purchasing stately old homes or constructing new country seats. The Talbot Chamber’s brochure demonstrates that the business community actively courted “city men” to relocate in the area. Moreover, promoting the Shore as an attractive place for urbanites and farmers was not restricted to Talbot County. In the 1920s, the Eastern Shore Association promoted all of “Del-Mar-VA” as the “Peninsula of Plenty.”
    It could be argued that James Rouse’s sensitivity toward environmental issues and his personal memories of growing up on the Shore augured well for the success of the Wye Island project. Opposition to development from Shore residents and continued environmental concerns, however, forced Rouse to abandon the project. Wye Island is now managed by the Maryland Park Service, providing suitable habitat for wintering waterfowl and native wildlife.
    In the twenty-first century, efforts continue to appeal to and accommodate farmers, transplanted urbanites, tourists, sportsmen, gourmets, environmentalists and preservationists on the Eastern Shore. The Talbot County Comprehensive Plan, for example, includes a commitment to “project the image of a rural but sophisticated region – proud of its legacy and anxious to protect its future with sound and decisive action.”
    The Stories of the Chesapeake Heritage Area encompasses Talbot, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Caroline counties. The vision for the SCHA is that it become a critical economic development tool supporting careful management of cultural resources and the appealing environment that supports the local quality of life and heritage tourism in this region.
    The SCHA recognizes that the Shore is “still beautiful, still rural, the land of pleasant living.” It has become known nationally and internationally as a place where visitors enjoy a unique combination of experiences that include interpretation of our history, landscapes, the Bay’s ecosystems, and individual communities.
    The area abounds in opportunities for outdoor recreation, cultural activities, recreational shopping and enjoying the local cuisine. In short, we may well ask, Are you a tourist? Are you an epicure? Are you a boater, birder or hunter?
    With all of the above, agriculture remains the major industry on the Shore. Both visitors and residents benefit from purchasing local produce directly from farmers at roadside stands or farmers markets. Some stands are located next to liquor stores. With one stop, you can go home with tomatoes, squash, a wedge of imported cheese and a bottle of fine brandy. This is the land of fresh cukes and good Chardonnay. The Peninsula of Plenty certainly provides for pleasant living here in ruburbia on the Eastern Shore.