I hate Sky TV. I hate everything about it from the sales people, to the installers, to the ugly satellite dishes and cabling to the lousy programming. I am the only member of my family who feels this way. Today, after ten happy months of Sky-free living, as a concession to our youngest son for getting a job, Sky was reinstalled.
It was a really, really bad day until I read my email and found this wonderful post from Sandy, the first in a series called NoCrowds America that will talk about places where visitors to the United States can go to see and understand the America you will never, ever see on Sky TV. As Sandy puts it, check it out!
On this sacred American holiday, I present NoCrowds America with its inaugural post--a place neither Californian, nor charming in the least and not at all visually uplifting. In fact, it's not even there! But I can think of no-place more American than Soul City, North Carolina.
In the mid-1970s I wanted to find the real America and--once found--save it from itself. From my British mother, I came to appreciate the nineteenth century New Town movement, visionary Utopian plans offering working and middle-class Britons alternatives to the explosive, fetid maelstrom of London--neither exclusively urban, sub-urban nor pastoral--but free-standing communities, each an economically viable place to work, live, play. Flipping through a copy of Architectural Record one lazy day, I chanced upon an article, "A Plan for Planned American Communities". As in Jerry Maguire's famous "You had me on Hello", its opening captured my imagination: "...For in a world in which there is too little idealism, far too little concern for land planning and land use, and almost no effective social planning, new towns offer new hope. Both for the poor and for the growing body of middle-income families who search for a fresh option in their way of living."
Flipping through the pages, I came across a map highlighting each of the thirty-or-so federally-assisted and private U.S. New Towns currently under development. With a naiveté and bravado which only happily resides in the heart and mind of a callow youth of 17, I closed my eyes, made a wish and stuck a finger on my future--the place where I would make my mark on the world.
Soul City, North Carolina.
I continued to read: "Soul City's a unique new town: it is 'freestanding' in a completely undeveloped area; it is experimental in its aims, and is the only New Town with a federal HUD (Housing and Urban Development) loan sponsored by a black-owned development company." The brainstorm of Floyd W. McKissick, a moderate-cum-militant Black civil rights activist, Soul City was envisioned to house 50,000 people in multiple 'villages' by the year 2000. It was planned to be self-contained, so its residents could also work, receive health care, get schooling, recreate and worship in town. Commonly misunderstood as Afro-centric in focus, McKissick actually envisioned Soul City as a community where all races could live in harmony. Lawsuits and investigations into the use of funds by the developer, Soul City Company, resulted in foreclosure in 1979. By 1980, all that remained were 35 housing units, a healthcare clinic, a tennis court, and a pool. About 150 people were employed in the city. Perhaps a less electrifying "Big New Hope" might have been a safer name for McKissick's forlorn love-child.
Soul City was carved out of 5,000 acres on played-out tobacco fields of the Saterwhite Plantation, in Warren County, North Carolina. When I arrived in 1974, Soul City was full of great expectation, ten double-wide trailers and no discernible human population. A nearby little hamlet of Manson, off U.S. Route 158, contained a small filling station and grocery store, ramshackle, picturesque First Baptist Church and a retread tire repair shop. Most striking--now as then--are the beautiful red clay dirt which line the roadsides, a hazy blue sky only occasionally interrupted by short, monsoon-like rain deluges and a stillness and beatitude which suggests Southerners only lost the War of Northern Aggression to return the land back to its mostly fallow, uncultivated state.
Perhaps in the mind of European readers lurks a persistent distrust of Americans and things uniquely American, best expressed in the question "Why in the world go to Soul City, North Carolina", an Oz-like, mythical city of hope and racial equality which actually doesn't exist? Why visit a place where the only civilizing influence is a Perdue Chicken Hatchery and an International Paper plant?
To see Soul City in its naked, barren state, to drive its miles of paved roads which lead to nowhere, primarily used as places to dump old couches and appliances, to see its sole remaining edifice, a twenty foot high "Soul City North Carolina" sign, still carefully tended, is to see at first hand the pure love, blind trust, foolish pride which define the quintessential American mind and experience. Too often, we Americans are accused of acting exclusively out of malevolent intentions and ambitions. We see this played out daily in the streets of Baghdad, our corporate icons carelessly strewn across the world, in our disregard for other common global environmental concerns. But to see Soul City is to understand that, to an American, to want to do something is almost as important as its ill-conceived execution and final outcome. The American experiment's still alive and well, whether it be transplanted to the gleaming canyons of Michael Bloomberg's post-9-1-1 Manhattan, the ubiquity and gemütlich character of our neatly laid-out suburbs in any American metropolis, or to the backroads of this once-rural, now red-neck satellite-city development.
Check it out!
Photo courtesy of www.roadsideamerica.com which is a useful site for anyone searching for "off the beaten track" America