Sprawl or Ratchet: Prince George’s False Equivalency
Westphalia is happening. Like Konterra, National Harbor and almost anything else that gets green-lit in Prince George’s County outside of the College Park corridor over the past twenty years, it’s in the middle of nothing, equally inconvenient to six distant and practically barren Metrorail stations that are ripe for development.
The charitable explanations for this are twofold: that land in this area, which supposedly will be “transit-oriented” but not in any kind of on-the-way sense, is very cheap; as such, it is more than worthwhile to the developer to provide a LRT line or busway to Westphalia. At the same time, we could argue, PG County is desperate for redevelopment in its southern tier and will approve anything.
Yet the leadership of Prince George’s doesn’t seem to be desperate enough to zone land around most of its 15 Metro stations to support high density. I’ve long believed that this has to do with PG County’s status as a nexus of black affluence, in which middle-class black Prince Georgians desire to conform to post-war white bourgeois norms of affluence, and driving and detached housing is one of them. While I’m not unsympathetic to this, clinging to the majority norms of a generation ago becomes neurotic when these norms actively work to stifle agency as a consequence of the evolving needs of a more sustainable and pluralistic society.
As some influential Prince Georgians would see it, suburban sprawl, like patriarchal attitudes, represents a graduation to respectability, away from land use patterns they see as “ratchet” or associate with the “ghetto” from which they may have fought very hard to escape. Unfortunately, as the auto-dependent squalor of south Los Angeles or large swathes of regional Atlanta and Houston or even Iverson Mall would suggest, sprawl, wealth and security aren’t really highly correlated at all. But the ability to pay to drive around everywhere, even if it means you ultimately have to, is as much a signifier of wealth here as it is among the Buick drivers of China.
This emotional relationship between car-dependent sprawl and the signifiers of respectable black affluence, however, might in part help to explain the remarkable backlash against criticism of PG County’s development strategies, such as they are: that they’ve fought for and earned the right to make the mistakes that Loudoun County continues to make. But they are mistakes, and even if familiarity breeds contempt, Prince George’s does not have the excuse of unfamiliarity Loudoun does in continuing to plan for the prior century’s land use. It does, however, have a great opportunity to create something better than the notion of living in someone else’s dream.