In the Spring of 2006, I traveled back to the small town I grew up in in Virginia to shoot a documentary about how my hometown had changed. It had been 12 years since I lived in Harrisonburg, a small town founded in 1779 in the Shenandoah Valley.
But I had visited many times, and each time I saw that something more had been lost. Like many small towns across the U.S., Harrisonburg, VA is struggling through rapid development. Most long-time residents would say it began long before I ever left, when the Valley Mall was cut into the rich, red farmland east of Interstate 81. That was in the '70s, when my mother was attending college and she can remember when there was nothing on that side of the highway but farmland. All of that has changed.
Few areas of the city remain untouched by the combination of factors conspiring to change Harrisonburg: the intense growth of James Madison University, changing from a small, women-only normal school just after the turn of the last century to a student body of more than 17,000 today; the decline of traditional agriculture as the main economic force in the city and the assent of the retail and service industries as the predominant source of jobs; and the complete reshaping of the physical landscape and the local identity and culture precipitated by the twin growth spurts of the university and the retail economy.
Even though I now lived hundreds of miles from my hometown, I felt a personal loss. I first felt this loss when the house I was brought home to as a newborn was torn down, along with those of all the neighbors I had grown up with, in order to accomodate several parking lots and office buildings for JMU. Now my actual street, Patterson St., is, as I write, being removed from the map of the city due to the building of a new academic building for the campus across the street's former entrance. My high school had been leased to JMU; the hospital I was born in has been sold to them as well.
But it wasn't just JMU's movement across Main, across 81, radiating it's growth in all directions from the city that was causing my feelings of loss--it was also that long time residents I knew were chafing against the changes and felt alienated in their own city; that when you drove out on 33 East you could literally become overwhelmed and dizzy by all the chain stores and restaurants, one after another that had cut themselves into the base of the mountains; that people couldn't afford the rents anymore; that the number of hundred year farms was shrinking dramatically; that the city was starting to take on that bland pallor of a place overrun and homogenized--the local was being pushed out by the multi-national. It was no coincident that almost everyone I interviewed, when asked how Harrisonburg had changed over their time there, catagorically exclaimed, "It's just like Northern VA!" If you're not familiar with NOVA, as it's called by it's people, it is the essence of suburban sprawl.
This was the backdrop against which I shot 40 plus interviews with a diverse group of city residents--some supportive of the changes, some against, most bewildered and uncertain about them, and also feeling the loss I felt. I felt that this story was important to tell because it is now a somewhat universal experience, occurring in small towns across the country. It felt like someone should say, "Wait, let's stop and figure this thing out. Is this really what we want?"