PART ONE OF A TWO-PART VISIT TO ARID-ZONE USA
Human civilization has had to fight long and hard to create a safe, comfortable, clean environment, out of a vicious, dangerous and inhospitable natural world. Once you try to survive in the wilderness you quickly appreciate the safety, predictability and convenience of modern society.
Humans were, it is declared, not meant to thrive in a desert environment. Yet from such barren origins have mighty civilizations emerged: Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia and Gonorrhea.
We pay a visit to a curious residential artifice in the American Southwest, a human intrusion where discreetly-luxurious gated communities enable the privileged and the monied to live a pleasant, if highly-controlled and somewhat unreal lifestyle.
This writer has recently spent a month in a most peculiar natural setting, carved out of a rough desert setting: Anthem, Arizona. A middle-middle to upper-middle-class development, the creative endeavor of the late Del Webb, Anthem is a strictly-controlled architectural monoculture of conservative but comfortable homes set in a desert environment, centered in a natural bowl between brutal-looking mountains; the development is characterized by a policy of protecting and highlighting natural desert flora.
Around twenty-five thousand residents, mostly white, affluent and middle-class – with many elderly and retired – live in Anthem, which is described in Wikipedia as ‘Anthem was developed by Del Webb in 1999 as a master-planned community in the foothills approximately 34 miles north of downtown Phoenix. Anthem has been described as one of the best places to raise a family by Parenting magazine and one of the best family friendly neighborhoods in the Phoenix area by Phoenix Magazine.’
Now to understand Anthem, some 30km north of Phoenix, the largest city in Arizona, in a bowl of dry, rugged mountains, which are the worn-down remains of volcanoes erupting over distant millions of years, one must first recognize the ferocious and totalitarian Home Owners’ Association, or HOA, and the strict, inviolable rules they impose on every dwelling and its landscaping.
The ‘do’s’ and the ‘don’ts’ are legion in number and detail. The number and types of plants you must have in front of your house (and no others); no street parking of cars; house must be painted every five years, and so on.
The ostensible purpose is, as always, to ‘protect property values’ as each and every homeowner has his or her beady eyes affixed upon that aspect of their worldly assets. They may plan on remaining unto death in their Anthem-mansion but its dollar value is a mark of their own social standing and self-appraisal, as important as defending their home against tornadoes, typhoons, earthquakes, burrowing parasites and home invaders. Property values über alles!
What is striking to the outsider (and to this writer, a first-time visitor) is the contradiction between totally-controlled middle-class comfort and the brutally wild desert environment in which it is plunked down. There are no grassy greens or smooth paved roads in the desert.
Here is the inexorable reality of history:
- You get lost crossing the desert, you die of exposure, sunstroke, thirst, snakebite.
- Your horse steps into a gopher hole and breaks a leg, you walk until you die.
- You get slightly confused about directions, so you wander about a bit and then lay down and die.
- You run into a hostile tribe of Native Americans, you die – quite possibly quite painfully: their pranks included tying victims onto a mound of fire ants, scalping them, having squawking squaws cut them up a bit at a time, starting with the genitals.
Nobody of course is thinking about any of such distant history – the danger of the desert environment surrounding Anthem – as they stop for a bite at Pizza Hut and buy gas at Circle K and maybe even drop by Walmart.
What is most important in life (at least for many upstanding citizens) is the price they have to pay for their gasoline, and this inspires all those holy military crusades in the Arab East.
The brutal reality of how a pretty Potemkin village like Anthem was made possible is as remote from its tenderfoot denizens as the face of Mars. (Only the wealthy elite qualify for membership in the Country Club).
Born of bloody colonial violence and righteous conquest by ancestors’ military firearms, today life in the wilderness is a picture of ease and comfort – at least for this class of American.
For the moment man is victorious over nature: ‘grade & pave’.
Keeping a prettified ring of desert wandering among the McMansions should be a keen reminder of just how close is this unfriendly reality, but in the disneyfied fantasies of local residents it is simply an Old West movie – though in the wee hours wild javelina, rabbits and even rattlesnakes will venture across silent gravel yards…
Nature, in her inexorable reach, is ever-ready to move in again. This from Wiki as well: ‘On July 31, 2012, a storm dropped 5.01 inches of rain on Anthem in the span of 90 minutes, causing widespread flooding that damaged homes and required the rescue of nine people. A subsequent investigation into the flood concluded that the storm was a “one-in-1,000-year rain catastrophe.”’
Of course they would say that. Mother Nature winks.
Tune in next week for more sinister realities, and no I do not wish to cast shade on your precious property values…
The patently unrealistic assumption is that the gated communities of these worthies (average income = US$ 85,000) will endure forever in gracious, controlled leisure.
to be continued