Sunday, December 23, 2007

NYT Visual Pollution Police Raid Laurel

26 Dec Update: We seem to have started a bit of an alienation rumble. Be sure to see the comments section below.

The Sunday New York Times today takes the Laurel Shopping Center to task for the crime of visual pollution. I think they take very cheap shots. Here is an excerpt:
'The Laurel Shopping Center: a seemingly endless concrete U of shops that curves around the dominant aesthetic offering of a massive parking lot, where our car is now anchored like a small vessel in an asphalt bay.

The store lights call out. Dress Barn. CVS. Marshalls. Chuck E. Cheese. Ruby Tuesday. H&R Block. And, yes, Subway.

Sitting here, suppressing the urge to flee, you begin to notice how the shopping center’s off-white walls and copper-colored top recall a minimum-security prison, and how readily the layout encourages acceptance of small absurdities. For example, people who leave the CVS with a desire to shop at Marshalls pretty much have to get back in their cars and drive across acres of parking lot.

“It’s not surprising that American society is so alienated,” Mr. Fry says.'

Read the NYT article.
Hear and see the slideshow.

What do you think? Is the Times right? Do you feel alienated by the visual clutter in Laurel? Please add your comments below.


Anonymous said...

OK, so he’s a glorified (alright, he’s got a Pulitzer) travel writer pointing out the obvious. But why just Laurel? He’s obviously been covering a lot of ground lately. Anybody who has been around the country knows that there are many “Route 1s” across this great land, and that Glen Burnie is not the only “Chrome City” in the U.S. Instead of using different photos of the same Laurel location (there are 3 of the mattress place and 5 of Giant), Barry’s point that so many of the commercial stretches in our country are “almost uniformly ugly” would have been better supported by having in his slide show shots from multiple locations in different cities. Show the uniformity and spread the ugliness around a bit; include some photos in and around Jackson Heights, Queens, NY or maybe Maplewood, NJ. And while he’s at it, how about he and the Scenic America folks provide some examples of “scenic” commercial locations, like, say, the souvenir shops and filling stations at the Grand Canyon?

Mike McLaughlin

Rick Wilson said...


I agree that it's a simple-minded piece. He never makes the larger point. I also think the photographer was a bit lazy. If thet were going to all the time and trouble to make a multimedia piece, they could've found better shots.

I guess your editors will leave you alone after you win a Pulitzer. You should warn Melanie and Pete soon.

It seems like these NYT slicks just pulled off the Interstate in the fog and drove to the first commercial strip they found on the map. A cheap shot for the gray lady.

DCraig said...

The NY Times is and has not been known for its commitment to objective reporting. However, and at the risk of alienating my old friends, I think that the article was well-written and , read aloud, has great resonance. I don't think that Laurel was necessarily picked out for criticism but as an example of what, as they say, is happening across America. There are some really good lessons for Laurel in this article. Among them, in my opinion, is the fact that the City of Laurel has for entirely too long placed its economic and community development emphasis on Main Street. That is not to say that nothing else has been done, of course, the Granville-Gude park is certainly counterpoint. But, by in large, there has been an attitude over the years that Laurel is Main Street. But the facts are that it is not nor has it been for many years. There are a lot of reasons for that, none the least of which are "realpolitic." The fact is that, by in large, only "Old Laurel" votes in municipal elections and "Old Laurel" is Main Street-centric. I admit, I bought into that myself when I was on the City Council, now quite a long time ago.

Don't get me wrong. I love Laurel and I dearly miss it. It is my home town, regardless of where I might have spent my childhood.

I believe that Craig Moe has done a terrific job as Mayor and that he will continue to pull Laurel's vision upward toward the horizon. I urge Laurel to resist sprawl and take a lesson from some of the very ideas and comments included in the NY Times Barry piece. Karl Brendle is a maker of magic, in my view. He recognizes that the "center" of Laurel is no longer Main Street and never will be again. The suggestions in the Barry piece on how to re-design the Laurel Shopping Center as an example,were pretty darn good and recognize the "de facto" Center of Laurel today (a fact that is certainly not new news).
This is a good, necessary and important debate. I hope the article brings in lots of response and community input. I am sure that Craig Moe and Karl Brendle will gladly accept all the help they can get!

Frank Monaldo said...

Laurel is a complex and eclectic place where you can find anything you are looking for. You can drive down the commercial areas of Route 1 and see power lines (BTW we should bury them if possible) and roadside billboards. Or you can visit places a hundred feet from Route 1 and see so much more. If you go to
you can see some interesting photos of Main Street. A long time ago I posted a picture of the Laurel Train Station at

The author maybe drawing conclusions about alienation in America, but it appears to me that he is projecting his own feelings and choosing isolated pieces of photographic evidence to justify his opinions. He needs to do a lot better than this. Are there studies showing that Laurel residents or residents of similar areas are more isolated that others? I would very much like to see a comparison of connectedness of Laurel residents with residents of NY city.

There is a case to be made about making the Route 1 portion of Laurel more visually appealing. The objection to this piece is its arrogant smugness and condescension.

Anonymous said...

No arguing with the article's point about the ugliness of that Rt.1 area and that there are many thousands of similar areas and scenes across the country.

Of course, it would be wonderful to improve it; let's try.

However, the article seemed to assume that that area is all there is to Laurel and as we all know its not. Its just a part of it. Main St. is much more scenic, the train station, the old neighborhood with old homes and churches, the park path, etc. & there is plenty of "connectiveness" associated with all those.

Trying to preserve and enhance our Main Street is a worthy goal and should be continued. If we can do something about Rt.1 as well, I'm all for it. No mention in the article of the new improved plans for Laurel Mall which hopefully will be easier on the eye. And by the way, Mike, Maplewood, NJ is a beautiful town and looks nothing like the visuals in this article. Are you referring to Rt.22?

Anonymous said...

DCraig’s statement that “Laurel is Main Street” is a good one to ponder, for two reasons:

1) I’m not sure that Main St. merchants would agree that our city places “its economic and community development emphasis” on Main Street. Maybe in the past, but a look around town and at the City’s Master Plan shows a big-picture look at the “greater Laurel area” and its impact on the Baltimore/Washington corridor. And then there is the Chesapeake Bay. Like many early towns, especially mill towns, Laurel is situated next to a river. The history, and the location of Main Street as a final buffer for the river makes it deserving of special consideration. Our planners are wisely focusing on that aspect, realizing that what we do, on Main Street as well as the greater Laurel area, will make the river either an avenue of health or infection of the Bay.

2) “Laurel is Main Street” is a wonderful philosophy to embrace as the city grows. I think they did just that in the planning of “The Commons” (the Mall redo), but it was something that Dan Barry either didn’t uncover or chose to ignore. The main object of his scorn, the Shopping Center is a mid-twentieth century design, whose layout has outlived the mall concept that is dying across the country. And with only modest adjustments, the Shopping Center could easily replicate the “town center” idea that is so popular now, that is the heart of The Commons, and that the Scenic America folks fantasized about.

As to Maplewood, NJ: I have no idea what it or its surrounding area looks like. I was trying to drive my point that including in the slide show photos from locations in different cities would have been more effective in making the case that, as Mr. Fry said, “We could be almost anywhere in America.” And, I was just being a wise guy since Maplewood is listed as Barry’s town of residence in his bio, and Jackson Heights his place of birth.

Mike McLaughlin

Anonymous said...

Well, Route 1 looks like that from Maine to Florida period. Go to the Hybla Valley area in Alexandria and it is pretty much the same. I also think it looks better than it did 10 years ago and is continuing to look better.

Rick Wilson said...

I appreciate the fact that the NYT was just doing a story about a national issue. But having them drive into our town and slap us for having a commercial district that causes "the alienation of America" is a bit hard to take.

I think we should send a Laurel Leader reporter up the NYC and write about one of their issues.

Mike, it's up to you to get our honor back buddy. I'll drive.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's just me, but have you ever shopped in downtown NYC? Okay, the shopping center may be a symbol of 50's and 60's astetics, but it's still better than gettin thrown into traffic off extremely over crowded sidewalks in order to buy over priced merchandise, normally available from the same stores (for lower prices) in these older symbols of suburbia. And as for the NY Times, I guess they were out of all the news that's fit to make up. What I really don't understand as to why he drove all the way to central MD to find a shopping center. I guess he was asleep in Philly, Baltimore, and every other city on RT 1 between here and there.

Anonymous said...

OK, Rick, let’s saddle up. Whether they intended to or not, Barry and his Scenic America friends threw down a gauntlet; instead of focusing on the visual blight that affects Everytown along Rt. 1, and other towns along other byways, they had to go an make it personal by disparaging one town, our town, Old Town, Laurel. Reporting on the commercial clutter of Rt. 1 has been done before…and better. So stick a map of New York or New Jersey on the wall, throw a dart and we’ll go. If the Leader doesn’t want it, we can put it up on your blog, complete with slide show, and send the URL to Mr. Barry and Scenic America. We’ll start by highlighting how visual commercial blight is so indigenous to older towns along the east coast that, like the last poster said, Barry must have driven south with blinders on; he could have saved time and gas by looking a little closer to home. We can mention the Rt. 1 improvement projects that are planned or ongoing all along the length of the old highway; and we can show photos of the clutter as well as some of those improvements in multiple locations in different towns. We can say we are sponsored by a group called “Seen-It America”; as in, show me something I haven’t seen, and then tell me something I don’t know. Otherwise, keep it in New York.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Mike McLaughlin

Dan said...

My wife's first reaction to the slideshow was "Wow, the pictures are making it look nicer than it actually is!", and I agee. The Giant Sign and the BK "lilly pad" tables are distinctive architectural elements I'm glad they photographed. I was also happy he placed the Laurel Shopping Center in its proper historical context (I'm always amazed we've never put up a marker there signifying its importance). The point of the piece, as others have pointed out, is that blame for this blight should go partially towards the people who live in it.

Rick Wilson said...

Dan: Do you really think that those of us who live in the blight are partially responsible for it? How so?

You might be correct but does that then make me responsible for alienating America, as Kevin Fry suggests in the article? Does the fact that I chose to live near Route 1's "blight" make me a serial alienator?

If I am responsible for blight and the resulting alienation how should I fix it?

If we are going to have a visual pollution police force, we should also have a visual pollution court that can adjudicate responsibility and compel the redress of grievances.

I'm simply not willing to let Barry, Fry, and Cownover come into my town and play the roles of police, judge and jury.

Anonymous said...

Rick and Mike:
Please don't make the mistake of going to New York or New Jersey (or wherever) to point out the obvious fact that the same sort of dull ugly shopping center can be found everywhere in America. That's making the same stupid point as Mr. Barry. He is a fool. He can't infer anything about the nature of Laurel's people (how "alienated" we may be) by sitting in the parking lot of Laurel Center. He might as well sit in his office staring at his navel to make the same sweeping generalizations.

The narrated slide show that went along with his article was a hoot. He decries the "tragedy" that the shopping center looks "exactly the same" as anywhere else in America. Yet one of his slides shows the sign for Laurel's Historic District. Did he actually go onto Main Street and see that Laurel doesn't look exactly like everywhere else? Of course not.

He says there is "no chance to interact with another human being in the experience of coming to this place". Is there a more stupid statement possible? He sat in his car in the center of the parking lot! I guess he doesn't realize that to interact with people you have to get out and, you know, interact with people.

The guy's whole point is silly. If every plot of ground along every highway and street in America isn't absolutely unique it's a "tragedy". But it is "comforting to know that up ahead somewhere there is a Subway sandwich shop." Ignore the idiot.

Brooke Rector

Dan said...

I think the important thing to take from this article is that its about visual pollution everywhere, and it applies everywhere. Driving to the midwest this holiday season, I saw cookie-cutters of Laurel's Route 1 everywhere I went: Yes, there is a Subway literally every half mile, another branch of yet another bank, etc. The point is that people are getting fed up with it and is one I completely agree with. Are we responsible? I think partially, if only because we put up with it. Couldn't we do something about the dozens of cheap signs businesses put up on each and every open piece of grass? Couldn't we ban blow-up pointy signs for mattress stores?

The saddest thing about the article is the author and Mr. Fry go to the Laurel Shopping Center and experience all these depressing feelings, and only later while doing research he realizes the very spot he sat in had an important historical signifigance. I think that if anything is a sad commentary on what we've turned these places into: In the future will the only source about the history of the places we live be wikipedia? Talk about alienation...

Barb said...

This was an interesting trip down memory lane for me. I haven't been back to Laurel in nearly two years for personal reasons and now I can't wait to visit once the weather clears. The issues of visual pollution and sprawl are popular hot-button issues no matter where you live. Here in Murrysville, PA, the citizens are dealing with their own Rt. 1 Laurel issues only here it's Rt. 22, the main drag that passes through the town. There are several smaller versions of the Laurel Shopping Center here but with local shops and a few chains - Subway, Dunkin' Donuts, but, thankfully, no Starbucks. There are no big-box retailers in the city limits. That may change and to hear people here talk, it's a terrible thing. But, to someone who lived in Laurel for 30 years, it would be welcome. If there was a Target or a Kohl's or any big retailer other than Walmart, I'd welcome it. As it is now, the closest I am to one of those places is a 15-30 minute drive down a stretch of Rt. 22 in a neighboring town that looks a lot like Rt. 1 in Laurel. If I am in the mood and if I remember, I'll snap some shots of Rt. 22 in Monroeville and post them for you to see. My bottom line is that, yes, it can be ugly, especially with all those little signs that spring up like weeds, but it's part of what makes Laurel, Laurel, and part of what I miss.