The Coming of the Subdivisions

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Land clearing for Sparrow Hill on Route 250. Photo: Clover Carroll.

Every time I drive by one of the many areas in Crozet currently being clear-cut for housing projects—such as The Vue on Blue Ridge Ave., Chesterfield Landing on Crozet Ave., or Sparrow Hill (formerly Adelaide) on Rockfish Gap Turnpike, to name only a few—the old folk song, “The Coming of the Roads,” sings its way uninvited into my brain. Littered with growing piles of tree corpses, the naked red fields lie bare like open wounds, stripped of all signs of life. Forests, farms, and wildlife habitat are fast disappearing—a loss captured by this beautiful, haunting song, written by Billy Edd Wheeler and first recorded by Judy Collins in 1965. Although Wheeler was writing about the devastation caused by Appalachian strip mining, the lyrics could apply equally well to Crozet’s non-stop development, with the “little town that could” rapidly becoming not so little anymore. “The Coming of the Roads” has been recorded many times since, by Peter Paul & Mary, Johnny Darrell, and Anita Carter, among others. You won’t regret spending three minutes on YouTube listening to Judy Collins sing this memorable song. 

“The Coming of the Roads” is a protest song thinly veiled in the form of a love song, or a song about abandonment and lost love. This device personalizes the tragedy of destruction described in verse 3 (after the first refrain): “Look how they’ve cut all to pieces/ our ancient poplar and oak/ And the hillsides are stained with the greases/ that burned up the heavens with smoke.” The speaker has lost so much more than just her beloved; s/he has also lost “the cool caverns/ deep in our forest of green,” and, by implication, their whole way of life. The “you” of the song—whether brother/sister, friend, or lover—is leaving for a better job or a new life, perhaps possessed by the same greed that motivates the mining and clear-cutting. And s/he did not invite the singer to go along. The “wild wood”—along with all the wildlife habitat it once provided—has been replaced by “dusty roads,” taverns, and rust (another mining reference). “I think the roads are a symbol for the mining and industrialization that ruined much of the Appalachians,” commented Joe Offer on the online Mudcat Café blog. This heart-rending song expresses mourning for a lost Eden.

Land clearing for The Vue on Blue Ridge Avenue. Photo: Clover Carroll.

For Crozet, the refrain could be changed to “The Coming of the Subdivisions.” I have lived in Crozet only ten years (and in Ivy for 30 years before that), but with all the new growth, I already feel nostalgic for a simpler time and view the future with some trepidation. I welcome newcomers, and might even be considered a Yankee myself, hailing from Washington, D.C., by way of Chicago. The new restaurants, the library, and the Plaza plans are exciting. But when is enough, enough? Since Albemarle County named Crozet a ‘designated growth area’ in 2001, our population has exploded. Crozet’s population in 1990 was 1,733; in the 2000 U.S. Census it was 2,500; by the 2010 census, it had doubled to 5,560; and by 2016 it had surged to 6,854. Of course, this includes only the 4.5- square-mile growth area, and does not count the surrounding communities of White Hall, Greenwood, etc. that enjoy our services. The world has discovered what the original residents knew all along—that Crozet is a small, friendly slice of paradise. But how long will this treasured character last? County planner Elaine Echols estimates a town population of 12,065 to 16,300 by the year 2030. “We’re trying to retain the aspects of Crozet that everybody loves while accommodating growth,” Echols told the Gazette in 2016. Good luck with that!

In the 60s and 70s, we all wanted to sing like Judy Collins (1939- ), who got her start in the folk revival of the early 1960s and recorded 50 albums by songwriters from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan to Leonard Cohen. Her sweet, strong vocals popularized such hits as “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell, “Wild Mountain Thyme” (traditional Scottish), and “Send in the Clowns” by Stephen Sondheim. Still singing, she is about to launch a west coast tour with her old friend, Stephen Stills (of Crosby, Stills, and Nash fame). She is in fact the subject of my favorite CSN song, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Songwriter and playwright Billy Edd Wheeler was born in Whitesville, West Virginia, in 1932 and wrote songs such as “Jackson” (sung in the film Walk the Line), “Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back,” and “Coward of the County.” His new autobiography, with Doug Orr, is titled Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout: A Hillbilly Poet’s Journey From Appalachia to Yale to Writing Hits for Elvis, Johnny Cash, and More. Wheeler has been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters, West Virginia Music, and North Carolina Music Halls of Fame. What a team Wheeler and Collins made!

The opening lines of this song, “Now that our mountain”—or in this case, town—“is growing/ with people hungry for wealth,” perfectly describe Crozet developers’ repeated attempts to modify by-right zoning to accommodate as many residential units as possible. Many of these developments have been approved over the strong objections of their neighbors. We have all experienced the results of lagging infrastructure improvements, increased traffic, and rush hour bottlenecks. So as the population continues to explode, I can’t help but wonder: how much growth is too much? 

The Coming of the Roads

By Billy Edd Wheeler; first recorded by Judy Collins 

Now that our mountain is growing
With people hungry for wealth
How come it’s you that’s a-going
And I’m left alone by myself?

We used to hunt the cool caverns
Deep in our forest of green
Then came the road and the tavern
And you’ve found a new love it seems

Refrain:

Once I had you and the wild wood
Now it’s just dusty roads.
And I can’t help from blamin’ your goin’
On the coming, the coming of the roads

Look how they’ve cut all to pieces
Our ancient poplar and oak
And the hillsides are stained with the greases
That burned up the heavens with smoke

You used to curse the bold crewmen
Who stripped our earth of its ore
Now you’ve changed and you’ve gone over to them
And you’ve learned to love what you hated before

Refrain:

Once I thanked God for my treasure
Now like rust it corrodes
And I can’t help from blamin’ your goin’
On the coming, the coming of the roads

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