it has taken me a surprisingly long time to get down to Serenbe. V too, the two of us kept saying let’s go! and never going, goodness knows why, it’s barely 40 minutes from our houses! So on Saturday, just days before she moves to the Netherlands, her, J, me and N went to visit this little dream community in the country.
A New York Time article in 2009 touted Serenbe as “the new south” really, a sort of new new new south, but in essence it seems pretty true. new development with a little green, or a lot of green consciousness thrown in, southern home-cookin’, organic farming, farm animals and woods—and all this with your shirt tucked in. By living here you are doing good!
Serenbe was begun as an idealistic and hopefully realistic answer to the ever increasing suburbanization of the huge metro Atlanta area. From a 2004 article in USA Today:
As the nation’s metro areas expand ever outward, the forests and farmlands at their edges are rapidly disappearing. From 1982 to 2001, the amount of developed land in the USA increased by 45% to 106 million acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Brookings Institution, a research organization in Washington. and About 70% of residential and commercial construction is still occurring in woodlands and rural areas instead of areas that are being redeveloped.
At the same time, homebuyers increasingly are expressing a desire to live in a way that protects the natural landscape, and developers are responding. One of the fastest-growing segments of the housing industry is conservation subdivisions, which usually have compact lots clustered together and open space that is shared by all homeowners. These developments are designed to accommodate the maximum number of homes while protecting much of the adjacent farmland and natural resources.
Steve and Marie Nygren saw this happening and took it to heart. They did some really revolutionary work in their community, getting neighbors together to discuss what they wanted for their community in the future. Something done less in rural than in urban areas, but definitely needed in both.
Serenbe’s beginnings in the 1990s were, if not humble, at least somewhat organic: wealthy Atlantans bought land which became their home, then a B&B just in time for the ’96 Olympics, (she being the daughter of Mary Mac’s co-owner presumably meant good food was in the equation at an early date), more guest houses were added and eventually, in the early 2000s, this experiment in suburban planning.
If there is all this good, why was my first impression that, pleasant a place as it was, it felt all wrong??
Serenbe feels manufactured, like a movie set, everything, EVERYTHING feels fake. Even at the farmhouse (which has some historicity buried in the walls that haven’t been removed)—I had a vague feeling of walking into a set, were we all participants in a play? Later on I would feel that the shop proprietors must receive a paycheck from “Serenbe, Inc.” like working a store at Disneyland, probably managers, not business owners (note: I don’t actually know for sure how this works but I’ve seen that the details of most establishments are in the plans long before they exist).
We didn’t take any pictures until we were about to leave, and I realized we needed to document. The manufactured-picturesque landscape had not been inspiring, CREATED to be photogenic, like Miss America on stage, it didn’t need me to capture it’s beauty. In the end I took a picture of the map, which saysit all, because ultimately Serenbe is just one big plan, a stage, and we’re not talking Shakespeare here.
There are other communities like this in history, Sunnyside Gardens, Radburn, and Atlanta’s own East Lake Commons. I’ve been trying to figure out what they have that’s different, accessibility, interaction with their surroundings, even if shops are part of the community its commercial space that’s not dictated by the creator but by an entrepreneur. Idealism is tough, and perfection comes in many forms.
Maybe it simply hasn’t grown into itself. The economy downturn occurred shortly after liftoff which may account for the lack of residents? maybe they were just all inside their fab [environmentally friendly] climate controlled houses on this rainy day, maybe they were… I have doubts, this community has nothing for the average homebuyer, and the more I think of it the more it frustrates me, with all the talk of affordable housing in the community the only thing one woman who works in the village was able to afford was a 900 sq. ft loft space WITHOUT A KITCHEN, without a KITCHEN?? I used to live in a 600 sq. ft brooklyn apt WITH a kitchen and that was roomy.
But still, all the businesses cater to tourists, there was nothing real about them. I mean, what town actually needs 5 boutique shops with local or handmade-by-African-women-and-children-in-need scarves, coasters, vases and jewelry? and that’s about it for general retail. You can also go to the Bosch showroom which may be the most useful commercial space, or MAYBE the General Store where you’d run for one or 2 ingredients if you lived/stayed at Serenbe but impractical for actual grocery shopping, plus, you’d deplete their supplies in one go. I assume residents grocery shop at Whole Foods in Atlanta, because goodness knows they wouldn’t be caught at Bradley’s Big Buy or DJ Grocers in Palmetto.
But that brings us around to the inherent anti-environmentality of a secluded subdivision that is not supporting itself (despite dreams). At least you only use a little gas to get around in the village, maybe none if you use your golf cart. On fun days you might pull out a bike, but we didn’t see any of those in action.
It was weird, I mean REALLY WEIRD. I’m hoping a second trip on a sunnier day will yield better results, and a chance to visit the farm (which I suspect is cool no matter what), some real people, and a chance to really enjoy my favorite part: the in-ground trampoline in the park!!
Now I better go see how N’s cookie-making is going (they’re for V, but maybe we’ll get some?).