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David Walters

Family Values


Sally Brown died on Halloween. In the context of the momentous events swirling around us at this time, the death of one old lady barely registered outside the circle of family and friends. The obituary told the tale of a bright young woman who lifted herself from the redneck world of the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s to become a teacher, an athlete and a free-spirited, irreverent thinker. I know something of this story for I married into the Brown family, after slowly easing the elders' suspicions that their daughter wasn't being wooed away by some feckless foreign freeloader. I learned with something approaching awe that my future father-in-law, Dee Brown, was the author of a book that had made me weep when I read it in the early 1970s.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee changed the way this nation, and the world, looked at the story of the American West in the 19th century. Instead of the Hollywood-reinforced mythology of Manifest Destiny -- that the West was the birthright of white settlers, assisted by noble soldiers who conquered savage Indians with bravery and derring-do -- this new history of the West was told from the Indians' point of view. This was a much different tale, one of government deceit and dishonesty, of racist policies of ethnic cleansing carried out with unthinking cruelty by the army and its minions.

None of this was invented. The author, a gentle, unassuming, yet forceful man, gave no interpretation or "spin" to the story. He simply let the facts speak for themselves, extracted by scrupulous research from the dusty, forgotten pages of congressional records that documented these events in minute detail, and from reports written in the newspapers of the day.

This critically acclaimed book, which has sold over six million copies, and been translated into almost every language in the world, was condemned, and still is, by some as an assault on American values. It has been banned in several libraries, and criticized heavily because it spoke uncomfortable truths some people found too difficult to accept.

Amid the praise that was showered on Dee Brown for his landmark achievement came threatening letters, and vilification by rightwing commentators and politicians. But the nation grew stronger and wiser by reading this book. The clear writing on its pages has educated generations of new readers in its unbroken 30-year publishing history.

Sally Brown had a lot to do with this. In a time when a woman's place was still defined as supporting her man, Sally's was a background role, one of technical advice, commentary and critique. Few outside the family ever knew the extent of her expertise, but many have cause to mourn her passing.

Becoming a member of this family taught me more about being an American than any test administered for citizenship ever could. I assertively retain my British nationality and I accept the limits this places on my civic and political opportunities in America. I can't vote, for example, despite paying the same taxes as American citizens, nor can I run for political office. But I am wed to this country in ways that are just as strong as any bureaucratic transfer of national allegiance.

When people who don't like my politics, or politicians who resent an English architect planning American towns ask me why don't I leave this country (or in one case, why do I keep coming back) I have one simple answer: family. My wife, as the child of elderly parents, exercises a duty of love and care towards them, and that task becomes mine also by the partnership of marriage.

I was invited to these shores to teach architecture at the state universities in Arkansas and Mississippi. To obtain the green card that established my immigration status, my employers had to certify that I had special knowledge or expertise that was valuable to America. From the start, my relationship to America was a contractual one, but this academic detachment was changed by the acquisition of ties and responsibilities of a new family. Piecing together an Anglo-American union took me deep into a world far different than any I had imagined growing up in post-war Britain.

Britain is a small country, most of which would fit into North Carolina. But it is home to over 50 million people, about a fifth of America's population. This concentration of people by necessity breeds a deeper sense of community and collaboration than a society like America that was forged from principles and preferences of individual independence.

I use this comparison to make a point. This is a critique of American society, not a criticism. There is an important difference between these modes of discourse that some people -- and certainly some persistent letter writers to Creative Loafing -- never seem to understand.

Comparing societal tendencies of different cultures can be a useful learning experience, and can expand anyone's awareness of other points of view, a vital talent in the increasingly complex environment of global competition and coexistence. A robust society and a mature intellect welcome this debate, knowing that our city and region benefit from exposure to international ideas.

I had no intention of making a life in the USA, nor of devoting a lot of professional effort to the difficult task of improving the environment in American towns and cities. But family ties have placed me here, and it's my professional duty to care for my city just as it's my familial duty to care for my elderly in-laws.

Promoting better ways of managing the urban development of our region is my job, and helping many Carolina towns and cities restructure themselves to grow smarter is a privilege. I'm grateful for the opportunity, but make no mistake, the task facing us is a huge one.

For every smart urban move, we make 10 dumb ones, and even intelligent people fail to see the true dimensions of the problem we call suburban sprawl. The economic and environmental health of our communities hinge on improving the way we build and develop. And now there's clear evidence that our personal health is also at risk. A recent report entitled "Creating a Healthy Environment: The Impact of the Built Environment on Public Health" vividly documents the connection between suburban sprawl and the fact "that we are an overweight, heart-disease-ridden society."

When we have to drive everywhere for everything, we are the servants of the car, not its master. The way we build car-dominated suburbs means that we do something very un-American. We restrict individual choice. Walking, bicycling, roller-blading and transit simply aren't options for many citizens. Suburbs aren't bad; they're just badly designed. Now, my father-in-law sits alone in his suburban home, unable to drive and thus unable to support himself. The family flies in from Charlotte, Des Moines and Sacramento to help, but those who worship the car today can see their future in this lonely, brave old man.

Britons aren't more intelligent than Americans. The fact that British planning can show more successes in some areas of urban development than America is a function of historical and geographical factors, not individual brilliance. The fact that buildings in Britain are sometimes more progressive in their design grows from similar causes. We have to make things work efficiently; we're a small country with limited resources. Many Americans eagerly learn such lessons, adapting and improving them for use in this country. But a small minority misinterpret any comparison of America with another country as a criticism.

To distinguish criticism from critique is a lesson freshmen architects learn from the start of their education. Their design work improves by a process of continual critique from their professors. Students attempt to solve the problem; professors point out the flaws in their thinking and show them better models to study, more productive avenues to explore.

So it is with Charlotte. The city is an energetic student, full of life and vitality. But it lacks a critical perspective on its design and development process. It is still building sprawl after its citizens endorsed a smarter future with their support of the transit plan and its attendant tax. This crucial problem needs to be addressed, and soon. I find myself living in this city, in this country, at a critical time in its history. It's my duty to help in the little ways I can.

My first conscious contact with the States was at age three or four. I was standing in line at the health clinic in my home town, clutching my ration book, waiting to be weighed and to receive my allotted weekly portion of welfare orange juice. Nurses poured it into medicine bottles from a giant can labeled "Florida."

'That's in America," said my Aunt Ruby. "They have lots of money and sunshine over there."

They also have lots of wonderful people. Sally Brown and my American family are just some of them. They're the reason I stay.

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