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Change Is No Longer Nibbling Around The Edges Of Our Town

Across the way from my workroom, four tiny new houses fill a field where last summer I cut wildflowers for the living room. As I sit at my desk watching the ten-man crew rapidly raise walls and nail down roofs, I feel out of sorts, irritated with a sense of intrusion into my world.

And then I remember being a young wife with a baby and recognize an old human response. Long Island was mainly farmland and a dirt road called Pond Path led to the small town of Setauket. It had a village green rimmed with two churches and a Tudor brick house converted for a library; here my little family was part of a wave of development that brought over a thousand homes to this long undisturbed place.

The people didn’t like us nor did they want us there. It hurt my feelings. We were nice, we were paying taxes. Yes, I understood we brought a need for five more schools, paved roads and supermarkets. But we deserved a place to be too.

About five years later, more farmland was sold and new development plowed towards us. I was indignant. These newcomers were bulldozing roads, cutting off the field I traveled through with my little girls to picnic among the flowers of a hundred-year-old cemetery. Change was disfiguring, ruining my place.

Although I have lived for only eighteen months on Lafayette Street, it already has become my place. Whether on Long Island or in Northern Mississippi, whether a young mother or a grandmother, my response to change has been the same: back off and leave the loveliness of the open fields to me.

Of course, change comes for all of us. And as Water Valley watches new homes go up and hears more talk about the needs of our schools, change is no longer nibbling around the edges of the town but has fully arrived.

And it also brings a change to this column about a newcomer in your midst.  

While hardly a veteran, I have settled in, have located the necessities of life. An entertaining haircutter, a state-of-the art dentist, a first-rate mechanic, a hard-working yard man, a precise manicurist, a particular housekeeper, a cooperative landlord and a good friend at the courthouse have all helped me move through the sometimes painful, yet oftentimes humorous adjustment to leaving home for life in the South.

More anchored, I notice different things, take in a wider view of what is happening in Water Valley. It is microcosm of a longstanding pattern of gentrification. 

Economically depressed areas offer affordable housing for artists and refugees from the ravages of national disasters. Entrepreneurs gather to try out business ideas in an often stop-start effort before a few gain a foothold. And if a booming university town with extravagant real estate prices is just down the road, small new houses will soon spring up like dandelions after a hard rain.

All of this comes with displacement. Town leaders change, stores leave, restaurants offer new menus, even the mice must scurry through the weeds to different quarters. And with outer change, old and new people must adapt, find a way to share the town, and if not mingle, at least coexist.

I would like to steer the column in that direction for a while to help me understand why I am still grumpy, as I was fifty years ago, when new people came on my land. 

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