By Leslie Agron and Pat Fain
“This Island Earth” is a classic 1950s sci-fi flick. Its gifts to the popular culture include the “interocitor” (an all-purpose communicator and weapon) and the origin of the sound bite ”They’re pulling us up!” In it we learn not only that we are not alone, but that we are not even remotely enough located to stay uninvolved in cosmic conflicts.
Oak Ridge in the early 1950s was a remotely located, somewhat self-sufficient compound. It had been built that way intentionally by Gen. Groves in the 1940s. Nearly everyone who worked here also lived here because the government had made sure to offer them suitable rental housing.
The seeds of change were sown in the mid-1950s with the sale of those government-owned homes and the enactment of Eisenhower’s interstate highway system. As the interstates were built and the region grew a little closer, a few people began to commute to jobs in Oak Ridge.
As the 1970s and 1980s progressed, West Knoxville blossomed, and Pellissippi Parkway was built.
War-time Oak Ridgers were reaching retirement and often choosing to retire in their homes of many years. Their replacements were looking for housing that was in short supply in Oak Ridge, particularly for middle-income families, at a time when commuting had become a more reasonable option.
Meanwhile, there was a national trend for fewer people per household in bigger houses with bigger yards and two-car garages. We followed this trend, and the population remained stable while we doubled the number of housing units we had in the 1950s.
Further, the replacement professional staff came from areas with higher housing costs. They needed to replace their old residences with ones of comparable price to avoid a large tax liability. These factors hastened the trend of surrounding communities expanding in our direction.
Today, the overwhelming majority of workers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Y-12 National Security Complex, and other significant employers commute here from adjacent communities. Following the highway improvements, these communities have moved their boundaries closer to us from five different directions—sometimes much closer.
Far from being Island Oak Ridge any more, we are on the cusp of being fully merged into the fastest-growing metropolitan area in Tennessee. Yet we and our neighbors still carry the mentality from the 1950s, when an isolated Oak Ridge was a very real phenomenon, both geographically and sociologically. Part of our vision of “Something Else” for Oak Ridge will be to move past this historic memory and find our place in the modern era.
A simple example of how we might reconceive our place in the region lies in the current push for a general aviation airport at Heritage Center. Oak Ridge critics have remarked that Oak Ridge does not need such an airport. This may be true, but is the result of asking the wrong question. The correct questions are: “Does the region need such an airport?” (probably). “Is Oak Ridge a good site for it?” (probably). “Will Oak Ridge benefit from its presence?” (very likely: Horizon and Heritage Centers, in particular, and Oak Ridge, in general, will contain much more attractive sites in which companies can locate.)
We envision Oak Ridge finding a complementary role that enhances the quality of life for ourselves and the whole region, rather than our being swept into irrelevance by the tides of change as we find ourselves even more proximate to our neighbors. In subsequent columns, we will write about possible larger initiatives that are founded on this concept.
Leslie Agron and Pat Fain are Oak Ridge residents.