E=mc2 (E Equals MC Squared), or Energy Equals Many Citizens Working Together
There’s no doubt that Oak Ridge could use a facelift. I applaud City Manager Mark Watson and our Oak Ridge City Council members for recognizing and attempting to address this need with their “Not In Our City” initiative.
I think, however, that “Not In Our City” has some problems:
- It’s a whole lot of stick and not much carrot.
- It creates an adversarial relationship between the city and its residents and potentially pits neighbor against neighbor.
- It is piecemeal in its approach and lacks an overarching vision.
How about this as an alternative? It even has a catchy slogan. In honor of Einstein, let’s call it E = mc2, or Energy Equals Many Citizens Working Together.
Did you know that all of the Oak Ridge cemesto and flat top neighborhoods are already on the National Register of Historic Places? That’s a great plus for our city and something we should be capitalizing on!
My idea for the Oak Ridge Historic District neighborhoods makes three assumptions:
- Words matter.
- A fresh coat of paint can go a long way toward creating charm and beauty.
- There can and should be a certain panache to living in a National Historic District.
The words we currently use to describe Oak Ridge’s World War II era houses are devoid of charm. (Realtors and Chamber types, listen up, please!) The words “cemestos,” “alphabet houses,” and “flattops” are not words that captivate the imaginations of potential buyers, especially newcomers to the area.
I like the words “cottages” and “bungalows,” and I think that they are actually appropriate for the style of housing we have. In fact, it’s my understanding that the cemesto house plans were modeled on Cape Cod-style gabled cottages. I think it’s time to rebrand and market our cemestos as “Oak Ridge Historic Cottages” (in floor plans A, B, C, D, and F) and our flattops as “Oak Ridge Historic Bungalows.”
New exterior paint could really freshen up a lot of our old houses and give the historic neighborhoods a facelift. But we need a carrot to incentivize home owners to paint. I propose giving them the paint. That’s right. I’m suggesting that the City of Oak Ridge buy house paint in a range of compatible colors and give it to home owners free of charge. Right now, you’re probably thinking: “That woman’s crazy. Where does she think Oak Ridge is going to get that kind of money?”
Well, here’s an idea: Let’s fire our Washington, D.C., and Nashville lobbyists. They never bring home the bacon anyway and in this age of fiscal austerity, they’re not going to either. We could buy enough paint for every single WWII era house in Oak Ridge with what we’re wasting on extravagant lobbyists’ fees. And really, isn’t it time to stop waiting for DOE largess to materialize? It’s not going to happen. Instead, let’s take control of our destiny and undertake an initiative with our own energy and resources.
Once home owners have completed exterior painting and passed a city inspection (which would necessarily include a check list, some of which will come from the current “Not In Our City” initiative, like paved or graveled parking spaces, no junked cars, etc.) I think the city should offer two more carrots: a small break on property taxes (for a period of years to be determined) and the right to display an Oak Ridge National Historic District plaque on the home exterior.
Historic plaques are key to developing a sense of pride and panache in living in a National Historic District. I envision three plaque designs: an atom, an oak leaf, and a wild cat. Qualifying home owners would be permitted to purchase a plaque at cost from the city.
And finally, while we’re at it, let’s encourage a few window boxes and flower pots because, honestly, they are the kind of small and inexpensive things that lend an air of grace and charm to a neighborhood.
Of course, realistically, carrots are not always enough, and a stick or two would be built into the system. Free paint would have to come with a commitment from the home owner to complete painting within an agreed upon time period. Incomplete paint jobs would meet with the city stick, in the form of escalating city fines. And, of course, given the variety of materials that have been used over the years to cover the original cemesto exteriors, paint cannot be the only route to qualifying for the tax break and plaque. A checklist of eligibility requirements will have to be developed. And yes, implementation of E = mc2 will necessitate the willingness and cooperation of our city agencies and employees, but that’s what we pay public servants for, right?
I have a feeling that now might be the time for Oak Ridge’s older housing stock to enjoy a renaissance. Why? McMansions are out and small, economical housing is in. The age of excess appears to be over. In fact, if you Google “micro houses,” you’ll see what I mean. The Internet is full of information about the micro housing movement, where to get micro house plans, etc. Oak Ridge already has an abundant stock of micro and semi-micro housing in bungalows (flattops) and cottages (cemestos) in A and B floor plans. Most of the historic houses are comfortable and have amenities people want: hardwood floors, brick fireplaces, light-filled rooms, yards with mature trees, and walkable neighborhoods bordered by lush greenbelts.
I know E = mc2 sounds like a big, even grand vision. That’s because it is! It really will require “Many Citizens Working Together,” and it won’t happen overnight. But Oak Ridgers have a history of collectively taking on big challenges and seeing them through to completion. There’s not much Oak Ridgers can’t do when they put their minds, hearts, hands, and considerable energy together.
So what do you think? Do you like any of these ideas? Have you got some of your own? Let’s talk about it in public, write some letters, call our Council members and see what happens.
Martha de la Garza Fowler is a lifelong Oak Ridge resident and singer/songwriter and composer, and she records as Dogwood Daughter. Find Dogwood Daughter at www.dogwooddaughter.com and on iTunes and Amazon.com.