Growing pains

Posted: Apr 22, 2005 12:00 AM

CAMDEN, S.C. - Tidings of new growth coming one's way invariably are presented as good news. Just as invariably, I sink into immediate despair.

I know I'm supposed to be happy as politicians reiterate the positives: the boost to local economies, an expanding tax base, jobs. But as a native Floridian, I've traveled this freshly paved path before and know where it leads. Put it this way: Where once there were oceans of orange groves stretching to the horizons, today there are salt flats of trailer parks and RV "resorts."

Now I read the terrific news that the South's population is about to explode.

"Look out, ya'll!" begins a Cox News story. In 25 years, nearly four in 10 Americans will live in the South. That's 40 percent, folks, or nearly half of all Americans coming to a cul-de-sac near you.

These projections come from a new Census Bureau report that predicts the South's population will reach about 143 million by 2030, compared with just 92 million for the West, 70 million for the Midwest and 58 million for the Northeast.

(The South is defined as Georgia, Florida, Texas, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia.)

This population-shift projection has spawned a cottage industry of other prognostications - what it means for the culture, for politics, for literature. For the SEC?

We hear, for example, that such growth will be good for the Republican Party, which these days has a lock on the South. With more people come more congressional seats and presidential electoral votes, concentrating the red states and diffusing the blue.

For Democrats, that will mean embracing all that's Southern if they've any hope of capturing national office. Watch for an explosion of Faux Bubbas, as cartoonist Doug Marlette long ago named the trend - a new generation of politicos who just love NASCAR, pickup trucks and banjos. (Note to wannabes: Confederate flags are so last century, and "ya'll" is used only when addressing more than one person.)

The new growth also is predicted to create a new Southern literature. What, no more abused children of raging Irish alcoholics sorting through the emotional detritus of lost causes and Southern guilt? Apparently, O'Connor, Conroy and Percy soon will be yielding to a new generation of literary immigrants with names like Wong, Cao and Perez.

Finally, more of the world will learn to love grits, sweet tea, collard greens, crawfish, boiled peanuts, mustard-based BBQ and cornbread. Whereupon real Southerners roll their eyes and throw another pine nut-encrusted grouper in the saute pan.

Those same Southerners, historically maligned as ignorant good ol' boys and gals - remember Howard Dean's evocation of the region's preoccupation with gays, guns and God - soon will be absorbed by outsiders who love the region's cheap real estate and old houses, but who have no appreciation of the authentic culture they'll quickly supplant.

Just as the Disney company built the faux small town of Celebration in Central Florida, in imitation of real small towns that thrived in pre-Disney times, the Old South will be refurbished and reproduced in shinier, chicer, richer form. This has happened already in spots, of course.

Old houses left standing because post-bellum Southerners were too poor to tear them down and rebuild have been purchased by wealthy Northerners for whom "winter" is a verb. Mansions along the city's famous Battery overlooking Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, are often dark and empty as their owners only visit occasionally between stopovers at other second (and third) homes.

Meanwhile, those who grew up in Charleston, in family homes that often featured peeling paint and creaking boards, can't afford to live there. Prohibitive taxes (so much for that expanded tax base) have sent natives - black and white - to the 'burbs, while their homesteads are gentrified to accommodate their nouveau owners.

 So goes progress, and there's no stopping it. We're migratory creatures, and aging boomers are drawn to warmer waters and lusher climes. There's no arguing with the logic of moving where real estate is affordable, the weather mild and the people friendly.

But something inevitably gets lost in this cross-fertilization. Once half the country moves south and all things Southern become diluted and commodified, the authentic South will be lost again. This time forever.