Closing the Land-Use Frontier

In 1893 the American frontier was declared officially closed in an essay written by Frederick Jackson Turner. Back then, the East was civilized and settled, and the West was the frontier, “another name for opportunity,” a place with free land, little law or government, and no regulation.

By 1893 there was little farmland not claimed in the East and much of what was claimed had been farmed out. By the end of the 19th century the emerging Eastern cities were filling up with factory workers and the slums that housed them. “Go west, young man” filled that Western arid landscape with dry-land farmers, resource and real estate speculators, miners, small-town merchants, and ranchers.

But when the seekers of opportunity arrived they found there was so little water west of the 100th Meridian, and what quickly developed was another version of the East they’d left behind. Many immigrants from the East ended up in sprawling cities. Today, the West is the most urbanized area of the country. Most westerners live in cities where law and regulation make life civilized. The myth of the west is that of opportunity, of cowboys and Indians. The western reality for most is Dallas, Las Vegas, Phoenix, L.A, and Denver.

It’s been over 100 years since the American frontier closed and a cowboy culture of wide-open opportunities vanished with it, but in Spartanburg County many people still act as if we should keep the frontier myth alive. Spartanburg County remains a Southern frontier in their minds, a place like the old West, a place where the government governs as little as possible, and regulations go unenforced or don’t exist.

I saw the ghosts of the old frontier ideas last week at one of our local land-use meetings, this one held at the Broome High School cafeteria. There were 100 people in the room. A presentation was made and then a fifteen-minute discussion let the frontier ghosts loose.

One white-haired old man in a shiny black suit stood up, and I thought it was 1890 and I’d spotted a frontier preacher. He said, “I hear people saying they want to tell their neighbors what to do with their property. But be careful with that, because you are giving your neighbors the right to tell you what to do with yours. And you’re giving the government the right to tell both of you.” He was one of the government haters so common on a frontier, and still common in Spartanburg today.

Another man, stood up and said, “We’ve all watched the east side grow. Then the north. Then, Boiling Springs. There’s always gong to be hot spots. People who live out in the country by themselves need to be left alone.” This man was like one of the old western land speculators that always inhabit a frontier because that’s where the easy opportunity is. I wondered if this frontier ghost meant the country people should be left alone even if speculators like him want their land for a subdivision once the hot spot shifts their way?

The final ghost I saw that evening was an old man who sat on the front row. He recalled a time before there even was a frontier. He had long hair and a long beard. He looked like Jeremiah Johnson in that Robert Redford movie about a Western trapper. The world he wanted to protect was wild and free. He said something like, “There’s bald eagles down on that river and fish. I want all that to be left alone.” He’s wrong in believing that without regulation his bald eagles and fish will survive the full settlement of the Spartanburg frontier.

Frederick Jackson Turner was an historian with a grand vision. He charted the line where the past ends and the future begins. He concluded that the closing of the American frontier would bring on another sort of human opportunity, to work out a shared public destiny on this continent.

If people live together there’s no escaping law and regulation and planning. Frontiers open and a few people make lots of money in such lands of opportunity. Frontiers close, and some opportunities diminish. Shared laws and regulations protect more people, and Spartanburg is behind the curve on this issue. We need to close the Spartanburg land-use frontier with a good land-use plan.

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