The following is by Charlotte McGuinn Freeman, who has contributed previously and we hope will soon join the Ethicurean kitchen formally. Charlotte writes the LivingSmall blog from Livingston, Montana; she is the author of the novel Place Last Seen (Picador, 2000).
Alice Waters is everywhere right now, doing press for her new book, and the old argument over whether "Alice is an Elitist" is getting a fair amount of play – Adam at Amateur Gourmet thinks perhaps yes, while David Lebowitz (who worked at Chez Panisse for a long time) says no. Personally, I have no idea. But I do know that her name is being bandied about my Livingston, Montana, neighborhood these days in conjunction with a gated development of big, luxury second homes, and I am concerned.
The Ameya Preserve (careful, the website has so much Flash and music that High Country News featured it in its list of Irritating Websites) has come roaring into the Paradise Valley with all sorts of promises about how green it is, and how it’s going to be the place where “nature meets culture.”
The problem is, none of these claims have been backed up. It says it is a “wildlife preserve” but there are no conservation easements. It boasts that it will be “carbon neutral,” but the plan for carbon neutrality turns out to involve planting thousands of trees on the developer’s home estate in North Dakota (incidentally, not an ecosystem known for its ability to support tree growth). And it claims to be "green," yet the marketing is aimed at "that rare individual who can live anywhere he or she wants.” Says Wade Dokken, the developer: "It's really a private national park that you can live in luxury in."
I hate to be the one to point it out, but luxury and sustainability are contradictory values.
Here’s where Alice Waters comes into the picture. All of the current advertising for the Ameya Preserve — including the 2007 Neiman Marcus Christmas Catalog — trumpets her involvement. Alice may or may not be an elitist in person, but she has aligned herself with a developer and a project that is openly and unabashedly elitist.
The Christmas Catalog promises that Alice herself will cook your dinner if you buy a 10-acre site. The price tag: $2.3 million, in an area where the average home price is around $150,000 and the median income hovers just below $40,000. The press releases on the Ameya website claim she’s building a culinary school. Over on Epicurious, Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl announces Alice’s involvement and gushes that this school is part of her dream to “begin by teaching our students to raise the food that they served.”
Reichl also says that Ameya’s plans include “resident MacArthur Fellows to think big thoughts. And resident farmers to grow great food.” So I suppose Alice isn’t planning to come out and demonstrate for us how to dry-farm at altitude. Or to try to teach the rich people who are going to buy these $2.3 million second homes to grow their own vegetables.
No, they’ll have “resident farmers” for that — like exhibits in a zoo. Sorry, I mean, in a “private national park.”
The early press on Ameya was good, and those of us who live here were hopeful that we might actually wind up with a green development. Dokken, the developer, cited Ted Turner as a model, and he seemed genuinely interested in building something less environmentally destructive than the typical 5- to 25-acre ranchettes that have been such a blight across the inter-mountain West. But as we asked harder questions, as we pushed for legally binding conservation easements, as we opposed the sale of two sections of public land to the Ameya development, then Dokken accused those of us who questioned the project as being driven by “class envy.” He claims to be bringing all this culture to our valley, but he’s not bringing it here for the public – his MacArthur Fellows and musicians and artists will be up there behind the gate.
As my friend Maryanne famously said to the woman giving us the sales pitch, “But we already have an artistic community – it’s called town.” Livingston and the Paradise Valley are full of rich people and artists and movie stars and famous writers. But there are also ranchers and former cult members and old hippies and regular old families raising kids. The charm and wonder of our home has always been its lack of elitism: The rich people and movie stars send their kids to the public schools. We all come together to pitch in for the same events, like Bark in the Park (Humane Society) and the Fourth of July Parade — and the all-volunteer Christmas Dinner at the Civic Center, where we make sure that no one in town goes without a hot Christmas Dinner served with love. We have public lectures when someone interesting comes to town. The former Nashville music producer turned Livingston resident celebrated her 50th birthday with a public concert where her friends Rodney Crowell and Johnny Cowan and Roseanne Cash all played.
We are a community. We try, as hard as we can, not to be elitist: to listen when our neighbors who've ranched or railroaded here for generations try to tell us newcomers how they feel and why they feel that way. We’re not always successful, but we keep trying.
I cannot see how a gated development of second-homeowners who will fly in and out on their private jets can be called sustainable or viewed as contributing to the health of our community. So I cannot understand why Alice Waters — someone who has always seemed to be deeply invested in the health of real communities, someone who wanted to build a restaurant that was like a home, someone who is creating gardens in underserved elementary schools, someone who is actively promoting real, slow, actual food purchased from real farmers – I cannot understand why she has lent her support to a developer who seems to represent everything that is antithetical to real community-building.
I've long harbored hopes of writing Laurie Colwin-style food pieces, and I’m sure that this piece isn’t going to do my nascent food-writing career any good. But this is my home. This is the community that came together to save me when my beloved younger brother was killed in a car wreck. A couple of weeks after his death, I was faced with clearing out his apartment. I am good at coping with things, but Patrick’s apartment was something I really couldn’t cope with, and so I put out the word: I need help.
Nearly 20 people showed up that Saturday morning, some of whom I didn’t even know. They brought horse trailers they’d hosed out, and they carefully folded and packed his clothes, cleaned out the kitchen cupboards, and carried all his furniture and belongings to a storage unit. Even those who were my friends didn’t know me that well; I’d only been here a year. But it didn’t matter. Someone among us was in trouble, and so they all came. They pitched in because that is what we do here. So if my choice is between a nascent food-writing career and my home, my decision is easy.
And so I’m asking Alice:
Why are you involved in a development project that seems to run against the very grain of what you believe in – community, connection, real food, real people?