Yearning to breathe untainted air, the band of harried urbanites flocked to this parched, wild land, bringing along their dreams of a free and uncomplicated life.
But unlike the bedraggled pioneers who settled the American West, the first inhabitants of Jackson Hole, a resort community on the outskirts of the Chinese capital, arrived by Audi and Land Rover, their trunks filled with French wine and their bank accounts flush with cash.
Over the past decade, more than a thousand families have settled into timber-frame houses with generous backyards, on streets with names like Aspen, Moose and Route 66. On Sundays, some worship at a clapboard church that anchors the genteel town square, outfitted with bronze cowboys and a giant Victrola that sprays water.
Jackson Hole--the Chinese version that is--is on the cusp of Hebei Province, where it meets the sprawling Beijing municipality.
It's easy to chuckle and poke fun at the Chinese frontier "wannabes," but the story reminded me of this piece nearly a decade ago, out of Florida, which tapped into some similar sentiments, myths and--yes, cache--regarding the rural. The headline is "In Florida, a Big Developer is Counting on Rural Chic," and Abby Goodnough's story tells of a new development in the Florida panhandle:
What is a striving Florida developer to do when most of its vast holdings are not beach chic but rural, remote and mosquitoey?
The St. Joe Company, which owns 800,000 mostly inland acres here in the scrubby pine forests of the Panhandle, is invoking Thoreau.
The company, Florida's largest private landowner, is pushing "new ruralism," a concept it hopes will entice city and suburban dwellers who are weary of civilization and long to own a tractor, a pickup truck, or at least a kayak and a few large dogs.
Goodnough reports that the homes in so called RiverCamps are "in a design proudly called 'Cracker Modern." I cannot imagine what led St. Joe to appropriate the word "cracker" because of its long-standing negative associations with rurality and, indeed, with "white trash." But what else could be behind the play on "cracker"? The average price for a lot/site at RiverCamps is $342,900 just for the land. Per acre prices are expected to be lower farther inland, at developments called Florida Ranches (150 acres, catering to hunters) and WhiteFence Farms (5- to 20-acre lots near fields and ponds where "farmhands" will be available to to help mow the meadow using the owner's tractor)
Goodnough characterizes these Florida developments as "corporate reinvention of new urbanism, an antisprawl movement that advocates compact, old-fashioned towns where residents can commune in parks, shops and restaurants within walking distance of their homes. Instead of connecting with neighbors, new ruralism promotes connecting with the land -- though these cabins in the woods come with wireless Internet access and porches with screens that unfurl by remote control."
All in all, what St. Joe did in Florida is not so different to the re-branding of rural and frontier in Jackson Hole, China--though the Jackson Hole brand is clearly different to the varieties of rural reflected in RiverCamps, WhiteFence Farms and Florida Ranches.