Synergy Drive

Synergy– NOUN

Def – The interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects, i.e.,‘the synergy between artist and record company’ (English Oxford Living Dictionary)

Here we are in a country with more wheat, and more corn, more money in the banks, and more cotton, more everything in the world. There’s not a product that you can name that we haven’t got more of it than any country ever had on the face of the earth and yet we’ve got people starving. We’ll hold the distinction of being the only nation in the history of the world that ever went to the poor house in an automobile. – Will Rogers (1931)

Some weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend professional meetings in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.  Uniontown is a delightful old community, the seat of Fayette County and a waystation for the original National Road, now Route 40.  Founded on July 4th1776, the town now has 10,000 inhabitants and a rich history which intersects with The French and Indian War, the underground railroad, coal and mining history and labor unrest.  Arguably its most famous son was George C. Marshall, Eisenhower’s boss during WWII and the architect of the eponymously named Plan that saved Europe from economic catastrophe after said war.

The meetings were held at a hotel a few miles west of town and outside of the Route 119 belt in what could be best described as a 10-year old Miracle Mile-type development including a Walmart, shopping centers, chain restaurants, and two other hotels.  At least that’s what I could see perched on the front entrance of the hotel overlooking US 40 below. (

I was on my own for dinner and decided in the interest of time to take a meal at the Applebee’s off in the distance to the right.  I also thought I might get something for breakfast at the Walmart, which my laptop assured me was also a grocery store.  Those of you that know me, know I am a stubborn person and in fear of having my 66-year old legs lock up during long meetings, I decided that I needed to walk.  The total distance was only about a mile, so off I went.

Once I had left the lobby of the hotel, I discovered the sidewalks disappeared.  No problem.  I marched down the side of the potted and cracked entrance road, looking like a poor man’s I-78.  Reaching US 40, I availed myself of both the crosswalk and the pedestrian signal crossing, reaching the other side of the road with no concerns and no knowledge of what awaited.

Our helpful signal crossing
My hotel on the upper left. Sidewalks anyone?

Oddly, the sidewalk I expected did not appear immediately, but about 20 yards ahead. Putting my feet firmly on concrete and off the road, I continued my foray toward dinner and groceries. Gazing ahead, there was a side road that seemed to be in the direction of my planned meal, along Synergy Drive. That sounded promising. After all, Synergy Drive is what Toyota calls their hybrid system we have on our Prius.  As I made my turn into Synergy Drive, I searched for a sidewalk, or at least a path to be had.  Actually, on the side facing traffic where you would normally walk, there was a guiderail protecting cars from driving into a ditch, but also protecting any perspective pedestrians from perambulating into that portion of the path. Stubbornness put me into an unsafe situation, so of course I pressed on.

Our Synergy Drive

In addition to walking in the road that had no shoulder, it was dusk, no lighting except for the businesses, and I wasn’t all that visible.  Cars seemed to see me though and I made it to the crossroad with my destination and dinner on the other side.  Crosswalks anyone? Nope.  Traffic island? Nope.  Cars zipping in both directions in and out? Yep.  Patience bought me time to get across safely and take my meal.  I have nothing against Applebee’s but that is not my usual choice.  When placed against All-Star Asian Buffet, Arbys, Bob Evans, IHOP, and Sonic, it became my least worst choice.  I was looking for a beer and something lighter, like a salad.

What passes for a sidewalk

Having eaten, I wormed my way further into the shopping center, toward the Walmart and breakfast foods.  In addition to the Shopping Center having no sidewalks and no crosswalks, the roads had been neatly and carefully gridded so that each street was separated vertically from the next, much like the terraced fields in the highlands of Mexico.  Each road had no shoulder, only a guiderail keeping you from a 10 foot drop. Thoughtful for driver safety, but not traversable on foot.

Because you are reading this after the fact, you can assume I made the trip to the Walmart and back to my room.  Cheese, fruit, yoghurt.  Mostly retracing my route, I did find remnants of worn grass where other adventurers had ventured.

I would summarize the trip as essentially impassable on foot.  No pedestrian access, no sidewalks, no crosswalks, no shoulder, no lighting.  This was surprising as there were two other hotels in the same complex as the shopping center.  On the trip down and back, I saw exactly one other pedestrian on foot. Actually it was a teenager on a skateboard and therefore not a pedestrian. How did any of the other guests get their meals?  Were they all hermetically sealed into the hotels?  Were they on complimentary breakfast-only diets?  I didn’t want to think that they would drive the couple hundred feet from their lobbies to these establishments.

And what establishments – chain restaurants notable for high sugar, high fat, high carbohydrate meals.  When checking out potential places to eat near the hotel, I came across the Route 40 Diner, less than a mile from the hotel.  Real diners are a gift from the gods and I had it penciled in for at least 5 of the 4 meals I had planned to take.  A (historic) diner meal on the National Road.  What the map failed to disclose was the most recent review was 5 months old and the place had closed,  probably from competition from the chains.

For me, the whole episode equates to what we used to call a first world problem.  I was minorly inconvenienced.  But I do wonder what logic prevents groups of guests in the three neighboring hotels from being able to walk a short distance to their amenities, my polite choice for these chain restaurants and Walmart? And logic was in play as this was clearly not an accidental development.  Everything was organized for vehicular traffic flow and I’m sure it never occurred to the planners and developers that people might want to not be in their vehicles 24/7.

Synergy – The interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.

Nowhere in the definition does it require that the combined effect of synergy be positive. America has an obesity crisis (among many crises).  In Pennsylvania, Fayette County is ground zero. 2015 health data has Fayette County’s obesity rate at 41%, highest in the state.  Fayette Countians exercise less and smoke more.  Should I add that Fayette County with a 17.9% poverty rate is the third poorest in the State. Only Philadelphia and Forest Counties have a higher poverty rate.  

That same 2015 survey measured the Food Environment Index, which is a combined measure of access to healthy foods and food insecurity.  Fayette County was second only to Philadelphia as having the worst Food Environment Index.  Leaving aside the fact this new development was a “good food” desert, the Walmart grocery was completely packed.  But the produce and dairy selections were somewhat limited, highly prepackaged, and non-organic, although I could find the basics. 

So to address poverty, obesity, and food insecurity, the planners and developers in Fayette County throw out another strip mall development to accommodate visitors and offers service jobs for the locals. The same poor planning that fosters obesity, food deserts, and the low paying jobs that keep people poor.  The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania also participated with almost $20 million in redevelopment funds and an extension road to connect the development to the Mon-Fayette Turnpike Road.  Synergy Drive.

The tradition of screwing the poor is a long one. On the site of this 2008 shopping center development was the County Poor House and Farm, built in 1825.  The imposing building appears to have been torn down, and the farm with it. The complex also contained a burial ground most likely for those unfortunate individuals who died at the Poor House or could not afford a decent Christian burial.  Most of the graves were unmarked but this did not deter the County Redevelopment Authority, who owned the land from redeveloping it.  Were all of these unmarked graves with no apparent descendants or advocates carefully located and reburied?  As an archaeologist in Pennsylvania, I would say unlikely, especially referencing the cryptic statement from Larry Golden (see link below on US Cemetery Project).  You might say that this redevelopment not only succeeded in creating jobs and putting Fayette County’s best foot forward, but also succeeded in erasing the past, specifically the history of the county poor. 

Fayette County Home, early 20th Century
Fayette County Cemetery Memorial

The United States Cemetery Project

The wealthy always have options, whether it’s eating at one of the good restaurants in Uniontown or having the time to drive to the better supermarkets.  The poor will always be with us.  But between the poor houses of the 19thcentury and the poor planning of the 21stcentury, why do we have to be so systematically and cooperatively oppressive? Synergy Drive, indeed.

2019 Vicinity
1931 Vicinity
1939 Vicinity