By clicking the link below, you’ll find four selections from Shaw’s intermittent series about the transformation of a Minnesota farm into a high-end subdivision. Shaw follows the project from the farm’s last harvest through the process of planning and building 2,100 homes.
As news reports these stories would likely be dull. But by following the sources as characters, treating the events as plot—by taking the stance of a sort of companionable, behind-the-scenes spy—Shaw crafts a series that is engaging and informative.
We asked Shaw to tell us about the goals and challenges of his project. Here’s what he e-mailed us:
The balance has been tipped—America is now a nation of suburbs. Suburbia, where more than half of us live, is a place of numbing monotony. Everything from street width to home colors is regulated. It’s also where virtually all the nation’s growth is occurring.
To understand this growth, the Pioneer Press decided in 2004 to write a diary of a single massive suburban project, the development of an old farm. I wrote about the final harvest of the land and the history of the storied farm, once the largest in the state.
As months turned into years, I followed the progress on all fronts—marketing, advertising, home architecture and the gauntlet of bureaucratic hurdles. When work on the site began, I covered the project from the depths of the sewer trenches to the top of the renovated 80-year-old dairy barn.
We plan to end this series with a story on the finances driving the $2 billion project and the final summary when the first buyer moves into the first home.
We faced several challenges. One was gaining the trust of developers. They have been demonized in the press and feel beleaguered. Eventually, I was able to get into their private meetings and negotiation sessions.
The initial structure of the stories proved impossible. I thought I would write monthly journal entries, almost like a diary of a development. The problem was that it was chaotic to keep abreast, month by month, of disparate areas such as advertising, planning, sewer installation and architecture.
We decided to write themed articles—separate stories with the sub-plots of the master narrative. These dealt with everything from architecture to environmental red tape.
The disadvantage was that these turned out to be mid-course snapshots, written before the issues were resolved. But the payoff was simplicity. Readers responded well to the streamlined narrative approach to single topics.
Finally, this project was envisioned as a one-year series of stories, ending when the first house was occupied. As of September 2006 the project is running more than one year late. This has forced us to stretch out the series, and produce stories for which we never originally planned.
Read “Homestead to Homes,” by Bob Shaw