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Because of Winn-Dixie 

It could be the heat, or it could be the paranoia I feel between the successive releases of the new zombie flick Land of the Dead and the new Spielberg-Cruise meltdown called War of the Worlds. But when, in the span of a single week, the north side of inner Durham lost two supermarkets, I felt the doomsday chill on the back of my otherwise sweltering neck.

Although the loss of the Northgate Harris-Teeter and the announced closing of the Avondale Winn-Dixie might be of limited interest to the Whole Foods shopper, the demise of essential retail stores in unfashionable neighborhoods is a harbinger of a very serious problem. I actually have no great love for my Winn-Dixie--a store with a habit of selling me sour Horizon milk--but it's within walking distance of my house and a regular ambulatory destination for me and my dog.

Now that the death knell has sounded for Winn-Dixie, the giant asphalt void that already contains a dead Kmart and a dead seven-screen Carmike multiplex (which is supposed to reopen as a venue for Spanish-language movies) will get a little bit bigger. Winn-Dixie employees tell me there is talk of a competitor like Lowe's Foods taking over the space, but it's hard to see why another buyer would want to move into an obscurely located facility whose sole remaining large tenant is a store that sells cut-rate knickknacks. In the absence of such a replacement, last week's double whammy will send more people to Wal-Mart for their food and, for Winn-Dixie employees, their new jobs.

While the downtown Durham retail spaces empty out, there's a very different narrative unfolding in what was formerly known as the countryside. My work as a film writer takes me to Raleigh frequently, and since I'm usually on my motorcycle, I take secondary roads. Everywhere I look, on U.S. 70, on 54, on 50, on Miami Boulevard, there are new, sterile residential developments and new, sterile shopping environments full of the same old stores. And 30- to 45-minute, increasingly expensive automobile commutes for the people who choose to live there.

I don't understand why anyone who is following events in the Middle East and the daily upward trajectory of oil prices would join this suburban land rush--borne on SUVs, the 21st century's approximation of covered wagons. But then, our country was founded on the belief that land, gold and oil are limitless. Our nation has grown great and powerful after four centuries of seemingly unlimited resources, and it's hard to shake the habits we've developed as a result.

But nowadays, China, which along with Japan holds a frightening amount of our Treasury bills, is making a play for Unocal. Meanwhile, former spooks like ex-FBI head Robert Gates and ex-C.I.A. honcho James Woolsey are busying themselves with war-gaming sudden drops in oil production. It won't take much--just an outbreak of civil violence in Nigeria, for example--to send this oil-addicted country back against the ropes. Oil pessimists say that we've already hit peak production, and even a recent study by an oil industry-financed think tank says production will peak in 2020. This, of course, is a big reason we're digging in for the long haul in Iraq by building permanent bases.

Most seasoned observers--like the oil buccaneer T. Boone Pickens--expect $3 gas to be a near-term reality, and it's probably not ever going to get cheaper. Right now, however, civic boosters are thrilling to the boom in suburban development while inner-core residents of Raleigh and Durham are increasingly obliged to travel outward to purchase their most basic necessities. Unfortunately, sanity doesn't appear to be in the offing, for there's massive denial and precious little leadership at the county and regional level. Someone, somewhere in the crazy quilt of Triangle governance needs to start a conversation about increasing urban density. We need to develop communities in which we live near our jobs and essential services and embrace hybrid cars, bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, buses, commuter rail and walking as common-sense conveniences rather than hardships.

In George Romero's entertaining zombie epic Land of the Dead, the post-apocalyptic surviving humans huddle together in a city. The countryside is the last place they want to be.

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