I’ve spent years avoiding the suburbs. To me they represented what’s wrong with humanity. urban sprawl, consumerism, tawdry artificiality, conformity. Why then do I find myself at this advanced age living on the outskirts of a major city, struggling to rationalize my choice.
Relax. An advantage of maturity lies in perspective. You come to see the relative unimportance of nearly everything, such as the length of your hair or hemline, the gain or loss of weight, the size of your bank balance. None of these labels for sociological topics, which frequently lead to heated debates and too often to useless legislation, are life and death.
As we mellowed though, we discovered we were tired of mowing lawns, shoveling snow, and cleaning a huge house. So we decided to downsize.
Soon we were forced to face one fact, in addition to the deteriorating condition of our bodies: inner cities lack reasonably priced housing with the full range of architectural options. We wanted a smaller place with no yard and a higher density population. Hence our move to a townhouse. But the styles we favored were unattainable in the city core. We expanded our search to the periphery.
The area we chose isn’t in truth a suburb because it’s located in the city proper. But it feels like a suburb because the housing and businesses all are relatively new, many of the trees are short enough to allow a view of the sky, and most residents must commute elsewhere to their place of work. Used to be suburbs left housewives isolated for all the waking hours, creating their own sub-culture. Our suburb relies heavily on nannies and preschools to handle childcare, creating a different category of people. But that’s a story separate from this one.
I moved willingly, perhaps even eagerly. But not without some qualms. Perhaps I was remembering the song from the 60s, by Malvina Reynolds. “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same. . .And they’re all made out of ticky tacky, And they all look just the same.” Anathema to me in my counter-culture youth.
So I decided to create a pro and con list of traits for our new residence. We all work through a process similar to this whenever we make a change, weighing what we hope will be good versus the negatives.
• Good: Change stimulates you. You open yourself to different experiences and learn from them.
• Bad: Big-box stores abound. These are large retail establishments, part of a chain. I feel they tend to encourage a robotic approach to employment and thought, as well as lack variety in the goods they carry.
• Good: I no longer need to feel guilty for shopping at Wal-Mart since it’s close to me and the wisest environmental choice.
• Bad: Because housing has restrictions, we’re forbidden from leaving useables and recyclables in the alley, a practice that helped homeless and poor as well as residents in our old place.
• Good: I get to undertake a lifestyle exercised by the majority of Americans. As a writer I find every experience, every detail to be valuable in my craft.
• Bad: Nearly every restaurant and major store is part of a chain, franchises which I dislike on principle, that they are solely profit-driven and rob people of their individuality and humanity (yes, I’m biased).
• Good: our town house has ten times the number of light sockets of our historic residence. Life is easier, as is relaxation, work, cleaning, etc.
• Bad: Homogeny is the rule in types of businesses. Because this is an upper-middle class enclave, this means cheap restaurants don’t exist.
• Good: Our house is smaller and newer, making it easier and faster to clean.
• Bad: We’re too far out to get quickly to big institutions I love, like the art museum and central library. I know we’ll be using them less frequently.
• Good: Surprisingly, the air is cleaner and fresher than our central city location.
• Bad: Diversity in range of residents’ income is negligible, resulting in our isolation from low income and poor people, immigrants, and accurate proportions of ethnicities. It’s far easier to ignore points of view and social concerns if you don’t even see people who differ from you.
• Good: We have a much better view of sunrises and sunsets because buildings and trees are lower and don’t block the view.
The worst thing about our new situation, as well as suburbs in general: their existence is predicated on constant growth. Developers, politicians, economists, and the general public equate economic growth with quality of life. Untrue. In my city, as across the country, people scurry to start new businesses, expand housing, launch economic efforts. My hometown is now a clone of Southern California and the East Coast. Structures stretch from sidewalk to sidewalk, with almost no natural or green areas. Autos clog the streets and pollute the air, despite attempts to encourage mass transit.
How much is too much? Will we fail to be content until every square inch of inhabitable land is covered with works of man? Then what?
We must find another method for evaluating what we mean by “improvement,” “quality of life,” and “excellence.” I have no objection to seeking progress. But, please, don’t define that as constant growth.
We need to realize that social phenomena like my new place in the suburbs with green buildings or utopian farming communities on rooftops and in the middle of urban areas are stop-gap measures. All well and good for the meantime. But they’re comparable to recycling plastic shopping bags. Regardless of the pride we take in carefully toting these items to the market to use again, they’re less than the weight of an eyelash compared to the tons of waste storming down on us daily, the hordes of new humans pushed out of wombs annually, the even-more urgent cries of the poor and war-torn to have some safety and security.