The Suburbs

I grew up in a small city next to a large city, and I have always lived in cities. My grandparents lived in small town (3000 people), and we often spent summers with them when I was a child. My parents now live in a rural area, in a town that has no traffic lights and perhaps three stop signs.

From this experience, when I am in a city, I may not know where I am, but I feel that I always know more or less what kind of place I am in. This is true not only in the U.S., but also in my travels in countries like Japan and India. Similarly, when I am in the country, while I am not a part of the local society, I feel that I more or less understand how that society works.

On the other hand, I do not have these feelings in the suburbs, or the recently christened exurbs. I recently happened to drive through Fremont, California, a classic suburb on the outskirts of Silicon Valley. I once again felt the feeling I always feel in the suburbs, which is that I don’t know where I am. I don’t understand how the society works. Some Europeans in the African bush have describe the situation of being lost a hundred steps from the caravan, simply because they were unable to recognize the features in the terrain which distinguished one path from another; that is how I feel in the suburbs.

The suburbs are essentially the city writ large: neighborhoods become subdivisions; shopping districts (squares, as we say where I grew up in Massachusetts) become shopping malls and strip malls; the downtown area where most people work becomes the city proper. But recreating the city in the large changes its essential character. In particular, people are forced to drive everywhere. It is hardly an original observation that the suburbs were created by the car and depend upon the car. And it is likewise unoriginal to observe that driving everywhere puts you in complete control of your environment. You go only the places you want to go, you see only the places you want to see.

In the city, the other inhabitants of the city are part of your environment, for better or for worse. You can not avoid seeing people who are very different from yourself, although you certainly can and do avoid talking to them. You can not avoid passing through places that are not your destination. Chance meetings of acquaintances are routine. Serendipitous discoveries, of a new restaurant, an interesting house, a small shop, are commonplace.

In the countryside, you deal with the same people day in and day out, and you come to know them, at least superficially. There are only two people who run the cash register at the local store. There is only one auto mechanic. There are no plumbers. There are several town eccentrics of one stripe or another. While a newcomer is rarely truly accepted, it does not take long to make a nodding acquaintance with many of the locals. Gossip covers everybody who lives in the town.

The suburbs are in between. You control who you see, but the people at the supermarket and the mall are by and large anonymous. The most uncontrolled situation, the place where you might meet anybody, is at church. This ability to control who you see and to preserve your privacy and anonymity is attractive, but I think the price is a tendency to feel disconnected from modern society in all its complexity, to feel that all ordinary people are much like yourself, to start to think that people who seriously disagree with you must be not merely mistaken or misguided but actually ignorant and/or evil.

I don’t want to overstate the case. These tendencies exist in all places for all people, and my feeling that the suburbs encourage them, and my general discomfort in the suburbs, may be due mostly to lack of familiarity. I continue to struggle to understand why people choose to live in the suburbs. I can see the advantages in space, in having places for your children to roam safely, but the price seems so high. And raising children in a safe but constricted environment seems like a risky choice in general, not conducive to their future happiness, though certainly one that is appropriate for some children.

I want to close with an observation. I don’t like to drive, and I prefer to use public transportation. Most suburbs are in fact accessible by buses, at least if you are willing to walk up to a mile. I’ve used buses in suburbs in Massachusetts, California and Washington (state). I am normally the only middle aged male on these buses, at least the only who isn’t hunched in a corner muttering to himself. The other people on the buses are usually teenagers (the buses normally travel to and from malls) and women who I suspect work as house cleaners or other jobs along those lines. For most people in the suburbs–the people I am visiting–the ability to travel without a car is akin to stage magic: wholly baffling until explained, at which point it seems more like a waste of time for a grown man. For me, though, riding the bus in the suburbs is not merely an eccentricity; it is the only time in the suburbs that I feel that I actually know where I am.

2 Comments »

  1. bje said,

    December 20, 2005 @ 10:11 pm

    I think you might enjoy a book called “Carfree Cities” by J.H. Crawford. It’s a thought provoking book that discusses the liveability and aesthetics of cities that are not designed around the car. I found it to be a really nice read on civic design.

  2. bje said,

    December 23, 2005 @ 12:49 am

    I happened across this editorial piece today as well:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,5673,1671053,00.html

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