Sunday, May 18, 2008

Why I hate the suburbs (or at least harbor a strong dislike)

I grew up in a typical New Jersey suburb, with highways on each side, and no real sense of "town." Sure, we had a small strip mall within walking distance, where there was a grocery store, a drug store, a 5 & 10, a beauty shop, a deli, and a pizza parlor. Some other shops sprung up around the highway, but when the main drag is called Route 27, and the speed limit is 40 (at least), this hardly constitutes a Main Street.

My "home town" of Edison, New Jeresy
is an ironic town. It surrounds Metuchen, New Jersey--an older, established town that once had a thriving Main Street, complete with a movie theater and department store. Edison's "Main Street" on the North End of town was and is the Menlo Park Mall. It once housed a Montgomery Ward, Walgreens Drugstore, Woolworth's (both with lunch counters), and Bambergers. It mimicked Main Street: technically everything a post WWII middle-class family could want. Now, it is rather nice upscale mall...

My how times have changed this suburb! The world of Edison Township was supposed to be the WWII vet's dreamland, where he and his new, young family could have their own plot of land outside of the evil cities (that became more "evil" with the riots of the '60's and the porn theaters of the '70's.) It never really was. In some ways, it was for my parents, who both grew up on farms. The suburbs afforded them a small plot of land for a rather large vegetable garden and the same sort social isolation that was always possible out the the "country."

I sometimes joke about the rich life of the Edison suburb, where you can roll out of bed and find a strip mall with Chinese food, Italian food, Indian food, and a bagel shop that will give you lox with a schmear of cream cheese if you ask for it. Yet that sense of multiculturalism through side-by-side shared cuisine belies the simple fact that the suburbs are still awful, isolating places, where there's no immediate sense of cohesive community. The architecture is flat and ever changing. Sometimes I can see the remnants of the architecture I grew up with--that strange amalgam of 50's and 60's pop culture that I see when I look at books on advertising from that era. That kind of architecture though, wasn't meant to last--much of it, like the mall, has been gutted and replaced with what should serve a late 20th century community's perception of itself. Hence, the upscale-ness of the Menlo Park Mall....

James Howard Kunstler's talk at TED on the "Tragedy of Suburbia" nicely sums up the troubles with suburbia, how we have since the end of WWII created places that have created environments that force abandonment of civic life and civic engagement. These are they are places "not worth caring about" and I hate to say that, in many respects, he is right:

Someone asked me the other day if any of my life dreams had come true. To some degree, living in a small New England town is one of those dreams-come-true. For most of my life I yearned for a "town"--a place with a Main Street where I could walk to a grocery store if I needed something for dinner, and maybe even see and say hello to neighbors now and again. Places where there might be a church I could walk to and organizations I could be a part of that I didn't require a short drive. I live in that place now, over an art gallery, that's next to a bakery (how convenient!) and an ice cream parlor. This morning I was treated the the sirens and horn blasts of the vehicle parade for Big Rig Day, and soon the town will host the Junior Trout Fishing Derby at the pond behind my apartment. It's taken me a bit to get used to small townness--even though I'm extroverted, I've got that ingrained sense of suburban life, where you sit mostly in your house, have to drive everywhere, and don't really talk to anyone else if you don't want to. I sometimes wonder if the folks I encounter who I think may be unfriendly are also suburban refugees, who learned the lessons I did--or if it really *is* something about the locals, who already have their friends and aren't interested in making any more thankyouverymuch.

Or if it's just me--who has New Jersey suburban social skills that don't quite graft to Massachusetts country social skills.

Beyond the social, I find the way of life on my little street to be quite wonderful. I don't have to drive to get a watch battery replaced--there's a jeweler's nearby. I don't have to drive to a video store--there are two within walking distance, and one is staffed by a guy who knows a whole bunch about movies. There's a record store, great coffee shops, a number of places where you can get a good meal (although nothing in the way of "fine dining") and we recently got a dollar store (the 21st century equivalent of the 5 & 10.) There are often things to do "in town" or at least nearby Sure, I'm not within driving distance of the Big City, and I think my dating prospects are probably quite dismal--but then again, I don't really need to drive to the Big City to go see a good musical act, and there's a distinct possibility that a really nice middle-aged single guy *is* here, just not doing the online dating thing (which, whether it's eHarmony or is still a disconcerting and surreal experience. We cannot sum up our lives nor our True Selves in 200 words or less.)

In some ways, I miss life in New Jersey--I love the pace there, the ways in which I found more people who were into the stuff I love. But then again, the suburban life just isn't for me. I've looked too, at the urban life of cities like Boston and New York. To live in Boston I'd have to pay at close to three times what I pay for the place I live now. Lord knows what it would cost me for an apartment in New York that's perhaps only half the size. Not to mention that both Boston and New York might be more noisy than where I'm at now--which, even for "town" is fairly quiet.

Now, don't get me wrong about the Big City. I adore the Big City--esp. New York City! So much so that, on some days, it bothers me that I'm not close to New York. But if the choice is to live in the suburbs in order to get withing striking distance of a city like New York, I'm really not sure that I want to take that kind of trade-off. Besides, just because one lives within striking distance doesn't mean that one can fully enjoy the social milieu of the Big City. There is usually that
"drive home".....

So, for now, I'll stay where I'm at--living this small dream of small town life. Today I have to walk up to the grocery store and get some vegetables to go with tonight's roasted chicken dinner. I may even see a few folks I know, or at least have a nodding acquaintance with. I'll sit in the back, by the pond, reading for a bit and watching the birds. I'll think about hopping the train for a weekend in NYC, which I can afford. And if I choose not to do any of this, it won't be because I dread traversing the suburban sprawl or lack the gas to get there.

(thanks to George Johnson of Buffalo Rising for the link to the Kunstler talk....)


Daniel said...

I flopped at suburban living.

The nice thing about "good" urban living is that healthy cities and neighborhoods scale to transportation. Charleston isn't exactly bike-friendly, but I've been bike commuting for more than a year and it's improved every aspect of my life. And with a few changes to the way the city handles transportation and zoning issues (more bike safety features, more mixed-use planning) we'll quickly recover the livability we lost to cars in the mid-20th century.

Ultimately, I question whether commercial districts that were planned to serve multiple towns/communities and designed around access to expressways and cheap parking can remain viable.

All our friends gladly pay a bit more to shop at local merchants, happily buy locally grown produce at the weekly farmer's market, etc. But suburban living is based on disconnects, barriers and the efficiencies of division and category. It breaks down human connection and replaces it with organization.

Give me a messy, imperfect city any day.

Tish Grier said...

Thanks, Daniel! Sounds like Charleston's doing great things to get itself back to the type of city that is needed in the U.S.--not the huge metro cities (I'm thinking NYC/Boston/SF) but the medium and small sized, live-able cities. The places that suffered from "white flight" but hopefully will begin to grow again.

Out here in W. Mass, though, our biggest problems to revitalization are jobs and mass transportation. We haven't quite found the right jobs to replace the lost manufacturing jobs. And without the right (and enough) jobs, the mass transit doesn't get a second look....

I wonder what the job situation is in Charleston? What sort of economy does it support? and perhaps that helps the sense of place...

As my day here has gone on, I've thought more about cities--and that while my block is like a piece of a city, there are city things I miss.

Daniel said...

Charleston is at risk economically because the labor market remains relatively low-wage, as does much of the South, while the real estate market remains relatively inflated because people love to be here. This one dichotomy -- more than mass transit -- threatens urban life here. It's hard to work a regular job and live in the urban core, which happens to be a peninsula.

The obvious answer is to work to attract more post-industrial jobs, and the quality of life chip helps there. But Charleston is famously dismissive of anything new.

My experiences in big cities suggest that the larger ones function as a neighborhoods with distinct identities. Charleston peninsular population would fit within, say, the East Village. But it is limited by transportation issues.

Its density is limited because of historic preservation (which is generally good), and it can't grow vertically because of its geology. That affects the critical mass for mass transit, which will have to be 100 percent surface, because you can't put a subway in a place like Charleston.

So: Bad traffic, lots of bridges, a struggling bus system, sprawling suburbs, inflated housing prices and a moderately balanced economy that nevertheless rises and falls with the seasonal tourist cycle.

Here's a video essay I did earlier this month on how these trends are affecting the arts community -- by driving it to neighboring North Charleston.

Claire said...

This is an excellent distillation of the downside of suburbia - and I know exactly what you mean about the pros and cons of Easthampton (I lived in Florence, Northampton, and Amherst from 98-04). Now I live in NYC, and I teach at a public high school in Brooklyn, and I was looking for a good article to give my students for a debate they're preparing for on whether the suburbs, the city, or small towns are the best place to raise kids. This will be very useful - thank you!

Tish Grier said...

Thanks so much Claire! I'm so glad this article will be useful to your students. IMO, we don't talk enough about the pros/cons of where we live, and the fact that we don't have to stay there if we don't want to. I really like what Kuntsler had to say as well, about the architecture/planning (or lack thereof) in the suburbs. yeesh!

If you can, let me know how your students fair with their assignment :)

Miss Suburbia said...

I hate the suburbs too! I live in the Northern Virginia area of Washington, DC. This place is full of people who want to tuck themeselves deeply away from all the "scary things" in life. I have documented some of my experiences of living in the area. I hope you find them to a funny and interesting read at

Miss Lauren said...

I really enjoyed reading this article. I Live in a city neighborhood and find it nice to chat with my neighbors who live twenty feet away, usually while gardening or some other outdoor chores. I drive my son to pre k, work full time, etc. I average 800 miles a month on my car. Every weekend we drive to the country 25 miles away, for hiking, biking, swimming, etc. I enjoy the respite that rural life/nature provide. I find the city a great , affordadable, convienient place to live. Each house is different. Plenty of beutiful parks to walk to on sidewalks.
Well lit streets. Friendly people, mostly. Sense of community. Just love it!

Anonymous said...

I guffawed at Miss Suburbia's comment! I lived in Northern Virginia twice - in my 20s, when I loved it (being my first time away from home, independent, and too cool for words), the second time in the 2000s, when I was well into my 30s, and asking "what was i thinking? this place sucks!".
Pittsburgh, PA, my home now, is actually a very good city for quality of life. Like a lot of places, its suburbanites will put up with monster rush hour traffic (made worse by tunnels)for who know s what reason. Maybe they assume the worst without knowing all parts, and all aspects, of this fine city.