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 Match.com 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
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....)