Did you ever notice that pop culture tends to either scorn or mock the suburb?
The dis-satisfaction of suburban life has been captured with shows such as “Desperate Housewives,” and movies such as “American Beauty.”
The song, “Little Boxes,” sums it up this way: “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same. There’s a green one, and a pink one, and a blue one, and a yellow one, and they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same. And the people in the houses all went to the university where they all were put in boxes, little boxes all the same.” (See Pete Seeger perform it here.)
And yet, a majority of Americans choose to live in a suburb — it’s the expected way of life for so many. I spent my high school years in Willingboro, N.J., which is one of the original Levittowns — post-World War II townships of nearly identical home types and curved streets that are divided into neat sections, called parks.
My particular town experienced a white flight in the 1960’s, as blacks from Philadelphia earned enough money to move to the suburbs and somehow settled on Willingboro, thus scaring the whites about falling property values, and the whites moved away. (My family didn’t get the memo, I’m proud to say.) And thus, the town’s racial makeup is now largely black. But it’s still middle class suburb, all the way.
Since becoming an adult, I have chosen to live in cities. It’s been difficult for me to pinpoint why the city is so much more satisfying to me*.
What is it about the city? Why is it that my husband and I pay a premium to fit our lives into 1,000 square feet, when we could trade that in for three times the space farther away?
I’m probably more provincial than any suburbanite: I never leave my Seattle neighborhood, save to go to the airport to travel someplace entirely different. I once joked that I get to Washington, D.C. more often than I get to Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, which is just a few miles away.
I never have to leave, and I love it. My address has a walkability score of 98. I nearly always am wearing flats and a spring dress or yoga clothes. I walk to church, to the grocery store, to the coffee shop, to the dentist, to Seattle Center, to the park, to the playground, to yoga. My whole life fits into a one-square mile radius. And it’s not boring at all — it’s wholly and completely satisfying.
Well, I just picked up a fascinating book, called Suburban Nation, that explains things I’ve often wondered about.
Humanity has for much of its history lived within walking distance of its daily needs. The book differentiates between the “traditional neighborhood,” like the one in which I live, and the suburb, a largely American creation that became popular after World War II.
So here’s my duh realization: Daily life has multiple components: Sleeping, eating, shopping, working and recreation. The suburb serves to separate each of these components via residential subdivision, strip mall, office park and entertainment center. They are each separated by geography, and then connected via feeder roads, making life wholly dependent upon a car.
The design, then, and zoning laws require large parking lots in front of the buildings. The entire landscape is built for cars, not people. You’ll notice that most suburban homes have a driveway that leads to the sidewalk. Whereas, most homes in the city have walkways that go front porch to sidewalk. My Seattle neighborhood is (frustratingly sometimes!) not built for cars — I will often walk two miles rather than give up a coveted parking spot on the street.
Meanwhile, the suburb is “isolation en masse.” This works for a lot of people, particularly those with children*. (I can’t imagine struggling to find for parking, groceries and little tykes in tow. Garage = luxury.)
So that explains it, for me. I love being near lots of people, though I don’ t necessarily always talk with them. I run into people I know as I go about my daily life, and I stop and say hello, and it brings me sheer joy every time. I’m so totally in love with my urban community on the hill.
*I’m writing this while visiting some very close friends, who live in a spacious home in a gorgeous suburb of San Francisco. The lifestyle differences among people don’t make some of us wrong and some of us right, they just make us different. My family still lives in a suburb and thinks I’m crazy for choosing a life of parking hassles and an expensive mortgage relative to the amount of space we get. Still offended? Watch this Sesame Street clip on YouTube.
What do you think? Why do some people pay a premium to live small in the city while others buy giant homes in the ‘burbs?