When we moved to the United States we ended up in what I call the suburban hinterland or “deep suburbs.” It was a house that was large enough to accommodate the five of us and truth be told, it was what we could afford. The third and final factor was the nearby public schools, which were walking or biking distance from the house, but more on the schools later.
Our circa 1970’s rental looked like all the other houses in our tract subdivision, something resembling the Brady Bunch house. It had been been freshly painted, newly carpeted and floored, and the cabinets and appliances in the kitchen had been updated. I was dazzled by the newness of the updates and the lot the home sat on was verging on acreage, not footage and it had a lovely western view of the foothills. The house itself was everything I could have hoped for in a rental.
If only I could have lifted it up and moved it.
We were a hair shy of living there for 2 years when we decided to pull up stakes. It was time to move to a more “urban” neighborhood, likely to the shock and dismay of the residents of this sleepy suburb.
Why would we swap this peaceful, spacious, clean and quiet neighbourhood for a more densely packed community where the perceived threat of “Idontknowwhat” exists?
I recall a brief conversation, if you could call it that, I had with an Uber driver who drove me home from the airport one day. She said, “Oh! It’s so nice out here. It’s clean and quiet and the houses look so nice!”
Here’s what I think: clean, in my mind, is antiseptic and sterile. The homes are devoid of character or charm, the sidewalks are wide, and the grass, trees and gardens are perfectly manicured for all to see–as they drive by in their cars.
Where are the people? Once in a while I pass someone walking their dog, who politely crosses the street so our dogs won’t meet. Or I’ll see someone who is clearly retired out for their morning exercise silently contemplating their day ahead. The rest of the people in this suburb are in their homes, or in their cars commuting to work or driving to the local strip plaza for their groceries and banking. There is no town square. The plaza is the town square.
There is a rather bare bones climber at the public park behind the school yard. There might be a toddler or two there with their grandparents, but mostly it sits empty. The grassy lawns of the park sit quietly between the paved sidewalks that wind around them. Early in the morning there are a handful of elderly Asian seniors doing Tai Chi.
The kids are at school. And when they aren’t at school, they are driven to all their activities–the soccer pitch, the pool, robotics classes and music lessons. I can count on one hand how many bikes are parked at the bike rack at the elementary school. The lineup of cars dropping off and picking up children at school runs the circumference of the schoolyard and public park behind it, because who would ever think of letting their children walk or bike to school on their own? Biking to school appears to be a novelty and not for the faint of heart.
Sharing the road with cars in the suburbs is either an act of bravery or complete stupidity depending on what camp you fall into. Like many of my suburban neighbours, I don’t particularly trust the drivers in my neighbourhood because I don’t think they genuinely expect to see kids bicycling to school. Yet, this is what we have always done with our kids and so we have amped up the road safety and vigilance talk with them. There have been a few close calls at intersections when drivers nearly plowed into us because they weren’t looking for cyclists, but we very quickly called out their transgressions and received sheepish looks and apologetic waves in return.
You know those pedestrians, they just sneak up on you when you least expect them to, crossing the street in front of your car, all stealth-like.
The suburbs are quiet. Yes, the ‘burbs were deafeningly quiet, except at night when I often heard cars drag racing down the main street, their engines roaring and tires squealing on the asphalt. Or sometimes I heard a pack of coyotes yipping somewhere in the distant hills. I’m not saying I needed to hear the roar of a highway or my neighbours taking a shower, but I missed the hum and thrum of an active city. Cities vibrate. They have energy. I couldn’t find the energy out in the suburbs.
I also couldn’t walk to anything. If I forgot to buy butter at the grocery store or a missing ingredient for a recipe, I had to decide if I could go without it or climb into my car and go get it. I felt like a slave to my car, constantly driving up and down the expressway to get to the big box stores, the post office, the doctor, the dentist, the hockey rink. EVERYTHING! I probably put more mileage on my car and burned through gallons and gallons of gas in the last 22 months than I did in the previous five years of driving. I couldn’t take it anymore. I know there are scholarly papers out there about how driving shaves years off your life. I didn’t need any further proof than my lived experience to know this. I could feel the life blood draining out of me every time I climbed behind the wheel to do my daily routine. I feel like a bit of a hypocrite, because I have no problem with my husband driving in the snarl of Bay Area traffic every day to get to and from work, knowing full well I would never agree to do it myself.
The one element of the suburbs I haven’t yet mentioned is safety.
Maybe I’m being presumptuous, but I think for a lot of Americans, life in the suburbs I describe are aspirational. Clean. Quiet. Manicured. Safe. This is what people want. They don’t want to see or hear their neighbours. They don’t want to see homelessness. They don’t want to see graffiti. They don’t want to see socioeconomic diversity. They don’t want to hear the hum and thrum of a city. They want homogeneity. And yes, they want to feel safe. That means having a Ring home surveillance system installed. Or a big sign by the door that says “This house is Armed and Alarmed.” It also means having a healthy dose of paranoia or having vigilante tendencies by posting on Nextdoor when you see a suspicious looking white van parked on your street or a stranger knocking on doors canvassing for a charity. I can’t imagine having the time or mental energy to devote to such activities and yet, suburban Americans do. And they do it well. It is part of the fabric of their being. And yes, it gives them a sense of security. Maybe I am naive or simply too trusting to think I would ever be a target of some heinous crime, or maybe it is the fabric of my being a Canadian that leaves me scratching my head about taking such safety precautions. Whatever the reason, it is a fascinating sociological phenomenon that warrants further study. I will continue to observe and ask unobtrusive questions of my American friends.
That wraps up my analysis of my brief time living in the ‘burbs. I didn’t want this to be an essay in which I bashed a lifestyle choice that many make. If anything it is as much a commentary on the person writing this as it is on the environment I found myself in. I was like a fish out of water. It was too foreign an environment for me to adjust to. And I learned something else about myself: I thought it was all about the house for me, but now I know I am willing to make compromises on the house itself but not the location. It’s true what real estate agents say: “location, location, location.” But what that means is different for each individual. Deciding where to live is a very personal thing. This person knows that you can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girl.