I heard a story on NPR the other day (ok, maybe the other week) about a weird trend in recent post bubble real estate, where realtors pay ACTORS to pretend to be neighbors in suburbs, with staged barbecues and invitations to nonexistent little league games, so that an empty neighborhood would seem to have people living there on Open House day. The feeling I got from the story, and that I get hearing people talk about suburbs in general, is that does not just represent the dishonesty of some realtors, it is an example of an atmosphere of duplicity that is increasingly associated with the suburbs in general.
Why does everyone hate the suburbs? Why have the suburbs come to represent all that is evil, all that is fake, soccer moms and security moms and helicopter parents and materialism? This annoys me, because as Matt and I start looking for a house I find myself having to defend our choice to look in pure suburbia.
Really I know the whys. One of the first culprits is Tim Burton. More specifically, Edward Scissorhands. I’m sure this movie wasn’t the first vision of suburban sameness, but the uniformly green grassed sameness has come to be part of popular consciousness, whether people realize it or not. The creepy echoes in Buron’s invented neighborhood are a fairly accurate reflection of many developments in post 1960s America, but they just as well describe the world of Camazots from Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time. Not exactly positive associations, as was clearly intended.
And that’s fine. The artificiality being satired in Edward Scissorhands absolutely exists, and it can often be found in the suburbs. The problem I have is with the modern assumption that the suburbs are the cause. I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, a small enough city that it might as well be a suburb of itself. In my memory I lived in two different houses that were both cookie-cutter floorplans resulting from Eugene’s relatively rapid expansion. In spite of this supposed “sameness,” there was NEVER during my childhood, any sense of conformity in the homes around me. I’ve seen developments where the only difference from one house to the next is the paint color or a window shape, or a brick pattern. In the neighborhoods where I grew up, there was no need to fight for differentiation, because in spite of the repeated architecture, there was no standard look that the residents needed to fight against or conform to.
The sameness we find, I think comes from desire rather than actual similarities. The reason is not the location (suburbs), it’s that keeping-up-with-the-Joneses race that probably helped get us into the whole real estate mess in the first place. I need a bigger, more perfect house, because the neighbors have one. He needs a BMW because his cousin just bought one. It’s stupid, and it has nothing to do with a place, it has everything to do with people.
Matt and I eventually want to live in a house with a bit of land around it, in a safe neighborhood, with decent schools (since we’ll eventually be having kids) and less than an hour commute to the city. These are really not ridiculous wants, and the obvious answer, the only answer, is the suburbs. We hope to keep a garden that grows as much of our food as possible, maybe put up some solar panels or even small windmills, to keep energy costs down. I grew up with a backyard and I want my kids to have one too. We’d like some sort of woodland nearby. Basically, we want a compromise between urban and rural living.
If the human race is to survive into the 23th century, or the 30th century, I imagine someday we’ll all end up living in cities. This is (or could be) the most sustainable way to live, and at some point we won’t have a choice. In suburbs, people use hours worth of gas daily getting to and from work, burn up heat in poorly insulated homes, and spend gallons of water on uselessly green lawns. Maybe that’s why living in the suburbs is so detestable: the seizing of privacy, of space, of control and resources may well be selfish. I am occasionally drawn to the idea of living in an urban environment, with rooftop gardens and shops downstairs. There is appeal, until I remember that I can’t breathe after a few hours in New York, that I get itchy when I hear my neighbors through paper-thin walls, that the only thing I would own of the outside is a door. Someday I hope, large buildings will be planned with more public space, more green space, more space in general to keep us sane. Right now urban living is fun for some, but not a life I can imagine.
Ultimately, the life I’m seeking may not be sustainable. Suburbs, and most rural life, may fade away as energy sources dwindle and people are forced to huddle together for conservation. My response to that is to try and make a life with as small a footprint as possible, mainly to assuage the guilt that we’re contributing to the problem. I do think it’s possible to enjoy living in a dense population, I just don’t think it’s possible for me, today. I can only hope that by the time we have no choice, urban designers have come up with ways to make living wall to wall more tolerable.
*First photo by Wildernice, all others by me.