Slinking Suburbs

bballI 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.

housesWhy 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.

eugene1And 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.eugene2

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.

windmillMatt 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.

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  • I think what I hated about my house in Parma wasn’t really the same-ness. (Although that irked me a bit, too.) It was more that there was no sense of community. I felt more community in the house where I grew up, even though it was rural and there were hundreds of less people living within walking distance.

    Part of it was the fact that more people just don’t go out and meet neighbors, of course. The kids play video games instead of roaming the neighborhood and visiting the local playgrounds. But some of it is the architecture of the suburbs. The parents, if they go outside at all, huddle in their screened-in porches or secluded decks. There are no front porches–and even if there were, it really wouldn’t matter, because few people walk on the sidewalk anyway so you still wouldn’t meet very many people sitting on your front porch. And really, where is there to walk to? It’s tough to walk to the local grocery store anymore, even…

    Ah well. This comment isn’t to question your decision to look in the suburbs for a home, of course. :) It’s just a general “sigh” about there not being enough intelligently designed alternatives…
    .-= Kim´s last blog ..The Backyard, October 10 =-.

    Actually I agree with you totally, but I don’t think it’s really a suburb thing. We son know our neighbors at all, and we live in an appartment type setting. The dogwalkers in the area seem to have an edge there, but otherwise I think that sense of community is just getting harder to grasp. When I was a little kid we knew everyone on the cul-de-sac, then we moved to a busier street (still suburby) and completely lost any feeling of neighborhood.

    I do see what you’re saying about covered back porches. That structure does make it that much easier to hide from the people who live next door. Even so, I suspect the reason you know your neighbors better now is because you’re outside walking Coco and ripping up your front lawn for a garden, an ongoing project.

    Then again, I don’t see your old development in Parma being real welcoming of a front yard garden. Matt and I are looking for a neighborhood that seems a bit more open.

    I’m not anti-suburbs. I’m anti-thesuburbinwhichIgrewup. Because they frakked with all of my favorite things, and now they’re not there anymore. I don’t like it when the businesses I support go under.

    I know what you mean.

    That’s interesting. I can totally see real estate agents wanting to hire actors to make the suburbs seem full. I think it is a temporary thing, though. I think as the economy recovers, things will look up.

    Gavin- I hop you’re right.

    Good on you and Matt eventually looking to be growing some of your own food. Basic resources, environmental and climate patterns are changing our world pretty fast. At some point the aspirational will be for home-grown food and veg and a handiness towards self-sufficiency.

    Jenna – should be an interesting trip! I’ve never succeeded in growing anything… but I figure having a regular schedule should help, so once we have the land, I’m going to just jump right in. I agree that home-grown is better for everyone.



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