Saturday, December 27, 2008

Re-Examining Suburb-Phobia

I grew up in the suburbs. It was great, until you were about 13-14. Playing baseball in the park with your friends wasn't cutting it anymore. Movies, the shopping mall, and video arcades all required long bus rides to reach. In my later teens, cool hangouts or concerts were downtown and even further on the bus. Neighborhoodwise, we had a Chinese restaurant to hang out at and that was it. All my friends and I vowed once we got out we'd never come back. Fast forwarding to now, many of those same people are in the suburbs or wanting to be. I'm still holding out in downtown, but giving serious consideration otherwise.

In the novel High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby, the main character lives in London's cool urban neighborhood Camden Town. However, now that he's in his 30's and in a long term relationship, he is more concerned with home entertainment and rarely goes out. He might as well live in the suburbs because that was his lifestyle.

"But nobody ever writes about how it is possible to escape and rot – how escapes can go off at half-cock, how you can leave the suburbs for the city but end up living a limp suburban life anyway. That’s what happened to me; that’s what happens to most people."

In today's Wall Street Journal, Lee Siegal writes a brilliant article on the arts community unfairly villainizing the suburbs. There are so many great segments; I will highlight a few:

Sylvia Plath added some spine-tingling details. In her 1963 autobiographical novel, "The Bell Jar," Plath's heroine steps off a train and has this infernal experience: "The motherly breath of the suburbs enfolded me. It smelt of lawn sprinklers and station wagons and dogs and babies. A summer calm laid its soothing hand over everything, like death." The pleasures of a station wagon's aroma are open to question, but summer calm, the smell of wet grass, the scent of dogs (if they're clean) and babies (clean or dirty) -- are, it could be argued, some of the least horrifying experiences in life.

Yet the Wheelers live in a safe and protected middle-class town with intact, well-to-do families; efficient services; and happy children gamboling in sprinklers and running among the trees. How did such an environment come to acquire qualities previously associated with Dante's "Inferno," Dickens's Victorian workhouses and Solzhenitsyn's gulags?

It's easy to see why artists and intellectuals felt that they had to alert the general public to the emergency of these sudden new places' peaceful, leafy streets. For one thing, the suburbs seemed not to offer the primary experiences of either country or city. The backyard is but the reminder of a meadow; the tree-lined intersection is but the faint echo of a busy urban intersection. The suburbs were the embodiment of that period's fashionable existential fear: "inauthenticity."

Read the whole thing. He mentions "American Beauty", which was a silly movie. Watching, I remember thinking that I wouldn't mind living in that house and neighborhood, what are these people whining about? (Happy ending: the teenage girl and her boyfriend are ready to move to New York City to become drug dealers! What a great alternative to an upper-middle class suburb.)

I have visited the same suburbs that I was brought up in recently, and the trees and quietness and lack of crystal meth freaks roaming the street was refreshing.


  1. Lets not forget that the money factor often dictates the living outcome. Young families that need a larger living space often can not afford a downtown location. They are forced to live far away from the city. The suburb-phobia folks often forget, that not everyone can afford to raise a family in Manhattan.
    And yes, exposing children to downtown homeless substance abusers, is something many people try to avoid.

  2. Yeah, the reason why people do anything is because it makes sense to them. Railing against the burbs is usually from young people who don't have to make those choices.

    I should say too that the article and what I was thinking were about fairly decent suburbs. I didn't mention how terrible some of them are. In Vancouver, parts of Surrey are dirty, dangerous, crime ridden, hellholes. A friend of mine grew up in Scarborough and said he was shocked going back there seeing that it had become a terrible slum.

  3. Yes many of the "inner city problems" are now in many suburbs. Jane and Finch is in the suburbs. The recent Paris riots were all in outer city suburbs. Downtown is now a high end luxury in many cites (outside the US).

  4. Even a lot of corporations are relocating out into the suburbs. They are doing this to reduce costs. The growth of the 905 region in the GTA is a perfect example. In a lot of North American cites, the morning rush hour has traffic going in both directions.

  5. Sant Ritz's charming address offers a world of opportunities for your little ones in the future.the interlace condo