Rant: Is Suburbia Appropriate for Adults?

In this suburb, every individual home stands with well-groomed yards. “Neat” and “cute” are usually the best terms for the exterior of the house, the arrangement of the yard, the choice of flowers. I can’t help but think that ornament – cosmetic – is directly from the Greek cosmos.

There are children everywhere, having their fill of fun and more. Suburbia is paradise if you’re a kid: plenty of rooms in some houses mean you get a playroom to yourself. A yard is entirely yours if you wish, but there’s a public playground complete with a basketball hoop and tennis court set up here. There are plenty of playmates in the neighborhood, each tended to by their own parents. Responsibility seems an alien concept until one is beyond college, perhaps, and even then.

The only times I see adults talk to each other here it’s over issues of home improvement or complaining about a third party, either a neighbor or the local government or something. I don’t see very many meeting and talking. It feels lonely going for walks around here – I wonder how people can coop themselves up in cubicles and then head straight to a few rooms.

I don’t want to say the city is less materialistic – most urban dwellers just have other things to spend their money on, like going out at night. And I don’t want to say the city is more adult: right now, it’s more like college for people who went to finer schools where their classmates had ambition and wanted to grow up in the only way they could conceive.

But I do need to say that the older question of city and country – while not comprehensive in itself – needs to be opened up again. This is ridiculous: barely anyone knows anyone else in this “neighborhood,” nor cares. They’ll meet for events – esp. kid’s activities – but I wonder if for most having a family means eliminating the friends. Time spent outside is time spent grooming one’s plot of land, as if one is tending to one’s own grave every day. This is emphatically not the good; it is a good, but it is probably also a very sheltered life. A parent was ranting to me about all the evils of college recently and telling me what a waste of money it was to send a kid away for a period of time to live with strangers. I replied that while I partly agreed with her sentiment, my opinion of that was changing: living with strangers is one of the most crucial aspects of life; it isn’t clear we have anything but each other. That we can set up walls around ourselves, make the walls look pretty, and call this a virtue is perhaps the ultimate sign of decadence.

11 Comments

  1. Only a minor point in what you said, but I wanted to comment- about going to college. I’m always complaining that my degree is worthless, that I wasted 4 years and all my savings on NOTHING. (Sure I didn’t pay for school, but existing without a decent income for 4 years is kinda expensive, and the loss of time elsewhere is very expensive.) That I learned nothing practical.

    However, exposure is a wonderful thing and if you go to a reasonably diverse school and pay at least a little attention in your classes- like attend a few or read the textbook- you’re going to come out at least a little less sheltered. The ability to think and open-mindedness go hand in hand (though people have corrupted the idea of open-mindedness using it’s contra- as an inappropriate insult…). That is a very valuable thing… apparently very expensive, but very valuable.

  2. @Amanda – this was meant as a prompt, so I’m surprised more people aren’t chiming in. I know there are a few people making the most of life in the suburbs, with tons of friends, a loving family, and an awesome house too.

  3. i never went to college But I did go into the Navy at age seventeen, Got my GED in Japan on my way to Viet Nam in 1967 So I guess I can Identify in some small way with living with strangers… FTA A parent was ranting to me about all the evils of college recently and telling me what a waste of money it was to send a kid away for a period of time to live with strangers. I replied that while I partly agreed with her sentiment, my opinion of that was changing: living with strangers is one of the most crucial aspects of life; it isn’t clear we have anything but each other.

  4. @David & Amanda – yeah, I’m definitely not all like “everyone should go to college.” I just brought that up b/c of the “no one should meet anyone else if they don’t have to” sentiment.

    And you get that – there’s a whole world out there, and while some people are like “we have to be sympathetic and empathize blah blah,” it’s more important to be actually engaging it while standing for who we are.

  5. My family – 2 adults aged 31, and a 3 year old boy, live in a 3 bedroom flat in central London, in Bloomsbury. No playroom, no garden. But we trade having more space for much better things – being walking distance from work, less travelling time, no need to use a car all the time.

    We hardly ever drive, either use public transport, walk, or cycle. There are lots of parks, so our son is fine. And we know all our neighbours very well indeed!

  6. This is a semi-related story, but a good one nonetheless. So, my little brother runs track and had competed at the regional meet, well, yesterday actually. It was held at our community’s high school. I was starving, so I decided I’d grab a hot dog from the concession stand. I noticed a really testy man of about 40 behind me tapping his foot, still wearing a tie and dress pants. His temperament seemed eerily similar to a character from Office Space. 5 minutes later, after having moved an inch, his wife had just arrived inside the stadium from work, primped up in her designer-everything (the meet was 3/4ths through at this point).

    She complained about how bad the parking was, how she had almost missed their boys meet. She said, “Who would plan a baseball game, track meet, and tennis match all on the same day? It took me 20 minutes to find parking! I swear, communities need to be IQ tested before they are allowed to hold these events! And where is there to eat besides [name a fast food joint]. And the admission prices? OutRAGEOUS!” and on, and on, and on.

    So I turned around and told her that because nobody cared about school levies, yes, unfortunately space was tight. I told her the admission prices were governed by the state’s high school athletic association, not some money-hungry locals. I told her how good my experience had been in 7 years of attending the meet. And I told her that if she had a pen and paper on her, I would gladly allow her to test my intelligence.

    I guess the point I am making is that the only thing on their mind was obviously so self-centered that the entire experience of the awesome atmosphere surrounding the competition was lost. The surely only cared to see their son’s one race, and then “let’s get the heck out of here!” It was a small incident, but it felt weird to have to defend my town on such base grounds — though not without its faults, a hell of a place to have grown up.

  7. @thag – that is a good story; there are definitely genuine communities all over America, that’s for sure.

    You caught on to what I’m really getting at here. So let’s see: What’s your town like, and what are the other pluses and faults?

  8. Well, things have changed a lot in the past decade. The population (I looked this up on wikipedia) was around 12,000 in 2000 (most recent, I guess??). I graduated in a class of about 350.

    Housing has popped up around here like crazy, though. There is a decent amount of commerce for the size, but some new things are being built – Target, big chain type deals. The housing is definitely what has caused a change in the mood. I live in an older neighborhood (ya know, the kind where the houses are all distinguishable?) that has had some great people in it; I think the experience of my neighborhood as a kid is the best I could offer. Two doors down lived a couple (both passed in ’07) that had been married 70 years – no joke. The man built his home alone, and dug out a pool unlike any other I’ve ever seen with his two sons. That house was the center of social life. Literally everyone on the block passed in and out of it – constantly. The man’s name was Bud, and he grew a modest amount of vegetables that he shared with everyone. He was a religious man and had a great laugh. Much more could be said about him, but for the sake of brevity I think that shows some of his character.

    The best way I can sum up the changes in this town is by talking about the family who has moved in. I don’t know their last name, let alone any of their first names. I know my parents went to meet them, but haven’t made any visits back. I’m told the pool hasn’t been used yet, let alone shared. I just found out they had kids.

    I had worked for the city’s street department in highschool, and that experience I can say really made me appreciate the work done by public employees. Of that place, the generalizations for laziness, etc., simply weren’t true. I dunno — I could answer some other things, but as I mentioned the school levy is up for the next ballot, and looks like it will fail (3rd time’s a charm?). The town isn’t very diverse in population, but is getting more so. There’s more, but…it’s late. Ha.

  9. I’m always late catching up your blog Ashok, sorry about the delayed response.

    As an itinerant teacher I’ve lived in several different types of communities over the past few years; communities as varied as possible here in Texas — from tiny farming communities with just one store (a feed/beer store) to the filthy concrete expanses of downtown Houston to the trim and prissy suburbs in The Woodlands. While there are certainly aesthetic and cultural differences between these places, I haven’t noticed any universal differences in community cohesion between these types. Certainly some places are more unified, more concerned, more involved, but I haven’t noticed a trend typified by place type only (city, suburb, country). In other words I’ve lived in communities in all three environments, and have experienced the selfish and the involved community type in all three.

    The interesting question to ask is, “what unites a community, no matter where that community resides?” I have some insight there. I’ve noticed two trends for sure in the united communities. The first are what I call social bees. These are a few outstanding people in the community (usually women, usually mothers) who really make an effort to bring people together. Thinking of all the people I knew in one small town makes me realize that I met 90% of those folks by attending events held by one of the “Bees” or that I was directly introduced to them by a “Bee”. The second trend is, no surprise, church. The town I taught in last year had two churches, one Catholic, one Baptist, next door to one another. Everyone in town went to one or the other. The community was tight. Three years ago I taught in a similar town with no church. People drove to the nearest city and dispersed to various churches. This town was lonely. This reveals a problem in modern suburbia, especially in Texas I think. There has been a heavy trend for suburbanites to drive to “mega churches” downtown, or across town, on Sundays, effectively abandoning their own communities on the most important day for social cohesion. Maybe I’m biased as an Anglican, but I believe the parish church system is inherently better for community development as opposed to the current trends in southern Protestantism.

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