Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Call of Suburbia

Something Lost, Something Gained

I wrote in last week's post about being saddened by the gradual disappearance of the small town.  The reality is that these towns still exist, but their identity is changing.  They are becoming suburbs.  Where once there was a main street lined with mom and pop businesses, now there is a Wal-Mart five miles down the road.  Where once there were neighborhoods clustered around the local elementary school, now there are subdivisions and elementary schools located on roads so busy no mother in her right mind would dream of letting her child walk to class.  Some of these changes are necessary, and even good, but I can't help but wonder what we are losing in this mad rush to Suburbia.

The Convenience of the Suburbs

Have you ever lived in the suburbs?  My guess is that you have, at least for a little while.  Maybe you still do.  Do you enjoy it?  Do you think the neighborhoods are beautiful, or do you get tired of driving past the houses that all look alike, the lawns that are unnaturally green, the shrubs that look like they were artificially engineered in a lab, and the giant SUVs in every single driveway?  Well, I guess it depends on the neighborhood.  Some subdivisions are better than others, after all.  But, love it or hate it, you have to admit that they all have one thing in common: convenience.

I have never lived in the downtown area of a large city, but I have spent enough time in such places to know the nightmare that is city parking.  I've also experienced the noise and the traffic.  As beautiful as many cities are, I can only imagine living around all of that.  There's a reason young city-dwellers often move out of town when they become parents.  I know I would not want to endure the challenge of trying to get a toddler to fall asleep while a rock band performed an outdoor concert two blocks away.  Or keep an eight year old cooped up in the house because I have laundry to do and the city is not a place where kids can play outside alone.  Many people live this lifestyle and love it.  I am not judging their decision in any way.  All I'm saying is I understand why someone would feel tempted to move away from all that.  And when they move, where do they go?  To the suburbs.

The country lifestyle is considered by many to be more family friendly than life in the city, and maybe it is, but it still lacks the convenience of the suburbs.  There are no parks in walking distance.  There are no neighbors to stop and chat with when you go out to check the mail.  And country people often have to drive fifteen miles or more just to buy a carton of milk.  Many who want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city would feel that country life is too much of a change.  They would feel isolated and alone.  They would yearn for the closeness that city life gave them, just without the hassles of the city itself.  So where do these people go?  To the suburbs.

Convenience is the name of the game in the suburbs.  Everyone has a backyard where their kids and their dogs can play.  Everyone has a playground within a mile or two of their house.  And everyone is within a five minute drive of a large grocery story with an enormous parking lot.  No parking nightmares here.  This is the suburbs.

The Price of this Convenience

I don't remember life before Suburbia.  I don't remember when travelling across America meant stepping into a brand new world every time you stopped for lunch in a new town.  In my life travelling has always meant lunch at a fast food restaurant that serves the exact same food as the restaurants near my home.  It has meant heading to the nearest big chain grocery store to pick up snacks and drinks.  It has meant being able to find a Wal-Mart in almost every town.  Don't get me wrong, I have at times appreciated the convenience of being able to do that.  After all, why would I trust the little broken-down building on the corner that claims to serve the world's best chicken when there's a McDonald's across the street.  I may be missing out on the opportunity to have a truly delicious, and unique, meal, but hey, I've been to McDonald's before and I know what to expect.  The place on the corner could be amazing, but it could also be...well...not.  With local businesses, you just don't know.  So you go where you feel comfortable.  You go where it is familiar.  You go to the big chain business because it's the most convenient choice.

The flip side of this is that our towns are crumbling before our eyes.  The new store opens up down the road and the mom and pop place closes down within a year.  Pretty soon all business are out on the highway and main street looks like a ghost town.  Then subdivisions pop up and people flock to them because they would rather buy a nice new house than invest in a historic home in the old part of town where the water pipes may burst or the floor may be rotting or the roof might need replacing in a couple of years.  Believe me, I understand.  I live in an old house, and I know the hassle that comes along with that.  My intense love of older homes keeps me committed to making it work, but I get why people may decide to live somewhere else, especially if they don't share my personal passion for all things old.  But I do love old things, so it makes me sad when I see them abandoned.

Coming Full Circle

It seems that the trend is beginning to reverse itself now.  More and more people are demanding walkable neighborhoods.  We have the local food movement and small business Saturday.  Small towns around the country are making efforts to breath new life into their business districts.  Suburbia is here to stay, but maybe one day we will see a new Suburbia that looks more like...well...a small town.

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