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O My Suburbia
June 23, 2004: Last week, the righteous gathered at my town hall. Did the holy rollers come to denounce dances at the local high school? Or liquor stores that stay open on Sunday? Nope. The target was broader. It was the very environment surrounding them. One from which many of them hail. Suburbia. Where green lawns and shaded streets mask Hell on earth. The guest preacher was James Howard Kunstler, whose book "The Geography of Nowhere" is New Urban scripture.

New Urbanists believe that in the second half of the 20th Century Americans sinfully spurned cities for suburbia. Aided in their wicked flight by the demon "Kar". They also believe government, via public policy and spending, should carrot and stick sinners back into urban living. The event at my town hall was sponsored by a local peace group and along with Kunstler, featured a film about depleted oil reserves in the Mid-East. A leaflet for the gathering referenced rising gas prices and was headlined: "Is This The End of Suburbia?" Hope obviously springs that the order of the first 2 words can soon be reversed.

Before proceeding I should explain I'm relatively new to the land of highways, shopping malls and the kind of back yards bar crawlers don't mistake for bathrooms. Suburbia only swallowed me a few years back. For decades I crossed myself whenever I saw a barbecue grill not balanced on a fire escape. And when I read Kunstler's "Geography" I knew he'd nailed the soul killing, dehumanizing nature of suburbia. But now, after driving many highways, some lost and some jam packed, and after checking out countless strip malls and mighty malls, and after hob nobbing with Americanus Suburbanus, I'm here to deliver the good news. Humanity thrives in the belly of the beast!

While I do miss the drug dealers in my old nabe, particularly the ones who hid their guns in the withered shrubs around my building, I've found my new neighbors to be just as vivid and idiosyncratic. Albeit in different ways. It's heartening to discover their SUVs haven't sucked their souls. Perhaps I was too fearful of the spiritual threat of the gas guzzling thunder lizards. After all, the dealers drove SUVs too. And their essence remained intact.

But sometimes, when I sit on the porch and watch the joggers, kids on bikes and old people out for strolls with equally old dogs, I shudder to think how sedentary and unhealthy demon Kar has made suburbanites. Take me for instance. Kar now carries me to my favorite supermarket. A local outlet of a vile mega chain. It's several miles away and features a large stock and low prices. In urban days I shopped at another store with similar advantages. It too was several miles away. But then I walked or used public transportation. How I miss those bracing hikes through rough terrain with arms full of grocery bags. Made more exciting by the chance that the bottom of a bag might drop out. Who knew what might explode on the sidewalk and mingle with the existing impasto? A quart of milk? A jar of jam?

Public transportation was another adventure in exercise. Folded yoga-like into a bus seat with a bouquet of celery under my nose and a sack of spuds between my feet. Or swaying bag laden in the aisle, hanging on by a pinky. Trying not to toss a container of sour cream into the lap of the beefy guy with the scars who was telling the world what he told his stinkin' parole officer.

But back to good news on the dead soul front. Despite the fact that the architecture of suburbia is infernally isolating, I've actually seen suburbanites get personal with their neighbors. They share info about their lives and joke with each other. They even do things together. That they behave not at all like the alienated ships passing in the night depicted by Kunstler and other New Urbanists, is a testimonial to the resilience of the human spirit. Of course it could just be Body Snatcher pretense put on for my benefit. (Note to self: check basement. Mr. Brickmeyer returned the lawn mower today and could have placed a pod in the washer. If so, set cycle on permanent press.) Anyway, even if such exchanges are genuine it's more convenient when personal information can be shared through walls or airshafts. Or shouted under bedroom windows in the middle of the night. When people have time to give it their full attention.

Nowadays most New Urbanists grudgingly admit older suburbs show signs of human life. Houses are closer together and public transportation still connects many older suburbs to urban downtowns. With enough social planning and public spending, older suburbs could become vital extensions of the cities waves of Old Urbanists fled. But what about the far flung urban sprawl of McMansion sub-divisions? Those hermetic semi circles gobbling up the farmland some thoughtless farmers are eager to sell? Thankfully, government can buy that land with public money and hold it in public trust. In the future, when trams or cunningly retro street cars criss cross the countryside, the New Urbanized public will be allowed to go look at it.

To me McMansions seem ugly. And shaky lending practices have financed too many of them. Somewhere down the line taxpayers will probably pick up a major bill for the McMansion version of the housing bubble. A few payments have already come due. But folks who buy McMansions seem to find them aesthetically pleasing. Just as people who buy cheek-by-jowl row houses in urban neighborhoods seem to like their choices. Taxpayers have given many of these homeowners a hand as well. With purchases and renovations. As to lending practices, entire urban neighborhoods have been decimated by rings of mortgage flippers and re-fi home repair crooks utilizing housing programs and loan advantages promoted by the gospel of New Urbanism.

Yikes! That last line sounds so anti New Urban. Maybe Brickmeyer put a pod in the basement when he borrowed the mower-- not when he returned it! More indicators I've been podified: when I saw the announcement of the suburban death wish meeting at my town hall I laughed. At first. Then I started thinking like an obstructionist suburban Kulak. Hardening my heart against an enlightened social vision. Telling myself that if gas becomes unaffordable I'll ride a horse to my favorite characterless, white bread strip mall. The one with an Oriental grocery store and the what-not shop run by a gay couple who live in a trailer out back. And how if New Urban push turns to shove, I'd have to ride that same horse around the suburban highways and sub- divisions and up to the doors of single family homes. Hollering the Redcoats are coming, the Redcoats are coming.

Talk about exercise.

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

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Copyright (c) 2004 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.


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