About the Suburbs

In the immediate aftermath of WWI, commuter train lines were built reaching up into Westchester County. An area just outside the city’s limits that had been countryside became the town where, many decades later, the Beloved Spouse and I would raise our children and spend much of our lives. Within the space of a few years after what’s now our train line went in, the land was cut into quarter-acre and half-acre lots, thousands of houses were built and a suburb was born.

Initially, many of the homes were nearly identical. The house that we bought 32 years ago and lived in for our first ten years here has a twin just a block away. Other houses on the street also have twins a block away. These once-carbon-copy houses have since evolved to the point where we were blissfully ignorant of the original non-uniqueness of our home, or the others around it, until we had lived there for years.

Our town is a suburb, not an exurb – it has sidewalks and lots of foot traffic among homes and to and from schools, stores and restaurants. It’s also a suburb in the sociological sense – almost all the men, and now many of the women, commute by train to jobs in the city.

***

The idea of the suburbs generally, their place in American culture, has changed over the course of my life. 

When I was a boy in the 1960s, the well-off were fleeing the nation’s crime-ridden cities for the suburbs. Safer streets, big houses and yards beckoned. Our parents believed that the migration from the cities – then sometimes described in racial terms as white flight – would be permanent; they were wrong about that.

They also believed that the suburbs were places to live for a lifetime, that suburban towns would be something akin to quaint English villages where people of all ages resided and families would, or at least could, stay for generations. For my parents’ generation, the suburbs largely were that: my mother lived in the home where my siblings and I were raised for forty-five years, moving to a nearby eldercare facility only when she became too frail to take care of her house. She never considered moving farther away.

Life patterns in suburbia are not the same today. Most of my contemporaries – their children now grown – are decamping for the excitement of the city or for lower tax/warmer climes. A local realtor told me that in her thirty years in the business, the number of homes in our town that do not house school-age children has dwindled from about half to a small minority.

High-tax/good school suburbs have become a stage of life for upper-middle-class professionals. People don’t move to these places until they have school-age children, and many leave not long after the kids graduate. The gravitational pull of money shifts this way and that with the predictability of the moon pulling the tides around.

Another change from fifty years ago is that city-dwelling elites now quietly disdain the suburbs as being filled with people who have neither the taste nor the money to live in the city. I once read a comment by an aesthete to the effect that nothing of any interest to him had ever happened in the suburbs.

Such comments misconstrue what, apart from their school systems, suburbs are; for a certain subset of hard-working taxpayers and their families, they are home – and what happens at home isn’t done to impress the aesthetes among us.

***

If you can afford the property taxes – which pay for the schools that people move to the suburbs for – living in the suburbs has considerable advantages. We have more living space and lawns and gardens. It’s quieter. From an early age kids can run around without supervision, and they have friends all over the neighborhood because the other kids are all schoolmates.

The Beloved Spouse and I have lots of local friends and innumerable neighborly acquaintances. We are members of groups that ride bicycles or play tennis, discuss books or knit together. Would we have been part of similar groups clustered around our interests if we lived in the city, an exurb or the country? Most likely yes, but without seeing them as often or spending as much time with them discussing our other shared interests, I’ll wager.

I even liked my daily commute. The crowd on the trains was mostly silent and contemplative – the half-hour ride to Grand Central a pleasant transition between worlds, an opportunity to read the papers and anticipate or reflect.

Pulling back into the station in the evenings was re-entering a tamer world. The cares of the office and the hubbub of the city were left behind – home was a place of family concerns, leafy sidewalks, dinner and rest. Our suburb was – and is – well-tended and clean, the very definition of bourgeois respectability. The evening station scene can resemble something out of Leave It to Beaver – tired business people in suits being picked up by their spouses, or met on foot by mothers, with excited small children and pets in tow.

***

These days, when I stand on the commuter platform waiting for a train, as I still do when I have a meeting in the city, I am surrounded by neighbors, known and unknown. Most are younger than I am.

I think to myself: these are the people who make America work. I know their joys and their worries, which have also been mine.

They are heading off to jobs, raising families, paying taxes and worrying about college costs. The more energetic among them are also getting up early or staying up late to exercise, bring their kids to a hockey rink or do something else that I don’t know about. Many are volunteering or donating to the larger community. And they’re all trying to stay healthy and build some friendships while carrying heavy family and work responsibilities.

In all of that, I wish them well.

M.H. Johnston

3 comments to About the Suburbs

  • Anonymous  says:

    good ad copy for the local realtor

  • Ron Cypers  says:

    perfect picture of life in the burbs. thanks for that

  • John Primm, MPM  says:

    Well done, Mark. Last graph especially good. Never give up.

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