The Last Housing Edition on the Left: Suburbia Is What You Make of It

Everybody knows suburbia sucks. It’s the wellspring of all mind-numbing conformity and rigid thinking, especially in America. If you want diversity, you live in the city. If you want homogeneity, you live in the suburbs. I beg to differ. After all, suburbia is my ‘hood, and I gotta represent, ya know? So what exactly is a “neighborhood”, and therefore, what is my neighborhood? My suburbia?

If we define a neighborhood as a locale, say within walking distance, what can I say about the housing edition my home is located in? Not much. I think it’s called Kellar Springs Village, creatively named after the major street that borders the area. This collection of homes doesn’t comprise a village . . . more a collection of vaguely similar houses, based upon five or six possible floor plans offered by the developers at the time of construction. Since I didn’t grow up here, I have no real emotional tie to the place. We could rule out the idea of the specific locale being my “neighborhood”.

So let’s try the vicinity around my house. What I know of Carrollton, Texas, comes from the factoid posters about former postmasters on the walls of the Post Office. Starting in the late 1800s, Carrollton was a collection of farms, which slowly grew into a town, becoming a gas-up stopover on the long haul to Oklahoma City from Dallas with the creation of the interstate highway system after WWII. Starting in the late ’60s and continuing to the early ’70s, Carrollton became a bedroom community for people working in Dallas. Three years into the 21st century, Carrollton was another part of the growing sprawl of “North Dallas”; numerous little towns were absorbed into the ever-expanding boundaries of the city. Regarding important names and dates in the history of Carrollton, the posters don’t reveal much, but there’s more to be learned about its Postmasters.

Driving through “Old Downtown Carrollton” one can see the remnants of a Norman Rockwell-esque small town square; a gazebo in the center and what was the local movie theater. It’s now a rent-per-event performance space for dinner theater and church choir recitals. The square is surrounded by single-window storefronts. Victorian gaslight-style street lamps cast a yellow light on each corner. A closer look reveals these quaint little “shoppes” are antique stores and the “hobby boutiques” of little old ladies wiling away their retirement. They sell macramé, knitted crafts, and painted wood and plastic knick-knacks to the occasional tourist. The town square, once the social center of Carrollton, has become another mall, decorated to create a gauzy feeling of nostalgia. If part of a feeling of “neighborhood” is a sense of belonging or emotional kinship with a city, I couldn’t call Carrollton my neighborhood, either.

Perhaps we could define “neighborhood” as the people in the immediate area where you live. Well, I don’t know my neighbors. When I first moved to this house I was presented with a few neighborly introductions and a fruit basket. So I know some of my neighbor’s names, but that’s it. We wave to each other when mowing lawns or chitchat when working on projects in the driveway, but I don’t know their lives enough to call them friends. I do know this: Cassie, the daughter of my neighbors on the right, Mike and Michelle, is learning financial responsibility and developing a work ethic by mowing my lawn every Saturday. She gets 50 bucks a month and I get my weekends free. A good deal, I think.

As far as what else goes on in her life, how she’s doing in school, who she likes or what she wants to do when she grows up, I couldn’t say. My neighbors to the left are Tony and Zenia, whose kids are always loosing their soccer ball in my backyard. Tony and I occasionally smoke cigarettes in front of our houses and discuss the woes of home repair . . . or, more accurately, Tony will tell me of the ongoing struggle of converting his garage into a family room, and I offer the appropriate noises of consternation or approval. They all seem to be nice folks, but I can’t say I know them that well. While we may be immediate neighbors, I don’t go to their barbeques, or trade Christmas cards with them, we share space, but not much else.

If we don’t consider “neighborhood” to be bound by “within walking distance” or “the city I live in” or “the people immediately near me”, I think we can still arrive at a definition of neighborhood using the general parameters of “time to travel” and “means of communication”. Since these concepts have expanded as our tools for communication and traveling have increased in complexity, the definition of neighborhood must, as well.

My commute to and from work takes up to 90 minutes of my day, relatively shortened by carpooling with one of my closest friends from work who happens to live five miles north of me, in the “good” (read newer, more expensive) part of Carrollton. She drives over from her apartment and picks me up on the way in, or alternating weeks, I drive up to her place and then drive her route to work. On weekends (or those nights when I get home from work and can’t be bothered to cook) it’s over to Thai Soon on the corner of Beltline and Coit in Addison (the next town over, a half hour drive away), seating maybe 30 people and home of the greatest Spicy Basil Noodles on Earth.

A 20-minute drive (in light traffic) gets me to Anime Pop; the store where I first found out about the world of Asian Cinema beyond Jackie Chan films, and have spent Saturday afternoons arguing the merits of the films of Takashi Miike or Stephen Chow with the owner, Ed, even on days where I haven’t bought anything. We enjoy just bullshitting about which movie from which director is worthy and which isn’t. I bumped into Ed at my local bar recently, and he mentioned that I needed to check out the original cut of Ju-On, a Japanese horror movie in the same vein as Ringu. So that’s rather neighborly.

But weekend plans with friends are made among my social circle, spread over some 40 square miles of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. I’ll call Misha, who will email Eric, who then text messages Armstrong, who pages Ed to trade specifics (“Which Bar? Whose House? What Time?”). A trip to Tulsa to visit my parents involves only slightly more planning and phone calls than finding out what’s playing at the movie theater, but considerably more driving: four hours to family versus 30 minutes to the movie theatre with friends.

I’m more comfortable arguing politics with my friend Jeff Hill in Oklahoma City via our team weblog than I would be with my next-door neighbor, Mike. Talking with mom on the phone for hours at a time is just as vital a conversation as talking with a friend at work for 20 minutes on a smoke break. My community, my neighborhood, is made of freeway drive time, cell phone minutes, and characters in an email, crossing both physical and virtual distances. This place, The Dallas/Fort Worth metropolex, is exactly like the place I grew up in, Oklahoma City, but with more people and more traffic, and the congestion is increasing all the time. I am a resident of Sprawl, USA. I am a suburbanite.

“Suburbanite”, a denizen of “Suburbia”. A word that brings to mind images of well-manicured, chemically-induced green lawns in front of cookie-cutter houses; not-so-sensible Sport Utility Vehicles (the unholy union of truck and station wagon) driven by harried soccer moms (a North American variation on the stay-at-home housewife), plotting out their children’s lives in chunks of “play dates” (scheduled, pre-allotted playtime appointments with a parentally approved playmate) and “enrichment sessions” (music lessons, drama practice, sports that the local public school doesn’t offer). This is the land of shopping malls, Abercrombie and Fitch, hit-radio-oriented, prefabricated, vanilla pop music. Generic, bland, monoculture consumerist America. “Suburbia” is a loaded word, for sure.

Popular cultural commentary (this is not criticism, mind you, but the self-absorbed, navel-gazing, all-snide-cynicism-but-no-deeper-thought snark-o-riffic “infotainment” such as that found on VH-1’s Best Week Ever, or the website Television Without Pity) would have us think that Suburbia is the black hole of culture in America, a leech gorging on the life and creativity from cities, fattening itself without offering anything in return. After all, when you live in the city, the best music comes from downtown, fashion is created uptown, and you find the best little restaurants in midtown. On the other hand, Suburbia consists of corporate owned chain restaurants, chain clothing stores, chain music stores, and chain bookstores. Ironically, Suburbia USA is lionized as representing “America’s core cultural values”.

I, too, have bought into this negative view of suburbia as homogenous, politically conservative, and devoid of originality. I’ve “confused the map with the territory,” so to speak. This may be the suburbia that I’m told is around me, which, to some degree, I would agree with, but on closer examination, this isn’t the place I live in. There is the environment that we find ourselves in, and that which we create.

My suburbia is much more than shopping malls, Top 40 radio music, and backyard bar-be-cues. Instead, mine is a suburbia of odd little record stores and thrift stores, “That nice family on the corner with all the strange pagan bumper stickers on their family car” (“Blessed Be”, “Get a taste of Religion — Lick A Witch!”) and pot luck dinner/ Local Area Network (LAN) video game parties. It seems the Prom King and Queen, married and already proud parents of the statistical 2.4 kids before they turned 20, find themselves next door neighbors to the freaks, geeks and foreigners they teased in school.

My neighborhood more than simply the places nearby, or the vicinity I live in, it is the physical places where I shop, socialize, and work. My ‘hood exists virtually in the conversations I have with my friends and colleagues in person, on the phone, in email, and via instant messenger. My neighborhood is filled with the shotgun blasts of Quake Deathmatch teams, heated email discussions of where George Lucas went wrong with the Star Wars prequels, passionate conversations about who is a better author (Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft), Asian Cult Cinema watch parties, and Summer Solstice cookouts. This is my community, my neighborhood, my suburbia.

In many ways, the 21st century (so far) is a bust. We still don’t have jetpacks, I don’t have a robot to mow my lawn, and cancer still hasn’t been cured. But then again, some things are getting better. After two millennia or so of having to be nice to your neighbors because they were the only people you saw on a regular basis, we’ve reached a point where a neighborhood, a community, doesn’t necessarily have to be where you are. Instead, your community and neighborhood can be what you make it.