Snow White Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Laughter, pleasure, malice, and the pursuit of adult fun

Suburbs vs. City: Where Does Loneliness Live?

Can life feel more lonely if you live in a suburbs? Are the sacrifices worth it?

The 2012 census reports that young people are desperately trying to move to urban areas, where they can walk, cycle, or take public transport to jobs, restaurants, schools, and arts centers. But older people aren't moving out, so there's even more of a real-estate crunch than usual. These days it seems as if folks prefer heading to an actual downtown with small independent stores, sidewalks, parks, a diverse community and tiny cafes than to an anonymous mall where every store and eatery (can't actually call them "restuarants") is the same.

I wrote a piece recently extolling the virtues of having grown up in a suburban neighborhood [http://www.courant.com/news/opinion/hc-op-barreca-nothing-wrong-with-suburbs-0713-20120712,0,3195912.column] and I meant every word I wrote. When I declared that those of us who grew up swimming in those cheap above-ground pools in the backyards of friends should stop apologizing for our neighboorhood-of-origin, it was from the heart.

It's not hip to be from the suburbs, after all. But a lot of people are all shy about their upbringing and, in the original article, I play with that idea. The piece is funny (I hope) and it examines the issue from a perspective a whole bunch of people (I hope) will be able to share.

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And yet there's also another side. A 700-word essay isn't enough room to get the shadow-side of a story into the picture, so I thought I'd bring that up here, for readers who are interested in the city vs. suburbs argument.

Not every memory of the "Leave It To Beaver" life lived on the outskirts was happy.

Maybe what moving to the suburbs really meant was that your mother had successfully nagged your father into abandoning a perfectly reasonable apartment building where there was a superintendent (the "super" was sort of "The Man of the Building" and there was no need to have an individual "Man of the House") to take out the garbage, fix the toilet, and shovel the snow. Your dad, when moving to the 'burbs, had to agree to assume these responsibilities himself, along with accepting a commute to his job which entailed driving on highways so overcrowded that during rush hour, they looked like  Ford dealerships.

And what if your mother was making your father an adjunct member of the family by asking him to move away from the place he worked? What if it meant giving up her job to do it? So what if he had to leave at six in the morning and return home after dark? She had her own washing machine and she could hang her clothes on the line (remember the ritual of hanging of clothes on the line? Remember when people described a day as being a good day for doing the wash?).

She didn’t have to schlep baskets of laundry to the basement or, worse, to the Laundromat. Her world became more self-contained. She didn't live where people heard each other's arguments or, for that matter, love-making. Maybe she wanted a place where people didn't have to sleep on the fire-escape to find some cool relief from the summer night's heat.

She didn’t have to worry about her kids crossing the avenue in traffic, riding bikes on busy streets, or getting hit by a bus. There were no buses. Maybe your mom had to learn to drive but maybe she then didn’t go very far.

(My mother, for example, was too timid to make a left turn. I’m absolutely serious. Everywhere she drove, my mother figured out a route where she only had to go right. It could take fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes longer, but she didn’t care. A left turn would involve a level of assertiveness she simply could not master.)

Maybe life became a little too self-contained.

Apart from the occasional barbeque or Little League game, neighbors lived separate lives.

There wasn’t much talking over the fence or yelling out the windows—at least not when sober. Loneliness, like crabgrass, became a problem many women waited for their husbands to handle and solve.

I loved growing up in Oceanside on Long Island. The good public schools, enormous and crowded as they were, provided an education that made me the envy (and the tutor) of many of my provate-school peers when I ended up at an Ivy-League college My parents had made the move to the surburbs so that their children--my brother and myself--could have a better life.

And we have.

But my brother raised his three kids in the city and I now live in the country; my two step-sons and their families live in cities.

I'm grateful for the move my parents made, but the sacrifices they put themselves through, emotionally and individually? These I'm only now beginning fully to understand and I wonder whether, at the end of their lives, they believed it was worth it.

I hope they did.

But whether in 700 words, or in 700 years, I don't think I'll ever be able to figure out if they might not have led happier, better lives had they stayed in the rough, noisy, abrasive, invigorating world of fire escapes and other people.

 


 
   

 


Gina Barreca, Ph.D., is Professor of English at UConn, and author of It's Not That I'm Bitter: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World.

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