I was helping a friend move the other day, when one of the other fellows schlepping boxes from the truck into an upstairs apartment innocently asked me where I’d grown up. “Oh, I’m from here, the city,” I replied—which was technically accurate. I spent the first year and a half of my childhood over on the North Side. But what I didn’t say was that I am really a product of the suburbs.
I have lived in the city now for many years and have no serious intention of moving anywhere. My friends all live in town, my job is an easy bicycle ride away, and all the accoutrements of the life I want to lead—the neighborhood bistro, the food co-op, the corner hardware store, the river—are all within easy reach. But as much as I sometimes want to erase suburbia from my résumé, it’s a big part of who I am; my character has been shaped more by tract houses and four-lane highways than by the bustling, gritty urbanity I identify with now.
My mom still lives in the house on Sunnyside Road where I grew up: a three-bedroom stucco version of the American dream plopped down half a block from a highway a dozen or so miles northeast of downtown. It must have seemed like a palace to my mom and dad when they were at last able to escape with their three young boys from a tiny apartment in the city.
For us kids, it was nothing short of paradise. Behind Chuckie Hayes’ house across the street was a genuine forest, where we made forts, built campfires, and played army. Across the highway was a small pond for floating homemade rafts in the summer and playing hockey in the winter. A mom and pop grocery store about half a mile up the highway served as our year-round refueling station. The playground and ball field at the grade school two blocks up the street were natural gathering points for all the neighborhood kids.
By almost any measurement, my hometown was a great place for a kid to live. So why am I so quick to cover up its place in my life? And why are so many of us suburban expatriates now living in cities from Boston to San Diego so eager to bash those who follow our parents’ footsteps to the outskirts of metropolitan America?
After high school I went into the Air Force, and after four years bouncing around the world, I returned home. My wife had grown up a few blocks away from me, just a fly ball away from Hillview Park, so it made sense for us to begin our new life back at square one. We chanced upon a small house half a block from my grade school and settled in for the long haul.
The following summer, we climbed into our old car and set off on a lengthy road trip to visit old school chums and Air Force buddies around the country. In Chicago—or more precisely, Naperville, a western suburb that still felt like a small town—we had an epiphany as we ambled down a bustling main street filled with shops and relaxed in our friends’ old bungalow. It all struck us suburban-bred kids as more sophisticated, more urbane, than the life we were leading. The idea of a city, somewhere you can walk to places, experiencing street life along the way, had captured our imagination.
So in a few months, we moved into the city, and I watched as my suburban hometown gradually lost its magic. Strip malls and fast-food outlets were sprouting everywhere. A “drive-thru” bank clear-cut most of the woods across the street from my old house and an apartment complex took out most of the prairie behind our neighbor’s garden. It didn’t feel like my home anymore.
I wonder now whether these inevitable changes that come to almost everyone’s hometown don’t account for the distance that I and many other confirmed city dwellers maintain from our suburban roots. Maybe our own fond but fuzzy memories of what these places once were prevent us from accepting what they have become today to the people living there. Suburbs, like cities, are shaped by those who live and work there. Just because I like strolling over to my funky (and convenient) neighborhood business district doesn’t mean that the suburban family at the mall can’t be happy with what their community offers. Sure, I wish my hometown hadn’t been overrun by boring retail chains, franchise restaurants, and car dealerships. But I don’t live there anymore. It’s not up to me.
Of course, most suburb bashing in this country has less to do with the nostalgia of lost charm than with the suburbanite’s lifestyle, most recently exemplified by the SUV. It is the very essence of excess, and parked in the double-wide asphalt driveway of a “McMansion,” it simply reeks of materialism, greed, and disdain for the wider world.
Or does it? I wonder sometimes whether these choices are any more calculated than my decision to bicycle the six miles to work every day. My suburban siblings tend to think I’m motivated by environmental concern when, in fact, I’m being much more selfish: I don’t like paying for parking and don’t want to buy a second family car, and I really enjoy riding my bike. Could it be that my suburban relatives aren’t really anti-green, sprawl-loving maniacs? Could it be that they just like a big house and a big yard?
I don’t get back to Sunnyside Road very often these days, but when I do, I’m struck by how small the house is, by how the backyard couldn’t possibly have contained our excited play. But there remains among the few remaining thickets of oaks down the block a spirit of play, of possibility.
In one way, at least, the suburbs haven’t really changed since my childhood: They’re still about childhood pursuits. They offer the kid in all of us a life without limits, the perception of safety, the illusion of cool. As one who once joyfully basked in that life, it’s hard to criticize folks for wanting a piece of it.
But I’ll be staying here in the city, where I have my own slice of the American dream. (By the way, it is stucco, and just a couple of blocks from a four-lane highway.) Living here doesn’t make me more disciplined or more civic-minded, or more sophisticated than suburban folks. I’m sticking to the city because the life I imagine for myself and my family does not include 20-mile commutes, dinners at the Olive Garden, and Wal-Mart shopping trips. It also does not include backyard wetlands or neighborhood forests. Like anyone else, I make choices, give up certain things, celebrate others. What we accrue in these choices ends up becoming our life, and where we live it ends up becoming our home.
Craig Cox is executive editor of Utne.