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On suburbs (part 1: prejudices)

This is my fourth day in Silicon Valley. Apart from the weather being consistently British (sun and showers), its main impact on me has been a forceful reminder of my aversion to suburbia.

This is the first of what will be several posts teasing out why I so dislike suburban development–particularly in America. Before I get down to brass tacks, it’s only fair to lay out my prejudices on the topic.

Prejudice 1: I hate driving. Not just a little bit.  A lot bit. I think it’s a waste of my attention and a waste of space. It means I can’t have a drink (!!), and it seems to make people jerkier than they are in real life. The self-righteousness of internet trolls is nothing compared to that of drivers. I know it’s supposed to be liberating, but I find driving really limiting.

Prejudice 2: I grew up in a place where everything necessary for daily life was within walking distance. Yes, those exist in Spokane, Washington, even if there aren’t many of them. Both of my parents can walk to work. I could walk to school. There are also 6 good restaurants, an ice cream parlour, a pub, a spa  a salon, and two grocery stores (one of them organic). That, to me, continues to be the very least that a neighbourhood should offer its residents.

Prejudice 3: I like places. I have been known to offend Londoners from south of the river by claiming that Clapham isn’t a place, a statement I stand by. The distance from Clapham Junction to Clapham North is greater than the distance from King’s Cross to Buckingham Palace…which is to say that Clapham covers roughly the same space as Bloomsbury + Fitzrovia + Holborn + Covernt Garden + Soho + Mayfair + St James’s. You can’t tell someone “meet me in Clapham” and expect to end up workably near to one another. In my mind that makes it a non-place. I prefer places. I believe that one place should be easily distinguishable from another. That’s one of the reasons I prefer London to Paris (check out Pevsner’s Visual Planning and the Picturesque if you have ever felt similarly).

Prejudice 4: I believe that society is better when different types of people interact with each other. This is a whole kettle of fish that I probably shouldn’t go into now, but I think cars (and iPods) are too isolating. They disconnect people from their environment, and in so doing, they undermine the small links that making up civilisation.

Prejudice 5: I listen to a lot of folk music. And two of the singers I favoured during my formative years are rather strongly against suburbs. Dar Williams, for example, sang:

Well we’re heading for a past that you leave not defend
Where the downtowns hold the sadness of you can’t go back again
It’s there you’ll find the rust and debtors
Motel signs with missing letters
Cause there’s a monster on the outskirts
Says it knows what your town needs
Then it eats it up like nothing and it won’t spit out the seeds
And we can be the super shoppers
We can say we’re really smart
We can say our town is doing fine without a beating heart
We can even say the money saved is all our own
It’s bought and sold

And to quote Ani DiFranco:

White people are so scared of black people
They bulldoze out to the country
And put up houses on little loop-d-loop streets
And while America gets its heart cut right out of its chest
The Berlin wall still runs down main street
Separating east side from west

And nothing is stirring, not even a mouse
In the boarded up stores and the broken down houses
So they hang colorful banners off all the street lamps
Just to prove they got no manners, no mercy, and no sense

The ghost of old buildings are haunting
Parking lots in the city of good neighbors that history forgot

So we’re led by denial like lambs to the slaughter
Serving empires of style and carbonated sugar water
And the old farm road’s a four-lane that leads to the mall_
And my dreams are all guillotines waiting to fall

And I wonder then, what it will take for my country to rise
First we admit our mistakes and then we open our eyes
‘Til nation’s last taker succumbs to one last dumb decision
And America, the beautiful is just one big subdivision

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