Extremes, or monotony

Where do you go when you feel overstimulated by the city, but empty in suburbia?

In Galena, Ohio, life feels predictably pleasant, save for the harsh Midwestern winter.

This northern suburb of Columbus is my partner’s hometown. Sparse trees halfheartedly line the edges of scrubby fields, buildings are beige and far apart, people are warm (and for the most part, white). It is a stereotypical canvas of “wholesome” American life.

Despite the loving community of family in my presence, my soul withers in Galena. I crave color, vibrancy, variety.

I begin to understand disdain towards my kind, the “east coast elitist snob,” every time I am bemused by a cult-like football allegiance, frustrated by uninteresting choices on restaurant menus, or desperate for a rail system whilst barreling down a highway.

I feel trapped, suffocated by Midwestern suburbia and my interpretation of another person’s reality — a fulfilling reality at that — can come across as rather insulting. I get that. I judge myself for it.

Especially given that I, too, was raised in a suburban environment. One rather different than Ohio’s version, but suburban nonetheless.

I like to tell people, rather hyperbolically, that I “grew up in the woods.”

Relative to the inescapable metropolis in which I currently live, that statement is almost accurate. The small 1960’s house that was my childhood home backed up to a wooded flood plain, yes, but the house was situated in the middle of a neighborhood. I lived seven miles from two esteemed universities.

I spent a lot of my childhood in that wooded flood plain, building fairy huts out of twigs and climbing magnolia trees and pretending to pole vault with fallen branches (how I didn’t break a bone, I’ll never know) and sprinting home at the mere hint of a copperhead.

I can almost smell that moment — the dirt, the branches, the violets, the daffodil. It smells of childhood.

My wooded college town and my partner’s sprawling Midwestern suburb live in stark contrast to our current home: Manhattan.

I am not revolutionary in noting that New York is a city of extremes.

It’s no Goldilocks, never “just right.” It’s always too something — hot, cold, crowded, loud, frenetic, confined, expansive, expensive.

But I feel alive in Manhattan, whether its because I’m exhilarated by the city’s infinite possibility or absolutely downtrodden from overstimulation. There is no dearth of variety nor vibrancy, in fact the city’s best features ignite both wonder and exhaustion.

I have never found balance in New York. I’ve always felt resolutely positive or negative.

I understand the romanticism of your 20s in a city like Manhattan. There is no monotony here, nothing cookie-cutter. Inspiration and, indeed, education are present in every experience. It’s nirvana for the generation obsessed with self-improvement.

I also understand the intense desire to run towards suburbia after a decade or so in this city. I get the craving for calmness, the wish for steadfast sameness, the want for a little more breathing room. Humans are routine creatures and there is nothing unnatural about seeking comfort in predictability.

New York isn’t exactly predictable. Especially the train schedules.

Living in Manhattan has somehow made me understand that allure of suburbia while personally wanting nothing to do with that reality.

Because I worry about what suburban sprawl does to our planet and ourselves. I worry about the ramifications of spending isolated, performative lives in little boxes that look the same as everyone else’s little boxes. I worry about the impact of proximate homogeneity on education, on empathy, on political perceptions. I worry about the constant pursuit of pleasantness instead of encountering productive, formative challenge in our everyday lives.

Selfishly I worry about resigning myself to a one-note existence — something I did at age 23 without realizing it. That’s an experience I do not wish to repeat.

As young city dwellers, do we cope with overstimulation only to settle for monotony when we get tired? Or does it only feel like monotony at first because we’re used to having everything at our fingertips?

And so, as I contemplate my eventual exit from Manhattan (not soon, but… not eons away either) I’m left wondering where to find balance. I want something in between a sprawling suburb and a bustling city. I want both, neither.

So where’s the Goldilocks?

My little town’s population has grown more than 200% since my childhood and, today, is more of a small city. My woods are still resolutely there, because this is the foothills of North Carolina — the land of the pines, the city of oaks. The woods can be tamed, but their presence will not be denied.

2018's Durham is close to a “Goldilocks.”

It’s not large enough to be overstimulating. It has reasonably good access to quality, interesting, local food. You can find kind of authentic versions of any cuisine… if you’re willing to drive 45 minutes. If you want to walk, your options are high-quality but rather limited.

I very much recommend Mateo, where this ridiculous picture was taken.

Small it might be, but I love Durham’s urban center. I love the twice-weekly farmers market, the breweries with year-round outdoor seating, the 30-something bearded men baby-wearing as they walk to our one perfect cafe, the sunshine and the hardwood trees and the smiles from strangers.

I don’t love that you can get from one end of downtown to the other — on foot — in about 15 minutes.

(I want to stop sneering at my hometown’s size. I’m not sure how a small town southern girl became a metropolitan snob after calling Manhattan home for a mere two years.)

Durham is getting noticed. In part, I think, because it’s a Goldilocks in miniature.

Downtown houses are such a hot commodity that nothing is on the market longer than a day, one-note condos are sprouting up everywhere, and fixer uppers in historically crime-ridden areas are turning into expensive flips at a staggering pace. Sometimes I feel intense pressure to buy into the market now in preparation for ever-rising costs, just in case I want to move back.

But I don’t want to move back, not right now. And maybe not in the forseeable. And I have no desire to own real estate at this stage of my life.

There must be other Goldilocks cities in the USA, and certainly ones larger than my little Tobacco town. Portland, perhaps, or even Richmond?

This is a serious question: where are the Goldilocks cities? I want to know about them.