Stuck in the Suburbs
I’m a city girl at heart, I like to say. I grew up in DC — not Washington, not the suburbs surrounding the city, but DC proper. I have scars on my knees from learning to roller skate in alleys, and I started riding the city bus by myself at age 10. I can parallel park on either side of the street with mere inches to spare.
I still feel at home in cities. I love the vibrancy, the people watching, the constantly changing streetscape. As an introvert, I enjoy being surrounded by a crowd into which I can disappear. I like the proximity of people with whom I have no obligation to interact.
When my oldest child was little, we lived in Manhattan, a few short blocks from Central Park. When relatives would lament that my little girl was growing up “without a back yard to play in,” I would just laugh. She had the biggest back yard in the world! We would go to the Met and pay a quarter to get in (back when the admission fee was a “suggested donation” and only tourists paid it), and sled down the hills in the park on snowy days. The whole city was her playground.
Eventually, like so many before us, we were lured away to the suburbs by the promise of their good schools and safe streets and yes, back yards. And I must admit, my children have thrived. But part of me has always grumbled, missing the sidewalks and sirens of the urban world. “We’re here for the kids,” my husband and I would say, resigning ourselves to our fate. Our little town felt largely uninspiring, but we fed our appetite for more urban environments through date nights in the city and as much travel as our busy family could afford.
And then the pandemic hit, and we were stuck.
My husband no longer commuted long hours to his shiny office building. No more dinner dates in the city. Our family getaway to San Francisco for spring break, cancelled. After a few weeks, it became clear that we weren’t going anywhere for a while.
With our full schedules suddenly empty of commitments, I started walking. I walked to clear my head, I walked to keep my blood moving, I walked to escape the house that I suddenly never, ever had to myself. After staring at the same walls of my house week after week, I walked simply to look at different stuff.
I live in the kind of suburb that seems to have been designed for cars rather than people. Driveways and garages are the prominent design features, and the main road is a divided highway lined with strip mall parking lots. My street doesn’t have sidewalks. It means that most people, when they go for a walk, do circuits around their own residential neighborhood rather than venturing further afield.
Within a few months, I’d explored every road, every street, every court in my section of town. I drew maps in my head of the locations of my favorite trees, my favorite houses, my favorite front-yard vegetable gardens. With nowhere else to go, I was forced to really see the place where I was. And I began to realize that I’d been blinded to my town’s charms by nothing more than my own snobbery.
In my spread-out suburb, there was plenty of space for social distancing. My friends in the city were stuck in their apartments, the sidewalks below them too crowded for an absent-minded stroll. Meanwhile I was walking miles a day, crossing the divided highway and exploring places in my town that I never knew existed. Parks and trails and community gardens, tucked away and nearly invisible to anyone traveling by car.
I found murals painted on the sides of buildings, and cheerfully decorated rocks tucked into strip-mall landscaping for unsuspecting passersby to find. I found Little Free Libraries, and a table set up to distribute free lunches to anyone who needed one. I found creeks and a fox’s den and a makeshift fort in the stand of trees behind a shopping center.
When all this is over, you can bet that I’ll be trekking into the city, first chance I get. I can’t wait to have my toes stepped on at a concert or be jockeying for position at a crowded bar or just spending an afternoon on a park bench, watching the urban tapestry go by.
But I’ll still be walking the sidewalk-less streets of my little suburb, too, grateful for the many ways it has held and sustained us through this strange time. I have a feeling that there’s still a lot more to explore, right here at home.