suburbia / unseeing

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“If suburbanites are buffered from encounters with the strange and different by their cars and their single-family houses, this is in part a result of zoning laws which divide towns up into single-use enclaves. Residential, commercial, and industrial areas are kept strictly apart, which demands that you drive everywhere as your orbit between work, home, shopping, and leisure becomes every wider. Originally bedroom communities clustered around railway stations with easy access to the cities on which they depended, the suburbs in time became autonomous, spreading away from their town centers. This was mainly the fault of the automobile, which became the pre-eminent way of getting around in the second half of the twentieth century, causing an intricate system of motorways to loop and lace through the landscape, connecting each town to all the others, blurring them into a sprawling mass of units with no easy means of getting from one to the other on foot…

Getting around by car often means residents end up traveling far and wide getting to work and to play, which is not the way to build local solidarity. As home-based entertainments like radio and later television developed, families tended to relish their privacy, and the ‘neighborhood unit’ was further undermined. And unfortunately, these ‘discrete units’ soon became an excuse for horrific instances of racial and class-based segregation. With no way of seeing how other people lived, I had no access to the real world except through the television, which piped in visions of white suburban families not so different from my own.” – (Dr) Laura Elkins, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London

As someone who has always prided themselves on being so “worldly” and aware, and who once dreaded the idea of settling into a suburb, I am almost embarrassed to admit this (but I will admit it, because it’s important): I was so excited NOT to have a car during my three years living in the Czech Republic. My daydreams always have involved (and still do) living in a city where a care isn’t necessary and we walk everywhere. During my month in Berlin this past Summer, I was ecstatic to be hoofing it, along with riding the ‘bahns every day. I was easily clocking a minimum of four miles on my feet, daily. Somehow, with the chaos of moving to a brand new city with a 5 week old baby and needing to find a home pretty quickly once we moved for Husband’s job in Seattle, we wound up in a suburb. We wound up on the dreaded “east side”, to be exact (which, thanks to the massive growth the city has seen in just the last couple of years is now prime real estate and not considered so far from “the city”.) Even though I’ve always preferred cities, suddenly I wanted A YARD, and to be within walking distance of an elementary school, and all the bedrooms we could get. I got the yard, which is great for our huge dog (an oddly laid-back German Shepherd) but which shares a fence with the type of neighbors everyone dreads (don’t get me started). We are walking distance to an elementary school but my son doesn’t go there. And I like having a spare guest room for mother when she visits and an office for Husband and another spare room which is half extra closet, quarter computer room, and quarter “study space” really just has me wandering around most days wishing for something smaller, simpler, and easier to clean.

Long story short, I spent several years in Seattle enclosed in the bubble of the suburbs and my car. I had an epiphany when I rode the lightrail a few times for field trips during the “City of the Future” at UW. I loved the lightrail and started taking it down to Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill after classes to grab lunch or coffee in between. I found myself feeling nervous one day, as I walked through one section of town, and realized I had been shut away for years and was feeling somewhat anxious and startled being around so many people. (Which was also partially rooted in having been at home with a young child for a few years, also.) I didn’t like feeling startled and anxious being in an urban environment and vowed to stop spending so much time in the car and began spending more time “flâner-ing” again, around Seattle. But it’s easy to see how the suburban enclaves and time spent in cars can remove one from humanity and contributes to intolerance. One can easily relate this back to privilege, as well – the privileged are able to spend all of their time in a car, in the ‘burbs, never having to “unsee” their version of the space in which they inhabit.

On another note, this paragraph from Elkins reminded me of Engels “The Great Towns” in Conditions of the Working Class in England. In that piece, he identified a disconnection between people thereby dehumanizing certain groups, and the disparity between people economically and in living conditions. He pointed out that the wealthy were able to live in complete ignorancea and remain unaware of these issues due to the fact of segregation of the classes into various neighborhoods. The very poor live clustered together in sections that are entirely avoided by the wealthy and the wealthy live, work, and travel in areas where they can “take the shortest road through the middle of all the laboring districts” without having to witness any of the poverty around them.

Outside, beyond this girdle, lives the upper and middle bourgeoisie, the middle bourgeoisie in regularly laid out streets in the vicinity of the working quarters, especially in Chorlton and the lower lying portions of Cheetham Hill; the upper bourgeoisie in remoter villas with gardens in Chorlton and Ardwick, or on the breezy heights of Cheetham Hill, Broughton, and Pendleton, in free, wholesome country air, in fine, comfortable homes, passed once every half or quarter hour by omnibuses going into the city. And the finest part of the arrangement is this, that the members of this money aristocracy can take the shortest road through the middle of all the labouring districts to their places of business without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left. For the thoroughfares leading from the Exchange in all directions out of the city are lined, on both sides, with an almost unbroken series of shops, and are so kept in the hands of the middle and lower bourgeoisie, which, out of self-interest, cares for a decent and cleanly external appearance and can care for it. True, these shops bear some relation to the districts which lie behind them, and are more elegant in the commercial and residential quarters than when they hide grimy working-men’s dwellings; but they suffice to conceal from the eyes of the wealthy men and women of strong stomachs and weak nerves the misery and grime which form the complement of their wealth.
– Friedrich Engels, “The Great Towns” (in The Condition of the Working Class in England)


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