I did not grow up in the suburbs. I grew up in “the country” – rural Pennsylvania. As badly as I wanted to escape, I always had my eyes set on the city. A city, any city, not another rural area, not my own house in the country, not a nearby suburb. For awhile it was New York, because that’s what teenagers who lived within a couple hours of NY thought about. Then Philadelphia. I even contemplated Boston and eventually reached further, in my fantasies, to European cities. Rome. London. Berlin. I wound up landing in Prague.
Living in a European city was exhilarating. I really did feel as if I’d escaped something. I loved the mobility, I loved being free of my need of a car. I loved riding the tram from one end of the city to another or walking for hours. I loved knowing my way around and being able to dodge tourists by taking confusing paths through labyrinths of side streets and beautiful, old architecture. For all of my complaints, now, of the suburban sounds of leaf blowers and unnecessary lawn maintenance, I had even loved the loud rattling of trams outside my apartment windows in Prague. I loved being dependent on nothing and no one – all I needed were my own feet and to know where the nearest metro station or tram stop was.
Towards the end of my three years in Prague, I had a Czech boyfriend. Deliriously, we talked about kids and marriage and him wanting to buy a home in Prague. I envisioned some small, beautiful flat in one of the neighborhoods that hadn’t been taken over by expats but he drove me out to the suburbs of Prague (even European cities have suburbs!) and showed me the plain, character-less houses he had in mind. I died a little more inside with every house he showed me. He was excited but it all looked like prison to me. It all looked like losing the freedom I had found and the life I had created. It looked like a loss of my independence. I was coming to the realization that he was a very “traditional” (I’m being nice here) kind of guy who envisioned going off to work while I was kept safely away in a little box in the ‘burbs. I was not valued for my love of adventure, my openness and curiosity, persistent desire to learn. I was beginning to have the sense that those were the things he tolerated and wanted to shut down and what better way than to move to the suburbs.
Needless to say, I ran screaming pretty quickly.
Lauren Elkin grew up in the suburbs. You can’t walk in the suburbs. I mean, you can, but people in the suburbs tend to walk for fitness. You see mothers wearing Lululemon, pushing strollers. Couples speedwalking to Starbucks in athletic windbreakers. It’s not the same. This passage was poignant to me and speaks to the value of flâner-ing for women:
I became suspicious of an entirely vehicle-based culture; A culture that does not walk is bad for women. It makes a kind of authoritarian sense; a woman who doesn’t wonder – what it all adds up to, what her needs are, if they’re being met – won’t wander off from the family. The layout of the suburbs reinforces her boundaries: the neat grid, the nearby shopping center, the endless loops of parkways, where the American adventure of the open road is tamed by the American dream. Think of all the rebellious suburban woman killed off in literature, from Madame Bovary to Revolutionary Road. Dream big, end up dead. Thelma and Louise could never come home to the suburbs. I began to think of houses the way Marguerite Duras did: places ‘specially meant for putting children and men in so as to restrict their waywardness and distract them from the longing for adventure and escape they’ve had since time began’ but to ‘children and men’ I added “and women’…
I wasn’t naive enough to idealise the city as a place of equal access and possibility. Certainly Colombia University’s complicated history with it’s neighborhood testified to the contrary. But it is in the practice of the city that we have the best chance of making a just world. Freedom of movement is an intrinsic part of that.” – (Dr) Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London.