The truth about the suburbs

It's worse than you think

And now for a spin of our bitterness wheel. This week the pointer stops at: The Suburbs.

Maybe you saw the recent Inquirer story (Oct. 19) about the plight of young workers living outside the city: "The new suburbanites," it was called, written by Monica Yant. (If you didn't see that, maybe you saw Dan Rottenberg's October 30th Forum column about Yant's Inquirer story. And if you didn't see that, God help you.)

"Single professionals are following the jobs," the Inquirer headline said. "The problem is...there's little to do after work." The story then detailed the troubles young folks face just piecing together something which in dim light resembles a social life.

"I'm in the middle of nowhere," said Abby Register, 22, of Royersford, shortly before her arrest by the Royersford Chamber of Commerce.

"When I go out, it's with either my roommates or people from work," said Pete Gamble, 25, who works in Berwyn. "We're in our own group. You can't avoid it."

Yes, we've heard this story before--partly. We've heard how businesses flee the city, taking with them their tax base and those vigorous, talented men and women who keep them rolling. But we've seldom heard the story from the workers' side. We city dwellers have bewailed the city's loss of population to the suburbs. Yet we always assumed that most people left because the suburbs are nicer places to live. We never considered it might be like having your toe nails pulled out.

Well, there they are: all those single 20-something professionals, alone in their vinyl-sided condos, their big-screen TVs burning brightly in the night. Think of them attending corporate picnics organized by their employers to ward off terminal boredom. Look at them going to socials and wearing company T-shirts. Think of them playing ice-breaker games, attaching their sticky name tags ('HELLO, My Name Is Bob') and standing in a circle to sing "Kum Bai Ya."

Pardon me. I must dab away a tear....

Naturally, when you read a heart-rending story like this, your first reaction is: hahahahahahahahhahahahahahahahahahaha haw haw haw. No, seriously, what I mean to say--ha hahahahahahahahahahahah. No, I don't mean to sound insensitive. That is not your first reaction at all. Your first reaction is: What on earth did these people expect?

Dan Rottenberg, that scourge of the suburbs, has never actually lived in one. I have, so I speak from experience. I grew up in Linwood, New Jersey, a wetlands community that started out as a town and slowly became a suburb. (What city it became a suburb of was never quite clear. It wasn't near any city, but it sure did sprawl like a suburb.) After which it was dead, dead, dead.

I know it was dead because you could shoot a canon down the main road and hit nothing but Wawas. Which would have been fine, except that canon shooting was technically illegal, so even that amusement was closed to you. And sooner or later you'd run out of Wawas.

Now, peace and quiet would be fine if they weren't accompanied by extreme brain decay. But something happens to your mind when you move to the suburbs. Suddenly you worry you may have to speak to people when you go outdoors. You may have to draw near to them and decide what expression to wear. The space between your car and front door begins to look like wilderness. What happens if you see someone?

Don't mistake the suburbs for a simpler life. Suburbs destroy simplicity. The tiniest errand becomes an expedition of key-gathering and car-driving, car-parking, store-searching. Not to mention those uncomfortable encounters with others.

Don't mistake the suburbs for a more outdoorsy life, either. Not with the near-complete absence of pedestrian spaces, and the more important absence of any reason to go outside.

Some of these towns do have pedestrian spaces--carefully manufactured. Yet if you sit near them and watch, you'll see the locals passing each other in serene silence, each pretending to walk alone. Emphatic indifference. A conspiracy of seclusion. Isolation from the inside.

I don't know what suburbanites fear, really. Perhaps they're afraid they'll be audited by gangs of desperado accountants.

Now, what should we do about all those isolated suburbanites?


It behooves as compassionate human beings to take the only humanitarian course available in this matter: Let's keep these people the hell out of the city. Life is too short to dance with dullards.

Or maybe we could sell trips to the city the way we'd market health-club memberships. Invent something called the Philadelphia Phun and Social Club, and actually charge young professionals to hang out in front of the Art Museum for a day. Our marketing slogan: 'All juiced up no where to dash? Come to the city.'

Or if we really want those young folks back, try this suggestion. Let them languish in the burbs for a while and see that life is better in the city. Then let them screw their suburban jobs and little comfy condos and come back where they can have some fun. If we attracted enough kids, sooner or later the businesses would follow them, I'm convinced.

Do it now, kids. Phone in your two-week notice. You're too young for the nursing home.

© Rob Laymon 2002

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