Note: Originally published on Blogger on June 28, 2006
Unfolding the Map
I'm going to wax eloquent on suburbs, today, Littourati. Make yourself get a drink, make yourself comfortable, sit back and click on the image if you wish to see the updated cartographic record of our journey.
"We arrived at Council Bluffs at dawn; I looked out. All winter I'd been reading of the great wagon parties that held council there before hitting the Oregon and Santa Fe trails; and of course now it was only cute suburban cottages of one damn kind and another, all laid out in the dismal gray dawn."
On the Road: Chapter 3
Council Bluffs, Iowa
I've never been to Council Bluffs. About the only thing I know about Council Bluffs is this description in On the Road, and the fact that Council Bluffs shares a roller derby team with Omaha. Yes, that's right. Roller derby, that girl-on-girl full contact sport on skates that you may remember from the 70s. It has exploded in popularity in the past 2-3 years. Council Bluffs has the "Rolling Thunder Derby Dames," which also represents Omaha. (Editor's note: As of 2010, it appears the Rolling Thunder Derby Dames are no more.)
But I digress. My topic is suburbs. I wonder if Jack was aware that 1947 was around the time of the explosion of suburban America? As returning GIs came home and began looking for places to live, the crowding of the cities was inevitable unless something else was available. Suburbs were the answer, with affordable housing away from the sprawl, traffic and dangers associated with the big cities, family friendly but still within commuting distance to workcenters in the city centers.
I've lived in a number of cities now: Milwaukee, San Antonio, New Orleans and now Albuquerque. In each area, I did not live in the suburbs but within the city limits. In each, my experience of the suburbs has been different and I find myself torn as to how I feel about them. One thing I don't like about the suburbs is my perception of their "sameness." It is as if the suburbs choose to remain in an America untouched by diversity. Houses tend to have the same overall look, more so if they are built en masse by a developer. Here in Albuquerque, many people live in Rio Rancho, which is growing at a pace that one day may make it the largest municipality in terms of population in the state, but on my few trips out there, I have visceral feelings about streets laid out with houses that have the same general design, the same garage facing the street. I once asked a friend, who was driving with me out there, "Why were we so afraid of communism?" I meant it! We were told we'd have no choices, and that we would be forced into uniformity under communism. In driving through a development in Rio Rancho, I decided we didn't need communism to get what we feared. And we accept it!
In New Orleans, Metaire is the suburb to the west. Many people go to Metaire because it offers cheap apartments and chain stores and eateries. As a result, the business district of Metaire, and many other suburbs that I've seen, consists of the same bland chains. Sure, a Target is good, and a Burger King is good. But block after block of big box stores and 10 McDonalds within a five mile strip? And the aesthetics of these strips -- they are built for traffic, not pedestrians. Stores and chains are set back behind big parking lots as traffic zooms on by. You can go to any suburban area and find the same exact thing. Once again, the uniform sameness we once so feared.
In San Antonio, we reached a point where people began to flee the suburbs. The city continued to grow outward and outward, to a point where now people are concerned about the land needed to recharge San Antonio's aquifer, which is being paved over at a dizzying rate and does not allow the water to soak into the earth. People actually flee outward, trying to escape those strips and chains, hoping to find Nirvana at the edge of the wilderness. Instead, as more and more of them go there, they find the strips and the chains follow them.
I like living either in the city, or in the country. The in-between is not for me. The cities offer me variety, diversity, and excitement. The country provides me with rest, relaxation, and quiet. The gray area of the suburb does not give me any solace, but makes me feel uneasy. I think that Jack (and Sal) perhaps had this visceral reaction as well, being city boys, but didn't quite realize that within a few short years, the suburb would be the rule, not the exception.
If you want to learn more about Council Bluffs or suburbia
Next up: Omaha, Nebraska