Saturday, July 14, 2007

Urban vs. Suburban Mouse

Wordy today, it would appear.

I often make the joke that I don't do bridges, tunnels or freeways. My fellow urbanites proudly refer to ourselves as "City Snobs," and I? I am the patron saint of the City Snobs. It isn't that I don't get the suburbs. It is much worse. I am positively allergic to them. I get tense when I am in them and I am utterly dumbstruck by those who choose to live there.

It would be easy to explain this burb-hate to my upbringing abroad, and, given the similar experiences of my urbanite siblings, it certainly had an influence. My youngest brother just rented his first apartment in downtown Seattle, even though his new employer is based about 20 miles away in a decidedly suburban city. It never occurred to him to rent an apartment over there, even though his commute is going to suck out loud - it will be interesting to see if his love of all things urban will withstand his hatred of an hour commute.

Funny aside (and perhaps counterpoint to this argument): My parents, who have lived overseas for over 30 years, are the quintessential suburban types. The own a McMansion in the very best Houston suburb that they rent out while abroad. They have a house on a golf course about an hour and a half north of here. When they come home for the summer, they suggest restaurants such as the Outback Steakhouse and any other chain restaurant they know. They hit the big box stores with a vengeance and buy their groceries in stores that sell everything from power tools to tortilla chips.

The other easy argument that I don't have children and, if I did, I would want them to go the the Very Best Schools and live in a Very Safest Neighborhood. Those two phrases are heavily loaded to me. To me, they carry the true meaning of "we want our kids to go to school with people Just Like Us" and "live in a neighborhood full of people Just Like Us." Which is, almost always, upper white middle class. We want to live and mingle with people who are Just Like Us and who would therefore never hurt us.

Quite frankly, that is exactly why I hate the suburbs. I have no interest in living among people who are just like me. I loathe the idea of living in an environment where all of the houses look exactly alike and everyone follows the same HOA rules to make sure everything looks the same. It is a fundamental difference in values. I like diversity in everything - the people I see on the street, the incomes, the cultural backgrounds, the life experiences, the ambitions, the creativity - hell, I require that kind of backdrop.

The suburban existence holds no appeal to me. Seeing the same people, day after day, living the same lives, living in the same house, following the same routines? Yeah, that would be my version of hell. And if I do have children? No way would I want them raised in that environment. The Very Best Schools aren't in the suburbs, at least in my mind, and I would not want my hypothetical child educated among people just like him or her. That is not the education I received and certainly not one I would advocate.

Two random stories: when I went to law school, there were two African American students and two Asian students*. The rest of the class was primarily suburban raised, upper white middle class students whose first real job was the summer associate position they took after their second year of law school (earning between $5-7K a month). It was, without question, the least stimulating learning environment I have ever been in. I was, at all times, called upon as the "liberal" voice in the room, seeing as I was from urban Seattle and a little older (and therefore had "life experience"). In retrospect, any state school in the country would have provided me with a better education. The most interesting person (and the one from whom I learned the most) was one of the two African American students, whose personal background (and opinions on Historically Black Colleges) made for the most thought-provoking conversations I had in my three years there.

The other random story is more local. Ballard is a Seattle neighborhood that is historically Scandanavian (read: white), and, as housing prices rose in the 90's and early 00's, became the place that young, white urbanites snatched up houses to raise their kids in-city. Seattle has a long history of forced desegregation school busing, such that kids from the poor neighborhoods (read: black) were bussed to the wealthier areas of town in order to avoid the "white school" syndrome. As Ballard became more wealthy (white), more disadvantaged kids (black) wanted to go there.

Oh, but this pissed off liberal minded Ballard folks, who wanted their kids to go to the neighborhood (white) school. It also pissed off the neighboring and equally liberal minded Magnolia (a neighborhood where homes start at $600K) families, who finally had a (white) school nearby. Incidentally, the joke was on them, since the Very Best School in Seattle wasn't in the suburbs or even in Ballard, but was rather at Garfield, which is in one of the few racially diverse neighborhoods in Seattle. See, it wasn't about the Very Best School. It was about the whitest, most convenient school.**

These "progressive" parents took to the courts and ultimately, successfully convinced the Supreme Court that their kids were being harmed by not being able to go to the local (white) school and now, their kids can go to school with kids Just Like Theirs.

Who the fuck are these people who want that for their kids? My boss, who has owned his law firm for 20 years and lives in a house that is now worth several millions of dollars - you know where his kids went to school? Garfield - the alma mater of Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones. His kids are the most well adjusted, smartest, wonderful kids I have ever known. His daughter just left Garfield after her sophomore year because she has enough credits to start college at the UW. They both took AP classes and played in the orchestra and did all of the things promised by the suburb schools, yet neither one is a binge drinker or drug user or gang banger. They are also the kind of kids that see a crazy person on the bus while navigating public transportation and feel compassion and empathy for people who don't have it as good as they do. That is true of almost every inner city kid I have ever met.

Living in this city is expensive as all hell and I was lucky that I got in on the real estate market when I did. That said, I live in a one-bedroom + condo that doesn't lend itself well to raising a family. If my circumstances changed and I met someone who had kids or wanted to start a family (and I was of a like persuasion)? The suburbs wouldn't be an option for me. I would rather live in a cramped condo or smaller house with sidewalks and public transportation and options beyond McDonalds and Subway. I couldn't abide by a suburban existence and passing that along as the desired way of living. I couldn't model that.

It truly is a difference in values and a very blunt cultural difference. It is cruise vacations vs. traveling abroad, WalMart vs. neighborhood store, PF Changs vs. the local Wok-n-Go, cineplex vs. indie movie houses, SUV vs. hybrid and Starbucks vs. corner coffee shop.

And yes, I fucking love Starbucks. They're local.

* True story. In law school, I had a professor that prided himself on dazzling the 100+ student class that he could learn all of our names (by studying the seating chart, which had our individual photographs) by the second day of class. On that day, he went around the room, staring at our faces and triumphantly recounting our name. When he got to one of the two Asian students, he said, and I fucking quote, "well, I have a 50-50 chance here." I was told by my classmates that I was alone in my personal outrage.

** The most strident opponent I knew of the Ballard-Magnolia parents was a white Magnolia woman married to one of the only African-American men in Magnolia (who is the editor of a local paper). As the parent of a bi-racial child, living in the whitest neighborhood of Seattle, she understood the value of a multi-racial, diverse (socio-economically speaking) student body and was all too willing to send her son to the "bad neighborhood" if it meant getting a real education. She was considered a pariah during all of this and wrongfully maligned. It was a brunch with her today that brought out this rant.


Norm said...

Yeah, you got me here.

My wife and I often laugh about where we live now, because we grew up in the California whiteburbs and hated it with a kind of burning hot bitter passion that to this day is perplexing to our parents and our friends who still live there. So it was always going to be the farmhouse or the downtown apartment for us, for all the reasons you mentioned. Didn't actually work out that way. But it's kind of fine because where we are still has some of the original advantages of the original suburbs -- close to country and city, cheaper, and you can have a little elbow room to grow flowers and have squirtgun fights. Working orchards and farms in walking distance, etc. Still got some soul left. Won't last.

And hey, for the kids, moving to a place with a lot of big houses and cars and white people was a real exciting adventure, at the time. ;)

cornutt said...

I was in a shit mood yesterday, it would appear.

Although I am not a suburb person, it is ridiculous to judge someone for where they want to live. Hell, the entire rant was ridiculous. Different stokes, different folks and all that.

I can be an arrogant little shit sometimes. It happens.

Norm said...

Pfft. I didn't read it that way at all, dahlink. I was agreeing with you wholeheartedly.