So you can imagine the centrifuge of emotions I felt when my partner and I found ourselves shaking hands with a real estate agent on the doorstep of a Wauwatosa ranch, about to buy a house in the shadow of another prominent shopping center.
I hadn’t yet grown to love the suburbs by the time we signed the fence papers, but I made a happy face and got to work removing the pot print kitchen wallpaper. jam.
My house in the suburbs is festooned with jingling wind chimes. It has a retractable attic staircase that I have never climbed and a modest detached garage that I have become quite skilled in over the past six years. I have a second freezer in the basement and more of a “garbage room”. My dusty wedding dress practically has its own closet. There is no shortage of storage spaces in the suburbs.
Less than a month after my wedding and moving to the suburbs, I was invited to my first Tupperware party. It wasn’t so much a party as it was an endless parade of multi-functional plastic kitchen accessories, followed by a demonstration on how to microwave a cake. It ended with a Russian roulette style game in which the next host was chosen against their will. It was the most suburban thing I had ever been part of.
It looks like chain stores and mom-and-pop stores have already started swapping places as hungry performers and empty nests pass each other on the highway.
The alienation from getting married before most of my friends was compounded by the alienation from suburban life. All that extra space separated me from my (older) neighbors. And what would I have in common with them anyway? They talked about the stroller turning radii while I was busy trying to figure out the limitations of my take out delivery app. Meanwhile, my friends in town seemed to find my needs for charcoal and rock salt strange.
So I started telling myself a different story. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I thought this suburb of Milwaukee was actually a step forward. If the “slow food movement” continued to gain traction, slower lifestyles in general would certainly follow. When the suburbs inevitably got cool, I could boast that I was a pioneer of the suburbs.
On this last point, I was not entirely wrong.
I still remember asking a friend from New York for information on local roasters in preparation for a visit to the Big Apple. “Starbucks is about the only place that can afford rent in Manhattan,” he joked. And like the independent roasters of yesteryear, the young urban creative class has also started to move in droves to the suburbs. I have personally spotted bearded millennials buying bulk quantities of pine nuts at Costco.
Experts have called this exodus a “demographic reversal”. It looks like chain stores and mom-and-pop stores have already started swapping places as hungry performers and empty nests pass each other on the highway. I see more evidence every day: My house is actually within 4 miles of a cute beer garden, Jamaican restaurant, and two Instagram donut shops.
While I was still with my elbows in a bucket of ceiling paint for my new home, The New York Times dubbed this phenomenon “hipsturbia”. If both those who create “authentic” culture – independent bookstores and typography studios and fusion restaurants – and those who consume it – DINK with excesses of both social capital and real capital – fleeing to the spacious suburbs, maybe I can just pretend I attended that Tupperware party with irony.
But six years later, the rhetorical backflips I had used to rationalize the choice of suburban living faded as I relaxed into the ease of it all. Each spring, I rediscover the joy of reading a book on my porch. And every winter, I bask in the glow of the elaborate illuminations of my neighbors.
When I sleep with the windows open, I am often awakened by industrious birds and the bucolic purring of my neighbor’s lawnmower instead of the whine of a kneeling bus or an evangelist around the corner. I can run around my neighborhood without playing “WAIT… WAIT… WAIT” at every crosswalk. When I leave my bike out overnight, it’s still there the next morning. And while the grass remains metaphorically greener in the city, it’s literally greener in the suburbs, where owners diligently display their own Miracle Gro.
Today, my position on housing is similar to my position on marriage: I believe that soul mates are partly found, partly created, and communities are what you put into them. I have learned to come to terms with aspects of my suburban lifestyle the same way I come to terms with my partner leaving dirty dishes in the house. I haven’t been to a Tupperware party in about six years, but have attended many author readings, concerts, and gallery openings. It turns out that commuters are allowed to return to the city from time to time.
One afternoon, cycling through the village of Tosa, I joked that the scene was so idyllic it would give good publicity to attract future residents. Families picnicked on the grass, friends played tennis, kids climbed on playground equipment, accordion music drifted from the beer garden nearby. It was almost too good to be true – but it was true. The suburbs had changed as much in my mind as it did outside.
Maybe it’s surrender to the convenience of this side of the 30s, maybe it’s the choice to embrace the pluses and accept the minuses, or maybe this lady protests too much. But when I parked my bike next to the garage that afternoon, I was happy to call this suburb my home.
“Suburban pastoral” appears in Weddings in Milwaukee 2019.
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