I have to finally confess to myself: I live in a suburb. It has taken me a while to admit it. Suburban living has never been my ambition but it has become my fate. Even with a Kansas City, Missouri address, where I now live is indisputably a suburb. That’s because we live in Platte County north of the Missouri River above Jackson County. Jackson County is Kansas City; everywhere else is a suburb.
We even have an entrance to the subdivision and a name: The Coves, an area with townhouses, condos, and some four hundred homes. All of the inner circle homes are arrayed around two middling ponds. With some stretch of the imagination, one may squint and see a cove, or two.
This was one of the first subdivisions opened in Platte County in the 1970’s, before Kansas City annexed the area, moving north to expand its municipal tax base. It was intended to be somewhat upscale, and in 1974 it was. As the years rolled on the scale of “up” acquired a different interpretation. The Coves North was opened just across a main thoroughfare. It also has some ponds, larger than ours. Northland, that’s what we call it up here, is dotted now with numerous subdivisions, townhouses, apartment complexes, all designed, as is said, to fit any budget.
I wasn’t raised in the American suburb. I was raised on a “place.” A rural route defined the road that ultimately became our Spruce Street. There were three thousand residents in my Kansas hometown (now 125,000) when my parents built their house, bracketed by open pasture east and west. My grandparents had their “place” down the way, next to our “place.” I don’t know the right definition of “place” but if it includes a barn housing a Ford tractor, an out-building or two, and a fence around a pasture confining a few cows, well, that’s a place, I figure.
Later, we became a suburban subdivision and the places around us filled in: homes, pavement, and the high school I attended behind us. What I miss yet from the pasture is the old, huge, elm tree with my tire swing. Where it stood there is now a backyard in-ground swimming pool.
Still, until a couple days ago, I really never thought of myself as a suburbanite. Even when we lived in a small community abutted against Southside Chicago, I did not think I was a suburbanite. But I was in denialI ignored the evidence. We lived in a house on a street named Elm; we had a dog named Spot; and a couple, Dick and Jane, moved in across the street. When the police once had occasion to chase a deer down Elm Street, we got together with Dick and Jane and decided to call the deer a pony and named it Blaze.
But two days ago, reality caught up with me: I am a suburbanite. I got a little shiver, I tell you. It came to me as I was treating the yard for grub worms, the bane of suburban lawns; hordes of nasty larva that eat grass roots and leave a circular patch of desiccation, dismay, and dead grass in their wake.
If anyone asks I will proudly assert my yard fulfills a needed niche in every suburban neighborhood: a street with “that yard.” I make the neighbor’s look good. I have volunteered for the job. Nobody else was doing it and somebody had to step up. After two failed attempts to eradicate clusters of ever-expanding weeds and replant grass seed, I instead have decided to make the weeds look as best they might. Volunteerism in America is not dead and I’m happy to do my part.
Suburbs have a bad name, which is a bit odd what with all the people living in them contentedly. Perhaps that is part of our problem. People like it here and other people know we shouldn’t.
It is hard to hear the word “suburban” without “sprawl” attached to it. Suburbs are scored for “poor land use,” among other things. There has always been some nostalgic snobbishness against the suburbs, accompanied by the oft-expressed hope and frequent prediction that Americans are on the verge of giving up the empty allure of suburban space. Soon, surely, they will come to their senses and return to the urban core.
An F. Scott Fitzgerald character in The Great Gatsby spoke of the East’s superiority compared “to bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond Ohio.” If you’ve ever watched an episode of Weeds, that twisted longish tale of the suburban soccer mom turned drug dealer, you cannot have missed Malvina Reynolds’s Little Boxes, the show’s theme song. It is a bitter, even cruel indictment of the middle class that lives in “ticky-tacky” land.
Fact is I like living here. I have met more neighbors here than anywhere else. The day we moved in, we met a dozen people who made a point of greeting us and one guy brought over some cookies. If the alternative to that is living in something resembling socialist-style worker’s housing with ten floors of basement, I’ll stay here.
Russell E. Saltzman is a dean in the North American Lutheran Church and assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri. His latest book, Speaking of the Dead, is being published this year by ALPB Books. His previous articles can be found here.