March 26, 2005

suburbs, what a concept

A few days ago, Alice of Finslippy asked her readers for some advice. She and her husband and adorably funny toddler son own an apartment in Park Slope; it's small, with various other discomforts of urban life. They're considering cashing in on their equity and moving to the Jersey suburbs. Her readers have been weighing in with pros and cons and personal stories and I've been devouring the whole thread. That could be me, only with a long layover in Los Angeles.

Yes, it turns out our Toronto vs. New York dilemma was no dilemma at all. For various reasons, the answer has to be New York. If the opportunity materializes, we go. We don't know yet if it will, but we should have a better sense of that soon, thanks to the good offices of some very good people. But if they want us, we want them.

So we've been thinking/dreaming/exploring what life would be like there. We can't move back to the Slope even though we loved it there. The Slope is no longer the same, nor are we. The prettiest parts are now overrun by investment bankers, you can't get a nice brownstone in the North Slope for under two million. And we don't have a stack of gold nuggets stashed away in our sock drawer, not even under the bed, so that's not gonna work. Plus which, the public schools suck, so we'd have to throw in tens of thousands per year on private school and extra services besides. And I remember the smell of garbage on the streets and the richocheting sound of our neighbors' shouts on those crammed-together blocks. You can go home again, maybe, but home has changed. And Los Angeles has changed me. Fact is? I love living in a house. My house. With walls, floors and ceilings that abut nothing but sky and earth.

We live in an urban area here. Smack dab in the middle of city, just not the downtown core. Too urban in some ways. Noisy, obnoxious, in-your-face. On the other hand, we can walk a few blocks to two Thai restaurants, a dimly lit Mexican place, a great pizzeria, or a written-up-in-the-LA-Times American comfort food joint. We can drive a few blocks to a well-stocked Whole Foods market or one of a dozen little Russian delis selling poppyseed sweet breads, beet salad and a noxious but oddly addicting mayonnaise-laden "Russian salad." I grew up in the city, I still live in one. But this city, for all its aggressive city-ness, is not New York, not Chicago, not Boston or San Francisco. It's a car town, and as a result the suburbs have joined forces with the city, and a few blocks from here you'll see peaceful streets with gorgeous old bungalows and friendly neighbors. I've learned to yearn for that. I experience half of it, in my pretty California Craftsman with its (paved but planted) back yard. I experience the other half of suburbia, perhaps, when I get in the car to go just about anywhere. In a sense, I already know suburban life.

And yet. Do I? If we move to New York but choose a New Jersey town on the commuter rail line, what would that be like? I imagine peace, I imagine lush lawns in summer. I imagine knowing our neighbors up and down the block and becoming passionately involved in the life of this particular town's artsy, liberal community. I imagine a pretty downtown with a good independent bookstore (yes, the town we're considering has one) and sprawling parks and a row of restaurants we will enjoy but inevitably find a tad boring after a while. Then again, we have a whole city to choose from here and yet we usually go back to the same handful of places, is that so different? I imagine a twinge of discomfort when I have to get on the highway to find a great fresh fish market. But I drive to Santa Monica now for that, a good half hour or so from here. Again, is it really different?

Suburbia in the Tristate area carries a particular meaning for me, though. The bridge and tunnel crowd, we called them. The ones who come into town as semi-tourists seeking excitement. Am I to become one? I remember being twenty three years old and driving over the Manhattan Bridge with an ex-boyfriend who owned a truck, all my belongings in the back of said vehicle, thinking, "Am I really moving to Brooklyn? Leaving Manhattan behind? How can this be?" I remember that first night wandering out onto Seventh Avenue, bemused at how few stores there were, how quiet it felt, comforted by the presence of a Korean deli. (It's a New York thing, these small storefront shops open 24 hours, stocked with everything you need to survive another day in the city.) I got used to it, grew to love it, grew to prefer it to Manhattan.

Of course, the Slope has changed since then. Had changed already by the time I left, had become filled with shops and upscale restaurants. But I remember that feeling still, bemusement as my point of reference shifted so suddenly and completely. The fact is, the Jersey towns we're considering (there are two but with a strong preference for one in particular) are roughly as far by commuter train from downtown Manhattan as the Slope is on the D train, but the feeling is so very different. Towns rather than part of the city. After a decade and a half in semi-suburban Los Angeles, I suspect this will feel more natural than I think, maybe more natural than moving back to Manhattan or Brooklyn ever could now, but nevertheless it seems so odd to consider. I try it on for size, I consider the ramifications, try to imagine the flavor. I think I like it, but how can I know?

And so I read through the nearly 200 comments responding Alice's blog post, all those discussions of suburb vs. gritty urban living. I find myself amused, because some of those comments are about an entirely different kind of suburb than the kind she and I are considering, these people describe truly sterile bedroom communities that would drive me around the bend in short order while the towns I'm thinking of sound like real places unto themselves. But other times I find myself pondering. What would (will?) this life be like? It's one I haven't tried yet. It's one I can't know yet. It entices and overwhelms both at the same time.

Posted by Tamar at March 26, 2005 10:42 PM | TrackBack

As someone who has been living in peaceful Hudson Heights for two years and am now jonesing to get back into the downtown maelstrom, it's fascinating to know and get the opposite pull.....

hmmmm..... I know you're set on NJ, but have you considered some of the further reaches of Brooklyn? The Rockaways are booming and have plenty of back yards....

I also wanted to share two quotes that I thought applied to this transition and discussion:

First, I'm beginning to share Colson Whitehead's THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK with my creative writing students, and wondered if you 'd read it yet. The first line feels apt right at the gitgo: "'I'm here because I was born here and thus ruined for anywhere else, but I don't know about you."

Second - I heard an ad last week (for a liberal radio show) that I thought could become NYC's newest tourist slogan. "Like Canada,, But Warmer!" Or, don't it make your red state blue?

Posted by: Chris at March 27, 2005 07:06 AM

I live in Montreal - I grew up here, in the same house I'm in now - and I'm moving to Halifax, hopefully in May or at the latest, June. Halifax is a much smaller city than Montreal, and it has more of a town ambiance than a metropolitan one. And that's part of Halifax's attraction, because I've been finding that Montreal is feeling much too big for me now.

And yet, I sometimes find myself looking around and wondering if I'll go nuts in Halifax, if I'll take note of every single thing that Montreal has and Halifax lacks. But I guess there's only one way to find out, and that's to try Halifax on for size :)

Posted by: Amanda at March 27, 2005 02:08 PM

Chris, the NJ town(s) have it over the Rockaways in some important respects: shorter commute into Manhattan, more of a community feel, and better schools/services for D. (Love the first line you quoted! Hits the nail on the head, doesn't it?)

Amanda, Halifax is a really sweet city, but yes, much smaller than Montreal. My brother has lived in both and says he loves both in different ways.

Posted by: Tamar at March 27, 2005 06:07 PM
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