If you stop and think about it, there are not a lot of explicit demands on us to be sociable neighbors. And I don’t mean responsible neighbors, where you’re expected to pick up after your dog, keep your yard cleaned up, that kind of thing. No. I mean being social and friendly.
The one day of the year that seems to call for this is Halloween. It’s the one and only holiday, for certain, and really the only day where our communities ask us to keep the lights on and willingly open our front door.
This really struck me a couple years ago when I took my young daughter out trick-or-treating in our neighborhood. We thought we’d work our way down the hill — stopping at homes along the way — toward our friend’s house a few blocks down. To her disappointment and my dismay, we encountered one dark house after the next, creating whole stretches that were desolate and cold. To me, that was scarier than any fake skeleton or styrofoam gravestone. It wasn’t just a signal of neighborhood non-participation, but a kind of rebuff of the neighbors.
I thought, how hard is it, really, to buy a $3.99 bag of candy and leave your porch light on? This is a simple, affordable act of good will that helps build a feeling of community. It signals that you are present and open to your surroundings, and not adverse to interacting with people you may not know — but who, most likely — are your actual neighbors.
In the course of my research and my life, I’ve encountered a lot of people who tell me they lived in their suburban neighborhood for years without ever meeting the neighbors two or three doors down. It’s not something they are proud of, but it’s just evolved that way.. like a social dynamic on auto-pilot. We live our lives, we are busy, we are tired, we want our peace and quiet. Some people deliberately prefer the insulation. But the social costs tend to add up, as they work to alienate our communities and ourselves. (I’ll write more about this, in future blog posts.)
But back to Halloween. One survey reported in Statista found that 67.8 percent of Americans (ages 18 and older) plan to hand out candy, and 41 percent said they are going to carve a pumpkin. That is encouraging. Maybe at the macro-level, things look better than they appear on the ground. Still, even one out of three houses dark seems a little discouraging to me. Where we live, this statistical pattern shows up like this: whole stretches go dark, then others are teeming with elaborately festooned houses, running kids, and light everywhere. But you have to walk through the darkness to get there.
I have to admit that I’ve never liked the ghoulish aspects of Halloween — I still cringe when I see our little foam gravestone on our front lawn, which just seems morbid to me. But I willingly schlep it out every year, along with the orange lights, the white ghost, and other doodads. And I buy that bag or two of candy. We’re lucky if we get 3-4 groups of kids at our door every year. But I’ll always keep that light on no matter what.
It’s interesting to me how discussions about walking freely in our suburban towns these days — or feeling afraid to — evoke memories of our own childhoods. When I bring up this topic (like in my last blog post), I often hear, “when I was a kid, we always walked or biked freely.” It was a different time then, they say. Or was it, really? And I wonder, what was really different about it?
These are questions that are driving my own historical research right now, so my head is immersed in understanding this. Or at least trying to grasp the multiple forces that have changed our relationships to our own home neighborhoods and suburban public space.
But back to those memories. Here’s mine. I grew up in South Pasadena, in a newly built suburban development up in a hilly area. As kids, we were all over those streets. We played outside regularly, we biked to a liquor store over and down the hill to buy candy, and I walked or biked to my nearby elementary school on a regular basis.
And this was no Shangri-la of safety. As a second grader, I was walking home alone one day, and an unfamiliar man in an older Chevy-type car pulled over and tried to talk me into getting in his car. Our neighbor was watering her lawn across the street, and she told him, “leave her alone.” I was so freaked out, I ran the rest of the way home, and was too embarrassed to say anything to my mom (who would have probably run out and smacked the guy with a frying pan, cursing him in Greek.) That neighbor saved me that day. And then she called my mom and told her what happened.
But the more remarkable thing about it, is that I kept on walking and biking, even after that incident, clear through my childhood. I felt probably more threatened when, as a sixth grader, a boy at school with a crush on me constantly chased me home on his bike. (That somehow seemed almost worse than the Chevy man.) When I hit middle school and high school, which were a mile or two away, I often had to walk that route as well, much to my dismay since that was a long, exhausting trek up a dirt trail, and past many, many houses, schlepping books and backpacks. My mom just made us do that.
It wasn’t necessarily a safer time. But there was something in our heads back then that made it okay for kids to be out and owning the sidewalks and streets of these suburbs. In retelling my own story, I see how important that neighbor was. She was the “eyes on the street,” to evoke Jane Jacobs from Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs would kill me for using her phrase to describe the suburbs, which she hated. But I think she missed the boat on this point. There was a social health and dynamism in some of these suburban communities. Or am I just waxing nostalgic?
One of my favorite authors, anthropologist Setha Low, wrote evocatively about how our romanticized memories of childhood security become tangled with our adult aspirations for home and community. And for some, it’s morphed into a gravitation toward gated communities, which simulate a sense of childhood protection and trust. There’s a kind of complex psychological process at work, that ultimately gets encoded in the built environment itself — and the ways we think about that environment.
There are obviously a lot of complicated, moving parts to this process, from the psychological to the social and even political.
I’m not sure I’m clear yet about any of this. But I do feel like I must constantly take deliberate, conscious steps in my own mind to overcome the fear mentality, and realize that our home communities are as much — or as little — as we make them.
About two years ago, my then-13-year-old son and I were at home right around the beginning of summer vacation. I was on a frantic work deadline. He was bored and feeling cooped up. In a frenzy of stress, I suggested he get out of the house and take a walk to our local library — about a mile and a half from our home. He put on his flip-flops, grabbed his library card and iPhone, and set out. He’d only done this a few times before, all within the previous few months.
The route to the library is along a pretty busy street where drivers typically speed. And there’s one major intersection to cross. I figured he could handle it. He’s a bright kid, very responsible. About an hour after he left, the phone rings. It’s my son on his cel phone. He says, “Mom, can you talk to this police officer? He wants to talk to you.” Say what?
Turns out, my son had been walking along, minding his own business, when a woman pulled her car over to him to ask if he was okay, if he should be out walking alone. Okay, granted my kid is short like me. But he has a mature bearing. And he’s white. Which seemed to put a whole different spin on this pedestrian accosting.
He told her yes, everything is under control, he knew where he was going, then continued on his way. A few minutes later, a sheriff’s patrol car pulled up in front of him. (Turns out the woman had called the police.) The officer asked him where he was going, and could he talk to his parents to make sure he was supposed to be out like this. Slightly dumbfounded by this unwarranted attention, my son called me and passed the phone to the officer — to confirm with me that I had actually consented to letting my child walk his neighborhood to the library.
Once he got home, it took us awhile to unpack all of this. Here I was trying to shed my tendencies toward helicopter parenting, only to discover that we live in a helicopter neighborhood — at least when it comes to innocent-looking white kids. Was that woman really doing the right thing by pulling up to my kid? Wasn’t she a stranger, after all, that he probably should have run from, in the logic of her world? In her world, yes, he should have run. But my son inhabits a more common-sensical world, one that I’m trying like hell to instill in my kids. I want them to feel a part of a home place, a sense of comfort and familiarity with their community. And I want them to learn resourcefulness and independence. (And for gosh sake, this is L.A. suburbia, not some bustling urban downtown.)
But I obviously stand in opposition to the fear-burdened suburbanites. Me, with an open and optimistic sensibility about our neighborhood, and that woman who felt compelled to call the cops when she saw a young person walking alone. Sliced another way, we were part of this larger battle between two oppositional parenting styles: the “free range kids” v. the “helicoptered” kids. I hate to overly reduce this to a social cliché. It was happening to us in the here-and-now, and we had to confront the implications of this incident for us, as a family.
We did take some practical steps. My son got a California ID card to show a sheriff in case this ever happened again. We went to the sheriff’s station to discuss the incident. I asked the deputy on duty, what would she recommend? Let him walk? Or don’t? She said, it’s really up to you, but if it were my kid, I wouldn’t. And then I wondered, is our neighborhood truly that dangerous? We live in an interracial suburban neighborhood, with its upscale and modest sections. But it’s always felt safe to me. We wouldn’t have moved here if it hadn’t.
I wondered, how are these fears and fretful perceptions shaping our very relation to public space — to the sidewalks and streets of our home communities? Are our psyches painting these as dark and foreboding places, when in the light of day they are simply streets, lined with trees and homes housing my neighbors?
This woman — and the police power that she marshalled in her over-the-top intervention — reflects a culture of suburban paranoia, fed by vapid neighborhood “blog sites” that seem concerned only with the latest local crime or mishap. When did the public discourse about our home places get hijacked by the paranoid naysayers, who have no faith in the possibilities for well-being in our own neighborhoods?
It has historical roots. But the sprouts and shoots that have come of this are ugly to me. They reveal a kind of civic and social mistrust, an assumption of the worst in human nature, right in our own backyards.
My son, meanwhile, is a spark of hope. When I asked him if he feels safe walking to the library, he answered a simple “yes.” I’m glad he’s paying more attention to reality than the toxic fictions around us.
My latest guilty pleasure is Amazon Prime. It’s given me this wild sense of power about shopping – totally saving me time and lots of schlepping to stores, and making the miraculous appearance of my just-purchased goods almost instantaneous. It’s practically as fast as schlepping to buy it myself. There’s just a 2-day delay before I have that thing in my hand. And that transport to my front porch is free.
That “free” part gives me that sense of power I just mentioned. How easy is it to just search, peruse, and one-click your way to stuff, without having to pay an extra cent to get it in your hands? What a miraculous logistical feat they’ve accomplished, those people over at Amazon. But then comes the guilty part.
It’s late morning on a Saturday. I’m sitting here at my computer, and I glance out the window that faces our street, and I see some guy’s car pull up in front of my house. He takes out that familiar brown rectangular Amazon box, with the black strip on it. And he runs it to my front porch, then speeds off. Are these Uber drivers? It’s not UPS or Fed Ex. It’s some guy schlepping around on a Saturday delivering a BBQ cover I ordered, and didn’t bother selecting anything but my Free 2-Day Shipping… because it’s FREE and because I could. Way too tempting to pass up.
Then I started thinking, wow, this is so environmentally irresponsible. That one little click of my mouse sent a whole logistical behemoth the size of some minor country into motion — the picking the good from the warehouse, the packing, but especially the transporting that box from some warehouse by god-know-what means to some distribution point, and into some guy’s car which drove its way up to my house on the cul-de-sac.
For all of the great work that urban planners and reformers are doing these days, trying like hell to educate us about the blessings of sustainable metropolitan design — building places in more compact ways, promoting mass transit, touting regional approaches, creating walkable places, reducing suburban sprawl … all in the name of protecting the environment and curbing pollution that comes with careless suburban development — I fear that a thing like Amazon Prime is undoing so much of this, with that one-click.
The fact is, the suburbs are here, they aren’t going anywhere. We have to figure out how to soften the ill effects of this existing landscape. Densifying things is great. Retrofitting is fine. But if we have a whole other set of players and their emerging infrastructures (like on-line retailers) cooking up cheaper and cheaper — but more environmentally taxing — ways to feed our consumption habits, it starts looking like the urban planners/designers are walking up a down elevator that’s going faster and faster. There are so many moving parts to the equation of metropolitan living these days. I don’t envy the planners. They have to master not only the realities of place and space, but also the hyper-dynamic pace of techno-economic change.
In the meantime, I’m going to switch over to binge-watch that new series “Red Oaks,” about some suburban New Jersey country club in the 1980s. Thank god for my Amazon Prime.
I’m Becky Nicolaides. And like 51% of Americans I live in a suburb. I also study the suburbs pretty intensively. Life and work continually collide. I thought I’d start blogging to share some musings about suburban life as an insider and outsider. It’s a slightly schitzoid existence, being hyper aware of the ways this place is “socially produced” while I’m struggling to get my kids out the door every morning – without forgetting lunches, backpacks, knee pads, etc. My husband says I’m “embedded” in the suburbs… or did he mean I’m in bed in the suburbs? Either way, it works. Let’s see where this all goes…
That gorgeous picture up at the top was taken by Andrew Wiese, my dear friend and writing partner.
That gorgeous photo at the top taken by Andy Wiese... it also graces the cover of our book The Suburb Reader
I migrated my blog SuburbanMe to this website... losing all of my comments in the process! I am sorry to lose those terrific insights from my readers.