22 December 2007

On suburbs, cities, wilderness

I'm doing some reading about city walls in the Middle Ages, which is making me think about where I live.

I grew up in a medium-sized city that was part of a major metropolitan area. Now I live in a town that is less than half the size of my home city, but it, too, is part of a major metropolitan area. I drive about an hour to get to work, which is in a town a little bigger than the one I live in . . . but not really part of the larger area, though it may get there.

I love cities, which has a lot to do with why I commute (as does my two-body problem). I tried living in my work town for a couple of years when I got the job, and found it difficult for a single person who valued privacy over community. It seemed I couldn't buy toilet paper or tampons without running into a senior male faculty member, which led me to the conclusion that I would drive at least 40 miles to buy condoms. Moving made me much happier in many ways, and allowed me to get involved with the man who is now my husband.

At the same time, I now worry about my carbon footprint. I drive a hybrid, I recycle, I do what I can; but I still drive a lot, and take planes to visit my aged parents, and to do archival research Across the Pond. And so sometimes I think about moving back to the town where I work. This week I spent some happy hours in the library there, enjoying the peace and quiet (though there were quite a few other faculty there for the same reason), and thought about how much more library time I could have if I cut out my commute. That is probably more important to me than the environmental factors, to be honest.

The town has grown since I first moved there. It has acquired bookstores, many new subdivisions with larger houses than the older housing stock, and a lot of chain stores and restaurants. I went to one for dinner before driving home, and didn't see a single person I knew. It made me think maybe I could live there in reasonable privacy now. My idea of reasonable privacy, of course, depends on other people's attitudes as much as on actual size of the place. I now live in a townhouse in a set of eight, where I know all my neighbors to speak with but socialize with none. We ask each other to keep an eye on things when we are away, but I wouldn't call any of them friends. I wonder whether the newcomers to my work town are city people, who keep their distance like my current neighbors, or if they are people who "value community" and would insist on getting to know me in ways that would actually be uncomfortable for me. (I am speaking here as a highly introverted person: I don't really mean to criticize people who enjoy smaller towns/cities, but they say community and I say fishbowl . . . and you know what the next line is.)

My husband would hate living in my work town, because in order to help the carbon footprint any, he would have to telecommute, and he loves cities even more than I do. And he would not be comforted by the proximity to a research library.

Chain stores certainly make the town more livable, but they don't make it a city. They make a sprawly suburb, where you may have access to city stuff, but not to city life. What I love most about cities is not the skyscrapers of downtown, but the outlying streets: the compactness of little shops lying cheek-by-jowl, funky little shops that have been there for decades, their closeness to residential streets, houses' small yards (I disapprove of lawns, but small scruffy ones at least use less water than vast suburban ones), and most of all the sense of contrast: in neighborhoods, people construct their community against the anonymity of the larger city, so that recognizing someone in the coffeeshop is a sort of triumph, rather than an everyday and possibly irritating occurrence. In a sense, the city becomes the wilderness, where the individual carves out an identity through testing experiences.

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