Pop Culture
Oct 10, 2008, 05:17AM

Why We Leave the Suburbs

It’s fall, and change is in the air. What a perfect time to abandon suburbia for city life.

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Photo by Dominic's pics

Over the past few days, I’ve been seriously stepping up my Driving Around. With gas prices where they’ve been, Driving Around had been limited to moments of serious contemplation and moods of intense wistfulness. But I’m moving in a week. I’m leaving behind my family, my childhood home, my favorite state, and the eastern seaboard. I’m making an upstream migration from the demographic South (Maryland, more on this next week) to the Rust Belt of the Great White North. The home I’m in right now will never quite be mine again.

So I drive. I follow the same country roads that I have since I was 16. I look at what I’m going to miss. I do this because it’s the only way I know to make peace with the land around me, to say goodbye, to say good riddance.

Last night, the Driving stopped past my old temple. Cars filed out of the parking lot, leaving behind the Yom Kippur service. My family and I were absent because we no longer belong to the temple. The predicted wave of nostalgia never quite swelled. You see, it may be my old synagogue, but the building itself is quite new. The year I left for college, this place opened in the countryside beyond my house. I’ve been inside it only once. It doesn’t feel like mine at all, it’s almost as if my history has been erased. Ties between a former life and a current one sliced, leaving the past an island in time, with no connection to the present.

Such is the reality of living here, an area where the housing crisis hasn’t slowed development and expansion. As a pastime during my college breaks I used to do some Driving Around and lament the further destruction of the countryside, the favorite restaurants that are now closed, the creepy new development that looks like a bunch of doll houses, the stupid location of that new Ruby Tuesday’s, and what the hell happened to my hometown. What was once borderline frontier, surrounded on all edges by woodlands and farms, is now an inner ring, outflanked by exurbs creeping further outward like a plague.

You’ve heard this sob-story a million times. No fair, we cry, who says you get to move in? We got here first and we liked it better when it was just us! But these feelings are difficult to bury in an ideology. Yes, you know that you shouldn’t resent all the building because that makes you a selfish fool, but you can’t help it. You see these evil real estate bastards and their customers as locusts, leaving no trace of a place that once existed. Each new home is a seemingly richer, whiter, more conservative census percentage point in the local demographic, changing what it means to be from _____, USA, rewriting the history of your childhood.

For some reason, though, this antipathy exists only towards those encroaching on my suburban Maryland home. My other hometown, the only other one I’ve ever known, is Ann Arbor, Michigan (also my new destination). In the years since it first became home: my favorite restaurant closed, dozens of new stores and restaurants have failed and succeeded, my second-favorite bar closed, massive redevelopment seriously changed the landscape of my neighborhood, the campus has seen several major new buildings open, one major building was destroyed, and they even got a new football coach and started working on luxury boxes for Michigan Stadium. Jesus, that’s a lot of change. There are countless memories that have been buried under bulldozers. And you know what? None of it fazed me. In fact, most of the time, the change has been pretty exciting.

This is because Ann Arbor is a city. If you want to call it a college town, go ahead, but the accoutrements are the same: diverse age groups, public transportation, night life, population over 100,000, and a density that creates a real buzz and energy within the city. There is something about cities that allows us to feel comfortable about change within them. New Yorkers don’t worry about new buildings going up or restaurants closing or expansion of the suburbs, they just hope their 15th floor view doesn’t get ruined by Donald Trump. In smaller cities, people are thrilled when a new skyscraper goes up or new houses get built. These are signs of progress, instead of signs of decreasing house values or the ruining of one’s childhood memories.

Suburbia symbolizes stasis and homogeneity. Every house in my neighborhood looks exactly the same, as do all the shopping centers. Every change is a massive stain on the landscape, all the more noticeable among the complete and utter sameness. If the Mexican restaurant closes, you will have to drive an additional 40 minutes every time you want enchiladas. The truth of the matter is that changes and development don’t even happen on my street, as they did in Ann Arbor, but they still freak me out. They seem to affect everyday life so much by way of traffic, inability to get into any restaurant between six and eight p.m., longer lines at the movies, no spots in the mall parking lot, and having to drive an additional 40 minutes every time I want enchiladas.

Over the past 10 years, young, educated people have been moving back to the city centers (check page five). I guarantee you that those numbers will be even more skewed to the city in the next census. Many economists and urban planners predict a massive migration back to the cities. Of my 10 closest friends that have graduated college, all but two now live in major metropolitan areas like Washington and New York. Those two, well, they live in Ann Arbor. In fact, every single one of my graduated friends lives in a city except for those few of us living with our parents.

Right now, I feel out of place in my own town. Here. The place I’ve known my whole life. At the start of the summer, I tried to figure out why my life started here and why people my age left in such numbers. The absence of those people is really what makes it so strange for me here, and now I see them in their new environment.

I used to think the city was the first step into the real world after college, but it isn’t. The clubs and bars are bigger, better, more expensive. Jeans and a trendy button-down shirt have replaced jeans and a pastel polo. People talk about jobs instead of majors. The apartments are nicer and so are the shoes. But it’s all the same general idea. The East Village is filled with kids from Scarsdale and New Jersey. Lincoln Park is filled with kids from West Bloomfield or Lake Forest. Just a little older, with more bills.

Honestly, I’m no longer sure why my generation has begun this move back to the cities, but now I know what’s making me. This is a period of intense change, graduating from school, getting a job, becoming a real person and all that. The last eight months have been the most turbulent and frenetic of my life. Cities, though, accommodate change. It is their nature as cultural, business, and population centers.

If they don’t keep building, if the cranes go away, the city is dead. They need a constant forward motion, attracting the best and brightest, no matter their background or lifestyle. People bring with them the cultures and stories that build a community. The population turns over, but the cultures leave an imprint, a restaurant, a shop, a never-ending ripple in the pond. These cities need it all. It is this. This constant hum and progressive rhythm are so much easier to step into than the rigid beat of suburban life. I’ve been stuck here for a long time. The city beckons. I answered.

  • Good article, and it seems the writer is escaping the suburbs none too soon. But I wouldn't call Ann Arbor, pop. 100,000 a city. Isn't the University of Michigan the driving force there? And if so, that's not a true city.

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  • Was Kabob Palace your favorite (now-closed) restaurant?

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  • Interesting piece, especially the antipathy to his hometown but not college town. Maybe a lot of people feel this way. One thing: not ALL real estate workers are "evil bastards." Just like not all journalists, lawyers and politicians are bad, despite what public opinion says.

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  • No, his favorite now gone restaurant is Bennigans.

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  • I love Ann Arbor. And it is definitely a city. the difference between cities and college towns, if you ask me, is that in a college town you're aching to get away. how many times have i vowed NOT to spend summers in New Haven? It's like, "Ok. 9 months in the place and 3 months out of it." Once school's out, there goes that energy, that fizz of city living. It's true that you might want to get out of the city sometime for whatever reason, but usually a short vay-cay'll do ya.

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