Wide Open Spaces
Suburb: noun; an outlying district of a city, especially a residential one. Suburbs have been around since the earliest walled cities have been in existence. In fact, the word “suburban” is attributed to the Roman statesman Cicero in reference to the large villas and estates built by the wealthy patricians of Rome on the city's outskirts. Even so, I’d argue that it wasn’t until the motorized carriage (you know, the car) was made affordable by Henry Ford in the early 20th century that the ‘burbs became what was know them today. Odd thing is, it looks like the ‘burbs are quickly becoming the ‘urbs.
The more I get to know the neighborhood I now call home the more I can see the differences between what was Herndon, VA and what is now Herndon, VA. In fact, there is one place just outside of “downtown” that perfectly exemplifies the way that the suburbs are changing. The suburbs used to be a place that working class families could purchase homes and a respectable amount of land to live. The houses were modest but well built and very comfortable for a family. There was land (maybe an ½ acre or an acre) for kids to play, families to socialize and unwind, and even to plant a small garden. The suburban households were truly smaller, but noble, recreations of the villas Cicero was describing in ancient Rome.
Then something changed. I’m not a sociologist so I can’t tell you when but if I was to guess it would be in the early 1990s. What was once a way to move out of the city to get some elbow room became a way to live in the same way as the city just cheaper. Row houses that covered the city streets, especially of industrial cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, or Baltimore, were renamed townhouses and recreated in the suburbs. The awkwardness and discomfort of a tiny and nearly unlivable (I know from experience) one bedroom apartment were built in the farthest reaches of the US and called “garden style” apartments because you get to walk up the stairs outside instead of inside.
For those lucky enough to still afford the larger lots to build a house have changed the desire from having more room for land to having more room for a house. A quarter acre lot in 1985 would have a reasonable house with plenty of grass to spread out, play with kids, play with dogs, and have friends and family over for an outside barbeque. Now a quarter acre lot is covered with a quarter acre house and just enough exposed dirt and grass to allow for a mailbox to be pounded into the front yard.
Nothing better exemplifies the differences than an area I mentioned earlier just outside of Herndon, VA. Stand in the middle of the road of this suburban oasis and look to your right. There you will find well constructed houses from the 1960s to 1980s. The house has plenty of room to raise a family with bedrooms for each kid and ample living space. Yet the houses are modest allowing for glorious outdoor areas that can result in planting a garden that would make Thomas Jefferson proud and lots of grass for outside activities.
Now look to your left and see the massive new construction. The houses are luxurious and beautiful, there is no doubt about it. However, there is little to know greenery to enjoy. You can stand between the houses and reach out to almost touch both houses at the same time. The money you saved on purchasing a lawn mower (you will only need an edger to cut your entire yard) was clearly put into the vaulted ceilings and oversized bedrooms. It is a space made for indoor living.
I suppose it is just a change in mentality as technology takes hold of our culture. We are becoming more indoor creatures than outdoor beings. Time is more enjoyed inside on hardwood floors in front of television sets than outside with grass between your toes and the stars overhead. It depends on your perspective whether or not this is good or bad. I think that moderation is the key. I love enjoying an evening inside with bowl of popcorn in my lap and a TV show streaming via WiFi to my 40” flat panel. I also love chasing Cece around in the backyard with the grass on my bare feet and the blue sky overhead.
For me, I say keep the suburbs to the suburbs. Enjoy a modest home with a lot of green in yard to enjoy. If you can touch your house and your neighbor’s house at the same then you live too close. Everyone needs a little elbow room so stop with the McMansions and start with the McFarms. At least you’ll have room in the back to play cornhole.