Bonfire of the Suburban Vanities

Over the weekend, we attended a swanky little Meet the Neighbors soiree put on by one of our own. It was lovely, I must admit. Connie really went to great lengths – without being ostentatious and having the affair catered – to make everyone feel at home. Her dining room table was covered with a pretty white lace tablecloth and then heaped high with fruit, little tea cakes, savory smothered crackers, and filled puff pastry shells. In the kitchen, a little coffee urn bubbled and pitchers full of iced tea, water, and juice sat, invitingly. She served it all with real silver silverware (unheard of at most parties I’ve attended) and with the most adorable little crystal cups. The guests sat outside on her beautiful patio, or clumped together in the cozy kitchen, and yakked for hours. I felt so grownup.

This is one of the first times I’ve met any of these neighbors. We live on a very quiet street, mostly because the majority of residents are retired (if not elderly). People walk in the nicer weather, but our houses are kinda spread out and you don’t get to really chat much unless someone happens to be washing their car. It’s one of the downsides to suburbia. You spend most of your time in the back yard, which tends to be more secluded and less accessible to the world around you. Most people like it that way.

Me, I’m not a fan of people per se. I don’t want to necessarily be all intimate with my neighbors. I like people at arms’ length, and preferrably further. People are generally annoying. But it’s nice to be able to say hi now and then, and maybe borrow a cup of sugar. My mom was always borrowing cups of sugar from the neighbors. (She always returned them, once she had a chance to get to the store). I’ve never done that, although I did give my neighbor across the street a couple of eggs once.

Anyway, the point is that my strange aversion to people is going to be in striking contrast to what I have to say next.

Whilst congregating in the kitchen over coffee, a couple of these neighbors started talking “adult” stuff. That is, they began to discuss local politics and issues like street maintenance, the township commissioners, who is supposed to be handling this or that, etc. I have never discussed local issues with neighbors before. In fact, I have barely ever considered local issues before. This is silly, because I’ve been a homeowner for seven years now, and you’d think some of this stuff would have crossed my mind at SOME point. But it hasn’t, not really. And the weirdest, weirdest part is that one of the neighbors has a daughter that was in my graduating class. So here I am, at a swanky afternoon affair, drinking coffee out of a crystal cup, rubbing elbows with these affluent suburban neighbors (we are not affluent, but how we got to live here is a good story for another time) who are my own parents’ peers, and discussing topics which – up until this point – were things I merely endured while my parents hashed them out with THEIR neighbors.

It was a very surreal moment.

And then, I realized that I was entitled to be part of this discussion. I am, after all, a homeowner, and a neighbor, and a parent, and, while not affluent, we still make a decent living; and it’s now my turn to get in on the game and make my own concerns heard among the din of the other squabbling turkeys in the room.

So I dove in. I first hovered near the fringe of a cluster of animated guests who were discussing the wheres and whys of being annexed by the neighboring township. See, our middle little section of the street is in Township B, but the ends of our street and the streets behind us are all in Township A. We have a Township A mailing address, telephone exchange, and are in their school district, but we pay Township B taxes and get Township B’s fire and rescue services. It’s not a bad arrangement, really, other than the fact that Township B’s taxes are higher because they have a larger public services budget. Township B is a nice place to call home (that’s what the sign says, anyway).  But Township A is a very desirable community as far as real estate goes. And Township A, unlike Township B, has a certain uppity quaintness about it that these neighbors want very desperately to be a part of.

From a real estate perspective, the notion of being annexed by township A is definitely a plus in my book. I am interested in it because it will have the double bonus of increasing my property’s perceived value and lowering my taxes in one fell swoop. But then, the neighbors had to go exactly where people assume that folks in Township A go. They went right up Elite Street, and parked themselves there in the No Parking Zone.  Double parked, in fact.

The conversation went something like this: we want to be part of Township A because Township B is being invaded (their words) by “undesirable elements” (read: lower-class, mostly minorty, poor folk) from the inner city that we happen to adjoin.  This, in turn, is driving down property values in Township B.  In addition, Township B is mismanaged by trustees who have no clue what they are doing (again, their words) and is on the brink of fiscal collapse.  Since we are an affluent bunch, we pay a hefty amount in property taxes, and therefore Township A should welcome us and our tax-paying checkbooks with welcome arms.  In short, “our kind” “belongs” in Township A, not Township B.

Well.

I couldn’t just let that go.  Even though this was my first foray into the adult social-circle world, and even though I had just dribbled coffee on my ample bosom after slurping it from an oddly-shaped crystal cup, I had to poke a toe at that hot souffle’ of poorly-masked elitism.  I grabbed a napkin, held it to my chest as if that was a natural way to stand, and spoke up.

With all the adrenaline that was rushing in my ears, it’s hard to remember what I actually said.  But people listened.  I haven’t been that scared since I had to speak in front of 400 people at my sister’s wedding after dancing with my brother in a pig trough.  The gist of my ramblings, however, was that it certainly made sense for us to belong to Township A.  The fire and rescue response time would be cut by several minutes, due to geography.  The taxes would be lower for us who were not really benefitting from Township B’s larger budget, anyway.  We were an island of Township B in a sea of Township A.  HOWEVER, (and I distinctly remember saying that “however” with a great deal of emphasis), isolating ourselves from the retail and commercial sectors of Township B and the greater region is a dangerous dead end.

I went on.  (Why stop now?)  I talked briefly about a nebulous article I read (online), which possibly could have been from the Times or the WSJ but was, in all likelihood, from The Oil Drum; said article forecast a dire future for suburban neighborhoods who remained inaccessible to public transportation.  Some of the neighbors bristled at this.  One pointedly commented that she did not want “them coming here, where they had no business coming”.  I tried not to blanch at this obnoxious and elitist distraction, and forged ahead.  Said article, I added, predicted a shift away from suburban neighborhoods and back to population centers (like our inner city) as fuel and energy costs rose, which they have already started to do.  Our little community, quaint though it may be, is a bedroom one; there are no employment opportunities here, no access to much else beyond churches and bank branches, and no way to get anywhere else without a car.  And this is what will make or break our future as an uppity neighborhood: if people can’t get here, that means they can’t get to other places from here.  So that means that working families (those with some money, of course) won’t choose to live here, won’t keep the community alive and vibrant.  And as current residents die or move away for whatever other reasons residents will have for leaving, their homes will remain unsold, and property values will decline, and the very thing that the people hanging out on Elite Street fear happening will happen: an “undesirable” element will move in, people with different (read: lesser) socioeconomic backgrounds than the current denizens.  Or, worse (possibly) yet, NO ONE will move in.  This area will become vacant, like the eastern end of the adjoining city.  Instead of becoming a slum, the eastern edges of that town are slowly becoming farmland and woods as the houses are razed.  People just don’t want to live there, because it’s too far out and inaccessible to shopping and entertainment compared to the south and west sides.  It’s not unfathomable for this to happen to Township A, if we shun our neighboring communities and refuse to embrace the area’s public transportation because we don’t want “them” coming here.  Oh, they won’t come here.  No one will come here.  You’ll have your quaint little homogenous town, alright.  You’ll have it all to yourself.

I’m all for redrawing the township borders for all the right reasons.  But I do NOT espouse this ridiculous notion that we can exist all by ourselves in a little protective bubble, separated from the rest of the community.  It will work, as long as gas is cheap and readily available.  But those days are numbered, friends.  We need to wake up to what our future is going to look like when we can’t just hop in the car and drive 10 or 15 minutes to get to the shops.  We need to make our own area accessible, and we need to make ourselves accessible to the surrounding areas.  This is vital, both for the residents who are already here, as well as for the continued success of Snobbery, USA.

(I mean, “Township A”.)

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2 thoughts on “Bonfire of the Suburban Vanities

  1. Right on!!!! I used to live in a small town (note to self: and will never do that again!), that was populated mainly by the Older Crowd. They fought everything to keep things The Way It Has Always Been. Even putting in a traffic light at a deadly intersection. New business opportunities? Horrors! They had lived there all there lives and were going to die there. And they didn’t give a rat’s rear end if the village survived beyond them. So, again I say to you, right on!!!

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