Monday, 19 July 2010

Suburbia, US-style

We were driving to New Jersey the other night for a barbecue (a truly horrendous drive from Long Island, but that's another tale) and The Doctor asked me to put some music on. Scrolling through the MP3 player, I noticed the Pet Shop Boys' greatest hits and was inspired to put on Suburbia.

"Well," I told The Doctor, "It seems appropriate, as that's where we are going."

Now, don't get me wrong, the part of New Jersey we were going to is very nice - leafy, wooded, with decent-sized houses and pristine hydrangea bushes in neat front yards. But it does epitomise suburbia - and in fact the recent story about Russian spies living in American suburbia involved a couple who were esconced in that very area.

I read an interesting New York Times article about the spies, making the point that it wasn't actually very odd that they were living in suburban settings, because that is where the majority of Americans live. If they were trying to live low profile lives and merge into the community anonymously, they chose the right place to do it.

And one thing that has really been driven home to me during my year in the US is that Americans are Really Good at suburbia. I never imagined myself living in the suburbs, but so far, living in a suburban American street has been far more enjoyable for the Littleboys than our London street. No-one has fences, so the boys play day and night with the neighbours' kids. Teenagers practise baseball in the street after school, or go sledging in the winter. All the kids on the street take the same schoolbus in the morning, so they all know each other well and are constantly popping in and out of other people's houses. There's a sense of community that I never experienced in London.

Driving around London suburbs, I usually felt depressed by the endless sprawl and tightly packed houses, and didn't envy the commuters their dismal journey on crowded trains. Whereas here, I tend to admire the clapboard houses and well-kept gardens, imagining their occupants having huge weekend barbecues and heading off to to the beach with a carload of stuff.

Perhaps it's because Americans tend to celebrate suburbia - think of nearly every American family film and TV series, from The Wonder Years to Back to the Future, and it's set in an idyllic suburb with white picket fences and neat front lawns. Whereas the Brits satirise it- think The Good Life or Abigail's Party. (OK there was American Beauty - but wasn't that directed by a Brit?)

Whatever, the Pet Shop Boys' 'suburban hell' in which teenagers stand 'by a bus stop with a felt pen', does seem to be a peculiarly British portrait. Here, they'd be more likely to be being ferried to hockey practice by Mom, or playing basketball outside in the ubiquitous hoop. Or perhaps finding out that their neighbour's Dad is a Russian spy......

17 comments:

Deer Baby said...

Great post - it's very true that over here suburbia is almost a derogatory term. I use it as such on my blog - growing up in sleepy suburbia and trying to get away from it. All those songs like This is the Sound of the Suburbs and as you say, The Pet Shop Boys.

I imagine it really is like the houses you see on Mad Men or Desperate Housewives or Big or any of the films you mentioned. But they all have an undercurrent too. There's always something going on behind closed doors....the curtains twitch....

That whole spy thing made me laugh. Could Anna Chapman have looked any more like a spy? She could have been in any James Bond film. And the way the media focused on her exclusively even though there were a dozen others.

Glummy Mummy said...

I'm not American, so I really wouldn't know. All I have to say, is you have great taste in music. Whenever I get the chance, I'm always switching on my iPod and humming along to Suburbia or West End Girls. xx

Expat mum said...

I don't know - I wouldn't mind a bigger garden, sorry yard, but when we drive to the suburbs it's almost hypnotising it's so pristine. And in the summer, when it's scorching, you never see anyone.

Almost American said...

When we moved into our house, which is perhaps more small town than suburbia, we were given a map by the neighborhood association with names and phone numbers of everyone in the neighborhood with the expectation that we would need it when we were looking for our children at mealtimes!

My brother lives in London - I can't ever imagine living there!

Mwa said...

Sounds like a great place to live with kids. Apart from having to maintain the garden...

Jane Bainbridge said...

Interesting Alex. I was largely ambivalent to our 'suburban' London home until I spent the summer in New York. After spending time with my school friend in Brooklyn I totally fell in love with suburban life in London in comparison. To have a good sized house with a large garden in a lovely community, with large parks, five mins walk to the kids' school and half an hour into the centre of London just couldn't be replicated in New York unless you were earning millions.So i came to appreciate my suburban home in London.
Also I think the whole key is the kids starting school thing. You didn't know your London neighbours because you left before that point. I didn't know mine here until my boys started school and within the space of a year the vast majority of my socialising took place within a mile radius of where I live.

Knackered Mother said...

So pleased to know we're not the only ones with that album on our ipod. You Were Always on My Mind was at #1 when bearded husband and I started going out back in the day..! Love that the kids are in and out of each others' houses, that's what helps build a community. I felt the same about London, it was hard to feel part of a community when so much of it is transient. Now I make flapjacks for the village fete (and account for half of the bottle stall donations). I do miss London though, sometimes feel a bit claustraphobic and run to town at the slightest sniff of a meeting.

ps - me and the drumbeat of eastenders, I dance to that very tune! x

nappy valley girl said...

Deer Baby - yes, it is very much as you imagine. And I'm sure that there are undercurrents beneath the surface - my impression of it is probably far too rosy....

Glummy Mummy - it's still great music, even if all the synth sounds a bit dated these days. But I love the lyrics. Somehow they're so English...

Expat Mum - I think I'm just enjoying the pristine-ness after grimy London - no doubt I'll crave grime eventually. Round here, it's true that it's fairly quiet by day but summer evenings are very lively...the winter was the quiet time.

Almost American - that's a very good idea. On several occasions we have found our boys sitting next door watching TV when we thought they were playing in the back yard!

Mwa - well, we are very lucky in that our landlady employs someone to mow the lawn. But yes, otherwise you have to like gardening.

Jane - interesting. It gives me hope for when we eventually move back to London. Although I would say where you live is still part of London, not a suburb as in the kind of Home Counties commuter belt that I was thinking about. And yes, I'm it's true about the schools thing. Although most of the people in our London street were twentysomething Aussies by the time we left....

Knackered Mother - I still love going into the city and I think I always will. I was brought up in a big city and have always worked in one. But for small children, I now understand the attractions of the suburbs.

Tanya (Bump2Basics) said...

I've always described LI as mass suburbia to those that don't know it. Suburbia was good to me growing up and has always been the environment I pictured myself raising a family in. And we many be back Stateside one day. Saying that, I now see a number of cool things about raising kids in London - diversity, museums and beautiful countryside under an hour away. So both environments have their draws in my view.

gaelikaa said...

Suburbia is what I call a universal value....of course the form and type it takes has it's cultural variations.

Elsie Button said...

i think suburbia in america sounds bloody brilliant! sounds like the kind of place i would have loved to have been brought up. living in the sticks we had none of that friends coming in and out of each others houses etc, and yearned for it.

nappy valley girl said...

Tanya - I love London too, and I'm sure I'll be glad to return there. But being on LI has definitely brought the benefits of suburbia home to me. And what's so great is that we're only 40 mins from Manhattan...

gaelikaa - yes, I am sure suburbia exists everywhere in one permutation or another.

Elsie - It is nice, although I am probably idealising it slightly. I think it depends on where you live really.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, we've just moved to the UK nappy valley (presumably close to where you moved from) and I'm finding it incredibly difficult, as that to me IS suburbia ! I'm craving 'proper' London again.

I'm hoping when my little one starts school in September I'll feel more involved in the area and some affiliation, otherwise I'm afraid I'll be hot-footing it back into 'proper' London and dragging the family with me.

However, I digress .... my sister-in-law and family are in Burlingame near San Francisco (they moved out of the City when they had children), we visit often, and that is another really pristine American suburb - I can so understand what you mean about the cleanliness of everything - it's all so ...... wholesome !!!

We couldn't get over how no-one walked anywhere over there though ..... we'd wander into town for a meal or few drinks and not see a single person on the streets. Slightly eerie in that respect. But yes, lots of house-to-house entertaining.

A Modern Mother said...

Those communities exist in the UK outside of London! Just ask Maddy ;-)

nappy valley girl said...

Anonymous - I suppose there are different degrees of suburbia - where I lived in Clapham seemed incredibly urban compared to Long Island! Yes, the car culture in the USA is depressing - it's not too bad here, as you can walk into town and people do, but people are far more inclined to go by car than in the UK.

Susanna - I am glad to hear it!

Iota said...

I think you're point about fences is very significant. We Brits are a bit obsessed with our privacy, and keeping neighbours at an appropriate distance. Heaven forbid that our children should play together, without knocking on the front door and asking permission!

Anonymous said...

I live on Long Island, too, and am also an expat. I think here there is suburbia, and there is suburban he!!. Our children were quite small when we moved here, and there were not many others on the street. Our piece of LI seems to be comprised of overscheduled children, with classes in anything and everything.

Now that the children are teenagers, I believe we'd be better off in the City but finances prohibit that.

You're lucky to have found such a wonderful community.

It's interesting how many Brits idealize American family life...I guess the grass is always greener...