“Master-planned community”: a euphemism for “white people and expensive trees, arranged along streets that are cleverly named so that a typical set of directions sounds like ‘make a right on Timber Rose, then a left on Heirloom Rose, and then another right on Scarlet Rose.’”* This is where I was raised, on a parcel of land in the heart of the Mojave Desert that Howard Hughes bought and named after his grandmother sometime before he started pissing into jars that he kept in his suite at the Desert Inn.
In general, growing up in the suburbs has ruined me for the life I live today. For example, in Summerlin, there was never any danger of being unable to find a last-minute ingredient for a recipe in progress, what with our walk-in pantries. In the event of a true emergency, the supermarket five minutes away was roughly the size of Grand Central Station and stocked like fifty different brands of yogurt. This is less true in New York. For one, I store my pots in my oven and my shoes in my kitchen cabinets, so it’s kind of moot regardless. More to the point, while there are several bodegas within a four-block radius, not one of them sells both flour and eggs. (Let’s be real, though. They know I store my pots in my oven. I don’t actually need them to sell me anything except for hummus.)
For another, living in a newly constructed house meant that we often saw cockroaches inside. You’d think that this would prepare me well for the moment last year when I spotted a cockroach the size of a small animal moseying through my kitchen, but whereas in Summerlin I could escape to any of the palatially sized rooms that made up our house—the kitchen! The dining room! The living room! The den, which is not the same thing as the living room! The bathroom! The other bathroom! The other other bathroom!—my apartment in New York is a single room that is only marginally larger than the other other bathroom in my childhood home. So instead I put on my snow boots, abandoned all of my feminist principles, and texted the guy I’d been casually seeing for a month or so to come save me. Two great mysteries linger from this incident: one, why that guy is still dating me, and two, where that giant cockroach went, because we never did find it.
Cities, as it is often rumored, are noisy. Here is a non-exhaustive list of things that I have heard outside my apartment window in the past twelve months:
- Bargoers screaming for taxis, then screaming for Ubers, which is an ineffective way to achieve either goal but particularly the latter
- “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” being played on a stereo mounted on the back of a pedicab
- A man screaming the lyrics to “Beauty and the Beast” along something that vaguely resembled the melody if you squinted at eleven A.M. on a Saturday
- The dulcet tones of restaurant equipment being pressure-washed, continuously, between the hours of six and seven A.M. on a Monday**
- The NYPD threatening protesters with arrest over a bullhorn (a great motivation to donate to the ACLU!)
- Honking. Always honking. (Did you know that traffic moves faster if you honk? No, you didn’t, because it doesn’t.)
By comparison, here is an exhaustive list of things I heard outside my house between the ages of twelve and 22:
- The next-door neighbors’ children’s garage band practicing the first 30 seconds of “Smoke on the Water” for a solid two hours every Tuesday afternoon
I suspect that children who grow up elsewhere than a neighborhood where debarking is considered not animal abuse but mandatory may be less sensitive to noise than I am. I lost the ability to sleep through the night long ago—tiny bladder, crippling anxiety, yada yada yada—but living on the very block that Jane Jacobs herself characterized as the epitome of an active community is not conducive to a good night’s sleep. The noise, the light that seeps in despite blinds and curtains, the humming and clanking of the gremlins that live in my refrigerator and radiators; they all conspire to wake me. They have no patience for a girl who grew up believing that there was nothing worse than her father grinding coffee beans at five A.M.
In the suburbs, nobody encroaches on your space. There is no opportunity for anyone to do so, not unless you count the Prius behind your Honda getting closer to your precious bumper than you’d prefer. That hardly prepares you for the inevitable straphanger who, when it’s not even rush hour, decides that not only are they going to hold the same pole as you but they’re going to hold it a quarter-inch above where you’re holding it, and they’re not really going to commit to keeping their hand a respectable distance from yours, and before you know it, you have Ebola. This never happens in the suburbs, although I guess not using the divider in the supermarket checkout is an appropriate analogue.
I guess when it comes down to it, all of this really is about space, and whether or not you can learn to live without it. Everything that I dislike about New York has to do with space: how I can’t buy more boots because I don’t have any room left in my kitchen cabinets and storing boots in my oven feels like a line that even I can’t cross, how you can walk up and down Hudson Street on a cold-as-hell Saturday night in February when nobody in their right mind should be out of their apartment and still not be able to find a bar with two open seats, how… cockroaches. Exist. In your apartment.
In Summerlin, no commodity was more infinite than space, except for maybe brands of yogurt at the supermarket. I grew up riding around in minivans and SUVs purchased for families of four on ten-lane roadways past endless strip malls, vast seas of parking lots, megastores selling televisions wider than my kitchen counters. I get a great deal of pleasure out of going to giant suburban Targets and Costcos: I want to run around every aisle and pile my cart high with enough toilet paper to last me a year because you know that goddamn four-pack that’s all I can cram into my closet is going to run out when I’m couchbound with the hangover runs. And I want to put that toilet paper in the trunk of my unnecessarily large car and drive it home, not wrestle it down into the subway only to discover that the 1 is delayed because our trains are actually propelled not by electricity but by a small army of rats, fortified by pizza, whose regular rest periods are characterized by the MTA as “signal malfunctions,” then decide whether to wait it out or clamber back up and try to get a cab whose driver is going to smite you for asking him to drive you ten blocks because your arms are too short to comfortably carry a thirteen-gallon trash can without whacking yourself in the shins every time you take a step. I mean toilet paper. This has never happened to me. I’m a graceful swan.
I don’t need to enumerate the reasons that I prefer city living. They are myriad. I subscribe to the theory that being forced to interact with your fellow humans teaches you to be more empathetic. (The future that liberals want, and all.) I’m not the person to extrapolate on this. Talk to someone who’s studied sociology, who will address this question with the nuance it deserves, and I’ll keep talking about things that aren’t current affairs because we all deserve thirty minutes a day when we don’t actively hope for the apocalypse to just start and end already. In fact, that’s a good segue to what I believe to be the best selling point of a city versus the suburbs… when the nuclear war inevitably begins, I’m pretty sure that those of us in urban centers are going to be the first to go. I don’t know about you, but I’ve read enough dystopian fiction to know that I’m not the kind of delicate flower who discovers her inner strength in the face of a crisis. I’m the kind of delicate flower who gets left behind because she doesn’t know how to feed herself when she can’t buy hummus at the bodega. These are the kinds of things I’m thinking about as I evaluate my living situation here in 2017. (Sorry. I’m in a dark place.)
I don’t begrudge my childhood in the suburbs. This will sound glib, but I don’t intend it to be: growing up in Summerlin imbued me with a desire to get out that has propelled me to take chances through my adult life (not to mention the privilege that allowed me to do so). Thoreau didn’t know it in the nineteenth century, but the suburbs are the best place to go to witness the phenomenon of “lives of quiet desperation.” I wonder sometimes what it’s like to never have left or to never have wanted to leave—to have purchased a starter McMansion at the nadir of the recession, five minutes from your parents’ house, walking your dogs down the concrete “trails” that wend through artfully laid rock gardens with succulent accents and drive your SUV to the supermarket.
It has been a great pleasure to me to watch my family over the past several years now that we’ve all left Summerlin. My dad’s bus commute from their condo in the city where they live now to his office in a skyscraper that overlooks a bustling downtown is a great novelty to him. (I don’t think anyone else was joyfully texting their family that they had to walk home after the traffic jam that snarled roadways last week. See? Spending decades in the suburbs inures you to the indignity of city life!) I, of course, walk every day through the West Village, around construction and packs of dogs on leashes and, worst, children on scooters. We were never suited for the suburbs, I don’t think, incapable of the kind of socializing that life in a master-planned community demands. I was awkward with the children in my neighborhood, my mother was awkward with their mothers, our neighbors were constantly complaining that our cats were in their yard. I feel confident that all of us are better suited for the lives we live now and that we know and appreciate it because we know what else might have been… which is, to say, not debating whether Kleenex or a pile of Just Salad napkins in the cupboard will flush better when going out to get toilet paper isn’t a viable option.
* These were literally the directions to get to my house.
** I called 311. 311 is polite, it turns out, but ineffective.