My favorite and (according to iTunes) most listened to album of 2010 was The Suburbs by Arcade Fire. Hypnotic, melodic, complex – it’s everything a great album should be and does what any great album should do; transport you. Someone asked me why it was my favorite album and it took me a bit to articulate exactly why.
Because of the music, obviously, and because of that mood and tone, but mostly because of the subject and title; it’s exactly the album I would have loved when I was seventeen. I can easily picture throwing the cassette into the deck of my Toyota and cruising the streets of my town, and being utterly surrounded by it
Maligned and scorned by the hip, the self-conscious, the self-absorbed, and the “hip urban elite” who live comfortably in their lofts and apartments and townhomes of whatever metropolis they call home. The ‘burbs are where you go where the dream dies. When marriage and children enter the picture you feel its pull; abandoning the excitement, the energy, the vibe of the city for the house, the fence, the cul-de-sacs and crescents and tree-lined streets, the strip-malls and shopping centers, bisected by roads and freeways, survivable only by automobile.
Call them “sub-urban.” Beneath contempt.
Well, I’ve come to praise the suburbs, not bury them. The suburbs made me who I am.
When I do a tally of my life to date, most of it has been lived in an urban setting. With the exception of six years of small-town life, I’ve lived in large cities, or mid-size ones connected to a singular sprawl. In Ontario, Canada (where a solid 30 years of my life were lived) you have what’s known as the Golden Horseshoe; a connected network of cities and towns that comprise a good third of the country’s population, ringing Lake Ontario roughly from Ajax to Niagara Falls. At night if you stand on the shore in St. Catharines or Niagara-on-the Lake you can see that ring of glittering light stretching around you; it’s an amazing sight.
My first true memory of the suburbs involved me chasing a blimp. True story. I was four years old, happily being four years old in the subdivision I lived in with my parents and sister. One summer evening (childhood memories of these suburbs seem always to be summer ones) I’m in the backyard of our bungalow and what do I see in the sky but a blimp, much like the Goodyear Blimp, only with red and white colors. I run and tell my dad and tell him we have to follow it. Why he agreed I’ll never know but what resulted was a family outing with me and my mom and my sister in her stroller wandering the tangled network of streets looking for wherever this damn blimp is, just hanging there in the sky. We eventually found it at the edge of our subdivision, among the skeletal structures of the coming expansion of houses yet to be built and inhabited. The “blimp” was really just an oversized helium balloon, with the logo for the construction company on it. I was disappointed that it wasn’t real (and that rides weren’t in the offering), but as we walked back home, I realized that the world existed beyond the limits of my own realm; the front yard and backyard of our house, and wherever my parents would take me. That there was more out there than just my home and street.
This was a fact in every neighborhood we lived in subsequent, be it Vancouver or Edmonton or Greensboro, but when I think of the suburbs I think of a particular neighborhood in Scarborough Ontario. Scarborough is a suburb of Toronto, referred to by the downtown elites as “Scarberia” – a wasteland to the north with no culture, no draw, and no reason to visit. It’s the dirty corner of what likes to call itself a “world class city” as if saying “world class” enough automatically makes you one. (Sorry, but saying you’re “world class” automatically means you aren’t and live in denial of that fact. It is a fact.)
My ‘hood was home to Rush, The Barenaked Ladies, Mike Meyers and Jim Carrey. Meyers dated the older sister of an elementary school friend, and frequently played pool in the basement of the same house me and my friends would, years after the fact. At the ripe old age of ten I was amazed to learn that my then favorite author Gordon Korman was from the neighborhood [The title of his first book, a Grade Seven English Lit assignment “This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall!” took its name from Sir John A MacDonald Senior High School, just down the street from my house].
Looking at a map of the neighborhood now I am amazed at how much of my memory of that period is confined to a tiny grid of streets among many. Really my world extended from my street to a block south to my school, and maybe a block or two east and west. My world was comprised of wherever my bike or feet could take me. Venturing a block south of my school was considered a Big Journey, and if we wanted to go to one of the shopping malls in the vicinity we had to ask a parent to drive us and save a quarter to call when we wanted to be picked up. Our experience of the city at large was made in increments and always entailed some sort of voyage.
As we grew older and gained the freedom that comes with age, trips into the city itself involved a lengthy bus to subway ride and consumed the better part of the day. Downtown represented freedom, record stores, comic shops, the best burger joints, and girls (especially girls). On those trips your world expanded to areas accessible by public transit. Of course when we got our licenses and access to a car, that world grew exponentially. There was literally no place we couldn’t go and as we explored, as our sphere of influence expanded, the world we grew up in seemed all the more tiny and insignificant. Cruising through neighborhoods only a kilometer or two west of ours presented homes and schools and kids our age who lived in worlds that were as foreign and unknown to us as ours were to theirs. We would never experience their lives, the halls of their schools, and maybe we’d pass each other at a mall, we were ships in the night. Maybe we’d learn later, at college, that a new friend lived in a neighborhood that was a stone’s throw away geographically, but a lifetime down the road.
But to understand the allure of the suburbs is to understand their relationship to the city they orbit. To glimpse the glittering skyscrapers of Toronto or New York or Los Angeles as you pass them on the freeway to your home enclave, is to see a light seductively drawing you in. You want to escape, you want to find your place in that light; you want to find home. I’ve come to realize that dream, that search for your place in the world is a recurring theme in a lot of my work.
The suburbs are about longing. They’re about being on the outside and looking in and dreaming about what was or what could be someday. Not many urban kids rebel against their parents to move to the ‘burbs; it’s always the reverse. The promise of that excitement, that constant search for a place in the world is forged in a suburban setting, not an urban one. In a city like New York you look for an escape from it, the heat, the noise, the people and can find it within a relatively short drive but you always feel the city’s pull on you whether you live there or glimpse it from a hilltop or a highway.
But that longing is part of the romance of the suburbs. You always feel that pull that a better life could lie around the next corner, or the next subdivision over. You can spend your life looking for that place, only to realize that what you’re looking for is right beside you all along.
We’re all living in the sprawl.