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Family Life: Urban vs. The Burbs

Photo by: iStock

At heart, I am a city girl, born and raised in Baltimore. As a kid, I raced my bike up and down an alley. In the swampy days of summer, my sisters and I would walk to the convenience store/liquor store/Chinese grocery to buy bubble gum-flavored soda. Friends and neighbors convened on our front porch to yak, drink a few cans of beer, and breathe in the scent of Old Bay wafting up from the nearby crab house.

By the time I was in high school, my dad had met my stepmom. Our family expanded. Our cozy home in Baltimore, however, did not. We traded in the uneven sidewalks, the takeout joints, and the seafood fumes for the suburbs. My heart was broken.

True, our new home felt palatial. The yard was green and green and green for acres — one long, gentle hill, ending in a stream hidden by a stand of maple trees. I could see the Milky Way, because there were no streetlights.

To console myself, I trudged to the Wawa a quarter mile from our new address. Without sidewalks, I had to cut through yards or dodge traffic on the busy county road. But there was something about the fluorescent lights and aisles of snack cakes and beef jerky that comforted me, that felt familiar.

Though our suburban neighborhood was bucolic, I never got used to the silence or to the cows. College marked my return to the city. I spent the better part of my twenties and thirties either in Baltimore or near DC, and it was good — museums, restaurants, boutiques, and beautiful architecture at every turn. The shush of the Metro rushing up and down the tracks was my kind of music. Better yet, I never lacked for an interesting neighbor —an art school stoner who painted on our apartment roof; a blue-haired pearl-clutcher who barricaded her driveway with orange cones; a chatty, chain-smoking truck driver who was universally known as “The Mayor”; an aging hippie who grew squash in a plot of grass along the alley. They were what I loved most about the city.

So it pained me, almost physically, to move away again. When our son was born, Shelby and I started looking for a home. We had outgrown our apartment just as the rent outgrew our bank accounts. For months, we hunted for the perfect urban locale, someplace roomy and safe and reasonably priced and close to a Metro station and within walking distance of a locally owned coffee shop but not gentrified or filled with hipsters. Our beleaguered realtor finally explained that our Barbie Dream Duplex did not, in fact, exist. Like that, we were thrust toward the land of TGI Fridays and BJ’s Wholesale Club. At least there won’t be any hipsters, our realtor unnecessarily assured us.

We bought a town home in a planned community. Our house has an extra bedroom for guests or a growing family. There is more open space than our dog could ever dream of rolling in or peeing upon. A small playground is tucked into every single block. And if there is one thing Pork Chop loves, it’s eating playground mulch.

For the first few months after we moved, social media became a form of torture. Pictures of friends’ walks along the harbor or lazy Saturday afternoons spent in a corner pub made me ache for city life. I grew restless, bored, bitter. It would be a cold day in Hell before I became a regular at Chipotle. Payless Shoe Source could kiss my superior urban ass (except during sandal season)! Furthermore, why did everyone in my neighborhood look so happy? It was terrifying.

To stave off insanity, I joined my local chapter of MOMS Club. And before I could say “home owners’ association,” my superior urban ass began to un-clench. Stranger still, I began to appreciate my little slice of suburbia — not for the space or the schools, although those are, indeed, perks, but for the people.

In the city, surrounded on all sides by a wall of people, I could fool myself into thinking that I was having human interactions: The guy at the bagel shop knows I like mine toasted extra dark! The waitress at the pub referred to me as “Oh, you again!” The mailman nodded in my direction!

With so much to do, with so many activities to keep me busy in the city, I rarely cultivated an actual friendship with people in my neighborhood. We were cordial, even friendly, but if I needed an egg or a cup of sugar, I would have sooner run to the grocery store than have knocked on someone’s door. As a gal who feels a bit graceless and scared in social situations, this arrangement seemed to suit me just fine. Until I needed that egg or a jump for my car or a ride to the E.R. or a shoulder to lean on.

In the burbs, there is less to distract me. Yes, I am almost spitting distance from downtown DC, but it’s not the short stroll that it once was. Also, I have a toddler. Nothing is the short stroll that it once was. I love to trek with my family to DC’s Eastern or Union Market on the weekend for a hot coffee, fresh knish, and a juicy dose of people watching, but on a typical Tuesday afternoon, you’ll find me hanging out in a friend’s basement as toddlers throw Goldfish crackers in the air like confetti. There are rarely fresh knishes at play group, but there is often hot coffee, and the people watching is more adorable (and inexplicably wet).

These friends, these women and men who are my neighbors, invite us over for drinks at 4 o’clock because 4 p.m. falls after lunch and toddler nap time but before the witching hour of dinner. These friends pick up our mail when we go on vacation. They walk our dog and entertain our son when I am too sick to move. They bring us cookies. These friends have laughed with me and listened to me cry. My favorite barista never did any of that.

Moreover, my present day suburb is not the suburb of my youth. When my family picked up stakes and headed to the sticks almost 25 years ago, the citizenship took a turn for the homogenous. Everyone looked the same and, for the most part, believed the same. I felt like I was living in an echo chamber, one idea bouncing around endlessly. I craved debate, disagreement, even awkwardness. By contrast, my new suburban neighborhood is more diverse than any of my urban addresses.

Just in our tidy square of 20 homes, we have white, black, Latino, and Asian neighbors. Jews live next to Catholics. Obama bumper stickers quietly compete for attention with “Don’t Tread on Me” license plates. And I love it.

It’s not always a big hug fest; I don’t live in Disney’s Small World. Those disagreements and awkward moments do come to pass. But without the power of an overwhelming majority in your corner, a funny thing happens: Folks are a little nicer during the disagreements, a little more forgiving of the awkwardness. Everybody has to put out their trash on Tuesday morning. The entire neighborhood staggers outside before 7 a.m., in bathrobes or hastily buttoned dress shirts or curlers, to set a bag of damp tissues and dinner scraps and moldy tomatoes by the curb. But we still wave at each other. Do you get what I’m saying?

My son will grow up in suburbia. He will have friends that don’t look like him and, I sincerely hope, he will have friends that don’t think exactly like him. And, for the first time in a long time, so will I.

Failing to strike it rich as a poet, Jessica Rapisarda succumbed to motherhood, humor writing, and snack chip addiction. She blogs about parenting, guilt, and other redundancies at Welcome to the Bundle. You can also find her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.

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