Living in the City: the Great Divide

As I walked the dog through my neighborhood the other morning, I was reminded of a thought provoking article about the cultural divide in America I read a few weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal. The basic idea of the article is that the upper and lower middle classes in America have become severely divided since 1960, not merely economically but also culturally. He outlines the changes, then tells how he thinks we can come together again as a country.

As is sometimes the case, the comments are almost more interesting than the article itself.

The article made me think about where I’ve lived through the years. Right now we live in East Dallas, on a street I would call “transitional.” Our house was built in 1926, and while the neighborhood a few streets to the north is more established, with expensive Tudor style homes and predominantly white upper middle class homeowners, most of the houses on our street are owned by a mix of Hispanic families who have been in the neighborhood for decades, childless young white couples, families who send their children either to private schools or the neighborhood Blue Ribbon PK-3 school, and senior citizens who struggle with living alone and maintaining their homes. We are surrounded by a trendy restaurant revitalization zone, live less than three miles from White Rock Lake and two small neighborhood parks, and have two natural grocers (soon three) within a half mile radius of our home.

A few blocks to the south and west of our street, in the neighborhood where I taught for 20 years, the population is mostly poor, either new to the country or first generation American, with a smattering of black and white families. Half a mile to the south is Swiss Avenue, a long boulevard of beautiful turn of the century mansions, which is surrounded by dilapidated mid-century apartments sheltering mostly poor immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Just down the street is Lakewood, an exclusive mixture of historic million dollar homes and smaller ranch style abodes, and a mile or so in the other direction is our city within a city, Highland Park, home of billionaires, CEO’s, football stars, politicians, the 1%, and gargantuan homes (the new TV show GCB is based on this über-rich enclave).

It’s a very diverse area, and that’s why we love living here.

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So why do we separate ourselves into cities and suburbs?

Many of my friends probably think our neighborhood is unsafe, but to me there’s a difference between poverty and danger. There are invisible lines I don’t cross when I run in the neighborhood. Certain streets and certain times of day are off limits, and I run by feel, always aware of what’s going on around me. I usually run with one of the dogs. I would probably do the same if I lived in the suburbs.

Even though I live only a few blocks from the school where I taught, a lot of my students came from an entirely different world, one inhabited by poverty, abuse, incarceration, drugs, and abandonment. Some were neighbors, but most lived a few blocks west where the neighborhood gets a lot rougher, on the other side of those invisible lines I never crossed on my runs. I’m always amazed at how much difference a few city blocks can make in the lives of people. Teaching those kids taught me so much about another side of life that most people never see–and never want to see. It was depressing and overwhelming at times to see up close the daily struggles some families go through to survive.

I’ve seen many young couples come and go from our area through the years, and it’s almost always the same story: live in the city while you’re single, get married and buy a starter home in a trendy area, then sell and move out to the suburbs when the first child comes along. I moved out to the suburbs for a few years when my kids were young, too, but I didn’t like it. I thought the schools would be better (they weren’t), and the long commute took away both time and sanity. This particular suburb wasn’t for me and the daily drive to and from work was the most stressful time in my life. Ever.

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Even though I live close to the heart of the city, I’m more isolated than my friends who live in the suburbs. They live in two worlds, driving in for work, entertainment, and sports, then driving back out to their homes, schools, and communities. I’m in awe of the dedication of my friends who get up an hour earlier than I do each Saturday morning to drive into town for our group runs, as if it’s no big deal to drive so far so early to meet friends for a run. I have to be dragged onto the freeway kicking and screaming, and if I leave the the city limits it’s usually on an airplane or an empty 4:00 a.m. highway headed west on a long road trip.

Many of my friends have said they moved to the suburbs because they think it’s the safest place for their children. I don’t know what the statistics are, but I can say I’ve had more friends whose children have struggled with drugs in the suburbs and small towns than in the city. Serious drugs, too, like heroin and meth. I don’t know why that is, and I know it could happen in the city just as well as the suburbs.

I sometimes wonder if we’re looking for a small town feel when we move to the suburbs. My neighborhood feels like a small community, and I could easily get by without a car during the day, but I also have to admit there are days when I want to escape all the concrete. That’s mostly a yearning for solitude and the outdoors, and not for a smaller town–though I do have days when I want to chuck it all and go homestead in Montana.

We moved back to the city when the kids were in elementary school. I taught in the district and wanted to support public education. We were one of the cool, progressive families who chose to live in the city and attend our neighborhood school. The principal was wonderful, the teachers were great, and the only difference I noticed between the suburban school and the city school was the faces of my children’s friends. The school was diverse, but not so much so that my kids stood out.

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Maybe we choose to live where things feel most safe and familiar. I grew up in a working middle class, racially diverse part of town, and that’s where I fit in best.

My mom and dad moved to Dallas from a small town in Oklahoma because they wanted a better life. They settled in Oak Cliff, an area on the other side of the Trinity River that used to be its own small town. Originally founded in the mid 1800’s as a utopian colony called La Reunion by a group of Swiss French immigrants, I can only imagine what a shock Texas must have been for them.

Oliver Stone shot much of Born on the Fourth of July in my childhood neighborhood and school because of its 1960’s small town look. We had everything we needed in Oak Cliff and only crossed the river to buy beer or go for a Sunday drive around town. If you couldn’t find what you needed at Wynnewood Village, the large shopping center behind our house, you could certainly find it at Sears on Jefferson Blvd, which was our main street. There were parades and fireworks and picnics, and we were proud to say we lived in Oak Cliff. Dallas was across the river.

In sixth grade, my friends inexplicably started moving away, one by one, out to the southern suburbs in their “white flight” exodus. We stuck it out. We had, after all, the best views of downtown Dallas.

Junior high was much more diverse than my mostly white elementary school, and there were occasional conflicts, but we all got along for the most part. For high school, I drove across town to a new magnet school and my world expanded. Busing was in full force, and for the first time in my life I had black, Asian, and Jewish classmates. Some of my friends came from much nicer neighborhoods than my own, and some lived in parts of town I would never be allowed to visit. I learned to drive, and suddenly the city became exciting. I discovered parts of town I had never known. Just as I was starting to discover the rest of the city and my own freedom, I left home, taking a little piece of La Reunion/Oak Cliff across the ocean back to Switzerland.

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Back in the States, on our long summer road trips out west to escape city life and immerse ourselves in national parks, it’s somewhat depressing to view the cities and towns we pass on the freeway. Each one has the same bland look of limestone apartments and fast food joints. So many of the suburbs look identically generic and have exactly the same assortment of restaurants, stores, and billboards. The only differences between the towns are the older town squares, which have sometimes been preserved to reflect a lost time of community. Texas, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana are very different places, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at some of the towns and cities. If you take away the natural scenery, the sprawl looks the same wherever you are.

That’s why I love older cities like Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and New York. You can feel the history and the lives of those who lived there long ago. Those are real cities to me. You can feel the soul of the city.

I’ve never had that same feeling in a suburb. Maybe Oak Cliff was a little like a suburb, because we always felt apart from Dallas, but it really always felt more like a small town. East Dallas, where I live now, feels a lot like the Oak Cliff of the 1960’s and 1970’s. It feels familiar.

I suppose that’s why I prefer living in a city. I like the tumult. I like a little chaos and imperfection. I like differences. I like the history and the stories the buildings and houses tell us. I know living in a suburb has its advantages and can be a wonderful place to live, but my heart truly belongs in the city.

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12 comments

  1. Gary Turnage (Dad)

    Jenny and I took a trip to Savannah, GA in early February to celebrate our first anniversary. After reading your blog I think you might really enjoy a trip over there for a couple of days. The city has so much history it’s unbelievable. It’s old next to new, dilapidated next to pristine, unique next to ordinary, turn of the century next to modern day. I think the most unique things I saw were the “squares”. Most cities have “rotaries” or “round-a-bouts” or “circles” but Savannah has “squares”. Traffic moves around the squares by making 90 degree turns instead of circular routes and inside these “squares” are green areas with landscaping, benches and small gathering/speaking areas. The “squares” not only keep traffic at a slower, safer pace but they offer a place to rest and visit or voice an opinion or campaign. The other awesome thing about Savannah is it’s cemeteries. If you haven’t read “Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil” read it then go to Savannah. Remember when I was driving you, Cynthia and Greg Evitts to Skyline in the new Grand Prix and a guy ran the traffic light at Jefferson and Zang Blvd and hit the car in front of us then spun into the front of our car?

    You write well … keep it up.

    • Mind Margins

      I have always wanted to visit Savannah. One day I’ll make it out there. I vividly remember getting hit on Jefferson that morning on the way to school. It was scary, and I was sore from tensing up when it happened.

  2. Jon Reiner

    As a child of the suburbs and an adult city dweller, your reflections were like catnip to me. Despite the challenges of space and cost, my desire to continue living in the city is a personal choice that says as much about my make-up as does the choices of committed country folk. Place means everything if you care about your relationship to the world around you, which you clearly do.

    • Mind Margins

      It’s important to me, but I don’t begrudge anyone’s choice of where they choose to live. I have also always wanted to live in a small town, but when I did so in Switzerland years ago I had to make frequent trips to the city for the things that were missing. I have a love/hate relationship with Dallas in general, but I love my quirky neighborhood. It has history and soul, and that makes all the difference for me.

  3. skippingstones

    I guess you know I live in the country. I really do love the solitude and quiet and peace. Not to mention the view. But I do know what you mean about the distance being a nuisance. My work commute is only 30 minutes, so that’s not do bad, but I’d like to be closer to my family and friends. Also, I have to plan my grocery trips, etc.

    I like to visit the city – closest to me is DC – but it’s too much stimuli for me to handle long term. I did love living in Richmond, which is big, but not what I think of as a City, like DC or New York.

    • Mind Margins

      The country is different than the suburbs, though. I think I would enjoy living in a small town or somewhere out in the country. I lived in a small town in Switzerland and generally liked it, but there were times I had to take the train in to Zurich or Bern just to experience a little hustle and bustle.

      And I do know what you mean about the city being too much stimuli. I feel that way when I go to NYC. Love to visit, couldn’t live there. I spent a few days in Athens years ago and was physically sick afterwards from the constant noise (honking horns) and air pollution. I guess I do have my limits on how much city I can take.

      • skippingstones

        You know, I don’t think I have a very good idea of what a suburb is. DC is a city, for sure, but it seems like (with all of the commuters) it’s reaching it’s tentacles out further and further. Where does a suburb start and the city end? Where does another city really begin? I blog about Fredericksburg sometimes, and it’s a city. A small city, but it is it’s own city. But the surrounding counties blend in with Fredericksburg city proper, so that in my mind, it’s all one big place. At the same time, so many of our residents commute to DC, that it kind of feels like a suburb of that town, even though it’s 55 miles away. So is Fredericksburg a city or a suburb? Are all the cities around DC suburbs? Even though they are their own places, with their own government and there is no need to go anywhere else to get what you want?

        That is a true question, not a commentary – what is a suburb?

        PS: Suburb is a really weird word; just look at the spelling – doesn’t it seem made up. Well, I guess it was made up at least once.

      • Mind Margins

        I guess my idea of what constitutes a suburb is based on how they are here in Texas and out west, where they tend to be newer extensions of an established city. Our suburbs seem to be once small towns that have been swallowed up by urban sprawl. Lots of new strip shopping centers and massive McMansions that all look the same. I bet the suburbs in the Northeast where you live are very different, if only because it’s more densely populated and had more established towns and smaller cities to begin with–and a lot more history. Out here, we have the prairie, and our suburbs mushroomed very quickly with the economic boom of the 80’s.

        I knew that the word “suburb” comes from Latin (sub=under, urb=city), but according to Wikipedia it derives from the wealthier Roman citizens living in the hills and the lower classes living on lower ground. I learned something new!

      • skippingstones

        Interesting! I should have looked it up myself 🙂

        Also interesting is how they would be different in different areas – and that makes perfect sense. I don’t really consider that we have “suburbs” here, because each place is, well, it’s own place. But like I said, all of it for 50 miles (east of DC anyway) could kind of be considered a suburb of DC, if you think of it in terms of commuters – people living away from where they work. I guess NYC would have that same thing, too. But I always thought of a suburb as being the outside part of a city – in the city, but the outlying reaches, kind of like the Roman thing.

        Very, very interesting! It’s neat to see how things are different in different areas.

      • Mind Margins

        It is really interesting. Dallas has seen huge growth in the past 30 years and is very spread out. I guess that’s why we call Dallas/Ft Worth the Metroplex. Our suburbs tend to be huge housing developments with cookie cutter McMansion type houses and few trees.

      • skippingstones

        Sorry to keep cluttering up your comments, but it really is fascinating how different places can be. I can picture what you’re talking about, and I guess we have some of that here, too. When I was a kid, I remember a lot of places up north (between Fredericksburg and DC) that were wooded or open land. Now all of that stuff is filled with malls and shopping centers, restaurants and those housing developments with huge houses on tiny lots (which is probably what you’re talking about, and I just don’t get it – I would not want my big house sitting right on top of my neighbor’s big house). Even out here in the country where I live, there are some of those big developments near the highway, one exit up. So, I guess it’s actually the same thing that you are talking about after all :).

      • Mind Margins

        Yep, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. They are even tearing down the old, historic houses in my part of the city to put up those humongous houses that take up the entire lot. They look ludicrous next to the older, smaller houses–and who really needs that much house??? At first developers built whatever they wanted, and the architectural stye was completely different from the rest of the neighborhood. Enough people complained that they now are at least more stringent and the new homes have to look similar to the architectural character of the older, historic homes. The damage, however, has already been done.

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