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.
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.
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.
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.
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.