Recently, on a day when I was working from home, I ran to the supermarket for a couple of things. My local grocery store happens to be next to a Five Guys, and because it was before lunchtime—around 11 a.m. or so—I saw the employees unlocking and opening up the restaurant. Stopping and watching for a moment, I realized I’d almost never seen that before. It’s easy to think of visiting places like this almost like turning on a video game—pop in the disc, and it plays. Drive to the strip mall, and the stores are just there. Shopping on a different schedule revealed a normally invisible pattern.
Once, while in college, I walked to my favorite local strip mall—the one with the best Chinese takeout—after all the stores had closed. It was a strange and almost indescribable feeling to see the line of shops that are usually lit up and bustling completely quiet and empty. If the traffic from the local highway let up for a minute, you could easily imagine that you were in some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland. It was one of those things that seemed like it could teach a lesson, though as a college student I didn’t really know what that lesson was.
As I’ve studied urbanism, I’ve figured it out: I had seen a vivid illustration of how inflexible and unadaptable this kind of suburban development is. You could walk down the main street of my college town at any time of day or night and come across at least a handful of people. There were a couple of bars, a supermarket open until midnight, and, of course, apartments above the shops and adjacent to them. The town collectively did not have a single, timebound use, and its streets and sidewalks were public spaces. That gave it a character and liveliness that the nearby suburban development lacked. You can talk all day about the merits of density and mixed-use development, but walking through a strip mall and a main street in the middle of the night and observing the difference might be the strongest argument yet.
In order to make this comparison, which is visible only or primarily at night, you need to get out at unusual times. If you’re like most Americans, living and working in different places and not enjoying much true leisure time, you’ve only ever seen your town or your place during a handful of times of day. Gracy Olmstead has written beautifully on how walking allows us to see the places we live and travel through from a different perspective—to appreciate a level of detail that is simply impossible to notice when zooming by in an automobile. But if experiencing your place through different modes of transportation can reveal insights, so can seeing your place at different times. It’s the only way to fully experience what it is.
“Reston at 5 p.m.” (my town and my usual time) is different from “Reston at 10 p.m.” Everybody knows this on some level: we try to avoid the dark, crime, long lines, or whatever it may be by being in places at appropriate times. But we may not have a full sense of what those other place-times are. When I was in Italy last month, we often ended up walking home late at night. There were some seedy characters about, but there was also a vibrant late-night street life that felt very different from the crowds of power walking or selfie taking tourists during the day. Or try going into a restaurant at 2 or 3 p.m.—having the whole place to yourself is an entirely different experience than being served in a packed house. When you think of times as places, there’s a lot more to see.
You may see different people and kinds of people too. My local supermarket is crawling with young, well-dressed professionals in the early evening. It would be easy to think they constituted more or less the whole population of Reston. But when I go shopping during the day, I see families—homeschoolers?—as well as some more eccentric and probably poorer people (I see more of them late at night). You might see someone using cash and counting out coins. Or you might see seniors and retirees out for some leisurely exercise. I had to go to Northern Virginia’s Fair Oaks Mall once for a DMV visit, as the DMV is inside the mall. The DMV and one or two stores open before the official mall opening time, so a few doors are unlocked early. It turns out the mall was full of mostly older people who used this as an opportunity to get some quiet, indoor activity. If I had not visited the mall at an odd hour, this would never have even occurred to me.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter all that much if you run into the poor folks or retirees. But for those who care about putting down roots in a place, it’s a way to know more fully what that place is. It’s also possible that local and municipal politics could be shaped for the better if everyone had a sense of what the entire community actually looked like. We should probably not be too heavily involved in local decisions that could affect people we do not know exist.
If a tree falls in a bedroom community when everyone is at work, does it make a sound? It’s a good exercise to try and figure that out.
Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.