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If a Tree Falls in a Bedroom Community, Does It Make a Sound?

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 [1]. 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 [2] 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 [3], 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 [4]. 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 [5].

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "If a Tree Falls in a Bedroom Community, Does It Make a Sound?"

#1 Comment By Lisa Merle On November 2, 2018 @ 1:44 am

Hello neighbor! Good post ~ thank you. I live on the Fairfax-Mantua border and I well know whereof you write. It’s only at this crazy time (1-1/4 hours after midnight) that I can really dig into the online world and read some of the more worthwhile offerings.

I’ve always been an urban creature but, due to starting a family and raising children (and my husband’s employment) it’s been the ‘burbs for many years. Wish my children could have experienced more of city life, though, even in its decline.

But cities always had greater dangers, didn’t they? For child-rearing, suburbs are still a little safer and the driving is easier (except for DC traffic during rush-time, which seems to extend for hours around here, both am/pm).

I agree wholeheartedly with you, though, about the very real differences in suburbia vs. urban. There is a genuine heart and soul in urban life no matter how much it’s degenerated. San Francisco is in bad shape these days but, if you travel in its better parts, it’s still lively and fun with people on the streets (well, I won’t elaborate on THAT aspect! And admittedly it’s been a long time since I’ve walked the streets of SF.)

Europe does “urban” a lot better than the USA for reasons cultural, historical, etc. I imagine cities in Latin America (eg Buenos Aires, Santiago) to be similar to the Euro model for obvious reasons. The States evolved along different lines, different values, is how I perceive it. Sure wish there were more time to read up and understand the “why”.

#2 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On November 2, 2018 @ 9:14 am

This piece is a perfect illustration of the concept of “sterile suburbia.As The Monkees crooned:

“Another Pleasant Valley Sun-dayayee,
Here in Status Symbol Land.”

#3 Comment By Argon On November 2, 2018 @ 10:08 am

Blame the internets. They’re more interesting than real life.

#4 Comment By Jon On November 2, 2018 @ 10:13 am

Lisa Merle,

My impressions of South America although limited to Colombia are different from my encounters with some of the cities in Spain. The poorer neighborhoods are not unlike the inner cities in the United States with shutters to protect store windows, graffiti, and also accompanied with the grit and grime one sees in areas bordering on derelict factories. The grit and grime however that I saw in my sojourn in Colombia was not due to industrial waste, or acid rain but possibly neglect and humidity. The former due in large part to the ubiquitous poverty pervading these towns.

I write this with some hesitation as the people are hospitable even to us gringos and the country has a burgeoning middle class. And there are wonderful churches, governmental structures and palatial residences to see especially in the older parts of Bogota. It would have been a joy to photograph all of this — the barrios along with the churches but for the fear of crime. I was warned several times not to carry a camera and that even taking images with my cellphone was a bit risky.

Perhaps the metropolises such as Bogota and Medellin have areas resembling the Euro model along with the high rises for the affluent that echo Le Carbusier’s design. And this may be true with the small towns as well. In Armenia, for instance, I saw high rise apartments outside of its older downtown.

We were in a town, the name which I do not recall, tucked away but high up in the Coffee Region in the department (state) of Quindio which reminded my son-in-law of Peru’s Cusco. Except for the foreign backpackers hiking the heights surrounding that elevated town, to me it resembled the other outlying towns that I visited in Quindio.

My daughter pointed out that my expectations were shaped by my visits to Spain and Italy. I was looking for European towns draped with colonial villas and found otherwise. And she also pointed out that this is a common dilemma for visitors. One must visit leaving behinds such prejudices while keeping an open mind. And it is a lesson that I have yet to learn.

Colombia is certainly a worthwhile and rewarding country to visit. It gave me memories that remind me of its uniqueness. And I have met people who grew up there and remember Bogota as a magical place that they relive with each visit seeing old friends and family. Sometimes they lament the changes that have taken place. But amidst these changes the old city peeks through.

#5 Comment By James Trigg On November 2, 2018 @ 10:55 am

Suburbs are for children. When a suburb has a pool or clubhouse more people mingle. Cars. Walmart is the the new town square. Parents drive there kids everywhere. Even if a little transit bus went through the neighborhood would parents and kids use it? And of course if someone turned their house into a store it would not be aloud. Suburbs are dull. Why?

#6 Comment By Dale McNamee On November 2, 2018 @ 2:18 pm

My wife and I live near a largely rural area populated by farms, Amish and non-Amish, and it’s very quiet here after dark since everyone goes to bed early since morning starts before sunrise…

We enjoy listening to nature’s “nightlife” than urban “nightlife”…

#7 Comment By Hypnos On November 2, 2018 @ 2:46 pm

I live very close to Lisa Merle. My wife and I engineered our choice of neighborhood to balance a number of requirements:

* proximity to high-tech job centers (e.g., Tysons and Arlington)
* superior schools
* walkable development full of kids
* close enough to cultural centers like Korea Town to visit even when feeling lazy, but far enough that none of the ills there would affect us
* quick drive to DC on weekends to visit museums
* large enough house for a family of four

These requirements are quite common, and vanilla suburbs are popular because they provide the best optimum among these (or fewer) requirements. We would certainly prefer that the best homes, jobs, schools, and cultural activities were all within walking distance — assuming we could even afford such an option.

#8 Comment By Alex Pline On November 2, 2018 @ 4:04 pm

This was one of Jane Jacobs’ main observations in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. For places to be vibrant they need to be diverse in terms of activity. Places that have the same temporal use pattern often are not safe or are sterile as noted in the comments above.

#9 Comment By philadelphialawyer On November 2, 2018 @ 4:53 pm

Quiet at night, lack of street activity, lack of anything but residences, etc are what people want out of suburban, exurban and rural living. Not everyone wants to go shopping at midnight. Or go pub crawling. Or have to listen to other people doing so. Even most urban folks prefer to have quiet, residential-only streets to live on, once they have graduated from college and/or moved on from the bar-club-nightlife-every-night scene. Which is why even in towns and cities those activities are confined to a few neighborhoods.

Also, perhaps, people in the USA get up earlier than people in France, Spain or Italy. So, they go to bed earlier. They are not out eating dinner at ten o’clock at night. Is that necessarily a bad thing?

I like to go to Manhattan to hear concerts, watch plays, go to the movies, have dinner, etc. Then, I like to get on the subway and get off at my Outer Borough stop, where the only people out and about are people, like me, coming home from doing those things. I am always struck, in a good way, by how quiet it is when I arrive, as compared to downtown Manhattan. Again, is that a bad thing?

Real freedom, real choice, means having a range of options when it comes to living conditions. Some folks want nightlife, streetlife, etc. Some folks want to hear nothing but owls and cicadas at night. Some folks want something in between. All those choices are defensible (to the extent they even need to be defended), and all are possible.

I guess I’m just not seeing the problem. Want to live in a noisy college town? Then do so. Want to live in an area with a lot of nightlife? Then go live in Greenwich Village, or someplace like it. But not everyone wants that.

#10 Comment By Anne (the other one) On November 2, 2018 @ 4:57 pm

Suburbia isn’t sterile. I have many species of birds at my feeders: cardinals, sparrows, house wrens, finches, red bellied woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, robins, blue jays and dark-eyed juncos. I once had a red wing blackbirds for a couple of days. My feeders attracts more than birds, squirrels love it too. Squirrels attract peregrine falcons and red-tailed hawks.

In the summer, there are numerous rabbits and groundhogs. In the woods behind my house, I’ve seen deer, foxes and coyotes. The deer come for my wild raspberries, acorns and horse chestnuts and, I am afraid, the foxes and coyotes come for the rabbits.

There is an awful lot going on in my northern NYC suburb. It’s a compromise between nature and men. I guess it depends on what you look for.

#11 Comment By ron collins On November 2, 2018 @ 7:46 pm

Suburbs and cities both are not worth living in. The artificial behavior and the continual expectation of presenting a front of stable prosperity or be suspected for not doing so, are intolerable. I don’t know how anyone with a shread of self-respect can endure ten minutes in any area with a population of more than a very few thousand, and even those within too small a space tend to take on such big-city pretensions.

Give me small rural farm towns far enough away from any urban areas to not be polluted by their fakery and their nonstop hustle, and peopled by regular working folks who actually think of everyone they meet as a neighbor until given reason not to, any day.

If all the tress fell on all the McMansions, I couldn’t care less whether they made a sound or not. The only thing cities and suburbs are any good for is keeping city people and suburbanites out of decent rural areas and genuine small towns where human beings can live like human beings and not ants, mostly because I’m pretty sure most city folks are actually afraid to venture out beyond The Last Exit. which works just fine for me, out here miles and miles past it.

#12 Comment By Wilfred On November 3, 2018 @ 11:32 am

We tried going to a restaurant at 3:00 p.m. once in a small town in France. We were told by the proprietress to go away, it wasn’t time to eat. Too late for lunch, too early for dinner.

We weren’t pleased then, but upon further reflection, decided this attitude makes sense for anyone trying to live a sane life while running a business.

A town populated by normal human beings should have times of quiet mixed with times of activity. I don’t want hustle-bustle loudness in the streets 24/7.

#13 Comment By DW On November 3, 2018 @ 12:29 pm

Born, bred, and still living in the suburbs, and I don’t see how any of what you said is a problem, to be honest.

Yes, an array of living patterns exist, and yes, they’re fascinating to observe if you’ve never seen them before. But I’m not sure I see a point beyond that. What am I missing?

As to the sterility of the suburbs that a few of the commenters have mentioned, I’ve gotta say I’ve never experienced that. But our lives have never revolved around what’s going on in a shopping center or a town square. They’ve always revolved around our kitchen tables, and the friends and family who are there at the time.

I don’t know that I understand this fetish for community on a wide scale.

#14 Comment By pja123 On November 3, 2018 @ 9:59 pm

My wife and I moved to Reston VA when we married in 2011. Prior to marriage I lived in in Arlington VA for 20 + years. Like Hypnos the practical aspects of life in Northern VA required us to comprise and take on a more realistic view of how we lived and also what we could reasonable afford. My wife and I would have loved to live in Arlington but a 1000 sq ft condo in a “vibrant” neighborhood there is $750k + and I just couldn’t see the value. The “diversity” of many of these Arlington neighborhoods consists of 20 and early 30 somethings with lots of disposable cash and no children. The new urbanism thing this site is so enamored of is great, if you can afford it. However few if any families can. One of the reasons my wife and I chose Reston is that it seemed like a great compromise. Reston, especially North Reston, is an exceptionally pleasant place to live and for suburbia quite human in scale. I also found it much more diverse than Arlington in that there is a much better mix of families, singles, retirees, and public/private citizens than over-singled and over-politicized Arlington, which as an old guy in his 50s finds pretty annoying.

#15 Comment By occali On November 3, 2018 @ 11:55 pm

My daughter graduated from college in June and is living and working in a large city. I pray that she will not end up in what is, IMO, a soul sucking suburb.

#16 Comment By Gerald Arcuri On November 4, 2018 @ 12:14 pm

Lots of thoughtful comments here on a thoughtful article. Let me add another. The size of the city and the size of a suburb make all the difference. I cannot comprehend anyone saying that living in a city like L.A. ( the city proper ) or least of all San Franciso ( of late ) is a soul-enriching experience, just like I see the soul-deadening effects of mega-suburbs. Small towns and cities, and limited area suburbs stay the liveliest at all times of the day and night.

Chain food restaurants and big box, and branded retailers have had a huge negative effect on our sense of community, and are mostly found in suburbia.

The points in the article about strip malls are right on. They are rhe epitome of the concenience ethos that Americans worship, and they are a blight.

Now that I am retired, have begun visiting local haunts at off hours, and I find the author’s observations exactly correct.

#17 Comment By Tyro On November 4, 2018 @ 3:09 pm

The point of suburbs is to give people a sense that they have “made it” along with a the closest facsimile of living on a “country estate” they will be able to achieve, unburdened by proximity to retail commerce and contact with the service workers that implies. It is a class signifier, and like most class signifiers does not require— and in many cases must defy — practicality and personal happiness to express.

But like most decisions with real estate, choosing where to live is like that beauty contest described by Keynes where you are rewarded for picking the winner. You can’t pick the contestant who you judge to be the best, but rather must choose the contestant whom you judge the other judges will approve of (who themselves are making similar calculations)
peopled by regular working folks who actually think of everyone they meet as a neighbor until given reason not to, any day.

The terms “carpetbagger” and the phrase “you ain’t from ‘round here, are you?” were not coined in cities and suburbs.

#18 Comment By JeffK On November 4, 2018 @ 9:41 pm

My advice to anybody that can do it and still make a living: Move to a relatively small college town. I live in one with a student body of about 40,000, and about an equal number of non-student residents. You will have everything you need really close by.

The students are really fun to hang with. I am 61 and have shot pool and listened to music with them for over 20 years. Closed down many a local bar with them. They are always respectful and enjoyable to talk to. And extremely bright and typically well-informed. Much more so than we were back in the 70’s.

If the college is large enough, and has robust research programs and academics, you will encounter very interesting people all the time. I have talked with world-renowned researchers, academic experts, and retired business executives at neighborhood BBQs and social events.

If the college has excellent sports programs you may find yourself talking to an Olympian, an all-American, or national championship coach at a cocktail party or high school sporting event.

And don’t be fooled by current political dogma. Diversity also pertains to politics. There are flaming liberals and flaming right-wingers. Tenure allows you to be as opinionated as you want to be.

If you travel for a living, don’t have to go to a corporate office, and there’s an airport nearby, then a large college in a small college town is a great place to live.

#19 Comment By mrscracker On November 5, 2018 @ 3:08 pm

Tyro: “The terms “carpetbagger” and the phrase “you ain’t from ‘round here, are you?” were not coined in cities and suburbs.”

“Carpetbagger” doesn’t get much wear where we live but you hear “you not from around here are you?” *all* the time whether in town or out in the country. If you’re not a Cajun, you really stick out.
And it’s not meant in an unfriendly way either. Some of the nicest people in the world live here.