It’s far from the truth but from our point of view at least 90% of American middle class lives in suburbs. This is where all our friends who opened their houses to us on this trip dwell.They all seem quite content with their houses even though locations require driving everywhere: work, store, theater, restaurant. Some enjoy having yard and even grow their own fruits and vegetables, but most decry lawn mowing inconvenience.
We’ve done our time in Boston suburbs before we realized there is another way of living, a.k.a. city center. It has been five years of relentless longing after modern conveniences within walking distance.
A house in the suburbs obviously has benefits but those come at a steep cost. Driving to work eats at least an hour a day. Driving to restaurants puts strict limits on alcohol consumption. Driving to store precludes buying fresh produce and bread daily. Driving to the theater promotes watching TV instead. And, most importantly, driving replaces walking and thus requires devoting time specifically to exercising. Which usually involves driving to the gym. Somehow pleasure of owning a sliver of land and relative seclusion that it provides doesn’t make up for the inconvenience of driving. At least not to me.
When visiting Chicago we stay with Amy and Gary in Mount Prospect. Yet another suburban town on the outskirts of a big American city. As far as suburbs go this one is nice - walkable cluster of shops, train station, a few good restaurants, bike path no too far away. It would be even better, if it were the only such town in the neighborhood. But it’s not: which means getting to the city by car is a fool proof recipe for road rage. And it is half an hour train ride to the center of Chicago.
It’s the same story in Detroit: Sterling Heights where our friends Robert and Danka live is nice and safe and utterly indistinguishable from any other prosperous suburbs. Cars and roads everywhere. And people.
Chicago is a huge city, the third most populous in the US after New York and Los Angeles. But it isn’t as densely populated as either hence the distance one has to travel to get to the center. Incidentally Chicago has the same population density as Boston, which is much smaller.
Strangely it’s not crammed city centers but the American suburbs that make me realize how many people inhabit this planet. In the center you may be surrounded by crowds but it’s expected and seems natural. In the suburbs you almost never see people walking but the sheer number of houses, subdivision, roads, towns and of course cars are almost frightening. In most cases you don’t even know when one town ends and another begins.
Near Mount Prospect there is a forest preserve that we go to bike one day. It is encircled by roads and one is never out of earshot of a humming traffic. We travelled through a few least populated states where we didn’t see another car for miles this summer and the contrast drives the point home again. I know US is not the most crowded place on earth: it has areas of remarkable solitude. Its population density is substantially lower then world’s average. But one is never too far away from an encroaching human habitation.
An American dream of owning a house in the cul-de-sac may be entering its final stage. But like many American inventions it has been exported and applied all over the western world. Every time we visit Poland we observe more and more of our friends trding their city apartments for suburban houses. Apparently suburbs are like a childhood disease: everybody has to live through it and survive.