American suburbia is like an SUV. It’s big. It’s spacious. It can be beautiful, quiet, and well-kept up. But it’s such a waste.
Ilana and I always have opposite reactions when we visit America’s great suburbs. This last Shabbat in southern New Jersey was typical. Ilana gets dreamy about having her own lawn, house, garden–all that elbow room, all that green. And I get antsy–why should I want to live in a place where you have to drive half an hour to buy a pair of socks?
Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of having a lot of space, especially when it comes to your own property. This is something that not everyone can say that they’ve had in their lifetime. We have come to a compromise and said that if I seriously can’t live with all of the garden space, then we can think about building a decking so there is a lot less green. I already know someone who can fit it for us, it would just be the case of finding a supplier in the area who is similar to Dino Decking, (you can have a look at their homepage here) to provide us with our materials. At least this way, I won’t be looking at as much green. But ultimately, is this somewhere that I want to live permanently? I’m not too sure.
Ilana and I both grew up in suburbs, but Israel’s old time suburbs were an entirely different sociological animal than American suburbs are. Holon, the southern suburb of Tel Aviv where Ilana spent her childhood, was a city of tiny, cramped dwellings and dreary apartment buildings, populated largely by working-class families. They lived there because they couldn’t afford to live in the city.
Silver Spring, Maryland, where I grew up, was solidly middle-class. Most families there owned their own house, had a decent-sized back yard, a lawn mower, and two cars. The American suburbanite’s dream was not to move to the city but rather to move out to an even more distant and more spacious suburb where you had to drive even farther to get those socks.
This difference was epitomized in the 1960s when the film version of the Bernstein/Sondheim musical West Side Story was released in Israel. The West Side of the title was inner-city New York; the movie’s Hebrew title was “Suburban Story.” In Israel, poverty ruled, immigrants struggled, and gangs ruled the streets in the suburbs, not the city.
As Americans have grown richer, they’ve built more and more suburbs, more and more distant from core cities, requiring more and more roads and infrastructure, destroying more and more woods and grasslands. America has lots of space, so you can still get out to places like the Troutbeck, where I’m now staying, but you have to travel farther each year to get there.
As I’ve written, the American concept of the God-given right to a detached house and back yard has seeped into Israeli culture in recent years, prompting the construction of American-style commuter suburbs around Israel’s urban areas.
The problem is that Americans have a large supply of countryside. They can be wasteful of their green areas and still have lots left. In Israel, each new suburb and each new road robs us of the little green space that still remains in our densely-populated land.
Ilana yearns for what she didn’t have as a kid. I had it; I know how great it is to have all that room. But at what price?
South Jersey has its charms, but I’d rather be in South Jerusalem. In an era of burgeoning population and scarce resources, cities, not suburbs, are the solution.