I grew up hating the suburbs, but now I fear I might be living in one. What does this say about me?
There’s an old map that I love inside the Library of Congress, upstairs through the Great Hall and a short walk into the marble-tiled gallery where the story of the creation of the United States unfolds. I carry a facsimile of it in my mind and a surreptitious snapshot of it on my cell phone. It is vast, about 5 feet by 7 feet, and it takes up most of a temporary display wall next to a small reproduction of a letter from Virginia surveyor and frontier soldier George Mercer letting George Washington know that yes, he definitely would like to join that English scouting group hoping to exploit Indian lands west of the Ohio River.
My map – "a map of the British and French dominions in North America, with the roads, distances, limits, and extent of the settlements" – is inscribed in the lower right-hand corner, inside an elaborate inset of palm fronds, plump angels and supplicating natives, by the Earl of Halifax’s most obliged and very humble servant, John Mitchell. His world dates to 1755.
The United States doesn’t yet exist. We haven’t yet decided what we’re going to call the Great Lakes, or whether we want to honor the Indians who named them first. Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia all theoretically extend inland more than a thousand miles in hand-colored stripes of fading pink, green, and yellow. To the north, the pink patch that is New York expands greedily all the way to Nova Scotia. Opposite the Atlantic Ocean, the map ends abruptly at the 107th meridian west, beyond which Mitchell runs out of things to say.
I love this map for one miniscule reference that speaks to a modern geographic rift John Mitchell never saw coming in the 18th century. Just below the Great Falls on the Virginia shore of the "Potowmack" River, in something like 4-point type, he notes the existence of a port town sizable enough in 1755 to warrant mentioning to the Earl of Halifax: "Alexandria."
Across the river, the District of Columbia does not yet exist. There is nothing there worth mentioning. And this is Exhibit A, the place where I begin my argument. See, Alexandria was here first, in the pre-Revolutionary age of the Iroquois and the unknown West. Clearly, it can’t be a suburb.
• • • • •
Growing up, this was the most vicious epithet I could imagine hurling at anyone: the s-word. Suburbanite. I was raised in a walk-up three-flat on the South Side of Chicago just off 51st Street, in a neighborhood of both historic Frank Lloyd Wright homes and middle-income housing that I believed gave me a unique view on the universe. We never went to the suburbs and I knew hardly anyone who lived there. Such people were The Other.
I have always enjoyed cherry-picking for outsiders what I think are the most evocative details about growing up in this place. I rode the bus by myself more often than I ever did my bike. We had periodic weapons inspections at the neighborhood high school. My mother never gave me a curfew. But we had a routine where I was to call in the middle of the night any time I drove home alone so that she could climb out of bed, shuffle to the front window, and watch me park and walk into our building, lest anyone snatch me in the intervening 20 feet.
All of these details, I think, reflect well on me. And now that I’m trying to finger where I got this idea, it occurs to me I knew no one as a kid – my mother, my friends, their parents – who didn’t share it. The city was innately virtuous because it had different kinds of people and more museums and a Chinatown. And if you were not willing to go through the occasional weapons inspection to win access to all of that, then clearly your priorities were wrong.
Correspondingly, I learned growing up that these are the things that did not reflect well on a person: Not knowing how to use public transit. Not knowing how to parallel park. Having a front yard. Knowing where the mall is located and what takes place inside of one. Knowing no one who has ever been mugged. Living in a home that looks identical to your neighbor’s. Looking, yourself, just like all your neighbors.
I never thought to articulate exactly what this awful sin was that living in suburbia said about someone (that such people are insular? homogenous? uninteresting? have too much money?). But I was sure the suburbs could permanently mar the very personality and character of everyone who lived there. And in all my fretting about this distant place, I nursed a silent, quaking fear that the worst fate that could befall an urban kid as a grownup would be to move there.
• • • • •
Today, the Alexandria of John Mitchell’s map is the Alexandria where I live. By 1755, the town had already been surveyed and the land parcels auctioned off in a neat street grid about one mile by a mile-and-a-half abutting the Potomac River. The whole of the port city was then the neighborhood that is today called Old Town, and my apartment sits right at its center. On another map, an 1845 town plan in the neighborhood’s history museum, I can see that even the alley that runs alongside my building was practically an original.
In other maps of this era, Washington is itself a modest town of cross-hatching streets, cut from the original L’Enfant Plan, with Alexandria – a distinctly separate place – sitting downriver about five miles. When I look at these old maps, it seems vaguely offensive to me in retrospect that a town would 1) sprout up several miles away at a later moment in history, 2) sprawl in the direction of its older, more historic neighbor, and then 3) declare all the people who live there to be peripheral hangers-on.
There is an accidental quality to the birth of large cities, to the reasons why they take root and grow, or don’t. Maybe at some point the railway came through or a hurricane did not. Maybe the first settlers ran out of breath on what turned out to be the prime real estate on the river. Here, for unpredictable reasons – because George Washington wanted it so, because a series of random events then ensued – the District of Columbia became the “city” and Alexandria its sidekick. This has happened throughout the country. Why did San Francisco become the boomtown and Oakland its appendage? Why does Dallas now come before Fort Worth, Minneapolis before St. Paul?
Today, the Potomac looms in Washington like some kind of supernatural psychological barrier. When I turn up in the District for a meeting or a dinner out, people profusely thank me for my trouble in having traveled "all the way across the river," as if I’ve just decamped from a day’s voyage on my covered wagon. They appear uncomprehending when I explain that the metro system travels to my doorstep, too. This is the strange spatial logic of the city, and it’s shaped differently in every place, between Jersey City and New York, Tampa and St. Petersburg.
The original southern boundary of the District of Columbia in fact was located off the southern tip of Old Town on the river, where a crumbling sandstone pillar still marks the spot today. Surveyors laying out the future capital in 1791 started at Jones Point and traced the District’s original 100 square-mile diamond north from here. Not only did Alexandria exist first, it provided the bearing point from which Washington came into being. Old Town was part of the District for its first five decades, until 1846, when the good people of Alexandria (or at least the wealthy white men living here at the time) voted to part ways with the capital.
This is my Argument No. 2: Alexandria can’t be a suburb because it was included inside Washington’s first contiguous diamond, and we only later left because we wanted to. So there.
* * *
Admittedly, much of my logic here flows from a defensive place in my heart where I suspect that I have reneged on a nonnegotiable childhood prohibition. It also strikes me, though, that where I live can’t possibly be a suburb, because it has none of the fingerprints of the place I believe most people (including my younger self) imagine when they use that word. Old Town is no post-1950s auto-oriented subdivision. No one has a driveway. There are no strip malls. The buildings all look different. Many of them are 200 years old and built in brick. No one builds in brick anymore (unless forced to by historic preservation rules?), especially not in the suburbs. I can walk to my grocery store, my coffee shop, my favorite Lebanese restaurant and my dry cleaner’s. There are gravestones in the neighborhood older than most incorporated towns.
Generally, when people talk about suburbia, I believe they are talking about a kind of place that contradicts this picture, not a geographic place outside some arbitrary (and shifting) municipal boundary.
But as I have been drilling deeper into the distinction, I realize I don’t know exactly what defines a “suburb” as such. Is it a matter of geography? Authenticity? History? Density? Diversity? Housing stock? Land-use patterns? Auto dependence?
Old Town originated “smart growth” 250 years ago. It is a deeply authentic place, in both its rich history and its sense of self. We have no Applebees, and I suspect my neighbors would take up arms, or at least flyers, if one ever approached us. Geographically, we are not far from the urban center on which we supposedly feed. On a nice day, I can jog there. I am as close here to downtown Washington as my childhood home was to the Chicago Loop. The distance from my door to the Lincoln Memorial is well less than one tip of Manhattan to the other.
And so proximity can’t be the thing. Or homogeneity: we don’t have that, either, in building stock or population. But in all the criteria I’ve devised to judge this place, to peg it on some urban-suburban continuum and justify my home here, the question still nags at me. Do I really live in the suburbs? So many people seem to think I do.
Part of me now suspects that what I was really failing to articulate as a bratty kid was this: to live in the city is to take a kind of risk, while to live in suburbia is to avoid it. Cities are amazing places because, in exchange for all their downsides – crime, noise, congestion, metal detectors – there is always the possibility of stumbling upon a bar or a person or an idea that doesn’t exist in less cacophonous places. But you have to accept that risk. Alexandria, I secretly suspect, has never asked this of me.