November 05, 2009
City Mouse, Country Mouse
I am at a point on the timeline of my life in which I have experienced nearly equal parts of being a city dweller and a resident of less populated areas. I was born in Chicago to parents native of it, and by way of “white flight” and ostensibly better schools, raised just a few miles up the shore.
I know from history that in previous generations it was simpler to see the difference between many of Chicago's classic ethnic neighborhoods. Gentrification has made those boundaries much less obtrusive today. Still, in most of the major metropolitan areas of America, short distances of a mile or two can represent worlds of difference. An observant visitor or any realtor worth their salt can still see this, albeit increasingly along socio-economic lines as the cultural ones are being homogenized.
While my upbringing was not technically urban, my specific neighborhood and its proximity to the city provided an experience much more so than the typical concept of suburban life (e.g. Leave It To Beaver, The Brady Bunch, etc.). Urban-like diversity was apparent in my high school's student body as well as in real estate, with homes separated by a short physical distance often having disparity of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in value.
We didn't have near as much in the way of direct supervision growing up, much less formal play dates or groups. The bicycle was the ultimate instrument of independence, shrinking my microcosm to any limit that could accommodate being back before the streetlights came on. After outgrowing that rule the bike continued to provide essential transportation since I was not one of the fortunate teens who was either provided or could afford an automobile. I miss those days and have concern that my son may not be afforded the local geography and relatively safe traffic needed for youthful neighborhood bike adventures.
I am often amused by the thought of how distances seemed so much greater in my days as a city mouse. When my eldest brother left the nest I was about eight or nine years old, and the anticipation of the 20-mile drive to go visit him in his new digs was quite titillating - one might have thought I was going on my first plane trip. To not spend the night at his place required a round trip that was practically a pioneer wagon voyage by my excitable pre-adolescent perceptions.
In contrast, the sparser population centers of my past two decades of residency have alternated between the in-town life of a couple of southern micropoli and more rural digs not far from such. By and large I have enjoyed the change, at least enough to give my old northern stomping grounds the status of “nice place to visit - wouldn't want to live there.” But now in the wide open spaces of Georgia I have friends that live 20 or more miles away. Of course the lightly traveled two-lane highways here probably require a third less travel time from the “surface street” routes of the cities and suburbs (a standing joke in Chicagoland is that it takes 45 minutes to get anywhere – in good traffic).
As to the aforementioned timeline, like anyone I hope that it includes many more decades of healthy and happy existence. And while the cultural draws of a city will always be worth the occasional long drive, I lean toward increasing my distance from the magnetic convenience of the modern business district. Years ago I moved from the Bay Area of California to the bucolic (if culturally stunted) environs of northwestern Georgia. After a few years of settling in I began a subscription to Organic Gardening magazine, which guided me in maintaining a small plot of veggies and flowers for two years running before letting expense and laziness become excuses not to.
I want to get back to things like that in the worst way. I confess to the possibility that this is just a pipe dream (my consolation being that currently I am minutes from a symphony and great Thai food). My desire to eschew city life is coupled with a perception that American society has changed too much from the quasi-urban neighborhood of my youth. Sidewalks are rare, old growth trees even more so, and these are superficial things to the real concern that modern parents have of leaving their child unwatched.
I suppose there is irony in having the most desirable areas of rural America gentrified into hobby farms and estates of various rustic-looking excess. I confess that I dream of having a few hundred topographically diverse acres on which to develop a mountain bike park. It would be naturally sustainable of course – no need to remove thousands of trees and install expensive turf that requires bajillions of gallons of water and tons of chemical fertilizers that inundate the aquifer. I guess I could settle for being a thousand feet from my nearest neighbors (none of whom require any sort of gas-powered lawn maintenance equipment), an effective composting system and enough summer sunlight for a salsa garden.