You take the suburbs

...I don't want them'

Hugh Garner November 10 1956

You take the suburbs

...I don't want them'

Hugh Garner November 10 1956

You take the suburbs

...I don't want them'

Hugh Garner

Last week an acquaintance in our apartment house came to split a last half-dozen ales and wish me good-by. Like hundreds of thousands of intrepid adventurers, he was moving to Canada’s last frontier, suburbia.

“It'll sure be great getting into a place of our own, with a garden and room to stretch in.” he said, quoting a subdivider’s advertising blurb. “Why, from our kitchen window we can see across two miles of open country. Think of it!”

This refugee from suburbia had his fill of nosy neighbors, flooded cellars, the Suburban Set and walking in the dark. He says

I thought of it. It was exactly ten years ago that I had moved out to suburbia myself. From our kitchen window we had been able to see across four miles of open country. I used to say to the boys at the office, “We live in the last house in metropolitan Toronto. On a clear day we can sec almost to Winnipeg. Think of it!”

Today from what used to be my kitchen window, the present tenants can look across their barbecue pit right smack into the kitchen windows of a row of bungalows that have been built where a market gardener’s parsnips used to grow. Behind the first new row of bungalows are more and more and more, stretching in zany geometrical design to the horizon.

My friend curled his lip as he glanced at our only piece of greenery, a Mother's Day geranium plant in the window. “I’m going to have a big kitchen garden,” he said, dreaming out loud. “I'll grow potatoes, cabbage, salad greens, tomatoes . . .” His mouth began to water, while mine felt as if I’d bitten into a quince.

I had a corner house with a lot about half an acre smaller than the lawn around the Parliament Buildings. I too had planted a kitchen garden. The builders had assisted me by leveling the yard with about a hundred cubic feet of yellow clay, which they had dumped on top of the wonderful black loam that had attracted me when the house was being built. 1 had two choices: sink a shaft beside the back fence and mine my loam, or plant my vegetables in the clay and pray for a miracle.

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You take the suburbs...I don't want them continued from page 30

“I figured out my gardening costs — I found I'd only lost $30 over the store price of my crop”

I chose the latter course, and a miracle happened: the vegetables came up. Something had gone wrong with their metabolic rate in the process, however. As soon as the tomatoes ripened, they burst. The turnips were the size of radishes, the radishes suffered from a pituitary condition that gave them the diameter of turnips and consistency of cannon balls, and the potatoes were too small for anything except making French fries for a midgets’ convention. When I figured out my gardening costs for the summer (price of seeds and tools, but not labor) 1 found that 1 had only lost thirty dollars over the store price of my crop.

If 1 may be allowed to give a bit of gratuitous advice to the neophyte gardener, it is this: don’t start a garden unless you are financially able to buy tools and gadgets for the rest of your life. Gardening is like buying a hi-fi set: it is not the original cost but the upkeep that sends you to the poorhouse. Before you know it you have put yourself in hock for more equipment than it takes to run a Saskatchewan wheat farm, and the results of your labor will range from a slipped disk to a bumper harvest of all the wrong kind of vegetables, such as enough lettuce to make chef’s salads for the population of Montreal.

My friend walked over to the window and gazed out at the tangle of television antennas and the roofs of the houses on the next street. He said, "Say, you used to live in the suburbs, didn't you?”

"Yes. twice,” I told him. "My first suburban excursion lasted two years, from 1946 to 1948. My second sentence, a few years later, lasted nine months, with time off for good behavior.”

"And you left the suburbs to move back to this!" he exclaimed with a sneer, reducing my high-rent apartment to a cold-water flat up an alley.

1 knew he thought there was something ulterior in my coming back to the city; something dark and hidden in my past, such as a neighborhood scandal involving a female census taker, or having absconded with the take after the Queensway Gardens Outdoor Fun Frolic. Even if I told him the truth, I knew I could never turn him away from his big adventure.

Since World War JI more than a million Canadians have emigrated to suburbia. They have filled up the old suburbs and overflowed into new ones—some of them advertised as being “only thirty miles from downtown”—the flowering of a mad architect’s nightmare that rivals the breeding habits of the amoeba: multiplication by subdivision.

Today in some places, notably in Metropolitan Toronto, where 1 live, the suburban tail is wagging the urban dog, with as many people living on the outskirts as in the city itself. Montreal has its Dorval, Lachine and Ville La Salle, Quebec City its Lac Beauport and Sillery, Halifax has new housing developments around Bedford Basin, and Sydney. N.S., its Point Edward. Hamilton has spread out to the south, and climbed up its mountain to populate the escarpment. Edmonton has its Glenora, Winnipeg its Tuxedo, and Vancouver has filled the entire lower mainland and spread up the mountains in North Vancouver. The outlying developments of Regina, Calgary. Saint John. Windsor and Sudbury. Ont., and a hundred Pineerest Parks and Sunnyside Acres, surrounding as many small cities, testify to the efficacy of a back-to-the-land movement (with a fiftyfoot frontage and enough back yard for a garage and a clothes line) sponsored by promoters with a vision and enough ready cash to buy up every farm within

hog-calling distance of a highway.

These surburban developments differ as widely, one from the other, as the residential districts of a proper city. The outward-bound ex-city slicker generally moves into a development with others of his social and economic background, but some, with a go-for-broke attitude that has its place at a crap table, move into a development that is geared for the boss’s income, and live to regret it for the rest of their lives.

There are suburban homes whose welldressed fronts are as false as the cowtown streets in western movies. One young couple of my acquaintance are buying a twenty-thousand-dollar home, and can’t afford to furnish it. From the street their split-level ranch house looks wonderful, but they’re afraid to invite anybody in.

“Keeping up with the Joneses” is not the title of a comic strip in suburbia— it’s a way of life. It has caused more suburbanites to stop speaking to their neighbors than politics, dogs or marauding children. The family that is trying to keep up with higher-income neighbors has two alternatives always staring it in the face: the arrival of the bailiff or a coronary attack for papa.

When I first moved to the suburbs most household appliances were as difficult to buy as they arc to resist today. It was not a social gaucherie not to own a refrigerator or a vacuum cleaner. After the first year, however, the race was on. In suburbia “front” comes first, and the new suburbanite is a sucker for an advertising blurb or a TV commercial; he has fallen freezer, dishwasher and waterless cooker for the propaganda of "gracious living.” The automobile is a visual sign of social success (and in many cases a dire necessity). Though he drives a car only through the courtesy of his finance company, to him it is a talisman that proclaims his advance from his pedestrian days.

Of course, the suburban dweller is no different from the troglodytes, like me, whom he has left behind on the city’s shaded streets. The only reason he seems different is that everything in the suburbs is exaggerated, from his bills to his fears and foibles.

One of the big come-ons of the realestate salesman is the alleged privacy to be found in the suburban development. Any salesman who makes this claim should be impeached for fraud. I have far more privacy in a thirty-unit apartment house in the city than I ever had in suburbia. As a matter of fact the one thing nobody finds in the suburbs is privacy.

During my tenure in Wecdvillc Heights I had to walk a quarter of a mile to the store for cigarettes. It seemed to me that everybody on the streets I had to traverse made a point of coming out to watch me pass by when the weather was warm, and stared through their windows at me when the weather was cold.

I used to laugh through the side of my mouth when some knucklehead in a movie had to wait until his wife was knitting booties before he knew he was going to be a father, but on my suburban street every housewife could pinpoint her neighbor’s confinement date before the husband knew his wife was expecting.

In the city somebody two doors away can elope with the insurance man, and you may not know it for weeks, but in the suburbs the wives carry stop watches with which they time the laundry drivers who go into a house to pick up the clothes. It is only in the suburbs that the neighbors keep a box score on the number of cases of beer you buy in a week, or the size of your wife’s grocery orders. Those two female crows who whisper together in the TV commercials about the tattletale grey of Mrs. Rumstcad's wash on the line aren’t fooling. It is the favorite conversation piece in the suburbs.

For the first two months in any new housing development everyone is as outwardly friendly as castaways on a raft, but they soon choose up sides and sort themselves out into cliques, factions and social strata. Something happens to ordinary people who move across the city limits. The men try to become country squires by laying out a croquet course on their front lawn and getting their wives to sew leather patches on the elbows of their tweed jackets. The women get that chatelaine look, and begin putting raisins in the salads and cultivating a broad “a.” The only time either sex lets its hair down is on Saturday nights after the sixth bottle of beer or the third gin-andtonic. Then the wives blurt out how much Bert actually makes a week down in the ollicc of the nutmeg factory. The guy who you’ve always thought was a junior executive in a bond house turns out to be an elevator starter who won the down payment on his house in a sweepstake. Before the first party is over, all the wives have decided whom they dislike and whom they are going to cultivate. The husbands can’t quite remember how much of their private business they have given away, but decide to do their drinking from then on downtown.

l ike my friend from down the hall, the average city dweller thinks of the suburbs as a wide green expanse, with plenty of room between the houses and cool breezes blowing through a forest of deciduous trees. This is exactly what the suburbs arc—until the builders take over. These gentlemen begin with an irrepressible urge to reduce the land to a desert, changing its natural contours by means of bulldozers and earth movers, and planting in place of its former trees row upon row of concrete-block basements over which they eiect jerry-built fourteen - thousand - dollar cell blocks with breezeways and picture windows.

Though a new development may now be five miles from the bus terminus, its denizens can look forward to the city catching up with it during the next ten years. Thousands of families who escaped the city in the late Forties have since been engulfed by the city's expansion, and now to all intents and purposes they live on a city street, but too far out to enjoy the amenities of city living. The only escape is to move once again, to a new fringe area, and some of them are doing just that, hence today's advertisements reading: "Only thirty miles from downtown.” The trouble is that far-fiung suburbanites are living in the country at city prices.

To those who are used to living in a prewar house in the city, it comes as a shock to find that many suburban houses have interior trim that bends itself away from the wall in fantastic shapes as it dries, that the plaster cracks, the front steps separate themselves from the front of the house with the first frost and that the kitchen cupboards sag.

Water, which to the city dweller is something he thinks of only when the heater is turned oil or when he measures it out into a drink, is an obsession with the suburbanite. In some suburbs water has been so scarce during the last lew summers that taps ran dry and some women were washing their children in ginger ale. In other suburbs water not only enters the house through pipes, but through the basement drain and the basement windows as well. The sump pump has become as much an integral part of the suburban basement as the furnace.

A friend of mine who recently sold his suburban home and moved back to the city told me: "1 could take all the inconveniences. 1 didn't mind having to drive seven miles there and back to the nearest drugstore, take my children four miles to the nearest school and bring them home again, dig my car out of the mud every time it rained, or jockey with fifteen thousand other drivers for an hour and a half going to work every morning. What got me was a morning last summer after a heavy rain.

"1 went downstairs, and my wile made breakfast for the children and me. Suddenly there was a sharp crack from the living room, and I went to take a look. There was a hump under the living room rug, and when I turned the rug back 1 saw that the hardwood flooring had sprung, and there was water seeping through the hole. I hurried to the basement stairs and opened the door. There, floating on a level with the top step, were some of my books and the pingpong table. I shut the door. Two minutes later my mind was made up: I was moving back to the city."

The suburban housewife and mother often shows the pioneer woman’s stoicism for inconveniences that would drive a gypsy to the edge of paranoia, but one thing that makes her bristle is the lack of suitable and nearby schools for her youngsters. In many posh suburban developments the school is only erected months after the families move in; until then the children must attend some distant. already overcrowded school.

Next to water, or the lack of it. septic tanks, schools, and the balance coming due on the second mortgage, the biggest problem among the tenants of suburbia is transportation. To the lucky suburbanites who have a bus line running within half a mile of their houses there is still the element of time to contend with. A fellow 1 know who doesn't drive a car, has a daily trip by bus and street car that takes anywhere from an hour and twenty-five minutes to an hour and fortyfive minutes each way every working day to and from his downtown ofiice.

The suburbanite with a car is scarcely better off. On top of his payments for it, he must spend more per month to feed and service it than he spends to feed and clothe his family. Thousands of suburbanites are "car poor." but they would sooner eat macaroni and cheese every

night in the week, and buy their clothes from the Salvation Army, than give up their car.

An editor friend of mine who lives in the country—but no further out than some so-called "suburbs"—claims he just can't operate his automobile for less than two thousand dollars a year. Another acquaintance spends nearly half of his salary on his car, which is a model way out of his salary bracket. Although his car is a new one every couple of years, his furniture is secondhand and his children dress like refugees from a slum. He has loans from two finance companies. and he figures that the payments on these, plus the upkeep on his car, cost him about a hundred and forty-five dollars a month.

People moving from the city don't seem to take into consideration the fact that ordinary household bills are higher in suburbia. Taxes in many outlying communities are twice as high as they are in the city, telephone bills can be astronomical and gas and electricity are sure to cost more.

The mistake a lot of house hunters in the suburbs make is visiting the new subdivisions only in the daytime. They don’t realize that at night they may as well be living in a crater on the moon. If they want entertainment other than seven nights of TV. they have to travel twenty to forty miles there and back to find it. They can't even go for a walk after dark. In most suburbs the street lighting is sparse or nonexistent, and the subdivider has failed to put down sidewalks under the mistaken notion that nobody has legs any more, only eightcylinder cars. Besides, every second suburbanite owns a voracious animal that looks on after-dark strollers as a legitimate supplement to his can of dog food.

But enough about the inconveniences: when your house burns down on the night the volunteer firemen are having their annual clambake and wiener roast, forget that you tire two months behind in your fire insurance premiums, and remember your ancestors who walked from Kingston to Barrie, or Vancouver to Kamloops, carrying the family organ on their backs. Surely you are as intrepid as they were.

By now it must be apparent that I hated living in the suburbs. I admit that not everyone can live in the city—in most big cities there’s just not enough room for all. But to me anyone who can choose between city and suburban living is a sucker if he chooses the suburbs. The biggest reason why i dislike the suburbs is that I dislike suburbanites.

In every neighborhood there is a frustrated would-be YMCA counselor who glad-hands all the neighbors and appears at every ratepayers’ meeting. His selfappointed position in the community is to calm ruffled tempers, hold the group together, make sure he does not get nominated for any position with work attached to it. such as secretary-treasurer, and otherwise make a big boob of himself. I have watched this character operate at many meetings, and have always been expecting him to shout, “Who’s for shuffleboard?” like his shipboard counterpart.

To me a suburbanite is a state of mind that walks like a man. A suburbanite is a complex animal mechanism that changes its personality like a chameleon as soon as it becomes indigenous to a Bubbling Brook Park or Cherry Blossom Development. A suburbanite, like the hermit crab, takes over a shell built by another, calls it a bungalow, and anchors himself to it for life with a series of mortgages. A suburbanite is a mass of fears and frustrations that in the guise of nonconformity is the biggest conformist this side of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

If you think he, or she. is not, let me quote you a few random remarks from disgruntled suburbanites of my acquaintance. From a woman living in the Don Mills development north of Toronto: "The way to become a success out here is to be a joiner. You are looked upon as being anti-social if you refuse to join.” And from a man who lives in an Ottawa suburb: "In the city I wasn’t conscious of social snobbery, but in the suburbs I am. It’s a queer sort of snobbery that is reflected in the food you eat. the kind of car you drive, the amount you give to the Red Feather. My neighbors love to show off their newly acquired possessions, and I think that if they were fitted with a driver's seat, half the women on the street would drive their new automatic washers down to the supermarket.”

A newspaperman I know who recently moved into our neighborhood after living in a Regina suburb, told me, "To me it was like living in a tent. At any hour of the day there were neighbor women dropping in for coffee and a chat. In the evening it was the husbands, calling on me to join a group going for a beer at the Legion, or organizing a Saturday-night poker game. Lm the type of guy who likes to pick his own friends and entertainments. In the suburbs it was like living permanently in a boys' camp, with somebody always mapping out your evening activities.”

My own memories of suburbia are similar to those I have quoted. 1 made the acquaintance of all the wrong people the first week I moved into the suburbs, and it took me months to escape from my over-eager friendships with them. I was soon looked upon as being eccentric, if not downright crazy, for refusing to wear shorts in the summer, refusing to attend the Home and School Association, and because I didn’t drive a car.

On my second excursion into suburbia I found myself on a street surrounded by "music lovers” who spent hundreds of dollars on their hi-fi sets and records, but whose wives had to borrow my wife's sewing machine and steam iron. I attended two hi-fi sessions in neighbors’ houses, but was not invited back for a third. Nothing was music to these atonal highbrows unless it had the word “opus” in the title. When I was asked what kind of music 1 liked. 1 told them I was more of the Brigadoon-Noel Coward sort of music lover, although I liked to listen to the piano pieces of Chopin and Liszt. They dismissed me as a hopeless square who probably preferred Frank Sinatra to Caruso, which I do.

If 1 was asked to describe the male suburbanite who brought all this on— and I’m going to do it anyway, asked or not—this is the way 1 would describe him:

He is a frightened office worker who drives a car he can't afford, and still owes his doctor bills from his wife's last confinement in 1951. He seldom attends sporting events, but thinks he's an expert on sport from what he reads in the papers. He only drinks on Saturday night and Sunday, and gets maudlin drunk on New Year's Eve. When he is safely ensconced inside a ton and a half of automobile he is the king of the highway, and heaven help anybody who gets in his way. Only when he is behind the wheel does he feel equal to the life around him.

He keeps a plastic raincoat and a pair of rubbers in his office in case the weatherman was wrong that morning, and in March of every year he makes an ostentatious fuss about income taxes, yet his own taxes are taken from his salary each week and he never misses them. His lunches are usually eaten in a cafeteria, where the conversations run the gamut from summer cottages to sports to automobiles. and back again. He talks ot his company as "we." He read once that one should never say, "Thank you." to servants. but as he has no servants to practice on. he never thanks waitresses, elevator operators or others who render him a service.

His only participant sport is golf, which he plays poorly but determinedly, and looks upon as a necessary rung on the ladder of success. He was one of the last people to own a television set, and till he could afford one he dismissed TV as a waste of time.

He spoils his children, not through love, but through lack of interest, and his kids are brats. The only times he makes a fuss over them is when others are watching. At Christmas time he lights up the front of his house like a neon sign, and buys the biggest Christmas tree he can find.

He is generally married to a thin blond woman who is addicted either to tailored suits or slacks and a duffel coat. She only speaks to two other women on the block, whom she considers her equals. She hasn't called her husband by his first name in public for the last ten years— only "dear” and "honey.” She has social aspirations, but not enough money to carry them out. She temporizes by having a few of her equally absurd women friends in for a game of bridge a couple of times a month. The family has eaten so many leftover, rolled and diamondshaped sandwiches following these affairs that they have toothpicks permanently imbedded in their olive-like tonsils.

Both husband and wife love to sit on their aluminum lawn furniture in their shorts when the weather is warm, clutching tall drinks that may be cither gin or tap water. They still owe tw'o hundred and thirteen dollars on their expensive electric range, but last spring they bought a barbecue stand, and all summer they made a big show of frying charcoalburned hamburger steaks.

1 could go on like this forever, but 1 think I'll leave him for the anthropologists.

Personally, 1 can take the transportation problems, the water shortages (or the flooded basements), the lack of privacy, the mortgages and the increased living costs, but I can't take the suburbanites. I realize that the city people are just as bad, but in the city you can avoid them.

Call me anti-social if you like, or even call me the things you are mumbling under your breath. There is one thing nobody will ever be able to call me again, and that’s a suburbanite. And you can bet your second mortgages on that. A