Note to soccer moms: move back to the city

February 22, 1999|By Froma Harrop

SUBURBAN sprawl refers to development patterns that turn formerly rural regions of the nation into quagmires of traffic congestion and ugly shopping strips. Vice President Al Gore is onto the issue, and so are many Republicans.

GOP political consultant Alex Castellanos sees sprawl as a quality-of-life issue that especially concerns women. He said: "The warrior of the suburban jungle is the mom out there in her suburban assault vehicle, and there's no oasis for her, no place for her to rest."

My question: Why did the mom move out to the suburban jungle? There are definite drawbacks to spending a third of one's life in traffic.

Her family volunteered for duty on the suburban frontiers, probably at great expense. Again, a question: Why are they complaining if they've chosen a four-car garage over the convenience of living in town? There are two answers: 1. The area was not covered with messy sprawl when they moved out to Quail Run 10 years ago; and 2. They were sold a bill of goods on the way a self-respecting, middle-class American must live.

The first answer is fairly obvious. As people moved out in search of countrified ambience and cheaper land, developers started servicing them with office parks and shopping strips. Because living patterns are such that no one can get anywhere without a car, every new piece of commercial development must have large fields for parking.

Before you know it, even traditional Main Street establishments, such as post offices and churches, are moving out to places where they can offer plentiful parking. This does not foster the charming compact downtown that Katherine Hepburn strolled in "Alice Adams." It's more like the concrete chaos of "Blade Runner."

The second answer is more complicated. Americans have been brainwashed into measuring their families' economic and social progress by the brute size of their houses and surrounding land.

America's cities, towns and close-in suburbs are full of darling houses. These areas offer sidewalks, public transportation, tree-lined streets and walkable shopping and schools. The little Cape Cod may have been wonderfully built, but it has smaller rooms and little backyard. In the 1950s, these modest houses epitomized American middle-class happiness. But today's upwardly mobile young families turn up their noses at them and condemn perfectly good neighborhoods as "unsafe."

This point was driven home a few years ago when I had briefly put my house on the market. Although I live within the city limits, my neighborhood resembles the traditional tree-lined suburb of yore. The house was built in 1924 for members of the upper-middle class. Real-estate agents liked the house but did not consider it a "family house." Why? Because the kitchen is small (by '90s standards) and does not have a sprawling "family room" attached. The yard is pretty but not big enough for a road rally. The bathrooms are compact. Not a family house? It has five bedrooms!

I spent my early childhood as a member of a five-member family living in a three-bedroom house. I shared a bedroom (can you imagine?) with my sister. We had one car and 1 1/2 bathrooms.

My brother cut the grass in about 10 minutes with a push mower. Mother didn't drive much because we walked to school, the bowling alley and football practice. This was the '50s, and my family's standard of living was the envy of Europe.

Many home buyers now bypass such neighborhoods and move far from the corrupting influence of sidewalks. It's not that they can't afford to live in town. In Swansea, Mass., a formerly rural backwater now attracting middle-class people from Providence, Rhode Island, real-estate folk say the newcomers are buying more expensive properties than the ones they left behind. They are getting very big houses on properties big enough to require the purchase of a lawn tractor.

They are also signing up for the strip-mall way of doing commerce and a good many extra hours breathing the exhaust fumes of the SUV in front of them. What government might do about the traffic and congestion and ugliness may be worthy of discussion. What the individuals out there can do is simple: Move back into town.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal editorial writer and columnist.

Pub Date: 2/22/99

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