First off, I admit it: I live in a self-contained neighborhood with lots of cul-de-sacs and two community pools. So even though my address is technically within the limits of a major U.S. city, my environment could be considered suburban. I prefer to think of it as more of a rural area. There are two-lane routes and cow pastures on three sides of our neighborhood. On a warm, breezy day, you can open the windows of our house, hear the cows moo and sometimes inhale the faint scent of manure.
Still, some people would say I live in the suburbs, and I’m okay with that. But I certainly don’t live in The Suburbs, with its high-end shopping, beige tract housing, mega-churches, soccer complexes, and obsessive attention to zoning ordinances and the city master plan. I know I don’t live there because, currently, I work there. Each morning I drive about 40 minutes to my job in a suburb called Lenexa, Kansas. I like my company. The work is challenging and fun. The people I work with are bright and cheery, even when the temperature dips below freezing outside. I’m not so crazy about Lenexa, however. After 5 o’clock each evening, I am happy to see it in my rearview mirror.
Lenexa is in the middle of Johnson County, Kansas, which is the most affluent, fastest-growing part of the Kansas City metro. Most people who live in Johnson County seem to love it. The area has lots of trees, well-maintained lakes and parks, and all the retail and restaurant franchises you could possibly want. The highways are newly paved and there is a QuikTrip on every corner. There is even a natural history museum and a playhouse that employs sitcom stars from the 1960s and 70s.
Johnson County is nuts about youth soccer. Nearby Overland Park is home to U.S. National Soccer Team star Matt Besler. There is a soccer complex near where Matt grew up that is roughly the size of Belgium, and it accommodates thousands of little soccer players and their minivan-driving parents every single Saturday morning. All of these people are bright-eyed, blonde and lightly tanned. They are all trim and athletic-looking, and most of them wear something with the University of Kansas Jayhawk emblazoned on it. It is almost like there is some kind of social experiment going on in the Johnson County suburbs.
Suburbanites seem breezy and beautiful when you pass them in the soccer complex parking lot, but beneath that placid exterior lurks an angry beast just waiting to pounce at the first mention of the word “rezoning.” Just contemplate building a charter school, health clinic or even a Panera’s near a neighborhood entrance, and watch the stylishly dressed men and women of suburbia descend upon the city council public hearing armed with their legal pads, photocopied blueprints and prepared speeches. When I was a reporter I covered these hearings, some that were longer and filled with more pomposity than a Third World dictator’s speech. I once watched one well-heeled woman break down in tears when contemplating the impact that a planned auto mall might have on her home’s market value. Her husband walked the woman slowly back to her seat, where she dissolved into a sobbing mass of blonde highlights and Ralph Lauren apparel.
The people are not what bother me about the suburbs, however. What I dislike is how the suburbs are laid out. Years ago, I interviewed the city planner for Overland Park, and he was one of the most somber, boring individuals I have ever met. The rigid grids of Overland Park and surrounding communities mirror his lack of passion and personality. In fact, they seem to be the work of a deeply depressed control freak. Every single four-lane thoroughfare in the suburbs is split by a big, concrete median, as if people could not possibly be trusted to keep their cars from swerving across the center line. The medians can be frustrating when you are trying to navigate you way across one of the boulevards to pull into a McDonald’s drive-thru and get your ambitiously named Southern Style Chicken Sandwich. If you don’t know exactly what you are doing, it could take you three right turns and two lefts just to work your way around all those infernal medians.
Of course, all suburbs were planned for the automobile. Some of the nicer suburbs, like the I one work in, designate areas for foot traffic as well. Most of the streets of Lenexa are lined with sidewalks that are wide enough to drive a golf cart on. There are some lovely parks, including one with a man-made pond that I visit sometimes over my lunch hour. The sad thing is, you rarely see folks walking around and enjoying the natural beauty. There always are a handful of parked cars. These cars are occupied with people staring at their phones, getting some sleep, or enjoying a stolen moment with a co-worker or, possibly, a spouse. No one emerges from the cars. They pull into the park, hang out for a while, then return to their desk jobs.
That’s the irony of The Suburbs: walk just a few paces from the noise and commotion of the four-lane thoroughfares, and you’ll find yourself completely alone. You can hear the birds chirp and, sometimes, from a distant soon-to-be-developed field, you can hear a cow’s plaintive moo.
Stephen Roth is author of the humorous novel, A Plot for Pridemore. Be sure to “like” his author fan page at https://www.facebook.com/StephenRothWriter