Sprawl Sad

I’ve spent most of my adult life (and all of my time in New York’s Capital Region) living in the suburbs. I am perfectly happy and comfortable with this situation, and will never, ever apologize for this particular life choice, though it has become trendy and fashionable in some of the social and media circles in which I move to denigrate the suburbs and those who live within them.

I find much of this sort of anti-suburban sentiment to be heavily freighted with a distasteful intellectual elitism, as though my choice (and the choices of millions of other like me) to commute to the city where I work, rather than actually living there, was made because I wasn’t smart enough to make a different one. I’m not stupid, and I’m not materialistic, and I’m not a cultural Philistine, so if your social critique of the suburban lifestyle involves you looking down your nose at me in a patronizing fashion while listening to NPR in your little downtown apartment, then I’m really not at all interested in hearing from you.

Your scorn and/or pity are meaningless to me, because I love my home, and I love my yard, and I find just as much value, culture, history and opportunity in my suburban neighborhood as you do in your urban one. I’ve dedicated a lot of time to exploring the bits of suburbia around me that many folks never see, in fact, as documented in my occasional (and probably ongoing this summer) Hidden In Suburbia series. There are just as many mysteries, secrets, surprises and fascinating stories to be found in the woods around my suburban house as there are in Albany’s Center Square, if you’re willing to invest the time and energy to look for them. And I am.

All of that being said, I did appreciate an article by Peter B. Fleisher that ran in the print version of the Times Union a few weeks ago, called “Sprawl Without Growth Is Ruining Too Much of New York.” Fleisher’s logic is sound, and he offers an economic argument against additional development that’s predicated on something other than an ivory tower distaste for people who choose to make their homes in the suburbs. I accept his intellectual and moral positions on the matter, and appreciate the way in which he frames them.

The point of Fleisher’s article was really hammered home to me a week or so ago when I had some time to kill in the car before picking up my daughter from an appointment, and noticed a new development going into a formerly-wooded area where I’ve spent a lot of time on my bike in the past. I turned into the development, and was dismayed to see just how much of the forest, and just how many pretty little streams and gorges had been destroyed to put up home stock that doesn’t seem to be needed, based on population trends in our market. Essentially everything I wrote about in this particular Hidden in Suburbia report is gone now, including the incredible deep woods racing oval that must have supported generations worth of kids and their bicycles. (Former aerial view of this great, lost hidden treasure above).

I suspect, frankly, that a big part of the rationale for this development going in is that it is in one of the increasingly uncommon undeveloped regions within the Loudonville Zip Code, and there is a social cache associated with that address that makes such properties desirable, thereby leading developers to develop them, never mind the toxic waste dumps in the valley just down the hill from many of them. I don’t damn or condemn the folks who will buy these houses, because I believe that they will be just as happy with their lives there as I am with mine here, but I do wish that our local town government would perhaps step up to the plate a little more aggressively to ask why we need more housing stock when our population is stagnating or declining.

If they build it, we will come, and we will be happy to have done so. So the solution to the sprawl without growth conundrum isn’t to denigrate or deny happiness to suburban homeowners, but rather to have the many, many layers of local and regional government that exist hereabouts more actively involved in trying to ensure some realistic correlation between development and population trends. I’m not sure that the tax dollars generated by this new development will provide a greater good to the community than the bicycle loop in the woods did for generations of kids who once lived around here, and it makes me sad to think that the kids who grow up in this development won’t have the opportunity to love these woods as much their predecessors (and I) once did.

Though I would never condemn their parents for making the choices they make to live there. We all chase happiness in our own fashions, and none of us deserve to have our happiness sneered at by snobs or elites.

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