A Childhood in the Suburbs
The Dark Side of the Dream

by Marie-Michele Poisson

The species homo urbanus exhibits a curious reproductive behavior. As soon as the young couple confirms the upcoming happy event, they migrate instinctively to the suburbs to build their cozy little nest. It's an unusual phenomenon among individuals who have up till that moment shown themselves thoroughly adapted to urban life. It's particularly baffling to me, as I spent my entire childhood and adolescence in the classic bedroom suburb of Ste. Foy (near Quebec), which has left me with the impression that there is no place worse for rearing one's children than the suburbs.

I first became aware of the abovementioned phenomenon when it came my turn to choose a "nesting place." Simply thinking about returning to live in the suburbs caused me headaches, even nausea. I couldn't at first say why I reacted thusly. In the end, we moved only a little distance out of downtown (from the Plateau towards Villeray), but we remained solidly within the city of Montreal. I've never regretted that choice. The longer I watch my children as they grow up in the city, the more precisely I understand the things that spoiled my suburban childhood, and the happier I am that my children, at least, won't have to suffer as I did.

"We Did It for the Children"
Most of my unpleasant memories are associated with the automobile. When I was little, we had to grind across town in the evenings to pick my father up from work (at that time the family owned but one car), and the chore always depressed me. When I was going to school, I couldn't take the school bus, as our house was in an area bypassed by the buses, so--I walked! One kilometer, four times day. Unless you drive, everything is always far away in the suburbs. When I started visiting friends, I quickly picked up the habit of using my bicycle, a cute little blue one with streamers on the handlebars. (I'm certain that the majority of Montreal's cyclists are, like me, escapees from the suburbs who discovered in the bicycle a solution to the social emptiness and lack of public transport of the bedroom communities. I've retained the bicycle habit, and a soon as the weather permits in spring, I'm off on my faithful five-speed!) In my suburbs, even a trip to the supermarket--located in the distant shopping center, of course, since suburban zoning laws forbid the corner grocery--required preparation more appropriate to a polar expedition. In winter, when it was too icy for riding, I had to walk. The shopping center turned its back on the neighborhood, and I had to trudge all the way around it to get to the stores, passing a long row of dumpsters such as you might find in a desolate area of an American military base. Cold, ugliness, horror.... Very young--around 11 or 12 years of age--I began to wonder why they hadn't thought of showing a more pleasant face to my neighborhood. The reason, of course, was--the automobile! The so-called architects of these shopping centers no doubt imagined that all the patrons would arrive by car. They never considered children or adolescents, the family slaves invariably designated to run to the store when necessary! How can anyone tell you that the suburbs are the place to raise your children? Let me tell you a few things about my childhood that will enlighten you....

Ste. Foy was at the time a "model suburb" that prided itself on its unparalleled amenities. Curiously, though, all the goodies (playground, library, etc.) were concentrated in a bleak no-man's-land in the center of the development. This bizarre format is once again explained by an assumption of automobility. When mama or papa couldn't drive me to the playground, I had to walk four kilometers along an endless and totally hideous boulevard where the cars zoomed by constantly and splashed me with mud. There were three pedestrian bridges to cross, up on each of which I was battered by the Canadian gales. Once I arrived at the playground, I had to decide whether to make a long detour around the highway offramp, or try to shortcut directly across the offramp itself. Guess what I usually did? And they say the suburbs are the safest places for kids.... I shudder when I think back to the number of times my friends and I crossed the autoroute that divided our neighborhoods, always at the risk of our lives. You might say that today I am simply more aware of the risks I took back then, but it's clear to me that at the time, I, like any adolescent in a perpetual hurry to live, just didn't have the time to make all the detours imposed on me by the highways that knotted our neighborhoods. ...One must add to the number of risk factors associated with a suburban adolescence the thousands of times I put my life in the hands of my imbecilic pals, whose rattletrap road rockets provided me my only chance of getting home before the midnight curfew! When I was sixteen, I received my learner's permit--not that that helped much, as I had to negotiate for the car with the entire rest of the family. But at least it relieved my parents of eternally playing taxi-driver for me.

Another depressing experience for me was watching the frenzy of development that took place over the years of my suburban childhood. When we first moved there, there were woods, a nearby farm, and a magnificent orchard. I fell in love with this little geography where my friends and I lived every sort of imaginary adventure. It's all gone now. It was all destroyed and rebuilt according to the "bottom line": rigid rows of little suburban houses and ugly rectangular apartment buildings. "The good life" my parents had chosen for my childhood was torn up before my eyes...I remember vividly the tractors ripping up the apple trees still in bloom: that was the springtime of my fifteenth year!

And people are surprised when suburban teenagers think of suicide. How can kids possibly cultivate any hope for a better future when surrounding them is emptiness, danger, and the destruction of all beauty? The more I think back on those horrors, the more I become convinced that the suicide rate among suburban teenagers is somehow linked to the dreariness of living on the dark side of the American dream. While their parents speed their cars down brightly-lighted highways, the children stumble along on foot, lost in the shadows of an unilluminated life.

A Place in the World
Until I arrived in Montreal, I never even imagined that a life without cars was possible. I've now lived here almost ten years, and I'm constantly amazed at how many irritations I avoid each day simply because I do not need to use a car, or even think about owning one. I do not have to play taxi-driver for my thirteen-year-old. He goes on his own wherever he likes, and I find him much livelier than I was at the same age. And my six-year-old walks to school all by himself! It's only a couple of hundred yards along good sidewalks. Why is that so astounding? Because at Ste. Foy, as in so many other suburbs, there were no sidewalks!

My little moment of grace each day comes around five p.m. when I listen to the traffic report on the radio. I'm home from work. I've stopped for food at the corner store. I'm quietly preparing dinner on the stove, and I experience a moment of exhilarating freedom. "To think that I've escaped all that: the traffic jams, the horrible accidents, the road-raging maniacs, the rush to grab a loaf of bread after running across the crowded acres of the parking lot, the thought of my children waiting alone in the house, the dinner wolfed down half-cooked because it's gotten so late...." I daydream a bit while watching my kids play with their friends in our little street....

Not in My Back Yard
Every time I visit my suburban friends, they feel compelled to give me a tour of their little territory: usually a patch of lawn surrounded by an eight-foot fence. The enclosures irritate me, because they symbolise all the stupidity of the suburban mindset. When my parents moved us into the suburbs, they were still new and the back yards were not yet fenced off. To a bunch of little kids this inadvertent common space was the ultimate playground...but our parents insisted on fencing it off for our "safety." From that moment on it was functionally as if you could only play with your friends one at a time. Fortunately the fad of the above-ground swimming pools arrived a little after the time of the fences; those kids "lucky" enough to have one in their back yard were no longer permitted to play there unsupervised, so they ended up playing in their front yards instead. Eventually, we ended up all together on the asphalt road, the only unpartitioned territory left, where we played hide-and-seek and kickball all day long.

You Can't Buy Community
If you are young parents contemplating a move, I hope my little history has given you something to think about. Don't listen to the dream-vendors! If you're looking for "the good life," a "real good place to raise your kids in," if you're looking for "security" and "community," and someone tells you you will find it in the suburbs, take a closer look at the life that that choice will impose on your children. Take a look at the dark side of the dream.

Translated from the French by Richard Risemberg, who is responsible for all inaccuracies and infelicities.