Philadelphia Metropolis


City Girl, Suburban Exile

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By Shannon Frost Greenstein

I'll admit it - I'm a transplant from the suburbs.  I grew up surrounded by gated communities, minivans filled with adolescent soccer players and the mothers who chauffeur them, and the strip malls and shopping plazas that are part of suburban sprawl.  Your local coffee shop?  Try a corporate Starbucks, conveniently lacking the pierced, tattooed, and dreadlocked vegans native to our urban and independently-owned institutions of caffeine.  Children play on manicured lawns fenced with white wooden pickets; family men mow those lawns weekly with high-end riding mowers from the Home Depot down the street.  As I recall, everywhere is the stench of conformity, of judgment by nosy neighbors, of the yearning to fit into the archetype of "normal" that defines this rosy-colored lifestyle.

Obviously, I'm a city girl now.  It's not that I resented my childhood, per se - it's that I was never a suburban girl to begin with.  I was a bookworm, the kind of child who sits alone at the lunch table because she's the whipping girl for the popular crowd.  I never fit into my surroundings - not the ballet studio, not the middle school, not the birthday parties I was forced to attend for children forced to invite me.  It was only upon moving to the city that I stopped feeling like an extraterrestrial.  I feel at home among the freaks, the litter, the noise, the skyline, the individuals on the street who would sooner mow you down than walk on their own side of the sidewalk.  My first few years in Philadelphia felt like the polar opposite of the rolling green hills of my upbringing, and I relished it.

A Moment of Clarity

As of late, though, the strict city/suburb dichotomy has begun to blur before my eyes.  Attending a recent event, I was surrounded by a number of successful, intelligent professionals from the Bucks County area - a cast of characters from a background I would rather forget.  As the event neared its conclusion, I overheard the question, "Is it safe for me to walk to my car?"  Let's bear in mind:  It was a Sunday at 4:30 p.m. We were standing at the corner of 21st and Arch, and her car was parked on...wait for it...23rd and Arch - not an area typically known for its vagrants and drive-by shootings.

Of course, I  spent a few minutes mentally mocking the poor, clueless woman, despite my identical fears upon moving to the city.  Experience must lead to cynicism.  Let's try to imagine, however, they type of life to which this suburban resident must be accustomed:  No need to hide CD's in the glove compartment while parked on Market Street; no need to sprint back to the car because you parked it in a 30-minute loading zone 29 minutes ago.  No parallel parking, no tiny bags with the remnants of illegal powder decorating the ground, no pleading requests for spare change.  Instead?  Unlocked doors; children walking home from the neighbor's after sunset; cordial greetings to passersby on the street walking dogs or baby carriages; gardens and lawn statuaries and shade from eighty-year-old oak trees.  Despite my infatuation with urban living, the suburban alternative is starting not to sound so bad to me.

Happy Endings?

So where do I stand now?  I must say I'm divided.  Maybe suburban life is better suited for a time of adulthood, rather than a period of childhood lacking sufficient life experience.  Maybe the Philadelphian art museums and galleries and theaters present an opportunity sadly missed by those whose social activities are limited to the latest blockbuster at the local United Artists movie theater.  Would you be willing to give up the Ritz?  I certainly wouldn't.  And yet, how much is missed in an environment defined by its concrete, neon lighting, and overwhelming swells of individuals all walking the same narrow sidewalks?

Since it is a matter of personal choice, perhaps there is no answer.  Perhaps we are divided into city people and suburban people, those who prefer the chaos and those who prefer the quiet.  Perhaps the two shall never meet or agree, and that's not a tragedy.  We are all most at home wherever we actually feel at home, and that is not something my suburban prejudice has the power to change.

I know only that I'm suited for a particular lifestyle at the moment, and that I'm under no pressure to alter that lifestyle unless it is my choice.  It may very well be a cold day in hell, but I might even end up in the same environment from which I've come, content with my lawn gnomes and SUV and hanging swing on the porch.

But probably not.


Sharon Frost Greenstein is a writer who lives in Manayunk, at least for now..




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