Surlywood, my "palatial estate" since the fall of 2003, is of course a fairly modest sort of place: a little L-shaped house, barely a thousand square feet, in the middle of a trapezoid of land covering a bit more than a quarter-acre. Its very contradictions smallest house on the block, yet sitting on the largest lot became its selling points; the entrance is framed with stained wood, there's a brick front on the near edge, but the rest of it is painted a just-shy-of-hot pink, a weird sort of gay-hunting-lodge vibe that always makes me smile when I see it, despite the fact that it could use a serious freshening, especially around the entrance. All this and trees, trees, trees: a pair of redbuds out front (one a mutant white one, the occasional mulberry, elms front and back, a brace of sweetgums, a couple of evergreens, stretches of yaupon holly, a pair of chaste trees, and one lone cottonwood which won't make nice with the mulberry that wants its space. Way out in the 'burbs, right? Wrong: go three miles east and four miles south if you're a crow, or Pythagoras, go five miles and you're downtown.
I've never been there at least, not knowingly, though I have wandered around the town but I suspect James Lileks' corner of Minneapolis is much like my section of Oklahoma City. For one thing, it's walkable, but so what?
[A]s a city dweller, I root for the urban core, but the idea that people will abandon en masse the space and freedom allowed by the suburbs and exurbs for tight crammed condos is a dream. En masse is the key I'm sure there are people who, like myself, will chose to live in the city for many reasons, although I don't live where I live because I can walk to the co-op and carry my curds home in a hemp sack. I drive. I drive because I don't have the time or desire to schlep home the groceries every day. Jasperwood is on a hill that's at the top of a hill, below which is a ravine, and if you want to carry two 1.5 liters of wine and two gallons of milk and [a] gallon of orange juice and a rotisserie chicken up the road, you're welcome to it.
Yep, sounds like my place. (Did I rip off "Surlywood" from Lileks' Jasperwood? Probably.) The rise is not so high, but it's enough to make me shrug when they forecast "urban flooding," and enough to make me cringe when they forecast any amount of ice, since my driveway is seriously steep.
Not that I don't walk anywhere; at the very least, I have to tend to the grounds, which are rather expansive for a lot in town, and in my capacity as Block Minion of the Neighborhood Association, I get to fasten the newsletter to everyone's doorknobs on a regular basis. But the thrill lies elsewhere, as Lileks explains:
I live here because the convenience and ease of living outweighs the drawbacks, and because I like the history, the solid houses, the settled nature of things. But that's me. Once upon a time I lived in a condo in DC, and every time I walked into the "back yard" I felt like I was being let out of my cell for daily exercise. We had a tiny fenced-off enclosure of personal space six units, six little outdoor cubicles, with a big common terraced garden. We felt lucky, and we were; most units in the city lacked these spacious amenities. If I had to go back to DC and live in the city, that's what I'd want, but there's a reason I didn't stay in DC: I wanted space. Space and privacy.
I spent enough of my life in mediocre (or worse) flats to know I didn't want to spend any more of it there. I didn't even rationalize the move as financially astute: tax advantages and such notwithstanding, it costs a lot to own a home, and the purchase put a serious dent in my finances. But I won't go back to where I was without a fight:
The idea that the majority of Americans will soon decide that a backyard with green grass and room for the kids and dog is an insuperior option, and they really want to live in a four-story building in an inner-ring suburb listening to the neighbor's TV through the wall well, it's wishful thinking.
Wait a minute. You mean some people would actually wish for that?
There's something else about the anti-burb jeremiads that's never expressed but frequently implied: an offhand dismissal of the need for personal space. If you're young you don't need much. If you're an empty-nester, a condo downtown might be just the ticket. But in the great middle expanse of your life, you not only want to spread out, you want to be left alone, and this is taking on the characteristic of an anti-social sentiment. You should be walking around the dense neighborhood window-shopping and eating at small fusion restaurants. You should be engaged. If you want to watch a quality foreign film, good, but you should not watch it home; you should walk down to the corner theater and see it in a room full of other people, and nevermind that the start time is inconvenient and you can't pause it to go pee and the fellow in the row behind you is aerating the atmosphere with tubercular sputum. This is how they do things in New York.
And you know, I don't give a damn how they do things in New York. If I want to walk to Ray's Cafe or either of the two big chain drug stores or even Just-Short-of-Super Target, I can and if I want to drive downtown to Soleil or way the hell across the 'burbs to Qdoba, I can do that too. The only thing far away is work, about ten miles thataway, and frankly, when I'm not there, I'd just as soon not be reminded of it.
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Copyright © 2008 by Charles G. Hill