Hummel Synthesis #2:Re-vising the Suburbs: A Tale of Whoa

I have lived the last four years of my life deathly afraid of the suburbs. I have good reason to feel that way. In the spring of 2003, I left my urban habitat in the SF Bay Area to accompany my boyfriend (a man that would, over the next seven years, (d)evolve into fiance-husband-ex-husband) who was being relocated to Florida by his employer. I didn’t want to move, but I didn’t want to end the relationship either. So I moved, under the hope and vague promise, that we would re-locate to some other urban environment. We did not. What followed was a series of relocations and compromises that gradually put me in my own suburban hell: unhappily married, a stay-at-home mother to an infant, stuck in a house in the suburbs bought at the peak of the housing bubble which had, like my dreams of an urban life, burst, dashing all hopes of relocation. What followed after all that was no less surprising. My life would loop back on itself, and though I would never move from my final suburban site, I would find that I had relocated entirely.
It happened gradually and suddenly at the same time. When we first moved, we had to find housing fairly quickly. My boyfriend found a townhouse to rent in an enormous gated complex. He promised that it was only temporary until we got familiar with the area and could find a better location that suited both of us. Thinking it temporary, I agreed. I hated it. Not only did I think that the whole gated community thing was an asinine farce, but I felt like I had landed in Stepford. The focus of this dislike was concentrated on my “redneck” neighbors. To me they were a clear indication that we were in the wrong place. I expressed this frequently especially when it came to socializing with them, to the point where he looked at me and accused me of being elitist because “if our neighbors were a bi-racial gay couple with their adopted kids, you would be bringing them a lasagna.” He was right, but I disagreed with him as to why I was feeling that way. Richard Florida calls this the “‘Gay Index,’” “Gays, as we like to say, can be thought of as canaries of the creative economy, and serve as a strong signal of a diverse, progressive environment” (qtd. in Tongson 204). But I wasn’t just looking for gay people, I was looking for multi-cultural people, feminist people, environmentally conscientious people, educated people, politically liberal people, counter-culture people and any variation thereof…basically, my people. I was looking for a community in which I would be accepted, reflected and valued. I was not being an elitist; I was tribe-seeking.
As I stood in my suburban location, I did not feel a sense of community and social “bearings.” I felt out of place, awkward, and lost. This continued when we purchased a home literally weeks after we had gotten married. My then husband explained that we “had” to buy in the specific area, at that specific moment, because we could not afford to buy in the more “urban” areas. And we had to buy “now” before the housing market rose so high we would be left out entirely. Once we got “in,” we could sell the house in a few years and move to a better location that suited both of us. Again, thinking it temporary, I agreed. Then a year later the housing bubble burst, and we were financially upside down on our house with the current market-value being less than half of what we paid for it. I was not only stuck, but fucking-stuck, and I was pregnant. Things were feeling permanent.
Once, I realized they weren’t, I made my move. After two years in suburban hell, I left that house, left my marriage, went back to teaching, and came back to myself. And I did all this with a little daughter in tow. I believed at the time that suburban living (house, marriage, stay-at-home motherhood), was not the environment for me. I felt that the suburbs were a geographic purgatory between the rural and the urban: too close to the city to be “away,” too far away from the city to be “within it.” It was an in-between that allowed for none of the positive attributes of either the rural or the urban, and for me it was a social “nowhere.” A nowhere, that, up until recently, represented a “life-style” habitat that was entirely hostile towards the life I wanted to lead and live. Karen Tongson calls it a seeming “nether zone that … doesn’t even have its own U.S. census category. Whereas the rural and the urban are each other’s stalwart opposites, the suburban cannot even exist etymologically without the ‘urban’…Never too far apart, and yet seemingly worlds away…” (9). And for me, it might as well have been the other side of the moon. In fact, the suburban represented, to me, a different planet altogether. It was torture to be this close to a city, but philosophically miles away.
I realize now it wasn’t a disdain for the geographic location, but the life that I associated with that place. I was seeking a tribe that encompassed my, as Andrew Solomon calls them in his book, Far from the Tree, “‘horizontal identities’ —a condition that [we] shar[e] with a peer group but not with [our] family of origin”(1). Solomon describes the two varying identities as those one shares with one’s family (vertical identities) and ones that one doesn’t (horizontal). Examples of horizontal identities are varying sexualities, religious beliefs, physical and emotional variations such as autism, dwarfism, prodigy-ism, etc. I would argue that it is these “horizontal identities” and our connectedness to them and willingness to identify with them or not, that make us “queer.” And that, when we are tribe-seeking, we are looking for those same “horizontal identities” in others and the communities in which they exist. That is why, for me and many others, the “gay factor” is an important “road sign” because it offers the probability of finding other “horizontal identities” of our tribe along the way. The “gay factor” is just one of several that I keep my eye out for. And the question that I kept asking was: Can these other identities be found in the suburbs?
Karen Tongson attempts to answer this in her book, Relocations. She argues, that not only are the suburbs an actual “place,” but that those queer identities can be found there. She writes, “Relocations’ own goals are more modestly scaled to the micro-intimacies that forge everyday irruptions in the contemporary imperial landscapes” of the suburbs (Tongson 15). What we need to do then, is to find where those irruptions are located and go there. Tongson continues, “Relocations, revels in the transient and unruly glimmers of possibility amid empire’s incursions into local spaces” (15). So by crossing the “horizontal” or latitudinal empiric incursion with the “vertical” or longitudinal of queer irruptions, we can find a place to be. Like a social mapping, we can find our tribe at these politico/social markers.
In this way, I have revised the suburbs for myself, and though I have not moved to a new town, I have relocated. I swore for many years that I would never re-marry, that I would never again get suckered into buying a house, that I would never again get sucked into these “heteronormative” constructs (even though I did not know that’s what they were called at the time). But then my other “horizontal identities” started demanding representation in my life. I wanted to have a yard in which to grow my own food. I wanted to attachment parent and have a parental community that shared that style. I wanted to have a professional career that did not involve a long commute for both parental and environmental factors. I fell in love for real this time and wanted to make a public display of it for personal, social and practical reasons. I wanted to live in a neighborhood with varying kinds of families that shared these “identities.” I found that the suburbs would allow me the space to intersect all those identities, if only I would look a little closer. A damnable irony, for sure, and one that my new husband doesn’t fail sometimes to point out to me as I tromp my hippy self to the farmer’s market with my reusable bags, drive to the polls with my liberal politics in my energy efficient vehicle, pack my child a whole-foods lunch in reusable, BPA free containers, and head to the tattoo artist for work on my sleeve. Indeed, sometimes the suburbs is all about loving the one you’re with and finding those intersections of identity to set up house, put down roots and take your stand. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll let you know if it’s safe to visit.

3 thoughts on “Hummel Synthesis #2:Re-vising the Suburbs: A Tale of Whoa

  1. alexislothian

    I enjoyed these reflections in the spirit of Tongson a lot. And I am glad that you escaped from your suburban nightmare experience!

    I wonder whether Solomon’s ideas and your discussion of the “tribe” can be connected to some of the ways Tongson engages with the political economy of city life and the ways that the ‘trendy’ can be exclusionary. She talks about the creative class and the ways that the very desirability of ‘diverse’ locations has made them inaccessible for people with less material resources who might want to be a part of that group; you describe finding a way to live a suburban life that has many of the trappings of the ‘bourgeois bohemian’ (Whole Foods the chain store, etc…). Yet the class-association of whole foods, gardening, etc is a relatively recent and location-based phenomenon; combining tattoos with growing your own food used to just be weird! I wonder if the many suburban or non-central locations where people are living that way allows for it to be less associated with the gentrifying processes that Tongson describes.

    1. Jill Hummel Post author

      I guess perhaps I didn’t clarify it well enough. I specifically stated those things to be against the bo-bo conception. That’s why I left out mention of chain stores (No Whole Foods, but farmers’ market patronizing local farmers), gardening as an act of opposition against industrialized farming and consumerism, the rebellion against the conformity of the suburban landscape (pristine and chemically based lawns) and the reclamation of the space to grow one’s own food, cooking from whole food ingredients vs. processed by a factory, and patronizing a specific artist in terms of my body modification. I don’t see these acts as part of the bohemian bourgeoisie because they are acts that can be done as part of any class. I was progressing to a de-gentrification of the suburbs by making them more “usable” and “used” spaces, not to mention as a possible site for resistance and a counter-mainstream existence.

      1. alexislothian

        They can be done as part of any class, but which are the contexts in which they have been given, as it were, ground? How does the rise of the bohemian bourgeoisie make it easier for some and more difficult for others to participate in these important movements for sustainability? For example, one of the most wonderful examples of urban gardening was the South Central Farm in Los Angeles… until it was sold away to a developer to build apartments, because the people using it had no power. I live near a food co-op in Pittsburgh that serves a diverse area and seeks to improve things for ‘food desert’ areas nearby, yet the prices are such that I would never have been able to afford to shop there when I was a graduate student, let alone if I were raising a family on a low income. There’s a waiting period of almost a decade for allotments in some parts of London, as locally grown food has become trendy. I don’t say any of this to diminish what you are discussing and doing — only to insist, with Tongson, that we try to understand the ways in which the normative and the counter-normative within capital are often more intertwined than we would like.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *