1 - House

Suburbia comes and goes as a topic of conversation among people who care about cities. Only a couple of years ago, popular magazines were full of it. New books about the burbs were thick on bookshop shelves. At least since 9/11, however, suburbia seems to have been firmly pushed to the back-burner. That's understandable. After all, people have many very serious things to think about (terrorism, war, AIDS, child poverty), and several others that are surely more urgent (like one's own children) than the old discussion about sprawl, malls and suburban alienation.

But perhaps because I didn't grow up in them, and am old enough to remember a time when they didn't exist, at least where I lived, the suburbs have long held a certain exotic interest for me. The world of commuting, colour-coordinated toilet seats, car culture and big-box stores is foreign--or was, until early September. That's when I moved my computer, clothes and a few books from Toronto to Oakville, and began my residency at the Oakville Galleries' lakeshore location, called Gairloch Gardens.

My introduction to suburbia had taken place a half-century before.

I recall that autumn day in 1950 as sunny and hot. My big sister and her husband had invited me to come out to the edge of Shreveport, a staid old city in north-western Louisiana, for a look at their new suburban house.

Waiting for Erin and Frank to pick me up, I could not sit still. The very idea of a "new house" was deliciously thrilling, because I had never seen one. "House," to my country kid's mind, meant something antique-the family home on Dad's cotton plantation, for instance, which had been standing a century before I was born in it. Or it meant my grandparents' ample, shadowy Edwardian homestead, with its dark wood paneling and ancient, overstuffed everything.

But Erin and Frank's place wasn't merely a new house. It was a new suburban house. I'd seen magazine photos of prim little bungalows on razored lawns, but I knew what "suburban" meant only at a distance-wonderfully, enchantingly /Modern/. Whatever suburbia turned out to be in fact, it promised not to be the country I knew, which was an unpeopled greenness penetrated by rutted, twisting roads. And it wasn't going to be the town, with its tall buildings and many large houses from another century. It was going to be paradise-I was fairly sure of that, because Erin and Frank always talked about it that way.

And when we arrived at the expanse of flat, former farmland where the house stood, I discovered they were right.

The bowl of blue sky arched over the perfectly treeless landscape, its glorious curve falling to the horizon where the newly paved street swung widely round, and disappeared. In that streamlined world, the long cement curb abutted a strip of bright green grass, and next came a strip of grey sidewalk, then a broad ribbon of clipped, bright green lawn, and finally the Ranchstyle façades, each one almost identical.

The interior of Erin and Frank's house beautifully mirrored the geometric perfection of its setting. The compact array of kitchen appliances gleamed like the flight deck of Buck Rogers' space ship, the living-room walls were smooth, hard and white-not a scrap, sag or gluey scent of wallpaper anywhere. And-I remember this with peculiar vividness--the shiny wood flooring did not creak, because laid firmly on the concrete foundation slab.

The planks in my grandparents' old house always creaked. But in this magical zone of new houses, there were no grouchy floors, no dismal shadows cast by tall trees, no roadside dirt shoulders that turned to red mud after a rain. Only a radiant dream of green lawns without trees, with many bright white walls, and a plate-glass picture window opening toward the peaceful parallels of lawn, sidewalk, street. Best of all, there was a place my sister called "the Pak-A-Sak"-the first modern convenience store I had ever seen-only a brief car ride away.

Through pictures, I had known places like my sister's neighbourhood were sprouting up everywhere. The illustrated magazines were full of advertisements. For sale: little boxy houses lined up in tidy rows, and electric marvels displayed in neat domestic settings shiny with chrome and plastic--and very unlike my grandmother's hot old kitchen or fusty dining room. Happy young wives in starched white aprons and spike heels were operating the appliances. I recognized my sister's new world from the magazines, and knew it was real.

Being just nine, I did not know that some grownup critics believed post-war mass suburbia to be a betrayal of an older, more morally serious ideal of high-density living. Such folk were loudly denouncing the quick-build commercial developments of the 1940s and early 1950s as a sterile, anti-social hell in the making-a haven of "robotic conformity," "the apotheosis of suburban malaise," in the words of one recent summarizer of the gripes. In 1950, had I known such critics as Lewis Mumford existed, I would surely have thought him crazy for slandering suburbia as a "multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly at uniform distances, in a treeless communal waste," with brain-dead inhabitants "conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mould."

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