I have been thinking about turning this article I wrote about my street, West Rock Avenue, into a book, and so I have been doing a lot of reading about urbanism, town planning, and architecture. Basically, I am trying to figure out what makes some streets livable and others not. A good deal of the literature — by people including New Havener Philip Langdon, whose A Better Place to Live has given me a whole new outlook on what makes a space a happy one in which to dwell — boils down to this: don't depend on cars. People are happier when they can walk to see neighbors, ride their bicycles, and live close enough to their neighbors that they know them. This small-town mythology is one that I am particularly susceptible to, having grown up in a neighborhood that had many of a small town's virtues. And I find myself, as I read these books, falling prey to an unfortunate smugness, as if growing up on streets laid out on an easily navigated grid, with houses on quarter-acres instead of large lots, is the only way to have a happy childhood.
But that can't be right. For one thing, this mythos runs contrary to another important American mythos, the rural farm. I don't think many of us would want to say that children growing up in the countryside, learning to milk cows by their parents' sides, are unhappy. Nobody thinks that that's an uninspiring or despairing way to grow up. And, to be fair, the writers I'm reading aren't reacting against that way of life, which may be dying out; they are reacting against suburban sprawl, which until recently seemed poised to dominate the American landscape.
But what of that suburban sprawl — especially those cul-de-sac developments that have proved so popular in late-20th-century construction? Can one have a happy childhood where there are no sidewalks, where it's too dangerous to ride a bicycle, where there are no secret passageways behind garages or corner stores at which to buy candy?
I don't know. On the one hand, I don't want to underestimate children's capacity for self-mystification. I suspect that most children, at least most of those who grow up middle-class, and sheltered from anything too abysmal in the family's home life, look back at their early years with a certain sense of awe and wonder. Those lookalike houses in Del Boca Vista Estates are not lookalike to the children inside them, who know which house has the best video-game system, which kid has the dad who makes the best forts with the dining room table and some blankets, whose parents go out late and don't hire a babysitter (all the better for watching verboten TV channels).
On the other hand, there is empirical evidence that suburban life of this kind can lead to bad things: obesity, too much time in the car, fewer friends, less play. And teenagers—forget about it. If they can, they flee to the city. Or at least the curious ones do.
But what I don't have are good sympathetic non-fiction books about life in suburban sprawl. For every book critical of that way of life — Langdon's book, Duany et al.'s Suburban Nation, Ray Oldenburg's The Great Good Place — there seem to be exactly zero books about why it can be pleasurable to grow up in spaces that are, after all, safe, predictable, and quiet, which are all good things.
I want the other side of the story. Ideas, anyone?