Most Americans live in an in-between place, neither quite town nor country. Sometimes there are sidewalks, and sometimes there aren’t. Such places still tend to be called suburbs, but now that so many of their residents work as well as live there and don’t commute into a city at all, that term seems more than a little dated.
My South Jersey cousins referred to the place in these photos as “our development,” which I found interesting. They’ve lived there for ten years, in a house that was new when they bought it; the oldest parts of the subdivision go back twenty years, they told me. But they continue to think of it as a development: something new. Something without a history yet.
But the land has its own history, of course, suggested most visibly by the trees. Although many of the trees in front yards were planted when the houses were built, many backyards had larger trees that were obviously decades older than the houses. This particular development appears to have been built on top of a mosaic of farm fields, wooded hedgerows and small woodlots. The trees in the above photo marked one edge of the development, a beauty strip separating the community park from a commercial zone. The park is basically a sports field circled by a running track, with only a single clump of trees next to the swing sets. We’re looking across a muddy construction site toward a new Lowe’s — a mega-hardware store that includes an indoor lumber yard. To the right of the picture, a five-acre chestnut oak and mountain laurel woods is fiercely posted with “No Trespassing” signs. At its heart: a private residence of about the same age and design as those in the adjacent development. This is a graphic illustration of one factor driving the growth of suburbs: our love of privacy. And by “us,” I don’t just mean Anglo-Americans. The overwhelming majority of immigrant homeowners live in the ‘burbs, too.
One of the things that distinguishes many of the most recent housing developments, at least in this part of the United States, is the plethora of fences. Very few back yards were without a tall wooden fence separating them from their neighbors. Does this reflect a growing concern for the safety of children, I wonder? By contrast, older towns and suburbs tend to have, if anything, low fences that one can see through — the proverbial white picket fence.
Though my cousins’ development seems to qualify as a genuine neighborhood, where kids play in the street and residents of all ethnic backgrounds mingle easily, I think most activity still takes place either indoors or in backyards. I saw vestigial front porches on a few houses, but I don’t think people spend a lot of time sitting on them watching the cars go by and chatting with their neighbors, as they might in an archetypal small town like the one near me (Tyrone, PA).
The typical American home is becoming positively Arabic. In place of a courtyard or pergola we have the pressure-treated deck, but the spatial emphasis on a private walled garden (or lawn) inaccessible from the street is identical to what you’d find in old Damascus, from what I read.
Trees play a vital role in the modern exurban landscape. For one thing, they provide visual relief from the uniformity of lawns and fences. A small woods like the one at the end of this street can add several thousand dollars to the value of each adjoining lot. My cousins were more practical when they bought their house, though, realizing that the developer was making no promises about preserving any woods. They settled for a thin strip of pines in their backyard.
Trees are often signifiers of place, as well. Where small towns had Oak and Elm Streets, the suburbs have Maple Drives and Cherry Lanes. And it’s not uncommon for suburban subdivisions to bear names like The Pines, Park Forest Village, or Gray’s Woods.
Under the backyard pines, as in so many of the other yards that I could see into, my cousins put a playhouse for their kid. As a species, I think, we are drawn to the company of trees. The other thing fueling the spread of the suburbs, aside from our love of privacy, is our love of nature — or at least a certain vision of the bucolic. Natural habitat is disappearing not because we hate nature, but because we want to live in the middle of it. I include myself in that.
Front-yard trees are more for show. The cherries were in blossom when I visited in the middle of April, held for a couple of weeks by the unusually cold weather. For some, this might evoke New Jersey’s official nickname, the Garden State. But in fact that nickname dates back to when the sandy fields of South Jersey grew crops instead of houses. Before the invention of the refrigerated truck enabled California’s Central Valley to supply produce for the entire nation, New Jersey’s small farmers kept much of the northeast in fresh vegetables.
What will happen when the price of oil becomes too high to support the shipping of food across continents? At about the same time, if Peak Oil Theory predictions are correct, much of the suburbs will become uninhabitable, unless they are quickly reconfigured to put essential goods and services within walking distance of most residents, and unless the larger houses, increasingly expensive to heat and air-condition, are replaced with earth-sheltered, passive-solar structures. The big box stores will go out of business when their centralized supply chains collapse. So it doesn’t require any great stretch of the imagination to suppose that within our lifetimes, my cousins’ development — by then, if they’re lucky, a true town — may be ringed by farmers’ fields once again.
During the painful, forced transition to sustainability, most of the trees in these pictures will probably disappear, cut down for firewood. The lawns will be dug up for vegetable gardens. People will probably spend a lot more time outdoors, whether they want to or not, and will come together in ways we haven’t seen since at least the Second World War. The summers will be hotter and longer than anyone can remember. And because people will need plenty of shade in the absence of air conditioning, I predict they will lose no time in planting more trees.