»  National Review

March 22, 1999

  The Vital Middle


My reaction on reading the Vice President's January 11th press release ("Building Livable Communities for the 21st Century") was: I shall give up my lawn mower when they prise it from my cold dead fingers.

I confess I did not get more than half-way through the thing: two full pages of unrelieved Fedsperanto is more than anyone should be asked to take on a full stomach. "Coordinated reinvestment in existing infrastructure" … "alternative transportation" … "fostering" … "nurturing" … The gist of it, through all the wretched drivelling cant of bureaucratized "compassion" — Ella Wheeler Wilcox meets V.I. Lenin — was clear enough, though. The Government People want to take over my suburb. They want me to apply for an Endangered Species Act waiver before I kill a garden slug. They want me to pay twelve dollars for a screwdriver at some poky Commerce Department-approved Mom and Pop store, instead of four dollars at my beloved Home Depot. They want me to ride a bus.

This I take personally. I spent a long time getting to my sixth of an acre of suburbia. Raised in a public housing project on the edge of an English country town, I was eighteen before I even saw a suburb. That was Ealing in west London, where I had lodgings in my student days. It was an hour's commute from my college — lodgings are scarce in London, and you have to take what you can get. Other than my landlady, I knew nobody at all there. With no money and no acquaintances, my main recreation was walking the quiet, leafy streets, exploring the small parks and shopping areas, wondering at the spacious tranquillity of it all. Ealing has stayed in my mind as the ur-suburb, the Eden from which I was exiled for many years to take up a rootless and entirely non-suburban life in foreign parts.

Ealing was, as it happens, celebrated by the great poet of English suburbia, John Betjeman. I do not think Betjeman is much read over here; and this state of affairs is probably irremediable, as he is an very English writer, intimately attentive to England's speech, society and landscape. (The standard edition of Betjeman's Collected Poems contains an index of place-names five full pages long.) When a fellow poet who had taken himself off to the countryside in search of peace complained about the distractions of country life — motor-bikes, farm machinery, low-flying planes — Betjeman penned a sweetly ironic poem beginning:

Return, return to Ealing,
Worn poet of the farm!
Regain your boyhood feeling
Of uninvaded calm!

Betjeman's suburbs were upper-middle class: mock-Tudor mansions at the end of gravelled driveways lined with rhododendron and euonymus. I am not sure how he would have reacted to the democratization of suburbia, a process now more or less complete, at least in the U.S. Reading down my own Long Island street, which is as suburban as you please, I find: a radio announcer, the widow of an aircraft engineer, a journeyman printer, a small-company executive, a fellow who lays floors (he did an excellent job on our kitchen), a schoolteacher, a self-employed landscaper, a research scientist … The median here is upper-lower-middle class, family incomes I suppose in the highish five figures. The path of evolution from Betjeman's stockbrokers and retired colonels has been continuous, though, and the fundamental quality he identified — "uninvaded calm" — has remained invariant.

"Uninvaded calm"! For the first four years of our marriage my wife and I lived in a studio apartment on Manhattan's East 46th Street, a location so central that our post office was the one in Grand Central Station. While never actually invaded — our doors sported the usual array of chains, peepholes and quadruple mortice bolts — we did have homeless people camped on the stoop late at night; and a very senior mafioso was rather abruptly "retired" one evening coming out of Sparks steak-house a few doors down. The only real calm we enjoyed was in the early morning hours, when the monstrous extractor fans of the restaurants on the first floor below us were shut off. Though mighty convenient, the place was desperately small; my wife used to say that if she wanted to put anything down, she had to pick up something else first. After looking at the prospects of raising children in Manhattan on a modest income, we moved to the suburbs.

I asked my wife — who, previous to joining me in East 46th Street, had lived all her life in mainland China, in barracks and apartment blocks — to compare her impressions of city and suburban living here in America. After a few moments' thought, she expressed herself in one of those clipped antitheses that come naturally to the Chinese language, but translate so clumsily: "In the city physical distance between people is small, social distance large. Out here the physical distance is larger, the social distance much less."

That has been our experience, however much at variance with the Sesame Street mythology of close-knit city neighborhoods and the contrapuntal theme of suburban anomie propagated by novelists like Cheever and Updike and movies like The Graduate and The Ice Storm. For us, as for millions of ordinary Americans, suburban life is the height of felicity, not to be improved by the Vice President and his hare-brained "initiatives." To adapt the defiant speech of Elizabeth the First at the approach of the Spanish Armada: We think foul scorn that Clinton or Gore, or any prince of Washington, should dare to invade the borders of our realm.