Walking Suburbia

We arrived in Durham, North Carolina early yesterday morning, after fourteen odd hours of driving through the night, and spent the rest of the day napping or otherwise recuperating. At some point in the afternoon, we took the kids and went for a short walk to the local shopping centre, a matter of five or ten minutes each way. The neighbourhood looked like an average suburban neighbourhood, very like some of the neighbourhoods in my own town, immaculately manicured and perhaps more than normally treed. Despite the familiar landscape, however, I felt oddly uneasy, as if there was something unnatural about the whole scene.

We reached the shopping centre, picking up the few things that we needed, and the feeling of strangeness passed, but it returned the moment that we began to walk back to the place where we were staying. I found myself watching a group of four maintanence workers trimming and edging the lawns, blowing the cuttings from the sidewalks and the roads, when I suddenly realized the source of my unease: except for those workers, we were the only people actually occupying the landscape. We had seen not a single pedestrian during the ten minutes to the store and only paid workers during the ten minutes back.

I actually shivered. The very things that I had been talking about in more abstract terms a few days earlier had suddenly become enacted for me, and the effect was unnerving. There was literally no neighbourhood, no welcome, no hospitality, no encounter. It was not that the people were unfriendly or unwelcoming. In fact, my experience of North Carolina is quite the opposite, that the people are most often very hospitable. It was just that there was no opportunity for hospitality, because there was no opportunity for encounter.  We were literally alone in the landscape, removed from the hundreds of people around us by the walls of houses and cars and social roles.

The rest of the day proceeded in much the same way. I spent several hours reading a book on the front step, from which I could see forty or fifty townhomes, and saw only three other people, all leaving their houses just long enough to enter their cars. I spent part of the evening talking with my family in the backyard, which is open to all the other backyards in the same row, and saw not another soul. I felt, for the first time in reality, the same feeling of emptiness that I have often felt in artistic expressions of emptiness as diverse as Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and Stephen King’s The Stand.

Perhaps it seems extreme to compare the emptiness of a suburban neighbourhood to an emptiness that is the result of a holocaust or an apocalypse, whether real or imagined, but to me the comparison is not entirely unjustified. There was a sense in that depopulated suburban landscape, at least to me, that something catastrophic and unnatural had occurred, that an unprecedented disaster had overtaken the relations that should form a community. What was must disturbing, however, was the realization that this disaster is not localized, that it has overtaken communal relations on so general a scale that it now appears as the normal social mode to many people. In my mind this is in fact a communal apocalypse. It is a social holocaust.

  1. It’s funny: living in the country, and surrounded by woods, I feel this same way when I come into the city and there are no animals. Wildlife is not something I go to the zoo to experience, it is part of my normal day. However, in the city, it simply doesn’t exist.

  2. TC said:

    Just last week my son and I were interstate on holiday. We caught a bus to a random destination for the fun of it. The destination on the front of the bus said Bribie Island, so we thought we might see the ocean, or at least have the sense of being on an island.
    Instead the bus continued on through the narrow winding streets of a huge new housing estate, during which we not only felt car(bus)sick but had a continual sense of deja-vu (didn’t we just see that house, that corner?).
    My son (9) commented that he didn’t like the suburbs because no body walks around.
    We live in a small country town which is actually very busy on the street I realised when he made this comment.
    You’re right, it is the opportunity for those collisions of all sorts which we don’t encounter that are so strikingly absent.
    Where is everyone?
    But what do you mean by ‘social holocaust’?

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