12 April 2010

Great Reader Email #1

Dear Mr. Blechman,

I just finished reading “Leisureville” and I’d like to thank you for writing such an intelligent and entertaining book. Your work reminds me of Joel Garreau’s “Edge City” insofar as it strains to describe a phenomenon in a balanced way while still making your own concerns quite clear. As much as I enjoy James Howard Kunstler’s rants, he’s never been accused of moderation, but that’s what makes him so endearing. There were also hints of Jane Jacobs' later works, "Systems of Survival" and "Dark Age Ahead". “Leisureville” closely resembles a geriatric version of Setha Low’s “Behind the Gates” (although I admit your writing style is a bit better). Ms. Low was primarily concerned with the social and political fragmentation and mistrust that inevitably results from the self-segregation of gated suburban enclaves.

As a young man I fled the suburbs of the Jersey shore and ultimately settled in San Francisco. A few weeks ago I returned to Toms River, New Jersey to visit my mother who now lives in Holiday City. I talked to her about how she likes her new living arrangement. She said it was a mixed bag. Safe. Clean. Affordable. Lonely. Dull. Restrictive. She confirmed all the stereotypes about sex-crazed neighbors and rule obsessed committees. I had lobbied very hard for her to come and live with me in California siting the cultural offerings and free accommodations, but she ultimately wanted to stay near my sisters and brother and all the grand kids in Jersey. She also wanted to live independently. Fair enough.

As an adolescent I had plenty of contact with the elderly residents of these ever-expanding adult communities. I did housekeeping and gardening chores for many retirees as a way to earn money for college (Rutgers ’96). I enjoy the company of old people so it was a good fit. And to be honest, the generation I was dealing with back then was more likable than the new crop of boomers. They were savers and planners. They had survived the Depression and war. They told stories of how they were smuggled out of Poland “just in time”, or described burning their dining room furniture one piece at a time to keep their Brooklyn tenement warm through the winter. These people didn’t need plastic surgery or granite counter tops. They appreciated the fact that they had good food, a tidy home in the country, and money in the bank at a time in life when their own parents had been destitute. Boomers? Not so much…

I have very few fond memories of my early years in the suburbs. My family was working class and just barely managed to stay afloat. The suburbs are predicated on the concept that if you can't afford your own detached home and private vehicle, you don't belong. Public transport is considered a form of communism. Suburbia is a pay-per-view environment: private country clubs, summer camp, dance lessons, music lessons. Even the beaches in New Jersey are privately owned and charge admission. We couldn't afford any of that. To save money for college I rode a bicycle everywhere and I can't tell you how many times as a young man I was pulled over by the police and questioned. I would ask what I had done wrong, and they would always say that riding a bicycle along the highway, especially after dark or in bad weather, was suspicious. The unspoken message was that only the poor and undesirables do that sort of thing, so they needed to see what was in my backpack. Books usually. They always seemed so befuddled and sent me on my way with a warning. Nerd. Guilty as charged...

I hadn’t been back to Toms River for fifteen years. (I preferred to pay for airline tickets so my mom could visit me in California instead). I was reminded why I left. When I was a kid, the small historic downtown of Toms River still had a working movie theater, a shoe store, restaurants, and a dress shop. All that fell away by the time I graduated high school as strip malls and chain stores chewed up the landscape outside of town. The only things that remained were the government buildings since Toms River was the county seat. Now, most of the old buildings aren’t even there anymore. Little by little they were removed as the roads were widened and parking lots were installed. Downtown is just another kind of mall now, this one devoted to municipal services. Two hundred years of history were paved over so commuters could get through town and make a right hand turn forty five seconds faster.

When I express my concerns about sprawl people often suggest that San Francisco is an anomaly and out of step with how most Americans want to live. After all, nothing like a compact mixed use city has been built anywhere in the country for a hundred years now. I respond by saying that a hundred years from now San Francisco will still be well populated and vibrant. I don’t think the same will be true of most cul de sacs and strip malls. Most of the suburbs will have become mulch by then.

Again, many thanks for your good work.

- John S

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