In leaving Chicago and the cramped cities of the East Coast, I have found myself in the modern comfort of middle America. A quaint little suburb of Omaha, Nebraska, Papillion represents one of many microcosms scattered across the vast interior of the country.
Through pouring rain and logjam traffic, I make my way into this picturesque suburbia to find the expected sprawling housing developments of the modern American ideal. I pass neighborhoods with names like Shadow Lake, Spring Creek, and Arbor Ridge neatly divided by wide, winding roadways and well-timed traffic lights. Far enough from the interstate to forget the connection to the rest of the country, yet close enough to be practical, Papillion fits the bill for the detached suburb to which wealthy and middle class Americans can retreat after the forced interpersonal interaction of employment in their respective Midwestern city. Lawns are large and green, and every home has a deck from which happy parents of a nuclear family can watch their two and half kids play with Fido in the expansive backyard. The wintery cold and steady drizzle from overcast skies brings a somber mood to the neighborhood, but the lights from inside the homes are warm and inviting.
Still on his commute from the local Air Force base, my host, JB, has instructed me to use the backdoor to get in. His home is sparsely furnished and remains very clean. I let out the dog and settle on the apparently brand new leather sofa. With only an occasional whir of traffic on the nearby thoroughfare and the hum of the refrigerator, the house is quiet.
The evening remains equally so. Aside from the unnecessarily complicated adventure to the local Super Target for groceries with which my kind host would make a delicious dinner, my night was wholly devoid of excitement. As it is day four of this journey, the silence is welcomed. In the non-activity, I begin to think about what could be done if I were much more restless this evening. On the drive, I saw a smattering of chain restaurants in clean little strip malls, but the rest of the city was quite dark. Papillion exists for a purpose, and providing entertainment to youthful visitors is not it.
At the end of 2013, Money Magazine rated Papillion the #8 best city in America to live in. With a population just under 20,000, the town boasts a growing job market and an easy 15-minute commute to Omaha. Miles of trails and a AAA baseball team give the active some forms of entertainment. High median income, low home prices, and almost non-existent crime make this cozy little town attractive to anyone raising a family.
Also attractive to those of middle America are incredibly low racial diversity and extremely high rates of college educated, married neighbors. After recently finding the beauty in the ubiquitous interconnectedness of the city, I have begun to find fault in the isolated suburban social construction. Although it is the environment in which I was raised, it somehow feels uncomfortable now. It feels all too artificial.
In light of the most recent incident of racial tension, I will briefly jump to an important related issue. Let’s first get out of the way the fact that America is a nation built upon racist ideology. The idea of race-based slavery is built into our constitution. Let’s not pretend that this problem is going to go away in a just a few generations. I will state for the record that I believe the vast majority of Americans are not overtly racist, but I believe that almost all of them are blind to the racism that pervades our social institutions. One such institution is that of urban development. With the boom of the automobile and the GI Bill assistance provided to soldiers returning from the second World War, millions of Americans could afford to leave the city for the quiet comfort of the suburbs. A coincidental phenomenon of this time was the racial segregation still upheld by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Because of the subjugation of the largest minority group at the time, access to these suburbs was almost exclusively restricted to the white majority. As upper-class white families moved out of the city centers, they took funding for their local schools with them. With low-income black students at poorly funded schools in the inner cities and high-income white students at well funded schools in the suburbs (among a myriad of other similar factors), a perpetuating cycle of segregation entrenched itself in the American social construct. It should be intuitively obvious (but there is data to support it) that school funding has a direct impact on the upward social mobility of youth. Although success stories of poor minority kids growing up to become powerful executives or heads of state exist, they remain the exception to the rule. Creation of suburbs like Papillion perpetuates this trend, and it requires no malicious intent on the part of the developers, the city planners, or the residents. It is simply a product of the established social system.
I will save the ethical debate for later, but the fact remains that suburbia is racist. It has its homey way of being comfortable to its residents. It is generally safe (because low-income, would-be criminals are stuck in the city centers), it offers top notch schools (because those with the money to move to suburbia can support municipal taxes for these schools), and there is often an excess of open green space (the benefit of being far from the city). If you are looking to raise a family and you don’t mind commuting, the suburbs make a wonderful option.
However, we young, unattached, adventurous souls find the sprawl remiss of the intercultural mix, the pedestrian freedom, and chic dining and shopping that we crave. Purely as a personal preference, I see myself avoiding the suburbs for the near future. If/when this wanderlust subsides, I may find myself back here among the homogenous, static culture, but that’s too far over my horizon for now.
Glad to have a place to sleep. I’ll be home at evenfall tomorrow.