Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Down in the City of Sighs and Tears

The past century has done some really weird things to our culture.  Since American culture in 1914 was already steaming full ahead to weird, this means that we're now a bunch of damned strange people.  I should probably forewarn you that this is a rant against the suburban ethos, so if you're one of those people who believes that your life only has quality because you live in a cul-de-sac, you should probably stop reading now.  Go eat at TGI Friday's (TM) and have a few mangochocosugartinis before you come back.

A century ago the vast majority of America's population lived in the sticks.  By "sticks," I do not mean places like Frederick County, Maryland--where I have lived, and which is mostly rural.  Frederick County had things like electricity and pavement, even in 1914.  It had one small city and several towns with main streets and brick houses and stuff.  I am talking about places that were a long, long way--like seventy miles--from anything resembling pavement.  Places where the only buildings at all for miles were your own house and barns.  Places where the only living things within thirty miles were either quadrupeds or your relatives. (In some cases, both.)

People in the sticks inherently mistrusted cities.  Popular music did not help; in the 1890s every other piece of sheet music was about some chick from the sticks (see what I did there?) who went to The Big City in search of adventure.  Though of course propriety wouldn't allow direct statements it allowed an awful lot of innuendo.  If you believed sheet music, every girl who ever left the country got knocked up within minutes of seeing Detroit/Philadelphia/Baltimore/New Orleans.  If I had that kind of luck I'd be visiting a new Big City every damn weekend, but these girls of course didn't know what to do and couldn't go home so they became hookers, or showed up at the Society Wedding of the guy who ruined them, or chastised other men.  There was a lot of chastising of men, too--reminding them of their sisters, mothers, sweethearts in Indiana, etc. While women were apparently getting it all over the place, it's a wonder any man ever got laid, with all those fallen women reminding him of his mom.

So it probably comes naturally that when people started to move into the cities, they still mistrusted them, which is probably part of the reason that for the last sixty years people have been trying to get out of cities again.  They still need the city--that whole job thing that made them move there in the first place--but they don't want to actually live in it, so the no-man's-land of suburbia came to pass.  And pass it did; it ran Reebok-shod over the countryside and sucked life out of the cities.

Invariably, suburbs think of their cities as scary, dangerous places.  In some cases this is true; there are plenty of city neighborhoods across the country that are very good places to get killed.  On the other hand, in the city someone will hear you scream (even if, a la poor Kitty Genovese, no one does anything about it).  In the country only the deer will hear you and they don't care that someone's going all Leatherface on you.  In the suburbs someone will hear you scream, but they will assume that you're a recent transplant from the city and that you're the one at fault, not the person murdering you.  The only thing a suburbanite will do is file a complaint with the neighborhood association.

Interestingly, suburbanites automatically fear any and all parts of every city.  I have been told, and quite authoritatively, that the Guilford section of Baltimore is a really bad neighborhood.  This is the area with zillion-dollar neo-Georgian houses; the land of croquet and gin-and-tonics.  But, you see, it's In The City so it has to be a bad neighborhood.  The same people think nothing of Lochearn, which is a pretty good place to get killed--but isn't inside city limits.

So, today, some of my students are en route to the Virginia Museum.  They are terrified because the Virginia Museum is in Richmond. It is, in fact, half a block from where I live.  As everyone knows, if it's inside city limits, it's in a bad neighborhood.

Clearly a bad neighborhood.

The really laughable aspect of this is that most of these kids are from really godawful neighborhoods in Chesterfield County.  One of them actually lives in the crumbling ruins of a 30s motel on Jeff Davis Highway.  But they're terrorized by the idea of going to The Boulevard.  

Weird things, people.  Weird things. 

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Thanks! Now, go get a drink, sit down and enjoy the show.