I’ve been thinking about suburbs. It’s one of those words, and indeed concepts, that tends to slip away and lose its meaning the more you think about it. The word has its origins in ancient Rome – sub for lower, urbs for walled city, so the suburb was lower than the city, but that works because Rome was built on seven hills. The same doesn’t apply everywhere.
Dictionaries are only partially helpful. Merriam Webster tell us: a) an outlying part of a city or town, b) a smaller community adjacent to or within commuting distance of a city. Which only raises question of how we define outlying, adjacent and commuting distance. London’s Hampstead Garden Suburb, for instance, is only about 5 and a half miles from Marble Arch, which counts as pretty darn central by any London standard I know.
Of course suburbs get a lot of bad press for being too tame, too pleasant, too conformist, which of course is why a lot of people move there. I grew up in various suburbs in Sheffield, in England, and at the time I’m sure I thought they were evil and constricting, but in retrospect I think it may have been the life of a teenager, going to school, living at home with my parents, that was getting me down, rather than the suburb itself.
Equally, although I think of myself as an urban walker, a fair proportion of my walking has been done (depending on your definition) in suburbs. I definitely don’t hate the suburbs or suburban walking but obviously when you walk the there you don’t see much of people’s lives. Suburbanites tend to present a clean, orderly facade to the world, and what goes on behind it is anybody’s guess; though it can be fun guessing. See the novels John Updike, more or less passim.
And now I live in Los Angeles which by some accounts (though not all) is one of the most suburban cities in the world. Some people say that’s changing or at least that’s want they want to believe. The main evidence seems to be that developers are building stonking great developments in the middle of borderline suburban areas, (Hollywood is the place I know most about, but it’s happening all over the city). This extra density will allegedly make more people walk, and it may well do, in the sense that traffic around these developments may get so bad that using a car will become simply not viable.
Another possibility of course is that people will move out to more thoroughly suburban areas where they can again have their own house and plot of land, and actually use their cars. As for whether people actually walk any less in the suburbs than in cities, well I’m not sure, I’d like to see some research.
Before I lived in LA I lived in Brooklyn – where I (and everybody else) did a fair amount of walking. I certainly didn’t have a car. There seems to be some argument about whether Brooklyn is a suburb or not. Is it sub to the urb of Manhattan, or is it an urb in its own right? I have no dog in that fight, although if space, plots of land, and single-family homes are defining features of suburbia, much of Brooklyn comes up short.
In 2001 I was living in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, in an apartment at the top of a fifth floor walk-up. There was access to the flat roof, and although I went up there once in a while it was kind of scary – a low parapet and I wasn’t sure that the roof was actually very strong. You got a clear view of the twin towers from up there, but you could see them almost as well from our living room window.
One man we do who know spent some time on his Brooklyn roof is the composer William Basinski. He writes in the liner notes to his majestic Disintegration Loops. “On September 11th I was on my roof in Brooklyn, less than one nautical mile from the World Trade Center: our beacon, our compass … my nightlight.” On the previous day he’d created his masterwork while archiving loops of decaying magnetic tape, and he played the piece as the ruins of the towers burned, and he set up a borrowed video camera to film the rising smoke. The results can be seen on YouTube, though it’s a video that thoroughly shows the limitations of YouTube.
I never exactly thought of the twin tours as a beacon or compass. I found them hard to love, and I think most New Yorkers felt the same way until they became a symbol in their absence, but I certainly looked at them out of my window and every morning – although in certain weather conditions you couldn’t see them at all.
It would be some time before I, and the world, discovered Basinski and Disintegration Loops, before that work became the necessary, the required, in some ways the only musical response to that moment in New York history. But I do remember, after 9/11, wanting to listen to music and having trouble finding the “right” thing. I listened to Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” quite a lot.
The Concert for New York City at Madison Square Garden wasn’t much help. David Bowie sang Paul Simon’s America and that seemed good and appropriate, but Bon Jovi sang “Livin on a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead or Alive”, McCartney sang “Yesterday” and “Let It Be”; which were no doubt well-meaning – and of course very moving, we were all emotionally naked at the time. but somehow they missed the point. James Taylor, curiously enough, sang Goffin and King’s “Up On the Roof.”
Even if the organizers had heard of William Basinksi and Disintegration Loops, it seems unlikely they’d have thought that a work of heart-breaking serial minimalism was quite the thing for the crowd at Madison Square Garden.
Will it surprise you that William Basinksi now lives in Los Angeles? And if I have his address right (and I believe I do) it’s in the utterly suburban enclave of Mar Vista.
And so, like any good boulevardier, finding myself in Mar Vista, I went for a walk that took me past the great man’s house. I found it easily enough: a small, neat, bungalow, offering a pleasant, unexceptional face to the world. It didn’t have the kind of roof you could easily stand on. Who would guess that a major American artist lived here?
The sidewalk ran very close to the front of the house. Even without trespassing I got the clear impression that somebody was in the house. The front door was open, with a screen door in place. I could see there was a light on in the kitchen – it was actually a lava lamp – on a table right by the window. In fact the sidewalk was near enough to the house that I could hear voices inside, not “live” voices, but voices on a TV or radio, sounding a little distorted and repetitive. Could this have been a sampled and looped piece of sound art in the making? Nah, probably not.
I wasn’t intending to do much of anything. If I’d happened to see Basinksi sitting in his front garden, or getting in his car, or setting off on a walk, I’d surely have said hello – but I didn’t intend to ring his front door bell, and yet, egged on slightly by my faithful companion, that’s exactly what I did.
It was perhaps inevitably, and perhaps for the best, a non-event. The voices continued, nothing changed in the house, in fact nothing happened at all. And certainly nobody came to answer the door. I am not a postman, I only rang once, and then I went on my way.
Since then I’ve struggled to find much hard evidence that Basinksi is much of a walker – but I did find this in an interview with Andrew Parks on the Self-Titled magazine website, about first arriving in New York with his boyfriend James Elaine:
“We saved our money and moved there in 1980. We got there on April Fool’s Day, the first day of the legendary two-week transit strike… I remember the first day–we both had on new cowboy boots and skinny black jeans, just ready to take over the minute we got to Grand Central Station. God, we ended up walking all over town, and by the time we got home, we had such blisters. I think we went and bought some Converse tennis shoes the next day.”
|Mr B, looking as though he might well be in his cowboy boots and skinny jeans phase.|
Oh, and here’s a belated coda to the Basinksi/suburbia rumination. In an interview with the website 20jazzfunkgreats.co.uk he says,
“Some of my earliest memories are of living in a brand new 60’s era planned utopian subdivision near NASA, watching the black and white television broadcasts of the rockets going up. The wonder of men going to the moon! We moved to Florida around 1966 and Dad was working on the Lunar Module for a NASA contractor there. We watched the rockets go up from the beach, visited Cape Canaveral. Once the launched an unmanned rocket at night. We watched it from our yard. It began to go off course and had to be destroyed. The entire sky lit up orange! There were always sonic booms and once I saw the strangest anomaly in the sky…it was a bizarre cloud but looked like a colored oil slick one might see in a puddle on the street.”
I guess life in suburbia isn’t always boring.