The Book Club

Tree Theory


Your last entry gives me a perfect excuse to try out my Tree Theory on you. The theory is that many of our perceptions about the quality of life in a neighborhood are really based on the tree count. Imagine in your head the blandest, most banal subdivision in outer suburbia, full of identical split-levels and paved all over with asphalt. Then imagine it with long corridors of big, leafy elm trees on every block. I think your impression would suddenly be that this is a pretty nice, welcoming place. You wouldn’t be able to put your finger on just why you liked it, but you’d come away thinking it would be OK to live there.

There actually is such a place, in Elmhurst, in the suburbs of Chicago. There’s a neighborhood called Emery Manor that was a sort of Midwestern Levittown, little ranch houses built on slabs in the early 1950s. People said they were hideous when they went up. But 45 years later, Emery Manor is full of mature trees, and you’d be amazed what a difference it makes.

I mention all this for the purpose of mostly agreeing with you. We make judgments about the culture of a place from the look of it. Ray Suarez does this: Suburbs are plagued by eroded community and atrophied social relations. People don’t get to know each other in Scottsdale the way they did in Bensonhurst. Et cetera.

I think it’s more complicated than that. Suarez is right to focus on community as the crucial issue, but community doesn’t depend entirely on the setting. Much of suburban America in the 1950s and 1960s had a tightly knit feeling of community, with block parties and backyard volleyball games and everybody belonging to the PTA–even if they hated the PTA. What mattered wasn’t the design or location of the subdivisions, it was the predominance of the one-career household. Where somebody in the family is home raising kids, there’s a chance to build relationships that disappears when all the adults on the block are working full time. That’s not a matter of city vs. suburb, it’s mostly a matter of economics.

But there’s one issue on which I’m definitely a Suarezian, and that’s the culpability of the automobile. If you think about the Leave It to Beaver families of the early suburban years, most of them had one car. Ward drove it to work every morning, and June had to get around on foot. So there had to be places she could walk to, and there were such places–grocery stores, lunch counters, beauty parlors–where it was possible to meet and gossip and commiserate in the course of the average day. People can make relationships with each other in the ugliest suburb ever built, but they need to be out of their cars, walking around and able to see each other. To re-create community the way Suarez would like it, we don’t have to repeal suburbia or the Sunbelt. We probably do have to break free from the car culture.

One more thought about old neighborhoods and the myths that exist around them. Ray Suarez was raised on the same block where his mother grew up, and I appreciate the importance of that, and wish I had had the chance to experience it. But if you’re looking for stability of that sort, you’re much more likely to find it in small, homogeneous towns (such as Tracy Kidder’s Northampton) than in ethnic neighborhoods of big cities. The typical ethnic family in Chicago spent the early years of this century in a tenement Back of the Yards or on the near West Side, moved to a bungalow a little further out sometime after World War II, and then to the suburbs maybe in the ‘60s. All of these may have been nurturing places in their way, but there was nothing very permanent about them. It was pretty rare for more than one generation to be brought up on the same street.

I like old neighborhoods a whole lot. It just seems to me the best thing to do now is try to recapture some of their strengths in the places where we happen to live at the moment–whatever those places might look like.

Private memo to Ray Suarez: Please don’t confuse the two of us. It’s Easterbrook that doesn’t like your book. I’m much nicer and would make an ideal guest on your show.