The Working Waterfront

My suburban homesick blues


Tom Groening
Posted 2020-09-29
Last Modified 2020-10-04

If political pundits are correct, the presidential campaign is going to be fought through the streets and cul de sacs of subdivisions and housing developments.

The outcome, observers assert, will hinge on what happens in the suburbs. It won’t be the first time this mid-20th century term will be waved as a signifier for a certain demographic with certain personal values.

Joe Biden wants to destroy the suburbs, Donald Trump says, with his housing and economic policies. Trump’s crude language and belligerent attacks on enemies will offend the “soccer moms” of those same neighborhoods, counter Biden’s advocates.

Setting aside the merits of each argument, let’s consider what’s meant by the term, and what place the idea behind it has on the Maine coast.

I grew up on the south shore of Long Island, N.Y., in the heart of what could only be described as the suburbs. Though my town was a mere 40 miles from Times Square, remarkably, most of its acreage had been farmland until the early-1950s.

The planned neighborhoods of single-family houses—and only single-family houses—filled the need for men returning from World War II, eager to start families. I am of the second wave of the baby boom, not among those who would soon “shake the windows and rattle the walls” in the late 1960s.

In theory, grassy yards, spacious homes, and safe streets for the kids to bicycle and play catch were idyllic compared to the crowded, noisy tenements of cities. But it wasn’t quite that simple.

Several years ago, I read a book called Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened, by Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen (2001). It’s not a great read—it’s like two doctoral theses were merged into one—but I learned that my childhood had been part of a grand experiment. Never before had people organized themselves in this way, living in such homogenous society, with shared values, similar economic status, and of the same age.

In many ways, the suburbs were isolating, particularly for the women, the stay-at-home mothers. Sources in the book attest to the loneliness, the difficulty in finding fulfilling and meaningful volunteer opportunities beyond what served the men and children.

The tenements may have been noisy and cramped, but there were benefits to having multiple generations of a family nearby, if not in the same building or even apartment.

And the suburbs were racist in design. After I moved to Maine, I learned of an African-American editor hired at Newsday—which I used to deliver in the neighborhood on my bike—who noticed that real estate agents wouldn’t show him and his wife houses in certain towns. One of those towns “red-lined,” as it became known, was my hometown.

The editor ended up winning a Pulitzer Prize for the stories he and reporters pursued on this shameful practice.

While residential neighborhoods have always been part of our New England villages, suburbs—which I define as towns without a discernable, walkable commercial center—have begun to take root in Southern Maine. A couple of years ago, I wrote about our inserting The Working Waterfront into the Press Herald for subscribers in certain “bedroom communities” around Portland, and a reader wrote to criticize my use of the term. She saw it, understandably, as denigrating and dismissive.

While I was with the Bangor Daily News, I wrote about two Camden-area men—brothers in law—who argued the region needed a new village. Not a housing development, but a village, with a central green space, and a small commercial district with apartments over stores and restaurants.

They even measured how far the fronts of houses were from the street on Camden’s Pearl Street, as lovely an example of 19th century residential as you could find. That distance would be the rule in their village.

Even though they had the land for their project, they never secured funding.

When our son was in middle school, he spent much of his free time in town with his buddies, rather than at our home in the woods. I got it. They could rent a video, eat pizza, visit the movie theater, hit the skate park, and generally bounce around downtown Belfast, easily and safely.

I think this is worth preserving, and to do so, may mean to be wary of suburban creep.

Tom Groening is editor of The Working Waterfront.