Photo: by the author in San Marcos, TX - December, 2009
I've often thought that I would prefer not to spend my whole life living in one place, or even one region. Well, I spent a summer in Los Angeles once, so I guess that is guaranteed never to be the case. However, I am beginning to see the emergence of a possibility that I might reside in the same region for the rest of my life, but that it might even be a palatable option considering the abundant positives of the area in which I currently live. This scenario could also include leaving for a couple of years and returning thereafter.
There are significant conditions on that previous statement. Certain places reflect who I am and what I like in a place far more than most others. South Austin, especially closer into the center of the city, and San Marcos are on the short list of areas where I think I'd be content to base the rest of my residential life. I certainly have my misgivings about the State of Texas as a whole, although I have far fewer of them when it comes to Central Texas and the Hill Country (and sometimes the familiarity of Central Texas compels me to daydream of living somewhere else). But, within any region, it's important to me that I live in a neighborhood who's layout and culture reflect the ideas that I consider important in an urban-social structure.
This distinction is important not just to myself, but to a growing number of people in my generation (follow the title link for more on this). For decades, the "American Dream" has been about things such as owning a house and a car for every driving member of the family...and that house is out in the suburbs, away from the noise and trouble of the big city where the public schools are good and violent crime is ostensibly low. Or, even, it's out in the county on a patch of land at the end of a road where you're not forced to interact with people outside of work, home, or the social gatherings of one's choosing. Previously, even rural dwellers would have these uncontrolled interactions when they took trips into town to shop, but the growth of information technology has allowed even most shopping to be done online, removing even more uninitiated social interactions.
But, that's not what I want. I may not be the most outgoing person around people who aren't already my friends, but there is a significant difference in my temperament when I'm in a place where there are lots of people and activity within distances that don't require car travel, than I am when I'm isolated from such community in a suburban or rural environment (both are the same to me as both require extensive car travel just to perform basic consumer and social functions). While many take comfort (whether they like to admit it or not) in living in a place that is dominated by their own ethnicity, I find myself wanting to be in places that to me "look like America", which means they are diverse and you might, God forbid, hear languages other than English spoken while walking down the street. Places where upper-middle class and working class people live in the same neighborhoods, shop at the same grocery stores, pass each other on the same sidewalks. Such places afford people a better quality of life than they'd enjoy in that economic status in a suburban or rural area. In the case of wealthier people, I feel it prevents the warped empathy-destroying perspective that is formed when they and their children grow up in homogeneous suburban fortresses. In the case of the working-class, they feel more included in their community, they are far less likely to be victims of violent crime than in segregated ghettos and they are able to more cheaply and effectively take advantage of services because they are able to reach more of them (through mass transit, cycling or walking) without the expensive suburban-rural necessity of car ownership. For wealthier individuals, the ability to do things without having to use the car every time has unquestioned benifits in terms of overall health, weight and potentially psychologically as well. I know that livable, walkable neighborhoods in the middle of towns and cities may not be for everyone, or may not be best enjoyed by everyone, but I think far more people would enjoy them than is realized by the economic and regulatory forces that have pushed suburbanization and exurbanization (the area beyond the suburbs from which people still largely commute to work in a city) would like us to believe.
I didn't realize the kind of place I most thrive in until I actually got to live in one after enrolling at Texas State University-San Marcos. I remember the thrill of realizing I could actually walk to things that were interesting...and later on realized the benefits of living in a neighborhood where getting around on foot or by bicycle was not only an option, but it was actually preferable and more enjoyable than driving. When I returned to San Marcos for graduate school, I didn't consider any apartment that was not within walking distance of campus, the town square and a supermarket (which actually leaves a lot of options still in place in that town). Now, it's important for me to mention here that I enjoy driving, probably more than someone with my views and inclinations should. It's a lot of fun to me, but being forced to drive makes the whole undertaking a lot less enjoyable to me. We talk a lot about "freedom" in the United States, but how much freedom can we really have when we are fully reliant on expensive and dangerous (not to mention environmentally taxing) machines in order to go about our daily lives. People should always have the option to drive, I'd be a hypocrite to suggest otherwise, but we should also have the freedom to be free of car-dependence.
If you have never considered that before, spend some time thinking about it. Then, take a drive (on second thought, make it a bike trip or a good long walk) around the 78704 (near-south Austin) or 78666 (San Marcos) zip codes and consider the community and social resources that we've collectively lost during the rush to fall in love with the suburbs.