In my last post, I commented about the eastside of Suisun City needing a retail area to develop its walkability. It’s an observation I’ve made previously. But this time I thought about the proximity of the available site to the middle school serving Suisun City and measured that opportunity against my own youth. What the introspection showed me is that we should be building a world that could be a training ground for our children as they learn how to be adults, but we’re not doing it.
Like many of my generation, I mostly grew up in drivable suburbia. But there were times when my world brushed against the outer fringe of urbanism. One of those times was in the spring of my eighth grade year.
My family lived in a conventional subdivision, perhaps six to eight lots per acre. Good, solid middle class homes. I attended an intermediate school about a mile away. Most days, now to my chagrin, I got a ride to school. The ride was mostly unavoidable. I played the baritone horn (yup, band nerd), which wasn’t easy or safe to transport by bicycle.
But there were still days when I walked home after school, perhaps because passing on horn practice for the evening. On those days, I often walked with a trio of friends, Marty, Phil, and Bucky. (I seem to have grown up in Mayberry.)
Between the school and home was a standard-issue 1960s strip mall, with a grocery store, drugstore, hardware store, and a smattering of restaurants and other businesses. That mall was a magnet for our post-school walk.
We cut through a walnut orchard to reach the back fence of the mall. Knowing where there were broken boards, we slipped through the fence into the loading dock area and circled around to the storefronts.
Our first stop was always the barbershop to see if a classmate was getting a haircut. This was 1967, so getting a haircut would be a sign that our classmate had lost a battle of will with his parents. Peering through the front glass at the classmate with the sheet around his neck was our way of assuring him that we knew of his humiliation.
Next, we stopped in a liquor store for bottles of Pommac, a Swedish soft drink that had a brief spell of popularity in the 1960s. I suspect that Pommac’s market, at least among eighth graders, was due solely to its beer-like flavor, amber color, and foamy head. I doubt that any of us truly enjoyed the flavor, beer requiring a period of tastebud education, but we enjoyed the feeling of walking through a public place swigging from bottles of foamy, amber beverages.
Moving on, we crossed an intersection of busy four-lane streets and then cut through another walnut orchard. Marty claimed to have once found a cache of Playboy magazines in the orchard. He reported that he’d carefully tucked his find into the hollow beneath one of the trees, but several diligent searches never found the tree.
And with that, we were home, walking down tree-lined streets to our middle-class single-family homes.
As adventures go, our walks were mild. But they were learning experiences. And in retrospect, they were valuable to the process of growing up.
In “Happy City”, author Charles Montgomery reports on the work of University of Wisconsin psychologist Carol Ryff, who rejects the idea that a cow contentedly chewing its cud in the middle of a green pasture is a valid model for human happiness. Instead, she argues that happiness comes from “the feeling that you are able to make the most of your abilities in life.”
To give more definition to the concept, Ryff lists six items that lead to happiness. Two of them are “Environmental mastery – your ability to navigate and thrive in the world” and “Feelings of autonomy and independence”.
Sure enough, our eighth grade ambles were teaching us both of those. We weren’t just delaying the evening’s homework, we were learning how to be happy adults and better people.
Some may ask “If youthful adventures can be found in the interstices of suburbia, is the need for youthful learning experiences a valid basis to argue for urbanism?”
To which I can only describe what has happened to the route I described above. The orchard through which we cut to reach the back fence of the shopping center is now more housing.
The orchard that held the reported stash of Playboys is now an auto-centric business park.
The intersection of four-lane streets that we crossed is now an intersection of six-lane streets.
And if a group of eighth graders were to cross one of those six-lane streets carrying bottles of foamy, amber beverages, a call to Child Protective Services would likely soon follow.
I was lucky enough to have my youth before suburbia had reached its full childhood-suppressing bloom. I feel sorry for the children who can’t have the type of experiences I did. And I suspect that we’re impeding their chances of having fulfilling adult lives.
Now, does anyone know where I can find a bottle of Pommac? After all these years of tastebud education, I suspect I’d actually enjoy Pommac for its flavor, not just for the temporary sense of adulthood it offered.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (firstname.lastname@example.org)