I wanna go home: a snivel for the 21st century

I grew up in the suburbs, in Marin County, CA, a suburb of San Francisco. In Mill Valley in the 60s and 70s, we had a downtown, with markets, taverns, restaurants, a 5-and-dime store, a hardware store, a great old deco movie theater. You could walk pretty much everywhere because we had these things called sidewalks. We had parks, a library, and there pretty much wasn't a street in town where I didn't know at least one or two people. A lot of the downtown businesses had people living above them, either renters or the owners of the ground-floor businesses. As a teenager, I hung out downtown with an almost religious dedication. It was a place to meet your friends, talk about other friends (and enemies), share poetry or lists of favorite songs, and watch boys. Oh, yeah. It was our central HQ, and from there we could spread out all over town, playing or getting in trouble. It was our After School Program, before such things were moved indoors and away from the "bad influences" like us.

I moved away to San Francisco in the early 80s, but by 1987 I had gone further north, to Sonoma County, and lived in several places before finally settling in Rohnert Park, which was close to the college I was attending (Sonoma State). Rohnert Park was my first experience with a suburb that was built as a place for people to sleep between commutes. It's not a place where you'd want to hang out. Everything is spread pretty far apart, and for the first time in my life, at the ripe old age of 28, I found myself forced to learn to drive and own a car. You simply could not exist without one. Rohnert Park had parks, walking paths, and a library. But there was no downtown, no mom-and-pop stores, no central gathering place. The megagoogleplex theater was across the freeway, the hardware store was Home Depot, and strict zoning laws firmly segregated business owners from their businesses. The town's center, if you could call it that, was a mall, ironically called the Raley's Town Center, named after the supermarket that anchored it. "Town Center" my ass. Nobody hung out there except surly little sparrows, pecking at french fries in the parking lot. Rohnert Park was truly the cliche of the "soulless suburb," and as far as I can tell, it still is.

I felt bad that, because of my circumstances, my daughter was missing what I had as a child. But after I finished college (as a single parent it took me ten long and bloody years), we moved north yet again, but not far, to Santa Rosa, a small city that is the hub of Sonoma County. My daughter was just about to transition from middle school to high school, so I figure I got her out of soullessville just in the nick of time. We both loved Santa Rosa, and she still lives there (she is now 25). It's a tiny city by most standards, but much larger than Mill Valley. It has a downtown, with shops and bars and restaurants and theaters. There are places for kids to congregate and get into trouble, which is good. They should at least have the choice. You can get around without a car if you have to, but these days it seems that not many people do. It has sidewalks and parks and a sense of history, something I was definitely missing in Rohnert Park.

In the fall of 2001 I found myself moving across the country to Bowie, Maryland, a suburb stuck about halfway between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Bowie was affordable (we bought our 4-bedroom Cape Cod style house on a quarter-acre lot for 165k, which is the price of a crappy parking garage in the Bay Area), but once again I found myself in a suburb that lacked a heart. Once again the center of the community is a shopping mall (the Bowie Town Centre, ha) surrounded by big box stores and little neighborhoods of houses that are all one of three basic designs: Cape Cod, Colonial, or Rambler. Each little "neighborhood" has streets that all start with the same letter (I am in the M section...Rohnert Park has this same peculiarity, but there I lived in the C-section and the D-section, both good for a few laughs from my punnier friends), but there are few sidewalks here. Rohnert Park was modeled on the suburb of Levittown, but Bowie tops that, having been actually designed and built by Mr. Levitt himself, who apparently thought sidewalks were too old-fashioned or reminded him of the awful time before there were cars. Walking is not encouraged, and even if one wanted to walk around, where would you go? The strip mall down the road? Yuck. A lot of people I know and love disparage the suburbs, but it's not Mill Valley they are talking about, it's Rohnert Park and Bowie.

Rohnert Park was pretty vigilant about discouraging "bad influences" and the fine art of Hanging Out, but Bowie has made it a freaking crusade. There isn't a single bar, pub, or tavern here. It's a dry town. You can't even buy liquor on Sundays, nor is alcohol of any kind available at the grocery store. Plenty of churches and golf courses, but I'm not religious and I don't play golf. There are no restaurants here that are not part of a chain. I am no longer within walking or even easy driving distance of Indian, Thai, or Mexican food (Chevys does not count!). If I want organic produce or a larger selection of groceries, we have to drive to Annapolis, MD, to get them. We have taken to driving around with a cooler in the car, so that on the long drive home, our groceries don't melt. I rarely leave the house now, because without a car, I simply have no place to go.

If I don't go batshit crazy before my husband retires (requiring him to just stick me in the nearest looney bin and be done with me), we will get the hell out of here eventually, and where we go there will be a vibrant downtown, with pubs and restaurants and access to ethnic foods and maybe some actual scenery to look at and enjoy. There will be parks and trails and beaches and people out in the street, enjoying themselves or maybe just hanging out. There will be gangs of bored teenagers draped over public benches and I will not resent them being there or fear for my safety. I will smile, and then I will head over to the used bookstore or maybe go get some Thai takeout. And I will be home again.

Darling B, that was a wonderful "snivel." I hear ya. Especially still living in RP the suburban wasteland. We all know I survive it by driving away from it a LOT. ;-)

I still remember fondly a town much like MV; the tiny little one attached to the air base in IL. Same old-fashioned downtown, five and dime, book shop, candy store, ratty old one-screen theater, funky German and Scandanavian and Greek restaurants (this WAS the midwest). We rode our bikes downtown when we were as young as 8 or 9, without fear, and hung out all day.

I miss it, too. ~T.
Small town life is the pits, dohlink. I hope you can visit the naked pueblo some day.
Dear B: I grew up in Tiburon, frequenting Mill Valley throughout the mid 50s-70s when I moved to Cotati. Always said Cotati ended where the sheep turned to asphalt. My oldest daughter was at RP Jr. High when I moved there and now she's a tenured English teacher at "The Ranch" (Rancho Cotate High), living in Sebastopol. My youngest has lived so many places in her 25 years I don't dare list them, but started in Cotati, and we spent several years in RP, which I came to love and wish I could get back to someday, although Cotati would be a first choice. I live in San Rafael now and wish I had stayed out of Marin as it epitomizes the phrase "You can never go home". Thanks for being out there, cc
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