Nish Weiseth


In defense of the suburbs.

Whether it was in Phoenix, Austin or Raleigh, I spent my years growing up in safe neighborhoods. The sidewalks were wide and well-lit, little kids were always outside in the front yard. Moms were, too. My mom would sit on the edge of the brick planters in our front yard with the other moms on the block - all of them pregnant at the same time, all of us older kids taking our skateboards and bikes down the hill into the cul-de-sac and back up.

When summer rolled around as we got a bit older, we'd throw on our swimsuits under our clothes, ask our parents for $5 in the morning after breakfast, hop on our bikes and hear our parents holler at us from the garage, "Hey, just be home by dinner, ok?" We'd leave around 9 or 10 in the morning, and not get home until 6 or so. This was before cell phones, before Facebook, and before GPS devices. We'd ride our bikes up around the corner to the grocery store to stock up on candy and Dr. Pepper, we'd take the hidden trails behind the houses still being built to visit the creepy cemetery in the woods that we were SURE nobody else knew about. We'd take all of our loot from the store and lay on someone's trampoline in the shade of big oak trees, talking about the scary movie our parent's wouldn't allow us to watch, but we saw it at a friends house after her parents went to bed and yep, it was as scary as we hoped. When it got too hot on the trampoline, we'd ride our bikes to the pool and cannonball into the deep end, play Marco Polo and drink more Dr. Pepper, using the change in our pockets at the soda machine. The cans only cost 25 cents and they came out ice cold every time. 

6:00 would roll around and we would clamber out of the pool, sopping wet with our skin wrinkled and the pads of our toes worn through from pushing off the bottom of the pool all day. We'd all agree to try to convince our parents to let us come night swimming after dinner and meet back here in a couple of hours. It never took much convincing, and after dinner, we were back on our bikes, hopping the gate and jumping in all over again. 

This was suburban life in the summer. Kids on bikes, parents outside socializing with each other, green grass and big backyards, trampolines and Dr. Peppers and our parents never really having to worry too much. Cars always drove slowly through the neighborhood, it was more of a village than a subdivision, with the moms poking their heads out of their front doors to yell at another mom's child for doing something stupid. We had a lot of moms and dads in some ways. We were free to ride around the boundaries of our white-picket-fence neighborhood without consequence. It was spread out, it was quiet and it was safe. 


Before moving to the home we live in now, Erik and I lived in a quiet neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. It was in the southwest part of the city, much more suburban than anywhere on the east side of town. There were gated communities, bigger houses for cheaper prices, strip malls and well-lit sidewalks. When we bought our Portland house, we thought we'd be there for a long time, that we would raise our kids there. The quiet and safe neighborhood was appealing because we knew at some point, children would be part of life and we wanted them to have the same fun and freedom that we had growing up. Living in that house, we saw kids across the street playing basketball on warm evenings, riding their bikes down the hill with plastic grocery store bags full of what I'm guessing was candy. Halloween was always a lively night with a non-stop stream of children ringing our doorbell. Our house was pretty and grey and had an attached two car garage. 

Five years after living in Portland, we decided to sell our nice suburban-style home, pack up all of our stuff and almost two-year old child and move to Salt Lake City. We bought a house here that's a quick 10 minute walk from the heart of downtown, Temple Square. We're on a busy street, with all the perks of metropolitan living. Great shopping, great food, great atmosphere. We turned our backs on the suburbs and decided to plant our family in the heart of the city. 

Now, Salt Lake isn't exactly like other cities in the US - I'll give you that. It's a safe city, as cities go. It's clean and beautiful, it's small with minimal traffic. If there was ever a city where you could raise small children and give them more freedom, Salt Lake is ideal. It's a REALLY nice place to live. 

But, it's also city life, and there are realities to living in a city, no matter which one it happens to be. There aren't neighborhood pools, the people on your block are college kids, young business folks, houses full of dudes who rock climb and ski, single parents, elderly folks, and everything in between, with a ton of ethnic diversity. (Let me be clear in saying that I LOVE THIS. I really, really do. I wouldn't live where I do if I didn't love it.) You don't get big back yards in the city, the houses are stacked together and everything is a grid. People keep to themselves. There are very few winding roads with big front yards. Kids on bikes are rarely seen, but you do see adults commuting to work and home on bikes all the time on the city-approved bike lane on the major thoroughfares. Cars drive fast, and the hustle & bustle of city life isn't the safest for young kids. 

In the suburbs, particularly in subdivisions, you get more families with their 2.5 kids and the dad who works a 9-5. It's a bit cookie-cutter and predictable. It's got its strip malls and chain restaurants, good schools and better playgrounds. It's got the well-lit sidewalks and the neighborhood pools. 

It's spread out, it's quiet, it's safe.

In my generation, people are skipping the suburban lives and goals of our parents and choosing to move to more urban areas. Gentrification of cities is on the rise, and a lot of this is due to the 30-somethings who are moving up the ranks of the business class wanting to live in more urban environments, rather than on the outskirts of the cities, in suburbs. 

Urban is the new suburban. 

Out of all my friends that are my age with kids, very, very few live in suburbia. Almost all of them live in more urban areas of Austin, Portland, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Nashville and New York. It's a dynamic shift from the generations that came before us. 

Church planting is more active in urban areas than suburbs now, too - with so many Christians devoting their time and energy to social justice issues, it makes sense that the focus would shift more to metropolitan areas of cities, where the populations of homeless, immigrant and refugee people groups are much higher. 

We've traded the suburban sprawl for the urban city life. When I say "we," I mean the collective, and also just our family. When we moved to Salt Lake City, it was to be a part of a church community being planted in the heart of the urban center.

When we first moved here, I was full of urban fervor. The city life was something I never experienced as a kid growing up in the suburbs. The city was for the guys wearing suits that worked at banks. But now, the cities are teeming with good restaurants and small-batch coffee. Breweries and wine bars, indie concert venues and houses converted into pubs. It's rare that we drive, because when you live in the city, you walk everywhere. When I take my kids for long walks in the stroller, we cruise downhill into the shadows of skyscrapers. When I go for a run, I jog past guys in suits and small boutique shops and Starbucks. Sometimes, I don't even bother to wear headphones because the sounds of the city can keep you entertained and keep you company. 

I love walking the three city blocks down the road to get a latte. I love the downtown street festival in my city neighborhood every September. I love hauling the kids to the city Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings, at the park that sits surrounded by old warehouse structures converted into small businesses.

I love living in the city and I love this city. 

But, I'll be honest. I look back on my time growing up in the suburbs and feel pangs of desire. Maybe it's just a serious case of nostalgia. Whatever it is, I'd be lying if I said a part of me didn't want that for my kids. Like I said, I have a handful of friends who live in suburbia and their children's childhood is already looking drastically different than that of my own kids. Not better, necessarily. Just different. It looks a lot like how I grew up - giving their kids $5 in the morning and telling them to be home by dinner time as the parents watch them and their pack of friends pedal away on their bikes, or kids gathering with a bunch of candy and soda on the neighbor's trampoline after a morning at the pool. 

It's not better. It's just different. But there's something about it thats beautiful in its own right. People my age are quick to turn their nose up at the suburbs, declare it the "old" way of living, declare it boring and cookie-cutter, what with its Olive Gardens and Red Robins. 

I guess I just want to remind those folks that there was something really beautiful about growing up under the safety of street lamps and big back yards and slow speed limits. It may not be the life we choose to live, but it's the life that many people choose, and with good reason.

Now having two kids of my own and my oldest wanting to ride his bike everywhere, I get it. 

It's days like these that I miss the well-lit sidewalks.