Suburbs vs. the city 

We were in a trailer

We were in a trailer with Jeff and his J.C. Penney clothes and his cell phone and his top-sales plaques and his blue plastic binders full of floor plans. My wife, my toddler daughter, our unborn son and our Realtor sat alongside me on one side of a desk. Jeff sat on the other side, "crunching numbers" on his computer. Eventually, he "pulled up" a price we could agree on. Jeff even "plugged in" a free garage-door opener. Then we picked our lot - No. 96 at the opening of a cul-de-sac. We ceremoniously marked it on the model of the neighborhood with a green "reserved" sticker. Jeff clapped me on the back. Then he led us to the real lot, just a few hundred feet from the sales office trailer. This land was once a family farm full of corn or soybeans. Now, the once-fertile soil was pulverized into dust by heavy machines leveling it for streets, driveways and cement-slab foundations. A thicket of old-growth trees stood in the center of the land - a place always too low and damp for farmers to clear and plant. I asked Jeff if the subdivision people were leaving the trees. "Sure," he said. "Most of it will be a park." I stood in the middle of this lot bordered in back by a small creek and looked over at the interstate just north of there, to the sprawling consolidated high school just south, to the Super Wal-Mart off to the east, to the fading cornfields off to the west. I looked at my daughter, at my wife"s bulging belly. This house, with its four bedrooms, with its den for Dad to write in, with its 2,300 square feet of living space, had to be the best idea for our family. We"d be out of the dirty city. Our kids would attend shiny new schools. Everything was in driving distance. All we had to do was go to the company office to pick out carpet and bathroom tile, the color of exterior paint and roofing, the style of cabinet doors. Then drop off a deposit check to Jeff and get things rolling with the bank. A few weeks later, with our options chosen and our financing pre-approved, Jeff and I set a time to meet at the trailer. I left downtown early that afternoon to make sure I"d arrive in the suburbs on time. I didn"t know a tornado had just ripped through the city, snarling traffic on all sides. Still, using a series of side-road shortcuts, I made it to Jeff"s trailer at our appointed time. He wasn"t there. He wasn"t answering his cell phone. I looked around at the land again waiting a few minutes for Jeff to show up. Workers had cut down all of the trees Jeff said would stay as part of the park. Their huge trunks lay scattered in the dirt like Civil War corpses. I left feeling terrible about buying a house in the suburbs. Long an opponent of suburban sprawl for environmental and moral reasons, I suddenly realized this purchase would make me a hypocrite. I knew then and there: I can"t belong to the Sierra Club and live in a subdivision. The two aren"t compatible. I knew these neighborhoods pollute groundwater with construction runoff. All of the cement creates drainage problems. Vinyl siding is terrible for the environment. And morally, I don"t want to be part of an ugly tradition of white flight that keeps the metropolitan areas segregated and the inner-city struggling to overcome years of abandonment. I drove home and told my wife I didn"t want to build in the suburbs. She had been thinking the same thing. We called off the deal. My wife and I wanted, from the very beginning of our search for a first home, to live in an established inner-city neighborhood. We wanted to recycle a house, not be part of the terrible system of throwing away older, better homes in favor of cheaper, new construction. But, with two kids and a Dad who works from home, we thought we needed a larger house. In most of the city"s safer neighborhoods, three or four bedroom homes cost much more than the brand-new four-bedroom house we picked in the "burbs. On a writer"s pay, our choices downtown were limited to houses that needed a lot of work and houses that were too small. That"s why we checked into the subdivisions in the first place. That"s why we wound up in that trailer with Jeff and his charts and graphs. Thanks to the tornado and the extra time to think about doing what"s right, we turned our attention back to downtown. Eventually, we found a great house in our price range. But it was only 1,500 square feet and two bedrooms. This house was built in the 1840s and completely rehabbed by a non-profit community development group this year. We talked them into building a garage with a heated office for me on the second floor. Then we pushed and prodded our way into home ownership, finally moving in two weeks ago. Our Queen Anne-style cottage has a real front where you can sit and watch squirrels and wave to neighbors. We have poplar wood floors and red maple trees in the yard. This place is built solid as an oak. I stood in the cellar on the day we moved in and looked at the notches in the beams cut from Indiana hardwoods 150 years ago. A few years ago, this house was set for demolition, in part, because of people abandoning the heart of the city. Now, these hand-hewn beams and the yellow house above them belong to my family. I run my hand over the rough grain of the wood and know this is right.

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