For a number of years Maggie and I lived in Chicago’s suburbs. On our evening walk from the parsonage we would pass beautiful old homes and newer McMansions that gobbled up most of their available lots. In contrast to our current city neighborhood those walks were notable for how few people we saw; life was lived at work, school, or deep within the recess of those beautiful homes. Suburbia was a new experience for me and endlessly perplexing. Not that I somehow existed above or outside of it – we experienced significant relationships and rhythms of life – but the strong appeal of the suburban life still remains a mystery to me.
Of course, there is no such thing as “the suburban life” and this became clear the longer we lived there. Suburbia’s cracks first became visible when we lived in an apartment across the railroad tracks from the Christian graduate school I was attending. Our neighbors in this as-cheap-as-it-gets complex didn’t fit the suburban profile: borderline homeless; single, working mother; drug addict. These were friendly people who occasionally came to church with us, but they understood their barely visible place within the suburban hierarchy. Life with our neighbors was interrupted by the occasional dramatic moment – a fist punched through a window, an ambulance summoned for an overdose – but most of the time we were all occupied with the mundane things of work and family. I came to see though, that many of our neighbors lived with the real possibility of falling from suburbia’s ledge.
Later Maggie would work with a social services agency whose building was located within a concentration of low-income apartment buildings. Though by then we’d lived in the area for five years, often passing within a stone’s throw of the apartments, I’d been ignorant of their presence. It was as if these buildings and their residents had been purposely hidden so as to not disrupt suburbia’s narrative of prosperity and comfort.
Even later a friend who knew the area far better than I ever would tell me stories of what went on in many of the perfectly-kept homes of our neighbors. Behind the imposing doors, in the beautifully finished basements- these were the scenes of excess, abuse, neglect.
When we think of the location for violence it isn’t the suburbs but the city that fills our imaginations. Yet suburbia is hardly immune from violence, whether the physical type that plagued our apartment neighbors, the violence done to family stability by hidden pockets of poverty that are isolated from necessary resources, or the violence covered over and made to seem harmless by an excess of money.