Like most Italians, I grew up in a small (very small) apartment. Therefore, I would find it natural and pleasant to live in a small studio loft in the bustle and hustle of a city. Unfortunately, I live in a medium-sized college town in the middle of Missouri, where the rent for a 900sq renovated loft in the downtown area is as much as an apartment in Chicago in such cool neighborhoods as Bucktown or Andersonville (read: small town insanity). True Chicagoans don’t want to live downtown – it’s for tourists, they say. So, why would I want to live downtown in a college town, where the weekend’s soundtrack is likely to be students barfing?
When I moved to Missouri in 2008, the first area I searched for a house to buy was the town’s ‘historical neighborhood’ – part of it also known as the ‘professors’ ghetto.’ While students scream and puke downtown, their professors, with a renowned good taste for beauty and history, write their indispensable books in their adobes just a mile away, in the ‘old Southwest’. Beautiful houses out there, I agree. But these expensive, large houses are not an option for a single woman who’s going to buy her first home.
A taste of the historical ‘old Southwest’ in a mid-Missouri town: brick sidings, red doors, a brick road
The smaller houses, if affordable, need so much renovation and restoration that would take me a lifetime to complete the project (and lot of anger with unskilled contractors). Because in the US, ‘historical’ is often synonym with ‘decrepit’. They also tend to be dark. Instead, I like high ceilings, big windows, and plenty of sunlight flowing into my rooms. Like the house I bought. Which is five miles from downtown. On a nice bike trail.
Five miles from downtown in Rome, or even a smaller city like Bologna, Italy, you’re still downtown. Five miles from downtown in my native town in Italia, 60,000 inhabitants, you’re in the countryside.
In my mid-Missouri town, 100,000 people plus over 30,000 students, these five miles may be far enough to locate my house ‘in the suburbs’. What a ‘foreign’ concept to an Italian! The Italian periferie, the peripheral areas of Italian cities, are not desirable. My Missourian friends should be familiar with the Pruitt–Igoe housing project in Saint-Louis (if not, watch this documentary, http://www.pruitt-igoe.com). It’s not different from the (in)famous Le vele, Scampia, Naples, the location of the international acclaimed film by Matteo Garrone Gomorrah (2008) – which, for the joy of all cinéphiles, is now also available from the Criterion Collection. These periferie are no one’s dream. If you move farther from the urban outskirts of an Italian city, you’re likely to be in another town, a smaller town close to the city. Which is just another town. Not the sprawl that characterizes urban areas in the United States, with the dormitory-type of environment that ‘suburbia’ is. I’ve never understood why so many Americans aspire to be suburbanites.
In my neighborhood ‘five miles from downtown’, there are sidewalks. I can bike downtown in 20 minutes. There is a good elementary school. I can bike to a supermarket. The houses are all different in shapes, colors, and architecture. A house a couple of streets down from mine has a clothesline in the backyard (almost like an Italian house!). It wouldn’t seem suburbia.
Then I read this: http://team-suzanne.blogspot.com/2011/09/you-call-it-suburban-tasteful-i-call-it.html. So … I’m in the suburbs … Almost. Well, not really. My neighbors do use the most infernal, detestable of modern machines: the leaf blower. Their driveways are not full of debris – like mine. Their yards do not have carpets of dry leaves until March – like mine has. Yet, they do let weeds grow above ground and moles roam freely below ground. It doesn’t seem they use fertilizers. Some have small cars – like I do. Several have cats that live outside. There are even kids playing on the street. I’m sure, however, my neighbors do not ‘harvest’ and eat their weeds.J Yes, dandelions are edible (the leaves, not the flowers). You can use them in salads or sauté them with garlic and olive oil: it’s the closest thing to cicoria I’ve found in the United States. I pick them from my front yard: organic, wild dandelions!
Then, what is this hybrid place where I live, five miles from downtown? Né carne né pesce (literary, neither meat nor fish), neither fish nor fowl. I’m an Italian though, and for Italian standards, in a city, those 5 miles that separate me from the ‘cool’ life in the ‘cool’ area of town are just another angle of downtown. Because, after all, isn’t it living together with all the other ‘cool’ people just another side of conformism? Italians are not the most open-minded people on this planet, but we do not define personalities and lifestyles based on where your dwelling is located. Americans do. Suburban life: consumerism, uniformity, stupidity. Downtown: alternative, creative, liberal. This must be the reason why so many hype types approve of ‘gentrification’ – an architectural form of class war.
I don’t like conformity. I don’t like labels. What is ‘normal’, after all? For the suburbanites, their golf-club type of yard is the norm. For the average American, being in debts is ‘normal’ (which it’s definitely not from my European viewpoint). I don’t have any rights to judge ‘normality’. But I can try to make a difference, and I won’t if I live among equals. I doubt my neighbors will replace their leaf blower with my broom, but it is likely that my reel mower will be noticed here and not so much where also others may own one (and use it). Showing them that ‘useless’ flowers or bushes may be replaced with edible plants and herbs in your garden without messing up with the aesthetic of your landscape, who knows, may give them ideas. Most people who live in the nearby of downtown in this mid-Missouri town already have those ideas – many progressive, semi-hippies, intellectual, alternative folks. And let me say it: snooty, or, like Italian would say, con la puzza sotto il naso, with stink below their nose, just because they live 3 miles closer to downtown than I do.
Perspective changes perception. Five miles apart in urban geography may change who we are. Or how much we clean our houses, according to the blog that has just caused me an identity crisis, because it seems that houses in the burbs are much cleaner than ‘other’ houses. Another American paradox that does not apply to Italian lifestyle: all our houses are generally clean. The difference must be in those expensive vacuum cleaners and antibacterial soaps and toxic detergents that Americans love to use. Phew, for a sec I was afraid that my non-cluttered house would conform too much to suburban life. Although my house does look clean and neat, I do not clean that often: I simply don’t mess it up too much. I do not use regular detergents, do not vacuum floors (use a broom), do not change the sheets every week, and, the horror the horror, I may not even shower every day. If I ‘stink’, I may be a little closer to those downtowners with la puzza sotto il naso.
‘Five miles from downtown’ in my Italian town would locate me in the countryside. I think I’m comfortable with being in the country, which is so well placed that with a 20-minute bike ride I can reach downtown (which I’m going to do right now). Wouldn’t any New Yorker be happy to have a 20-minute bike commute? So, after all, I can imagine I’m in the city, with my high, strangely shaped ceilings that make my house look so urban and contemporary … just five miles away from ‘the next whiskey bar’ …