How I Ended Up In Suburbia

Posted: September 20, 2010 in Complete Streets, New Urbanism, Urban Design, Urban Lifestyle

One of the themes I enjoy writing about is the contrast between the walkable neighborhood I grew up in and the car dominated suburban neighborhood most people now call home.  But I have a confession to make first. I too abandoned my old walkable neighborhood for suburbia.

The first house my wife and I bought was a fixer upper  just a block from where I grew up, in  Edgewood, an old streetcar oriented neighborhood in Homewood, just “over the mountain” from Birmingham. Right where the bus used to stop when I was kid, it was about 1500 square feet on one level. Unlike most of the houses in the neighborhood that had been built in the twenties, this one was built in the forties. It had a spacious open floor plan with a separate master bedroom one end of the house and two other bedrooms and a second bath on the other end, with a large living area between. A large picture window and porch looked out in the pines that covered the front yard. Sited high up  on a hill, the main level was at ground level at the rear which is where the parking was. (On grade, no garage, off the service alley). There was a one car garage below the house, but you had to go outside to get to it, not unusual for houses in Edgewood but strange for a garage that was under the house.  There was a half basement under the house, but no internal stair down to it.

My wife and fixed it up nicely, refinishing the hardwood floors and restoring the  original solid brass door hardware, which actually had been recycled by the original owner/ builder from older homes from the turn of the century. Thus the home had a unique character and mix of 40’s modern with turn of century doors and hardware. We lived there for about 5 years, but after my daughter was born we started looking for a bigger place to raise her. The house had a very small back yard and a steep hill out front from which we feared she might fall down in to the street.

Naturally, we looked first in Homewood. We had a specific price range that we could afford to move up to, and we wanted a better yard, a neighborhood with more kids, and of course, a two car garage connected to the house. (even in the south, you get tired of scraping ice off your cold car in the winter before driving to work). Unfortunately, at the time, there were no houses for sale in Homewood in our price range. Our choice was between older homes which did not have the modern amenities were looking for (but were built of real materials with lost craftsmanship), or new homes that had modern amenities and space, built of cheaper modern materials but were way out of our price range . Then there were the old and large homes in the Hollywood section of town, some recently updated, but they were way out our price range. So we were forced to look elsewhere.

Unlike some of my fellow architect friends, we did not choose to suffer the inconveniences of living in a small old house needing constant repairs and high utility bills, in order to be in presence of high quality materials, workmanship and lots of character. I remember thinking, if a modern tract house was good enough for my clients, and I got more space and amenities for my money, and the schools were good,  it was good enough for me.  I could build that high quality home that architects dream of later, when my kids were grown and I had “made it”.

We finally found a nice new neighborhood being built on top of Shades Mountain, in suburban Hoover (with sidewalks). We were able to build a custom house that had all the modern features and space we could afford, (as well as that coveted two car attached garage). So, we made the move to suburban Hoover.

In many ways, this has been a nice place to live for my wife and I, with our cars and professional lifestyles, but in retrospect, I have some regret that my daughter grew up with out the benefits of living in a traditional town like Homewood, even if Homewood is not as ideal as it was when I was growing up. Since then, Homewood has built big sport complexes that are accessible only by car to support a growing soccer program, and the new parts of town are of typical suburban design, but at least had we stayed in Edgewood, she could have walked or biked to  school and the library and some shops of interest that still survive. We would have still done most of our shopping by car, as the neighborhood grocery stores all went out of business, victims of the larger more economically stocked big box grocers. But we still could have walked to local restaurants for dinner , or to church on nice fall Sunday mornings if we so choose.  The bus system is almost bankrupt and stopped running though all but one main road  thru Homewood, so driving to work is currently the only option now.

As for my daughter, before she was licensed, and recently, my elderly Mother in Law, who due to failing eyesight had to give up driving, life in suburbia meant always being dependent on others to get around.  The neighborhood full of kids mattered not if her best friends from school lived in other neighborhoods you could only drive to. That was not a problem for me when I was growing up. That freedom of mobility for our kids is what we gave up by moving to outer suburbia.

Do I regret it? No, not really. It was the right decision for us at the time based on what we knew then. We have been very comfortable here in many respects, and the schools were good. Has my daughter suffered by not having the freedom I had? That is debatable, but overall I think she has. To detail my thoughts on that will take another post, but I do think that had I known what I know now, we would not have done it. I would have remodeled the old house on the hill, or another near by.  Maybe I can someday build that dream house, perhaps to retire to…..in Homewood!

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