Living in the Suburbs Isn’t So Bad, Right?

Living in the Suburbs Isn’t So Bad, Right?

A newlywed who had always set her sights on the city learns to make peace with life in Tosa.

Growing up in the shadow of a 2.7 million-square-foot mall, 58 minutes outside Chicago by train, my only connection to the world of high-rises and highbrow culture was through the newspaper’s downtown events listings. I used to page through the weekend guides, circling author readings, concerts and gallery openings the way some people marked up issues of TV Guide. Someday, I promised myself, I would live in the big city. I would use public transit and order appetizers and listen to jazz and shield my bag from pickpockets. I would have more than just a shopping mall.

So you can imagine the centrifuge of emotions I felt when my spouse and I found ourselves shaking a Realtor’s hand in the doorway of a Wauwatosa ranch, about to purchase a home in the shadow of another prominent shopping mall.

I still hadn’t learned to love the suburbs by the time we signed the closing papers, but I put on a happy face and got to work stripping the jam-jar-print kitchen wallpaper.

My house in the ‘burbs came festooned in tinkling wind chimes. It’s outfitted with a pull-down attic staircase I’ve never climbed and a modest detached garage I’ve gotten quite good at backing into over the past six years. I have a second freezer in the basement and more than one “junk room.” My dusty wedding dress practically has its own closet. There’s no shortage of storage space in the suburbs.

Most people begrudgingly abandon the conveniences of city life when they have kids. Price per square foot is an important metric when you have Pack ’n Plays and changing tables to store. But my spouse and I never even got the chance to wave the proverbial white flag – we never lived in the city together in the first place. His school was located in the ’burbs, my job was, too, and we had a lot of Crate & Barrel gravy boats and wine decanters to store after our wedding. I had already traded Chicago for Milwaukee in the harsh light of logistical and financial realities. It was a short, steep and very slippery slope toward Wauwatosa after that.

Within a month of getting married and moving to the suburbs, I was invited to my first Tupperware party. It wasn’t so much a party as an unending parade of multi-functional plastic kitchen accoutrements, followed by a demo on how to bake a cake in a microwave. It ended with a Russian roulette-style game wherein the next host was chosen against her will. It was the most suburban thing I had ever participated in.

It seems chain stores and mom-and-pop shops might have already begun trading places while starving artists and empty nesters pass each other’s moving vans on the highway.

The alienation of marrying before most of my friends was compounded by the alienation of suburban living. All that extra space separated me from my (older) neighbors. And what would I have in common with them anyway? They talked of stroller turn radii while I was busy trying to figure out the boundaries of my takeout delivery app. Meanwhile, my friends in the city seemed to find my bulk charcoal and rock salt needs quaint.

So I began telling myself a different narrative. Having grown up in the Chicago exurbs, I reasoned that this Milwaukee suburb was actually a step up. If the “slow food movement” continued to gain traction, certainly slower lifestyles in general would follow. When the ’burbs inevitably became cool, I could humble-brag about having been a suburban pioneer.

On that last point, I wasn’t entirely incorrect.

I still remember asking an NYC friend for the lowdown on local coffee roasters in preparation for a visit to the Big Apple. “Starbucks is pretty much the only place that can afford rent in Manhattan,” he joked. And like the independent coffee roasters of yore, the young urban creative class has also begun moving to the suburbs in droves. I have personally spotted bearded millennials buying bulk quantities of pine nuts at Costco.

Experts have deemed this exodus “demographic inversion.” It seems chain stores and mom-and-pop shops might have already begun trading places while starving artists and empty nesters pass each other’s moving vans on the highway. I see more evidence every day: My house is actually within 4 miles of a pretty sweet beer garden, a Jamaican restaurant and two Instagram-baiting doughnut shops.

A cyclist crosses a bridge over the Menomonee River along the Oak Leaf Trail in Hoyt Park, in Wauwatosa; photo courtesy of Visit Milwaukee

While I was still elbows deep in a bucket of ceiling paint for my new house, The New York Times christened this phenomenon “hipsturbia.” If both those who create “authentic” culture – the independent bookstores and letterpress studios and fusion restaurants – and those who consume it – DINKs with excesses of both social capital and actual capital – are fleeing to the capacious suburbs, maybe I can just claim I attended that Tupperware party ironically.

But six years in, the rhetorical backflips I used to rationalize the choice of suburban living have dissipated as I’ve relaxed into the ease of it all. Every spring I rediscover the joy of reading a book on my front porch. And every winter I bask in the glow of my neighbors’ elaborate holiday light displays.

When I sleep with the windows open, I’m often awoken by industrious birds and the bucolic purr of my neighbor’s lawnmower instead of the groan of a kneeling bus or a street corner evangelist. I can jog through my neighborhood without playing a game of “WAIT … WAIT … WAIT” at every crosswalk. When I leave my bike outside overnight, it’s still there the next morning. And though the grass remains metaphorically greener in the city, it is literally greener in the suburbs, where homeowners diligently drop-spread their own Miracle Gro.

Today, my stance on housing is similar to my stance on marriage: I believe soul mates are part-found, part-made, and communities are what you put into them. I’ve learned to accept some aspects of my suburban lifestyle in the same way I accept the fact that my spouse leaves dirty dishes around the house. I haven’t been to a Tupperware party in about six years, but I have gone to many author readings, concerts and gallery openings. As it turns out, suburbanites are allowed back into the city every once in a while.

One afternoon, biking through Tosa Village, I joked that the scene was so idyllic, it would make a good advertisement to lure would-be residents. Families picnicked on the grass, friends played tennis, kids climbed playground equipment, accordion music drifted over from the nearby beer garden. It was almost too good to be true – but it was true. The suburbs had changed as much inside my mind as outside.

Maybe it’s the capitulation to convenience on this side of 30, maybe it’s the choice to embrace the pros and accept the cons, or maybe this lady doth protest too much. But when I parked my bike next to the garage that afternoon, I was happy to call this suburb home.

“Suburban Pastoral” appears in Milwaukee Weddings 2019.

Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.



Karisa Langlo is the Digital Editor for Milwaukee Magazine.