The suburbs as an idea have taken a beating over the years. Which is ironic; in a society where sin and transgression have all but been eliminated from our cultural lexicon, we certainly haven’t eliminated the Ten Commandments, we’ve just altered them a bit.
Here are five that come to mind: 1) Thou shalt not hurt little children; 2) Thou shalt not poison the environment; 3) Believe whatever you want (as long as it doesn’t affect me); 4) Thou shalt worry and fuss about baby animals (but not about little human beings called fetuses); and of course: 5) Thou shalt not live in the suburbs.
Last time I posted on this subject, I made the point that density, proximity to work and employment, and dependence upon the automobile don’t by themselves make a place bad, or disadvantageous. They are factors of city, but not necessarily negative ones.
After all, high density can mean higher levels of crime. Lack of dependence upon cars can mean lack of individual mobility, which means fewer opportunities to see what life is like in other places. Working where you live could mean that your work options are fewer, and you may be stuck in one career that you don’t like: your set of choices are narrower, and more confining. That might tend to classism of a kind.
So the factors of city are, taken on this point of view, value neutral. It is more what you do with those factors.
I have been told that in the printing business, you can have it cheap, or you can have it fast, but you can’t have it both cheap and fast. If you choose the first factor (low cost) by definition you’re choosing the second factor (long production time). If you choose the second factor (short production time) you’ve already made a choice for the first factor (high cost).
So also the factors of city. When you choose to live without car, you choose both positive and negative things with that choice. If you’re normal, you’ll celebrate what’s positive about the place you live; and you work on the negative.
All this goes to show, I believe, that the city is not a place, but an idea.
Like being human, being city is what humans do.
We do cities. But we all do them differently.
Our cities look different: they are located in different places, they are populated by different people, who live in different kinds of homes, at different distances from one another, having different weaknesses (drugs, crime, apathy, indifference, isolation, etc.) and strengths (resources, kindness, affinity, distance to work, etc.).
What can’t be argued, I believe, is that these places are in fact cities.
Take my town, for example: Sewell, New Jersey, located in Gloucester County. Sewell is a city because Sewell is an idea comprised of at least three elements.
My Town: Old Sewell
As a first element, observe that Sewell is an unincorporated village that’s behind my house by about 3/4 a mile, through the woods and across the railroad tracks. I call it the village of Sewell, or simply Old Sewell.
Old Sewell has something like a downtown, with two or three housing areas surrounding it, a couple of little league ball fields, a town park, and a fire station. There is one church in Old Sewell.
Its downtown is small, and wouldn’t be recognized as a downtown by most people driving through. It includes a flooring company, a seafood caterer/restaurant, a hoagie and pizza shop, and a pasta maker. I think there’s also a daycare there and a zumba gym as well, but these are new businesses in the last year.
The village of Sewell also has an old train stop. Its not in good shape: leaning to one side, and boards falling out, it probably is home to a bunch of bats and raccoons. From the outside, it looks like it has been unused for forty or fifty years, which, if I’m right, almost coincides with the time when South Jersey had commuter train service running to Camden and Philadelphia.
But the tracks are still here, only they carry stuff, not people. The freight train runs through Sewell twice a day and goes from at least Camden to at least Glassboro; beyond that, I’m not sure where the train starts and stops. My best guess is that the train probably starts in either Trenton or Philly; and it may run south to Wilmington, DE, or Cape May, I don’t know.
As for refurbishing our train stop, the building itself has been for sale for at least five years, which is how long I’ve lived here. No one seems to want to buy it.
It seems like it would be a good investment, though, since there’s talk of a new train coming through Sewell someday, which would probably run on parallel tracks—a light rail train that would be like the River Line that runs from Camden to Trenton.
People in Sewell are worried about whether this would bring unsavory elements from the “city” to our town. A charitable read on that concern would interpret it thusly: “we don’t want people who sell drugs to our children to come in here.”
The problem with this mindset is that people are already selling drugs to our children, and they are our neighbors, who live in Sewell. Our kids don’t need a light rail train in order to get access to drugs. They have mom’s percs. and dad’s oxys.
But I digress.
The Sewell Post Office
What I haven’t mentioned so far about Sewell is that most people around Gloucester County, New Jersey, aren’t aware of these geographical realities. The reason is because the idea of Sewell is known more for its second element, namely, the Post Office.
Let me explain.
Washington Township is the largest population center in Gloucester County, approx. 75,000 people, and growing. But Wash. Twp. has no post office, and is comprised of at least four different zip codes. Why is this?
There are five (count ‘em) Washington Townships in the State of New Jersey (we in Jersey love our Revolutionary History) and as a result, there is fierce competition for the name.
Our Washington is apparently the oldest in the state, but someone else filed for a zip code “name” before we did, and so we lost the battle for the naming rights. We’re allowed to call our town Washington Twp., but we can’t send mail to Washington Twp. Make sense?
Instead, if you want to mail something to Washington Twp. you have to send it to one of four or five different names of little villages within the Township area.
Washington Township, in terms of the Post Office, has pulled postal codes, and post offices, from surrounding towns. That’s where Sewell comes in.
In this tiny little unincorporated village is a massive post office—and it is the biggest building in the village.
Ironically, while the municipality of Sewell has faded out of existence over time (it has no mayor, no school system, no police force, no garbage collection, no city hall, etc.) the Sewell post office has risen to prominence.
As a result, while I *actually* live in Sewell, Old Sewell, that is, most people who say they live in Sewell by the Post Office’s definition live in a different municipality, Washington Township.
My municipality—where my mayor lives, where my taxes get paid, etc.—is actually called Mantua Township.
So Sewell is a village (Old Sewell) and it is a post office (New Sewell, 08080).
In order for you to pause, catch your breath, and get your head wrapped around the pretzel-like twists and turns of New Jersey geograhpics, I’ll end here and pick up my Defense of the Suburbs in a final installment next time.