Tuesday, May 19, 2015

DC vs Suburbs

It's been a year and a half since we moved out of our condo in DC to the suburbs of Maryland. We were in DC for three years and loved it, but moved in with my parents when Jason's job required some long term travel. So there we were, in the same house I spent my high school and college years, living in my old room.

The first few weeks after moving, with Jason gone, it was a little surreal to be driving the same routes in the same car as I did in my high school/ college days.  It was like a time warp had erased the eight years after college.  I always felt like I should be listening to Blink-182 or early 2000's rock since it felt like I had regressed back to those days. The changes all seemed hard, and it was disorienting to be back at home, yet living a life so different from last time I was there. It's amazing how fast we acclimated though, compared to how agonizing the first month seemed. Now the 15 minutes we have to spend in the car to get anywhere seem standard. The hour plus commute is part of normal life. And the quirks of being so close to family are far outweighed by the fun.

After we moved a few people asked if we missed DC (yes!), but when they asked why, I had a harder time answering. Less commuting time, for sure. Long commutes equal death according to some studies (ok, that's my paraphrase), but that not actually what I missed most. So I started thinking about the differences between the city and the suburbs, and what I actually missed.

I most miss the walkability. We lived in a spot in DC with great walking access to all sorts of stores, restaurants, the library, parks, and public transit. Even though driving to the grocery store takes the same ten minutes as it did to walk there, something about not driving made it seem so much easier. I will admit, I'm not really a good or patient driver, and burning calories instead of gas is so much more appealing to me. I get that not everyone likes so much walking or even can, like if you've got kids. But evening walks through Adams Morgan became a habit for us especially in summer. There was always something new to see: construction progress, people watching, scoping out the next date night spot. Walks through our current neighborhood aren't as dynamic, but the bridge over the creek behind my parent's house is actually very scenic, and we've traded our walks for chats on the back deck.

The walkability and plethora of so much packed in a few square miles really had this effect of shrinking my world. When everything is in biking distance, there's not much reason to go farther. We left the confines of the city pretty regularly to visit family, and for our church in Arlington, but man, even going to another quadrant of the city seemed like a trek. Like you may as well drive to Massachusetts. One time I suggested driving to the nearness pool (maybe a 20 minute ordeal once you account for parking), and Jason literally said, "If we have to drive, we may as well go to the beach." That's how much of a mental hump it was to get in the car - driving 20 minutes was equally as painful as driving three hours. I should have suggested driving to get lobster rolls because then maybe we would have gone to Maine.

Speaking of transportation, I brought my habit of honking liberally back to Maryland with me. I just feel like more of a jerk about it because it seems like I'm the only one honking when traffic rules are not obeyed. I actually feel like it would be easier to honk so much if we still had DC plates on the car cause then people could be all, "Oh, she's from DC. So of course she is impatient and in a hurry." If I honk with my mom in the car, she locks the doors because she thinks the person I honk at will attack me in a road rage. (She also locks the doors when driving by the prison off the highway in case a loose convict carjacks her at 60 mph.)

I miss the grocery options. Within a mile of our house were 2 Yes! Organic Markets, a Whole Foods, and two farmer's markets (during summer). The organic section at my current Giant is pretty measly in comparison - plus I can't walk there. I will say though, in the burbs, we have better access to Costco and ethnic (specifically Asian) grocery stores. They were in DC, but we never went. Without designated parking, I usually walked, and since the Asian grocery was far enough away that I had to pass two or three other grocery options on the way, going that far never made sense, especially when it meant carrying things back...remember what I said about our world "shrinking?" There's a good example. When I have to drive to anywhere in the burbs, the extra mile or two matters a lot less.

It's not really that I hate driving, I just hate traffic, bad drivers, and parking lots. (Have you been to the Costco parking lot on the weekend? Case in point!)

This is probably a tic mark against DC, but I never knew what drugs smelled like until living there. I think it was simply because I wasn't around so many people before, topped with a scoop of naïveté and friends who followed the rules, but there you have it. I suppose now at least I know what various shops in Colorado are peddling by the smell.

I miss being a mile from Rock Creek Park. Marathon training was a whole lot easier when you have miles and miles of trails through the woods, along the Potomac, and past scenic memorials. The funny thing is, we've done runs on the Maryland part of the same trail, but the 15 minute drive to get there is a huge mental hurdle. The other funny thing is, I only used it maybe once a month on average, but I liked the option. I think it is like the "healthy" options at McDonald's. Of course everyone gets the fries, but complains if the healthy option isn't there.

So now that I've made myself sound like an entitled yuppie, let me tell you what's been great about the suburbs. We can get packages delivered to our house. No more notes from Fed-Ex that they couldn't get into the building, fear of stolen packages, or returned items that we were never home to accept. We also don't need to walk two blocks to drop off out going mail.

Without a bunch of buildings crammed into each city block, I've been able to see sunsets better. Granted, I'm usually seeing them from the train or the car, so it could be the extra time spent just sitting, rather than the change of topography, that gives me the opportunity to see more sunsets. Either way, stopping to appreciate the beauty of nature is something I want to do more.

I suppose it will depend on your routine (ie: whether you have kids who meltdown at bedtime) as to which is better, but I have noticed that the busy time for dinner in suburbia is closer to 6, whereas in DC it was more like 7-8.  "Lucky" for us, we spend over two hours a day commuting, so when you also have to drive to the restaurant, we still don't make it until closer to 8 anyways, but now don't often have to worry about the dinner rush.

Another thing I've had to laugh about is that despite living in close proximity to dozens of people in our DC condo building, we only knew the name of one of our neighbors. I mean, we shared a wall with people with whom our most personal interaction was a half-hearted wave. I think the "unfriendliness" had less to do with population density and more due to a culture of mutually ignoring other people.  Everyone is busy, on their phones, already has friends, or - the biggest risk of befriending a neighbor- they might actually need something from you. It was quite a contrast when we moved back into my parents' house, where walking down the street makes you feel like Jesus on Palm Sunday. Seriously, there is one lady whose name I don't know because my sister and I have always called her "the waving lady." I have never seen anyone go that much out of her way to wave to passing cars.  Even other suburban friends would comment on how many people waved as they enter the neighborhood. Never got to be in a parade? It's pretty much the same as driving down my parent's street.

Of course there are obvious differences - more biking, politics, and crime in DC versus cheaper drinks more strip malls, and huge lawns in the 'burbs - but my list is more about the things that affect my day-to-day life that I appreciate in each place.

So now a year and a half later, I do still miss the city, and I do still get frustrated at all the driving, but the last year has given us a chance to figure out our long-ish term plan. The final advantage of the suburbs for us personally, is that we have family there.  Plus it is the only place with somewhat close to public transportation that we can afford more than 1000sq ft and that didn’t have schools that were still “in transition” for future consideration. So yup, that meant buying a house in the suburbs. In the very town my parents live now. We close in about two months. I have a lot of feelings about the new place, which definitely deserves its own post. But there you have it.  Goodbye to carrying crock pots on the metro, Presidential motorcades blocking traffic, and contradictory road signs.  Goodbye to night time bike rides on the Mall, to the restaurant where the waitress knows us as the couple that orders three entrees, and goodbye to the ability to spontaneously go to a Nat's game.  Hello chain restaurants, SUVS on paved roads, and giant parking lots.  Hello to being close enough to see family (well, at least half is better than none) on a whim, a garage to store bikes in, and outdoor space for a grill.  Cue Ben Folds - "Rockin' the Suburbs" - yeah, from 2001.