commentary (2006-49)

Reporting back from the periphery


by Matt Edens

Blamed for everything from obesity to our dependence on foreign oil, suburbia and its bashing have pretty much become clichés. It’s an old one, too, considering how many of Knoxville’s “urban” neighborhoods contain colonials and bungalows built when Babbit was a best seller. In the ever-advancing sprawl of America, today’s suburb just may be tomorrow’s inner city.

Now I like to make fun of McMansions as much as the next fellow. But I also recognize how stale many suburban stereotypes are. Minorities and immigrants are moving into the suburbs in increasing numbers (it is, after all, where the majority of Americans live) and you can find art and culture among the cul-de-sacs (such as the Atlanta Opera, which recently announced it was moving to suburban Cobb County). As to whether the suburbs lead to greater alienation and angst, let me anecdotally observe that, due to a complicated series of circumstances, my family spent this last Halloween trick-or-treating in the subdivision of a suburban friend who, contrary to all the criticism, knew far more of her neighbors than I do in my current urban neighborhood. Granted, we’ve only recently moved in, but she probably knew more of her immediate neighbors than we did previously in Parkridge, where we mostly hung out with people like us—college-educated, middle-class white folks who had moved into the neighborhood, drawn by the architecture and, ironically, the “diversity.”

Still, there are some things about the suburbs that simply must be mocked. I came across two last week. The first was an article about how some Farragut parents, after years of agitating about overcrowding at Farragut High, fear the new Hardin Valley high school will take too many students away. Be careful what you wish for, I suppose.

The worry is that, cut to some 1,500 students (compared to the current 2,200), the school could lose some of its current elective and advanced placement offerings. The concerns echo complaints about an earlier plan to ease Farragut’s overcrowding through less-costly rezonings, when the objection was that some of the courses and extracurricular activities available at Farragut weren’t offered at Karns.

Any parent wants his or her child to have access to the best education possible. I’m sure that’s why some of those parents ponied up for a house in Farragut in the first place. But I also know it’s not fair for some of those activities and programs to be available only for those fortunate enough to live in Farragut’s zone. The ongoing debate over Hardin Valley High is an excellent opportunity for the county to take a hard look at open enrollment.

The second suburban news item that drew my ire wasn’t so serious. Seems a Colorado homeowner has caused an uproar this Christmas season by hanging a peace sign-shaped wreath on her house, prompting anything but peace and goodwill from the president of the subdivision’s homeowners’ association. Apparently several people complained, figuring the wreath was a war protest or possibly a satanic symbol (who knew?). Either way, the homeowner has supposedly violated the subdivision’s deed covenants and, in the true spirit of the Christmas season, she could face a lawsuit or even a fine of as much as $1,000.

Such deed restrictions and covenants are commonplace in suburbia (running as long as 20 legal pages in some upscale West Knoxville developments). I don’t know that any specifically prohibit peace signs, but they can govern everything from what sort of mailbox you put up to where you park your pickup truck or boat. They are, by far, much more restrictive than any of the historic district guidelines that property rights-types love to grouse about. The Historic Zoning Commission can’t tell you what color you can or can’t paint your house, but I know several suburban homeowners’ associations whose rules specify what color Christmas lights you’re allowed to put up. So, before you trim your tree, you might want to consult your deed, or possibly your attorney.