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Yes, You Can Be Creative in the Suburbs


(Photo by Brittany Hadfield/TueNight)

Everybody knows the suburbs kill creativity. At eighteen when I was running away from them, I absolutely knew it to be the truth.

When I first moved to the suburbs, I was twelve. For months, the whole family headed out after supper once or twice a week to watch a bare lot transform into a concrete basement, then a skeleton of wood, then a house with rooms and windows. It was built exactly like the model, only with all of my mother’s specifications. She chose dark green sculpted carpet and gold-threaded linoleum and green appliances, all the rage in the seventies.

All through the spring, we peered through the windows, marveled at the shutters and the enormous, dead-empty backyard. The anticipation was nearly unbearable.

We moved in June, right after school let out. In our old house, my sister and I shared a tiny room at the back of the house, barely large enough for our full-size bed and the dresser we shared. In the new house, I had a room of my own. My sisters were next door in their slightly larger blue room. We even shared our own bathroom.

It was a cookie-cutter landscape. I knew the layout of every other house in the area and which tiles and carpets (shag for most) they’d have. Ours was a modest subdivision, filled with first-time homebuyers who qualified for mortgages under a government program. Our neighbors were sergeants in the army and cocktail waitresses married to lumber salesmen and soldiers of all sorts. No one had told me, budding artist and writer, that living in a subdivision would kill my creativity. That first summer, I wrote an entire novel in a spiral notebook with pastel pages.

And then my hippie uncle, six years older than I, so handsome my friends died for him, snickered at the place. “Square,” he pronounced.

And once he said it, I realized I was marooned. Despite my love of the actual house, there wasn’t much to do. In the old neighborhood, big trees lined a creek we were strictly forbidden to visit. I rode my bike everywhere: over to the 7-Eleven to buy penny candies, down to the forbidden creek, up and down dirt hills we dared ourselves to conquer.

[pullquote]The older the better. I loved big windows, tall baseboards, vast bathtubs. Who cared about a shower?[/pullquote]

The new neighborhood was raw-cut lots and houses-in-progress. Even my junior high school had not quite been finished, so the pool of possible friendships was pathetic. I endured the company of the girl behind us, fish-pale and nervous, only because her mother was an Avon lady and gave her all the lipstick samples to play with.

Within a couple of years, I’d set my sights entirely on escaping the suburbs — the death of all things creative, I sneered, the end game of those who’d given up. I vowed I would do whatever it took to escape and find a neighborhood where I could become the writer and artist I intended to be, eccentric, free of the bounds of square green lawns and cookie-cutter houses all in a row.

I kept my promise, moving out three days after my 18th birthday to a quirky old apartment in the center of town, and that was the pattern for decades — the older the better. I loved big windows, tall baseboards, vast bathtubs. Who cared about a shower?

When I married and began to have children, my handy husband and I rescued an ancient house in a marginal neighborhood. It had been built in 1904, and it showed — the brickwork was crumbling, the wiring was a disaster, the plaster was falling off the ceilings in chunks and not a single double-hung window was the same size as any other.

But it sat on a lot amid a dozen giant old elms and the stubs of what had once been rose bushes. Light poured through those windows in great swaths, and I saw myself planting a garden, finding out what else might be lingering beneath the bare dirt of the lot. Maybe daffodils amid the roses, I thought.

We gutted the house. Because I was a writer and he was a construction worker, it took a long, long time. We tackled the worst of the damage before we moved in, tearing out bad plaster and replacing it with sheetrock, rewiring the whole house and adding some new plumbing (the bare minimum), but for years we lived in a construction zone.

My children grew up in that old house, beneath the elms. Turned out there were dozens of roses and asparagus and tulips left beneath the dirt — I only had to water. We had backyard barbecues, and the children ran in a pack of boys all year round, bound by 5th avenue and West Street, corralled into a safe zone where they could ride their bikes and probably hear if a mother yelled.

When they were nearly grown, their father and I divorced. The house with its unending demands for expensive and complicated repairs was too much for me without my ex’s construction skills. In truth, gentrification wasn’t working — the neighborhood was going downhill, and it was less and less appealing to live there on my own. I decided to return to my hometown, sustaining myself through the divorce madness with a vision of myself in an eccentric little rental with a garden of old irises and poppies with lots of arty friends nearby.

Then I met a guy. We fell in love. He invited me to live with him.

In a subdivision.

Not only a subdivision, but the least hip neighborhood in the entire city, only a few miles from the house I lived in as a teen. It would embarrass me to tell people I was moving there, where my neighbors would be military officers and conservative Christians employed by the plethora of religious organizations housed at the north end of the city.

But, oh, that house!

After so many years with sewage issues thanks to ancient clay pipes, the reliable plumbing itself would have sold me, but there was more: a kitchen with enough counter space for my cooking habit, a spare bedroom so visitors wouldn’t have to sleep on the couch. The yard boasted a couple of giant Ponderosa pines, home to doves and squirrels.

I loved him. I loved the house. I’d figure out the rest. I moved.

Funny. In the twelve years that I’ve lived here, not only has my creativity not stalled, it has thrived. The boring back lawn has been transformed into a giant flower and vegetable garden. I keep a greenhouse for peas and walk for literally miles every day through the parkways that I could — if I were so inclined — follow all the way to that house I lived in long ago.

It’s true that I could tell you the layout of all the other houses on my street, but after thirty years, the fruit trees and cottonwoods have grown massive. It’s populated with foxes and rabbits, falcons and blue jays. A cottonwood along my dog-walking loop is home to a pair of red-tail hawks.

What I’ve learned, however, is that the houses are still cookie cutter, but the people who live in them are not. What a woman artist needs is space and peace and time to create–and in this tidy, calm world, that’s what I’ve found.

My father still teases me about my youthful declarations, and I know some my creative friends find my choice a bit odd. But here in this tidy, planned neighborhood, I’ve written a dozen novels, aspired to Sissinghurst garden status, learned to paint watercolors, walked dozens and dozens of miles every week. It isn’t the death of creativity at all, at least for me.

Art is born where the artist lives, and so much the better if the plumbing functions properly.

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Barbara Samuel

Barbara Samuel is a journalist turned novelist who has written eleven novels of women's fiction, including bestsellers The Lost Recipe for Happiness and Target Club Pick How to Bake a Perfect Life. She lives in Colorado with her partner, a British endurance athlete and a small zoo of cats and dogs. You can find her on Twitter at @barbaraoneal.

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