I came to Allerton in the Bronx by accident. But as soon as I arrived, I felt strangely at home. In some ways, it’s very different from suburban east London, where I’m from. But having been here since June, I’m seeing more and more similarities.
A lot’s been written about suburbia, a subject that fascinates me, partly because I’m from it. There’s something about its in-betweenness and deliberate de-identification that seems almost radical in these hyper-identity days.
I recall being at a party, over-hearing someone trying to explain to a new acquaintance where he lived. As he struggled to locate his home on someone else’s mental map, I knew immediately that he came from the same area as me – and he did!
One key characteristic of that place is its mundanity. It’s changed a bit over the years, but essentially, it’s dull – and I think that’s part of the reason why my parents and others chose to live there, although the main one, then as now, was that they could afford to.
My mum (a teacher) and dad (a bus driver) approximately fit the socio-economic profile of Allerton, where incomes are above the Bronx average, but with a strong sense of people holding on tight to avoid slipping down the ladder.
The comfort of living in one place is laced with a dread of living in another, probably the one from which an earlier generation “escaped”. As my family had moved from the East End, so many in the Bronx came from the Lower East Side or Harlem.
This mood is famously captured by Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” (1927) who says “Mama darling, if I’m a success in this show, well, we’re going to move from here. Oh yes, we’re move up in to Bronx. A lot of nice green grass up there...”
Amazing that this paean to suburbia were among the first words heard on film, but they hold an enduing truth.
Like my home area, I’ve had difficulty explaining to people here where I live, such is Allerton’s anonymity. Like the borough I’m from, it was a key destination on the post-war diaspora of first/second generation Jewish immigrants. Housing is generally for single families and of conservative design. Cultural and social facilities are limited. Near here, there’s a particular tree and car-lined road, with homes set back from the pavement, that always reminds me of the road where I lived (see below). Although here and the place I was brought-up could both be described as “comfortable”, each is very close to places that are not, almost like a constant warning.
But the suburbs have changed since US and UK cities began turning themselves inside out. What was once aspirational has become enforced. The places many working class suburbanites moved from are unaffordable to their children. Tiresome urban cool has made suburban ordinary more appealing, particularly as monochrome whiteness has been replaced with ethno-diversity, although this has also meant more poverty in suburbia.
Now we stand at a peculiar crossroads between the urban and suburban. It’s still too early to say how cities will be affected by the pandemic because it isn’t over yet. Part of the original suburban impulse was to escape disease, but we’re in a different time and place now. Marching through midtown Manhattan yesterday, with New Yorkers demanding (and it looks like winning) an extension of the eviction moratorium, the city still feels like it’s half closed. I’ve spoken to one person inside the property development industry who says it just wants to pretend COVID never happened and time-travel back to January 2020. That’s wishful thinking. Anything could happen. One of them is that we take this opportunity to re-think cities and break-down false, status and ideology driven geographic barriers so that where you live stops being seen as a definition of who you are.