In Defence of Suburbia

A suburban dweller re-imagines her bearings in a COVID-world.

Lockdown in Melbourne has defined the boundaries of my existence to the confines of my quiet suburb. It has been a slightly jarring adjustment. Just over six months ago, I was gallivanting across the fashionable streets of Europe for the first time, going as far as RyanAir, EasyJet, FlixBus and my feet could take me. I lived in a small flat in Cannaregio, Venice with Dutch, German and Italian housemates in my first experience of student living; only a lulling grand canal away from dreamy purple-hued sunsets reflected in calm waters. I think I miss the waltz-like transience the most. The rousing flutter that gently beats against the memory when the present moment is about to become submerged in new colours and the kaleidoscope of experience. Being away from home has inadvertently altered my perception of home and the possibilities of what a home can feel like. So has living in lockdown. 

I live far from metropolitan Melbourne in a leafy, quiet suburb. As a university student, I’ve never seen the appeal of the suburbs – the homes are inimical to one another; the trees are strategically placed and the natural structures man-made. The landscape favours anonymous cars over pedestrians and the lonely footpaths leave you feeling exposed to harassment from strangers in vehicles. Mobility requires a car, so rarely was anyone walking on the street before COVID-19. One cannot walk to the grocery store, but always has to drive. The architecture – classically defined by Metricon and Simons Home Builders – advertise cleanliness and space for the modern family, sometimes at the expense of warmth.

I can’t help but ponder if that’s what youth and student living is meant to look like- a blurry juggle of school, work and fun

I used to commute to metropolitan Melbourne every day to work, volunteer, visit my partner and see friends. In total, the trip was almost two hours, two hours of often, being suffocatingly trapped like sardines in a packed train carriage, shoulder to shoulder with blank-faced strangers. There was a time where looking out of the train window for an allocated hour of dissociation on the way home clouded the sheer discomfort just experienced in the morning. It took an embarrassing panic attack on a crowded 8.a.m. train to realise that perhaps, I could not keep enduring as I had always been. The commutes were exhausting, so much that I was only bringing half of myself to my work and studies. In retrospect, this time forced me to re-assess how much of myself I could give certain facets of my life. 

Like many other students and workers in the suburbs, it was a no-brainer that I had to commute – there were things to do and people to meet in the big smoke. I envied those who lived in close quarters in the city, the inner-city student dwellers, in close proximity to friendships, the arts, chic restaurants and bars, the streets more pedestrian-friendly and the mobility easily accessible by trams. I can’t help but ponder if that’s what youth and student living is meant to look like a blurry juggle of school, work and fun. Or maybe, this is just the youth fetishized through cinema and filtered in through other people’s Facebook feed. The slightly dilapidated- looking shared house with a swing out front captured through film. The communal yard, breakfast on the patio, the recurrent chatter melding with the cicadas on hot summer nights.  They do not have to hold their breath through an arduous stifling commute and have a space carved out in the city landscape, only a short trip away on a tram journeying over the hill and into the horizon. The grass is always greener on the other side. There always seems to be activity on the fringes of the skyscrapers, in its myriads of different conversations and experiences, whereas home always feels like a muted daydream where the possibilities are somewhere else.

Gentrification is always conspicuous when it comes to suburban trendiness

The inner-city suburb is appealing because it functions as a cultural hub. There is a perpetuation and deliberate expression of progressive values and diversity, embodied in both the individuals that walk down the streets and the branding of these areas themselves, from the Jacinda Ardern Christchurch mural to Black Lives Matter mural recently painted near Anstey Station. When walking around these areas, there is a tangible sense of community support for progressive issues – it almost feels as if it is a pleasant left-wing bubble, through the nurturing of creative queer and PoC spaces that are difficult to source in the outer suburbs. The fact that these suburbs carry these stereotypes suggest there is an element of performative activism which is inextricably mired in its real estate marketing. Their reputations call for like-minded individuals with similar values to join them. As much substance there is behind this activism, the realities of our neoliberal world has construed well-intentioned activism for its marketability. Whether there’s complete authenticity to this collective declaration of progressiveness, I’m not sure. Gentrification is always conspicuous when it comes to suburban trendiness. 

Despite all this, the complete upending of our lives as we knew it has made one thing astonishingly clear – that there is no distinct way to live out my youth. 

I’ve spent more time outside, walking around my suburb during COVID-19, than I have in my suburb for previous years. During my daily walks with my dog around the neighbourhood, Venice and its romantic maze-like streets come to mind. It feels disconcerting, to remember that not that long ago, I was taking a water-bus to classes and passing by hordes of tourists. The feeling of awe never faded during the six months I lived there, but possibly only arose to the intensity that it did because of my temporary stay. The temporariness created a liberating feeling, one that ushered me to absorb my surroundings without hesitation because I knew I’d have to leave that reality. Things are more meaningful when the end is in sight. My quiet suburb does not quite compare to the beauty of Venice. But my stay there has taught me to be present with the specialness of my own home in Melbourne. 

We all find comfort in nostalgia and holding onto places that remain the same.

Safe, secure and stagnant seems to make the modern ideal ‘suburb’. My quiet outer city suburb is not a sensational place, nor does it try to be anything other than normal. It just is. Liveable and functional. And like how suburbs try to brand themselves, whether that be as prestigious or progressive, my suburb is quieter and more family-oriented. It certainly is not a projection of my values, in the way that other suburbs are, and in that sense, I’ve sometimes felt out of place, as if I’ve outgrown my surroundings. In the midst of lockdown, I’ve grown to appreciate my own suburb a lot more and what it has to offer. There’s an abundance of space to walk (something I’ll never get sick of), and proximity to parks, Australian wildlife and gardens. Being away from the computer screen and sitting in my garden with my dog has been a great stress reliever, the (sometimes icy) fresh air and greenery making isolation a little bit more bearable. I’ve also familiarised myself with people in the neighbourhood, discovering that long-lost friends from a different era live close by.  It took me a while to recognise that the stillness of home, away from the sensory overload of the city, is a really beneficial and healing thing, especially when we’re all searching for something stable in our lives amidst the precariousness of the world. We all find comfort in nostalgia and holding onto places that remain the same. 

As most are isolating within their homes, it’s almost as if the city-suburb and respective vibrant-dull dichotomy does not matter anymore. Suburban living for the twenty-one year old student isn’t so possibly so monotonous in comparison to other places in Victoria since life seems to be running its course on the interwebs. 

I can’t disentangle whether this is the instinctual isolation response speaking (the one that is propelling us into nostalgia), cultural norms or my own pure thoughts, if they actually exist at all, but a quiet white-picket fence future surrounded by lush greenery does not sound too bad now. 

CD is a fourth year Arts/Law Student.

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