Thomas J. Story

In many ways, suburban life is becoming more colorful

Lawrence W. Cheek,  –  January 4, 2006

On its bland surface, the Issaquah, Washington, neighborhood where I’ve lived for the past 10 years appears to be everything for which social critics scorn suburbia. The houses look as alike as sparrows on a wire, a bundle of lawyerly rules discourages anyone from doing anything even remotely quirky, and each weekday morning finds a river of pointlessly huge SUVs streaming out toward work in Seattle. Even our neighborhood mocha mecca is predictable – Starbucks, what else?

But a windshield appraisal wouldn’t see what’s happening behind the monotonous façades. Diversity, for one thing. My street alone is a mosaic of families from China, Korea, India, Ireland, and Bulgaria. Community, for another. We do know each other’s names and stories, trade pet- and child-sitting duties, and socialize at block parties. And we volunteer in the neighborhood schools.

Sunset heard the theme repeatedly from readers nominating their neighborhoods for us to cover in this story: It isn’t just about architecture or amenities or pleasant streetscapes. All of these are quality-of-life enhancements but not what’s most important to them. As a resident of Prospect, Colorado, put it, “It takes people to create a community.”

And it’s a perfect circle. A lively, engaging community convinces us that it’s worth working to preserve and improve it. When problems arise or the neighborhood begins to look in need of revitalization, the residents don’t retreat behind their private walls or move away. They get to work.

When I last applied to the neighborhood association for permission to repaint my house, they rejected my color choice. Pallid gray, beige, and yellow were the only hues allowed. I wrote a letter arguing that more color and architectural diversity would enhance the neighborhood, not threaten property values. Other homeowners, I later learned, were saying much the same thing. Two years ago, the association relented and liberalized the rules, and some brave houses are now breaking out in auburn, orange, and plum (not all on the same house, fortunately).

It’s a small improvement, but an appropriate symbol: In the best suburbs, life is becoming more colorful.