There, and here: A perspective on suburbs vs. small towns

It’s nearly been a year since moving from suburbia to small-town Iowa. It’s incredible how different life can be only 45 minutes away, especially considering we went from one of the wealthiest cities in the state to one of the poorest counties. Overall, we’re loving the slower pace of life and the stronger sense of community we feel here. We also think it’s important for our kids to grow up in a place where not everyone has everything they want and need.

We moved from a four-bedroom home that we custom built in a newer neighborhood to a three-bedroom 1960s ranch right across from a development of squeezed-together townhomes that I’m pretty sure are run by a slumlord and apartments that don’t always attract the kind of folks you want to invite over for a barbecue. Don’t get me wrong — we love our home and will love it even more when we can afford to update some rooms and finish the basement. But it was quite a change from there to here.

For instance, I used to stress out in our last house because we couldn’t afford to hire a lawn-care company or fertilize and water as much as many of our neighbors. I know our next-door neighbors with the perfectly manicured lawn LOVED it when our dandelion seeds blew into their yard and our creeping charlie crept on over their property line. But here? Well, considering just down the street there are several abandoned homes/meth labs, one of which has its windows broken out with the filthy, faded curtains still blowing in the wind, I don’t get too worried when our grass gets a little too long. We have all of our windows intact, so we are still lookin’ good.

In the suburbs, most people keep their drama confined to indoors. In the 10 years we lived there, I came to realize that some people put on a good show but then live ugly lives when no one’s looking. But we’re finding that in our new neighborhood, people aren’t much for putting on airs. Maybe it’s because the townhomes and apartments are so small that drama often gets played out in public. We’re not startled quite so much now when we hear curse words flying through the air from a nearby driveway or yard. And the cops have made our street part of their regular route. (I’ve only called them once!) My favorite was when an elementary-aged girl and her little brother were getting cussed out by their middle school-aged sister because they wanted her to take them to church. I later learned she has the F-word carved into her forearm. Classy.

Another fascinating difference I’ve noticed between there and here involves bicycles. In suburbia, cycling is a hugely popular recreational activity, with miles and miles of beautiful trails constructed and completed just within the past few years. It was impossible to drive through the city without seeing at least a dozen serious cyclists training for the next road race or just getting exercise with their expensive recumbent bike. Families, all donning their properly fitting bike helmets could be spotted nearly everywhere each evening or summer day, happily riding to the library or just tootling along to spend some quality time together.

That was there. But here? Yes, we see many bicycles, too. However, in many cases, the function of the bicycle has shifted from recreational to transportational. Sure, there are still kids riding bikes (although helmets are rare), and we have seen actual families riding together on an occasion or two. But for the most part, if you’re an adult riding a bike in town, it’s because either you don’t have a license or you don’t have a car. Usually it’s the jeans and cowboy boots that give it away. Not really popular biking attire. Or, in the instance of a man I saw last week, it’s the case of Michelob he is balancing on his hip. You don’t see that much on the Tour de France.

And although we did have a strolling guitar-playing gypsy spotted several different times in our last neighborhood, we did not live near a cross-dressing man who wears a tiara on his balding head and rides a little girl’s bike with pink tassels hanging from the handlebars. That’s something reserved for small-town residents, and something that we just accept (after the initial shock wears off).

The sounds here are different, too. There, we were right off a major road, so the noises of traffic were part of our daily soundtrack. Here, besides the intermittent fighting and cussing, we hear many more birds and animals, including a woodpecker that lives in one of our trees and coyotes that howl at the moon and the passing trains at night. One morning not too long ago I began to hear the sound of a rooster crowing. Kind of charming, in its own way. I figured that since we live on the edge of town, we must be able to hear it cock-a-doodle-dooing from one of the nearby farms a mile or so away. That is, until I took our Boston Terrier for a walk last week and saw the barnyard bird in someone’s backyard in the middle of town. No other animals, just the rooster. I wonder if the adjacent neighbors even have to set an alarm clock?

Even though life is more laid-back here, it’s never really dull. There’s always some interesting development if you just walk down the street or take a quick drive to the post office. I’m not trying to put down life in the suburbs at all. I did it for 10+ years and made great friends and memories. But I do believe it’s not for everyone. For some people, small towns are the only place you truly feel you’re “home,” roosters, booze-toting bicyclists and all.






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