My Suburbia: a photo essay
I couldn’t be more of a suburban white girl even if I tried.
I’m afraid of public transportation.
I’m 21 and I still see my pediatrician.
My housekeeper has known me since before I could walk.
I hate the packed sidewalks of Manhattan.
I drive a Honda Civic that my parents bought for me.
I still cry about my dog, Louie, who died four years ago.
I forced my parents to buy me a trampoline in sixth grade.
I’ve never gotten a speeding ticket.
I took piano lessons for three years.
I have pepper spray on my car keys.
I still don’t really know how to do my own laundry.
My mother’s mahjong friends probably know my GPA.
“Suburban white girl,” yes, that’s definitely me. I grew up in a tiny neighborhood called Kemp Mill. I can tell you where to go running, where to get the best slice of pizza, where to find weed and where mostly anyone lives.
A Quick Breakdown
Kemp Mill is located right off of Arcola Avenue, where the Rabbi’s son was killed crossing the street. If you’re coming from University Boulevard, the shopping center and the park will be on your left.
If you look closely, you’ll probably see a few pre-teen couples awkwardly holding hands as they avoid stepping in goose poop while keeping a paranoid eye out for someone who knows their parents. To your right is the long, windy road called Lamberton that ends where my father grew up with his five brothers and alcoholic father.
On the right you’ll see the “Dark Maze” where you don’t want to walk alone at night. If you make a left on Bromley Street, you’ll find my house, which you can only describe with an address because it’s pretty similar to every other house on the block.
Up the street is where my cousins used to live and around the corner from there is where more of my cousins currently live. As a middle-class suburb, I guess you could consider this area to be the “Middle of the Middle.”
If you don’t turn onto Lamberton Drive and keep going straight on Arcola Avenue, you’ll eventually hit Kemp Mill Road. If you make a right here and go all the way down, you’ll see Stonington Road come up on your right. They call this area “Kemp Mill Forest” to make sure people know it’s separate from the rest of the neighborhood.
This is where the big houses are. The residents refuse to install street lights here, so if you want to see the houses, make sure to go during the day. If you do go, be sure to look for the hotel-sized house that looks empty. We used to call it “The Eyesore” because it took seven years to build while the family went through a messy divorce. The father, a well-known plastic surgeon, now lives there alone.
My dad’s brother Steven moved into the forest a while ago at an attempt to seclude himself from society. It didn’t work, though; it really just means we have a father walk when his wife insists we come for Shabbat dinner.
Fitting the Mold
Kemp Mill is your stereotypical suburb in more ways than one. When reading Danielle Evans’ short story, “Robert E. Lee is Dead,” I immediately related to the characters and the space they grew up in. CeeCee, the first-person narrator of the story, describes the dam as a physical line that both separates and connects her neighborhood, Eastdale, from the richer neighborhood, Lakewood. CeeCee explains that while Lakewood has fences for security, huge brick houses, private beaches and a man-made lake, Eastdale has “old houses, garden apartments, signs in Spanish and Vietnamese” (Evans, 2010, p.201).
Similarly, Kemp Mill has physical spaces separating the different sections of our neighborhood. The role the dam plays in CeeCee’s neighborhood is the same role the creek behind my house and Lamberton Drive play in mine.
Kemp Mill Forest has big houses, big yards and lots of space between the homes. Separated from the forest by the creek, my section of the neighborhood has medium-sized homes with little space between them. On the other side of Lamberton, the Dark Maze is made up of small houses lined up in rows with untended yards littered with children’s toys.
In addition to sharing physical aspects, CeeCee’s neighborhood and Kemp Mill also share the stereotypical teen life of most suburbs. As regular teenagers growing up in the suburbs, CeeCee and Geena were always looking for ways to keep themselves busy. They became popular at Robert E. Lee as cheerleaders wearing stilettos and hip-huggers. Using their power, the two girls organized a plan with the football team to vandalize their own school and make it look like their rival school, Stonewall, did it. When that excitement died down, they kept busy with Geena’s abortion and CeeCee’s suicide attempt.
Like CeeCee and Geena, the teenagers in Kemp Mill have their own ways of staying busy. The teens from the Dark Maze use an abandoned school to drink and smoke, while the rest of us usually find out whose parents are away and use their house.
We’ve had our share of teen disasters too. Two teenagers overdosed on heroine, a group of boys got mugged while walking in the Dark Maze and my own brother was sent to boarding school after vandalizing his high school.
Breaking the Mold
As similar as Kemp Mill may seem to the town Evans creates in “Robert E. Lee is Dead,” my suburb has one big difference: Race. As a story in Evans’ collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, race is the unspoken motivation behind the tension between Eastdale and Lakewood. Many of Evans’ stories discuss the racial issues that exist in America’s suburbs. Sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, George Lipsitz, credits these racial issues to the “possessive investment in whiteness.” According to Lipsitz, the racial issues that exist in the suburbs are results of European Americans using the possessive investment in whiteness to create social structures that give white people an economic advantage over other races (Lipsitz, 1998). However, my suburb is different than the stereotypical suburb described by Evans and supported by Lipsitz in that the divisions in Kemp Mill are along class lines, not race lines.
The stereotypical American suburb is perfectly explained by Stephen Richard Higley in his book, Privilege, power, and place: the geography of the American upper class:
The American upper class has used a number of strategies and methods to ensure its social, political, and financial geographic separation from groups collectively deemed unacceptable. Unacceptable groups include all racial minorities such as African-Americans, Mexicans, and Asian-Americans. Members of the lower middle class and working classes and Jewish people of all social classes were also personae non gratae in upper-class neighborhoods (Higley, 1995, p. 31).
With Kemp Mill’s mix of race and religion across all three classes in the neighborhood, it doesn’t fit the mold of a stereotypical suburb that uses race as a dividing factor. There are white families, black families, Asian families and Hispanic families scattered throughout the Dark Maze, the Middle of the Middle and the Kemp Mill Forest.
Class Before Race
Prioritizing class over race was introduced to American suburbs after World War II with the New Deal reform. With this intervention, “officials claimed quite explicitly that federal appraisal guidelines were not racially motivated, but rather tailored to respect the principles of real estate economics, which simply required racial separation” (Kruse, 2006, p. 22). Although the New Deal was less about equality and more about whites wanting to cover their asses during such a race-sensitive time in America, Kemp Mill actually serves as an example of this reform.
Instead of race, money and class are what shape the world of Kemp Mill. If a black family can afford to live in the Kemp Mill Forest they are more than welcome to. Similarly, ultra-orthodox Jewish families, which tend to make low incomes, live peacefully in the Dark Maze with families of various races and religions. Just two houses down from me is a black family that drives nicer cars than my own and hosts big, luxurious parties almost every weekend. When we were younger, my siblings and I begged our Spanish neighbor, Junior, to play with us. Furthermore, one of my family’s closest friends is a Jewish black family that has lived in Kemp Mill for over 50 years.
A Closer Look
Having established the physical barriers and social classes that divide Kemp Mill into the Dark Maze, Middle of the Middle and Kemp Mill Forest, we can zoom in on each section to really understand the families of this suburban neighborhood.
The Dark Maze
I first learned of this area’s nickname when I heard my sister and her friends use it as teenagers. It made perfect sense, being the one part of our neighborhood my parents wouldn’t let me walk alone in. Now that I’m older it makes even more sense after realizing that every turn into the maze leads to a dead-end.
As mentioned before, most of the families living here are ultra-orthodox Jews, blacks and Hispanics. They live here because it’s what they can afford, but also because it’s where they are comfortable. The area is intimate and for the most part, peaceful. Because the roads only lead to homes, there aren’t many cars passing through, making it ideal for new families with young children. While there are some old-time families who have lived in the Dark Maze forever, many of the new families consider these to be their starter-homes with the goal of moving to the Middle of the Middle when they’re financially ready.
Middle of the Middle
This would be the little comfy area I call home. Being the middle section of a middle class suburb, this part of the neighborhood looks just like the movies. There were six basic models for buyers to choose from when building their houses in the ‘80s. As a result, most houses look the same with average-sized driveways, two-car garages and three levels.
Being in the middle is exactly what it sounds like: not quite lower class and not quite upper class. As a result, many people in this area feel the need to prove their financial status with conspicuous consumption. An economist and sociologist, Thorstein Veblen is strongly influenced by Nietzsche, Darwin and 19th century anthropology. In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen defines conspicuous consumption as an impulse among human communities in the “predatory phase of life” to gather power and prestige by gathering trophies (Veblen, 1899). In the Middle of the Middle conspicuous consumption is the landscape of your yard, the maker of your car or the new addition to your kitchen.
Kemp Mill Forest
You would think that conspicuous consumption would be more prevalent in the upper class part of the neighborhood. However, Kemp Mill Forest is made up of wealthy families who don’t feel the need to show off. They chose to live in the forest to avoid attention, not gain it. The houses here are separated not only by space, but walls of trees as well.
The families that live here tend to be older and more established in their career fields. Both the husbands and wives work for a living as doctors or lawyers. They could afford to live in richer areas like Potomac, but they don’t need the label to feel comfortable.
Roads, Not Walls
With all this talk about race and class and how Kemp Mill is divided, try to keep in mind that what separates the Dark Maze, Middle of the Middle and Kemp Mill Forest are roads, not walls. Growing up in Kemp Mill, there was no real discomfort or hard feelings among the sections. My best friend in middle school lived in the Dark Maze and my core group of friends in high school lived in the forest. We decided where to hang out based on who had the best movies and snacks, not on who had the biggest house or the nicest cars. When families move from one section to another, whether it’s from the maze to the middle or the forest to the middle, welcoming neighbors are there to greet them.
In conclusion, Kemp Mill is our home because of our shared desire to be close to our families and close to nature. As Kenneth T. Jackson explains in Crabgrass Frontier, we chose houses over apartments to separate our family from others, and yards over grids to avoid manufacturers (Jackson, 1985). We enjoy the slow, quiet nature of the Kemp Mill suburb despite the negative stereotypes that may put us in.
Evans, Danielle. “Robert E. Lee Is Dead.” In Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010).
Higley, Stephen Richard. Privilege, Power, and Place: The Geography of the American Upper Class. (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1995).
Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).
Kruse, Kevin Michael. The New Suburban History. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
Lipsitz, George. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998).
Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. (Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg, 1899).