Friday, April 4, 2008

What if cities like Kokomo are the American Dream?

One of my pleasant morning rituals is listening to National Public Radio or NPR (106.1 FM locally). This week they did a two part story, Life in the Burbs: Heavy costs for Families, Climate. The subtitle: Millions of Americans have moved to the suburbs, many not anticipating the impact of their choice. click here & then click "listen now" for Part 1.

Part 1 spends a day in the life of a woman whose family aspired to life in the suburbs of Atlanta: 3k sq ft home w/5 bedrooms, 2 car garage and big yard. She spends about 90 minutes in the car each way to and from the city where she works, often creeping along at 16 mph in a 65 mph zone. People in the Atlanta area drive so much that if you added up every commute and every trip to a store or soccer practice on just one day, you'd get a number that's larger than the distance between the Earth and the sun.

Her day sounds exhausting. In essence it's: get up at dawn, drive in hideous traffic, work all day, back into molasses-like traffic, get home in time for a late dinner, do some chores, go to bed, repeat. For a fresh change of pace listen to a woman (part 2) who moved back into the city to be close to her job and all her other activities.

In essence the 2 part story was about the toll commuting in highly populated areas takes on us as people and on the environment with greenhouse gases. The two lives sounded like night and day. One felt stressful. One felt relaxing. One felt more like where I live.

No one ever talks about K-town like it's the American Dream--quite the opposite. When I was younger I was no fan of Kokomo myself. But then again, in my 20's I was naive. I "knew" a lot of things based on my impressions. Not so much based on experience or reality. It did help that I spent a very brief time in southern CA where to my surprise, everyone was no smarter or more cultured than people in Kokomo. They did however dress hipper.

I listen to a radio story like that or drive to Chicago, and instantly Kokomo is---dare I say..attractive. I live in a decent sized home on a double lot with little through-traffic for the same price as a 600 sq ft hovel in CA or big city suburb. I drive 5 minutes to and from work in what is effectively no traffic. I fill up my gas tank about every 2 weeks. In 3 minutes I can be on a windy country road on my motorcycle. Our family is home in plenty of time to sit around the table for a home-cooked meal. We have hours of time afterward to spend as we please. All the schools are good. There is very little crime. No traffic. Affordable homes.

"Yes, but where is the culture?" Fair enough. I'll admit Kokomo has an apparent blue collar personality. But I think culture predominantly is the way in which we live our life with our family and how we choose to interact with others who share our view of what culture is. And beyond that, Indy is chalked full of culture and is a straight shot south on the highway with again, virtually no traffic and unlimited options within I465.

And with all of the national talk of "going green" and since George Bush finally decreed that global warming exists, it occurs to me that our carbon footprint is inherently smaller in the 5-15 minute commutes of cities & towns like Kokomo; not to mention plenty of places to walk and ride our bicycles.

In America sometimes I think we discount whatever is in our back yard for anything that's 50 miles away. I know Kokomo has its shortcomings and things that I avoid e.g. country music, NASCAR jackets/discussions, entitlement mentality, lack of appreciation for the arts, just to name a few.

But I'm not sure I'd want to spend 50% more money to live in a different area and have significantly less time to live this life just to get a different geographic personality. This life is mine to live and make it what I want. If I can't figure out how to do that in Kokomo while appreciating the positives this city affords me and finding like-minded souls to relate with; then perhaps I lack creativity or initiative.
Maybe we have the opportunity to live the American Dream more so in Kokomo than we have previously thought. And in the end, how much about "living the life" is on the city and how much is on me and my perspective?