Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The American Dream Of Not Being Here

In the next couple of years, my husband and I will have to decide whether to move to America or stay in Germany. If we move to America, we'd be in Berkeley, CA, where my family has its roots. 

But, even though Northern California ranks as one of the most desirable places in the United States, I have my hesitations. Because of one thing that I, as an American, just can't get over: America is ugly.

I don't mean the landscape; the amber waves of geographical eye candy turn every tourist into a hobby photographer. I don't mean the people, either. I mean that daily life in America is ugly, the drabness that we face because the little oases of architectural and civic beauty are choked off by parking lots and freeways. 

Take Berkeley, for instance. The legendary university town actually has a bayshore waterfront that boasts a million-dollar view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. If any European city were so blessed with this geography, without a doubt that waterfront would have been built into an appealing esplanade with cafes, boutiques, and tree-lined parks for the enjoyment of life. But we Americans? No. We built I-80 with 5 lanes of traffic in each direction. 

I-80 Eastshore Freeway/Minesweeper, wikimedia commons.

America has the potential to evolve quickly with its "Why not?" attitude. But what doesn't change quickly are the car-centered city layouts and suburban sprawl that lock Americans into miles of unhappiness, high municipal costs, and unsustainability. Americans strap themselves into their cars every morning, alone with their travel mugs and the radio station; they sit in traffic and dream of what they're going to do once they graduate from the rat race.

America is a place of dreams. But I realized that America a place of dreams because the vast swaths of asphalt make you not want to be where you are. You dream of being somewhere else. The juxtaposition of quik-dry cement in a backdrop of stunning landscape infuses the air with the message, "Dreams come true, over there." And that, in a twisted way, is the American beauty. The beauty of longing, of being in love with a point of time in the future, the beauty of wishing you were "over there".

In America, the automobile is a box of dreams on wheels. Its occupants enjoy a quiet, air-conditioned leather interior with a state-of-the-art sound system and UV-filtering glass. Meanwhile, the car itself is either cruising down a dead zone of concrete and strip malls that advertise more dreams, or it's sitting bumper-to-bumper in an endless quilt of other out-gassing vehicles, environmentally and optically toxic for our children and other living creatures, and, well, ourselves too.

We're also pushed away from the present moment by the capitalism which has governed so long that the soil exudes profit. And "profit" in itself connotes: Later, not now. Buy on the cheap, sell for a profit, later. Everywhere we look, there's no escape from the signs of profit, later: cheap slapped-together houses, one-size-fits-all neighborhoods where all the same chain businesses have set up shop, anonymous big-box stores surrounded by deserts of parking lot that remind us that corporations are saving money so they can turn a profit, later. 

A place of dreams is exciting when you're young. Anything is possible. You can become whatever you want to be. You can get rich. But for others, it's not that fun. Like for those who don't have time to dream any more, to drive in their cars, to wait for profits to roll in, later. They are the elderly who are isolated in their suburban homes until they become American nursing home residents, 60% of which have no visitors

A place of dreams also isn't that fun for people who need the present to function now, not later. Like parents who are crushed for time and resources to enjoy their kids who are growing up now, fast. The "village" that should be raising the children has been squashed, ironically, by one American Dream, the dream of big houses and big cars, and by big highways, big gas prices, and big commutes that eat away at the time that parents should spend with their children. And these children, well, they're growing up in cities so dominated by cars that they won't know any other way.

I've loathed cars since I myself was a kid of the 70s, pale-faced and nauseous as I sat trapped in my mother's Buick, stuck in stop-and-go traffic in California. I had my dreams, too. As a kid, I dreamt of walking to my friends' houses to play. I dreamt that I lived in a place where I might see other kids, just so, on a sidewalk, in a playground, in a town. I dreamt that I didn't have to spend half my childhood staring through a car window at lifeless slabs of concrete, weeds, graffiti, and pigeon poop beneath freeway overpasses. I wished my mother had a tight-knit community around her so she wouldn't let out all her frustrations on me when I failed to fulfill her dreams. 

There was no conspiracy or political basis to this. I dreamt of a healthier city on my own, as a kid, not because of a United Nations sustainability agenda that some claim is a secret plan to mandate communal living and take away our American freedoms. As a young person, my dreams of a car-free community were all about freedom: the freedom to get around without having to pay for a car, gas, insurance, and parking; the freedom to connect to anyone I wanted without having to consider commute times and expenses; the freedom to start making my own decisions about when to be where I wanted; the freedom to simply use my body to walk – as it was made to do – without the dangers of traffic, pollution, and crime that festers in barren city streets made for motorized vehicles. 

The idea of hating one's own country makes no sense to me. I certainly don't hate America; I even go great lengths to explain what a miracle the United States are. But in the pursuit of my own happiness, after I graduated from college, I left America to live in countries where I didn't need a car. I felt that in America, there was no more space for my dreams; someone had already been there before me and paved over my dreams before I was born. He with the cement mixer got his dream, and it will be a very long time before those freeways and sprawling developments give way to the human need for an aesthetic environment that doesn't require burning fossil fuels for daily life.

If it's next year or in five years, I will be back in America with my daughter. She's an American citizen, too, and she is entitled to her dreams and pursuit of happiness. I wish for her and all other young Americans that they can grow up in a place of civic beauty. This wish inspired me for years to make sure that my child, who is also an EU citizen, be born and have the right to live in an affordable, healthy city like the German town where we live. I wanted her to know from the start that she is on this earth to walk, to breathe clean air, to take her time in a beautiful environment, to see people, and to have lots of time to talk to her friends. Now, not later.

That remains my dream for America: a beautiful now.

Photographs by Audrey Mei and Mindsweeper/wikimedia commons.

Read articles on urban planning at The Atlantic Cities.

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  1. I don't know if I ever told you, but I love your writing and your thinking.

    *Hugs* from another car-free fella from Switzerland