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Liz Lawley

You'd think that by now I'd have seen enough dismissal of suburban life by city-dwellers that it wouldn't continue to gall me, but apparently not.

Believe it or not, even those of us who live in "car-centric suburbs" have these kinds of social traffic jams. We walk our dogs, do yardwork, jog on the sidewalks, and watch our kids play outside. We pull our family-packed minivans over to the side of the road to chat with neighbors who are mowing their lawns or snowblowing their driveways.

danah boyd and I went back and forth on this a couple of times, and back in April she was careful to distinguish between what she calls "new suburbia" and "old suburbia" (http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2008/04/10/musing_about_so.html), something I really appreciated. Just as Manhattan and Brooklyn are both city boroughs but differ significantly in their character, so suburbs like the one I live in--middle-class, with people who've lived in their houses for decades--are very different from the mcmansion suburbs where social interactions are few and far between.


It happens to me all the time at the gym. I don't mind if I've gotten there early; however, it bothers me when I'm running late and the person I run into wants me to set aside my mission for his or her mission. I know, this sounds petty; however, I wouldn't mind if, say, the person would join me so I could accomplish my mission and he or she could accomplish their mission. I'll say, "I'm running late. How about if we walk and talk." They'll say, "Oh, this will only take a minute." (It never does.) The sad this is then, I end up rushing and avoiding everyone else. Your boys suffered because you were sidetracked. What do you think -- should you have thought -- I'd like to be neighborly, but that will ruin someone else's day -- or, do you engage and then let your boys go hungry?

I've decided, that it's a two-way street. If I say, "I'm in a rush, could we walk and talk," and if the other person wants to rule the encounter, I'll continue with my mission. If it's an emergency on their part, I'll set aside my mission. It's gotten so I try to find a time when I know I won't run into anyone. This saddens me because I'd like to engage -- respectfully. It seems others don't share this.

Steven Johnson

Liz, I'm not saying there aren't *conversations* between neighbors in suburbia; I'm saying there aren't conversations when you're trying to get somewhere else -- school, work, food, etc. Yes, when you're out walking the dog you stop to talk to your neighbors, but not when you're headed for a specific destination. Seriously, have you truly stopped the minivan and engaged in a fifteen minute conversation because someone was mowing their lawn along your route? No doubt you have more well-behaved children than I do, but mine certainly wouldn't tolerate that...

Maybe it wasn't clear enough, but the whole point of calling these "traffic jams" was to say that there was also something irritating about these conversations, as fun as they are. So I wasn't just trying to be smug about brownstone life--traffic jams are a bummer whether they are pedestrian or car-based...

Francis Morrone

Park Slope, Brooklyn, where I've lived for the last 28 years, is actually very similar in this regard to where I grew up, which was Oak Park, Illinois. Oak Park is definitely "old suburbia"--as, in fact, is Park Slope. Oak Park borders Chicago, and just escaped annexation. It's served by rapid transit trains, and has that marvelous density found in many old railroad suburbs. I think the "social traffic jam" phenomenon is something found in a lot of old streetcar or railroad suburbs (a category that includes a lot of what we now think of as inner-city neighborhoods), which possess just that big-city (Paris, rather than Manhattan) density and small-town feeling.


Larry David calls it the "stop and chat."


Ana Calzada

That's pretty normal in Barcelona, where i live. Sometimes the social traffic jam even absorb you, and you change your plans because you meet somebody that offers you a better choice. For example, you are supposed to go to the supermarket and you meet a friend, right in front of the supermarket door, that offers you to sit down for a quick beer in the terrace right next to the supermarket, that one that you know so well for its delicious tapas, so there is not possible argument. You stay with him, for more than a quick two or three beers, for sure, and in the meantime you meet one or two other friends that were trying to get somewhere else but eventually join you. This is a portrait of the Spanish life style, I use to refer to it as "to make an improvised".

Jay Cousins

Hi Steve

Nice post, puts me in mind of a principle I call social inertia, which applies a similar principles, but in bars when trying to move large groups.



This is one of the reasons I try to do things in advance, with looser deadlines. This way if I do bump into someone in the hall at work or around my block I can have a full conversation, rather than thinking in back of my mind- "I gotta run... I can only budget 2 more minutes here before the kids tear the house down..."

Nancy Scola

Interesting thoughts, though as a north Sloper I might be biased by all the mentions of the neighborhood.; It occurs to me that one thing that might be a factor is that New York is so huge and Brooklyn itself so big and diverse that there's a great deal of self-selection setting the stage for these run-ins. I lived in DC throughout my 20s. If you leaned conservative, you probably settled in Georgetown or maybe northern Virginia. If you leaned left, it was mostly likely Adams Morgan/Dupont Circle. But when it comes to Brooklyn, well, first you're dealing with the people who have chosen not to live in Manhattan. But it breaks down much further. Even if you're music-loving Slow Foodie who bikes to work, where you live still might come down to whether you're slightly edgier and live in Williamsburg or somewhat more traditional, in which case you'll make your home in Prospect Heights. Then there those of us a tad more straight-laced, in which case it's off to Park Slope. I'm exaggerating, of course, but you do seem to find yourself living amongst people rather like yourself here. And, to get to the point, somewhat paradoxically, it seems like you're more likely to run into people to chat with while walking down a block in Brooklyn than you would in a smaller city.

Simon Goldie

I live in Islington, London, UK. Islington is an inner city borough but I have plenty of social traffic jams. I have lived in other places in London and didn't but that was because I wasn't there long enough to get to know my neighbours and didn't involve myself in the community. The idea that London is a cold place where no one speaks to you just isn't true.

Liz Lawley

"I'm saying there aren't conversations when you're trying to get somewhere else -- school, work, food, etc"

Yes, there are. They happen to me in parking lots. They happen to me in grocery stores, where I'm as likely to bump into someone I knew in high school as someone I work with or live near. And yes, I have indeed stopped the minivan (well, when we had one...now it's the Scion) for 5-10 minutes at a time because a neighbor has flagged me down to chat about elementary school gossip or neighborhood behavior. Less so when my kids were younger...but I suspect young kids would be no less antsy on a city sidewalk than in the back seat of a car. Possibly more so.

It just really drives me crazy when people who have never lived in a neighborhood like mine make broad-brush negative assumptions about the life it implies.

And on a non suburban-vs-urban note, anyone who works on a college campus is very familiar with these kinds of traffic jams. My husband no longer believes me when I call him from my office and tell him I'm on my way home. The call doesn't count 'til I've actually pulled out of the parking lot, since I'm so likely to be waylaid by students or colleagues as I navigate halls and parking lots.

Steven Johnson

Okay, Liz, you make lots of good points, as always. A couple of thoughts:

1. Maybe it didn't come across as clearly as I intended, but I am equally annoyed and charmed by these social traffic jams. I called them "traffic jams" after all. So the whole post was not intended to be some kind of smug dismissal of non-urban living.

2. Excellent point about the unplanned chats happening at the destinations and not the points in between destinations. I ran into my ex-girlfriend at the bakery, not on the way to the bakery, so that could have just as easily happened in a non-urban environment.

3. Definitely true about university spaces being filled with social traffic jams. (That's why I mentioned Columbia in my original post.) But I think that's largely because campuses involve much more walking than traditional car-centric environments.

4. I'm sure there are cases where you stop the car to chat with a neighbor. But do you really believe that they are at all comparable in number to those kinds of exchanges while walking? If so, we should get some sociologists working on this, because it would upset the whole premise of post-Jane-Jacobs urban theory: that more ambient, unplanned discovery and interaction happens when you're on foot than when you're in the car. Again, I didn't say these kinds of things NEVER happened in suburbs (old or new) -- I just said that the car culture made them "pretty rare" in comparison with sidewalk culture. If you really think that cars create the possibility for these interactions as effectively as sidewalks do, I'd love to hear that argument -- you should write a book on it, because it will overturn a lot of applecarts! (Which would be a good thing.)

Tim Walker

Where this happens to a lot of people: at work.

Was it Jacobs or one of her later commentators who pointed out the inversion, over the course of the 20th century, of the neighborhood and the workplace in term of our socializing?

Hugo Hardy

What you describe in your post is exactly what I live every week in Montreal. This is espacially the case since my older son is going to day care in the neighborhood. And the jam is getting thicker every year.

fred wilson

it happens to me all the time in the west village and i sure hope my next social traffic jam is with my new neighbor sergey brin and his lovely wife Anne


This post made me think of a tweet I saw the other day. "We passed on the street this morning. I would have stopped to say hi, but we were both elsewhere, you on your phone and me with my thoughts." That's one way to deal with it, eh?


Believe it or not,
Estetik even those http://www.estetiks.com/ of us who live in "car-centric suburbs" have these kinds of social traffic jams. We walk our dogs, Estetik do yardwork, jog on the sidewalks, and http://www.estetikameliyat.com/ watch our kids play outside. We pull our family-packed minivans over to the side of the road to chat with neighbors who are mowing their lawns or snowblowing their driveways.







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I get social traffic jams all the time. Sometimes I think about throwing away my social car and going off to live in the woods so I can get stuff done...


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seks izle

Larry David calls it the "stop and chat."

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