Oct 17, 2013

The Suburbs

Every Sunday, my friends and I engage in a ritual of going to a nearby sports bar called the Friendly Confines and catching the late afternoon NFL games (it's far too crowded for the early kickoffs, as we found out on opening day last year). Normally, we would make our way to any of the tables that have been left behind by the 1pm crowd, and act as if we own that section of the establishment, as we lay our eyes on any of the TV's over our heads. This is where we not only watch all the games unfold on the big screens, but also catch up on the week that was, and shoot jokes around left and right.

Those plans were put on hold this past weekend.

Between those friends having to be elsewhere at that time, and the Jaguars game against the Broncos being a late kickoff  and the Jags looking for all the world like they were on their way to being blown out again  I decided I wanted no part of the Confines that day. On the other hand, the alternative was to sit through the rest of this Jags game at home, which didn't seem any more appealing at the time.

So what did I do instead? Turn off the TV and turn on my car's engine, of course.

(Naturally, the rest of that clash in Denver ended up being a reasonably entertaining one. We even came within a two-point conversion of tying it at halftime! Just my luck that I would miss out on it.)

* * *
I've been building up a sizable album of pictures taken in and around Orlando since the start of the year. I like to refer to it as a very informal tour pamphlet of the area, a look at places that people who fly into OIA usually don't know exist. It's a collection of images featuring skyscrapers, churches, shops and pubs, parks and lakes, unique spots around town, and lately, abandoned buildings.

Orlando, like every other city in America, was hit hard by the Great Recession. It left scores of homes and stores empty, as its occupants were forced to desert their properties and shutter their businesses. Larger-scale developments weren't spared either; I chronicled this earlier in a post about the Fashion Square Mall, but there are also apartments and condos that transform into hulking masses of darkness when the sun goes down.

As I headed up Aloma Avenue, past Trinity Prep and headlong into the farthest reaches of Seminole County, I found that these abandoned buildings were not exclusively an inner-city phenomenon, but were increasingly common in the outer suburbs  including these two, right next to each other:


At one point in that church's history, it must have served as the center of its small, formerly isolated community; today, it's little more than a largely forgotten, yet still-standing piece of Central Florida's past, surrounded on all sides by new subdivisions, office buildings, and storage facilities. It's also a cruel, but poignant reminder that sprawl will always triumph over serenity in this day and age, that your own little pride of place can always become overwhelmed, no matter far from the heart of the city it may be.

* * *
Travel further up the road, away from the strawberry farms and opulent church complexes, and you'll find a massive shopping center pop up seemingly out of nowhere. Oviedo Mall lies a short hop over the Greeneway, totally enveloped by a tall, thick mass of trees. It's a prototypical suburban shopping mall, with an expansive parking lot that looks out into the skies above, and not much else.

I got there too late to walk around the shops and stalls; only the movie theater and a handful of eateries were open by the time I stepped foot inside. I was starving for food at the time, but not to the point where I actually found no-name BBQ joints appetizing. Luckily enough, there was a horde of food trucks lined up in one section of the parking lot  they apparently gather there every Sunday  and I discovered a wad of cash, which I left inside the car but had completely forgotten about, that I could use to order something. I decided on a seafood truck, where I got myself a pair of spicy shrimp tacos (note: I'm a sucker for crustaceans). My humble opinion on the tacos? I couldn't give it enough stars.

As I was gorging down on my impromptu dinner, a live music performance was just getting under way. A young-looking girl with a guitar, a fine voice, a set of songs she wrote on her own, doing her thing in front of an audience that gradually warmed to her as she went through her set list. She was reminiscent of a young Taylor Swift: a singer-guitarist with a country-pop streak to her, without the songs about her laundry list of boyfriends and love affairs. Obviously, it's too early to tell whether she'll one day reach that level of stardom herself; there are precocious musical talents like her all around this grand old land of ours. But on this day, she was the headliner, the main attraction at the show.

The sun was well on its way to receding into the night by the time she finished the first part of her set. I decided to leave then, and attempted to catch the last of the suburban landscape on that corner of Seminole County before they faded into black. I meandered through some tree-lined roads that were flanked by a slew of run of the mill subdivisions on both sides, for what felt like ages. Almost all of them had a bland, highly unimaginative names to match: animal-themed names that could be found anywhere; places called the Shores or the Isles, when Seminole County is situated well away from the coastline; and still more neighborhoods that the developers must have christened after throwing some darts at a map of Europe.

* * *
I spent most of my formative years, both in Japan and in America, in an urban setting. More specifically, I spent them in what could be best described as the inner suburbs: not within the borders of a major city, but close enough to it that I could enjoy its bright lights from time to time. Most of my friends also grew up within reach of the city, which meant I rarely had to venture out into the outer suburbs and beyond. To this day, most of my impressions of the life in the outskirts have come from a famous music video by the Smashing Pumpkins.

Having journeyed out to more of these types of places in recent years  in Orlando and elsewhere  I've found that the suburban life doesn't particularly appeal to me. Not just because I'm a city kid at heart, and prefer everything to be close to where I live; but also because the subdivisions themselves give off a strange aura. It's not so much the cookie-cutter houses that dominate the terrains of these manufactured neighborhoods, as much as it's the isolated nature of the terrains itself. It's as if each community, gated or otherwise, is its own walled city, cordoned off from from the rest of the world, its residents rarely coming in contact with their neighbors, let alone their fellow suburban dwellers outside their oversized shell.

I'm not sure if I could ever live in an area with that kind of vibe, even if I ever find myself with enough money to buy my own McMansion. I think I'll always be more drawn to the lure of the city, and the easier access to all the attractions and amenities on offer (not to mention an easier commute). Of course, there will be millions of people who will have an opposite opinion, and think it impossible to manage a living in an urban context; they'll naturally find life in the suburbs a much more favorable condition. Is there a chance I could become one of them someday? Certainly, but barring a drastic change in my outlook, that's an unlikely prospect.

But that's another topic for another day. Debating the pros and cons of living in the city versus the suburbs is pointless and futile when I don't even know where I'll be living by this time next year. At any rate, I'm still years from being ready to settle into my own home and making an honest attempt at paying my mortgage every month. On Sunday evening, I had rather more immediate concerns; namely, getting back home, and getting ready for another workweek.

Sunset gave way to nightfall. Traffic lights glimmered in the distance. Winding suburban streets transitioned into four-lane county roads, then guided me back to the major thoroughfares. I traveled west, then shifted southbound, and finally crossed from Seminole to Orange County. Soon I would find myself from whence I came, closer to my favorite bars and shops, miles removed from the sheltered confines of the outskirts.