Learning the Suburbs

Community Organizing Ideas and Issues Organizer Training Organizing

AR-102-0122Silver Springs An interesting byproduct of providing some support on capacity building to organizations in the DC/Baltimore areas has involved my being sent to re-education camp to learn more about the vast, sprawling suburbs that dominate this area of the country.  For the life of me I have to learn how to distinguish one row of apartments, townhouses, and cul-de-sacs from another.  Within a couple of blocks I will somehow drift between Montgomery and Prince Georges counties it seems like a half-dozen times without knowing when I left or certainly where I might be.

These are not the narrow, crooked name changing city streets I have learned in a hundred cities, but long six-lane avenues as large as interstates without the high speed limits.  Driving by an area in Silver Springs there was a small park on the left as we motored by and in the early morning one could see Latino soccer players changing shoes at their trunks before going to work.

My friend commented that building the park with a soccer field had been controversial because neighbors in a huge apartment complex on the right thought there would be too much noise and whatnot.  Must have been the whatnot that worried them, because counting the lanes someone would have had to hear the excitement of a scored goal across almost eight lanes of road bulging with vehicles moving at a fast clip in both directions from a field that was set off the road so far that it could not be seen from the street.  For the complex to even consider using the park at all would have been an exercise in courage and reckless abandonment or a walk of almost a mile to circumnavigate the traffic.

My point about the suburbs is not an effort to raise the old canards about their monotony or homogeneity, because I have no idea what it would be like to live there.  My orientation if from an organizer’s perspective in trying to really learn the nuances of the geography and how it works for the people there in the process of unraveling the keys to the mystery.  The longer one looks the more one finds that many of these endless apartment complexes represent the only semi-affordable housing for miles around which has pushed some many people out there.  Gradually one realizes from various signposts that one is driving through miles of housing dominated by Latinos as I learn to spot the food trucks parked behind the stores and see the scores of day laborers around an abandoned gas station and the other sign posts.  With every trip up here I recognize more easily when I have passed into a Salvadoran area versus a Mexican or African American or mixed community.

We might scoff at the sprawl that has created these trackless expanses, but there are a lot of our people out here desperate to build organizations and with real opportunities to win.  I’ve learned that much now, even if I still have no idea where one town or county starts and the other one ends.  A map will tell me that eventually, but open ears and eyes are all that can teach me the real terrain.