The suburbs: safe havens for those fleeing genuine fear

Bosnian Rape Victim was only 13 years old

How can she escape memories of the war in Bosnia?

Suburban home

She can escape to the suburbs! And who’s to fault her?

True confession: I’ve never thought too highly of the suburbs. Until I married, I’d lived almost my entire adult life in cities. And then I married a man who was elder to a church in one of the nation’s quintessential suburban communities. Our town had existed as a farm village of just 3,000 people 40 years ago and now has a population of more than 130,000, almost all hidden along cul de sacs in gigantic houses designed in the style the South calls “transitional.” (I always wonder what they’re transitioning into … the smaller ones often appear to be transitioning from houses into large garages, since the automotive entrance is by far the most prominent.) When a developer proposed a Caribbean-themed subdivision, with turquoise and pink and yellow homes, the planning board turned him down. In our town, people want beige and gray and white, he was told.

Until I married, I’d lived all my adult life in a thousand square feet with two friends, sleeping through a fire station siren night after night, hearing many languages on the street, being able to bargain with an elderly salesman at the Jeweler’s Exchange, buy fresh flowers or fruit from a street vendor, or stare in amazement at the spangled, closely fitted, brightly colored gowns in the window of a dress shop catering to Hispanic women. I had lived in …

Somerville, Massachusetts – a well-worn industrial and immigrant community where I lived in the shadow of a highway overpass and the Schrafts candy factory, and my Italian neighbor across the street had a grape arbor over his driveway and tomatoes and raspberries growing in the front yard.

Malden, Massachusetts, a half-dozen stops from Boston’s Chinatown on the MBTA’s Orange Line, its triple deckers and Philadelphia-style two-families becoming the first home purchases for new Chinese immigrant families moving up to their first mortgages.

Jamaica Plain, a Boston neighborhood, parts of which were commonly referred to as “Jamaica Spain” at the time because of the high proportion of new immigrants from Guatemala, Ecuador, and other parts of Central America, mixing in along the edges of the bohemian colony that had settled there, and the wealthier folks who lived “Pondside” near the end of Frederick Law Olmsted’s wonderful Emerald Necklace of parks.

Suddenly, I was ensconced in a townhome in a suburban neighborhood in a community that is the butt of local jokes for the number of people who have relocated here from other parts of the country. Because our suburban homes are hidden away in cul de sacs, which are hidden behind blinds of cedar, or tall fences, you would never guess the town boasted such a large population unless you metered the traffic at the shopping malls on a Saturday afternoon. Then it would become obvious. So many people have so much to buy and so little time.
What our town does boast is safety. Depending on the year, it’s the #1 or #2 safest community of its size in the U.S. And for that, my formerly urban friends and I commiserated. A girlfriend who had been a professional musician in London before business brought her family here said: “Safety? What’s safety? I’d trade safety for an orchestra or a theater any day.”

I was glad when they said to me: let us work in the city nearby.

Then last week, I got my first solid insight into what a suburb could be good for.

This particular suburb has become home to an astonishing array of immigrants over the last decade – so much so that I can shop pretty much as I did back in Boston. I buy spices and tea at the Indian market. We don’t go out for dim sum; I buy it frozen at one of the larger Asian groceries. We get interesting treats at the Turkish market; enjoy dinner at Lebanese, Senegalese, and a host of other international restaurants that are run by immigrants for their compatriots. My own neighborhood, which was African-American when this was a village and is still home to all of the community’s African-American churches, is quickly becoming “Little India” because three large Hindu temples have been built nearby. All told, I’ve counted businesses and worship centers serving more than 30 nationalities within two miles of my townhouse.

So at the supermarket I was chatting with a woman whose accent I didn’t recognize. I was intrigued and asked where she’d come from. It turned out that her family came from Bosnia-Herzegovina. (New notch on my list of nations!) I asked what brought them to our town and she said: “The survey says that this city is the number 2 most safe city in the U.S. So we know nobody will bother us here.”

Safety. Refuge. The number 2 most safe city in one of the less likely-to-be-shattered-by-war countries.

It is very true that the Lord is our refuge, as we read in too many Scriptures to cite here. It is also true that

“The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty.” (Proverbs 22:3)

Thank you, God, for showing me how these safe, dull, beige-and-white communities can be places of refuge for those who come from difficult homelands.

Is your suburb a refuge? Or is it a place where you hide from the difficulties we need to face in our own culture? How do you know the difference?

Related Links:

New York Times, Dec. 14, 2010: Immigrants make path to suburbia, not cities, new data show

About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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