MY LITTLE TOWN: THE GREAT SUBURBAN EXPERIMENT
By Bob Vickrey
In his classic 1970s ballad, My Little Town, Paul Simon methodically indicted small town America as an entrapment that placed limitations on the aspirations of its inhabitants and offered only a glimmer of hope in breaking free of those shackles to pursue their hopes and dreams.
Few of my peers in the 1950s and 60s gave much thought to having felt trapped within the lives into which they were born, and most of us considered ourselves lucky and grateful for the comforts of our working-class lifestyle. We knew little of the larger world that existed around us at that time. Hopes and expectations for the future generally evolve slowly over time, and there was little consideration of unhappiness about our living environment.
In our industrial community located along the shores of the Houston ship channel, our fathers worked in the oil refineries that lined its banks. The red sediment from those factories and the noxious fumes their smokestacks churned were an integral and unquestioned part of daily life there. Many of the post-World War II families who migrated to city suburbs had left life on the farm and represented the first generation that had been given an opportunity of reinventing themselves with the possibility of attaining a middle-class lifestyle. There was a certain dignity and pride gained in home ownership that surfaced during a family’s community assimilation. Our parents’ aspiration for their family wasn’t necessarily for more—but only for enough.
Galena Park was designed on a grid of tract houses built primarily on 50-foot-wide lots in the middle of a dense Pine forest that had pushed its way west from the Piney Woods of east Texas. The considerable proximity of your neighbor’s house forged an alliance that created friendships, and quite naturally—an occasional adversary. In the early days of development, there were few fences built between homes as ones’ daily life blended naturally with the neighbors’ on either side.
We thought of our 923 square-foot, two-bedroom house as our castle, and rarely complained about cramped quarters—except perhaps when all five family members required the use of our one bathroom at the same time. We did what numerous families did in those confining situations and converted the attached garage into a third bedroom. However, the remodel didn’t help shorten the line to the bathroom. (Only a college-bound older brother and sister would eventually help alleviate that problem.)
During the post-war baby boom, there were packs of children in our neighborhood who gathered after school for unsupervised games and sports. On 10th Street where I lived, the Chambers’ vacant lot was broad and deep, and offered the space necessary for pick-up football and baseball games. There was also a basketball goal which sported a mesh cloth net—a rarity on neighborhood courts. We passed many happy hours there as we postponed homework as long as possible and awaited the inevitable call from our mother at “suppertime,” which meant the fun had come to an abrupt halt for another day.
During those adult-free gatherings we learned about camaraderie, discipline, and leadership. Predictably, someone emerged during those games as the organizer and leader. Squabbles ensued and rules were formed as we instinctively learned the natural convention of order. There was an education in the long hours spent on the streets and playgrounds. Small lessons in democracy were learned, even if we didn’t quite comprehend the full significance of those lessons at the time.
Small towns like my own became the great experimental blueprint of suburban community during that era, and by-and-large, they created tight-knit places which were largely centered around schools and churches. My hometown was primarily white and Protestant. The church was the center of our family’s life and we were deeply involved in the activities there. It inevitably became another adjunct in building a community network. Many of my classmates at school were also members of our church, and that secondary association only built stronger and more permanent friendships for the future.
The segregation practices of the times certainly gave us a somewhat distorted view of the larger world in terms of cultural assimilation. The closest black community was several miles away and had its own schools. There were a small number of Latino families who lived in our town and blended seamlessly into the community. There were only three Jewish families in Galena Park, and each owned their own businesses, including our local supermarket and clothing store. Dr. Kahn, my dentist, eventually relented and began attending the First Baptist Church and jokingly said, “it might just help my business.”
Whatever cultural diversification my community lacked in those days was largely offset by the presence of a strong group of educators in our school system there. Civics and history lessons were ingrained at an early age, and there was both creativity and innovation offered from the dedicated teachers who were in partnership with our parents in their mission of helping us become functioning adults.
There was no more unifying factor in small-town Texas life than a Friday night high school football game. Author Buzz Bissinger could have just as easily done the research for his best-selling book,Friday Night Lights, in our town of Galena Park. Our high school fielded powerful teams for decades, and downtown businesses came to a complete halt just before kickoff. Civic pride soared on Friday nights when the stadium was traditionally filled to capacity as our squad squared off with rival Gulf Coast teams. Two successful Texas State Championship finalist’ teams in the 1960s left the town in a veritable state of euphoria. Neighborhood squabbles and political differences were put aside for one night as the whole town rallied around our local team’s efforts.
Our close proximity to one another required a certain civility that in due time created strong friendships and a solid community support system when problems arose. News of sickness at a local residence brought neighbors to front doorsteps armed with baked goods and covered dishes for dinner that evening. Often, the bounty was so plentiful that the supplies might last the whole week. Neighbors offered their company and helped families cope in their darkest hours. The gift of their presence was often humbling and taught us lessons in humility.
There was a sense of permanence felt as we found our place in the heart of this community. We strove to attain the graces of our neighbors and to possess a portion of their modesty and humility.
Our town was far from idyllic, and was typical of any place where people were thrown together and asked to make their own rules and live in civil accord. The experiment of suburbia was always destined to be an imperfect one. The cycle of dispute and resolution was as much a piece of the suburban experience as were the strong bonds which made the community the mainstay of modern society that it eventually became. But for the most part, it was rather extraordinary how well the experiment actually worked. We found enough in common at the intersection of our neighbors’ lives that the weight of daily life was eased and made lighter.
Yes, many of us did eventually leave our hometown to pursue some of those dreams that Mr. Simon wrote about in My Little Town. But it was not for the reason he suggested in his song. As you observe those 1940s yearbook pictures of the cheerleaders’ beaming faces, it becomes difficult to imagine that they sensed any limitation and confinement by their hometown surroundings.
No, our townspeople hardly limited the future of its young people. In fact, they sacrificed for us and helped sustain those hopes and expectations, and we all eventually lived richer and fuller lives because of them.
Bob Vickrey is a freelance writer whose columns have appeared in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle and the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.