In Suburbia

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Short essay by Tom Keeley

 

I’ve always felt I understood places that were pretty ordinary, the places you wouldn’t normally look twice at. I’ve always been able to take joy from the less than exceptional, the unsung and the overlooked. The places whose charms creep up on you when you’re not looking.

I grew up in a suburb on the edge of Birmingham, a city in the center of England. You might’ve heard of Birmingham, though probably not for the most flattering of reasons. Its reputation precedes it as the most grey and ordinary of cities, all failed sixties concrete and overambitious civic redevelopments.

The suburb I lived in was remarkable in its ordinariness, with row after row of houses: some terraced, some semi, some detached. Most would have a car outside, sometimes two. The shops on the local parade sold a manner of useful but ordinary things; there were groups of kids hanging around by the bus stop. By the station you’d see the same man who’d always been there selling papers and sweets and cigarettes. It could have been any one of a hundred other places, but the important thing is that it wasn’t.

After leaving home I moved to Sheffield to go to university. Sheffield is another city that might be first perceived as ordinary. I’m not sure why exactly I ended up there, why I decided to choose it, whether it chose me, but I reckon it had something to do with Jarvis Cocker.

Sheffield is a seemingly humdrum kind of place, a city of kitchen sink dramas and strong civic histories played out on a set of hills and estates and steel works. It’s the kind of place made up of wet afternoons and romance, and a soft grit. At first it might seem like just another northern town, but it’s a city that’s stories and charms gradually ebb over you, like the refrain of a Pulp song heard over the radio in the supermarket.

Many of these kinds of places are not outwardly special. They may not even be interesting, aesthetically or otherwise. But they hold something dear, something stemming from frustration and boredom and familiarity. With the wind behind you on a good day they slip into a rhythm as the most exhilarating places in the world, against the odds.

Please don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I like these places exclusively, that I can’t be wooed by the sights and sounds of London, Paris, or New York. It’s just that I feel a part of them. I know what they’re like.

 

Tom Keeley works at the intersection of architecture, geography, landscape, and topography through writing, research, and publishing.
www.tom-keeley.com | @_tomkeeley

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