Despite being a college student during the Age of Aquarius, I was never a hippie. I was too shy to be a protester, thought drugs were stupid, and wouldn’t have known a pot plant from a begonia.
I loved the bellbottoms and the long hair, though. And I have to admit I did play the guitar (badly) and sing folk songs (equally badly). One of those songs was “Little Boxes,” that condemnation of the sameness and dreariness of middle-class suburban life written by Malvina Reynolds and sung by Pete Seeger. It added to our dictionaries the term “ticky tacky” for those houses that “all look just the same.”
Not long ago I visited a couple members of my family who have just become first-time homeowners. Their house is on the fringes of a fast-growing city, in a new suburban development. One morning I went for a walk through their neighborhood.
I walked past house after house, each built from one of four basic designs with only small variations. Each one sat on its own tiny lot with its own narrow front yard and miniature back yard, elbow-to-elbow with its neighbors on either side. I hadn’t gone more than a couple of blocks before “Little Boxes” started up in my head.
Today’s cookie-cutter houses, of course, require considerably more dough than the “little boxes” of the 1960’s. Malvina would have trouble writing this song today. Somehow, “little McMansions” just doesn’t have the same dramatic impact.
By the end of my walk, I had come to two conclusions. Thirty minutes of multiple choruses of “they all look just the same” is more than enough. And, with all due respect to Malvina and Pete, “Little Boxes” is a lie.
For one thing, with a closer look, it’s obvious that each of these houses, superficially so much like its neighbors, reflects the lives and personalities of its owners. Each one holds a unique family—from newlyweds like my kids to retirees, with every kind of family variation in between.
True, from the outside, their lives may well appear as similar as their houses—commuting to work farther than they would like in city traffic, coming home, cooking on the grill in their tiny back yards, taking kids to soccer games and ballet lessons and tae kwan doe.
But the lives lived out in these suburban tracts are just as unique, just as creative, just as full of love and joy and pain and satisfaction as lives lived anywhere else. That’s true whether you live in a high-rise apartment building in Ankara, in a gated hilltop mansion, on a beach in the South Seas, on a South Dakota ranch, or in a conventional suburban house just like thousands of others.
You don’t have to hike through Nepal or live off the grid or become an artist to march to the beat of your own drummer. You can build your own rich, full life anywhere. You can even, as a maturing former non-hippie, play folk songs (badly) on the piano in your own ordinary middle-class living room.