Montreal vs. Connecticut

I live in Montreal, in a neighborhood where everyone is noisy all the time: soccer fans, college kids, street people, muscle cars, good drivers honking at bad drivers, bad drivers sobbing uncontrollably, kids playing the street. Just about everyone makes a joyful sound. Only junkies on the nod in the park withhold their contribution from the city’s din. I live in Bedlam where the moon is always full.

Take a plane and a train and I am in a suburban Connecticut. This world has free standing homes with commanding entrances, color coordinated gardens, trees that reach for the sky, and lawns that roll on and on. There is some noise: birds, lawn movers, houses ceaselessly renovating themselves. But all this happens so far away, it might as well be happening in another county. The only blight on this landscape is the Cris Craft someone has left at the far end of their property. This is Connecticut’s idea of an eyesore.

Even on the weekend, people are well appointed, beautiful, rested. They are genial and say hello to strangers. But then everyone here does have something in common: they have won one of life’s lotteries. Actually, you can’t live here unless you have won most of life’s lotteries: intelligence, beauty, ambition, determination. The little local store looks like a film shoot, with everyone from central casting. The women are more interesting than Stepford wives but not less beautiful.

Montreal in the post war period was a little like Cape Canaveral. My neighborhood was all Jewish families preparing kids for lift off. Fifty years later, these kids now help run Canada, serving as distinguished jurists, university presidents, top surgeons, politicians, lords of capital, architects and writers, Mordicai Richler among them. This is that urban neighborhoods are good at, mixing raw talent with urban opportunity. Houston, we have ignition.

By contrast, the suburb is the place that ideas and ideators are supposed to come to die. Softened by self indulgence, lulled into a sense of complacency, stupefied by good fortune, things coast to a stop. Before you know it, your career is a Cris Craft sitting at the end of the garden. Every so often you think, “we really should take that out for a spin.” And then you don’t, again today.

This is in any case what the intellectuals tell us. The suburban paradise is a trap. It is the worst place for something who has taken orders in the University of Chicago priest hood. The instructions are clear: renounce the world, refuse distraction and blandishment, indulge the idea, not the ideator. And particularly: do not live in a leafy suburb!

Hmmm. But has anyone actually done an empirical test of the proposition that suburbs are bad for the life of the mind. Shouldn’t someone actually do a participant observation?

9 thoughts on “Montreal vs. Connecticut

  1. 'burb mom

    I think you would be the perfect candidate, an urban objective observer in the suburbs. May I suggest a particular vantage point?

  2. james b

    Not quite suburban ethnography, but Setha Low’s work in gated communities is quite interesting. If I remember correctly she doesn’t directly address intellectual stagnation being a product or peripheral of ‘fortress america’, but she does postulate that gated communities reinforce prevously situated notions of alterity in their inhabitants and a consequnce of this is that they nurture some sort of ‘culture of fear.’

  3. Anon

    This may be tangential but,

    I’m surprised at your description of Connecticut since I live there and find it to be a really mixed bag. Sure there are some places with nice houses and lawns where people are kind of friendly, but for the most part I find the people to be rushed and rude, their kids spoiled and rude, the housing way overpriced, the environment polluted, on and on… and nobody is particularly good looking especially after a few years of eating at the Dunkin Doughnuts that they have every 1000 feet along each road.

    But then maybe you confined all your observations to Greenwich?

  4. 'burb mom

    If that is how you see things in Connecticut, then you will have that same negativity where ever you go. Unfortunately, there will be a Dunkin’ Donuts there, too.

  5. LK

    the picture you paint of ‘the good life’ in connecticut does not at all appeal to this urban dweller of a mid-size city, known around the world for its breathtaking beauty. still,i would be interested to hear what readers think/know about john helliwell and his work on happiness and income. here’s an excerpt from an essay he wrote in 2003 called “Income and happiness: rethinking economic policy”.

    there’s a cartoon and a diagram that accompanies this, but you’ll have to just imagine those for now


    I showed that in advanced countries happiness has not risen, despite unprecedented increases in income. Today I want to try to explain this, and to draw some policy conclusions. But first I need to start with a caution. A s the golfer says[in the adjacent cartoon “Researchers say I’m not happier for being richer, but do you know how much researchers make?” In one sense the golfer is on to something. For there are two key facts that we have to explain. First at any one time rich people are on average happier than poorer ones. And yet over time advanced societies have not grown happier a s they have grown richer. In 1975 rich people were happier than poor ones. The same was true in 1998, when both groups were both richer than before But in 1998 each group was no more happy then before, despite its higher income. That is the challenge, and the paradox. It is an absolutely standard pattern in all countries. And indeed we find much the same if, instead of taking two dates for the same country, we take two countries at the same time – with one country being richer than another. So what is going on? On the one hand a given individual in a given country becomes happier if he is richer, And that is why most people want to be richer. But at the same time, when the whole society becomes richer, nobody seems to be any happier.>>

  6. Grant

    to post authors: all these points are good ones, I was as usual running on stereotypes and connecticut grows every more interesting and nuanced. Last night I had dinner with a guy who give me a detailed geological account of the formation of Long Island sound, and I discovered from another source that this was once called the mediterranean of north america. It takes awhile to shift the stereotypes, and this anthropologist is inclined to exorcise them through repeated use. Will keep you posted. Thanks, grant

  7. john


    Cities always differ from the suburbs. The city area is always full of people around. Else the suburb let people live their lives peacefully. The standard of living may be down but they are ones who love to do good things and live long.
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