I recently went in search for an ‘anonymous suburb’. It is one of those hackneyed terms that makes a kind of sense in print – we probably all have an idea of what an ‘anonymous suburb’ is, yet – I suspect – in practise, on the ground, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. So I went to take a look.
Here are two examples from a random online search:
This from a piece on a wine critic in The Scotsman: “Cut to 2003 and West Norwood, an anonymous London suburb where a young, unassuming wine buyer for Japan Airlines began a wine blog…”
Or here in The New York Times: “But where once there was only one Ferguson — an anonymous suburb of St. Louis — now there is another: a small city whose name has become known for civil unrest, racial division and police harassment.”
I don’t always pause to think about the term, but when I do, there’s something about it that irks me. Irks me in the same way way that National news correspondents do if they talk about ‘The North’ – as if such a homogenous, generic region actually exists, somewhere up there, above the places that actually matter.
There’s something lazy and mean about the use of ‘anonymous’ alongside suburb – it’s an unnecessary adjective that serves as a petty gibe at a place the writer is probably unfamiliar with; a handy journalistic cliché to reach for on route to the apparent meat of the story.
In The York Times piece, the phrase is also freighted with the implication that before riot and protest and violence, Ferguson simply didn’t matter.
By its very nature, writing about place and landscape – whether urban, rural or spaces in between – centres on details, on landmarks, looking into those things that mark a particular location out – the sights, sounds, atmospheres, buildings, plants, animals and people that make one place distinct from another.
Is it possible, though, to do the opposite? To locate an absence, or go looking for places that are indistinguishable from anywhere else? Recently, inspired, or rather, provoked by another instance of ‘anonymous suburb’, I set out in search of such a place – a kind of anti-destination. I wanted to see if I could find some real-world anonymous streets, places without focus, spatial blurs devoid of interest. Handily I live in West Norwood, so figured I might not have too far to go.
I set off, quickly heading away from Norwood Road, the local high street, which would be no use in this context, being too full of specific shops, like the Electric Café, where Stav the owner might talk to you and say something interesting.
No, this quest called for side streets, the blander the better, with long stretches of unremarkable housing, preferably uninspiring blocks of 1960s or 70s flats, although row upon row of pebble-dashed semis, or Tudorbethan homes and some average looking Victorian terraces would do.
Surely there must be a place where these could be found; all merging into one another in their utter ordinariness?
I headed up York Hill, where at the bottom, rows of squat, square brown brick houses run along one side of the road, opposite the York Hill Estate – with its blocks of red brick Lambeth social housing – the uniform colour broken by white painted balconied walkways running along three floors of one of the buildings. Facing ‘Chapman House’ (damn, a name) stood a heavily pollarded London Plane– the acme of generic urban trees. Next to this on one of the brown brick buildings a yellow burglar alarm had a pattern of lighter, smaller plastic shapes placed around it, making it look like a blocky-daisy, or plastic sun.
This had seemed promising, but the harder I looked for the commonplace and the ordinary, the more detail and variety I noticed. I carried on up, over a functional brick built bridge over the railway. Houses now started to take on the standard suburban mix – a few drives with cars in them – a couple of Ford Focuses, so qualifying as pretty average in that respect. Maybe this could be that stereotypical un-place. Others still had front gardens with hydrangeas, hedges – some of privet – but also roses, grasses, even a tall palm tree.
Then there were the doors, windows (with and without twitching curtains) and other architectural features – most of them subtly different. Here were towers, Gothic revival motifs, Lions on gate lintels, shakily painted house numbers on bins, 1930s sunburst patterns on glass windows, this was no good at all…
I found myself walking in circles around Royal Circus at the top of the hill, wondering which branching arm of a street to take next; each stretching off and away, filled with house after house after house from this backstreet hub.
As I looked I couldn’t help but think of songs and books and poems that I associate with city life. Soft Cell’s Bedsitland with its living and loving behind closed doors, along countless marching roads of flats and homes. Echoes of Eliot’s Preludes, with thousands of hands, pulling at thousands of dingy shutters. Or Shara Nelson on Massive Attacks’ Safe From Harm singing of ‘lucky dippers, crazy chancers’ – at once a yearning for escape and a nostalgia for a particular place and time, all wrapped up in a vision of a pulsing, moody urban world, that’s both enticing and threatening.
In reflecting on such things when I walk and sharing them here, I am conscious that I am engaging in what writers or critics sometimes call ‘re-enchantment’ – infusing a place with literary and artistic associations to give it a significance or meaning it doesn’t inherently possess.
But I don’t think these surburban West Norwood Streets – Royal Circus, Knollys Road, Canterbury Grove, Glennie Road, York Hill etc, or any streets elsewhere need any self-conscious ‘re-enchantment’ to not be anonymous – there’s enough here, or there, in the small, everyday details to set them apart or spark interest without layering on history or poetry.
Just open your eyes on a walk down an ‘ordinary’ road and architectural or other details like those mentioned above will mark it out. Perhaps there’s a tall, ivy covered Horse Chestnut tree looming on a corner, a hopscotch game marked in chalk, trainers hanging from bare branches – suggesting a nearby drug dealer maybe, a pair of more modern houses amidst a row of Victorian ones – which might mean the originals were bombed in the Blitz, or may signify something else entirely.
I sometimes wonder why sparrows can be found chattering on one roof and not another, or at other times feel struck by their complete absence. Or I’ll saunter along and clock a crow, gull or magpie on a chimney and ask why it picked this one and not that. Other suburban signs of interest to look for can include rows of houses with names as well as numbers – not always the stereotypical suburban Dunromin either – but also Laureates and Beauclairs, or place names from somewhere else with titles like Something View. Who decided on these names and why?
Who lives in that dilapidated house, with the tatty net curtains, window always open, next to the trim and tidy one next door? Why do they both have lunette windows? What goes on in there? Start pondering on the insides; the shelves and what’s on them, or what isn’t, the photos on the walls, the basement kitchens with hands in the sinks…and the idle daydreaming possibilities are endless.
I like ambling along city side streets, always have. There’s something at once reassuring, yet also tantalising, about being faced with a long and winding street. An immanence can be felt sometimes – that sense that anything could happen, you could go anywhere along here and adventure might ensue.
All those lives, all those emotions behind closed doors – loving, fighting, arguing, preparing for work, rolling over without work to go to, affairs beginning, ending, children growing, learning, packing up and leaving, or just arriving.
To me, in unfashionable Freudian terms, side streets are the Id to the city centre’s Ego. The private, the internal subconscious of a city, where the real desires and machinations of its citizens take place, away from the visible, public arena of the high street.
So is there such a thing as an ‘anonymous suburb’? Maybe in London, as crazy prices and unimaginative developments continue the blanding of the city. Maybe as more and more areas become unaffordable to more of the people, and greater swathes of it become less of a mix of lives and classes, with those remaining dreaming the same dreams and thinking the same thoughts, perhaps then some kind of amorphous, increasingly vanilla, hollowed out urban landscape will have been created.
But I’m not sure that will happen – walk the streets of Sheffield, or Glasgow, or Bristol, Coventry, Lambeth, or Harringey today, go anywhere with open eyes and ears and I feel certain you won’t be able to locate an ‘anonymous suburb’.
For now I am happy to conclude that one day I set out on a walk to nowhere in particular, but couldn’t find it.