Why I’m Embarrassed (Sort Of) to Live in the Philly Suburbs

The city is booming like never before, a mecca for the cool and the connected. So why am I here, in the land of strip malls, minivans and Olive Garden?
Illustration by Nurit Benchetrit

Illustration by Nurit Benchetrit

I lean back in the salon chair, making small talk with Jacques as he squishes shampoo through my hair. We’ve ticked through most of the conversation-starters — kids, pets, work — so I know it’s coming. And of course it does: “So where do you live?” he asks.

I close my eyes, brace myself — because I know exactly how this conversation will pan out — and answer: “Yardley.”

His reply comes rapid-fire, like clockwork: “Really? I thought for sure you lived in the city. You look like a city girl.”

I could play coy here, insist I don’t know what he means, but I do. I dress funky, like someone who might live in a converted Fishtown garage or an artsy Callowhill loft — lots of layers, mostly black, heaps of clanging jewelry. Plus, I’m just this side of young (33), I don’t shop at Wegmans, I buy the majority of my clothes at indie boutiques, and, most importantly, I don’t have kids, the main reason most people my age begrudgingly flee the city. Then there’s the fact that at 6 p.m. on a Thursday night, I’m in a slick Rittenhouse salon and not eating dinner at a P.F. Chang’s somewhere amid hay bales and cows, which I’m sure is how Jacques imagines the suburbs to be.

In any case, I’m prepared for his reaction, and my explanation is quick and recited, like the Lord’s Prayer at church or my order at Chipotle: “Actually” — I always lead with “actually” — “it’s great, because I spend 90 percent of my time in the city for work, so I really just go home to sleep, and it’s quiet there and I can relax.” Jacques doesn’t nod his agreement speedily enough, so I tack on my clincher: “And I have a garage.” Aha!

This suburban conversation is one I dread, not only because it’s become so scripted — their surprise, my practiced nonchalance — but also because I sense the subtext of that surprise: Oh. I thought you were cooler than that. And also because, deep down, some small part of me agrees with them: I should be in the city. Or, at the very least, I should want to be in the city.

Now more than ever, Philadelphia — with its meteoric development and growth — telegraphs culture, connection, a sense of blossoming promise and innovation. The zeitgeist (and the media) grows more citified with every passing year, with every new pop-up beer garden, every bikeshare, every newly imagined public space that transforms the asphalt jungle into some shiny community utopia. Heck, even my parents’ generation is ditching the suburban sprawl for sleek two-story walk-ups in Center City.

Yet here I am, in Yardley, miles outside the hype.

It’s odd, if you think about it. Since when have white picket fences represented anything close to a counterculture? But I don’t feel like an iconoclast — even an accidental one. I mostly just feel sort of … embarrassed.

FOR A WINK of a moment, when I was 23, I almost moved to Philly, to a dim studio above a dentist’s office on Pine Street. I was living with my parents in the house I grew up in, schlepping to my unpaid internship and various temp jobs, paying my dues. This move was my chance — I would break away and become a cosmopolitan woman who drank martinis, stomped around the city in stilettos and ate lots of brunches. (Sex and the City was still big then, misguiding the dreams of millions of small-town teenagers.) I felt the pull of Philadelphia — more energetic than Yardley, more manageable than New York.

The broker for my new apartment needed money on the spot. I left to hit the ATM, and by the time I returned, a fistful of cash (nearly my entire bank account) balled up in my palm, another woman was signing the lease. “Sorry, sweetheart,” the broker said with a noncommittal shrug, happy to deliver me my first slap of reality. To think of the insider access to teeth-whitening I almost had! The loss pains me still.

Before I could recover and find another apartment, I met my now-husband, in Yardley. He grew up there, too, a mere 10 minutes from me. Why flee the suburbs now? I thought. Things were just getting interesting. Still, I never abandoned my city dream, at least not entirely. It’s why my life can now be measured in hours spent on the godforsaken West Trenton line, ping-ponging back and forth to my Center City office, to a job that offers me a piece of Philly, my daily link to exciting urbanism and promise. I wonder sometimes what my life would be like if I didn’t have my city job. (I imagine something like George Clooney in the movie Gravity, cartwheeling around in invisibility, adrift in outer space.)

Admittedly, I’m veering into the dramatic here. Certainly, my husband has no such worries. He’s a strictly small-town guy who works in Bensalem, and who white-knuckles the steering wheel when he drives through crowded city streets, jaw clenched, looping endlessly around to find the easiest parallel-parking spot. This is in large part why we ended up in a townhouse surrounded by sweet retirees and career-minded 40-somethings. There are a handful of people our age in our development, but we usually only see them as we run by them on the wide path that winds by our house, past two tiny ponds heavy with geese. When this happens, I stare at them as if they’re a museum exhibit: You too?

The truth, though, is that even though it may not feel like it, and even though the popular narrative suggests otherwise, the 30-something suburbanite isn’t nearly as rare as it seems. While the recent urban renaissance we hear so much about has been tirelessly attributed to millennials, that’s only part of the story. Sure, there’s a flood of millennials in the city. There’s a flood of millennials everywhere — upwards of 80 million of them. According to census reports, not only are 25-to-29-year-olds statistically more likely to move to the suburbs than they are to choose the city, but 30-to-44-year-olds are migrating to the suburbs at faster rates than they did back in the ’90s. So, yes, young and (presumably?) cool people do exist in the suburbs. You just don’t read about them.

What you do read about is some of what has fueled my existential anxiety: On a personal level, I may grapple with the perception that I’m a townie (or, worse, a classic case of failure to launch), but there’s also the larger, stickier cultural baggage attached to the word “suburb”: Stepford wives. Soccer moms. White flight. McMansions. T.G.I. Friday’s.

Some of these characterizations may be justified, but they’re also wildly reductive, and not particularly flattering. Rather than sorting through that tension, I find it easier to be a sort of Pennsylvanian Batman: By day, I’m a city girl, Ubering to coffee meetings with chic boutique owners and other stylish folk. At night I transform quietly into a suburban housewife, rolling our trash cans up our driveway (we have a driveway!) to our garage, picking up our neighbors’ newspapers (they’re on a cruise — their granddaughter lives in Philadelphia; they used to subscribe to Philly Mag before it got “way too young”), driving to Giant for almond milk in my Batmobile.

And by Batmobile, I mean my Volvo.

I HAVE A FRIEND, Ashley, who checks off all the classic suburban-housewife boxes: She lives in Yardley, in a sweeping brick colonial with a pool out back. Beyond the pool there’s a volleyball net and a swing set nestled in a circle of wood chips. Her car has a vanity plate: STPFRD (a self-deprecating joke that raises eyebrows in the carpool line). We took this car to Doylestown once, where we went shopping and then to a wine bar in the middle of the afternoon. I felt like a member of the Real Housewives, only not as combative and far less tan.

But there’s also this: Ashley goes to Philly almost as much as I do, ferrying her kids to the Please Touch Museum, the Art Museum, the Franklin Institute. She’s cultured. She’s cool. She’s seen Hamilton! In fact, Ashley embraces the city more than some of my friends who actually live there.

And I’ll admit: Even though I know this isn’t a competition — cities and suburbs tugging at the same rope — I get a small tingle of reassurance when the City-as-Everything narrative is flopped on its side. And in reality, it often is. Not only are millennials hightailing it to the suburbs, but lots of those suburbs are giving them more reasons to stay, sprouting destination shopping spots like Terrain (Glen Mills), buzzy brewpubs like Tired Hands (Ardmore), and a new wave of distilleries like Bluebird (Phoenixville), Boardroom Spirits (Lansdale) and Manatawny (Pottstown). There’s a Distrito in the Moorestown Mall! Leonardo DiCaprio and Tina Fey are rumored to have castle-like homes in Bucks County. True, Tina also has a multimillion-dollar apartment in New York where she lives almost all of the time, but when she needs a getaway, she — probably, maybe? — flees the city and heads to Bucks.

It occurs to me that this is what I do, too. (Tina Fey and I have so much in common!) My home is my getaway, a break from the city’s cacophony, which I love during the day but would surely drive me nuts in the middle of the night. The cultural (and my) fetishization of all things urban doesn’t take away from the fact that I live a stone’s throw from the Delaware Canal towpath, a beautiful trail along a rambling waterway with quaint red footbridges; sometimes I canoe down the canal with a picnic lunch, like Anne of Green Gables. (That’s a lie. I don’t do that, but I could, and just knowing I have that option is enough.) Sure, Yardley’s sleepy Main Street is mostly real estate offices and banks. But there’s Lake Afton, where kids fish in summer and ice-skate in winter, and Mil-Lee’s, a cozy diner that serves great omelets, and Vault, a cool craft brewpub in an old bank.

There’s also a slower tempo, which is the reason so many people move to our little pocket sandwiched between New York and Philly. It’s why my parents moved here decades ago, so that my dad could commute to Manhattan every day. It’s why you’ll see headlights pierce the darkness each morning as sleep-deprived commuters head like zombies to cities in both directions. And then they return at the end of the day, like me, back to their peace, their quiet, their SuperTargets and two-car garages.

I have another friend named Ashley. She lives in Queen Village, smack in the center of everything, the ultimate urbanite. I asked her recently how her weekend was, imagining beer gardens and BYOs and walks along the Schuylkill River Trail.

“We went to the ’burbs,” she said. She spends a lot of time out there, she told me — on play dates with suburban friends, using their pools, grilling, letting her kids swing on swing sets and ride bikes in looping cul-de-sacs.

“You know, sometimes I just pine for the suburbs,” Ashley said. “I mean, secretly.”

Published as “My Big Fat Suburban Secret” in Philadelphia magazine.