United States of Ambivalence

So, I’ve been here for nine days now.

My friend Eben said I’d get nervous, just before I went. I said I wouldn’t. And, actually… I didn’t. But a sort of unease has caught up with me. Could it be… homesickness?

‘I don’t get homesick’ – that’s my answer usually. I’ve never been a person who likes to stay where he is, and there’s certainly no love lost between myself and my tiny hometown, Northampton. Yet more and more, after six hundred and thirty miles, I find myself thinking, ‘this isn’t like England’.

And of course it’s not. And that’s fine. And there’s really a lot I love about America so far and I am having a great time. But I tell you what: it’s pretty easy to feel a creeping sense of alienation setting in. Let me explain what I mean.

Firstly, the towns are inside-out. If you’ve not been to America, you might assume as I did that the towns and cities would work in much the same ways as ours: a central hub of shops, bars, cafés etc., with a distinct business district and then housing spreading out around the both of them. Not so. Instead, all that’s at the centre of towns that I’ve seen so far are skyscrapers and business headquarters, with maybe one or two places to get a drink or sandwich. The usual urban terracing that we’re used to basically doesn’t exist in any recognizable form; instead the town is fringed with suburb after suburb after suburb. It must be because there’s so much space. For instance, in Knoxville where I am at the minute, the suburban sprawl goes on for about twenty miles. In comparison, Leicester might be about six or seven across, and that’s being generous.

So because there’s no people feeding into the city, there’s no point building lots of shops or places to eat there. The one exception I’ve found so far is Philadelphia’s South Street, which is a shopping street in the European mold. But generally speaking, you can’t ‘go into town’ in the same way that we mean it.

So where are all the stores and eateries? Well, they’re scattered throughout the massive business parks that crop up everywhere on the periphery. But this has two very obvious effects. Firstly, you have to drive everywhere. You cannot – literally cannot – just walk around as we might walk around town. You go to this place for these shops, by car, and then drive to this place for that shop – and there’s no point looking anywhere else because of the second effect: all the shops are the same. I’ve covered, like I said, over 600 miles by now, and I can tell you, for a country that’s supposed to be all about choice, there’s precious little of it. Okay, so a ‘Giant’ might become a ‘Peebles’ depending on your region, but they’re the same kind of shop. Independent shops are precious few and far between, and that’s understandable – how could they possibly compete in these business parks where the first thing you have to do is build your own gigantic store? The same with eateries; I’ve seen almost nothing but Arbys, Wendys, McDonalds, etc. Almost all places to eat I’ve seen so far are chains of some description.

So yes, the shopping park in Wilmington was the same as in Baltimore as in West Virgninia… and I see no reason to think that’s going to change. The shops remain the same, and apparently malls are seeing a big decline here, so in the near future it seems that the recipe of Get in car, Drive to stores, Shop, Drive home again will be the only option. And like I said, those shops are becoming an increasingly select and homogeneous few. In Roanoke, D. Chong was explaining to me how Radio Shack, an electronics chain, described its business models to employees.

‘They’re really aggressive,’ he said as we leaned on the railing of an overlook. ‘The manager once said that they defined market saturation as being within five miles of any given consumer’. He gestured at the town below. ‘They’re everywhere’.

It’s really pretty alienating. Everyone lives in their bubbles. The towns do organize events, but to me, compared to Europe, there’s no sense of a town. Even Milton Keynes, our (in)famous grid city, has shopping and eating at its commercial centre, and has some sort of character, if limited. Here? I don’t know. And I don’t think I like that all that much.

25 Responses to “United States of Ambivalence”


  1. 1 xantus 21/07/2009 at 2:17 pm

    all I can say is.. get to the west coast asap! though LA is the very definition of suburban sprawl, once you start heading north it gets… cozier.

  2. 2 mere_immortal 21/07/2009 at 2:20 pm

    There was a show on BBC4 a while back where Dave Gorman tried to drive across the US using nothing but independent and mom and pop stores, gas stations, motels etc.

    He went through the same as seems to be echoed in your blog and needless to say he didnt succeed. Kind of a shame, the small town charm seemed to keep America down to Earth, although judging by your host’s hospitality the people don’t seem to have lost it.

  3. 3 Houn 21/07/2009 at 2:21 pm

    You’ve hit it on the head; this is the side effect of Capitalism gone rampant. Corporations want their employees in one place, so we build high-rises. People want a nice little house with a yard and some space, so we build mile upon mile of suburbs. Around and in between, you have a million carbon-copy shops and eateries, each offering the exact same fare. Marketers will tell you it’s comforting to know that you can get the same McRib sandwich in PA as you can in CA.

    It really is an issue, and a large part why, in my opinion, there’s no sense of “community” in America; at least not in the cities. Everything is so homogeneous, why would you be attached to or care about a single facet of it?

    I’d love to see the UK some day, if only to experience first-hand the ability to walk from my home to the places I want to be.

    • 4 Icemopper 21/07/2009 at 2:56 pm

      It seems to me that you and Flippy have missed the parts that actually are local shops, and that actually are within walking distance. If you’d stayed in Roanoke more, Flippy, you would have noticed the fresh market we have downtown that many people frequent. You might have also seen the coffee shops that are in some back road that are local to our city. I can walk to a grocery store and a laundromat and even a pharmacy within 3 minutes. We really are a town, just as much as we are a community. Slow down, and you’ll find out.

      • 5 Nackmatholn 21/07/2009 at 6:45 pm

        Bingo Icemopper! Though my current employment prohibited me from getting a chance to hang out with Flippy, I most definitely agree that Roanoke has it’s charm. We have Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea local to the blue ridge, various swap shops and mom and pops hiding in local franklin county. The Grandin Theater (yes an actual non chain theater in this state of Regal this, and Carmike that). Hell I’m even within stumbling distance of 2 Bars!

        Don’t judge us as all sellout towns when you didn’t even spend that much time here Flippy, that’s rather unreasonable.

  4. 6 Bursar 21/07/2009 at 2:45 pm

    The chains are definitely the more omnipresent places you’ll see: closer to the main roads, more popular, covered with blazing neon and corporate-fabricated logos, and most importantly, they have the money to shoulder their way into the heavily-trafficked areas. In order to find independent mom ‘n’ pop places, you generally have to go out of your way.

    That’s not to say that they aren’t there. They definitely do exist. Ask to go to a “coffee shop” (which is a family-diner type restaurant, not a Starbucks) for a meal.

  5. 7 nailbunny 21/07/2009 at 3:21 pm

    Its also worth noting that you can avoid a lot of those places, but its an active process. We don’t eat at chain restaurants, only local and family owned. Kid Sheleen’s, Grotto Pizza, and Atilio’s are all very much local establishments (the places we had dinner from while you were visiting.)

    We shop at a lot of big box stores to save money, though. If you are a price conscious consumer, you don’t buy a TV without comparing prices with Best Buy (or Amazon for that matter.) You can find local or family owned stores, but they can often be more expensive. That said, they will usually make up for the cost with exceptional quality of service, but that’s rarely a priority for a price conscious consumer.

    Also, there are some areas that are not friendly to big box stores, corporations, chains, etc. The neighborhood I live in was one of them. They approved a Subway to move in, but we don’t eat there in hopes that they will move out.

  6. 8 nailbunny 21/07/2009 at 3:22 pm

    Remember when you asked me about Olive Garden?

  7. 9 SwashbuckerXX 21/07/2009 at 3:56 pm

    I suspect that once you hit the deep South, you’ll start to gain an appreciation for the amazing patchwork of cultures across the USA. Sure, there’s a lot of sameyness on the surface (which I detest), but once you scratch that surface, there’s a ton of diversity there.

    Of the cities you’re going that I know well… the French Quarter in New Orleans is incredibly unique, especially if you duck around the Ugly-Tourist-Ridden main drag and visit some of the smaller restaurants and art galleries there. Las Vegas is, well, Las Vegas. Balboa Park in San Diego is very nifty (and you can’t argue with the Pacific Ocean), Santa Barbara has a lovely downtown, San Francisco is da bomb, Portland and Seattle also have neat downtown areas.

    Downtown Minneapolis is a drag (don’t bother unless you have a specific destination in mind), but there are some very neat neighbourhoods in the Twin Cities; just make sure a local takes you around. If you’re a fantasy/scifi reader, you MUST visit Dreamhaven Books in Minneapolis. Chicago is another place that’s best seen with a local guide, but if you have one, you can see some great stuff.

    Every city has its prize-winning burger joint, but you might want to gently request that your hosts help you sample the wide varieties of ethnic foods available in different cities in the States. Your arteries will thank you!

    • 10 Arminas 22/07/2009 at 10:53 am

      Well! Assuming Flippy does stay with me for his duration in Chicago, I’ll be sure to take him to fewer sky scrapers and more drives! I promise to only feed him home cooking or non-corporate food. Unless he would like the sample the horror and amazement that is White Castle.

      I could make a flow chart out of this. Like a choose your own adventure!

    • 11 Arminas 22/07/2009 at 10:53 am

      By ‘drives’, I mean ‘dives’.

  8. 12 pil 21/07/2009 at 4:08 pm

    Lexington, Kentucky is exactly what Flippy here describes, and I hate it so much. There is a downtown where some of the stuff is, if you’re talking about beer and restaraunts, but other than that, what Flippy said. But what you’re facing is also pretty exaggerated by the short times you’re spending in areas, and the traveling itself. Eat three meals every day at different restaraunts in Queens, New York, and you’d never have to eat at a chain or the same place once in months. Plus, there’s four more buroughs including Manhattan where you can probably do that Queens experiment with a street.

    I’ve been told Austin has a good independent business scene, as does Seattle, so I’m hoping you’ll be surprised.

    But you’re right; driving everywhere is a pretty big deal in the Mid-West and the South. And it blows. Nailbunny is correct; it requires an active effort, and in my town in suburbia, the number of independent business is abysmally small: mostly bars, there was an electronics place that closed, and a couple of restaurants (the Mexican restaurants do excellent here, and there’s an Italian place here that I hope is doing well). But if people want something, they drive to the giant stores or restaurants and bars in Lexington.

  9. 13 flippyd 21/07/2009 at 4:11 pm

    I’m hoping it’s what some people say, and that it’s just because I’m having to move at pace. As I said elsewhere, I’d love to be shown the wrongness of the post =)

    And I’m very much looking forward to Seattle and New York in particular.

  10. 14 Asiina 21/07/2009 at 4:12 pm

    I think much of the reason you feel alienated or cut off from the people in the places you’re visiting is your own fault for the way that you’ve designed your trip. There are a lot of exciting, postcard worthy tourist destinations in the places you’re going, without a doubt. From what I understand, you’re trying to pack in as many as possible, but you’ll never see the real country that way. Just what regular tourists see. You have the advantage of having a companion in each destination who knows the area, knows that maybe this monument isn’t all there is to see in their city, knows the little stores and restaurants and destinations that really make their home special to them. Yet it doesn’t feel like you’re taking advantage of that at all.

    If you were to visit me, I know the places you’d want to see. Parliament Hill, the National War Memorial, the National Gallery, the War Museum, the Rideau Canal, etc. All are perfectly fine tourist destinations that will give you a nice taste of what pretty things Ottawa has. But they wouldn’t give you a sense of real Ottawa. If you were here, I would take you to the nature preserve by my apartment for hiking where you can walk amongst Canadian Geese and wildlife. I’d take you downtown to the Byward Market where local farmers and merchants have booths selling their wares, and you can get the best, freshest food in the city, and listen to people busking on the street not out of need, but for enjoyment of music. I’d take you to Sparks Street, which is an all pedestrian street with some great shops. I’d take you to Hog’s Back Falls or Major’s Hill Park or Billings Estate. You won’t find most of these places on tourist website.

    If you feel like you’re missing a sense of community in your travels, then let your hosts actually guide you to the true features of their cities. They can be used for more than their couches and spare bedrooms.

    • 15 Icemopper 21/07/2009 at 4:17 pm

      This says it well. You can get what you’re getting by looking it up on Google. When I went to Germany, sure I went to those touristy places, but the times where I really found German culture were when I let a local lead me around, take me to a back alley pub, and understand their culture for what it is.

      We are not your culture, we are not your home, and you’re missing out on what we’re offering.

      • 16 Asiina 21/07/2009 at 4:32 pm

        Exactly. Not every moment has to be planned down to the minute. Allow your hosts to decide some places that you should go. They know the area much better than you ever will.

  11. 17 flippyd 21/07/2009 at 4:45 pm

    Guys, that is what I’m doing, you do know that right.

    I mean that was a big point of this trip is that people would know what was around and would take me to cool places that I’d never see, which is exactly what has been happening. I mean you only have to read about my time with Nailbunny and Job for clear examples of stuff I wouldn’t have known about at all.

    That doesn’t mean that what I wrote isn’t ALSO accurate.

    • 18 Icemopper 21/07/2009 at 5:01 pm

      You’re not staying in one place for more than a week, are you?

      How do you expect to find any sort of community by staying less than 15 hours? Less than 3 days? Heck, even a week isn’t good enough.

      • 19 flippyd 21/07/2009 at 5:16 pm

        Community isn’t the same thing as what I mean by a town’s character. I’m definitely not saying that there’s no community. I thought my post was clear, but I guess not. I have to go out now though.

        • 20 Icemopper 21/07/2009 at 5:21 pm

          I said it in the thread but I’ll say it again, community and character of a town are intrinsically linked. There is plenty of both here, but really, you can’t see it when you’re moving so fast.

  12. 21 Skarsol 21/07/2009 at 5:19 pm

    Wait till you come through Houston. Our sprawl gobbles up entire other cites and continues on unchecked. 😛 If you’re stopping at the downtown Greyhound station for any length of time, the main Spec’s warehouse is within walking distance and might be worth checking out if you want to see the Texas sized version of a liquor store. It’s 80,000 sq ft including deli, and walk in humidor.

  13. 22 tekko88 21/07/2009 at 5:19 pm

    I have lived in the United States my whole life. And was lucky enough to have traveled in and around South Cerney, Cirencester twice, for about a week each time. And the difference is really quite profound. I worked for a company that was based out of the UK and got to meet people on both sides of the pond. The reactions of the people that came over to the US always had a similar reaction. Some finding it more appealing over here and others counting the days till they went back. Over in the UK you could walk out the door of your hotel and instantly be surrounded by a bunch of different places to go, all with in walking distance. And each one seemed unique and privately owned. Over here you need to go in between the large chains and rampant capitalism to find anything unique and privately owned.

  14. 23 MKR 21/07/2009 at 5:59 pm

    Try to remember that most towns in the UK are centuries or even close to a millennium old, while most places in the US are a few centuries old at most.

    Northampton was probably lacking in character too when it was only 300 years old. 😛

  15. 24 lemur 22/07/2009 at 9:59 am

    Part of the issue you’re noticing is linked to the history of the cities you’re visiting. Cities in the US, particularly in the South, were designed around the automobile. This is because most of the development in this country didn’t happen until the early 20th century. The oldest cities in the Northeast (not in the South because they were all razed and rebuilt) escape this trend; Boston comes to mind as a “walking” city.

    I’m not going to waste any effort defending Knoxville. It is a horrible, mundane town with little character and I warned you. It is, however, surrounded by some gorgeous countryside, and I’m sorry you didn’t get to see Cade’s Cove or the Cumberland Gap. I’m also sorry you don’t get to see Nashville, which is IMO one of the few big southern towns with real character (the others all in the Carolinas; New Orelans is not “southern” and Atlanta seems to be everything Flippy is railing against in this post), or any of the hilly Tennessee countryside where I grew up (without a McDonald’s OR an Arby’s =p). The character of the South is found more in its small towns (I am biased, having grown up in one), which of course you’re missing. Please promise me you’ll eat barbecue (pulled pork) at some podunk ma and pa joint before you get to Louisiana.

  16. 25 HallowedOurai 23/07/2009 at 1:08 am

    Wait a second, I resent being called Jobastion’s “flatmate”. I’m far too round. Jobastion is the “flatmate”.


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