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Why I wouldn’t want to live in suburbia

By Ang Lloyd

I was born in Troyeville, Johannesburg, back when it was still considered “nice”. For the first two years of my life we lived opposite Gandhi’s old house. My mother has told me about a neighbour, Adolf, who, after the Jews moved out and the Portuguese moved in, he ominously whispered to my father, in low, guttural tones, “You must moeff, Pete. You must MOEFF”. So they moved.

I grew up on the East Rand, an area where post-boxes were giant golf balls, gnomes lived in gardens, and Datsuns had furry dashboards. The further east, the rougher the edges got. But, no matter where you went, people put water-filled two-litre Coke bottles on their lawns; these transparent canine scarecrows were, and still are, the scattered plastic symbols of white South African suburbia.

Fast forward a decade or two and the dismantling of that unsightly monolith called apartheid. The middle-class refractions of the rainbow still embrace white picket fences, although I think that for some, it’s more of an awkward hug. Many feel that they don’t have a choice but to live in “gated communities”, citing safety concerns and crime.

But there is a choice, and I learnt this after I moved to Bezuidenhout Valley. Bez Valley and surrounds were born out of the gold rush in 1886, and, technically, it’s an “old suburb”. But, before I continue, I feel that an important distinction needs to be made between “suburb”, “suburbia”, and connotations of the latter.

By definition, a suburb refers to a residential area that’s close to a city centre or urban area. So, by definition, yes, Bez Valley is a suburb — but a more accurate description would be an inner-city neighbourhood.

Suburbia refers to the suburbs as a whole, a collective, as well as areas that are located further away from city centres. However, the key distinction that needs to be made here is that the word suburbia is associated with a) a certain income level, and b) a certain mind-set.

In South Africa, suburbia is associated with high walls, access to private security and faux Tuscan architecture. It’s also based on a mentality of “us” and “them”: of keeping to oneself, and keeping out the “other”. Suburbia is a boomed-off, “nice” place, with “good” schools and the “right” people.

In Bez Valley people don’t care whether or not dogs shit on their lawns. Instead, kids play soccer in the street after school, using bricks as goal posts, and everyone greets each other in passing. An old man with a long, white beard stands on the corner each morning and evening, a hobo Father Christmas. I know that his name is Vito, and he is sometimes joined by a nameless, thin white man whose skin has an alcoholic tinge: our two-man neighbourhood watch.

There’s an old Chinese lady who lives opposite us, and whose twin daughters visit her, usually on a Sunday. There are a couple of Indian families, and our neighbours are Congolese. I think there are Ethiopians on the corner, as I happened to drive past one Sunday, and a group of people — swathed in the most beautiful gold and white robes — were waiting to be let in. I suspect there are Nigerians too, as occasionally I’ve heard their deep, baritone shouting late at night in street brawls.

When people ask, “So, where do you stay?” I always answer, “the ghetto”. But I use this term with affection, not with disdain.

A drawback of living in the ghetto is the noise: stray dogs regularly go insane at night, and sometimes taxis trundle along the road in the pre-dawn hours, hooting or reverbing outside a driveway until morning. I’ve also become increasingly envious of friends who have spacious gardens, as ours is small, mostly concrete, and more often than not, “turd-studded” (to steal a description from Stephen King).

But the pros definitely outweigh the cons.

I love how our neighbour across the road waves at me every morning, and the fact that I often unconsciously sing along to the call to prayer that echoes from the nearby mosque. I like that I can see Ponte’s red glow on my drive back from my night-time tai chi lessons. I like that we have old, creaky wooden floors and a bay window that looks onto a tree-lined, people-filled street. I also enjoy getting lost in Troyeville, as I get to admire some of the city’s best street art, and, at night, the most amazing views of Joburg’s skyline.

I don’t live in suburbia because I don’t have the money, admittedly, but it’s much more than that: The ghetto has changed my perceptions about city living. I’ve also learnt that having an urban Joburg existence doesn’t mean living in a loft in Maboneng. For me, Bez Valley represents what is alive and challenging. Suburbia, on the other hand, represents stagnation. I know that the valley holds more stories, creativity and history than Fourways or Sandton ever could.

I don’t think I could do suburbia again. I wouldn’t want to.

I’d much rather have calls to prayer, friendly neighbours … and dog poo on the lawn.

Ang Lloyd is an observer, traveller and storyteller. She is also a journalist and Joziphile.

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