The other day I found myself grabbing coffee in Burlingame, a suburb that feels strikingly similar to where I grew up in Florida. As my dad and I sat on the train back to the city, we compared and contrast urban life and suburbia.
In cities, there are neighborhoods that are nicer than others, often dramatically so. Pacific Heights vs. the Tenderloin. However, those neighborhoods are practically adjacent, and only a half-hour walk apart, or 6 minute drive. Walking through the city, particularly downtown, it’s not uncommon to see people laying in a grassy park or on the side of the street, passed out and surrounded by trash and needles.
In Burlingame, or any nice suburb, it’s generally quite easy to avoid these painful sights. In suburb sprawl, it’s easy to hide others struggles behind freeway noise barriers and strategically placed routes. One of my dad’s friends, who lives in San Francisco but recently visited southern Florida for the first time, noted how clean Tampa, Sarasota, Captiva, Palm Beach, and the Keys were. It’s true, they are, particularly relative to San Francisco, clean—for those who can afford it. Although Florida’s population is only a little more than half that of California, Florida has 174% more mobile homes. According to USDA records from 2019, while 11.8% of Californians live in poverty, 12.7% of Floridians do. While this data doesn’t suggest that poverty is not an issue in California, it does show that it is just as much of an issue in Florida. Yet, when driving through Florida’s ‘well-designed’ sprawl, it can be difficult to see this reality.
Visiting Burlingame, I was reminded of childhood. Everyone dressed the same. The stores were basically the same. The sidewalks are made with pavers instead of concrete. And part of me felt insecure. When life is so comfortable, in my experience, it’s easy to loose perspective and make yourself miserable. Returning to the city, while I don’t enjoy seeing others suffering, it reminds me that I’m doing okay. Whatever petty things I’m worried about at the moment is, in the grand scheme of life, often not worth sweating.
I think this “keeping up with the Jones’” happens at every level and context. And honestly, I have little clue on how to avoid it. Reflecting and affirming my values on a daily basis helps some. Watching documentaries and reading. Volunteering. Meditating and taking a moment to be grateful each day. It all sounds a bit corny, but does help. Being in San Francisco helps—there’s something about the people here that makes it difficult to feel self-conscious. Talking about this with close friends also helps some. I still have a lot to figure out on this front.