Home for the sprawlidays

Nov 30, 2015 at 3:44 pm

Thanksgiving has come and gone, and now that everybody has a refrigerator full of leftovers, here’s a little Monday-morning quarterbacking.

It arrived at my household with an early-morning alarm bell, so fixings could be prepared for the Thanksgiving breakfast out on the west side, which meant we had to be in the car and traveling by 9 a.m. We had to have our meal in the morning because my niece had to have dinner with her Dad’s family way over on the east side. By then, we’d have gone back home to pack some light bags, taken a detour downtown to pick up a relative, and driven out to Lansing for another family function. With luck, and several restoring morning mimosas, we’d make it back home by 5 p.m. Thursday.

These days, Thanksgiving doesn’t just come with a meal. It comes with a two-day, 200-mile itinerary. Even before I sat down to the first meal of the day, we were feeling a little stressed-out. Out on the west side, watching an endless convoy of jets coming in for the landing at Detroit Metro Airport, I found myself shaking my head and muttering, “You poor bastards” at all the holiday travelers careening overhead. The one worse thing than driving all over creation is getting on (and off) that airborne bus. I guess it made me feel somewhat thankful that I wasn’t in their shoes.

So I put out the question to some friends on social networking: How many miles did you log this weekend? The holiday hosts registered the lowest number: a nice round zero. The low end of the spectrum for the rest was around 60. From there it soared into the hundreds and even broke 1,000. Obviously, some people were leaving the state to see family, and that can’t be helped.

But what surprised me the most was that people who lived in metro Detroit, and visited with relatives in metro Detroit, seemed to travel farther than Marco Polo might during a busy month. Some couples split the weekend between parents, which meant logging lots of miles on the odometer and attempts to eat more than three holiday meals in 36 hours.

Recalling childhood Thanksgivings, I realized that there was a time when almost everybody in my immediate family all lived within five miles of one another. Thanksgiving involved getting everybody into a car and being in it for less than 20 minutes. The rest of the day was devoted to feasting, drinking, and watching a lot of television. It lasted late into the evening, and was truly leisurely — at least for the guys back in the den watching football.

And then, one year, my cousin built his dream home out in Oakland County, in a new subdivision at the back end of some roadkill-covered mile road. Thanksgiving suddenly involved more than two hours in the car, driving somewhere and coming back. It still compares favorably to this week, for instance, in which I spent almost four hours in transit, but it changed the whole tenor of the holiday. Instead of having the entire family spend all that time together in a modest house, the family spent somewhat less time together in an oversized house. And continued to do so year after year. The holiday became less about all of us being together and more about visiting somebody’s fabulous home with its amazing large-screen television.

It’s not my intention to lecture anybody on the fragmenting family or the individual choices that have made holidays into cruel journeys with tight schedules and lots of driving. But there is one potent ingredient in this Thanksgiving tale that is beyond our control: sprawl.

The promise of our car-centric culture was one of freedom. We’d be free to do the things we wanted to do, to not have to wait, to be able to be anywhere we wanted to as quickly as possible. And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that.

But what happened was (with the generous help of real estate developers) it created a world where everything could be much, much further away from everything else. Or “just a short drive away,” as they say. And since we have the freedom to go anywhere we like, why not move everything further out still? You’re already driving for a half-hour; what’s 10 minutes more? Slap a few freeways across and around the region and raise the speed limit, and now things can be even further apart. And since we’ve shaved 15 minutes off the travel time, why not build things 15 minutes further away? “It’s just a short drive.”

Keep doing this to a region for decades, and something happens. As Yeats said, “The center cannot hold.” The center of my humble family stopped holding more than 30 years ago. Everything gets spun further out until the family that gathered for a daylong meal is now shooting around the metropolitan area like a pinball, bouncing in here for an appearance, there for a dinner, there for a nightcap.

I’m not sure there’s much we can even do to fix this, short of turning Thanksgiving into a day for your neighbors instead of your family. (That odd idea is actually a damn sight closer to what the holiday is actually about.) But, fresh off the holiday weekend, I figure it’s a fair chance to examine one of the many shortcomings of sprawl: that on a day devoted to food, leisure, and fellowship, so many of us spend hours without them, instead logging a lot of miles on the odometer.