Being a resident of suburbia has given me intimate familiarity with the rote rhythms of commuting, school buses, lawn mowing, dog walking, and picking up the mail that permeate suburban neighborhoods. People live their lives largely inside, occasionally stepping into the backyard but using the front yard as only a demonstration of their compliance with the pre-established patterns of the community. The one opportunity each week for neighbors to see one other in the front is the mandatory mowing of the front lawn. Front yards are largely empty, yet symbolic according to Dr. Crawford. She described garage sales as temporary events that flip the normal social structure and use of space in suburban neighborhoods, challenging and transforming the environment of the front yard.
While in Toronto for the 15th National Conference on Planning History put on by the Society of American City and Regional Planning History, I attended a session about Everyday Urbanism, featuring a paper entitled “The Garage Sale as Everyday Practice and Transformative Urbanism” presented by Margaret Crawford, Ph.D., professor of Architecture in the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley. To introduce this session, Paul Hess, Associate Professor, Department of Geography and Program in Planning at the University of Toronto, gave a short overview of Everyday Urbanism and explained that Everyday Urbanism can take on a variety of forms to address under examined and overlooked areas of urban environments. As explained by Douglas Kelbough, “Everyday Urbanism is non-utopian, controversial, and non-structuralist. It is non-utopian because it celebrates and builds on everyday, ordinary life and reality, with little pretense about the possibility of a perfectible, tidy or ideal built environment.”
Dr. Crawford’s paper presented explained the ways that the garage sale causes an “inversion” of suburban spaces. The garage sale is a public event held on private property. It is completely public, open to everyone. Instead of the lawn being the pristine, exclusionary space of its everyday existence, the garage sale makes it open for all to access. No one is turned away. This event brings things from the most private parts of the house to display for the public to engage with and potentially acquire. The meaning of items is linked to the house and the house also testifies to the legitimacy of the goods, Social interaction is a key component of the transaction. Normally, life in suburbia is very private but this event brings interaction outside, on display. Interactions within this informal market are not like the anonymous purchases transacted in traditional business environments. Bargaining is an expected part of the dialogue. Stories are another kind of trading and bargaining. Stories go both ways and are invented and transferred by both the buyer and the seller, connecting meanings to the items. There is a social nature to the transfer of goods. The nature of this sort of event causes a rethinking of suburbia to be stimulated. In essence, this is an informal creation of “mixed use”. While suburbia may not be the ideal format for future development, the everyday experiences of those who reside there can make us rethink our preconceived notions about what suburbia is. Residents create adaptations to adjust the places they call home to their needs and desires. If we look closely we can find the clues to see the Everyday Urban a little differently.