The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

Suburbia. But for a few short years of life in San Francisco, I’ve lived in its suburbs for most of my life. That’s where I still live and will probably remain until I’m planted.

The city? People love it or hate it. The country? It’s either Shangri-la or backwards, antiquated, and too conservative. Suburbia? What exactly is it? I guess, that in theory, it’s the place you go to that takes you away from the crime, congestion and filth of the city while maintaining proximity to metropolitan pleasures.

When I lived in The City, I always thought that suburbia was, between the city, the country and the suburbs, the least desirable of places. As a city dweller I was one of the geographical narcissists who thought that San Francisco was the center of everything.

At the same time I looked at the country as having a sort of bucolic, hard working, honesty about it. The country was where you found true Americana.

Suburbia? I considered it to be the plastic land of phosphorescent, loud malls where vapid people dined on fast food, and on weekends, invaded my city.

Cordelia. Not the most sustaining choice for food. 

As a suburbanite, I’m not the geographical narcissist anymore, at least I don’t think I am. True, I would move back to San Francisco in a heartbeat, if I could afford it. I’ve recovered from my one time desire to move to the country. But the suburbs? I’m still not sure that it’s not the least desirable of the three.

Suburbia has its critics. “Suburbia is where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then names the streets after them.” ~ Bill Vaughan
“Suburbia is too close to the country to have anything real to do and too close to the city to admit you have nothing real to do.” ~ Sloane Crosley

And its fans. “I have always found the suburbs very beautiful – the light, the change of seasons and so on. I am not so interested in the political dimensions of these things. I didn’t have any witticisms to land on suburbia. I was really just interested in how beautiful it was. I felt it was like a dreamscape and once I understood that was how I needed to approach it the dream started to expand in unusual ways.” ~ Bill Henson

I can’t quite put suburbia into words but over the past few months I’ve tried to put both views of suburbia into images.

Little Boxes
In 1962, folk singer Malvina Reynolds wrote an unflattering anthem about suburbia in the song Little Boxes which poked fun at Daly City, CA.
“Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes all the same”

Daly City, CA

“And they all play on the golf course
And drink their martinis dry
And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school”

Daly City

A little too intimate
I grew up in the hills above San Mateo, California, where my family had a ranch style house with a sprawling private yard. In some suburban communities, such as Hercules, where I live now, the growing demand for housing has squashed the possibility of a large yard and the idea of privacy. When we were house hunting recently, I stood in a backyard and looked around me and saw the windows on the second floors of as many as five houses looking down at me.

Hercules, CA

Hercules, CA

Crockett, CA
Crockett is a suburban island I crave. There’s a quaintness and a charming quirkiness about nearby Crockett, California. Built on the hills above the Carquinez Strait, it’s home to the C&H Sugar Refinery.


To get from San Francisco to the rest of the nation (unless you want to take the long route) you have to take the Carquinez Bridge, which crosses the Carquinez Strait.

Lower Crockett, once known as Valona, is a charming little town with galleries, small shops, and a couple of dive bars. Nothing pretentious or plastic about Crockett. It’s a quiet, simple little town.

And then there’s the quirky.
The former Valona Emporium in Crockett is under the ownership of what one local described to me as, “a fucking crackpot.” The Carquinez Bridge is reflected in the dirty window of the former Valona Emporium.

Beauty and the blight
They’re maybe a three minute drive apart.

From the Cummings Skyway you can catch a stunning glimpse of morning fog creeping through the East Bay Hills.

A short drive to Rodeo, California, takes you to a sprawling refinery. While providing jobs, the refinery brings the all too common dangerous emissions that are part and parcel with petrochemical facilities.

Death of the mall
The suburban shopping mall was once both a destination and the butt of jokes. My family often went to Hilltop Mall in nearby Richmond. I remember going there one Black Friday before sunrise to do my Christmas shopping. Done before breakfast.

My daughter worked at one of the cosmetics counters at Macy’s. Over time, malls started to lose their luster. Hilltop died a slow, and painful to watch, death. Now all that’s left is a Walmart, a 24 Hour Fitness and a tire shop. Black Friday? The vast parking lot that was once packed to the gills during the holidays, is only partially occupied by a Christmas tree lot. Now there’s just a shadow of Macy’s, and it’s sign, that overlooks a lot that’s unused but for a place for nuts to do donuts on.

“Homeless, get away from here
Don’t give ’em no money, they just spend it on beer
Homeless, will work for food
You’ll do anything that you gotta do, when you’re homeless”
~ Lyrics by Guy Clark
I suppose there was a time when people thought that they could escape the sight of the unhoused by moving to suburbia. That’s no longer true. I know people who are offended by the sight of the unhoused in the neighborhood. I’m offended by the notion that the supposed richest nation on Earth is home to so many people who have no home. And yes, I give them money and I don’t give a shit if they spend it on beer or a pint of whiskey. Whatever brings you comfort on a cold and lonely night.

Under Hwy 80, SF Bay Area

Worldly possession at the regional park

And still
This not uncommon view of San Pablo Bay greets me every morning when I take my dog Lexi for a walk.

San Pablo Bay

I’m on an endless mission to capture suburbia.


12 thoughts on “Monthly Monochrome: Suburbia

  1. mistermuse says:


    1. Paul says:

      Thank you Mr. M.

  2. Toonsarah says:

    Your excellent photos show that in many respects US suburbia looks and feels rather different to ours in London, yet we have much in common. Most of all that sense of being neither in the country nor the city, with none of the benefits of either. We lack the peace and quiet of the countryside, but like you I don’t want to live there – too isolated from things I either need or want (doctors, shops, cinemas, galleries, good restaurants …) And although I like the idea of city centre living, in London I think that would be just too manic and noisy. So I’m happy in my suburb, only 30 minutes by Tube (Underground train) to the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus and our favourite cinema, only 20 minutes from Heathrow Airport, and only five minutes’ walk to a pleasant park 🙂 But as I say, it looks very different to your suburbs. You have me thinking that I could do a parallel ‘monochrome suburbia’ post so we could make comparisons!

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Sarah,
      I spent years lobbying for the country and my wife always responded with, “I’ll visit you.” After going through some medical episodes and experiencing some rural politics I decided that I’m fine just where I am. We’ve considered a community further east of us, still the suburbs, but I’m rethinking that, because it would take us further away from San Francisco by 40 minutes (on a good day). As I said in my post, I would move to San Francisco if I could afford it. There are areas of The City, on the west side which are almost like being in the suburbs. They’re far from the noise and the congestion and they have many of the desirable features of a city.
      I am still hoping to capture more images of what I consider to be the essence of our suburbia and to that end I usually have my camera with me or in the trunk of my car.
      “You have me thinking that I could do a parallel ‘monochrome suburbia’ post so we could make comparisons!” That would be very cool!
      Thank you for visiting.

  3. Hettie D. says:

    Love it 🙂

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you Hettie.

  4. Anne Sandler says:

    Thought provoking Paul. I guess it’s all perspective. I grew up in a tenement in the Bronx. When we moved to the San Fernando Valley–the L.A. suburb–I thought it was wonderful. We moved into a garden apartment (two story building) and as a teenager, I thought we had arrived. Around me I saw tract homes that looked like mansions. I ended up owning several of those home in various sizes. I now live in a senior community. So, I found suburbia and loved it. Of course, if I had grown up in Manhattan, it might have been different!

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Anne,
      Your response is thought provoking. Your second and third sentences jarred me into remembering that there are people who would love to have a permanent living situation regardless of the location. The monthly monochrome is usually supposed to be a simple photography post. Maybe I was being a bit “too clever by half.”
      Thank you for reading and commenting and adding some needed perspective.

  5. Stunning photos. Brought back many, many memories of my days in San Francisco.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Stephen. Thank you for visiting. I hope you were visited by pleasant memories.

  6. floweringink says:

    Paul, I love this! Writing, photos, all of it! I feel done with cities at this stage in my life, except San Francisco; I think it is the only city I would choose to live in, if I could afford it. I think suburbia is many different things, so layered, undefinable, which is shown so beautifully in your photographs. As ever, thank you for sharing.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Susan,
      Thank you so much.
      You lived in LA and I think that one can’t be ambivalent about LA. It’s one of those, either you love it or hate it places.
      I agree about suburbia. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is. Out here, as in many places, a food desert is only a 15 minute drive down the highway from Whole Foods. I’m trying to capture as many aspects as I can.
      Thanks for visiting.

Would love to hear from you

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