What a driveway means

I live in Brooklyn, in New York City. Most of the houses here don’t have driveways; anyone who has a car usually parks it on the street. We have to keep the streets clear for the street sweepers that drive through once a week, so we try to keep track of the schedule: no parking on this side of the street on Mondays 11:30-1pm, no parking on that side on Tuesdays, no parking on the next block on Thursdays from 8:30-10am. If you fail at keeping track, you get a ticket usually costing $75. It’s an irritating and ridiculously-complex system that was probably designed to earn the city parking ticket money more than to keep the streets clear for the sweepers. If you have a car and you don’t drive it to work every weekday, you must re-park it (and spend, in the winters, sometimes, an hour surfing for a viable space) at least a couple times a week.

My partner and I own a car for the rare purpose of getting out of town, and because I’m disabled enough that it helps me get to work and make the every-six-weeks trip to the “big” grocery store on the other side of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway for supplies. It does not feel like a luxury (though I’m well aware that it is), and if I were less disabled, I’d get rid of it in a heartbeat.

In my dreams, the best ones, the ones in which I can fly and I have a million dollars and the perfect ass, I have a driveway.

Finished driveways started to appear fairly commonly around 1900. (I swear, I did a bit of research about driveways. There’s not much, but my Google history is hilarious.) Before that, many homes had dirt paths leading up to their doors built to accommodate a wagon. I remember once hearing one of my colleagues give a lecture in architecture history, and talking about how everything about our world changed as a result of the switch from horse-drawn wagons to cars (wheel width and chassis width were different, so roads were widened, so tunnels and bridges had to be remade… you see where this is going). New York City’s neighborhoods have grown, failed or changed because of the incursion of a highway or where the subway does/doesn’t stop (or, sometimes, where the entrance to a public park is located). Suburbs exist largely because we have cars (and driveways in which to park them).

A driveway is also a buffer between a private property and the rest of the world; it’s eminently upper-middle class. It enforces distance, and it makes the approach to your home a rather ceremonial thing (you pay attention to your approach as if it were a processional; it becomes a careful ritual, and there is only one way to do it without error). People spend time and money working on their driveways (shoveling snow and ice away, or sweeping off leaves and dirt, laying down concrete or paving stones or gravel in aesthetically-pleasing or most-efficient shapes). Your driveway, like your house, like your children, like your personality and intellect, becomes a Thing you Own and, therefore, property that gives you status, but also one which you must maintain and guard.

A driveway is built, at least originally, with the assumption that the user owns a vehicle. A vehicle is acquired, usually, with the assumption that the owner needs to travel long distances or carry lots of stuff (or transport kids). We register vehicles now–cars and motorcycles require a license from the state to drive and a registration to own. This roots you to your city government through economic ties, but also through registration and surveillance. A driveway presumes, then, a reproductive family registered as members of a community and wealthy enough to own a car and other stuff and to go places further from their home than they can walk. Nowadays, that means you have a job to which you drive, you go to and from a store to buy food and supplies, you travel far away to visit folks and take a holiday. A driveway, then, usually presumes a typical American middle-class lifestyle.

When I see houses with driveways, I always imagine a particular kind of westernized, middle-class, 2.5-kid-style life occurring at the end of them. Of course that’s not always right, and of course there are many of us (in Brooklyn in particular) who don’t have driveways but live very bourgeois lifestyles. But life in Brooklyn tends to be different from life in most other middle-class suburbs. People here walk a lot more (I’m always shocked when I visit other places at how little walking people actually do), and walking gives you a radically different experience of the world than does driving. I don’t even mean the whole “New Yorkers are more in shape and have better leg muscles and lung capacities than the rest of you lazy slobs” thing I hear many of my cohort say smugly (and, having visited other places, I don’t necessarily think they’re wrong… just smug jerks).

I mean that walking allows you to see things differently; you have a different relationship with people on the street when you actually have to smell them, or pass them and excuse yourself, or help someone who’s about to fall, or simply adjust to the presence and conflicting agendas of others, rather than simply watching them from a car window and do exactly and only as you please. (This makes me sure that certain political candidates are probably more popular where driveways are more common…) When you can smell the grapefruit at the bodega warming in the sun as you pass, when you hear, as you walk, howling babies and arguing couples and the banter and yell of kids on a playground as you pass, when you have to speak directly with the guy on the corner who clearly hasn’t showered in weeks and has a bloody cut still oozing on his neck, it changes your sense of the world. When I spend time outside, I’m very much immersed in the world. A driveway (and the car it affords you) allows a blissfully smug ignorance of everyone and everything else in the world. In short, a driveway allows you to make your world as small as you want it to be, to shut yourself in your own property and keep everyone else at a distance.

(Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that everyone with a driveway lives in the world like this; I’m simply saying that having a driveway makes it easier–and therefore more likely–for people to do so.)

This morning, after walking to re-park the car and detouring through Prospect Park and stopping to chat with Sandra, who runs the bodega at which I prefer to buy my fruits and vegetables, the one with the blue awning (and the one where I met her mother, whose joyful broken English I wound up quoting in my wedding vows to my wife), I’m thinking a lot about driveways, and I’m not entirely sure I want one anymore.

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