Finding Thoreau in Suburbia

By Corinne H. Smith

I was invited to a holiday dinner by a pair of new friends. They live in an expanding housing development that just a few years ago was still a field standing tall with corn. They gave me explicit directions to their townhouse. I was to follow Elmcrest Boulevard to Cobblestone Drive and then their street, Oak Leaf Drive. If I reached Field View Drive or Green Park Drive, I would have gone too far.

Although I had seen this neighborhood from a distance, I had never driven through it. I already suspected that I would see neither elm trees nor oak trees, and that I would not be able to drive or walk on cobblestones. And the “field view” wouldn’t be of a “green park.” It would offer the pleasing sight of endless garages and rooflines, or of mud and machinery and of other houses being built to fill in the empty spaces. I knew I wouldn’t like it. But if this is where these folks wanted to live, so be it. They were my friends, and they were nice enough to invite me to dinner.

When the time came, I made my way to the entrance of Elmcrest Boulevard. It wasn’t as grand as it sounded. And it had nary a straight stretch. Not even one inch. It wound through the place like a drunken sailor: first this way, and then that. Other cross streets turned off at each bend. I drove slowly and focused on the names on the signs, hoping to finally spot Cobblestone Drive. But when Emerson Drive showed up on my right, I started laughing. Really, THE Emerson? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Here in suburbia, almost 400 miles away from Concord, Massachusetts? I glanced at the clock. I had time. I could inspect how Mr. Emerson’s legacy was interpreted here. I made the turn onto Emerson Drive.


As I suspected, both sides of Emerson were filled with houses that were too close together. They were neat and tidy, and they all looked the same. Then Alcott Drive turned off to the left. I laughed again. I could picture poor Bronson shaking his head at the sight. The next left was Thoreau Drive. Of course! It had to be. I turned left. Here I was, driving along Thoreau. It looked just like Emerson and Alcott. Interpret this statement as you will.


Obligatory stop at junction of Emerson and Thoreau

Obligatory stop at junction of Emerson and Thoreau

The literary theme continued. The streets leading off Thoreau were James Way, Dickens Lane, and Hemingway Lane. Then Emerson showed up again. It had circled around behind the rest. I turned left to get back to where I needed to be. I expected to see Alcott Lane again on my way back. But no. Hawthorne Lane had sneaked in ahead of Alcott. It turned out that Alcott and Hawthorne twisted around each other here. Interpret this statement as you will.

Emerson Drive soon became Walden Way. Really now, this was simply too much.


But to the developers’ credit, the road was just a short pass-through back to Elmcrest Boulevard. The only structure on Walden Way was a common building that fronted a pool and a series of tennis courts. Behind it loomed a small but muddy retaining pond. Once I passed these, I could make a turn and get back to where I needed to be. It took only a few minutes more to find my friends’ house.


Walden water?

Walden water?

The dinner was great, and so was the conversation. We all ate too much. Soon the sun dropped behind the bulldozers parked behind my friend’s backyard. Clouds moved in. I thanked my hosts for their hospitality and headed home.

It wasn’t too dark yet. So I followed the Transcendental route again, this time in the opposite direction: Walden Way, Emerson and Thoreau, with a glance at Hawthorne, Hemingway, Dickens, James and Alcott. This time, I took pictures. I almost wanted to know who had named these streets and why. Were the choices meant as a true tribute to the authors? Or were they merely names to fill up signs? Did the residents know who their streets were named after? I was torn between feeling validated in my love for these writers and being appalled.

And even though it would be a great address to have, I knew I would never want to live along this version of Thoreau Drive. I’d rather live in a house on a street that’s older than me. One that has some character in its framework, and with mature trees towering over it. Many years will pass before you will be able to say this about my friends’ neighborhood. (If ever.) Still, such a discovery allows us a chance for a vicarious visit to the legacies of the Transcendentalists, in a place you’d never expect to find them.

Whether they’d be gratified or not, it turns out that the Transcendentalists are everywhere.


Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, The Roost

3 Responses to Finding Thoreau in Suburbia

  1. Great article! I completely agree on the idea of choosing to live in places with history & genuine nature.
    But I try to imagine such places far into the future, and of all the street names that now exist for us-completely taken out of context.
    We may know that Times Square was named for the New York Times, but they have since moved away, and now it’s more associated with the time of the ball dropping on New Year’s Eves.
    I can just imagine a child growing up on one of those streets, or someone who has never heard those names (an immigrant? a refugee?) somehow making a connection and looking up a funny circle of old dead authors.
    And discovering meaning that suddenly transcends a uniform suburbia.

  2. Some signs on the corners of the streets are certainly a declaration of principles: Thoreau and Walden Streets in Concord.

    Happy 2016!

  3. Donna Marie

    I wholeheartedly agree with you, Corrine. When my husband and I were getting married, we knew we wanted a house that would not put us into debt and afford us the time to do what we wanted with our lives. When we found our house, it was considered very small when compared to modern standards. Being an old canal house (the Cuyahoga Canal is not far), it basically had 4 tiny rooms with a bathroom in the basement. Since the family wanted to rid themselves of their deceased relative’s property, they sold it cheaply, and my husband and I were able to purchase it without having a mortgage. Whatever repairs needed to be made were done solely by my husband, my father, and father-in-law including bringing the bathroom upstairs.

    This tiny house, which reminds me of Henry’s hut by Walden, brought us many pleasures that Henry experienced. The front lawn has century old pine trees which house the nests of many birds. Looking out my window, I can catch glimpses of woodpeckers, blue jays, and cardinals trying to get the insects out of the bark of an oak tree next to the house. I have the luxury of watching them for hours if I choose to. Frequent visitors include the racoons, skunks which make their presence known even before we see them, and numerous mice and voles who travel in and out. When I awake, I hear the mourning doves during the summer as well as all the sounds of other birds greeting the new day. At night, the sound of the owl is in my ears.

    We are able to saunter and hike the many trails of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which is less than 10 minutes from our home. We even have our own “Walden Pond” to visit since the park has numerous ponds around its trails.

    Our little home, which is actually in the city, is nestled on a street that seems to have been forgotten. The homes are old and do not entice people to want to move here because it is not prestigious. My husband and I have been asked frequently when we will move. Some have not been so kind and have actually said–“When will you move from this dump?”

    Dump–I think not. Our home has given us more than what a showpiece of a house would have. It has provided us with shelter, solitude, laughter, the gift of nature, and love. It has grow with us and the birth of our two children. What memories it holds!

    So, the streets that use the names of Thoreau, Emerson, and other Transcendentalists (and we have them too where I live) are missing the point if they are not displaying simplicity and respect for nature. My little home is a retreat from the materialism and affluence that consumes so many of the people I know. My life is simple but rich in a myriad of ways. Plus, I always like to think that Henry would feel comfortable as a visitor or resident in my home.