Exiled in suburbia?
Never mind the malls and McMansions. Our writer crowns Roseville the new creative mecca.
The idea seems simple enough, but when I tell the barista at my favorite cafe that I’m writing a piece on why Roseville doesn’t suck, he swivels away from the espresso machine and casts his gaze upward toward the ceiling, confused.
“How … do you plan to do that?” he finally asks me, nervously.
I just shrug.
“It’s all relative,” I admit. “I’m just here to say it doesn’t suck as much as you think.”
I won’t lie. When we moved to Roseville from Texas in March 2009, it was in part a type of giving up. Our expectations were low. We had suffered major income loss due to the recession, and we had a support network here ready to help us get back on our feet. I anticipated a sad and sterile suburban existence, but what I got instead were creeks banked with wildflowers, ladies in babushkas, tree-shrouded streets lined with early 20th-century bungalows, and just enough fellow oddballs to keep me entertained. But even with all that, why would people who identify as “cultural creatives” move to what many consider a cliché of a soulless suburb in the first place?
Indeed, there is a Roseville that is separate, distinct and altogether better than the stereotyped version that’s limited to the Westfield Galleria at Roseville mall, big-box stores and shoppers in SUVs.
Here, for example, we’re allowed to have backyard chickens, there are bike lanes and trails galore, and the town even boasts some great used bookstores. We have parties on patios with twinkling lanterns, with background noise provided by the gentle, monotonous rumble of the passing trains.
And more and more, we’re meeting the type of people we thought of as the “exception to the rule,” but their increasing visibility makes it seem less exceptional and more the “way things are going.”A recession, then depression, then a reckoning
One such canary in a coal mine is a celebrated corset-maker, Sue Nice. For her, moving to Roseville represented the caving in to the conundrum of the “offer she couldn’t refuse” after personal and financial crisis.
Nice, owner of Sue Nice Corsets, is the kind of woman who bonded with her husband over intense political discussions and the onstage antics of the late punk singer GG Allin. Prior to relocating to Roseville in 2012, Nice lived in Echo Park, a suburb of Los Angeles, where she was a major figure in the punk, burlesque and fetish communities. Over the years, she’s corseted all sorts of notables, including Stevie Nicks and porn star Ron Jeremy, and has also worked with renowned photographers, bands and burlesque troops.
Then, the recession happened. That, combined with an unexpected pregnancy in her late 30s, resulted in an economic and personal place of reckoning.
“I felt like I had a brick on my tail. And all around me in that rarefied L.A. climate, fellow parents were talking about Montessori schools, French-language immersion … and here we were, in debt up to our eyeballs and going downhill fast,” Nice says.
So, last fall, Nice and her husband ended up moving in with her mother into an 800-square-foot bungalow, across the street from a playground and a stone’s-throw away from the train tracks that snake through old Roseville.
Nice’s depression and feelings of isolation were at an all-time high for a while after she arrived. She was back in Roseville, the town where, in the ’70s and ’80s, she had lived a stifling suburban childhood.
This was the kind of place a girl like her escaped from as a way to find herself. It in no way seemed to be a welcoming haven for a tired punk mama who needed to come home again.
Her attitude, however, did a gentle 180 that started one night when her husband Ted encouraged her to take a walk with him.
“Doesn’t it feel good not to have to worry about anything?” he asked her, as they walked hand in hand on the quiet streets.
It dawned on Nice then just how tired she had gotten of her Southern California neighborhood’s domestic-violence disputes, loud cars and the occasional gunshot.
Over the next few weeks, as she rode around Roseville on her orange vintage Schwinn cruiser, she says she came to respect and appreciate the beauty of her quirky old neighborhood, and discovered like-minded artists and writers who had made a similar choice and were forging ahead in suburbia.
“I knew there were some Midtown expatriates here. And more are coming,” she says, as she sips coffee from her Black Flag mug and raises her pinup-girl eyebrows hopefully.
Nice isn’t the only creative exile, of course. Emily Elders Balestrini is a working artist and active member of the arts community both in Roseville (such as it is) and in Sacramento. We met after I watched her walk her kids to the elementary school dressed, day after day, in a ’50s prom dress and kitten-heel pumps with bobby socks, and carrying a teacup filled with coffee. Balestrini moved here a decade ago when she was newly married and starting her family, in spite of the fact that it was an inherently oddball choice for her.
“It’s the feeling of acceptance I get for my quirks,” she says. “You know: ’You may be a weirdo, but you’re our weirdo.’”
Balestrini maintains an art studio on her family’s home property, where she sometimes has soirees that include gatherings for her Midtown cadre from years past. Here, she has had one-woman shows for her printmaking and other art forms, and blogs about her work at www.aerogirl.com.
“Maybe because most people who live out here have a specific and standardized set of expectations, it’s a happy accident to find a maker in their midst,” Balestrini says. “The burbs have been good to me, because what I do adds to the daily sum of pleasure.”Cheap rent and artistic freedom
There’s a lot of aesthetic and historical variety in a neighborhood that’s had some time to develop. There are families with young kids as well as retirees, and the homes bear the stamps of that variety, much of it artfully expressed.
Nice points out that nearby, “You might come across a turquoise house, faded from years, and [the homeowners are] using a rusted old bicycle as a flower trellis. This isn’t a sterile environment.”
And in one of those oddball, charming houses lives the family of Stephanie Longoria, a supervisor at the Crocker Art Museum. Longoria used to manage the Sacramento Dimple Records location, and was, as she shyly put it, “kind of Midtown royalty,” inasmuch as she and her husband were out socializing, at clubs and attending shows most nights of the week. She was there in Sacramento to watch the housing boom that brought in the Bay Area investors who, in turn, helped to drive prices skyward.
In time, she and her family relocated to Roseville for reasons that mirror Balestrini’s.
“There’s all kinds of room to be a child, here,” Longoria says. “And the density of downtown makes it feel safe and adventurous at the same time.”
Longoria believes Roseville’s old downtown and its commensurate cheap rent fosters artistic freedom. Furthermore, there’s inspiration that comes from the kind of decaying beauty that’s baked into this environment.
“There’s no hipster-driven effort [in Roseville]. Thrift-store shopping is done unironically,” she says. “And there are quirkier parents here, too, connected to the charter school my kids attend.”
In other words, we cling to each other like ants on a raft, we freaks in the suburbs. And though it’s great to find like-minded folks where you least expect it, Nice points out that maybe growing older gives you a certain freedom from needing to be surrounded by your fellows.
When we were in early adulthood, the impulse was to leave what was grimly familiar and dull and strike out for urban centers. We gathered in big cities and liberal colleges, and for a long time, we all held onto that for the social shorthand it served and for the easy exposure to arts and culture. Now, some of us have either willingly left or were forced out. Regardless, we carried with us the connections and friendships forged there. Social media helps enormously.
“I know where my people are,” Nice says, pointing at imaginary locations. “They’re here. And here. And over here. … And, of course, my community is a virtual one, now, too.”