Suburban Exploration--The Most Dangerous Adventure
August 21, 2014 8:39 AM   Subscribe

I moved out to the 'burbs recently. I've never lived in the suburbs before, and stately Haddock Manor (Marlinspike) is in a suburb I visited only once before touring my home and making an offer. How does someone go about exploring the suburbs? I'm only used to cities.

In all the cities I've lived in, I've just walked around--boulevards, side streets, alleys--and found endless interesting stuff. I love my little suburb, and, while walkable, the commercial / town center area is limited (although there is still surely more for me to see and explore).

I'm sure there are great restaurants lurking around corners, and interesting shops, and cute parks, and the perfect car wash right next to a great supermarket--in my town, in the town over, etc.

I guess the crux of my conundrum is that, walking around aimlessly in the city seems both virtuous, stimulating, thrifty, and healthful, and presents many opportunities to browse, explore, and enlighten. Driving around aimlessly in the suburbs is the exact opposite, and I'm finding it somewhat frustrating because I'm both 1) starting from zero local knowledge, and 2) originally from NYC, where finding (even just searching for) that perfect _____ (knish, tailor, record store, entrance to the subway etc.) is a pastime in and of itself.

Suburbanites, especially former city strollers, how do develop local knowledge?

FWIW, I'm in Wellesley, MA, if you have particular gems to share, but I'm mainly trying to figure out how to orient myself in the suburbs as a general matter.
posted by Admiral Haddock to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Would cycling be an option? Quicker than walking but more leisurely than driving.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 8:48 AM on August 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Hey, I'm also a former NYer, now transplanted to Lexington. I feel you.

Wellesley is such a great little town. You've got Linden Square with a nice town feel to it, but if you want to hit the motherlode and get a sense of the history of the town, check out the Wellesley Historical Society.

Do you bike? If you do, cycle around the town and get a feel for the place.

If you have kids, congrats on picking an amazing, I mean unbelievably great district.

Oh...make sure you get out to Dairy Joy in Weston, especially if you tie it into a trip to Drumlin Farm, where the sizes of the pigs will astound you. Seriously large piggies.
posted by kinetic at 8:49 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I moved to a suburb and I love your description of how pointless and frustrating it feels to drift around. Most of my knowledge has come from going to gatherings, block parties, farmers markets, things like that, and talking to people. A lot of this happened for me without having to seek it out, because my partner's relative is a local politician, but the things we attend are open to everyone. The tips we get for restaurants and things are of course for neighboring suburbs.

I really felt more connected to the community when I did some volunteer work. Also, visiting local independent bookstores and talking to the owner/workers.
posted by BibiRose at 8:50 AM on August 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Are you a runner or a cyclist? Or could you get into a long walk for exercise, and do that fairly often until you have a sense for the lay of the land?

Having moved to a medium-smallish city with a lot of suburban vibes, I've found decent success reading reviews of restaurants (etc.) on Yelp and TripAdvisor. You can usually sort out the seasoned locals from the tourists and paid shills.

Is there an alternative newsweekly there? That, I found, has also been a good resource.

And, you know. Neighbors and coworkers and friends! Ask them where they go. Everyone's got an opinion.
posted by magdalemon at 8:51 AM on August 21, 2014

I'm one town over. Welcome to the neighborhood.

You're not going to get that same walk-able feel in the 'burbs, though both Wellesley and Natick have decent walk-able downtowns that you can bike to easily enough. Wellesley also has a network of walking paths around town.

This isn't exactly what you've asked, but one thing I like to do is look at old USGS maps of my town and compare them with current maps. You can see how neighborhoods share the shapes of the farms that were once there. You can find old roads that still exist as paths through the woods. Basically, you can get a sense of how your town evolved, which works especially well in our area given the history.

Suburbs often have "town days", where they gather all the local town departments, farms, committees, retail establishments, and other places on the common for a day (with bouncy houses for the kids and food carts) so you can get to know what roles these people all play in the town.

Amarin on Grove St. has great Thai food. Of course there's Blue Ginger, which personally I think is a bit over-rated but still decent.
posted by bondcliff at 8:51 AM on August 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I enjoy going to garage sales and open houses, as an excuse to go to learn about random neighborhoods and see how people live. Drive/bike/walk in a random direction, then let the garage sale signs lead you around.
posted by Diddly at 8:52 AM on August 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Pin the biggest map you can find (or print) of Wellesley on a convenient wall. Highlight the roads you've explored. When you've highlighted it all, then you know you've seen everything.
posted by Etrigan at 8:53 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

My personal experience is the opposite. I grew up in the suburbs and then moved to the city.

You are correct - driving around the suburbs is pointless. That is not the way to explore the area.

You need to go to places. Every park, every shopping plaza, every municipal building, every church. Search out all the things in your town and the towns nearby.

Someone who knows their suburban area can drive to EVERY school in the county. They know where all the churches and places of worship are. They know the trails in all the parks. They know which sports are played in which parks. They know where all the dog parks are. They can list of their favorite restaurants in the area. They know where the volunteer fire company is and where the local recycling facility is.

Go to local HS football games. Go to the local theatre for a show.
Don't eat in the same restaurant twice for the first year. Try all the places in your area - and not the chain restaurants, the local places.
posted by Flood at 8:58 AM on August 21, 2014

I found taking my kids to appointments or to schools or play dates taught me a lot about my town. I also had certain things in mind I wanted to know how to get to. For example, within a month, I could get to every Carvel in the County. Did four in one night with my son. Score. However, the beginning was hard in that I was commuting to NYC. So I knew the fastest way to the train station and where to grab some milk on the way home from the train at 8:00pm but not much more for a little while. It was the weekend errands that helped too. Had to find the Home Depot, the cleaners, Costco, etc.
posted by 724A at 9:03 AM on August 21, 2014

You could also post a question next week asking "what's cool in and around Wellesley, MA.". ;)
posted by reddot at 9:07 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm mainly trying to figure out how to orient myself in the suburbs as a general matter.

I'm in more of a small town than a burb so this may or may not apply but: read the paper! If there is a local paper, even if it's mostly just an advertising circular, take a look at it, learn the businesses, see the names that show up over and over again. Also: go to the library. Get library cards. Look at all the flyers and stuff in the lobby and get a feel for what is going on. Plan activities around things you know nothing about. Go to a film or a lecture someplace. Attend a bingo evening or a church supper. Look on Google Maps for the green spaces and go there and figure out where you can park and go walk around. Tour the college campuses (Babson, Wellesley College) and the areas around the college campuses to see where the kids hang out, eat, see movies and do things. Go to the college libraries and see if there are neat exhibits that you would never have known about and see if the campus has a calendar of things that are going on. Take a bus if there are buses and go out and back and see what you see. Walk around in the cemeteries and see if the names you are seeing there are similar to the ones you are seeing in the newspaper. Try to find a place that is barely on Yelp and go see if the food is any good. See what cafeterias are open to the public (we have an amazing one in our local hospital, for example). Go watch a local sporting event and see who is advertising there. Go to a trivia night at a pub with a few of your friends. Invite people over for a cookout and invite the neighbors as well.
posted by jessamyn at 9:27 AM on August 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

As a previous poster mentioned, Wellesley has a lot of great trails. There is a map of them here. My husband and I have posted a large map of the area on a bulletin board. We have color coded pins (events, lunch, coffee, parks, etc...) and plan walks/bikes that aim to collect the most pins. We usually have walks that involve some sort of landmark and end with lunch at a delicious new place.

The Boston burbs tend to still be pretty walkable/bikable. Do you have a bike? If so, you can get to Waltham, Lexington, Concord, Weston, Newton, and other such places pretty reasonably.
posted by ASlackerPestersMums at 9:46 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yelp is pretty good in the MetroWest area, especially for food. Exploration-wise, you're right near the commuter rail! Take it west to Natick Center or east to Newton!

I lived around there for years and years, so feel free to MeMail me with any questions. One thing I'd definitely recommend is the Mass Horticultural Society gardens at Elm Bank in South Natick (should be an easy bike ride, but there's also parking), which are great for a stroll.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:50 AM on August 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I obsessively watch the Yelp Hot & New category. (And it looks like the new Foursquare is going to be good for finding interesting things that happen to be near you.) Field Trip is nice as well.
posted by wintersweet at 9:52 AM on August 21, 2014

While not useful for all suburbs, if your suburb is a college town (and Wellesley definitely has a college) look for guides made for new students. There will be irrelevant studenty stuff, but restaurants and culture, too.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:53 AM on August 21, 2014

posted by The corpse in the library at 9:58 AM on August 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

One thing I'd definitely recommend is the Mass Horticultural Society gardens at Elm Bank in South Natick

Yes, this! It's an amazingly beautiful place. I actually went to a vocational high school that used to be on the grounds and some former student wrote a text adventure that took place there. The PDP-11 that it was written on has long since been mothballed, but my point is it's a really neat place to explore, physically or virtually.

Also if you have (or can rent/borrow) a canoe or kayak the Charles River in that area, and through Natick/Sherborn/Medfield is really scenic.

Fucking pie it up coward. Bring your neighbors a damn pie and say hello.

This is often good advice but I'm not sure how well it would work in Wellesley. My sense is a lot of people live there because it's Wellesley but then either never come out of their house or they're so busy working or traveling that you'll never see them. You should try it, certainly, but don't be surprised if it's not received well.

Next Patriot's day, don't forget to watch the Marathon when it runs through town. That's always a 26 mile long party.
posted by bondcliff at 10:12 AM on August 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree that Elm Bank is cool (and there's even a kids' garden and playground). The cross country skiing up at the golf course in Weston is nice in the winter, too. Instead of driving aimlessly, I'd head to one of the local squares with a destination in mind: the movie theater (and/or Lumiere!) in West Newton, the New England Soup Factory in Needham, something? in Natick Center. Once you're parked in a commercial area the other interesting things will start to jump out at you.

Also agreed that these questions are also great conversation starters with your new neighbors - everyone loves to think they've found the best local bagels (Rosenfeld's, Newton Center).
posted by ldthomps at 10:33 AM on August 21, 2014

FWIW, I'm in Wellesley, MA, if you have particular gems to share

Alta Strada is one of my favorite lunch spots anywhere. And Route 9 is like an artery for foodies, from gems that sit squarely on it like Tomasso to gems that are juuust a bit off it like Mediterranean Turkish Food.

Anyway. I learned my way around pre-Yelp, although Yelp is a great tool. I didn't drive around aimlessly exactly, but I gave myself reasons to drive around. Rather than have a book transferred to my local library, I'd go get it. I tried a few different dentists. I browsed newspapers for concerts and events, and then I'd arrive an hour early and walk around. I found lists of state forests and parks, and visited. I have a few different hobbies, and I try to use them not just to lure myself out of the house but to explore the region.

And once I am in a new area, if I'm not hurried to return home then I'll ignore my GPS's pleas to get on the highway and I'll stick to back roads. Again, it's not aimless exactly. I have a destination. But I take advantage of that destination, while I'm traveling to/from it, to push myself a bit wider.

Have fun. There are obviously many of us in the general area, all happy to chat and help. It's a great area with lots to explore.
posted by cribcage at 10:49 AM on August 21, 2014

Also, join and keep an eye on the schedule at TCAN. They have some pretty good shows in a really neat old firehouse.
posted by bondcliff at 11:23 AM on August 21, 2014

I thought this would be a unique and/or frivolous answer -- but like kinddieserzeit, I found my new neighborhood through cycling all over the place with the New York Cycle Club. After riding through places that looked nice, I went back by car and looked at them some more. You could do the same around your area.
posted by JimN2TAW at 11:32 AM on August 21, 2014

I second what jessamyn said, read the suburban paper! Great source of info on events, parades, news/squabbles (the article a few weeks ago in ours on the fight the mayor's wife got into at the local pool was comedy GOLD), businesses, YARD SALES!!!, coupons, etc.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:08 PM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know how well this works beyond the gridded streets of Chicagoland, but I make a point to vary the routes I take running errands and travel by side streets, even when they take me a out of my way a bit. My favorite fortuitous find was this beautiful old neon sign on an Elks Lodge in Berwyn on my way to pick up a pizza. (Sadly, the sign was removed just a few months later.)
posted by ndg at 12:19 PM on August 21, 2014

Do you have your dump sticker yet? The swap shop at the Wellesley dump is legendary. My friends who live in Wellesley get all their bikes there, as well as cross country skis, musical instruments, and more. Apparently yard sales are not a thing out in the burbs
posted by SobaFett at 9:55 PM on August 22, 2014

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