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Embracing the Burbs

Soul Food BooksAs I drive down the narrow road stretching into English Hill, I struggle to stay below its staggeringly low speed limit. Arcing branches on towering evergreens stretch across the road in an apparent attempt to obliterate the sky in this Redmond, Washington neighborhood. These dark green tunnels, common in the Pacific Northwest, felt claustrophobic twelve years ago when I moved to Redmond from the wide open spaces of Winnipeg, Canada.

English Hill sections off its spacious homes and well-tended lawns into areas with names like “Coventry” and “Sheffield.” Its emergence in the 1980s was part of Redmond’s dramatic population burst, initially triggered by the completion of the floating bridge connecting Seattle to the communities east of Lake Washington. The arrival of Microsoft brought on another wave of growth in 1986, firmly stamping Redmond on the map. New housing developments materialize seemingly overnight here, filling the gaps between the more established ones.

My first impression of Redmond? Impossibly tidy. Swept walkways, carefully planted medians, and an outdoor mall dotted with fountains. I recall a conversation with my then 3-year-old son while traveling years ago. He’d spotted a discarded plastic soda cup outside a 7-Eleven convenience store.

“What’s that?”
“It’s an empty cup.”
“Why is it on the ground?”
“Someone was finished drinking it, and, well, sometimes people drop things on the ground, because….I really don’t know why they do it. It’s called litter and it’s bad,” I faltered.

The concept of litter proved foreign to my son, a fact I found both comforting and disconcerting. Life is messy. What if he’s not confronted with anything remotely deviant until adulthood? How will he withstand the more grim realities of life?

It turns out, Redmond won’t let him down entirely. As though to protest such artificially imposed order, nature asserts itself periodically here with a winter windstorm. Most memorably in December, 2006, when we woke to streets strewn with rogue trash cans. Uprooted evergreens crushed fences, caved roofs, and sliced through power lines. Our electricity wouldn’t return for six bone-chilling nights.

Although many Redmond residents are transplants from across the bridge, it’s difficult to ignore the disdain many Seattleites show for the Eastside’s ostensible lack of authenticity. I would venture that, like a young child, a rapidly changing city like Redmond may need time to develop its unique character. Yet Redmond shows hints of an emerging identity, from the fragrant cinnamon rolls at the Pomegranate Bistro to the live music and steaming coffee at Soul Food CoffeeHouse. The craft beer at the Black Raven presents a rebellious detour from the expected suburban fare. As its shops and neighborhoods continue to evolve, will Redmond prove the naysayers wrong and come into its own?

Only time will tell.
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