Their hometown is anywhere

  • Article by: SUSAN AGER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 10, 2009 - 2:05 PM

A former "Relo" looks at the stark and perfect suburbs that have sprung up to accommodate itinerant executives, who move from "burb to burb" as they pursue their careers.

Next Stop, Reloville By: Peter T. Kilborn

Remember that queasy feeling you got as a kid, traveling too far in the back seat of the car, right before you begged Mom to open the door so you could puke?

Brace yourself.

"Next Stop, Reloville" is an extraordinary account of people who can't stay put, who sacrifice community and friendship and stability and roots for the next promotion, the next raise, the next move, which they believe takes them one step closer to the top.

These (mostly) men and their "trailer wives" (who follow complacently behind) and their sullen children (who may need tutors in the new place) call themselves "Relos" (REE-los) and often cluster in what the author calls Relovilles. These are suburban boomtowns, mostly in the South. (He mentions only one north of Chicago -- the St. Paul suburb of Woodbury -- and he doesn't pay it a visit, spending most of his time in Alpharetta, Ga., and Plano, Texas.) All are new towns, largely without centers, history or tradition, without old-timers, where everybody is from somewhere else, just arriving or just leaving.

You will meet many Relos. They say heart-wrenching things about their lives. And the author, a former New York Times reporter who was shuffled around a bit, too, says harshly honest things about them, like this:

"Wherever they go, they don't belong. ... Relos don't know where their funerals will be or who might come." And "They can tell you the way to the airport but not to City Hall."

Of one Reloville subdivision he writes: "Bermuda grass lawns as trim as a diamond salesman's fingernail, with tidy boxwoods and azaleas propped on sculpted pillows of pine straw mulch, surround stiff haughty houses aligned like formations of Nazi troops."

Yet Kilborn has a deep empathy for these corporate gypsies. At their core, he says, "is a faith in open horizons and a willingness to risk losing ground to gain ground. ... They are an affluent, hard-striving class. They inflate the American Dream and put it on wheels." But in pursuit of power and influence, they lose the simple staples that generations of human beings have leaned on for meaning.

One guy hesitates to hang anything on the walls of any new home because he knows he'll have to fill each hole when selling the house in two years.

Wives complain they have no best friends, and urge their husbands to stay put, if only for the kids. One can't think of a single neighbor to say goodbye to after three years in one Reloville. Another longs for a new town with sidewalks, for God's sake, and maybe a coffee shop she can walk to.

A teenager describes herself as a "ghost" in her new high school, where kids familiar with one another look right through her. But another, whose father relocates with multinational companies, is proud to call himself a TCK, for "third-culture kid," a sociologists' term for those who are from nowhere and everywhere.

Kilborn estimates that 3 percent of Americans, about 10 million people, qualify as "active Relos." They have a disproportionate influence over America's new suburbias because, consistently seeking the familiar, they buy big foyers, granite countertops, stainless appliances. One couple in their 40s who have moved eight times paint the living room of each new residence the same deep beige, named "Saucy Taco," to "take a little bit of home everywhere we go."

Alas, the book was written too early to forecast what might happen to Relos and Relovilles in the new economy. Let's hope Kilborn stays focused long enough to revisit these people -- and their offspring -- a decade from now.

Susan Ager, a former Detroit Free Press columnist, can be reached at susan@susanager.com.

  • NEXT STOP, RELOVILLE

    By: Peter T. Kilborn.

    Publisher: Times Books, 254 pages, $26.

    Review: Former New York Times reporter Peter Kilborn was a "Relo" himself as a kid -- shunted around the country while his father chased better and better jobs. Now Kilborn looks with compassion at the toll such a life takes on spouses and children, and on the Relovilles themselves.

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