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Steinberg: Suburbia isn’t all about neatly trimmed green lawns

Tina Paluch and her mother, Anne Paluch, (seated) in their front yard in Northbrook.

Tina Paluch and her mother, Anne Paluch, (seated) in their front yard in Northbrook. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

The front yard has Queen Anne’s lace and coneflowers, both purple and yellow. Joe-Pye weed and ironweed, hydrangea, phlox and more.

“We have a lot of milkweed,” said Tina Paluch. “Because we like the butterflies.”

What her yard doesn’t have a lot of is lawn; only about a quarter is grass, and that is uncut. The rest is covered by wildflowers and what some would call weeds, up to 5 feet tall.

The small brick house sits next door to Greenbriar Elementary School in my leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook. I’ve been walking by for 16 years, admiring the front yard for both its appearance and for what it symbolizes: a departure from the lockstep green buzz cut most homeowners aspire to. The suburbs get a bad rap as cookie-cutter Levittowns of identical ticky-tacky houses and Astroturf lawns. But look closer and there is individuality there too.

I’d never seen the people who lived there. The exact moment I was passing the house, thinking, “A real reporter would knock on the door,” a woman rolled her garbage can to the curb. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. I introduced myself.

Tina Paluch, 50, lives here with her parents, Anne and Jerry, in their late 80s.

“I was laid off, years ago, so now I’m here and I take care of mom and dad,” Tina said.


I asked about the lawn: when did they let it grow wild?

“The late ’80s, early ’90s,” said Tina. “It was a gradual, slow process. It’s taken 25, 30 years to get to this point.”

Until two years ago they had a large ash, lost to the Emerald ash borer.

“A beautiful tree,” said Anne.

“This has kind of become a memorial garden,” said Tina, indicating a spot with a container of flowers. “It was so sad, the tree, it was part of our history here. When it went down, it was very emotional.”

“It was so sad,” said Anne.

“We all cried,” said Tina. “It was awful.”

So they did the only thing that could be done: Planted a Pin Oak, a few feet from where the ash stood.

“Though we won’t be around to see the new tree, [we decided] we’re going to plant it, because it’s a good thing to do.”

Uniform lawns were imports from Great Britain and France, where they gave unobstructed views of grand manor homes, and were evidence of being wealthy enough to support a staff to maintain them. They were emulated here in the mid-19th century, given a push by Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed suburban Riverside in the 1860s with curving streets and expanses of grass. It was designed to be relief from the oppressive grid of the city, but lawns have become constricting themselves.

“The grass lawn is not so much a choice as an imposition,” Ferris Jabr wrote in Scientific American. “A legacy borne of vanity and avarice that evolved into conformity in the name of community.”

Living in the house for 50 years, they must have seen a lot of change. Tina said when they moved to Northbrook, there were still farmers’ fields. Maple Street was dirt. They’ve also seen change at the school next door.

“It’s the parking,” said Tina. “They park in our drive. They park across our drive. They would park in our front yard if they could. I went to school here and everybody walked then or they had a bike. Now everybody comes with their moms with the cars, so it’s very congested several times a day. What are you going to to do? Times have changed.”

Indeed they have. But they might change again. I see more wildflowers where grass used to be. Somehow, in my mind, the two are interconnected. It seems that a house with a mini-prairie in the front would tend to have kids who walk four or six blocks to school. It seems something for a community to aspire to.