Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us (John Wiley & Sons, 2012), by Maggie Koerth-Baker.
Most people reading this would probably find Merriam, Kansas, very familiar. Not because they've been there, but because it's a lot like home.
Merriam is usually described as a suburb of Kansas City, Kans.—a small town that grew into a residential center for people who worked in the much larger city nearby. Yet the mental images that go with the word suburb don't really fit Merriam all that well. When I think suburb, I imagine something like Levittown, treeless insta-villages where rows of identical houses dot gleaming new cul-de-sacs recently carved out of some farmer's field. The greater Kansas City area certainly has its share of developments that would fit that description, but Merriam isn't one of them.
In fact, when I was a kid, I didn't even know Merriam existed at all. I thought it was Kansas City. Specifically, I thought it was where Kansas City began, the distinct point where you exit the Interstate and find yourself in the big city. This particular misconception has more to do with my family's regular travel plans than anything else—Merriam's main drag happens to be the same road that leads to the art museum my dad and I went to a lot and to the Christmas light displays I visited every winter with my mom. It also speaks volumes about what Merriam actually looks like, though, and it's tied to some important trends in the way most Americans live today.
Merriam isn't a small town. There's nothing really recognizable as a small town central business district. Instead, Merriam's stores and offices are mostly concentrated along two major thoroughfares—Shawnee Mission Parkway and Johnson Drive. These wide, multilane roads are dotted with clusters of shopping centers and big box stores, like necklaces strung with fat pearls. The municipal building and the police station are a couple of nondescript offices that sit off the frontage of Shawnee Mission Parkway, on a ridge overlooking the Interstate. Nothing about that says, "Classic Americana."
Yet Merriam isn't a suburb, either—or an urban city. It's too dense to be the first and not dense enough to be the latter. Merriam has a mixture of house styles. Drive down one street, and you'll see a 1930s bungalow standing shoulder to shoulder with a spare little 1950s Cape Cod. Next to that, there's a 1980s split-level with windows on the front and the back but none on the sides. More than three generations of the American Dream are living here.
Each house sits on its own little lot, generous by the standards of city dwellers, but those lots would seem cramped to anyone who grew up on an expansive, truly suburban range of lawn. Some neighborhoods have sidewalks; others don't. All in all, Merriam doesn't quite fit in with any of the paradigms we use to describe "place" in the United States, and that sense of befuddlement extends all the way to the edge of town—if you can find it. The truth is that Merriam's borders are hazy, known only to people whose jobs require them to be aware of that sort of thing. To most people, Merriam bleeds into Mission, into Shawnee, and into Overland Park. Those towns, in turn, nuzzle up against others just like themselves. You could almost call them neighborhoods, except that they have their own separate governments.