A city by any other name

Published 10:14 pm Thursday, June 14, 2012

I’d like to admit a slight problem I have with Suffolk being called a city, and also explain the provenance of this problem, lest a misunderstanding between us develop.

Coming up on a farm in Australia, the city of Sydney — not the country’s capital but its largest city — was considered “The Big Smoke.”

We went there once to see a bunch of Japanese businessmen bid on our wool clip for that year, and a couple of other times on school field trips.

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The colloquialism Big Smoke was coined well before the arrival of clean-air legislation, and has probably fallen out of favor with the prevalence of Priuses and bicycles on the city’s streets nowadays.

Another city 50 miles down the road from us was Dubbo. That’s where we purchased our bulk supplies and sold much of our livestock. It was considerably smaller than Sydney, but still distinctly city-like, in my quite limited experience, with a population obviously concentrated in one area.

So my idea of a city has evolved to be some other place where people you don’t know live and where you go to transact business or to be ferried about from museum to museum in a minibus driven by your English teacher.

Suffolk, meanwhile, seems a collection of villages scattered around a town, running into the realer-seeming cities of Portsmouth and Chesapeake along a couple of borders, which to me doesn’t constitute a city.

I’m aware that Suffolk being classified as a city and yet seeming like a collective of small communities has something to do with it being Virginia’s largest city area-wise after consuming the former Nansemond County, but old habits die hard.

Eclipse, Chuckatuck, Driver, Bennett’s Creek, Crittenden, Whaleyville, Holland, Harbour View — not all these could be described as villages, but they all have distinct personalities and boundaries, and many folks living in them don’t necessarily say “I’m from Suffolk.”

You can drive down Bridge Road from the Western Branch area of Chesapeake to buy some plants at Smithfield Gardens and never know of the vibrant, quirky little communities just off to the side that are part of Suffolk.

My wife, who has lived in Western Branch for most of the past 15 or 17 years, recently dialed Suffolk into the GPS from somewhere along Bridge Road, and finally discovered the villages of the city Suffolk.

Perhaps the city, if it hasn’t already done so, can formally recognize the presence of these distinctive communities with some kind of declaration to the rest of Hampton Roads. Or it could just let sleeping villages lie.