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Suburbia versus urbia

Howard Ahmanson ponders “why non-suburbanites distrust suburbanites.”  [1]In a paragraph discussing why people move to the suburbs, Howard touches on an interesting distinction about real estate and class conflict:

Then there is the issue of ‘incomism.’  Some of the underclass do live very dysfunctional lifestyles that make them bad neighbors.  So the respectable poor seek to move somewhere just expensive enough that the dysfunctional people could not afford to live there.  But as a society, we have often acted as if we believed that people who made less money than ourselves were inherently inferior people, and at the very least, undesirable neighbors.  [Sometimes people who make a lot more money than we do are considered undesirable neighbors, too!  They drive up prices.]  I think that ‘incomism’ is morally problematic.  Note I have not said ‘classism,’ because social classes are primarily, in my view, cultural entities, and you don’t change classes by making more or less money unless you change your cultural values as well. [Emphasis mine — RD]

Working out at the Y on an elliptical trainer that has a TV screen attached to it, I have finally been able to see a bit of these reality shows involving a super-trashy rich LA clan called the Kardashians, as well as snippets of the various “Real Housewives” reality shows. Seriously, I would never want these people as neighbors. The only difference between them and the Jersey Shore hoodlums is income, at least as far as I can tell.

Anyway, now that I’m officially a working-from-home guy, my family has to move from our urban apartment to a place big enough to give me a home office. We’ve enjoyed living here these past 18 months, but quarters have been pretty cramped for a family of five, and we have really come to miss having a back yard. (Try being cooped up with an energetic seven year old boy in a small city apartment for days on end; it ain’t fun for nobody). Plus, when we moved to this particular Philly neighborhood, we did it because the neighborhood was beautiful and walkable, and because the only friends we had live here. It was a great choice for those reasons, but what we didn’t figure into the equation was the city taxes. If we left the city, I’d get a five percent raise. That’s not nothing.


All of which is to say that we are planning to move to the suburbs as renters for non-class-related reasons: because we need more space, and because its more affordable.

I am wondering, though, if I am being defeatist about city life, or in some way betraying my principles. Here’s what I mean.Readers of “Crunchy Cons” will remember a chapter about why we chose to buy an old house in a gentrifying neighborhood of Dallas. I need to re-read that, especially as we’re on the verge of moving not only to the suburbs, but actually way out to the country, where Julie can have chickens again, and a big garden. Mind you, our lot size and city regulations were such that we had that at our old Dallas place. Yet I wrote to a friend in Dallas the other day and told him how surprised I am to have come to the conclusion that if I were to move back to Dallas, I’d almost certainly settle in the suburbs. It all has to do with the increasingly dysfunctional city government in Dallas, which I follow from afar. Dallas readers may wish to correct me, but it has seemed to me that the kind of good government and stability that the middle classes need is subverted by a de facto alliance between minority machine politicians and wealthy whites. To choose to live in the City of Dallas today is to choose to put up with the risk of more dysfunctional city government policies, and higher taxes. That might make sense to some, but it doesn’t make sense to me anymore.

Part of that has to do as well with the traumatic — there is no other word — experience we had trying to sell our house in Dallas when we moved. It took six months to sell, which doesn’t seem long considering how much time many other houses are on the market, but it was an eternity to us as we sat here in Philly paying rent here and a mortgage there, watching our savings bleed out. And when we finally did sell it, we lost $40,000 or more on the deal, which took away the money we had planned to use as a down payment on a house here. There’s no way we are going to think about buying another house right now. Things are too unstable economically. In an economy as restless and fragile as this one, it’s understandable that people would want to choose to live in a place that is more stable. Mind you, suburbia has been hit hard by the crash, but all things considered, I would give it a second look (I wouldn’t have before) and consider whether or not it’s a place I would rather be if I were stuck by being unable to sell my house. Our old neighborhood was fine, but we could still hear gunshots in the near distance on some nights. When we bought the house, we felt like — and had reason to feel — that the momentum of creating stable neighborhoods was going the right way in our part of town. I know that the crash slowed it to a crawl, but I don’t know how things have gone since we left. The point is, I had made what seemed at the time like a rational decision to buy a house in an “up-and-coming” (to use real estate jargon) neighborhood, but the swift and brutal reversal of economic fortunes that we all have suffered has changed the calculus. Let me say this again: the economic security of the past three years has made me take a hard look at the costs of living in the city, especially re: taxes. It’s not because I want to take home more dollars to buy more stuff; it’s because I want to put more savings in the bank to give my family a cushion against catastrophe.

(Plus — and this is something for another post — I don’t think Julie and I would be nearly as quick to rent an old house, despite its many charms. We truly loved our place in Dallas, but looking back on how much of a money suck it was, simply because it was so old and needed so many repairs, and because it was so expensive to heat and cool, we’ll be a lot more cautious on this front next time.)

My thinking about “community” has changed somewhat. Julie and I have been talking about this as we try to figure out where to move. Our main community is the homeschool co-op group, whose members are scattered all over the Philly area, including its suburbs. We are not really a big part of the geographical community in which we live, because we don’t go to church in the area (as our closest friends in this neighborhood do), and our kids don’t go to school at the public or one of the private schools here. Our athletic child plays in the sports leagues, but that’s only offered a tenuous connection. We’ve reflected on how our friends and their families who live in this neighborhood really are rooted here, primarily because they all go to the same Catholic parish. If we were part of that parish, it would dramatically change the equation for us, I think. We might work harder to stay closer to this neighborhood, which is right on the border of the suburbs (we’d still need to move to get more room and a backyard big enough and sunny enough to have a garden). And in the end, that would be our preference anyway: to be close driving distance to our friends’ houses. The point is, though, that the idea that you are going to be in community with the people you live among just isn’t how we live life these days. I’ve heard people who live in subdivisions say they’ve been in their places for years, and don’t even know their neighbors. This is because so few of us have much in common with each other anymore. Do you really live in a community, as the word is traditionally understood, if you don’t share deep values with the people around you, but rather only share a common geographical area?

Then again, is there any place where the people around you share your values? In fact, this Philadelphia enclave in which we now rent an apartment is probably the most culturally uniform place we’ve ever lived. It is white, affluent, and liberal. I see more Obama stickers on cars here than I ever saw Bush stickers on cars in Texas. In fact, this is one of those neighborhoods in which many people wear their bleeding hearts on their bumpers. I’m pretty sure that most of the people we associate with in our neighborhood would be horrified to know what we really believe in. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty secure place to live in terms of comfort and peaceability. It’s strange, though, to feel so alien in such a nice place. Anyway, I think it’s perfectly normal for people to want to live around others like them. As Robert Putnam found (to his dismay), “diversity” decreases social trust.  [2] That’s just how human beings are, and there’s no getting around that. The people who make an idol of “diversity” typically fail to see that they only really want to be around people who share their own views about diversity. Everybody is conservative about real estate. Everybody.

It’s certainly true for me. With the nation in for a long stretch of hard times, I find within myself an urge to be around people like me. What I mean by that is not “white middle-class right-wingers,” but rather people who share conservative morals (even if they are Democrats), and a religious sensibility — be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Hindu, etc. These are my people, so to speak, not because they share my political views, my ethnicity, my income, or even my particular religion. Where do they live? Probably in the suburbs.

OK, enough for now. Let me say that I don’t intend by this post to offer any solutions, but simply to let you know how my own experiences since we last talked about this have affected my thinking. Any thoughts you have that will help me think through all this are welcome.

49 Comments (Open | Close)

49 Comments To "Suburbia versus urbia"

#1 Comment By Leapold On September 6, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

Are there any nearby small towns? It would seem that you haven’t recently tried town life. City / Suburb is not the only choice. Often small towns are near enough to visit with one’s neighbors and take advantage of cultural pursuits, yet without the aridity of suburban life. I live in a small town, a few blocks from the center, right on the Mississippi. It is charming to hear the church bells ring out the hour. Alas, I can’t raise chickens. Best to check city ordinances for that. For a sense of community, though, it’s tough to beat. Just geography gives the sense, despite varying political and religious views (though, I have to admit, Lutherans predominate.)

#2 Comment By Sam M On September 6, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

“we are planning to move to the suburbs as renters for non-class-related reasons: because we need more space, and because its more affordable.”

These strike me as class-related reasons.

#3 Comment By Noster K On September 6, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

“… people who share conservative morals … These are my people, so to speak, not because they share my political views, my ethnicity, my income, or even my particular religion. Where do they live? ”

Everywhere. Most people have conservative morals.

My own people are the people of my part of the country. Some don’t share my morals – indeed, some are fools or outright bastards – but they’re still my people.

#4 Comment By t e whalen On September 6, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

I’m baffled by this piece. You claim to care about communities, but your entire family is completely disengaged from where you live: you don’t attend the schools, the churches, or work there. Why do you even feel conflicted about moving to the suburbs? You’re already completely isolated. You want to live near people like you? Why? So you can agree with their bumper stickers as you drive past them on your way somewhere else?

#5 Comment By bill holston On September 6, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

Rod, great to read you again!

The best community I know of in our area is Oak Cliff. the young couples moving there think of community in the old fashioned sense of helping each other, watching out for each other, and of course just having fun together.

It’s best exemplified in the arts community, which is a group that shares the values of local, diy, and arts.

My next door neighbor is a Guatemalan. He fled the civil war, moving to Canada, later to settle hear. He’s not religious, but hauled me to the hospital when I fell from a ladder. We share an interest in human rights, and are very involved in family.

In sum, I think community is primarily built on commitment to each other and that can take place with very little else in common.

#6 Comment By Ryan D On September 6, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

I also live in Philadelphia (Northwest area). The wage tax is hideous, but keep in mind that property taxes are incredibly low, to a degree that I think the total bill is about even or perhaps lower than many suburbs.

We’ve been in our place for seven years now and it’s actually increased in value over that time. If wouldn’t hesitate to buy in the city again even under the current economic conditions.

If you are committed to moving out, I would highly recommend Narberth or Jenkintown. You can probably get by with just one car, as they are very walkable and offer easy access to the city by train. (Not sure about raising chickens though!)

#7 Comment By roo_ster On September 6, 2011 @ 4:31 pm


This wouldn’t be so troubling for you if you imbued life’s petty lifestyle preferences with less moral weight. For my own part, I am pretty much exhausted by getting the Big Things right to the best of my ability. The organic free range locally raised chickens are on their own.

As for the particular urban vs suburban question, there is nothing principled by staying under the yoke of corrupticrats and at the mercy of their agents. You have the means to do better for your family. Not to do so for the sake of some petty “urbanist principle” smacks of Rousseau, who wrote purple prose in support of his principles of child-rearing whilst condemning the children of his body to an horrific existence.

Think of it this way:
There are plenty of folks in the ‘burbs who value typically urban preferences and amenities. One of the primary reasons they do not live in the city is because they were driven out by the crime, corruption, and downward spiral into squalor of the city. You will be lonely only by choice.

As for Dallas city & county government, it is same as it ever was (since the old city gov’t system was overthrown). Jim Schutze at the Observer has the wisest take on what is/was going on. The DMN is, as ever, either complicit or clueless. I doubt today’s city/county gov’t is any more corrupt than in years prior. I still choose to live outside their reach for reasons similar to those you describe.

#8 Comment By Laura On September 6, 2011 @ 4:45 pm

My Husband is a full-time telecommuter. Since you “work from home”, Rod, is it possible you could live pretty much anywhere? Are there more attractive-to-you locations than a Philadelphia suburb? Places with less taxes? more space? cheaper living? a great Parish (I have one! :grin:)? closer to whatever culture you and your Family enjoy? etc, etc, etc.

I’ve moved 23 times in 35 years (my late Husband was a professional pilot) and these are the questions I asked myself when it came time to make my own choices. Oddly enough, I stayed put. My locale had pretty much everything I wanted. In fact, I was secretly overjoyed when I remarried and His House, in California, sold first… 😀

BTW…really, really happy to have you back online. You’ve been missed.

#9 Comment By Eric K On September 6, 2011 @ 5:05 pm

I’ll say that I was a little bummed out after reading this. I understand what you mean about having community outside your geographical area with people of like interests. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I think it’s also important to have community with people who live nearby regardless of whether you have like interests. You don’t have to be best friends with them, but what I’ve found invaluable in living in the place that we do (dense housing, with walkable access to everything we need) is that the people living next door and down the street are the people we rely on the most when we’re in most dire need because they’re right there. Geographical community is very important. It’s much harder to be a servant to someone who live 20 miles away than it is to be one to someone who’s down the street.

As for moving to the suburbs, I can’t fault you for wanting more space. We often want more space too, and we have one less child. I just hope you’re able to find a place in the suburbs that provides a walkable neighborhood and commerce and a place that has homes with floor plans that promote families spending time together rather than sequestering kids in their rooms. I guess I’m just bummed that these don’t appear to be priorities for you anymore. But again, who am I to judge. Good luck.

#10 Comment By John E On September 6, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

I second the small town suggestion above, especially given this, “people who share conservative morals (even if they are Democrats), and a religious sensibility,”

#11 Comment By Bluegrass Up On September 6, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

Or there’s the city versus the countryside. Back in the late 90s I moved from a small city (a few hundred thousand) to a remote rural region far off the beaten path, where I live in a big old house on a gravel road. And I view the move as one of the best things I ever did in my life.

I’ve become part of the community here, though in this rural setting that takes effort, a likable personality, and some basic ground-level fit with the local culture: I grew up in a small farm town of just over 1000, and doubt I would’ve fit in here if I’d grown up as a native city dweller. There’s a small Presbyterian church several miles down the road where, lifelong Presbyterian that I am, I fit right in. And I’ve gone out of my way to get involved in other local organizations and activities.

I don’t know that there’s any one-size-fits-all solution on this front, but it worked for me. Oh, and chickens… no, I don’t raise chickens, though there is still an old chicken coop out in my back yard, and I understand a family that lived here at one time had chickens, and a couple of goats as well. Me, I use the chicken coop as a storage shed. 🙂

#12 Comment By Rod Dreher On September 6, 2011 @ 6:29 pm

Eric K., I see where you’re coming from. I guess the message I want you to take from my post is that I’m rethinking my earlier conclusions, and am confused about what I should believe and how I should act on it. I’m seeking input.

When we moved to PA, we always planned to stay in our neighborhood for a year, then look for a place to buy in a neighborhood we could afford. The dramatic financial loss we took in selling our Dallas house, to say nothing of the deep anxiety we went through waiting for someone to make us an offer, made a big impression on us. It made us think about how vulnerable we are to things outside our control. Plus, things changed very abruptly for me at my last job; I joined the Foundation as a writer and editor, but suddenly those things weren’t in my job description any more. And, looking at the economy we have and the economy we’re likely to have, it’s hard for me to feel secure at all.

Maybe that has little to do with the decision we’re facing about where to move. We live among really nice people now, and like the folks we’ve come to know. We might be able to find a place we could afford to live in here, but our bank account was so decimated by the housing loss that we need to be able to save more. It could be that I’m misinterpreting my options here.

te whalen: “I’m baffled by this piece. You claim to care about communities, but your entire family is completely disengaged from where you live: you don’t attend the schools, the churches, or work there. Why do you even feel conflicted about moving to the suburbs? You’re already completely isolated. You want to live near people like you? Why? So you can agree with their bumper stickers as you drive past them on your way somewhere else?”

This is a good point. We are homeschoolers, so we aren’t hooked into the school system here. We are Orthodox Christians, and there are no Orthodox churches in this neighborhood. We shop in the neighborhood, so there’s that, and we have some good friends in the neighborhood. Our friends would be the only thing holding us here, and if we end up staying, it’ll be because of them. But we would have to give up the possibility of gardening, given the tiny lot sizes here, and all the shade. Anyway, you’re right, we’re almost completely isolated here, given that our family’s real engagement with community is in the twice-weekly homeschool meetings at a church on the Main Line. That’s been a great community for my wife and the kids … but people there live all over. It’s a problem.

#13 Comment By Rod Dreher On September 6, 2011 @ 6:37 pm

Let me put it another way: for me, events of the past 18 months have made me understand better why the suburbs are a choice people make, even if they would rather not. I consider myself a New Urbanist, and all things being equal, I would much rather live in a walkable city than in the suburbs.

#14 Comment By James On September 6, 2011 @ 7:02 pm


Along these lines of the city vs. the country, have you seen the interesting political/cultural/social battle lines drawn over the Cameron/Clegg government’s proposal to totally revamp (see: strip away) the UK’s planning apparatus?

The Telegraph has launched a campaign to scuttle it, and the Guardian is joining in the protest. Old-line Tories are upset at this Osborne-led capitulation to city developers and Labour is attempting to claim the mantle of protector of countryside values against the (big-c) City.


#15 Comment By John E On September 6, 2011 @ 8:13 pm

Small towns are walkable – I walk in mine all the time…post office, bank, cafe, small grocery store, all withing walking distance.

#16 Comment By Joel On September 6, 2011 @ 8:39 pm

This might interest you:


#17 Comment By Hector On September 6, 2011 @ 9:04 pm

Folks, give Rod a break. Most people, myself included, find it difficult to live up to their highest ideals. It’s better to have high ideals and fall short of them, then not to have ideals at all.

The only big city that I both am attached to and know a lot about, is Boston (my home city). If fate eventually brings me back there, I would strongly prefer to try and live in the city. For a number of reasons. Partly because I’m openly critical of late-capitalist, upper-middle-class suburban culture, partly because I like the cultural diversity that immigration has brought to the city, partly because I’m saddened by what ‘white flight’ has done to the city (I’m Asian, not white, but let that pass), partly because I like the idea of walking/bicycling/taking the subway instead of driving places, partly because the city is beautiful, and in large part because when I go to an inner city church when I’m back there, which I consider my spiritual home more than any other. But then again, I don’t yet have children, and perhaps I’ll feel differently when I do. I might well feel tempted to move someplace with better schools and lower crime. I’m not Rod, and while I believe in principle that suburbanization has been bad for America, each situation is a little different.

#18 Comment By Rod Dreher On September 6, 2011 @ 9:19 pm

Thanks Hector. I don’t know a lot about Boston, but in Dallas and Washington, two cities I have lived in, “white flight” is a half-truth. The whole truth is “middle class flight,” because as soon as individual blacks, Hispanics, and others developed the wherewithal to leave the city, they got out for many of the same reasons middle-class whites did.

The world really does look different when you have kids. That’s one reason I think libertarianism appeals primarily to the childless. Again, I substantially agree with the general critique of suburbia, but I am more sympathetic now with people who choose to live there, not because they particularly want to live in a soulless cookie-cutter subdivision, but because it’s the most reasonable choice available given their financial resources. If we were using the public schools, like many people do, we wouldn’t even think twice about relocating to suburbia.

#19 Comment By Erin Manning On September 6, 2011 @ 11:02 pm

I’ve sort of been waiting for this blog post since I first read “Crunchy Cons” back in 2007. 🙂 The chapter I found it most difficult to relate to was the “Home” chapter, not because I fundamentally disagreed with the idea of putting down roots, buying homes that will be around in 150 years or so in neighborhoods that will still be real and thriving, and recognizing the potential of spiritual emptiness in the “McMansion” culture, but because I also realized that people like me ended up in suburbia because our first older home in small town North Carolina drained us of cash and energy as we attempted to deal with maintenance issues we couldn’t, ultimately, afford; it was not a particularly easy place to be raising three children who were toddlers at the time.

In other words, when I read the “Home” chapter, I did not think “How can more Americans buy Arts and Crafts bungalows in urban neighborhoods as a means to creating real homes and communities?” but “How can more Americans learn to create community where they live, even if they live in a featureless modern home in a neighborhood where the sidewalks are older than the trees?”

Unfortunately, the more I ponder that second question, the more I realize that it is the lack of shared faith/cultural values and means to relate to each other more than the lack of well-crafted homes in real neighborhoods that holds back the notion of fostering community. By this I don’t, of course, mean that it is only possible for community to exist among those who are identical to each other in lives, thoughts, beliefs and actions–but there does have to be at least some basis for common ground, and that can be more difficult to find than we might expect.

#20 Comment By Sam M On September 7, 2011 @ 1:15 am

“not because they particularly want to live in a soulless cookie-cutter subdivision, but because it’s the most reasonable choice available given their financial resources”

But isn’t it just possible that, given your need to rethink the reasons people choose to live in such places, you might be wrong about the whole “soulless” thing, too? If there are millions of people living in the suburbs of Philadelpha for this reason or that, maybe they actually manage to get together and form a community? I have friends who live Reston, VA, right outside Dulles Airport. They have friends. They have a church they love. So… it’s possible. Besides, if you abandon the idea that “place” is integral to community, why NOT the suburbs?

#21 Comment By James On September 7, 2011 @ 3:48 am

Boston is one of the few relatively vibrant and pleasant old cities in the USA no doubt. I think the issue here (I live in the inner suburbs, but on the subway line) is cost of buying a decent home or renting in or just outside the city—it’s astronomical!

In the city, expect a decent 2-bedroom apartment rental to go for at least $1,500, $2,000 in the better areas. The absolutely massive student population also puts pressure on the market.

A tiny studio in Back Bay will set you back $200,000 or more, a 2-bedroom house is insane.

Fortunately the inner suburbs are a bit more affordable (at least for renters!) and offer the same kind of walkability and decent transport options.

I love it here myself, but I don’t have a bunch of children to support with my relatively modest income.

#22 Comment By Bar Bill On September 7, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

Rod, welcome back to blogging.

Why a suburb? Since you homeschool, you don’t need a suburban school system. You will be close to the office with whatever decision you make. It seems like the only things suburban life buys you are more living space and a lower tax burden.

Why not go rural? Lease a farm. You don’t need proximity to a good school system or the office. You’ll get more than enough space for kids, home office and garden, even chickens. You’ll likely see a break on your taxes.

I wish you luck on your decision.

#23 Comment By Rod Dreher On September 7, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

Funny, Bill, but we are looking at exactly that. Going up to look at the farm we have in mind this weekend.

#24 Comment By Barbara C. On September 7, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

I think some of the definitions between city, suburb, and small town can be very blurry depending on where you live. When I was growing up in Louisville, KY it was more clear. I grew up right outside the Louisville city limits (less than a mile), but our suburb did not have its own government. We were just subject to the county laws and regulations. Small towns further out were separated by large swatches of farmland or undeveloped land.

Now I live in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, but it is made of millions of small towns or “villages”, each with their own local government, pressed up together. And I live in a neighborhood of townhomes, so while we are technically in the suburbs we face some of the same issues you do. When we take our children outside to play it’s to the asphalt driveway between the townhome rows. Getting to the closest parks involves crossing streets that are too busy for me to feel confident crossing on foot with four young children, and since not many people cross on foot drivers aren’t used to stopping for pedestrians. Then when you get to the park there may not be anyone else for me or the kids to socialize with. To have our own grassy yard for the kids to play in is our dream, which will probably never be doable until the kids are grown.

We’ve lived in our home for 5 years (in IL for 8), and we still do not have really close friends. This is partly because we, too, homeschool (which the pros totally outweigh this con). We have made friends with our neighbors who have kids; those that don’t won’t even acknowledge our existence. We have a few homeschooling friends. Most acquaintances, though, have been made through overlaps between my kids organized activities (gymnastics, tee ball) and then seeing the same families at the two Catholic churches we attend.

I think it is harder to build deep friendships in a new place when you have small children. When you are childless, you just have more free time to spend outside your home bonding with other people. Going out the door for an hour or two isn’t as big of an ordeal. A phone call doesn’t involve five billion interruptions.

All this is to say, that I can totally sympathize with what you and Julie have been going through for the past 18 months.

I would definitely refer you to this piece that Jen Fulwiler wrote for NCR: [5] . And I would also second her suggestion to consider some place closer to an Orthodox parish.

#25 Comment By Ector de Maris On September 7, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

Welcome back to blogging, Mr. Dreher! You were sorely missed. As a lifelong suburbanite, leasing a farm and homeschooling the kids sounds like great.idea to me.

#26 Comment By Shelley On September 7, 2011 @ 5:40 pm

I am finding as I grow older that my ideals and principals that served me so well in forming a lifestyle in my 20’s and 30’s matter less. Perhaps this is because Jerry and I have our interior values set. Our exterior values such as where we live and perfection in what we eat, what we wear, have totally taken a back seat. I still believe what I believe. But I have experienced mercy. And I have begun to see my own and other people’s choices in light of mercy. I am less quick to judge my own or other people’s actions as grave mistakes leading to eggregious consequences.

#27 Comment By Stefanie On September 7, 2011 @ 5:44 pm

I agree with “Bar Bill” upthread – if you are going to rent, if you are working from home, why not rent/lease a farm property?

I don’t know about suburban Philly, but around where I am, there are a *lot* of places that used to be “horse farms” during the boom, and are now for lease. (There are also a *lot* of horses for sale.)

If you do rent in a suburban area, be very wary of residential covenant agreements. They will most likely apply to you, even as a renter. RCAs can put the kabosh on chickens, gardens, even on something as simple as hanging out your wash on a clothesline.

#28 Comment By Geoff G. On September 7, 2011 @ 10:20 pm

I find it odd that someone for whom faith was so important would choose to live in a neighborhood that didn’t have a church within walking distance.

100 years ago, immigrants clustered in the same neighborhood precisely to form the bonds that you lament are missing. They spoke the same mother tongue, worshiped in the same churches and sent their kids to the same schools. Of course they had community!

Now, you expect to parachute into a neighborhood, drive however many miles to the church of your choice, absent your kids from the school system, and then fret about not knowing who your neighbors are.

And guess what, you’re about to make the exact same mistake all over again.

Cultural or (less kindly) cafeteria Catholics come in for an awful lot of flack from the more orthodox type. But at least many of them are actively involved in the communities that they live in. If you’re not, perhaps the real issue isn’t the community around you but a certain lack of flexibility to meet that community on its own terms.

#29 Comment By Rod Dreher On September 7, 2011 @ 10:29 pm

Geoff, we moved to this particular neighborhood because the only people we knew in Philly lived here, and because it looked like a good place to settle. There are plenty of churches within walking distance, but as you may remember, we are Eastern Orthodox. Those churches are few and far between. As for the school system, we homeschool our kids. The Philadelphia public schools are not what we would like them to be, and we can’t afford private education — which is the choice of most people in our part of town. Besides, we homeschool for affirmative reasons too.

Look, I don’t hold the neighborhood responsible for our not feeling an integral part of it. If we didn’t have kids, we’d see things differently. I was just as religious and conservative when we lived in Manhattan as newly marrieds, and in Brooklyn as brand-new parents, but having children and bringing them up makes you think about things you hadn’t thought about. There are certain things I can’t be flexible about as a parent. Other things I can be. I hope to strike a good balance.

#30 Comment By Eric K On September 8, 2011 @ 1:39 am

Rod, perhaps I was a little defeatist in my comments. I apologize. I get what you’re saying that what people value can change over time based on their experiences and situation in life. You’ve been through more than a few changes and there are probably other things that you didn’t even mention that influence your thinking.

Erin makes some good points about community – it’s not about the type of building or public transportation, but relations to people around you. But I still maintain that being relationally close the people who are geographically close is important. I’m sure you’ll find people who live nearby to connect with in whatever new home you find.

#31 Comment By Hector On September 8, 2011 @ 3:28 am


Cost is certainly an issue in Boston, but the suburbs are expensive too. Many people manage to find affordable places in JP or Brighton (both of which are areas of the city I quite like- I certainly wouldn’t look for a place in the Back Bay, since as you rightly point out it’s expensive).

I think the biggest issue, and the biggest reason people move out of Boston, is because the public schools are (in Rod’s charitably euphemistic phrase) ‘not what they should be’. (This is changing now, and magnet schools have always been one alternative, but it’s been a huge problem in the past. There’s a reason why the Boston public schools are overwhelmingly nonwhite- it’s because most of the white families in Boston either leave when they have kids, or else send them to private/parochial schools). Just my opinion, of course.

#32 Comment By Marc On September 8, 2011 @ 3:48 am

I live in as urban as you’ll get in Seattle: Capitol Hill. Interestingly enough though, being the youth and gay friendly community that it is, fits us perfectly as we don’t plan on nor want children and a traditional family is simply not possible, legally or philosophically for our neighbors. I have a 15 minute walking commute. My wife works in the building next door. All the dining and grocery options we could want are within walking distance. We’re extremely lucky that our cost of living is well below that of

It’s a lifestyle that fits us greatly and it isnt for everyone. No car (and this is one of the more interesting points on “affordability” for people; saving 500 in rent but spending 750 on a car/gas/insurance/parking is not my definition of affordable). No backyard or garden. Loud people leaving bars on Friday and Saturday. The occasional buzzer bashers.

But I compare it to a life in the burbs where our commute is 30-45 minutes, and has to be by car because public transportation in Seattle is lackluster. Neighbors who have an unrelatable and child filled existence (West Seattle and Ballard are so incredibly child and family oriented.)

I’m of the mind that when you’re forced either willfully or unwillfully to endure other people and you accept that, you’re going to form a bond sooner or later with someone, close to you through sheer proximity.

#33 Comment By Hector On September 8, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

Re: Neighbors who have an unrelatable and child filled existence (West Seattle and Ballard are so incredibly child and family oriented.)

God forbid that anyone should value having and rearing children, over being able to have lots of fine dining options.

#34 Comment By IanH On September 8, 2011 @ 4:28 pm

My father grew up in Boston. The public school system is what it is due to the horrible 1973 busing decision. That, more than anything else, made it impossible for working-class people to live in the city.

#35 Comment By Susan On September 8, 2011 @ 7:30 pm

I, for one, am glad you are re-thinking things. I believe you will become a wiser man and thus richer as a writer when you have gone through this re-evaluation. But… that may be because I felt Crunchy Con was too tunnel vision. I also wonder that the EO may expand your appreciation for the much needed mystery aspect in life? 😉

#36 Comment By Susan On September 8, 2011 @ 7:31 pm

P.S. Best wishes and prayers for you and your family in all. I am delighted to see you back on the internet.

#37 Comment By Cecelia On September 9, 2011 @ 3:06 am

Well – what a happy surprise – discovered you are back from the Sullivan site. And I am so pleased to read Ruth is doing well – kept her in my prayers and now am happy to offer a pray of thanks.

so find someplace with a couple of acres lots of room for the kids to run and your wife to plant (I predict she’ll have goats in no time at all) and for you to have a pastoral view outside your home office window. The broader area may be “suburban” but within that suburban area one can find farmlets. PA is just perfect for that.

It does seem to me that community doesn’t mean “all of us believe the same thing and live the same way” but rather that people with disparate ideas and lifestyles can still be neighborly and have a commitment to their place.

But yes – avoid the older home.

#38 Comment By Angela On September 10, 2011 @ 10:51 am

Rod, We, my husband and two teen-age kids, moved to Philly, Graduate Hospital area, two years ago. We have lived in small towns and suburbia. For me, living in the city is my favorite place. I walk to the stores, walk to the neighborhood churches, walk to local concerts, and, yes, walk to restaurants. I ride the bus most other places, and can go for weeks without getting in a car. One son is starting at Community College of Philadelphia, another is a senior in a private Friends school. (Many of which, by the way, offer great scholarships.) And although I love living in the city for me, I love it even more for my sons.

Yes, it takes a bit of letting go to send a teen-ager off on a bike to school, or with bus tokens for a night with their friends. But it is so much easier than the letting go that came with our oldest son in suburbia. There we were handing over the keys to the car, knowing that there was very little the area offered for teen entertainment.

I’m old enough to know better than to say never….but I can’t imagine ever living outside of a city again, and I regret not raising my children here from the get go.

#39 Comment By Oodoodanoo On September 10, 2011 @ 10:52 am

Be they Christian, or Jewish, or miscellaneous…

#40 Comment By Rob On September 10, 2011 @ 10:58 am

You say;

” I’m pretty sure that most of the people we associate with in our neighborhood would be horrified to know what we really believe in.”

If you believe in respect, human dignity, tolerance and fair mindedness as you claim to, why would there be horror?

Or, are you taking about some sort of laundry list of arbitrary talking points that people pass of as beliefs now a days?

#41 Comment By Alanmt On September 10, 2011 @ 11:19 am

Oh, Rod. So serious and introspective and idealistic and rebellious within your orthodoxy.

I think you will be happiest on a rural property. Keep looking, and you will find one. Your happiness and well-being is tied to many of your philosophies, and your paradigm safest there. I grew up on a small farm, and it was pretty great, although I would recommend getting your kids involved in public school sports and clubs.

Insofar as my little mountain state city has suburbs, I live in them, and in the most cookie-cutter iteration possible – condominiumized townhouses with identical exteriors except for customized size differences. Our adjacent retail area is almost all chain stores and restaurants.

But my little neighborhood is brimming with soul and a sense of community. It is a lovely group of people who almost all know each other and watch out for each other. Mostly retired couples, a few single professionals. And my family – not only are we the only family with a child at home, but the only same-sex couple as well. Our two year old daughter is an ambassador of joy on our walks.

Life is about making your choices. And some choices don’t have to meutually exclusive.While we are not rich, my family does have the best of both worlds. We don’t have motorhomes or boats or other toys. We didn’t buy the absolute most house or cars we could afford on our combined income. So instead, we have a second home – a tiny urban apartment – in a small european city, where we spend a few months a year being urbanites. Getting up and running to the bakery for fresh pastries every morning, buying our fresh country vegetables at the outdoor markets, day tripping to castle ruins and cathedrals.

Rod, You’re a thoughtful guy. But you worry too much.

#42 Comment By Liam On September 10, 2011 @ 11:37 am

I live in an urban streetcar suburb city 7 miles north of downtown Boston (settled in the 1630s, developed as a railroad and then streetcar suburb in the mid-19th century and rather fully developed by World War I); houses are 20-30 feet apart, small lots, most have porches about 20 feet from the sidewalk, et cet. It’s a lovely place, with some ethnic, class and value diversity. It’s very very peaceful, and lively. Very little crime: because there are lots of people who live in enough homes in the streets (retirees, homemakers with young children or, like me, consultants who work from home) to be eyes and ears for each other: that’s the key. The schools are average to better than average; having grown up in superb public schools in a very middle middle class suburb in the middle of LI, I can see the difference in quality (when I grew up, I had teachers who were of a generation that was trained in the what-was-once-fantastic public education system of NYC). I travel 15 miles to my parish in Cambridge.

Anyway, I was just talking to my 85 year old neighbor next door this morning, and she reminded me that she grew up in East Boston (Italian) in an 8-apartment house (four floors, 2 apts per floor): there were 50 children in that house. One family had 12 children in its apt.

Our expectations for space are very different these days, and that’s not purely natural and instinctive, but to some extent cultivated by our secular culture and very much learned.

#43 Comment By Rod Dreher On September 10, 2011 @ 11:42 am

Alan, I do worry too much. You’re right about that.

#44 Comment By John Mark Ockerbloom On September 10, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

If you’re where it sounds to me like you are, I live not far from you, in a neighborhood that’s more ethnically diverse but more politically homogeneous, at least with respect to Democratic-Republican balance. (When our local poll station posts vote totals after an election, it consistently tallies only 6 Republican voters. I’ve had half-joking discussions with neighbors that if ever drops below that, someone in our block watch should knock on the doors of the 6 to make sure they’re okay.) Religious diversity is high; we’re within a few blocks of a Krishna temple, and there are also Quaker, Unitarian, Jewish, Catholic, and several types of Protestant congregations nearby, as well as some small groups that meet in people’s homes. (No Orthodox churches close by, though.)

It works for us. I haven’t found any of these diversity factors a problem in the neighborhood’s livability. I’m probably to the right of the neighborhood political median (though often left of the national one), but I’ve never been given any trouble for my poitics. The main neighborhood group is apolitical, and the political activists (who come in various flavors) have their own groups. And I love the local parish I’m part of, which is more ethnically integrated than any other I’ve been in.

Wage taxes are high, but property taxes are low. (Richer neighborhoods in Philly in practice tend to get assessed significantly less on actual market value than poorer neighborhoods; the effective property tax rate is much higher in nearby suburbs.) In any case, we can afford them, and I don’t mind paying my share to keep all those amenities of walkability, and to make the city more livable. On the other hand, if we couldn’t afford private schools, we’d probably have moved out to the suburbs by the time our kids hit school age.

It sounds to me that you may like the idea of your neighborhood, but the actual day-to-day living in it doesn’t work as well for you, since your work, church, schooling, and socializing aren’t much tied to it. You needn’t feel ashamed about considering moving in such a case. If somewhere else is a better fit for you, and the reasons for the “fit” are not ones to be ashamed of, then moving somewhere that better matches that fit isn’t to be ashamed of either.

Pretty much everyone has to make some trade-offs in where they settle. My parents settled in the suburbs; I preferred living in the city; we both had good reasons for our choices. Whether that’s still in the city, but in a neighborhood that’s more affordable or closer to an Orthodox church; or far out where there’s lots of space but you have to drive most places; or in a suburban “walkable” town with somewhat smaller lots, or some other kind of place, is up to you.

#45 Comment By Rebecca On September 10, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

We’ve moved several times in our married life. Each time, what we have looked for has varied, depending on our family’s needs. But what is most important, what makes one neighborhood feel like home rather than not, is that neighbors reach out and live together. We’ve lived with wealthy, not wealthy, conservative, liberal, republicans, democrats, church-going, non-church-going and completely a-religious folks. In the end, none of that matters. What does matter is a vibrant, living community where people look out for each other, share good news and events, pitch in for community activities. Our best neighborhoods have been where neighbors get together for a casual beer, chat and scrabble on a Friday night. Or have a neighborhood party with a slip-n-slide for no other reason than just to hang out together. Or lend a hand when its not even asked for. Or call for a social gathering when a new family moves into the neighborhood.
These are things that are hard to figure out ahead of time. Rarely is this information ever advertised in the glossy brochures, or on real estate agent website. What we have found, though, is that if you tour neighborhoods, and you see people out and about in the front of the homes, walking dogs, on bikes, on front porches or stoops, you might want to take the time to find out more about that neighborhood.
Good luck in your search.

#46 Comment By Dan L On September 10, 2011 @ 1:25 pm


What do you mean by “religious sensibility”? From my experience most people who use this phrase mean “people who believe what I believe”, but you say that this is not what you mean, and I know that you are more thoughtful than the average person.

So what would we see in such people in practice? Could an atheist who cares about their own code of ethics be said to have this?

#47 Comment By Rob M On September 10, 2011 @ 3:45 pm

As they say in Argentina, a small town is a vast hell. I’ve lived both on the Main line and in and around Center City Philadelphia. Yes the wage tax is tough, but it is now at 4%, and scheduled to beging decreasing sometime on the horizon; the property taxes in suburban Philly will more than offset your wage tax savings.

Careful what you wish for.

#48 Comment By Jimmy Huck On September 10, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

Rod – You prefer to be around “people who share [your] conservative morals.” As a liberal Democrat who lives a moral life, I chafe once again at the presumptuousness of this statement. What in tarnation does “conservative morals” mean? What are such “conservative morals”? And how is that different than “liberal morals” (presuming you even think there is such a thing)? Is it that you live a good, responsible life?

You seem to be saying that if I and my family live a similarly good life, then I am living out some notion of “conservative morals.” Well, let me call correct you and say that they are “liberal morals” as much as they are “conservative morals.” I would argue that it is precisely my “liberal” sensibilities that lead me to live a particular kind of life and one that values certain things as family, tolerance, love, forgiveness, responsibility. And I’d say the same for your “liberal” neighbors in your urban Philly neighborhood. Is there something about the “morals” of your neighbors that you find somehow repulsive? Are they not decent family folk? Are they not God-fearing people? Are they more prone to divorce, extra-marital affairs, and corrupt living than suburbanites? I just don’t get you here.

In fact, it is infuriating that conservatives always feel the need to appropriate morals and claim them for their own kind of clan. Balderdash! I’d rather that you not speak of morals as either conservative or liberal. Leave those labels for differences concerning the role of government. What seems to rankle you is not that you live among folks with different “morals,” but that you live among folks with different social preferences and styles of living.

#49 Comment By Rob On September 11, 2011 @ 10:06 am

Yes, one would think that Rod feels he is surrounded by members of satanic cults would routinely engage in human sacrifice and child molestation rather than common members and believers of a free, equitable and democratic society with minor disagreements over how the society should manage itself.