In some of my City Meditations, I made reference to a post I wrote long ago (July 2007!) at The American Scene that had disappeared from the site. I quite accidentally managed to stumble across it today, so I’m reposting it below.
There’s been an interesting three-way exchange going on, chiefly at the Atlantic, involving Ross Douthat, Matt Yglesias, and Joel Kotkin – though really it’s Douthat and Yglesias debating the merits of Kotkin’s celebration of suburban life. Yglesias advocates for the urbanist cause, while Ross contends that “suburbia is a great (maybe the great) American socioeconomic achievement, whose virtues far outweigh its vices, and that using the levers of government to encourage families to leave the suburbs would represent a deep betrayal of what I take to be the heart of the American Dream.”
One point that emerges from this argument is that there’s not a single kind of city, that some cities have obvious unitary centers while others have multiple foci. These writers disagree about how this distinction works – Kotkin sees New York City as “unipolar,” which Yglesias (rightly, I think) denies – but they all agree that neither the celebrant nor the critic of urban life can think that there’s a single “urbanity” to which we can give the thumbs-up or the thumbs-down.
But what concerns me about debates like this – especially when I look at the comments to those posts – is that everyone seems to think that they know what suburbs are. But suburbs vary enormously in character, and can’t be evaluated in the same way any more than cities can.
I live in Wheaton, Illinois, which is often called a suburb of Chicago. That’s not inaccurate, but it’s hardly the whole story. Wheaton is roughly as old as Chicago itself, and developed as a town through a period when the thirty miles that separate it from Chicago amounted to a significant distance. About 60,000 people live here now, and there’s no doubt that Wheaton wouldn’t be nearly that big if it weren’t for Chicago and the Metra line that takes people to and from the Big City. (The Metra line and the major street arteries, like Roosevelt Road and North Avenue – both of which run essentially from Chicago’s lakefront to the Mississippi River –, give the feeling that Chicago is a vast octopus that has wrapped itself around Wheaton, and around many other nineteenth-century Midwestern towns.)
But for people like me Wheaton doesn’t feel like a suburb at all, and many aspects of my life sound kinda urban. My family and I live in a small house – with one bathroom, for heaven’s sake – and have a single four-cylinder car. I walk to work most days, often taking a detour to Starbucks on the way. From work I often walk to Wheaton’s downtown to meet people for lunch, or, at the end of the day, to meet my wife and son for dinner. Drug stores and a small grocery store are equally close; I even walk to my dentist. I also like being just a short stroll from the Metra line that takes me into Chicago, just as Chicago residents like living just a short stroll from the El. And I know a lot of other people who live in much the same way – that is, people for whom central Wheaton itself provides most of what they need day-to-day, in the same way that a neighborhood like Wicker Park or Lincoln Square does for many Chicagoans, or that Park Slope, Brooklyn does for its ever-enthusiastic celebrant Steven Johnson.
(I hope it goes without saying that there are many other ways in which life in Wheaton differs significantly from life in a city: it’s a much less ethnically varied place, for instance. I’m just not discussing those things at the moment.)
Of course, my daily routine isn’t universal, or even the norm, for this town. What strikes me as odd about this place, though I know that what I’m about to describe is fairly common, is the way that it has become a kind of miniature replica, a scaled-down fractal copy, of Chicago itself. Thirty or forty years ago much of the land around Wheaton (especially on the south and north) was farmland, cornfields. But those fields have largely been turned into what city people think of when they think of suburbs: subdivisions with McMansions, strip malls, and soccer fields. And a lot of people who live in those parts of Wheaton drive their minivans around from strip mall to soccer field, rarely feeling the need to come to downtown Wheaton, which strikes them as a crowded area where it’s hard to find good parking places. Like, um, Chicago.
I tend to like my way of being suburban a hell of a lot better than their way. Is that because my world is less suburban? Or might people be inclined to say that because they have too narrow a view of what suburban life is?
Anyway, all this to say that, if we are agreed that the notion of “city” is a slippery one, a kind of moving target for urbanist and anti-urbanist alike, we ought to remember that the same is true of “suburb,” and factor the very wide range of suburban experiences into our equations. Which Lord knows are already complicated enough – but whoever said social planning would be easy?