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Reconsidering Suburbia

Anthony Bradley, writing at the Acton Institute blog, observes a worrying trend [1] among Christian Millennials:

I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and youth adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not being doing something unique and special. Today’s Millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential. The sad result is that many young adults feel ashamed if they “settle” into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thess 4:11 says, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.” For too many Millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.

He calls this “the new legalism.” Responding to this, Evangelical site FareForward [2], the editors connect The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming [3] to a broader movement among younger Evangelicals to reject suburban life:

But, as the buzz [4] around Rod Dreher’s latest book [5] on moving home, a lot of the anti-suburban sentiment comes from people who support small town living just as much as from those who support city living. And the thing that unites the city and the country against the suburbs is the belief that the suburbs are not, as a matter of fact, ordinary, natural life, but a strange artificial construct that hinders ordinary live and ordinary relationships (see Seath for more).

In turn, writing at Mere Orthodoxy, Keith Miller challenges this, [6] and questions the hatred among some Evangelicals for the suburbs. He looks for the reasons:

Here are a few of the most prominent Christian objections to living in the suburbs. How many of them hold up to even a slight bit of scrutiny?

So, what do I think of all this, as the author of Crunchy Cons [8], and now Little Way?

Crunchy Cons took a pretty hard line against suburban living, one that I’m not as comfortable with today. Why? Because as someone who used to live in big cities, and who now lives in a small town, I’ve become more understanding of why someone with a family would choose to live in the suburbs.

As you may recall, we lived in New York City when we had our first child. Brooklyn was fantastic. We moved to Dallas before we had more kids, and the desire to start a bigger family was part of our decision. We just couldn’t afford more kids in New York City, not on a journalist’s salary, and not if we wanted to be able to save money for the future. Life was very pleasant in NYC with one child, but not stable; much of the time, we were only a couple of paychecks from serious financial trouble, and the cost of living was so great in the city that we couldn’t see any prospect of improving our lot significantly.

Dallas was a different story. We were able to afford a neat little house in a gentrified neighborhood. Using church schools and homeschooling made that possible, though; if we hadn’t been able to afford those options, we would have been in a difficult spot, given our unease (justified or not) with the public school situation. What’s more, as much as we loved where we lived, I had to reckon with the fact that seeing the occasional gang tag, and hearing the occasional late-night gunshot in the near distance, made me wonder from time to time about the wisdom of our choice. When we moved to Philly, we had to sell our house after the crash, and lost a significant chunk of change on it. This probably would have happened anywhere, given the overall economic situation, but those long months waiting for a buyer made me think about property values, and what contributes to their stability.

Don’t get me wrong: I think we made the right choice in our home. My point is simply that the choice is not nearly as clear-cut as I once thought. Plus, watching the increasing dysfunction of Dallas city government made me pine for the relative stability of suburban city management. When you’re paying taxes own property you own, and when you have kids, you take a different view on these things than when you’re young and childless. It’s the most obvious thing in the world, I suppose, but still hard to see.

My chief complaint about the suburbs is that they’re heavily car-centric, and make walking community difficult. One of the great things about our Brooklyn neighborhood was that walking to do shopping, go to restaurants, coffee, or go to the park, made for a more pleasant and cohesive community. The physical layout of our neighborhoods shapes their social character. On the other hand, I have friends who live in the suburbs who know more of their neighbors than we knew in Brooklyn, and who spend more time with them, so there is no reliable formula. And in my small town — I suspect this is true about most small towns the farther one gets from the East Coast — it is not feasible to depend on walking to do one’s daily errands. People manage to create community even though they are car-dependent.

While I still believe there are serious objections to the way our suburbs are designed, and ways to design them to be more aesthetically pleasing and human-scaled, I appreciate very much Keith Miller’s critique, and how he urges us to think about whether we are not simply baptizing and moralizing aesthetic preferences. Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that the material order in some real sense reflects, or should reflect, the sacred order. Aesthetics are rarely completely divorced from metaphysics or morals. On a more practical level, though, I think we ought to all give more grace to each other. Not everybody who moves to the suburbs wants to build a gargantuan McMansion and live the full-consumerist lifestyle. Not everyone who chooses to live in the city is driven by morally pure motives; they could be refusing one kind of consumerist narcissism for the sake of embracing a more attractive version of same.

As I’ve repeatedly said about Little Way and its lessons about community, and must say again, this book is not about small towns versus cities versus suburbs. It may be easier in some places to see your neighbors — I mean “see” them, as in be aware of their existence and your mutual obligation — but it is possible to do this in every place, and possible to refuse to see your neighbor too. Some of the most un-neighborly people I’ve ever known were right there in Starhill, which I hold up (quite truthfully) in Little Way as a paragon of neighborly devotion. No, the point I want people to take from Little Way is that caring about your community isn’t something that’s done by moving from one place to another, but rather something that is accomplished by sustained personal effort. It’s easier for some people to do this in certain settings than in others; we aren’t all called to live in the city, or the country, or the suburbs. But people in the suburbs don’t necessarily have fewer needs than city or country people; they have different needs. Everybody suffers.

Do you suppose that suburban people are less worthy of your love and care than city or small town or rural people? If so, then your heart isn’t right. God needs His people in the cities, He needs His people in the small towns, He needs His people in the countryside … and He needs His people in the suburbs.

For a certain kind of Christian — people like me, to be blunt — the idea of living an “ordinary” life (= the life of a middle-class suburbanite) seems unattractive, at least on the surface. That could well be a sign that this is precisely the kind of life that we need for our own salvation. I read a story once about a young Orthodox man who went to a priest or an elder, I forget which, expressing a desire to be a monk. The priest apparently sensed that the young man wanted not the hard part of the monastic life, but rather was attracted by a romanticized view of monasticism. He told the young man to try his vocation by renting an apartment in a poor part of town, and try living among the poor as one of them. Pray, fast, do good works, and see how well you do. If, after a year or two of that, you find that you’re still interested in the monastic life, come back and see me.

I think there’s a lot of practical wisdom in that. I once heard of this Christian couple who were convinced they had a ministry to people working in a glamorous and exciting professional field. I didn’t know them personally, so maybe they did. But it seemed more plausible to me that they wanted to live a particularly stimulating and exotic lifestyle, but could only justify it to themselves by clothing it in a sense of mission. Hey, God needs His people in those circles too! But it’s well worth considering whether or not we’re really called to a certain life, and to a certain place, or whether we’re using God and the cause of mission to justify our preferences. It’s rarely a clear-cut thing.

I’ll end by going back to Anthony Bradley’s excellent point, which is what I started this post with. Especially this:

For too many Millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.

Ruthie Leming was a middle school teacher in a small town in a rural state that’s near the bottom of most lists of progress. But she loved the people she was given to love, and served the people she was given to serve. Was grateful for the opportunity. Ruthie could not have been more ordinary. After her death, I learned from those she had served what a profound difference she had made in their lives. She did not know who St. Therese of Lisieux was, but she lived the saint’s “little way.” The humble nun Therese wrote:

“Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.”

In the Kingdom of Heaven, Ruthie’s “little flowers” may mean more to God than the great deeds of famous and powerful people, for the same reason the widow’s mite [9] meant more than the generous donations of the wealthy.

Remember the story the other day of Lyric Haynes [10], the poor little girl from Ruthie’s final class, whose mother is (or was at the time) in prison? At Ruthie’s wake, Lyric told my

Lyric Haynes [11]

Lyric Haynes

mother, “Mrs. Leming is dead; who is going to love me now?”

Ruthie was a sign of hope for that little girl, who felt that nobody but Ruthie, her teacher, loved her. In that light, how do you measure the meaning of an ordinary life as a middle school teacher in a small town? There were so many kids like Lyric, or who were also needy in their way. Do you suppose there are no Lyrics in the suburbs? That the McMansions don’t house children like Lyric who have far more things, but who are beggars for love?

There are ordinary lives, yes, but concealed within every ordinary life is the potential to be absolutely extraordinary. This is what it means to say that the only tragedy in life is not to have been a saint.

The saying goes that we often believe that we are thinking, when we are actually doing nothing more than rearranging our prejudices. The first step to finding out what God really wants us to do with our lives — including where He is calling us to live — is to ask ourselves what our prejudices are, and the strategies we use to conceal them from ourselves, and to justify them to ourselves.

I’m saying this to you, and I’m saying it to myself. Every day I need to think about the lessons from Little Way [8], because they run so contrary to what I want to believe.

88 Comments (Open | Close)

88 Comments To "Reconsidering Suburbia"

#1 Comment By EngineerScotty On May 9, 2013 @ 1:03 am

Gotta let Tom T. Hall have the lest word:

#2 Comment By surly On May 9, 2013 @ 1:45 am

This is the story of our postwar suburb. It is very similar to the one I grew up in and vowed never to live in again: neat 1700 SF ramblers (or else ticky-tacky boxes). 3 bedrooms, 1.75 baths, galley kitchens. The ones on hills have double garages and the third bedroom is in the daylight basement; the upstairs bedroom space being given over to the second car bay. The original owners bought in the late ’50’s. My neighbors were suburban pioneers and bought their house for a song in 1978. They were the only young people in the neighborhood until the mid ’80s, when interest rates came down enough for young families to be able to get conventional mortgages again, and then the neighborhood flipped so dramatically that it is a little strange–a really large percentage of the kids in the neighborhood came of age between 2004 and 2009. Ours were on the younger end of that curve and while we were raising our teens, a few houses with holdouts flipped and the last vacant lot was developed in the real estate bubble of 2006 and so we have a sprinkling of very young families.

Our suburb is 12 miles from the urban core, is near a state highway with excellent transit, and is located equidistant between the urban core and the Microsoft mother campus. The lots are kind of big by modern standards, so people who want a condo won’t be attracted, but we are a very walkable suburb. We are actually an incorporated city with a population below 15,000 and my husband and I jokingly refer to it as Mayberry…except that our Mayberry is bordered on the south by a major city, and the city neighborhood adjacent us is the dumping ground for all of the people who have been forced out by the gentrification of the urban core.

Our property taxes are ridiculous because we maintain our own school district: a tiny one by modern standards–about 10,000 students. Our kids got an excellent education in the local high school. The commitment to the schools goes beyond passing levies–the students are supported in a personal way. If some kid needs something, the PTA takes care of it. In the worst year of the recession, we passed a bond levy to completely replace both high schools in the district–high schools that were built in the ’60’s. They are obsolete, but all around us districts are still using buildings built much earlier with no thought of razing and replacing.

I fought living in the “suburbs” until I was 40 years old, and once I moved, I wondered why I stuck it out in the city paying tuition for the kids and enduring interminable bus commutes that were longer than driving (we have express routes and dedicated lanes here and it’s actually easier to catch the bus). This is the most cohesive neighborhood I have ever lived in in my live. We truly do love our neighbors here. It sounds hokey, but we can bounce in and out of each other’s houses like on a sitcom. A couple of weeks ago my mother in law passed and we had a reception here and the neighbors did all the cookies, and I cut flowers from next door to decorate the tables. My neighbor is having a baby and we have all signed up to help with meals and take the older kids for an afternoon.

This is a true neighborhood. Whether it is in an urban core or outside it does not matter. I truly believe that when the next generation has kids they will seek out true neighborhoods.

No matter where you live, it is in your best interest to reach out to your neighbors and create a community.

#3 Comment By Charles Cosimano On May 9, 2013 @ 2:20 am

Siarlys, no, it can’t be arranged.

Actually, it happened to a close friend of mine in Chicago and she was not living in what was considered a bad neighborhood. But the experience triggered a three-hour panicked phone call to guess who. (Admittedly every disaster in her life, no matter how minor, triggered a panicked phone call, but this was, on the personal trauma scale of 1-10, a 357.)

Up until then I had always referred to city dwellers as “rat food,” but I never thought it would happen outside of a girlfriend’s apartment.

#4 Comment By public defender On May 9, 2013 @ 5:33 am

Sure, people in some suburban neighborhoods know each other better than people in some urban neighborhoods, but which environment generally leads to more interaction?

Suburban neighborhoods are designed so that families can have safe play areas in their backyards. Urban neighborhoods depend a lot more on common areas like parks and schools. That makes it easier for urban residents to interact. Of course, that assumes that the area is safe. A safe suburban neighborhood will facilitate interaction more than an unsafe urban area any day.

On another note, the car culture required in suburbia and many small towns can work, but it works less well for families that can’t afford two reliable cars.

#5 Comment By JonF On May 9, 2013 @ 5:48 am

Sands, there are plenty of cities where single family homes with yards are common.

#6 Comment By T.S.Gay On May 9, 2013 @ 7:21 am

Can anybody imagine a suburb where everyone is just like Charles Cosimano?

[Note from Rod: The sitcom version would be, “Leave It To Cthulhu”. — RD]

#7 Comment By Tyro On May 9, 2013 @ 7:40 am

To me, the things that make a suburb soulless are the same things that make a city soulless: crowds, lines, noise, traffic, the lack of visible stars, and concrete.

Interesting that what you regard as giving a place “soul” involves lack of people. A city or a suburb has no existence outside of the people in it. The thing that cities and inner-ring suburbs have that outer-ring suburbs don’t is proximity and access to neighbors, and a community design that means you will interact with them. That is the very definition of soul, and it is the very reason that outer-ring suburbs are the very definition of “soul-sucking.”

#8 Comment By Heatherer On May 9, 2013 @ 8:09 am

Thanks for calling attention to Anthony Bradley’s observations. I’m part of the millennial generation and can vouch that I fully bought into the need to do “great deeds” to be a good Christian. Not only was this a natural inclination, but it was fed during college because schools don’t bring back “ordinary” graduates to speak at convocations, chapel services, and other events. They bring back the folks we are noticeably changing the world. Post-graduation, I was in for some hard lessons about contentment and about what the Christian life means. I have learned a lot and most of the time can keep in mind that God intends me to live faithfully in my ordinary context… but sometimes I can still get thrown for a loop by the desire for me. Christianity Today published a book review on Richard Stearns’ “Unfinished” that made me struggle with whether I am doing enough to live faithfully. I really wish colleges and youth groups would spend some time bringing in people who are called to live well with great faith in totally extraordinary ways. But I suppose that is a boat that is very hard to turn.

[Note from Rod: My wife, who grew up Evangelical, told me just last night it is hard for someone who didn’t grow up inside that culture to understand how relentless the “great deeds” ideology is pounded into kids’ heads. She said that as a young adult, she used to pray fervently for God to reveal to her what great thing he wanted her to do, so she could do it — the idea being that there was One Great Thing that He asked of her, and all she had to do was to discover it. She says this mindset resulted in a lot of kids upending their lives because they were convinced that God Calls Me To [Whatever Exotic Thing], because it wasn’t really on anybody’s radar that maybe God was calling you to be holy, period, even if that gave you a life in which you were a widget salesman who is a faithful husband, a loving father, and the pillar of your ordinary suburban church. — RD]

#9 Comment By Nickp On May 9, 2013 @ 8:47 am

I have a lot of sympathy for the environmental arguments against sprawling suburbs, but those arguments also apply to rural living and, frequently, small towns. The aesthetic/moral arguments about authentic or organic development and its relation to community strike me as a bunch of crap.

I spent part of my childhood in a housing development built in the 195os (widely spaced houses on 1 acre lots, completely dependent on cars) and part in a European town (lots of public transportation, etc). The former was definitely less environmentally friendly in terms of automobile use, though ironically it did give children more exposure to the natural environment. As far as community interaction goes, they were pretty much equivalent: a fair amount of interaction with neighbors, lots of kids running around, etc. On the other hand, when I lived in an apartment in a small city, I never even saw my neighbors, let alone knew their names.

I now live on the suburban/rural edge, more rural than suburban, and we have a decent local community only because our neighbors have children the same age. If we were a little more rural, we’d be far more isolated than we would be in the suburbs. My parents, on the other hand, inhabit a bog standard Texas suburb built in the 1990s. Their community has sidewalks, and it seems to me there is a fair amount of interaction and civic pride. They can walk to church, which is more than a lot of city dwellers can do. Every situation is different, I guess.

#10 Comment By Heather On May 9, 2013 @ 9:13 am

I found your closing remarks so thought provoking when you wrote, “we often believe that we are thinking, when we are actually doing nothing more than rearranging our prejudices.” It gives me pause to consider all of my opinions and how I arrived at holding them.

Thanks for the great article.

#11 Comment By Charles Cosimano On May 9, 2013 @ 11:09 am

I think a suburb filled with people like me would be great fun, as on every Saturday night we would all gather at the Cosimanian Orthodox temple and send forth dreams of chaos and madness to the world so Rod would not run out of things to write about.

#12 Comment By M_Young On May 9, 2013 @ 11:25 am

Suburbs are underrated when it comes to their contribution to the culture. Food — well, no, not in general. But music, you need a garage to form a garage band, right? It is impossible for me to imagine the Beach Boys (Hawthorne) or the Carpenters (Downey) or Blink 182 (Poway) emerging from an urban core.

The other area is tech — at least at the beginning of the tech revolution. I don’t know about Gate’s home, but Steve Jobs’s Silicon Valley was pretty much suburbia personified. Again, if you are a garage inventor, you have to have a garage.

#13 Comment By stef On May 9, 2013 @ 11:27 am

I don’t know how old Anthony Bradley is, but I don’t think he “gets it” about Millenial life. To “live in the suburbs and marry early” requires today that both spouses have a “good job” – a “good job” generally defined as being one with a living wage above the poverty line, and medical benefits.

Most Millenials would give their eyeteeth to have “good jobs” like this. The reason they can’t buy houses in the suburbs is because they are un- and under-employed, and often carry large college debts (much of which was foisted upon them by well-meaning but ignorant parents and high school guidance advisers.)

Further, I can’t believe this obsession with early marriage. Early marriage, especially when accompanied by early childbearing, is highly correlated with divorce. The most stable marriages in the US today are the “blue marriages” which occur late (over 30, oftentimes) and with one or two children.

The point no one wants to face is that family formation has been priced out of reach of most Millenials, largely because of an oversupply of labor (Boomers aren’t retiring; the Millenial generation is very large.) Jobs have been trimmed, made more “productive,” automated or offshored away.

And yet people are still railing about the Millenials not “doing their duty to the Party” by forming households and having kids?

Please, to paraphrase Berthold Brecht (“Erst kommt das Fressen, denn kommt die Moral”) – “First come the jobs, then come the babies.”

#14 Comment By Steph On May 9, 2013 @ 11:29 am

I think criticisim of the suburbs is partially based on overgeneralization and partially based on changes that have happened everywhere and don’t apply only to the suburbs.

From a community-minded POV, some suburbs present a problem and can seem “inauthentic” (as in not really a full community), because they lack a city center or gathering place, beyond perhaps a mall, and because you have to drive to do anything, go to church, go shopping, go to work. As a result, it seems much harder to me to obtain that sense of community. But this applies only to some suburbs. Around here, there are definitely suburbs I would live in and those I would not (although I do live in the city).

The aesthetic elements play into this, of course, and I’m sure even in the suburbs that strike me as problematic you can get involved in community in a variety of ways that may make it feel more of a place than it seems from outside.

The other concern I have, that is really not fair to pin on the ‘burbs these days, is our increasing “sorting” as a society. It’s true that many suburbs are diverse (and many non-suburbs aren’t), but historically cities and towns in the country both contained all segments of the population, all classes. Sure, you wouldn’t necessarily live next to each other, but everyone was in theory part of the community and there were ways in which you’d interact.

It seems like that’s going, and to a certain extent the suburbs play a role in that, as they sort by income level and housing values and often various other social factors. It’s certainly true that that’s the case in the cities too, as people sort into different neighborhoods, and long has been, as the fact of ethnic neighborhoods shows, but because the suburbs are separate communities–that often don’t want to be part of the community of the metro area in which they are part–that makes it more obvious.

But again I’d agree that there’s not so much distinction between the cities and the ‘burbs anymore there. I put importance on going to church in my neighborhood and not picking out some other parish that seems to be filled with people just like me (I know people who do this, because there are of course distinctions between the numerous Catholic parishes here, and I admit I’d change parishes if there was something really problematic about mine). Anyway, the idea is that it’s part of the community and it’s good to see the diversity of people, annoying as they may be, who are all part of the church (there’s something related to this in Screwtape Letters). But if I’m honest, my neighborhood is already largely filled with people like me, so there’s a limit to what this accomplishes.

#15 Comment By stef On May 9, 2013 @ 11:35 am

Also, sorry to double-post here, but people criticizing the couple who live in Dallas and keep their AC on during the day, while at work – are you kidding me? It costs far more, and uses far more electricity, to keep turning the AC on and off (in other words, to cool the house and then re-cool it over a 24-hour cycle.)

You set it to the low 70s and keep it there. Any HVAC tech will tell you this.

The issue of buying more house than you can afford is another one.

Maybe the bigger question should be, why do people live in areas that are so hot that they are uninhabitable without AC?

[Note from Rod: This couple, as I recall, had a healthy income, but they were spending more than $800 a month in electric bills in the long hot season in Dallas, because they insisted on having such a big house — and were really struggling. I think there is a moral component to this. — RD]

#16 Comment By Sands On May 9, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

“The thing that cities and inner-ring suburbs have that outer-ring suburbs don’t is proximity and access to neighbors, and a community design that means you will interact with them.”

And how intimate are those interactions? Are you talking about casual conversations on a bus our in a check out line at the grocery store? How meaningful is that? Sure, a lot of people living close to each other creates the opportunity to create more relationships. But that doesn’t really happen, does it? I just see a bunch of stressed people running around with their ipods, smart phones and laptops never even making eye contact with each other.

#17 Comment By J On May 9, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

I dunno, this all seems pretty aesthetic. The attitude ascribed to Millenials really doesn’t seem to be more than not wanting to be regarded as smug narcissistic losers. As for the having many children and having them early bit- you can certainly refuse to participate in the trim down of the labor surplus, but chances are they’re going to suffer the harsh squeeze most of their adult lives.

My impression is that Christian-identifying Millenials are taught and constantly encouraged by their parents and community and isolation from seculars to overestimate the cutting power of their real skill set and intellectual outlook against reality. This was/is the case with my late Boomer and GenX Christian-identifying peers and colleagues and, initially to my surprise, turns out also to have been the case in my dad’s profession and peer group (Silent Generationers).

Everyone young soon discovers, upon having to live an adult life, that their real skill set and intellectual outlook is almost ineffectual against the real problems they face. The important thing is really what happens next- enlarging these if possible, but also discarding dysfunctional and unethical elements, vanities and bad rationalizations and excuses and groupthink, how ever comforting they may be. These habits and shortcuts of course aren’t accidental in their existence- in earlier life they were necessary in some fashion. But you have accept that your situation has fundamentally changed and that it’s vital to your real success to make the break with these maladaptions young. If you don’t, the price is a life in which you must pretend to yourself that many doors never open and what one can term a Little Way becomes the only way.

But a Little Way is lived in knowledge that there is a Great Way. In our times a Little Way is lived in the knowledge that Out There, there are people exerting a power you failed to develop- an incremental redemption of the world is occurring. And if you look closely and honestly, the real drivers of it are unreligious liberal sorts and their confident notion that an awful lot of the pain people inflict on each other and their material condition inflicts on them can be ended.

That seems to me where religious young American adults are forced into a schizophrenia. The Christian training they’ve had works against their ability to radically selfcorrect in the face of the realities and hard demands of adult life- the mass of rationalizations and compensatory social comforts and pressures is not the solution they need. The Christian training they’ve had also claims that a serious and true mature Christian has coping power and a transformative or redemptive power in the world exceeding that of non-Christians. Adult Christians claim to adolescent Christians that this is so in a pretty absolute way. But among themselves it’s conceded to be situationally, relatively, opportunistically so. So there are a bunch of Noble Lies at work that adolescent American Christians have to deal with in their certainties and contradictions. It’s all finally grounded in a willfulness that Christianity be the superior stance and frame of life in American society.

Here’s an interesting recent Barna polling, btw- a test of whether what Millenials claim about American Christians at large is in fact substantiated. 51-14 is pretty solid verdict.

#18 Comment By Tyro On May 9, 2013 @ 2:11 pm

Are you talking about casual conversations on a bus our in a check out line at the grocery store? How meaningful is that?

Honestly, having compared going without it to having it, I do find it meaningful and something I would have a hard time giving up, now that I have experienced it. Those sort of informal, unscheduled interactions are crucial to forming community. This is a crucial point of workplace design and workplace interaction, and it is just as true when it comes to neighborhoods and towns. Traditional, inner ring, suburbs still maintained this, but it is completely lacking in modern exurbs.

This is actually somewhat related to the college tuition thread from earlier– while many of the university amenities are unnecessary and overpriced, one of the goals of a university is to foster interactions between students and foster interactions between academic colleagues, by forming heir universities as miniature towns/cities unto themselves. Without those interactions, you lose the network effects. And this applies to forming social bonds as well as research network effects.

#19 Comment By Abelard Lindsey On May 9, 2013 @ 4:14 pm

Jonathan Last talks about the suburbs being easier places for raising families in his book “What to Expect when No one’s Expecting”. Like you, Rod, he and his wife lived in an ideal “walkable” neighborhood when they were young and childless, then discovered what a hassle it was once they had their first child.

#20 Comment By Steph On May 9, 2013 @ 6:36 pm

People in my city neighborhood seem to have no problem staying after having children. There are many small children around and strollers are more common than not it sometimes seems. What the neighborhood never used to have was children over 4 or 5. I always assumed this was the school thing, although I think it’s also a desire for a yard or space and housing costs for larger homes, etc., which having older than toddlers probably makes more significant, especially for those who were themselves raised in a more suburban way.

Anyway, it’s one thing that changed over the past few years, as people haven’t wanted to sell at a loss, even though they’d also be buying at a lower price, and the average age of children in my neighborhood, and average family size in general, has increased. Housing has apparently started selling better locally so that will likely change back.

#21 Comment By JonF On May 10, 2013 @ 5:58 am

I grew up in a very middle class subdivsion. But nasty things happened there too. Some boys in my neighborhood went fishing one day and discovered the decidedly unfresh corpse of a woman who had drowned and which had been gnawed on by whatever snacks on bodies in lakes. When I was very young a man went off the deep end and gunned down his wife at the grocery store, where my mother and I had been not a half hour before. Living in the ‘burbs is no guarantee that one will not encounter the gruesome and the bloody. (and good grief consider all the traffic accidents)

#22 Comment By Sean Scallon On May 10, 2013 @ 10:31 am

Actually this thread should be about “exurbs” more than suburbs. Suburbia today is much different place than even 20 years ago. The suburbs closest to large cities are far more diverse and in many cases have lower incomes than those built just World War II and well into the 1960s. It’s the exurbs that are fit into the American character of overdoing it. That persons were more than willing to commute further and further from their jobs even it meant living in housing developments interspersed by cornfields just to have the “dirt” (as Steve Sailer would put it) or the space as big a home as possible made it ripe for correction, whether it was higher gas prices or a housing bubble which ultimately popped.

Planners after World War II, the Robert Moses et.al, were primarily concerned about congestion and overcrowding. Their goal was space out metro areas so persons could get to and for with cars and live in decent housing and not overcrowded slums (and the potential for the violent masses because of it ala Paris 1789 or St. Petersburg 1917). These were not nefarious reasons (unless you count GM’s stake in all this) if you consider Mexico City or Karachi or even Tokyo urban paradises. And with gas so cheap and building material so plentiful after the war, the demand was there to expand the nation’s road network. Considering how many people live in the nation today with cars and trucks, you have thankful to those planners there’s more four-lane highways out there. But once you start tearing apart whole neighborhoods the way Moses did in New York, once again a good thing gets overdone and that unfortunately is becoming more and more the “American Way.”

#23 Comment By Pat On May 10, 2013 @ 4:07 pm

First Charles, now Siarlys — how many of us are from the Milwaukee area? Is there a Crunchy Con nucleus out here?

#24 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On May 10, 2013 @ 11:13 pm

Pat, I don’t know whether I qualify as a Crunchy Con. I seem to be eligible for excommunication from almost any defined group I wander into. The Democratic National Committee does send me periodic “renewal” notices, but I haven’t been a Democrat since 1973, even if I have voted for Gwen Moore, Russ Feingold, and Barack Obama. I’m politically libertarian, economically socialist, and culturally communitarian conservative. Can I stay in the nucleus?

#25 Comment By AnotherBeliever On May 10, 2013 @ 11:40 pm

Suburbia. The moral objection to which is the overall atomization of American society, the fleeing of which is but another symptom of the same.

It’s a veritable self-licking ice cream cone.

Beyond that, much has been said already, and better than I can state it, about walkability, community, history, desegregation, the invention of highways, the benefits and drawbacks of our dependence on both petroleum foreign and domestic, etc and etc. I have my preferences, but it’s occurred to me recently more and more that where we choose to live, and the very fact that we have so much choice in the matter, cuts to the heart of everything we hold dear. And so I should consider my words more carefully.

#26 Comment By AnotherBeliever On May 10, 2013 @ 11:42 pm

But 1920s Bungalow neighborhoods are still the prettiest of them all. 😉

#27 Comment By jaylib On May 11, 2013 @ 5:44 pm

Today’s Millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential.

I’m a Gen-Xer, and I’m right there with them.
But some distinctions are in order. “Ordinary” isn’t synonymous with bad, although in a world which makes the bad commonplace, it often is.

I never would have settled with an “ordinary” existence – I was driven to avoid that with every fiber of my being, and still am. When I did settle into “ordinary” jobs that grated at my conscience because I knew I wasn’t living to my potential nor making the world a better place, it made me spiritually and physically sick.

I think the question is, are we conforming to the dysfunctional, destructive systems of the world, or transforming them – at least, giving it a shot – by being and doing differently?

As to where to live: burb life may be fine and wonderful and consistent with a Christian sense of vocation and community, or it may not. As to the sociogeographic(?) aspects you can’t easily change, “the suburbs” are not any one place. I hate sprawl with every fiber of my being, but I live in a train-stop suburb, founded pre-automobile, that actually has a “there” there, that have a sense of place and historic architecture. Some burbs are like this, and are actually hospitable to humans and to real actual communities. But in the worst places, driven by relentless real estate speculation, expansionism, car worship and all the rest, human social life is next to impossible — especially if you are young, single, elderly and/or don’t have a car. These places are social and spiritual deserts and the reason why you see people happy to make it out to Wal-Mart or to the megachurch meeting in an oversized steel storage shed is, it’s about all they’e got.
Is the city better than the country? In the early community of Christ-followers, some went abroad preaching the gospel but most seemed to have stayed in the big city, Jerusalem – at least until persecution, and finally the siege in 70 AD, the one of which Yeshua had warned them “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it …”
There’s a time to be in the middle of the hustle and bustle – and a time to get out, and get out quick.

…the suburbs are not, as a matter of fact, ordinary, natural life, but a strange artificial construct that hinders ordinary live and ordinary relationships.
In large part, yes – postwar suburbia, especially is like some kind of human zoo – an artificial habitat, some sort of weird, massive social experiment. In fact, I assume it is deliberately created because there are too many bizarre, antihuman, antisocial elements, and all heavily shaped by government policy, in some cases clearly serving large business and financial interests that often rubbed shoulders. Also, sprawl is massively wasteful and uneconomical, and the dysfunction of real-estate malinvestment is in fact at the root of the larger economic dysfunction we’re suffering today.

Suburbs are full of a lot of Evangelicals who vote Republican:
Well, there is that sort of cultural-Marxist line. (Although being quite bohemian by nature myself, I prefer not to be snotty and elitist and I think [13].) However, besides the cultural snobbery, there are also plenty of arguments about the bad ecological, social, economic and user-unfriendliness aspects of suburbia as well. I think we’d be much better off with smaller big cities and more thriving small towns.
But at the end of the day, I agree with you here: we aren’t all called to live in one place.

#28 Comment By Jaylib On May 12, 2013 @ 9:45 am

Maybe I should [14] should the link fail, the title is “Revenge of the Happy Baby Pigs.”

#29 Comment By Tony H On May 12, 2013 @ 10:08 am

Great article! I suppose that there really is no “one size fits all” when it comes to living situations. I grew up in Orange County, in Southern California. Suburbs, suburbs, and still more suburbs. I do not have good memories of this. I especially do not have good memories of having to drive EVERYWHERE.

Fast forward from the 1950s to now: I live in Portland, Oregon. For me, living in a smaller city is perfect. I get the advantages of an urban core (wonderful music, art, theater, and – best of all – great coffeehouses). However, there are beautiful neighborhoods within walking distance of the downtown. I feel as if we get the advantages of both.

About seven years ago, my wife and I made a list of things we desired in a community. I put this to a higher power (AKA Google) and two cities, both in Oregon, came up. So here we are.

Oh, and we sold the car 5 years ago.

#30 Comment By NGPM On May 13, 2013 @ 7:57 am

As one who has been critical of Rod Dreher in the past, I have to salute him for an excellent article here.

I must say, however, that one of my problems with most “suburbs” erected over the past fifty years is echoed pretty finely in my problem with just about all new development tracts, and I echo Sean Scallon’s sentiment that most of the complaints might well be attributed rather to “exurbs” than to “suburbs.” It is not so much about whether one’s address is in Westchester or Putnam as opposed to New York, New York as it is the fact that modern developments have been erected with “up-trading” in mind. To this end, most recent constructions are ugly (amorphous and asymmetrical with a snout-like garage sticking out in front), poorly constructed (with shoddy second-rate materials), poorly laid-out (occupying plots that are at once too small for a proper piece of land and too big to offer the possibilty of economic mix and density) and environmentally disastrous (fitted together in irrational cul-de-sac patterns on sprawling tracts of land gotten cheap from perfectly good forests or farms).

In short, there is as much to be said for quality craftsmanship and conscientiousness of space as there is for anything else. To the extent that the “starter homes” and McMansions have been tools in the oh-so-American game of Keeping Up with the Joneses and the culture of More Stuff and Bigger Stuff All the Time, and to the extent that these and the original Snout Houses have served to cut ordinary people off from more deeply rooted histories and senses of beauty, decent-minded folk will naturally want to try to move beyond that.

The real danger, as has been hinted, is that Christian Millenials, in their rightful conviction that there is something seriously wrong with the present situation, adopt a sort of Bohemian snobbery that 1. is actually Marxian and not at all Christian or aristocratic or even (in the pre-19th century sense) bourgeois, and 2. impedes them from making wise practical choices with respect to the building of their families and patrimonies, choices which may well necessitate short-term aesthetic sacrifices. Culturally, the fruits of life in a Snout House, teaching your kids Greek and Latin and feeding them meals from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking will be much more beautiful in the long term than those that will come from fast food and the public school next to your Brooklyn Brownstone. But if you can live the former lifestyle and you have the means to surround yourself with somewhat more pleasant masonry and woodwork, BY ALL MEANS go for it!

#31 Comment By OldVet On May 13, 2013 @ 3:30 pm

I like Another Believer’s comment about the charm of a 1920’s bungalow neighborhood. I drove through one in Dallas recently, and it was lovely (See image below.) Suburbs themselves are not the problem– the issue for me is the architecture of the dreadful 2-bedroom box that came along in the 1950’s. They require little skill to build, and when sited in large numbers they have a soul-numbing quality. We could build attractive suburbs by paying more attention to quality architecture.


#32 Comment By Pat On May 13, 2013 @ 4:00 pm

Siarlys, I think whatever the Milwaukee Crunchy Cons do defines what the nucleus is.

#33 Comment By peter On May 13, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

Thank you for an interesting article. Take away message: a valuable life of service can be lived in any setting, and a life without service is not a life well lived. This truth is not a function of the built environment or the population of the town or city where you live. I am reading Little Way now and out of curiosity took a ‘Google tour’ of Mr. Dreher’s part of LA. Wow, there is not much there and what is there is built exclusively for access via the automobile. I wonder if the town were more town-like (denser, more walkable, albeit small) in the distant past.

Suburbs and all automobile-dependent places built in that style of development (that is, all things separated by function: homes here, offices there, apartments here, shopping over there, schools over there, industry there; and you must drive between each) introduce a large number of fiscal, environmental, public health, and societal problems that endanger the vitality and resilience of communities. These are the weaknesses of suburbs, not the list given by Keith Miller.

#34 Comment By Renee On May 13, 2013 @ 4:45 pm

All of this reminds me of a couple of lines from C.S. Lewis, which I quote with approval despite finding Lewis rather exasperating and sometimes shallow:

I have never been able to understand why the fact of living in the suburbs should be funny or contemptible. Indeed I have been trying on and off for years to complete a poem which (like so many of my poems) has never got beyond the first two lines–
Who damned suburbia?
“I”, said Superbia.

From an essay, “Hedonics” in a collection titled Present Concerns

#35 Comment By NGPM On May 13, 2013 @ 5:35 pm

LOL. Vermont’s racial demographics? I’m glad you didn’t ask. They’re 96.8% white.

But let’s close our eyes, plug our ears and sing LALALALALALALALAAAA!!! so we don’t have to acknowledge the 6,000 lb gorilla in that maplewood corner.

This is another important point. In the U.S., cheap single-family houses in facelessly-outlayed “‘burbs” are rapidly becoming the province of immigrant families from the Third World. This is definitely a major turn-off to traditionally-minded Americans of European stock looking to start a family and to raise children with some consciousness of livable civilization.

#36 Comment By Lee On May 16, 2013 @ 4:32 pm

I pray young people with get married and have or adopt kids and live in the suburbs. We have absolutely plenty of room in this country. New people coming to our country will want to pursue a little patch of green out in burbs, just like our parents after WWII. Or if you are a city person, that is can be nice too.

Just stop knocking cars! I ain’t riding my bike to work! I picked up undertones of sustainable development initiatives in many of the comments. You have been trained well grasshoppers.

Plant more trees, even the overlords at the EPA think “near road” vegetation cleans up exhaust better than any expensive traffic mitigation techno crap project along a main roads. What am I talking about? If you went to your town council mtg you would know.

Tons of our hard earned tax dollars are being spent by fed DOT grants in the burbs – for what? Well to move traffic and clean the air and make it safer, blah blah. I secretly think they are using the funding to install intense fiber optics (even when they already exist) to be able to completely wire towns and main drags. And don’t even get me started on AC! 🙂

#37 Comment By jAYLIB On May 17, 2013 @ 3:17 pm

Lee says:

You have been trained well grasshoppers.

Ah, so you haven’t been trained — and chained — to your automobile, the only transportation choice you’re allowed in most of suburbia?

Sustainable development is a perfectly good rubric that ‘s been ruined by the eco-fascists. The kind of sprawl we have now is not sustainable, creates misery, destroys both city and country, and has already contributed to a real-estate and financial crisis.

#38 Comment By NGPM On May 19, 2013 @ 7:36 am

In Latin America, whose countries have far larger swarths of extremely poor and non-whites than we do, favelas and public transit infrastructure are even worse than they are in the United States. In Western Europe, until recently at least, sprawl and public transit were less problematic than in the U.S. and it is worth noting that Western Europe, again until recently, had a negligible population of very poor minorities. The U.S. is situated somewhere between the two. This suggests that in Western countries there is a correlation between the willingness to support transportation infrastructure and dense development and the population of non-white underclass.

None of this would surprise urban studies experts, who agree that part of the reason for the Flight to the Suburbs was that, after the demise of restrictive covenants, it was easier to control who moved in and out: movement and access to and from the suburbs are largely restricted to people who can afford cars. (The major difference between the U.S. and Latin America, however, is that the suburbs were the “nice” places and the city cores the “no go” areas in the former; the opposite has been the case in the latter.) Most such experts, of course, laden with Marxism as they are, blame the problem on White Racism and fail to see that this sort of phenomenon happens everywhere, whether the “oppressed” happen to be indigenous, forcibly imported or immigrants by choice.

The practical conclusion is that the U.S. should not pursue policies which tend to increase its minority and especially underclass population, regardless of the explanation for the “why” of this phenomenon. Sustainable development will become politically and economically unfeasible otherwise as consumers vote with their feet and choose surer but less sustainable areas. To this end, U.S. immigration law should be enforced to the most draconian extent possible in order to reset the wheel.