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City Meditations: 7

Hurricane Sandy
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy I heard, especially on Twitter, many stories about how wonderfully the people of New York supported and strengthened one another in time of crisis. (The Occupy Wall Street movement in particular turned its organizational network to the task of providing food and water and shelter to the homeless.) The kindness of people to one another seemed an affirmation of city life, evidence that it lived up to its great promise.

In the Spring of 2011, when a series of tornados ripped through Mississippi and Alabama, much of the long valley my sister lives in was destroyed. Her house was one of the few in the immediate area that was not ripped from its foundations or reduced to mere splinters. By the following morning local churches and a series of individual volunteers had shown up with food to share and hands ready to work. The kindness of people to one another seemed an affirmation of country life, evidence that it lived up to its great promise.

Tim Keller’s wife Kathy has written, in an essay on raising children in the city, “My sons loved the city growing up, and love it even more now, not just New York, but all cities. London, Hong Kong, Berlin, Singapore all excite them, whereas a quiet, empty suburb bores them to tears.” This is a bit troubling: a well-formed person surely has the internal resources to avoid boredom. Or maybe I’m tempted to respond critically because I have lived for the last quarter-century in a suburb.

But what does that tell you? The word “suburb” is used to describe an extraordinarily wide range of places, from the purpose-built super-sized subdivision to, well, Wheaton, Illinois, where I live: a nineteenth-century Midwestern town that Chicago later came out and swallowed up. Or one might consider that Boston is surrounded by “suburbs” that were founded four hundred years ago.

Suburbs are diverse not just in age but also in population density. There are no “empty” suburbs, of course, or else they wouldn’t be suburbs, but while some disperse their people into spacious lots, others pack them in in city-like ways. The lots here in the older part of Wheaton are large enough, it seems to me, but I can easily walk downtown to have a drink at the pub or buy pastries at the bakery or eat various cuisines. It’s like a gently exploded version of a city neighborhood.

It’s too easy to drive, though, as Rod recently noted. Often I do when I really should walk. In the country you have to drive when you want to go anywhere; in a big, dense city people get around on foot and via public transport. Suburbs are in this respect in-between. And in other respects too. Which is why, I suppose, suburbs are never perceived as either divine or demonic. “Nothing too much,” the suburb seems to say, which means that, though its human dramas exist, and are as meaningful as they are anywhere else in the cosmos, they remain largely inaccessible to our myths.

John Cheever is among the few writers to suggest a mythical dimension to suburban life: few other writers would end a story about a middle-aged man’s sexual temptations and his attempt to fight them in the pleasant banlieue of Shady Hill with a sentence like this: “Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.”

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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