I’ve been enjoying very much Alan Jacobs’s meditations on the city, but in his most recent foray he decided to be more analytical than meditative, and he proceeds to define the City explicitly in contrast to the Countryside, and to the exclusion of the Wilderness as a serious alternative:

  • It is impossible to talk about the idea of the City without invoking its two opposites, the Countryside (where people dwell) and the Wilderness (where they don’t). I have not spoken of Wilderness much in these posts because my focus has been on human lives, human choices, and Wilderness is by definition a place where humans do not live, though they may visit.
  • The City needs the Countryside so it may define itself by contrast as dense, fast, complex, and plural.
  • The Countryside needs the City so it may define itself by contrast as spacious, slow, simple, and coherent.
  • In the City’s narrative the key human virtues are courage (to face the strange and unpredictable) and tolerance (of cultural and moral difference).
  • In the Countryside’s narrative the key human virtues are patiencepersistence, and stability (“sticking,” as Wendell Berry might put it).
  • Each narrative is largely self-praising.
  • Each narrative depends on the belief that its own vision of human flourishing is somehow more authentic than the alternatives, though in general proponents of City and proponents of Countryside are united in their dismissal of all forms of human community that aren’t clearly urban or rural.

It should probably surprise nobody that I rise now in defense of the Wilderness as an important concept to bring into this discussion.

First of all, it struck me that the urban virtues Jacobs identifies – courage and tolerance – bear so much resemblance to the virtues of a nomadic people. People who roam the Great Plains or the Eurasian steppe or the trackless Sahara (or, for that matter, for 40 years in the Sinai) need ample courage to face the dangerous and the unpredictable (and one might add to this the adaptability to rapid changes in condition that is also a great virtue in the City). They also need to be tolerant of difference, lest every chance encounter lead to combat (and yet the also need to demonstrate the readiness for combat that may deter trouble – what an urbanite might call “street cred”). There is a reason, it seems to me, that we analogize the City to the jungle – because, unlike the Countryside, the City is not really tamed, has no proper fences to make good neighbors.

Likewise, I would question the assertion that nomadic peoples lack attachment to place. Their relationship to place is different from the farmer, who tames the land, but theirs is at least as intimate a relationship, if one maintained at somewhat greater distance. And, once again, I’d say the urban dweller has a relationship to place in some ways more similar to that of a nomad than to that of a rural homesteader. You cannot really own a piece of the City, no matter what your piece of paper says.

Second, if we are going to place the City and the Countryside on one side of a line, and the Wilderness on the other, that line is not related to habitation (humans live everywhere) but to civilization. In Ibn Khaldun’s theory of history, the dichotomy is between the City and the Desert – and history is the endless cycle of desert nomads conquering the cities, settling down, becoming soft, and being conquered in turn by another band of desert dwellers. European history might look more to the steppe, the forests and the seas for the source of conquering barbarians, but the template still fits reasonably well. If this dichotomy, and hence this historical cycle, is breaking down with the increasing urbanization of the planet, so, too, is any dichotomy between City and Countryside. After all, in advanced economies, an every-shrinking percentage of the people live in what one would properly call the Countryside – rather, they live overwhelmingly in either proper cities or in suburbs.

Which brings me to my third question: what are the suburbs in this dichotomy? Do they exist? The reason we have a word for them is that they are not properly City nor properly Countryside. Jacobs touched on the topic once or twice, but I’d like to see him return to it. The negative stereotype of the suburbs is that it makes the worst of both City and Countryside – the Countryside’s narrowness without its coherence or its patience, the City’s striving and status-consciousness without its diversity and tolerance thereof, its excitement or its courage to handle that excitement. Wheaton is a small town – a feature of the Countryside – that became a suburb – an extension of the City – and there’s an argument that the sociology of these places, where people of the Countryside feel they’ve been invaded and conquered by the City, has had a great influence on the growth of right-wing populist politics (see, for example, Peter Beinart’s 1998 article in The New Republic, “Battle for the ‘Burbs,” which doesn’t appear to be available on-line). I’d be very interested to hear Alan speak more about the experience of Wheaton, and whether it and places like it deserve a file of their own in this taxonomy.

In any event – keep it up!