Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Suburbia versus urbia

Howard Ahmanson ponders “why non-suburbanites distrust suburbanites.” 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 […]

Howard Ahmanson ponders “why non-suburbanites distrust suburbanites.” 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.  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.