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What to Do When Suburbia is Your ‘Hometown’

Americans have always had a contentious relationship with permanence. Mobility, both social and geographic, is in the American DNA. As Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed, “In the United States, a man builds a house in which to spend his old age, and he sells it before the roof is on;…he settles in a place, which he soon afterwards leaves to carry his changeable longings elsewhere.” While this sort of mobility has now spread across the globe, it was a novel trait to the 19th century Frenchman, and stood in stark contrast to the Old World Europe that Tocqueville knew. Indeed, his very surname belies the rootedness to place that defined European aristocracy: he was Alexis of Tocqueville, a particular place with a particular history.

There are, of course, profound political implications of American mobility. The meritocratic nature of American democracy encourages the most talented to pursue career opportunities without regard to place. This has helped create Charles Murray’s “superzips” and contributed to the “brain drain” that has so devastated Middle America and the inner cities. The meritocratic sorting of American society is much to blame for our severe political polarization, whereby educated, predominately liberal elites congregate in urban areas on the coast, leaving the large swaths of flyover country from whence they came.

But even beyond political homogenization and polarization, mobility weakens civil society by lessening our obligations to our neighbors. Tocqueville, contrasting Old World aristocracy to American democracy, observed, “Aristocratic families maintain the same station for centuries, and often live in the same place. So…[a man] freely does his duty by both ancestors and descendants and often sacrifices personal pleasures for the sake of beings who are no longer alive or are not yet born.” Permanence, that sense of rootedness to place, provides a constant reminder of our familial and neighborly obligations, absent which the incentive to invest in civil society is greatly diminished. It’s no surprise, then, that more and more Americans are “bowling alone” [1]. Why invest in the difficult work of forming associations when one could move across the country—or world—at any time?

Fortunately, the perils of mobility have not gone unrecognized. Those who care about place, permanence, and civil society have taken up the argument for remaining in one’s hometown. Justin Hannegan, writing in The Imaginative Conservative [2], presents a compelling case for hometown living, urging Americans to consider that “perhaps permanence—the guardian of family, tradition, practical wisdom, environment, and culture—is worth it.”

Bill Kauffman, in his address at TAC’s September event [3] on revitalizing Main Street in Jackson, Michigan (and subsequently published in this space [4]), made a similar appeal to the value of permanence:

And if we are disloyal to our place, to the place our ancestors made, then why should our children show any loyalty to us? If the city in which they grow up is stripped clean of its landmarks—and I don’t mean just the homes of great men, of presidents and thieves—I mean the corner groceries and baseball fields and the front-porched homes that make a neighborhood—well, why should young people choose to stay in such a self-disrespecting place? Why not just move to a manicured suburb with high average SAT scores—say, Columbine, Colorado, where all your dreams can come true?

It’s Kauffman’s passing reference to “manicured suburbia” where the case for permanence gets messy. To be sure, suburban patterns of development are their own obstacles to Burke’s “little platoons” that are so vital to a functioning polity. A neighborhood built around reliance on the automobile necessarily discourages interactions among neighbors. This is all the more compounded when residents’ places of employment—and the community that organically emerges from the workplace—are scattered throughout a thirty-plus mile radius. The very design of the suburban McMansion, with its two- (and sometimes three- or four-) car garage and expansive back (but not front) porches, decks, and patios, is a physical manifestation of the retreat from the public type of living that forms community to a more privatized, insular existence. In the words of Christopher Lasch, “The case for the suburban way of life as opposed to the small town or the old-style city neighborhood cannot very well rest on the claim that it promotes a sense of community.” (Lasch, Revolt of the Elites, p. 124)

But what happens when suburbia is our place? The explosion of the suburban model of development in the postwar period has put record numbers of Americans in the uncomfortable position of having no other place than placeless suburbia to call home. By some estimates, as many as 53 percent [5] of Americans describe their residential area as suburban. Adolescence in suburbia has become such a common experience that it now pervades our pop culture, as the familiarity of the references on (and, frankly, the mere existence of) Buzzfeed’s list here [6] shows. The ubiquity of suburban modes of development has pitted the ideals of permanence and place against each other.


The inverse of Kauffman’s question, then, becomes arguably more pressing for those who value permanence and place: Why not just move from your manicured suburb with high average SAT scores to a small town (or city neighborhood) with a built environment much more conducive to fostering civil society? It seems many millennials are making the gamble to do just that, as demand for walkable, mixed-use developments is on the rise [7], and increasing numbers of city dwellers are eschewing the previously obligatory flight to the suburbs [8] as they start families.

Yet is this really the solution to the ails of suburbia? As much as flight from suburbia may help to mitigate the aforementioned obstacles to a robust civil society, it will also trigger the malevolent effects of rampant mobility. It’s quite possible that those who settle in small towns or city neighborhoods from the suburbs will develop a sense of rootedness in their new place. But in doing so, local and familial ties to place are necessarily severed, which simply further atomizes American life. Mobility, even if undertaken with the intention of building community, is by its very nature an act of severing previous communal bonds.

There is no simple resolution to the tension between permanence and place—and that is before even considering the extenuating financial or personal circumstances that often dictate where we live. But for those concerned with permanence and place, for the ways in which our surroundings shape how we interact as neighbors, family members, and political beings, this is a tension that must be confronted. Buzzfeed, that unlikeliest of sources, concludes its “signs you grew up in suburbia” list on an unusually profound note: “You loved it and hated it, but either way, it was home.” Perhaps it’s time we learn to love our home—cul-de-sacs and all.

Emile Doak is director of events & outreach at The American Conservative. He lives in his hometown of Herndon, Virginia.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "What to Do When Suburbia is Your ‘Hometown’"

#1 Comment By Whine Merchant On November 17, 2017 @ 3:02 am

Some see suburban towns and bedroom suburbs as soulless and empty of values. Some of us find a community –

#2 Comment By Darryl Hall On November 17, 2017 @ 9:58 am

I don’t understand the question. Should we remain in suburbs? Is that the question? If so, that depends on what individuals want. We can’t make people be communities, they have to want that. Should we guilt people into not living like they want? Isn’t that what conservatives rail against “liberals” for every day? I agree community is important but like I said, you have to want to be part of a community. Just standing on the outskirts and saying you want community isn’t enough, you have to get your hands dirty, and in an age when “getting your hands dirty” means to many posting on facebook not going somewhere to talk to your neighbors, that’s a difficult sell.

#3 Comment By Celery On November 17, 2017 @ 11:20 am

How many find community in a place, and how many find it in a device? Community for many is at least device-assisted, if not device exclusive.

#4 Comment By Sal On November 17, 2017 @ 12:16 pm

A rambling treatise, this is, sans any coherent — leave alone plausible — proposals.

And can the author sincerely assert that the “liberal urbanities on the east coast beckon a preference for the largely crime-free suburbia?

#5 Comment By Matt in AK On November 17, 2017 @ 12:27 pm

This is an interesting corollary to the conundrum of American conservatives: “A classical conservative believes in the wisdom of our ancestors; as Americans, our ancestors were a bunch of confounded radicals.”
-Matt in AK

#6 Comment By Zgler On November 17, 2017 @ 3:06 pm

Sometimes family ties and lack of mobility lead to poverty. This is the case for many of the longtime unemployed. Stability is good when you have a job you can get to.

#7 Comment By philadelphialawyer On November 17, 2017 @ 5:46 pm

Kauffman is a German or Old English name. Hannegan is an Irish name. Somebody in their families not only left their hometown, but their country, continent and hemisphere. Was that a bad thing?

I would also add that Kauffman, like the other big “you-must-stay-in-your-hometown” hero and all-around self-righteous, hypocritical rustic windbag, Wendell Berry, are successful, professional writers. They can live anywhere they want and make more than a good living. Indeed, they use their hometown milieus in their work; it is a selling point for them. Berry also inherited an expensive and extensive tract of profitable farmland while still young man, in the hometown that he wasn’t living in at the time.

Other people have to move to find work, let alone professional success.

Beyond that, it is not so much that people don’t value the baseball fields and corner groceries of their youth. But things change. Corner groceries charge high prices. And have limited selection. And are often not models of cleanliness either. So, people would rather shop elsewhere, or online. And maybe now kids would rather play soccer than baseball. Is that the end of the world?

And my hometown is not the same as it was when I left it. My parents no longer live there. I have no siblings who live there. Why am I required to live there. And I am happy where I am. Why can’t everyone just choose the lifestyle that they want. Folks who love their hometowns can live there “until they rot,” as the man says in the “Meet Me in St Louis,” if they want to. Other people don’t want that, and, really, don’t need or want Kauffman, Berry or Hannegan telling them what to do.

Oh, and ol’ “of Tocqueville” didn’t seem to mind leaving Tocqueville, if there really is such a place, and gallivanting half way across planet, did he?

#8 Comment By Howard Owens On November 18, 2017 @ 1:51 pm

I like my adopted hometown (Batavia, NY). It feels far more like home than the big city I grew up in. There is something about a place that feels like a place because life is lived closer to human scale. I guess I’m just another “all-around self-righteous, hypocritical rustic windbag” Not bad company to keep.

#9 Comment By pepperpot On November 18, 2017 @ 4:14 pm

There’s not enough of anything in the world that would make me go back to my hometown. In 1930 when I was born, there were at least 100 members of my extended family living there, and many more in the county surrounding. There are zip, zero, nil living there now for many reasons….the biggest one being the destruction of the town, its ambience, its cultural institutions, its sense of community by the town fathers of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

#10 Comment By Ray Woodcock On November 18, 2017 @ 5:19 pm

Maybe the built investment of suburbia could be affordably adapted into real community. Consider [9], looking down on a suburban neighborhood. The amount of space devoted to cars is striking. Restrict those cars to an external parking lot; replace that vast space with yard; run a single-lane one-way lane along the fencerows separating backyards; allow only the local shuttle and delivery vehicles to use that lane; and — presto! — suburbia starts to look very different. Suddenly those big back porches, where people can sit and socialize, are looking out onto the street, within reasonable proximity of neighbors who must stroll; and at last the kids have a reasonable amount of space to play in.

#11 Comment By Hypnos On November 18, 2017 @ 9:14 pm

Geography still correlates with intimacy, but less so than in the past. My intimate friends are a mix of family, childhood friends, classmates, and work colleagues. Being the child of immigrants, and having lived all across the US and overseas, this is a diverse bunch …

#12 Comment By Dan Green On November 19, 2017 @ 8:20 am

If like myself you came up of kids born of the greatest generation you were quickly motivated to go where as we used to say where you could do better. The Greatest Generation which I admired and learned from I figured were simply worn out from the depression and WW 2 content to stay put

#13 Comment By mrscracker On November 20, 2017 @ 1:01 pm

philadelphialawyer says:

I would also add that Kauffman, like the other big “you-must-stay-in-your-hometown” hero and all-around self-righteous, hypocritical rustic windbag, Wendell Berry, are successful, professional writers. They can live anywhere they want and make more than a good living. Indeed, they use their hometown milieus in their work; it is a selling point for them. Berry also inherited an expensive and extensive tract of profitable farmland while still young man, in the hometown that he wasn’t living in at the time.”
I’ve never understood the appeal of Wendell Berry as guru. Nothing personal, but I find a large disconnect between what he professes & the kind of folks/culture he lives nearby.
And inheriting land makes a huge difference. You can afford to do things that others can’t (like writing books). Or choose not do things that other folks have to.

#14 Comment By philadelphialawyer On November 20, 2017 @ 8:05 pm

Howard Owens:

Nothing wrong with you liking small town living. But to each his own, no? When you start telling me how to live, then you can horn in on my insults of those who do likewise.

#15 Comment By Mary On November 27, 2017 @ 9:47 pm

I lived in small towns for 36 of my 56 years, in large cities for 8 years. I vote suburbia. I love my neighbors and walk anywhere I want except work, which is also suburban. What you call suburban is frequently a small town consumed by city, not the other way around. I love my grass, my dog, my garden, my privacy, my garage, my big ole house, my schools, my grocery store , my post office and utter absence of concerning crime.