Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

What to Do When Suburbia is Your ‘Hometown’

Postwar development patterns have pitted the ideals of permanence and place against each other.

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”. 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, 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 on revitalizing Main Street in Jackson, Michigan (and subsequently published in this space), 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 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 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, and increasing numbers of city dwellers are eschewing the previously obligatory flight to the suburbs 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.

Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.



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