In Defense of the Suburbs

 

At Front Porch Republic, the brilliant Patrick Deneen [full disclosure: I study under him at Georgetown] notes that even David Brooks, America’s veritable Mr. Suburbia, has turned away from his old faith. New York Magazine reveals all:

“In my last book, I was pretty pro-urban/suburban sprawl,” [Brooks] explains. Pro is an understatement. On Paradise Drive, released in 2004, was a satirical, pop-sociological exploration of American suburbia, but also a celebration of it. Consumerism wasn’t just empty accumulation; it was how Americans express themselves. In the ever-expanding exurbs, he wrote, every man creates his own private bubble, “an aristocrat within his own Olympus.”

“Now I’m much more skeptical,” he says.

“Whatever the reason,” writes Prof. Deneen, “it’s good news indeed. Score 1 for FPR, zero for the PoMoCons.” Having served honorably as America’s veritable Mr. Pomocon, I’ll take the bait — at length, for those with some time on their hands. Here’s why Brooks was wrong about the suburbs, but we should defend them anyway.

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Consider the setting of Brooks’ NYMag confession.

“I’ve changed my view of suburbia,” he says. We’re sitting at the Best Buns Bread Company in the Village at Shirlington, a sort of prefab town square in Arlington, Virginia, designed to be quaint and homey. The streets are fresh red brick. The lampposts are faux antique. The trees are evenly spaced. A color-coded map explains the area’s layout, like a mall. The neighborhood’s culinary diversity—Aladdin’s Eatery abuts Bonsai Restaurant abuts Guapo’s—is matched only by its patrons’ ethnic lack thereof. We are sipping coffees and munching on identical Ginger Crinkle cookies, when it occurs to me: I am in a David Brooks book. We are Bobos. This is Paradise.

Full disclosure: I used to hang out in Shirlington all the time. I nibbled the spring rolls. I sampled the microbrews. I bought fresh bread and a specialty cup of coffee. I did not feel like an aristocrat within my own Olympus. I felt like a new dad at the start of a steep learning curve — possibly the opposite physical and psychological condition. I did not feel like expressing myself through consumerism. I felt like finally getting out of the house that day.

A suburb like Ballston, where there are no kids and no elderly, is vastly different from a suburb like Shirlington, which is teeming with young families and older folks. Any sociological analysis that skips over facts like these is destined to mislead. To be sure, some moms and dads, as our national Starbucks horror stories can attest, really do act like demigods, gliding from espresso bar to patio table in a cell phone trance while little Jaden and Zoe terrorize the poor fools who hoped to experience a latte-induced zen like minor deities of their own. But parents who act like gods while their children act like beasts are still reading from a different script than Brooks, who thinks — or thought — that the suburbs are so grand because they enable lots of ordinary Americans to luxuriate moderately in a kind of quasi-Aristotelian state of plenty.

The feeling of self-directed flourishing that belonged only to aristocrats in classical times has now been democratized, the theory runs. The suburbs make it all possible, delivering a host of big-box products, groceries imported from the four corners of the earth, and super-diverse dining options (oh yeah — and air conditioning) to people whose big cars and big McMansions embody the health, safety, and domesticated appetites they center their lives around.

Paradise? Well, maybe for some. But let me assure you: most of the good citizens of Shirlington do not walk around wearing rapt smiles. Nor do they even seem to be vegetating in a low-grade state of bliss. The sense of paradise that Brooks associated with the suburbs, it seems to me, was largely the product of two fleeting things: the real holiday from history that came before the economic crisis, and the narcissism of the boomers, which caused them to suspect that all subsequent generations would slot smoothly into the psychological and cultural grooves etched by the boomers themselves. Camille Paglia has a much different vision of the suburbs. And though both Brooks and Paglia, like my friends at Front Porch Republic, have landed their fair share of blows, the full truth about the suburbs lies somewhere else still.

There are still families in the suburbs. There are still churches. There are still local eateries and neighborhood hangouts. Some suburbs are masterplanned, but many aren’t — and the ones that are masterplanned often encourage more ‘real community’ than those that have sprawled out at random, without any logic or purpose, from one vast development to the next. The suburbs aren’t perfect. No type of residential institution can perfect us. And none can ruin us — only we can do that.

We restless Americans can ruin ourselves with our restlessness. But we know that we are never really at home in the world, at the same time that we know all of America, in the most important way, is our home. We Americans move constantly, and it is our relocation and our picking up and putting down stakes that gives the suburbs their true character. Some suburbs can be cold, anonymous, unfeeling — like some cities and rural areas. I can attest however that some suburbs are among the warmest, most neighborly places on earth: even if you are a new arrival, even if you are a stranger, even if you are only passing through. Our suburbs reflect — because they have created, and manage to maintain — a brilliantly American way of pulling strangers constantly in motion out of the narrowness of their individual peregrinations and into a broader public life. If you do not like the suburbs, I suspect it is because you do not like the American propensity, deeper than even custom and habit, to move, and move, and move, and move.

But that is us. Even with families, that is us, although families — as I can also attest — inspire American hearts and minds to settle down in a way as consonant as possible with the flourishing of those families. No matter the depths of our love for our families, it is a democratic love that rightly places the destiny of our children above any aristocratic love for the soil. It’s not that the two cannot be reconciled for long stretches of time. Assuredly they can, and assuredly there are plenty of places in America where we can find and achieve such lives in concert with the like-minded. But that is an option, not a rule of nature, and it is not at the heart of the American character. Precisely because we are not, in any Aristotelian sense, here to stay, our suburbs are.

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @DuaneOyen

    Suburbs respond to the American wish, not the other way around. Those who mourn the lack of front porch fellowship should better mourn the lack of crime control in cities and the corruptions of city politics, plus the secularization of the culture that displaced the central role of the church. When we speak wistfully of front porch communities, we are actually referring more to the Homer Price-Jean Shepherd small town ideal (Prof. Hart Armstrong’s “luminous ideal of the small town”), not the teeming tenements of NYC.

    I grew up on an urban street in Nordeast Minneapolis; but the strongest community I ever experienced was when we lived in a very suburban subdivision in Herndon, VA (a few miles West of Ballston, for those of you not familiar with the Washington DC area) and everyone congregated in the circle/cul-de-sac, not their patios/decks.

    This is a reflection of internal changes in individual members of the masses. The suburbs were built following the free choice wisdom of crowds, for very rational reasons, and are not any more inherently ugly or at fault for modern life than guns are for the existence of murder.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Editor
    @RobLong

    My neighborhood, Venice Beach, was laid out and developed by an eccentric dreamer, a guy named Abbott Kinney at the turn of the last century. (The main drag, Abbott Kinney Boulevard, was named after him rather belatedly, in the early 1990’s.)

    We’ve got front porches, narrow walk streets, and a neighborly culture. It’s also home to one of LA’s most thickly-settled and unrepentant lefty-hippie-alt neighborhoods. Sadly, these often go together.

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  3. Profile Photo Member
    @ScottR

    Westlake, Ohio: Good schools, nice people, great Little League program, modern rec center, a variety of shops, zero crime, and generally conservative values. The bad news? We might be regarded as Philistines by hip city-dwellers with no kids. Gee darn.

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  4. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Karen

    Wait, Shirlington and Ballston are the ‘burbs? There must be something between urban and suburban. Those places are like some quasi-suburban limbo. To conventional for the city, too cosmopolitan for the burbs. Nothing infuriated me more than waiting for the bus in the mornings while watching those 30-something suits trot out their labs and retrievers to relieve themselves on a postage-size plot of grass, then stuffing the poor dogs back into tiny houses for the 12+ hours their owners would be gone. My husband and I called Shirlington “tupper-town,” because it looks so fake. Don’t get me wrong, I live in a planned community in the D.C. metro area; planned about 50 years ago. We even have a new “town center” but people here don’t have an identity crisis. They know they live in the suburbs, and they like themselves anyway. Living in Arlington was like having the adult versions of the homecoming queen, valedictorian, and class president as neighbors. Just thinking about it stresses me out.

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  5. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Oy graduate school! I really was not aware that suburbs were in need of such defense!

    I know plenty of families that would happily live in smaller spaces and more close-knit urban environments munching on organic goodies they toted home in their hemp bags after biking home from the farmer’s market… except for the crappy urban schools.

    Allow some market forces to intervene in the school system and I suspect sprawl would take care of itself. There you have it — the NEA is contributing to global warming.

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  6. Profile Photo Contributor
    @jameslileks

    I live in a suburb. It was master-planned: the streets would not conform to the grid, the houses would be well-spaced, the land would vary in terrain. People were encouraged to move here from the dense, malarial city.

    It was laid out in 1888. The city grew around it, eventually, and now it’s filled with people who are quite pleased they don’t live in, you know, one of those places.

    • #6
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