On Why We should Love and Hate the Suburbs

Like most kerfuffles, the recent dispute over Christianity and the suburbs has teetered on engendering far more heat than there has been light.

Some of that was due to our own Keith Miller’s post, which self-consciously provoked and explored questions rather than laid out definitive hypotheses.  (Mission accomplished.  The comments have been wonderful.)  But one gets the sense that the discussion has been fueled by vagueness, that it’s full of heuristic caricatures set up to illuminate more fundamental points.  And heuristic caricatures often breed defensive responses, and around the internet wheel-go-round we spin.  That’s my observation, anyway, which I am happy to be wrong about.

But before you point out just how off I am, allow me to add more fodder for your commenting cannons and say some more doubtlessly misguided things rooted in more and less helpful caricatures.

It seems that Peter Blair’s fundamental point that “we should not mistake the normal cultural standards of 21st century American life for ‘ordinary life’” is well made. Only there’s no reason to limit the problem to the existence of the suburbs:  there’s nothing ‘ordinary’ about our cities, either, at least that I can tell. Rome was at its peak a million people, after all, which I suspect provided a very different form of life for its inhabitants than that which our current mega-cities allow.

suburbsAnd while decrying the effects of cars on the way of life in the suburbs, we ought to be sensitive to the effects of mass transit on cities.  Yes, people have to bump shoulders more with people they don’t know every day, and there’s something to that.  But as a daily rider of a bus in a relatively small city I can assure you the transformative effect isn’t all that one would hope for.  It is possible to take the bus daily and only rarely recognize people, much less strike up a conversation with them.

Which is to say, Peter mused that the question here goes “much deeper than the discreet issue of whether the suburbs should be praised or damned.”  Indeed.  And while we’re examining his questions, we should also wonder why we have to choose between these two.  The suburbs ought to be praised and damned, because they’re praiseworthy and damnable. And so ought the cities, for that matter.

The irony, of course, is that the critique of the suburbs seems fundamentally anti-secular.  (This is a point lost on both Keith and Peter, at least from what I can tell.)  There is nothing more secular than the suburbs:  they are the perfect embodiment of a world that stands halfway between creation and new Jerusalem, only with distorted views of both. They strive to bring together the amenities and culture of (traditionally) urban existence, while preserving the cultured gardens of country dwellings.  Suburbs are the perfect Augustinian paradisical hell, only a quintessentially modern one, with the sort of structures that garden variety anti-modernists of the Front-Porcher temperment hate and all their critics therefore necessarily feel obliged to defend.*  It seems strange to me to defend secularity and engage in a critical project of the suburbs, or to offer a critical use of secular while making a defense of them. The thing to do if you want to affirm the secular is affirm suburban living precisely because its what the strange fusion of Christianity and modernity has given us.

A brief aside:  I think this point stands on any definition of “secular.”  The term is so contested as to not be very helpful (like a few other terms in this discussion, too).  But if it means that which comes into Christianity from “the world,” well, that’s an ambiguous category but not necessarily hostile one.  And if we mean something like Augustine meant, and describe it as that which is between the times, well, that fits the suburbs too.  Modernity, like every other period, is a mess of congmingled goods and vices, which manifests itself in a host of structures and institutions.  I think on both terms, though, the suburbs are thoroughly secular and hence unremittingly ambivalent.  May they be praised and also damned.  Come quickly, Lord Jesus, but don’t make me have to choose one or the other when we can do both.

But back to it:  All this mucking up of things simply highlights the relative unhelpfulness of, well, the entire discussion.  Can’t we spend a good deal longer wondering what the suburbs are for before we start kindling our torches or building our defenses?  We might find that “the city” stands under judgment just as much, and that we should add additional targets for our denunciations.  Why explore that question?  Perhaps to raise the more fundamental question of what it means to live faithfully within the place we find ourselves, whether its “suburban” or “urban” or “rural” or whatever term we apply.

I myself might commend to us all a Chestertonian patriotism here:  we ought to be suburban critics only because we are suburban fans.  Loving the suburbs, and the people in them, might be the precursor to properly understanding them and criticizing them.  Getting inside the suburbs and seeing the qualities of life that make them so attractive, and starting with that, might be a good step toward actually understanding them.  I understand the critics of the suburbs come to bury them and all, but maybe starting with a little praise might make it all go down a bit smoother.

Let me make two related points here, just to ensure that my destruction in the comments will be complete.

First, I realize that the “city” and “rural” dispute has theological undertones. But here, too, I think we have reason to be appreciative about both and so ambivalent about both.  As has often been pointed out, pagan means “countrydweller” for a reason, namely that Christianity spread through the cities first.  But Christ announced himself to some shepherds before that, who faithfully came and worshipped along with the backwoods girl who’d been blessed with the honor of bearing the Son of God.

Second, evangelicals have for a season wrestled with being co-opted by technique.  We’ve let other people amuse themselves to death—we’ve progamatized ourselves to death. (Okay, we’ve amused ourselves to death too.)  This background is inescapable, and we’d be silly to ignore it.  But it matters for this discussion, as it means that the emphasis on transforming cities will constantly be in danger of being reduced to a project, which is then packaged, made pretty, and sold.  (Think of it as the McMansion version of movement formation, and then judge accordingly.)  When that happens, people will inevitably be moved to push back, and probably in terms just as overwrought as those they are hearing.  Technique is the spirit of our age, even still, and the emphasis on city-living and the repudiation of the suburbs is in constant danger of so being co-opted, as many good and true movements and messages have been.

And now, have fun in the comments.  I’m getting off the merry-go-round for a bit, as I feel a bit woozy.

*Again, dealing in caricatures here, you know, to make a point.

Update:  I meant to include a nod to Jake Meador’s excellent post at Mere-O Notes, our little tumblr-roundup site that he curates. Go forth and read it too.

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  • Toby

    I guess this entire debate tires me at times. There are some things about it I will just not understand.

    For example, why does living in the city not implicate one in all of the bad things about that city, but living in the suburbs does? Can’t we practice faithful presence and stand out wherever we are? I know suburb dwellers who ride their bikes to a bus stop to take to work. And if cars are so bad, why is rural living exempted from this condemnation? I live in a rural town now and everyone here drives everywhere. My morning bike commute is harrowing. And most people have to drive because there are not a ton of jobs in a rural town and it is difficult to bike or walk 30 miles to the town where a lot of our non-governmental employees work. But everyone has gardens in their backyards, so does that balance them out in the end?

    But those are just questions. What frustrates me is how swift the backlash comes in our culture. Evangelicals have been excited about cities for about 10 years and already there are people decrying the emphasis on cities. Cities are important; suburbs are important; the country is important. Because Jesus loves people in all of those places. And he wants us to love one another. It is important to think through these things, I am not saying it is not, but it is also important to extend to each other the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that the Lord has blessed us in different ways for different purposes. He wants us to be different no matter where we are, and the suburbs could certainly use people willing to stand out from the generic way of life there.

  • Abram Lueders

    Thanks for adding a little bit of Christ-like balance to what can be a pretty frustrating debate — it’s always nice to read something that doesn’t contain a heavy dose of facepalm moments.

    One of the first problems with all the city vs. suburbs arguments (both Christian and secular) is that definitions of both are incredibly muddy. Is any largely car-dependent neighborhood full of detached houses considered “suburban?” If that’s the case, the vast majority of neighborhoods within city limits in the United States are suburbs. In sunbelt cities like Phoenix, where almost all growth occurred after WWII, there are hardly any areas that could be considered urban in the classical sense. How can you choose between city and suburb in a place where the distinction simply doesn’t exist?

    As you point out, the suburbs are an imperfect mode of living. And as America rushed toward sprawl during the 20th century, Christians did a very poor job of thinking critically about what these changes would mean for society. But now, as dense urban areas have become increasingly fashionable, Christians are again following a trend, rather than actually thinking about what it means.

    For example, for all their faults, early suburbs were still a reflection of a time when starting a family was the primary goal of young adults. The suburbs weren’t always cool, or “vibrant”, because their point was to provide a bunch of safe space for kids to grow up in. (Not that they always lived up to that promise, but that’s another story). Today’s shift to denser cities with more exciting entertainment options is often a reflection of the fact that people are increasingly delaying marriage, as well as parenthood, and after marriage tend to have fewer or no children.

    Are there issues with the insulated, dull, suburban bubble? Yes. Are there problems with urban cores that are increasingly becoming playgrounds for the wealthy and single, while working-class families are pushed out? Yes. It’s absolutely vital that Christians engage in the conversation about the built environment — but that doesn’t mean they should become cheerleaders for either of the predefined sides.

  • http://twitter.com/matthew_loftus Matthew Loftus

    Hear hear! : )

  • http://themillsmedia.com/ Matt Mills

    Right on.

  • Dave Strunk

    With tongue-firmly-in-cheek, I’m wondering why you are talking about suburbs at all when Mark Sanford got elected to the House by South Carolinians. Isn’t this the end of some kind of evangelical witness? And why aren’t we up in arms about it? Where is Mere-O?

    Just kidding, of course…..couldn’t resist. ;)

  • http://twitter.com/aegreen aegreen

    There is definitely something to be said for loving the suburbs and understanding them before criticizing them. I think most city planners who make it their jobs to understand the urban environment, for instance, would make a distinction between historical, so-called first-tier suburbs, and more recent, far-flung exurbs. The pre-WWII suburbs often have key distinctions in design that make them more integrated communities: sidewalks, street trees, connected street systems, buildings facing the street, and destinations nearby or within the neighborhood. There are some beautiful examples of this in almost every city in the U.S.; the Garden District in New Orleans comes to mind, for example. These suburbs still often have great community and sense of place to this day. Ironically, they were usually centered around streetcars, which were later tore up but now seem to be back in style.

    Exurbs, I think, are a better name for the type of suburb that many people like to caricature. They are built in such a way that forces most people to have long commutes to other town or cities, or even to common destinations like supermarkets. The people who live within them are still deserving of sharing God’s love of course, but the built environment has real consequences for what kinds of churches and ministry can be done.

    I think it is this is what I would take to task in Keith’s post. That and his use of Joel Kotkin as a source without qualifiers… he is one of the few urban planners who wholesale supports sprawl, and definitely a firebrand within his own profession.

  • wmrharris

    I would another layer, here, that of “flight.” Part of the discussion on City/Suburb locale is tied up with questions of flight to or from. The cool neighborhood, spawning ground of the creative class, is something that many young people flee towards. It is a move away from the childhood setting and the perceived parochialism of the suburb to a place that seems more connected more alive. Even if the city is modest in scale, there’s some hope for discovering your inner Brooklyn. In this, fleeing to the city appears to be a turning of the back on the suburb. Offhand, this implied judgement seems to generate much of the heat in the discussion.

    Second, isn’t there a fleeing to the suburb, as well? The move is not simply to claim a place of one’s own, but often to create a bit of a distance between home and other social problems (e.g. schools, crime etc). The move to the suburb has a whiff of class distinction to it, and sometimes even stronger whiffs of race. The suburb becomes a place where we intend to be safe, secure. Of course, the fleeing to the chic urban neighborhood can participate every bit in the same class distinctions — it’s not called gentrification for a reason.

    In both movements, there is an element of spiritual instability, a sense that some place will make us safer, more secure, better. I would think the challenge is to settle, to bless the place where we are since only then, with that proper stability, can we then see the neighbor we otherwise overlook.

    • Eugene Scott

      Matt, I thought your post was very helpful. I appreciated it more than I can communicate.

      I appreciate wmrharris bringing up the topic of flight.

      For me personally, the historical issue of flight to the suburbs and how I believe it is too often ignored in the articles ‘defending the suburbs.’ I am increasingly open to not unfairly villainizing suburbia, but quite frankly, all of the ‘what did we ever do to the city’ is just harmful revisionist history.

      I’m not saying that there aren’t wrong reasons to ‘flee’ to the city. I’m just not convinced that when we look at the numbers – particularly over history – that we’re seeing these fleeing to the city trends in the same numbers as the historical fleeing to the suburbs.

  • wmrharris

    Here’s another piece to add to the puzzle: Rust Belt chic. It’s the magic of the found place. As Jim Russell wrote:

    “Rust Belt Chic turns the traditional notion of Rust Belt on its head.
    The Rust Belt is lower class, impoverished, slapdash, and shallow. At least, that’s how it looks from the coast, in New York City. Rust Belt Chic as a place to be is a form of resistance.”

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