I’m from a small town. My life began in Southern California suburbs and as I grew older, my family moved further and further from city life every chance we had, until we finally settled in the antithesis of a booming metropolis—Ferndale. Whatever that name might conjure up in your mind, it certainly doesn’t connote skyscrapers, an arts scene, or buzzing cafes and hip bistros; if you picture a cow placidly chewing its cud in a pasture one block from Main Street you’d be just about there.
My love affair with small towns and suburbia came to an abrupt end when I went off to college. Along with studies in philosophy, anthropology, and literature came the suggestion that cities, not suburbs, were the power centers of any nation; more than being cesspools of sin and breeding grounds of vice, cities were the intellectual and influential nodes in the American network. The more time I spent in cities, the more I was taken with not only their beauty, activity, and interesting conglomerations of diversity, but also with their locations in the American fabric. All the city people were telling me that the city life was the good life, and anything worth doing (and anybody worth knowing) was found in the city.
So far so good. What I didn’t notice was that my infatuation with the city was slowly blinding me to the millions of suburban dwellers who had their own take on the issue. More than that, I forgot to notice the far-reaching effects and possibilities of the increases in communications technology. People used to live in cities because the jobs were in the cities. Now, with the increase in powerful communications networks, people were able to do much of the communication they needed over phones and computers without actually going to work in an office.
Enter the exodus. Lots and lots of Americans registered a vote against the “charms” of city life. Rather than put up with the busyness, bustle, noise, dirt, and lack of privacy in the city, they discovered they could sell the cramped Bohemian flats and live just as well, or better, in large suburban ramblers with fruit and shade trees, quiet sidewalks, and friendly neighbors. And so the move began, and it has made its impact felt across our nation and the political landscape.
The surprise victory of Senator Brown in Massachusetts is only one example of how the suburbanites surprised the country when they flexed their muscles. Voter turnout was higher in the suburbs than in the seaboard cities, and the direction of their attentions has now become a nightly news byword. While politicos and pundits scratch their heads and bloviate about the change in the weather, the suburban populations of Massachusetts and the other forty-nine states will most likely continue to vote in ways that will surprise urbanites who have become drunk on the honey of their own crowded hives.
Joel Kotkin reduces the current administration’s infatuation with urban life to a “war against suburbia” and argues that it “reflects a radical new vision of American life which, in the name of community and green values, would reverse the democratizing of the landscape that has characterized much of the past 50 years.”
Whether his language of war is too strident is really beside the point. What is important is to notice the clash between the city and the suburbs. Given the way Americans have been voting with their feet, it seems like foolishness for President Obama and the Democratic Party to push for the liberal fantasies of high-speed rail, green energy policies, and livability and sustainability urban initiatives. Debate the morality and virtues of city and suburban dwellings all day long—the fact remains, Americans like suburbs, and they don’t like being told they are immoral for preferring a single-family home and a car to apartment high-rise and subway.