not all suburbs are soulless


As I've read through the various discussions of pros and cons of living in Brooklyn (spurred by Doug Rushkoff's initial post, and continued in posts by his wife and Steven Johnson), I keep noticing the dismissive way that people who live in city neighborhoods talk about the "soulless suburbs."

It drives me crazy.

People who live in NYC would never assume that the experience of living in Harlem is the same as living in Park Slope, or that Soho is exactly like the Upper East Side. But they're oh-so-ready to assume that every single suburb is exactly the same, all characterized by isolation and lack of community.

Guess what? They're not. They vary as much as city neighborhoods do. Last year we lived in a suburb in Seattle where our neighbors never spoke to us, and we felt isolated in every way. It was a brand-new collection of mini-mansions, and most of the time it looked like a deserted movie set. If that had been my only experience with suburban life, I might have as lopsided a view of the suburbs as many non-city-dwellers have of urban life.

But here in Rochester, we live in a middle-class suburban neighborhood much like the one I grew up in, and I wouldn't trade it for all the brownstones in Brooklyn. We know our neighbors (not all of whom are white), our kids can wander with their friends, and we're not more than 20 minutes from anyplace in the city. (Ten minutes to work. Fifteen to the airport or my mother's house. Twenty minutes to the Eastman Theatre.)

There's no place where you're 100% safe; risk is all around us. I know that. But in this neighborhood I feel completely comfortably letting my kids take off out the front door with no more information than "I'm going to the pond." The worst crime we've experienced in the ten years we've lived here was having our cars egged. Even in winter, neighbors stop to talk while they're shoveling snow, or getting mail from the mailbox--and we don't need neighborhood watch signs posted to look out for each other.

I've lived in city neighborhoods, too. I spent five years on Capitol Hill, in quaint "English basement" apartments and brightly painted row houses. I walked to the local shops and farmer's market, and took the metro to work in Bethesda. It was a great experience. I've lived in rural Alabama--more rural than most of my readers could even imagine. And I've spent some of the most idyllic years of my life in college towns--Ann Arbor and Tuscaloosa--which in many ways marry the advantages of big cities and small towns. There were upsides and downsides to both of those locations, and I have no regrets over having lived in either. Nor do I feel a need to criticize people who still choose to live in those areas even though they didn't work for me (and, more importantly, my family) as a long-term option.

So I have to wonder what it is that makes many city-dwellers so quick to condemn anyone who chooses not to live an urban life--and to consistently paint "the suburbs" as both awful and undifferentiated. Why are they so defensive about their choice, so critical of other options? Why do so many people who choose to live in cities need to be so endlessly snarky about those of us who choose not to?


I think I have the opposite problem - I'm quick to condemn cities and people who live there. I grew up in rural Maine, though close to a good-sized town. And I can't stand cities, for the life of me.

Rochester, though, I don't really have a problem with. It's small enough and rural enough for my tastes, as long as I don't live "in the city".

I don't think I could stand living somewhere like NYC, DC, or Boston. I was on co-op in DC for a few months, and I didn't like it there. I can't stand that much traffic and that many people in one little area.

I'm with you Liz. We recently moved to the Central/Upstate NY area from Austin, TX and have had a lot of raised eyebrows at our choice. Like Seattle, which I love, Austin has received a lot of positive press in recent years, and for us, it just wasn't "all that." Since our first child was born, almost two years ago, we've been itching to get back to the northeast, where we both grew up, and into a smaller, less urban community. We were really shooting for Rochester, but when the jobs didn't come through, we expanded our search and serendipitously ended up in the Ithaca area. We're still adjusting to the fact that it's a smaller city than what we were initially shooting for, but I must say, we haven't looked back yet.

Ted, I spent a year in Waterville, where I had some of the best and worst experiences of my life. It made it clear to me that no matter how much I like the geographic area, the community is the most important thing...and I wasn't a very good fit as a Colby College staff member. :)

But my memories of mist on ponds early on cold November mornings, and of dinners in Boothbay during the off season, are more than worth any negative experiences on the job.

mbm, I love Ithaca!

Hey, this conversation sounds familiar, not unlike one we had on this site two years ago.

I think the key thing about these comments is what kind of suburbia people are talking about. Dolores Hayden's Building Suburbia is a fantastic book that looks at different historical phases in suburban development and shows how they manifest in architecture and spatial development. A streetcar suburb from the early 20th century is something we associate as more urban. Where you live was probably developed post-war and happened at the kind of scale where people can interact on the street and walk places. The flip side of these are the less sustainable exurbs, boomburbs and such and the big box development that tends to accompany them. And there are the gated compounds that circle more and more cities. Setha Lowe's book Behind the Gates looks at places like San Antonio, a sprawling city where every other housing development has a gate, a wall, where the city limits stretch and overfill and farms are cleared for more retail and housing--yet few sidewalks for people.

These are not the kinds of suburbs that you're talking about, Liz. These are the progenitors of sprawl. They rely on multi-auto families, they're scaled to automobiles and not pedestrians, they are driven by developers who only want to make money off the deal, not improve quality of life.

I wrote a chapter in the Worldchanging book called "Retrofitting Suburbia," about these specific issues. How do we densify sprawling burbs, while rehabilitating first ring burbs? There are some nice possibilities out there but many more people choose the kind of sprawl that people refer to when they talk about the soulless suburb.

PS. I'm writing this post from my mom and stepdad's house in Golden Valley, MN, a first ring suburb only 8 minutes from downtown Minneapolis. I was upset when my mom gave up her downtown townhouse in 1998 but quickly came around. It would be wonderful to live here.

Heh. I wondered if anyone would remember that previous thread. The ephemerality of blogs led me to suspect not...thanks for proving me wrong, Molly. :)

I know that suburbs are different--but that's really my point here. Condemning "suburbs" based on the worst examples is like condemning "city life" based on accounts of life in a housing project. It's an easy way to label and reject people based on a shallow understanding of complex experience.

While I know that you understand those nuances, my frustration is with the people who refuse to accept that they exist, who see choices other than their own in absolute terms, and who perpetuate stereotypes based on those inaccurate absolutes. :(

I think you can use the discussion of different types of suburbia to get to the kind of discussion and realizations you want these people to have. Stereotypes are generalizations. Fight generalizations with knowledge and nuance. Ask them, "Which suburbs do you mean?" They're not all created equal.


I'm late to this thread, but I found it in a Yahoo search for "not all suburbs are soulless." Couldn't agree more about the generalizations. I'll go a step further and point out that many of the more modest suburbs provide working-class people with the opportunity to own a home; not always true of many of the inner-city's gentrified areas. Our suburb is racially diverse, peppered with locally-owned businesses and pedestrian-friendly. The dismissive tone with which people speak of the suburbs even smacks of hostility towards the working class from people who don't want to associate themselves with the proletariat. Anyway, thanks for your observations.

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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on January 5, 2007 12:24 PM.

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