“I’m not interested in the suburbs. The suburbs bore me. And I’m not interested in isolating myself.”
As James Lileks wrote in 2000:
I’m reading, for review purposes, “Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.” (Someday I want to write a book called “Subtitle Overkill: the Pointless Elongation of Book Titles and the Difficulty of Remembering All the Words.”) I face the same conundrum every time I grapple with the New Urbanist model – I agree with every argument about the aesthetics of suburban development; I deplore the barren landscape of post-war suburban America, and I completely, utterly distrust anyone else who agrees with me.
This book regards suburbia as the equivalent of a Chemlawn gulag, a vapid archipelago into which Americans have mutely filed like sheep to the abbatoir. The authors hold up Alexandria, Virginia as a model for urban living – everything’s pedestrian-accessible, human-scaled, with mixed-use blocks and definable urban centers. All true. But I remember the apartment we looked at in Alexandria. It was twice the size of the room in which I now sit. And that included the kitchen, the bathroom, the living room, the bedroom, and a back porch. The ceilings were low, the stairs as narrow as a gnat’s urethra. I recall a friend’s apartment – the bedroom had room for the bed. That was it. A bed. Two people could not live in that place – well, they could, but only if no one wore nappy fabrics, because you’d get rugburn from rubbing against each other all the time. Now, if you want that – and it had its charm, once you stepped outside – then fine. It’s yours. But not everyone wants that. And here’s the dilemma: if the suburbs are such a horror, and inner-city life a clearly superior option, why do people live in the burbs?
I was thinking of this as I watched the end of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” last night; at the end, the movie turns into an anti-sprawl tract, of all things. In the curious mythology of our freedom-encumbered age, the post-war vision of freeways and big back yards has curdled into a dark plot imposed on people, not an option freely chosen. It all goes back to the streetcars, of course; once the shadowy forces of evil did away with loveable old Thomas the Tank Engine and poked us into autos , it’s been all downhill, Toontown traded for Toys ‘R Us. (Sniff.)
“The problem with suburbia,” says this book, “is that it is not functional: it does not serve society or preserve the environment.”
Hmm. Well, leave aside the environmental issue. Serve society? It serves the people who make up society, or they wouldn’t live there. People make rational decisions: I will give up X amount of hours in travel time to live in a place where I have a big yard, easy access to a wide variety of goods and services, and personal safety. As for me, I live in the city because I prefer to live around history, around scenic beauty, and because I am comfortable with this level of density. DC had history and scenic beauty, but it was too fargin’ dense for me; I left. Do I judge those who stay, who like it? No. Do I regard that particular model, with tall buildings full of people who don’t know each other, as “good for society?” Not necessarily. It all depends.
But I’m not going to pass laws to prohibit people from living in apartment buildings. Nor would I object to a municipality changing its zoning codes to prohibit large-lot developments, if that’s what the citizens of that town desire. Likewise, let them ban dense developments. I don’t care. I have no right to impose my urban standards on someone else – even though I’m generally right. As with all wedge issues: better to persuade through example.
The book frowns on gated communities, of course, because they’re exclusionary. Conversely, they praise urban developments with dense housing – which include, I presume, apartment buildings with doormen and security systems. Driving past a guard booth or getting buzzed up via intercom – what’s the difference? “The unity of society is threatened not by the use of gates, but by the uniformity and exclusivity of the people behind them.” Oh, blow it out your ass. Doctors will never live next to janitors. The streets of New York are full of people from all walks, races, creeds, colors; they are the antithesis of a gated sprawling suburban development. Does this mean that doctors invite their housekeepers to their parties? Or that racist morons cannot be forged in a big city? “A child growing up in such a homogeneous environment is less likely to develop a sense of empathy for people from other walks of life, and is ill prepared to live in a diverse society.” Boolsheet! If this is the case, then we’d best forcibly integrate North Dakota, right now. And Cabrini Green, as long as we’re at it. Make them more like Brooklyn. Why, everyone who was ever raised in Brooklyn is perfectly prepared to live in a diverse society; naught but harmony reigns in the boroughs.
This sort of fatuous moralizing can be found at the heart of most anti-suburban tracts, and it’s why I distrust the general idea. There are millions of Americans living happy lives in affluent comfort,never troubled by the aroma of cabbage wafting in from a neighbor’s window, never knowing the communal experience of being awakened at 4 AM by a siren and knowing that everyone else in the building is up as well, and this fact just galls some people. All that space . . . all that room . . . all those things! It just can’t be right.
In the authors’ “Eight Steps of Regional Planning,” the first step is: “Admit that growth will occur.”
Yes, friends, bite down and swallow hard: growth will occur. Admit it. In the future we can institute a one-child policy, but not yet. Think I’m exaggerating? I just discovered the title of chapter 11 in this book: “What is to be done.” Surely they know who made that phrase famous. Surely they know the author of that particular tract. You don’t sling that phrase around unless you’re confident the audience will appreciate the reference.
Maybe the authors were big Diane Watson fans.