April 04, 2004

Suburbia

David Brooks apologizes for the suburbs:

The reality is that modern suburbia is merely the latest iteration of the American dream. Far from being dull, artificial and spiritually vacuous, today's suburbs are the products of the same religious longings and the same deep tensions that produced the American identity from the start. The complex faith of Jonathan Edwards, the propelling ambition of Benjamin Franklin, the dark, meritocratic fatalism of Lincoln -- all these inheritances have shaped the outer suburbs.

Which prompted a (check out the pictures) response from Crescateer Amanda Butler:

I'm a college student: I sympathize with the desire for cheap towels of better quality than the ones you get in a Motel 6. But it's not the old-field pines that are encroaching today. Instead it's the new housing developments and McMansions where there are no trees left worth speaking of. Maybe they'll look ok in another thirty years. But until then, I want to either live somewhere where the neighborhood trees are tall (as is the one towering outside the window of my second-floor apartment) or I want there to be places to escape to where there just are no neighborhoods, only trees. I want to go some place where cell phones just don't work [but I've got my broad band internet access]. God help us if there's never a West to go to. Where will we go when we want to flee, when we want to be reassured that all of America isn't like the place that we currently find ourselves hating?

Brooks, the suburban apologist, explains the suburbs as a product of a "paradise spell" and a "fruition myth." We have suburbs because we dream of better things. Butler emphasizes the other side of this coin, in a way that's more to my taste: we have suburbs because we hate our current lives, and wish to flee.

Brooks' vision inspires (if that's the right word) quietism and acceptance. His description of suburban reality may allow for lampooning and sarcasm, but Brooks leaves no room for real criticism. The most greedy, selfish, thoughtless, repugnant, stupid, and lazy behavior becomes for Brooks just a quaint side-effect of an American Utopianism that has made us the greatest nation on Earth and under God.

Butler's vision is by far the more responsible. It allows us in certain cases to say to the people of Suburbia: "Stop. Your utopianism is irresponsible. You need to clean up your own mess before you simply flee to somewhere else."

I don't want to put words in Butler's mouth. But I don't have to; her approach to suburbia allows for a reasoned debate about the pros and cons of the suburban way of life. Brooks, by equating suburbia with every success America has ever had, implies that if you bitch about the suburbs, you're really bitching about Mom, Apple Pie, Antibiotics, and a Rising Standard of Living.

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EDIT: Kevin Drum writes a fascinating post about this topic, with statistics that let you see into the world of urban planners and commercial developers.

Posted by Carey at April 4, 2004 07:53 PM
Comments

For the most thorough rebuke of the suburbs available, see James Howard Kustler's books ("Geography of Nowhere") and web site (kunstler.com) and blog(clusterf*ck nation).

I'm curious to see how he'll respond to Brooks.

Posted by: Nick Genes at April 4, 2004 08:44 PM