Some have pressed upon me to define what I mean by suburbia. They realize the slippery nature of the reality I'm pointing too; furthermore, they think that some if not many of my generalizations, particularly the moral ones, are imprecise if not mistaken. My claim has been that suburbia, as a "place", embodies and instantiates a host of structures, forms, practices, habits--in other words, a whole ethos--that, as a place and aggregate of buildings, symbols, and relations, is virtually inimical to human flourishing, to the culture of life. On the contrary, my interlocutors have said, it is not that bad, and beyond this, a much more muddled reality that just cannot admit of such universal claims. Moreover, cities are really not so rosey after all, often dangerous, polluted, and containing just as many occasions that can corrupt and make an excellent holy life quite difficult, not to mention, raising a family.
Alright. I admit that I have been indulging in generalizations. Here is a sketch toward a definition (rather than a precise definition), perhaps too ranging and even rambling, but here it goes:
True enough, "suburb" is such a fluid concept that generalizations may do more harm than good.
Then again, the concepts "urban," "city," "farm," "ex-urb," "neighborhood," "street," "household," "home," even "family" could be said to admit the same fluidity and imprecision. In discussing "place," because it by nature can admit of so much difference and variation even within agreed upon boundaries, general terms and descriptions will always remain imprecise.
The neighborhood the blogger the reluctant lawyer
lives in, as far as I can tell, sounds pretty good. It certainly sounds better than Georgetown. And as he seems to know, often these scenarios involve making the best of a geography that is prior to our wishes and preferences. The choice of a home is more often the consequence of factors like affordability, proximity to extended family or workplace, simple availability, quality of local parish and diocese. Yes, granted.
And if by "suburb" we mean Nassau county, I believe it is possible to raise a holy family that engages and evangelizes the neighborhood and culture. If we mean Queen Anne Hill, Seattle, I think it may happen there too. Anne Arundel and Calvert counties. Yes, it's possible.
The question is: are we merely concerned with the possible here? Or does discussion of the better, the more propitious, the beneficial, carry important weight? In the day to day decisions of the family, these criteria seem quite operative. Should we buy just any bread for peanut butter sandwiches? The cheapest? Least amount of calories? Tastiest? What, after all, do we want in bread for our children? How about clothing? Is it arbitrary? Should I allow my daughter to wear what most of her peers wear, so she can be popular? Should I even encourage her at all in her choices here? Or is it better to give her a credit card with a $500 limit and simply let her exercise her freedom and responsibility on her own at the Mall?
These are rhetorical examples, but I think, fair ones. In either case, the options are often limited by the practical exigencies of life. And yet, Catholic families often feel called to stretch themselves beyond such demands, not simply content to do what is easiest, or even, most practical; they often make sacrifices, even heroic ones, for the sake of greater goods. Good Catholic families do this all the time. Such practical reasoning becomes intuitive for them. The question, are we simply doing this because everyone else does, because the culture or media simply accepts it as normative? needs to be asked. I can think of choices many of my friends have made in childrearing, for instance, against the norm, often provoking misunderstanding and tension with relatives, doctors, whomever.
The first point I wish to make is simply, the choice we make of where to live, of what sort of buildings and symbols to surround ourselves with, of the communities we will be a part of, etc. are decisions we make based on criteria that may or may not reflect our desire to flourish as human beings, and form our families in an atmosphere of influence that is most conducive to holiness, innocence, joy, etc. These choices concerning "place" are usually not completely forced upon us. The question then remains, what criteria are
The question of whether to live in the city, the suburbs, a small town, or the country (and the thousand points inbetween) is an important one.
Considering the options, there are probably even better categories that might elucidate what is really at stake in this choice.
1. Natural vs. artificial communities. Towns and cities are in fact subject to a kind of organic structure, and reflect (or not) the natural growth and bonds that happen in human communities. Of course, a town must start somewhere, from scratch. But I do not think it is a revelation to suggest there is a difference of kind rather than degree from a town that grows naturally to one that is planned abstractly in advance and then sieved open to a mass influx emigrants.
2. Single zoning vs. Mixed zoning. Is the community exclusively residential, with commercial opportunities not within walking distance? Does the local industry (if there is even one) demand ever greater time away from home? Does the residential and commercial structure of the town bear an intrinsic relationship to the commerce and industry of the community? Is art, trade, commerce and production made a more intimate part of household life through close proximity?
3. Beauty vs. Ugliness. Are the buildings all of a certain cookie-cutter design. Are they ideologically subversive? Do they tend to depress and make weary? Or are they diverse and interesting, reflecting ingenuity and creativity? Do they inspire? Is their function symbolically attendant in their architecture, or is it contrarily subverted by minimalist designs? Is nature properly integrated into the community? Are there fields to play on, trees to sit under, is there water to relax by? Are parks an important part of the town? Or is it a concrete circuit-board? Does the town convey the importance of tradition and continuity with the past, or is it gauche and trendy, pointing toward the ephemeral?
4. Pedestrian vs. Automobile. Does the town encourage walking, personal interaction with neighbors, does it make easier time spent outdoors. Are their benches and nice places to sit and talk. Are their places for festivals, fairs, markets? Or is the community catered toward the automobile, toward entering and exiting as expediently as possible, where the only options remain staying inside, in cars, or out of town?
These are merely examples of other categories. And I think cities, small towns, rural communities, maybe even suburbs, could be divided along such lines.
The point is not a kind of community or town as such, simply for the sake of that structure. It is: what is needed and important in a community, in a place, and where is this found and acquired?
As to suburbia, I would offer two definitions. First, as a kind of district or structure that entails planned housing over a large scale, without significant structural diversity, according to maximum affordability for the consumer and maximum profit for the developer, built on the edges of a traditional city, whether right outside or some distance away, but far enough that commercial and industrial opportunities will demand solely vehicular access, save for closer mini-malls (although these too will usually not be in walking distance), that themselves follow a similar model and aesthetic as the suburb. The homes in suburbs generally conform to the desirable model of an orderly, spaced-out interior that maximizes both convenience and ease of construction, oriented more toward a ratio of a large living and room and kitchen with less room for a plurality of bedrooms, constructed out of materials that are cheap and mass-produced and quickly assembled. The house usually must have a large garage and driveway, and most importantly, a significant front yard and even larger backyard. The backyard should be fenced.
Ex-urbs and McMansions capitalize on some of these mentioned features, to the detriment of others, imagining a kind of pseudo-estate, but for the most part still sharing the most significant essential features of the suburb.
Obviously, any one of these features may be present in any other model; as a whole, I do not think the architectural definitions are as important.
The second definition would be the one I principally intend: suburbia as a moniker for a kind of ethos that has a inspiring form or logos, a deeper meaning in which it shares in. Suburbia in this sense is the cultural identification, particularly narrowed and symbolically referred to in its buildings, social practices and behavior, values and even worldview that sums up the individualist, materialist, and hedonist bourgeois culture that most Americans aspire to. It is the dominant culture form expressed in pop culture, in television, movies, and other media. As an idea or form it is easily recognizable or identifiable by most media-conscious people, although it can admit a wide degree of difference as to particular instantiations. Wherever it sets in however, it tends to minimize difference, operating as a kind of pressure. It conceives of man as first of all an individual, who is first and foremost concerned with himself, with satisfying his own dreams and desires. It views the family as a means to this kind of satisfaction. It also sees man primarily as a consumer, and tends to reduce any kind of relationship to a "what will I get out of this" instrumentalization. It is deeply rooted in the myth of the American dream, and took its first actual instantiation in the suburbs that were built for the WWII generation of the late 40s and the 1950s. In the form of suburbia this dream became something life, wanting a house of one's own with a yard and fences where one could pursue whatever satisfactions that were available. Decorations and toys became extensions of this house, whether the barbecue or the pool or the wet bar or the big-screen TV. The maximum insulation of private space for the enjoyment of diverting activities, diverted from the boredom and inanity of the daily job. Viewing the self as necessarily entailing a host of relationships of dependency, in a family larger than the nuclear model, seeing labor as something worth doing for its own sake, not just for the sake of disposable income and vacations--the suburban ethos resists a traditional understanding of man vigorously in its alliance with marketing and television, which promote this reductionistic view of man.
Suburbia implies that man is better off insulated from his community. It symbolizes this by an actual physical insulation. Automobiles do the same thing. It may be the case that strangers don't speak to each other on trains, but as anyone who has lived in Europe and used local transit there (e.g. Rome), even if you don't talk to them, you can't ever forget who your neighbors are. In suburbia, that is precisely what is encouraged. Suburban man finds himself more and more alone. Consumerism has made the buying of stuff out to be the greatest reward of labor. As many philosophers have pointed out, it is a sickness that is cyclical and endemic. Suburbia puts a premium on convenience, and so old people are hidden away in retirement homes. The poor are rarely seen. What the suburbs reinforce is that what is most important is what you can buy, that time by yourself is most important, that things and stuff and "having" are more important than serving and giving and receiving. Life should cater to relaxation, to the automobile, and to the job--the three all serve each other, and are the greatest things we can achieve. This is the narrative, the story that the suburbs speak. And the message is heard loud and clear by the children growing up in them.
I think I could go on and on. Wikipedia also mentions some sociological consequences of suburbs:
- Lead to the decay of central cities and their downtowns, which are left without a base of nearby middle-class residents.
- Quickly destroy cropland, displace nature, and consume attractive countryside.
- Increases traffic at the central area.
- Cause a decline in the public's health, since buildings in suburbs are often so far apart that driving is the only way to get from one place to another.
- Costly, due to the new infrastructure required for development, paid by the existing urban area.
- Provide a limited set of housing choices.
- Building more soulless places with no distinct identity or feeling of community.
Perhaps this is not what some wanted; I admit I'm ranging widely and not really nailing the causes and specific difference. I do think something like Suburbia is tougher to nail down. It clearly isn't simply equivalent with the culture of death. I would want to distinguish it from elitism, whether of the urban/professorial intelligentsia, or the Hollywood/ultra-rich aristocracy. It is more along the lines of David Brooks's Bobo's in Paradise (bohemian bourgeoisie); however, I feel it is even more populist than that. In a way it's so common now that it's hard to even imagine how things could be different. Of course, historically, it is radically different. Providers working away from the household; families limited to the nuclear household; the evisceration of towns and urban centers; the virtual disappearance of gardening as farming, as something as common then as surfing the internet is now.
I could just say culture of death, but I think that this is reduced in most people's minds as simply a moral or political problem. Like, the problem is people voting pro-choice, or having abortions, or doing drugs, or pre-marital sex, whatever. But I really think this is symptomatic. The deeper problem is the normative culture that most Americans share, one that is dominated by consumerist, hedonist, and materialist designs, that is remarkably self-(and not family and town) centered, that is typically alienated from its labor and work, and that is preoccupied more and more with the media and technopolic divertisments. "Suburbia" puts a clear face on the problem, an easily recognizable symbolic meaning. Unfortunately in most people's understanding it is fairly innocuous and benign as well. Hardly. It is a culture consumed by money, sex, and power, and nearly unconcerned if not ignorant of traditional religion, piety (toward the family), art, and labor. These are a conceptualization of the reality that we are very much immersed in, a culture that is deeply sick in so many ways. I suppose I don't need to convince anyone that we are living in a culture of death; what is being debated is whether this culture of death has anything to do with suburbia. Or is suburbia something neutral, like slate versus tin roofing, or oil versus acrylic paint for kitchens? My claim is that suburbia, as the aggregate of various symbols, particularly buildings and practices, that typically supports a kind of structured place or community, is perhaps the deepest cause of this culture of death. And this aggregate is not arbitrary, but has a sort of organic structure that flows from certain principles and embodied realizations of those principles that have become so common they are rarely even questioned.
(Perhaps literature can emphasize this better. John Updike has been the great chronicler of suburbia and the post-war bourgoeis dream, from Rabbit Run
to his last creeping novels, like Villages
. Great prose, but sad and depressing and ultimately nihilistic. But at least honest.)
In a word, suburbia is the lived and symbolic instantiation of a culture that lives as if God did not exist.
Finally, I choose the moniker "suburban" because I think the deepest nature of these problems concerns the family, the home, and labor/the workplace, all of which suburbia explicitly sought to transform from their pre-WWII models in America and did, so much so, that we can barely recognize America in old literature and movies. Eric Jacobsen has noted this:
Before the Second World War, there were no retirement homes because a person could fully participate in our society without the necessity of operating an automobile. In most neighbourhoods, grocery stores, laundromats, barbers, and coffee shops were all within walking distance of homes. There were no "soccer moms" because ball fields were distributed among the neighbourhoods of a community, and kids could walk to them. Public spaces (parks, plazas, squares, and sidewalks) used to have priority in commercial and residential developments and gave a sense of harmony and order to distinct areas. Young and old used to enjoy informal contact in non-commercial public spaces because there were interesting places to walk and sidewalks upon which they could walk.
We've forgotten these things because we have spared no expense and made every allowance for the automobile and its seductive promise of mobility, power, and freedom. We've seen the promise of auto utopia unravel before us in the form of an endless sprawl of tract home developments, mega stores, and subdivisions. But we've been at a loss as to how to escape this decline because we have forgotten so much about how we used to build community on a human scale. We've settled for a kind of resigned acceptance of this dismal trajectory.
And I believe the primary response to these problems needs to be an in-formed one, an incarnational one. I most definitely do not think the answer is, most importantly, just be converted in your heart, and live in the world seemingly detached. I agree there is a part of the Church that says something like this, but I think the reasons behind it are more Platonist and gnostic, and are content with a sort of separation of nature and grace that would leave the explicitly religious as supernatural and the everyday, the mundane, the temporal as natural and passing.
It is necessary to have a converted heart, but I think this always/already entails an incarnated reality, that is, it flows from an embodied gift, reception, and commitment. But that is still not even sufficient.
Pope Paul VI said: "The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the tragedy of our time." Therefore, "every effort must be made to ensure a full evangelization of culture, or more correctly, of cultures. They have to be regenerated by an encounter with the Gospel. But this encounter will not take place if the Gospel is not proclaimed."
And by proclaimed I take it to mean more than simply a vocal offering. Modern man must be confronted by a new culture, a new Christian culture of life, he must be confronted by its forms and symbols and practices and structures. The New Evangelization precisely means this: the rebuilding and transformation of a new Christian culture.
Alasdair MacIntyre said that "beliefs are expressed in and through rituals and ritual dramas, masks and modes of dress, the ways in which houses are structured and villages and towns laid out, and of course by actions in general." It is typically Cartesian to limit religion to mere intellectual convictions. Rather, Christianity is a culturally embodied narrative and view of the world. N.T. Wright has some good observations here:
"Worldviews provide the stories through which human beings view reality.... Second, from these stories one can in principle discover how to answer the basic questions that determine human existence; who are we, what are we, what is wrong, and what is the solution.... Third, the stories that express worldviews, and the answers which it provides to the questions of identity, environment, evil and eschatology, are expressed in cultural symbols.... Fourth, worldviews include a praxis, a way-of-being-in-the-world....Worldviews are thus the basic stuff of human existence, the lens through which the world is seen, the blueprint for how one should live in it, and above all the sense of identity and place which enables human beings to be what they are."
Suburbia is a malignant worldview; it is perhaps the prime symbol of the materialist-consumerist secular mainstream American culture, that itself seeks to destroy and alienate the authentic and real cultural fragments that remain.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia defines culture as follows:
"Culture consists of patterns explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiment in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional ideas and especially their attached values; cultural systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other as conditioning elements of further action."
If I may, the culture of death is the more generic definition, particularly in its materialist, individualist, hedonist, and consumerist nature, and suburbia is its most powerful and influential specific instantiation. It is a story, a narrative, an answer to existential questions, a view of man in the world and his obligations therein, and an embodied way of being in the world. Its epitomatic symbols are the automobile, the television, and the shopping mall. It is not the exclusive instantiation of this culture, as cities and corporate farms can embody it as well. But I would see it as the privileged root. No one enjoys the suburbs, for good reason; no one takes vacations to see them, like they do to see towns in old Europe, or New England, or other great urban centers. They are not a natural way to live, and in this culture they are an essential part of the whole bourgeois American dream.
I first arrived at my judgment of suburbia inductively. I think the isolation of man is the greatest sickness of modernity. As Gaudium et Spes
states, "man can only find himself through a sincere gift of himself." It is in community, in serving others, in receiving the gift of another's life and talents, in caring for the young, the sick, the elderly, the handicapped, the suffering, and in turn being cared for, it is there that Christianity really flourishes. I understand that right now
every person, every family cannot pick up and move to a commune, to a L'Arche community, cannot start a Catholic worker community, a Catholic school, etc. But I do believe that what Pope Benedict was talking about with islands and oases were things like those communities. It is from there that the rest of society and the world can be transformed. And I do think it is a both/and. But the founding and constituting of communities in these dark ages, as MacIntyre emphasized, that is the heroic task needed today. And I believe that rejecting the suburban model, and its attendant materialism, consumerism and individualism is paramount. Again, there is no rejecting the culture of death as a mere idea: it is the rejection of its embodied forms, structures, practices, and institutions that is crucial.
Furthermore, we need to think about how "place" matters, as Jacobsen rightly emphasizes:
We need to rethink an eschatology that is not over-influenced by the privatized image of the American dream or by the Edenesque longing for virgin wilderness. We need an eschatology that takes human community (and its built form) seriously. The churches we build, the houses we live in, the stores at which we shop, and the important spatial connections between all these things represent a form of proclamation that we can no longer ignore. It is time for the church to develop a theology of place....
Cardinal Ratzinger had some words of encouragement back in 1986 in the Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation
to those of us who are committed to this task, however difficult, of creating a new culture of life:
The love which guides commitment must henceforth bring into being new forms of solidarity. To the accomplishment of these tasks urgently facing the Christian conscience, all people of good will are called. It is the truth of the mystery of salvation at work today in order to lead redeemed humanity towards the perfection of the Kingdom which gives true meaning to the necessary efforts for liberation in the economic, social and political orders and which keeps them from falling into new forms of slavery.
It is true that before the immensity and the complexity of the task, which can require the gift of self even to an heroic degree, many are tempted to discouragement, scepticism or the recklessness of despair. A formidable challenge is made to hope, both theological and human. The loving Virgin of the Magnificat, who enfolds the Church and humanity in her prayer, is the firm support of hope. For in her we contemplate the victory of divine love which no obstacle can hold back, and we discover to what sublime freedom God raises up the lowly. Along the path which she shows us, the faith which works through love must go forward with great resolve.