The suburbs in the moral imagination

It stands to reason that the outward shape of human communities reflect the inner qualities of those who live in them.  Think of the banlieus around Paris:  the government declared normalcy when only 100 cars were being burned each night.  Material wreckage in such quantities requires a considerable moral shipwreck among the people.

What is it, then, about the American suburbs that ignites such loathing and indignation?  I live in the suburbs.  I’ve lived in the suburbs my whole life.  What kind of inner qualities do they reflect?

The suburbs are orderly.  They are tidy.  But they are also free and easy:  kids walk around them without fear of harm.  Women go jogging at night.  On any given stroll, I see hoop-shooters, leaf-blowers, ball-players, baby-strollers, dog-walkers, lawn-mowers, car-washers, and others strolling idly like myself.  They smile and say hi, or frown and ignore me, as they see fit.  They are busy people, even when relaxing.  They are American-born and foreign-born, but all are masters of their universe, displaying a diffident certainty that no one will lord it over them, or assault them, or steal their livelihood.

They are my neighbors.  They are good people.

So why the loathing?  This article begins with a long recitation of the suburbs in literature, from Babbitt to Cheever, and in the movies, from Edward Scissorhands to American Beauty.  The gist of it:  suburbanites are loveless, materialistic, and repressed.  In a word:  inauthentic.  We fail the Nietzsche test.  After rejecting these old stereotypes, the article embraces a latter-day one:  suburbanites, makers of sprawl and frequenters of “hideous malls,” have indulged in “the most destructive development pattern the world has ever seen…”  We fail the Gaia test, too.

I don’t really have an explanation.  Artists and intellectuals hate suburbs for reasons that have much more to do with the artists and intellectuals than with the suburbs.  The funny thing is, my neighbors never worry about this.  Suburbanites don’t agonize about being surburbanites.  One never hears them railing against the inner city or the countryside, or moralizing about their well-clipped lawns.  That would make them inauthentic.  They are far too hard-working, too busy, too active for that.

And if an urge to wax moralistic ever tempts them, they drive their SUVs across six-lane highways to some immense mall, buy another leaf-blower, and go home happy.


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