Reconsidering Suburbia

Not everybody who moves to the suburbs wants to build a gargantuan McMansion and live the full-consumerist lifestyle. Not everyone who chooses to live in the city is driven by morally pure motives; they could be refusing one kind of consumerist narcissism for the sake of embracing a more attractive version of same.

Anthony Bradley, writing at the Acton Institute blog, observes a worrying trend among Christian Millennials:

I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and youth adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not being doing something unique and special. Today’s Millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential. The sad result is that many young adults feel ashamed if they “settle” into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thess 4:11 says, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.” For too many Millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.

He calls this “the new legalism.” Responding to this, Evangelical site FareForward, the editors connect The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming to a broader movement among younger Evangelicals to reject suburban life:

But, as the buzz around Rod Dreher’s latest book on moving home, a lot of the anti-suburban sentiment comes from people who support small town living just as much as from those who support city living. And the thing that unites the city and the country against the suburbs is the belief that the suburbs are not, as a matter of fact, ordinary, natural life, but a strange artificial construct that hinders ordinary live and ordinary relationships (see Seath for more).

In turn, writing at Mere Orthodoxy, Keith Miller challenges this, and questions the hatred among some Evangelicals for the suburbs. He looks for the reasons:

Here are a few of the most prominent Christian objections to living in the suburbs. How many of them hold up to even a slight bit of scrutiny?

  • Suburbs are inauthentic: I confess to not quite understanding what this means. Yes, suburban things are often newer and feature less exposed brick, but how is that a moral argument?
  • Suburbs are consumeristic: No more than large cities.
  • Suburbs are morally repressive: Wait, overt exhibition of immorality is a good thing?
  • Suburbs lack diversity: The most diverse places in the country are suburbs.
  • Suburbs are full of a lot of Evangelicals who vote Republican: Oh, wait, now we      are getting somewhere…

So, what do I think of all this, as the author of Crunchy Cons, and now Little Way?

Crunchy Cons took a pretty hard line against suburban living, one that I’m not as comfortable with today. Why? Because as someone who used to live in big cities, and who now lives in a small town, I’ve become more understanding of why someone with a family would choose to live in the suburbs.

As you may recall, we lived in New York City when we had our first child. Brooklyn was fantastic. We moved to Dallas before we had more kids, and the desire to start a bigger family was part of our decision. We just couldn’t afford more kids in New York City, not on a journalist’s salary, and not if we wanted to be able to save money for the future. Life was very pleasant in NYC with one child, but not stable; much of the time, we were only a couple of paychecks from serious financial trouble, and the cost of living was so great in the city that we couldn’t see any prospect of improving our lot significantly.

Dallas was a different story. We were able to afford a neat little house in a gentrified neighborhood. Using church schools and homeschooling made that possible, though; if we hadn’t been able to afford those options, we would have been in a difficult spot, given our unease (justified or not) with the public school situation. What’s more, as much as we loved where we lived, I had to reckon with the fact that seeing the occasional gang tag, and hearing the occasional late-night gunshot in the near distance, made me wonder from time to time about the wisdom of our choice.

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