Why Do We Hate the Suburbs?

I wonder if the only reason we think suburbs are bad is because we were told they were bad and we believed it.

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?

Anthony Bradley struck a nerve in his probing post on the dysfunctions of Evangelical twenty-somethings. He blames two salient ideas: the “missional narcissism” of the Radicals and the anti-suburban dictates of the Metro-Evangelicals. Both trends are animated by the conviction that the comfortable, consumer-driven suburban life of the previous generation of Evangelicals was a travesty. The young people Bradley is encountering are paralyzed for fear that they will recreate their parents’ lifestyle choices and hold down hum-drum jobs in a peaceful ‘burb.

Bradley, while spurring these young folks to action, did not actually defend the suburban lifestyle — chiding the “lukewarm Christians” living in “safety, comfort, and material ease” there — but he just thought that the Radicals and Metro-Evangelicals were overreacting.

In response to Bradley’s mild critique of this reflexive anti-suburbanism, the editors at Fare Forward (HT: Mere-O Notes!) reflexively proclaimed their anti-suburbanism:

[T]here are some things deeply unChristian, and deeply counter to even natural virtue, in the suburbs. . . [A]s 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 lives and ordinary relationships.

In other words, “No, really, suburbs are that bad.”

I am prepared to say the unthinkable: suburbs are good. Stay with me now. While suburbs have suffered decades of derogatory propaganda, there is still much to be commended. In fact, I wonder if the only reason we think suburbs are bad is because we were told they were bad and we believed it.

Hating the Suburbs since 1921
Denigrating suburban living has been a favorite pastime amongst the hip-cool set for almost a century. Joel Kotkin outlines some of this history in a fabulous post on his New Geography blog. Since the 1920’s when Lewis Mumford described the expansion of New York’s outer boroughs as a “dissolute landscape” and “a no-man’s land which was neither town or country” the chattering class has been convinced that suburbia is eternally boring and somewhat sinister. F. Scott Fitzgerald expressed this jazz age sentiment in The Great Gatsby by describing the inferiority of the “bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions.”

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