The Common Good

In Defense of the Suburbs

This past week I was walking home from the school drop-off with a newish friend. Swapping stories about the basics of our lives. Marital status, where we grew up, favorite pastimes. When it came time to exchange the details on all the places we lived before landing in our current community, a contrite little sigh slipped out.

"Well," she exhaled. "We used to live in the city, used to live in Lincoln Park and then Rogers Park, but you know, it came time to move to the burbs once we had our second child."

She was apologetic and somewhat remorseful about living in the suburbs. As if it was an embarrassing accident, a sly little secret that she occasionally let people in on.

This is the same groan I've heard from many suburbanites. Perhaps it is indicative of what many suppose is an unreflective life. It's often assumed that if you have a suburban zip code that you've also lost the part of your soul that cares about issues beyond your fenced in backyard.

Last night I joined a wonderful and uplifting conversation in the city, in Lincoln Park to be exact. A room full of white, swanky 20-30 somethings. Young professionals who love that they can walk to the dry cleaners, pub, Whole Foods, and their favorite bistro. All good things indeed.

The conversation centered on global and local issues of living in true community, knowing neighbors, living in mixed race and mixed economic neighborhoods, advocating for the poor and the planet, living with family and changing culture. All amazing, worthwhile pursuits that, if accomplished, would enhance our world more than any policy handed down from Washington.

And while everyone was polite, there was an overwhelming sense that somehow, suburbia represented most of the issues we are facing today, from climate issues to gentrification. I spoke with an energetic gal who was giddy to have met me until she learned that I had commuted in from the suburbs for the event. She sighed a bit, smiled, and was done chatting with me in under a minute.

And as a defensive suburbanite, I could not help but notice the fact that the room was filled with a homogenous pile of people. All white, most wearing expensive clothing (designed to look like it was not). They had amazing thoughts and ideas so this is not to discredit them, it really was an insightful event. But Lincoln Park is a mostly white, affluent, and fairly transient community. It's sort of an extension of college in many ways. And while most were happy to be there, and honestly, I would be happy to live there too, more than half of that crowd will have moved on to another place within 5 years.

When asked how many of them had moved in the past 3 years, 3/4 of the room raised their hands.

And I could not help but reflect on the fact that I, in my first suburban home (in the town I still live in), had more diversity than that entire room. An African-American family on one side, Polish immigrants on the other. A Mexican and Pakistani family across the street, and Irish family (the husband was actually from Ireland) behind us. When they moved out another African-American family moved in. The home we live in now (less than a mile away from the other) is different but not by much. We played last week with a family from Mumbai/Bombay who lives across the street. A Canadian lives next door to them. Up the street a Chinese family and another family of Indian descent. Elderly folks and newborns up and down the block in each direction.

My hope is for the blaming and bashing of suburbia to end and the beginning of a truly reflective conversation to begin. It is possible to have rich experiences of community, mixed neighborhoods, and a concern for the world while living outside the city. I will be completely honest when I tell you that NONE of my suburban friends are careless or indifferent about the world or their communities. None of them.

They partner with their schools, local charities, they clean up parks, they walk everywhere that they can, they take the train, they take the bus, they know their neighbors, they make meals for people, they babysit one another's kids. they do life together.

And I understand that you will find segregation, over-consumption, and ignorance in the burbs. This is not to excuse these behaviors. But we have to reach a point where we engage suburbanites in the conversation rather than simply sloughing them off as the impossibly ignorant over-consumers. Americans in general fit this description, not just those who chose the burbs. We need to see suburbia as a fertile field for change rather than the receptacle of all things thoughtless.

One last comment, when it comes to whole of urban/suburban life (where statistically 80% of Americans dwell) it seems that we consistently judge those who are farther out from the city. Most who live in the city shrug their shoulders at those in what David Brooks calls the inner-ring burbs. I live in the "inner-ring" where I can hop a train and do not see track housing, so I have snubbed my nose at those in the "exurbs", in track housing without a train station. Those folks can look down on the people building the newest homes on the outer edges of urban sprawl. The ones who "stole" their view of the landscape.

The trick is to start looking in. To ask ourselves what is good about the city or the other suburbs and rural communities around us and start strengthening those things because they make sense, not because they are an urban or suburban thing to do. It's more about making a commitment to live a life of community and connection wherever you are, not about a trendy loft or edgy coffee shop.

And ultimately, I hope the conversation is more about our love for neighbor rather than our disdain for neighborhood. For out of love the greatest sacrifices and commitments are made. Out of disdain we just further alienate and separate ourselves.

portrait-tracey-bianchiTracey Bianchi blogs about finding a saner, greener life from the heart of the Chicago suburbs. She wrote Green Mama: The Guilt-Free Guide to Helping You and Your Kids Save the Planet (Zondervan 2009) and blogs at traceybianchi.com.

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