The Common Good
July 2007

Jesus of the Cul-de-Sac

by Valerie Weaver-Zercher | July 2007

In a land of asphalt, malls, and picket fences, how do we serve God and neighbor?

In my 20s, I had suburbanites figured out. With a few exceptions, they were status-conscious white folks who had fled the cities because they couldn't stomach sending their children to school with black and brown kids. Radical, justice-seeking Christians, on the other hand, lived either in the city—thus throwing their lot in with the poor as Jesus did—or on farms—thus tending the earth, God's good creation. Suburbia, that rather tedious space between the two, was the home of uncritical and consumptive creatures, with a propensity for megachurches and holiday-themed porch flags.

Then in my 30s I moved there. At first I pretended that my new town, charmingly called a "village" on one sign, wasn't actually a suburb—and it's not, if you don't count the countless small towns being gussied up (and gutted) by sprawl. I convinced myself that my neighborhood of mostly 1960s ranches was fundamentally different from the new subdivisions springing up around it—even though, a few decades ago, my development would have been the offensive new kid in town. "Sprawl is where other people live, the result of other people's poor choices," architectural historian Robert Bruegmann has written.

If suburbia is the largely residential area within commuting distance of a city, however, then here I am: smack-dab in the middle of what has been called "the geography of nowhere." The story of my move to nowhere is a long one—and a rather tired one, actually—about romantic ideals of living in the city knocking up against the realities of raising three small children there. Some would challenge that it's also a narrative of subconscious racism and class privilege, both of which are distinct possibilities. Whatever the truth, suffice it to say that I now know something of the swiftness with which self-righteousness can bake itself into humble pie.

Even if I hadn't been forced to swallow my stereotypes about the monolithic character of suburbia by moving to it, a recent report by the Brookings Institution would have helped me do so. For the first time in U.S. history, more poor people live in the suburbs than in cities (see "Picket-Fence Poverty," page 25). "This 'tipping' of poor populations to the suburbs represents a signal development that upends historical notions about who lives in cities and suburbs," write Alan Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone, the study's authors. In other words: Folks like me better think again.

Frankly, it looks like we can take our time doing so. The suburbs, now home to more Americans than any other environs, aren't going away anytime soon. Whether we approach suburbia with judgment or apathy, snobbery or envy, anger or accommodation, Christians concerned about social justice would do well to consider what living in a suburban nation might mean for their faith.

 

STRIPS, BOOMBURBS, privatopias, edge nodes, exurbia: These are the new vocabulary words of the built environment. In fact, our old lexicon of place isn't very helpful anymore, according to some observers. "Words such as city, suburb, and countryside no longer capture the reality of real estate development in the United States," writes urban historian Dolores Hayden. What do you call the seemingly rural landscape of farms and scenic views an hour from the city—whose residents commute to the city to work and shop? The small town that used to be separated from the city by a thick green ribbon of farmland, but that now is basically just one more exit off the highway? Or the big-box stores and cul-de-sacs that are springing up in rural areas in the Midwest—areas that urban sociologist Robert Lang says are actually more suburban than urban suburbs because "they're born sprawling"?

Even if certain distinctions still exist, "every place—city, country, suburb—is more diverse than we generally like to imagine," says Al Hsu, author of the recent book The Suburban Christian. The increasing complexity of the metropolitan terrain, along with its sprawling ubiquity, raises disturbing questions for Christians who live there. If where we live forms who we are, and if where we live is largely commercial, alienated, status-driven, and car-dependent, is it even possible to be a faithful Christian here? Was my 20something instinct correct: that justice-seeking Christianity can only be practiced in the few remaining places that are either clearly "wilderness" or "city"?

Hsu doesn't think so. He and the authors of two other recent or forthcoming books on Christianity and the suburbs (David Goetz in Death by Suburb and Will and Lisa Samson in Justice in the Burbs) suggest that suburbia, while potentially dangerous to one's faith commitments, can also be, in Hsu's words, a "crucible … [in which] to learn the Christian disciplines of self-denial, simplicity, and generosity." Each of these authors examines answers to the question that Will Samson articulated in a recent interview: "What does it mean to be followers of Jesus after the death of the suburban narrative?"

This story of suburbia, forged in post-World War II optimism about economic betterment, security, land ownership, and social mobility, holds mythic power in Americans' imagination. People move to the suburbs for a host of reasons, but the move almost always represents a "spiritual quest," according to Hsu, with suburbia as "the setting for the fulfillment of people's hopes and dreams." Several generations into the experiment, some suburbanites aren't buying the story anymore. It didn't take Desperate Housewives to convince Americans that the suburbs are often sites of profound despair, social alienation, and hollow status-seeking; many suburbanites were figuring it out for themselves.

The authors of the three recent books on Christianity and the suburbs enumerate these general suburban ills, as well as the specific barriers to Christian discipleship that suburban lifestyles present. While warning against oversimplifying the suburbs as materialistic and homogeneous, Hsu names temptations that tend to flourish in its environs: individualism, brand-consciousness, and overconsumption of natural resources, to name a few. Goetz lists what he calls suburbia's "environmental toxins," such as "I want my neighbor's life" and "I am what I do and what I own." Will and Lisa Samson suggest that the very structure of suburbia is built to keep people isolated from each other and from people in need. Even though the numbers of people in poverty in the suburbs is increasing, thanks to zoning and segregated housing patterns their situations remain relatively hidden from their more privileged neighbors.

None of these authors, however, has given up hope that Christians can live faithfully within the suburbs. All of them offer suggestions for ways to seek justice within the context of suburbia, tasks that Will Samson calls "very deep, countercultural work." Hsu suggests several ways to "redeem" the suburbs: living near where you work, worshipping near where you live, extending hospitality to your neighbors, supporting urban and global ministries, and consuming less and in more socially conscious ways. Goetz outlines spiritual practices—such as cultivating silence, building deep and meaningful friendships, and cultivating relationships with those who have less—that counteract the toxins of suburbia. "You want to be really radically countercultural in the suburbs?" asks Will Samson. "Go to your neighbors and church community and tell them, 'I think I'm going to live here until I die. I'm not looking for other options.'" In a culture of mobility, in which "upgrading"—of computers, houses, jobs, or spouses—is an assumed right, simply staying put can be a witness, says Samson.

Such attempts to live Christianly in the suburbs have gotten short shrift in some circles, according to Jenell Williams Paris, professor of anthropology at Messiah College. "Living in the suburbs can be an exercise in humility," she says. "It is an unremarkable place to live. Your attempts to care for struggling people may get fewer accolades from fellow Christians [than people who work in the city]."

Noel Castellanos, associate executive director of the Christian Community Development Association in Chicago, agrees. Only about 10 percent of CCDA's member organizations do poverty work in the suburbs, with the rest located in urban areas. "For many years, they [the nonprofits in the suburbs] felt like they were not completely legitimate CCDA folks because they weren't in the city," he says. The recent Brookings study may help update that aging paradigm. "There used to be a sense among some Christians that work with the urban poor is the only legitimate ministry," says Castellanos. "That is changing."

T HERE IS ANOTHER, much bleaker approach to the suburbs. Not as a place of opportunity for service or ministry, nor as a stimulating site of increasing economic and cultural diversity. Not as a crucible in which to learn spiritual disciplines, nor as a place possible to be "redeemed" at all. Suburbia, in this view, looks more like a place from which to flee. Without looking back.

American suburbs are for the most part "unreformable," according to James Howard Kunstler, one of suburbia's most forceful critics. In his book The Geography of Nowhere, Kunstler writes that suburbia is characterized by a "lack [of] any sense of community, housing that the un-rich cannot afford to live in, a slavish obeisance to the needs of automobiles and their dependent industries at the expense of human needs, and a gathering ecological calamity that we have only begun to measure." Kunstler holds out little hope for proposals that suggest ways to retrofit suburbs into mixed-use, walkable communities, or for alternative fuels that would make the car-dependent nature of suburbia a more sustainable prospect. Suburban sprawl has also stripped a generation of the knowledge of how to invest a place with meaning, he claims. "The culture of good place-making, like the culture of farming … is a body of knowledge and acquired skills," Kunstler writes. "It is not bred in the bone, and if it is not transmitted from one generation to the next, it is lost." Unless Americans return to local economies, sustainable energy sources, and community-scale living patterns, he says, the country will pay dearly.

Jeremiads like Kunstler's can do several things, including energizing the movement for better zoning and planning and challenging suburbanites to bike or walk to work and run errands—or move to where they can. Such dire prophecies can also oversimplify the increasingly diverse and ever-shifting terrain known as suburbia; their undisguised antipathy toward the suburbs can also fuel the very detachment from the land that they lament. Do the suburbs really lack any sense of community and place? Do young people raised in the suburbs invest no meaning in the communities and landscapes in which they grew up? Or, as Robert Bruegmann writes in his controversial new book, Sprawl: A Compact History, can "one person's sprawl [be] another's cherished neighborhood"?

Critiques of the suburbs like Kunstler's are necessary, says Hsu and Samson, but they lack one important element: hope. "The difference is that we as Christians have a theology of redemption," says Hsu. "There is hope for the suburbs, just as there is hope for the city and hope for the country." Will Samson is optimistic that suburban Christians are developing what he calls—incongruously enough—an "indigenous suburban" ethic, characterized by a commitment to living more locally.

The question remains of how to care about places infamous for their placelessness, of how to commit to communities known for their lack of community. The suburbs as we know them may someday collapse under the weight of their own myopia and overconsumption, and some aspects of them will deserve a hearty good riddance.

In the meantime, however, many suburban Christians will be figuring out how to practice our faith and love our neighbors in a land of asphalt and malls and cul-de-sacs. We'll be testing out whether we can be in the suburbs but not of them, and wondering endlessly whether we're striking the right balance.

Valerie Weaver-Zercher is a writer and editor in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

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