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Loving Suburbs

View of City of Sao Paulo, Brazil in May 2009 

Cities can be very crowded and the countryside usually is a bit lonely and lacking cultural services. The ostensible arbiters of taste hate the suburbs.  They critically acclaim crappy movies like “American Beauty” or “Revolutionary Row” that fit into cognoscenti stereotypes of life in the suburbs.   Maybe these wise guys won’t understand, but suburbanites are the happier with their lives than those people who live in small towns or big cities, according to Pew Research.

South Austin Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin September 2009 

You can see some of the variety of options in the pictures.  It goes from the very crowded city of Sao Paulo, Brazil to a leafy and low density City of Milwaukee Street.  Frankfurt, Germany has become a very green city, even though it is in the center of a dense urban zone.  Cities can also be the crowded density of India or the grimy but vital Chicago street. And there are still places in the U.S. were almost nobody lives.  You can see on the picture from my sister's back yard in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek.

Indian street scenes from Milwaukee Public Museum exhibit 

I work in the city, live in the suburbs and spend a lot of time on my farms in rural areas.   Each has its attraction and I would not want to have to choose among them and I don’t have to, so in many ways it is a false choice.  Let me address it anyway.

Street scene in Chicago in September 2009 

The key advantage of the city is that you can walk to the places you need to go, although this advantage is lost on many urban dwellers, since they don’t walk much anyway.  Suburbs are a little too much car culture for me.  Of course, I am a bit spoiled in Washington, which is one of the world’s most pleasant and walkable cities. Washington really isn’t a city.  At least around the Capitol, it is more like a nice park with magnificent monuments and museums.  Who wouldn’t like that?   In many cities these days you cannot really walk around much. 

Chrissy's yard in Oak Creek Wisconsin, but against wetland near the Oak Creek bike trail 

Diversity used to be an advantage of cities, but not anymore.  Today that is an advantage of the near-in in suburbs.  Fairfax County, where I live, is more diverse than Washington DC.   My homeowners’ association has people from all over the world interacting and getting along, which is true diversity.  People in cities tend to have more defined and sometimes antagonistic group identities.   Group identify is not diversity; it is just a kind of standoff.  The suburbs are now doing a better job of breaking down archaic group-think.  I suppose that sort of homogenization is one of the things that offends some people, but I prefer to interact with people, not “representatives.”   Rural areas tend to be less diverse, in my experience, because fewer people are moving in.

Street in Frankfurt AM, Germany in September 2008 

The advantage of the rural areas is space and I love to hike in the big natural areas and I really love MY forests, but absent those things, rural life holds few attractions for me.  The countryside is a place to get away to … and then get away from.  It is not a place I would like to live permanently.  We lived in Londonderry in New Hampshire, which was an interesting exurb.  It has the demographic characteristics of a suburb, but the density of a rural area along with a little bit of a small town. We lived in a kind of cluster development, which I found very pleasant.  I like to see my neighbors, but be able to leave them behind when I want to be alone.  This may be the blueprint for the community of the future.  You can have fairly dense development amid green fields connected to urban amenities.  

The old suburbs, where everybody has a rambler or ranch style house set on a half acre lot are soooo 1950s. The gritty urban environment is too unpleasant and the countryside is too vast.  Put them together, and you have something nice.  I guess that is why I am happy where I am now in Fairfax. Of course, I will be keeping my eyes open for something better.   That is the American way.

Speaking of that, Pew has an article about the middle class (available here) and I read the Economist special report on the growing global middle class (here).   The middle class is also much maligned by the cool ones.  They used to call us bourgeois.   But when you think about it, most of the good values come from the middle class. The poor are too screwed and screwed up to think about the better things in life and the rich are too spoiled and effete to care. 

A good series of articles about suburbs is at this link.  

This middle class guy in the suburbs is feeling okay. A lot depends on not on the location or the life station but on the person.   No matter what how much you make or where you go, you have to live with yourself.  If you don’t like the company, you are out of luck.


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