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The Weekly Standard: Patio Man and the Sprawl People
August 6, 2002 1:48 PM   Subscribe

The Weekly Standard: Patio Man and the Sprawl People
There he is atop the uppermost tier of his multi-level backyard patio/outdoor recreation area posed like an admiral on the deck of his destroyer. In his mind's eye he can see himself coolly flipping the garlic and pepper T-bones on the front acreage of his new grill while carefully testing the citrus-tarragon trout filets that sizzle fragrantly in the rear. On the lawn below he can see his kids, Haley and Cody, frolicking on the weedless community lawn that is mowed twice weekly by the people who run Monument Crowne Preserve, his townhome community.
More inside...
posted by gen (65 comments total)

 
Brooks captures a sobering image of a future America where the current suburbs will be dominated by recent immigrants while the middle-class will move out to these new planned communities. What will be the impact of these shifts? Why do we continually have to be surrounded by people like ourselves? Why can't we appreciate diversity and difference more substantially? What will America look like when every city will be surrounded for hundreds of miles by paved roads and gated communities? Do you live in one of these new cities? Do you aspire to? Is this more of the same suburban flight we saw in the 1950's or is this something new?
posted by gen at 1:48 PM on August 6, 2002


"There is no group in America more conformist than the people who rail against suburbanites for being conformist--they always make the same critiques, decade after decade."

One of a few interesting points in this story. Read it to the end, it's not just another suburbanite-bashing, Rich Vs Poor tirade, it's actually quite informative, and balanced.
posted by Blake at 1:57 PM on August 6, 2002


Why can't we appreciate diversity and difference more substantially?

Because we're friggin idiots, that's why. And assholes, to boot. "Let me get mine, and screw everybody else" is the modern American way.

Just look at the rise of SUV's, for more of this attitude.

No, I wouldn't want to live in such a place. It's terribly wasteful and decadent and who wants to clean one of those huge houses anyway? Good lord.

Oh wait, I forgot, that's a job for the illegal immigrant maids.
posted by beth at 1:58 PM on August 6, 2002


gen:

Does "human nature" answer your question? Human beings are primates, and as such we suffer from a common malady: we tend to organize into dominance heirarchies, and we are prone to xenophobia. It's not pretty, but its our evolutionary legacy.
posted by mrmanley at 1:58 PM on August 6, 2002


Unfortunately, as in so much of his other writing, here Brooks glosses over a number of inconvenient facts, such as, just off the top of my head, the extent to which the outer-ring suburbs (which is what he's describing, in essense) are subsidized (directly and indirectly) by the central cities and inner-ring suburbs, the role of racism is their creation, and the massive environmental damage they cause.

A good balance to his view would be Myron Orfield's latest book
posted by AlexSteffen at 2:02 PM on August 6, 2002


Brooks argues they're not intolerant:
This is not to say they want white Ozzie and Harriet nirvana...it never occurs to them to go back before rock, rap, women working, and massive immigration.

But that they do have values that are incompatible with living in a modern urban area:
They don't mind any of these things, so long as they complement the core Sprinkler City missions of orderly living, high achievement, and the bright seeking of a better future.

So they're not interested in the chaos you need for a creative, cosmopolitan city. That doesn't make them bad people.
posted by lbergstr at 2:09 PM on August 6, 2002


Wow, SUVs weren't mentioned until the third comment. I was betting on #2.
posted by tippiedog at 2:18 PM on August 6, 2002


People often want their children to grow up just like they did, and due to immigrant surges into established suburbs, people need to move to all new suburbs in order to acheive the status quo they are looking for. I live near D.C and it is exactly this that is happening to this city. Arlington and Alexandria (which are suburbs which abut the the city) are being divided into newly immigrated populations and have changed (no value judgements here) from what they were 10 and 20 years ago. So people who grew up here, left for college and such and came back and now want to raise families, are moving 30 miles away to brand new homes in nice communities with golf courses and other people just like them.
posted by Mushkelley at 2:25 PM on August 6, 2002


Brooks, as usual, argues around his point and glosses over essentials. On the one hand, he says "Patio Man" flees inner suburbs to get away from the professional elite, doctors, lawyers, what have you--as well as the derisvely described cultural activities of these people, such as "French films" (in a bizarre comment.) Over the next couple of paragraphs however, Brooks goes on and on about the high academic achievements of "Patio Mans" children, and, beyond that, he seeks to lionize the Sprinkler Cities as the area where all important intellectual innovation is occuring, biotech, internet, etc. Well, David, which is it?

Also, did anyone else notice how this entire article completely marginalized women? Describing the women as Jennifer Aniston-like was about the extent of their appearance. And no mention of women's careers at all, and, we all know, most families have two working parents these days.

Let alone the huge environmental costs of these suburbs.
posted by pjgulliver at 2:27 PM on August 6, 2002


You're missing something:

Recently three teams from the Seneca Ridge Middle School in Loudoun County competed in the National Social Studies Olympiad. The fifth grade team finished fifth out of 242 teams, while the eighth grade team finished twenty-third out of 210. Here are some of the names of the students competing for Loudoun: Amy Kuo, Arshad Ali, Samanth Chao, Katie Hempenius, Ronnel Espino, Obinna Onwuka, Earnst Ilang-Ilang, Ashley Shiraishi, and Alberto Pareja-Lecaros

It's not about racism...it's about quality of life. The diversity is lacking, sure...but that doesn't affect quality of life so much. They want safety and security, and it's true (ask a sociologist) that crime goes up and property rates go down when the inner cities move into the suburbs.

I hate the wastefulness aspect, absolutely...I hate that we're so landowner-oriented...no wonder these places are Republican meccas. But when you think about it, life is waste...everything that lives, wastes...the more complicated the organism, the more waste...the trick is to make sure there's an organism around that finds your waste to be gold.

There's no gold from the waste I can find...it's just consuming and consuming and consuming until there's nothing left. Nothing's going to keep these subdivisions from becoming whatever it was that was originally left behind, either. It's just a type of suburban escapism.

Hopefully, if this happens enough, we'll figure out the right formula to balance waste and lack of imagination/diversity with security and quality of life. But I doubt it.
posted by taumeson at 2:28 PM on August 6, 2002


pjgulliver: Well, David, which is it?

Brooks argues that it's not achievement Patio Man is running away from, but (among other things) a perceived snobbishness. They don't like French films and feel slighted by those that do. That doesn't mean they're not interested in working hard or learning things.

Again: they're not interested in being cosmopolitan. That's not the same as being intolerant.
posted by lbergstr at 2:35 PM on August 6, 2002


This is just so damn depressing.

Patio Man. Ack. Damn neanderthals... so amazed by their firesticks that they don't notice the forest burning.
posted by silusGROK at 2:38 PM on August 6, 2002


Why do we continually have to be surrounded by people like ourselves?

Ina broad sense, because we understand them better and therefore run less risk of accidentally and needlessly antagonising them to the point at which they jam a fork into our eye. But then, what are "people like ourselves"? Do they look like us? Vote like us? Talk like us? Think like us?
posted by MUD at 2:40 PM on August 6, 2002


But, Lberstr, Brooks almost gleefully points out that these people don't want to or like learning or thinking. According to Brooks, they have no interest in discussing anything other than...sports....

And, with equal glee because Brooks is Brooks and the Weekly Standard is the weekly standard, he points out that these areas are overwhelmingly Republican. Ok...so, its overwhelmingly Republican, but these people have no desire to learn about or participate in politics. I guess they just leave it to their betters, like Brooks.
posted by pjgulliver at 2:43 PM on August 6, 2002


I live in a "sprinkler city" (I even have a sprinkler system!). You know why? It's NICE! The people (all races, all colors, for those of you who think think white bread is the only bread around) want the same things I do: clean neighborhoods and parks, low crime, friendly faces, convenient amenities, etc. I challenge the environmental aspects (you city-dwellers ought to keep one eye on the sky for lightning strikes while you criticize the suburbs for environmental concerns) - some runoff, perhaps, but for the most part environmental concerns are recognized and addressed.

So I guess my question is: what do you care how people live in the suburbs? We're not hurting you. You don't like the suburbs, don't live in the suburbs! The snarky earthier-than-thou cracks only show your jealousy.
posted by UncleFes at 2:43 PM on August 6, 2002


UncleFes.....building parks and lawns and golf course in the desert is in now way environmental. Neither is a complete lack of public transportation. Guess what the most energy effecient state in the US is? New York. You want to know why? It is one of the most urbanized. Mass transit, central provision of heating and a/c reduced water usage because not everyone has a lawn....these things are all environmental.
posted by pjgulliver at 2:46 PM on August 6, 2002


"You," obviously, being the "generic" you, as in "you all," not you personally, though primarily Mr. Brooks.

building parks and lawns and golf course in the desert is in now way environmental.

Why not? Isn't grass and trees better than sand? It reduces heat bloom, eats CO2 and filters polluntants. More trees the better, I say. But I live in a town carved out of an ocean of corn, not sand. We do what we can where we live.

Neither is a complete lack of public transportation.

I take the metro train to work and back every day, and ridership has been on a steady increase since the train was opened.

Guess what the most energy effecient state in the US is? New York. You want to know why? It is one of the most urbanized. Mass transit, central provision of heating and a/c reduced water usage because not everyone has a lawn....these things are all environmental.

Dipped a toe into the East River lately?
posted by UncleFes at 2:50 PM on August 6, 2002


Which is to say, perhaps the urban population knows less about the suburbs than they think they do...?
posted by UncleFes at 2:53 PM on August 6, 2002


....many of them are deeply engrossed in what they consider a visionary project, which if completed will help hurtle us all further into the Knowledge Revolution, the Information Millennium...they have broken the monopolies that cities used to have, they have made themselves the new centers of creativity.

pjgulliver, they may not be interested in the same kinds of learning and thinking you are -- they want to listen to Top 40 music and watch football, sure -- but that doesn't mean they're not intelligent or creative.
posted by lbergstr at 2:54 PM on August 6, 2002


From the article: Douglas County, Colorado, which is the fastest-growing county in America...

My mother recently fled of Douglas County because she couldn't stand the site of every open hillside there being covered with new houses. It truly is disgusting.

She went from five acres with horses to a townhouse within walking distance of where she works, in Denver. So score one for the back-to-the-city team. (Of course, her townhouse is in a new pocket of development made possible by the shutting down of an air force base, so one could argue that it's a freak sprinkler city within an existing city).

And I don't know where the article's author managed to find huge glistening wide boulevards, but where I live (and in the aforementioned Douglas County), rapid development is going on in places where the major feeder roads are one lane each way, and it's just ludicrous and insane.

For people like me (and formerly, my mom) who live in rural areas that are accessible only via these roads, we have to run a death gauntlet just to and from town. Let me clarify: for a rural population, the roads are fine, but when you add huge new housing developments (and each house has 2.3 cars), the strain really gets to be aggravating and downright dangerous at times.

Oh well, guess it's an excuse to go gonzo with a garden and get some chickens and goats, so I don't have to go into town for food so often.

But it's yet another example of the shortsightedness of this approach to development. The area isn't empty before they get there! The frontier died long ago.

So when these behemoth new "communities" show up, they strain the hell out of the existing infrastructure, clobber the local townspeople with their sheer numbers, and cause all kinds of bizarre upheavals related to sharp increases in property values. (ie, Old Man Johnson's field becomes a mega-mall, and anyone else who sells or develops gains the enmity of their neighbors who valued the quality of life that existed before all the new development showed up).

But I suppose this is nothing new, really.
posted by beth at 2:56 PM on August 6, 2002


Isn't grass and trees better than sand?

Well, a) desert does not equal "sand." It's a complex ecosystem in its own right. Which leads to b) why are grass and trees better? c) Um, where do you get the water for all that grass and trees?

Which is to say, perhaps the urban population knows less about the suburbs than they think they do...?

Almost certainly. And yet, and I say this having lived in suburbs from age 2 to last year, the problems remain.
posted by claxton6 at 3:00 PM on August 6, 2002


I'm thrilled to learn you live in a suburb that has mass transit. I wasn't aware of many, can you point out many rapidly growing sprinkler regions of the country that do? To the best of my knowledge, Phoneix/Mesa and Las Vegas, the two primary examples used in Brooks' article lack such systems. I live in greater DC and know that while we have the metro, its designed to get people in and out of the downtown, not to faciliate travel within and around sprinkler regions like the Dulles area Brooks describes.

And though you may live in a sprinkler area that has access to adequate water (as, no doubt, does greater Atlanta and many of the East Coast sprinkler regions) there is a definate lack of water in all (or the bulk of) high growth regions west of the Mississippi, which is where the vast majority of this type of growth occurs.

For an alternative and interesting (and balanced) look at some of these issues, not just environmental but social and political, I high recommend this book.
posted by pjgulliver at 3:00 PM on August 6, 2002


The notion that suburbia is lilly-white is a convenient myth. I live in a 150-house subdivision that is less than five years old situated 20 miles northwest of Detroit. The houses range from 2,200 to 3,500 square feet. If there is a more integrated subdivision in the nation, I'd be surprised. If I had to guess, I would say the population is 35% white, 35% black, 15% Indian (not Native American), 10% middle eastern, and 5% Asian. People have a hard time acknowledging that there is a thriving black middle class -- it doesn't fit in well with the Liberal worldview. But I see it with my own eyes every morning when I say "howdy" to my neighbors.
posted by pardonyou? at 3:03 PM on August 6, 2002


I live in a "sprinkler city" (I even have a sprinkler system!). You know why? It's NICE! . . . I challenge the environmental aspects (you city-dwellers ought to keep one eye on the sky for lightning strikes while you criticize the suburbs for environmental concerns)

I'm much happier living in my city neighborhood where an independent coffeehouse is a block away. The grocery store is two blocks away, and another larger store within biking distance. My office is a brief and blissful 20 minute bus ride away, with my commute unencumbered by me having to watch out for idiots cutting me off so they can get to the exit ramp two seconds ahead of me. Instead, I can catch up on my reading or chat with a friend.

Personally, I think the 'burbs are less environmentally friendly simply because you have to drive to get to your Whorebux coffee, Borderline Books, and all other outposts of "Sprinkler City" commercialism.
posted by illusionaire at 3:04 PM on August 6, 2002


lbergstr , on the one hand, Brooks gives you the quote that you posted, on the other, he opens the article with this statement:

These men and women may not be Greatest Generation heroes, or earthshaking inventors like Thomas Edison, but if Thomas Edison had had a Human Resources Department, and that Human Resources Department had organized annual enrichment and motivational conferences for mid-level management, then these people would have been the marketing executives for the back office outsourcing companies to the meeting-planning firms that hooked up the HR executives with the conference facilities.


Plus, how many truely creative people have you ever met who would feel threatened by "French Film." That's just an absurd statement.
posted by pjgulliver at 3:09 PM on August 6, 2002


Assuming you're not just trolling, UncleFes, here're are my answers to your questions:

New suburbs are environmental nightmares. First of all, whatever ecosystem was previously there is bulldozed.

Then, large chunks of asphalt, concrete and rooftop (what ecologists call impervious surfaces because they slough rainwater rather than absorbing it) are spread over that land, totally screwing up the hydrology of the area... and as a general rule, the newer the suburb, the more impervious surface per capita. Streams, rivers and lakes suffer.

Then there's the pollution - not just tailpipe emissions and oil spills from those SUVs (there... I said it - but it's true: people in suburbs drive more and generate more air pollution and CO2), but also pesticides for those lawns and so forth (totally ignoring the pollution caused by generating electricity for those street lights and 3,200 ft2 houses).

I could go on... and if you're honestly interested I can post some links... but the point is that, as a tool for trashing the planet, the modern suburb's a pretty evolved one.

But to answer your second question, Why do I care? Well, besides the fact that we cities dwellers need to breathe the same air and live in the same changing climate, *we're paying for it*. Literally. Our taxes subsidize their new roads, new sewers, new schools and such, while we get left with the social programs suburbanites don't want to pay for and the environmental costs they don't want to acknowledge.

Your housing choices directly impact my health, my quality of life and my wallet. Shouldn't I care about that?
posted by AlexSteffen at 3:13 PM on August 6, 2002


Way to go Alex!
posted by pjgulliver at 3:17 PM on August 6, 2002


Not a troll, and I'm a little surprised that anyone'd make that claim. It's OK for people to point and call me and my fellow suburbanites ignorant, but to defend myself is trolling? Hm.

I, obviously, can't directly refute Brooks charges, since the article is very much the product of anecdotal evidence. And yes, there are some concerns to the idea of people spreading out across the landscape. But the impetus behind the move is one that can't truly be refuted: safety, economic prosperity, convenience. Why should I bring up my child in New York City, when I can do so under better conditions in suburban St. Louis? That's all I want - that's all we all want, here in the regions you (collective you all again) so gleefully and smugly criticize.

And honestly, criticize all you want! We find it a little amusing. You stand in your asphalt cities, generating millions of tons of pollutants every year, point to our lawn fertilizer and cry "shame"....? Live on a hectare of your own property amonsgst miles and miles of potential development, watch the city spread for years and then be shocked - SHOCKED! - when it spreads to your neighborhood, and then cry big tears about lost land you didn't own in the first place...?

It's more than a little silly.
posted by UncleFes at 3:19 PM on August 6, 2002


UncleFes,

Drop the "jealousy defense;" hearing it fatigues me.

Because a few of us aren't enamored with sprawl, doesn't mean we are degenerates.
posted by drstrangelove at 3:19 PM on August 6, 2002


It's a shame Brooks had to end such a great essay with such blatant reverse snobbery against "lawyers, fans of French film, and people who eat at Afghan restaurants", along with the attendant implication that such people are somehow "less American". It's also hilarious to read such things in the Weekly Standard, which is pretty much the definitve policy wonk rag.

However, this passage is undeniably brilliant:
These men and women may not be Greatest Generation heroes, or earthshaking inventors like Thomas Edison, but if Thomas Edison had had a Human Resources Department, and that Human Resources Department had organized annual enrichment and motivational conferences for mid-level management, then these people would have been the marketing executives for the back office outsourcing companies to the meeting-planning firms that hooked up the HR executives with the conference facilities.
posted by Ty Webb at 3:24 PM on August 6, 2002


Just wanted to put that up in case anybody missed pjgulliver's post....uh...yeah.
posted by Ty Webb at 3:36 PM on August 6, 2002


Plus, how many truely creative people have you ever met who would feel threatened by "French Film." That's just an absurd statement.

Augh! No it's not! Look, please trust me: there are many otherwise bright, interesting people, people you'd truly want to talk to, who do feel that way. "Threatened" doesn't mean they think that French films are poisoning their children's values. It just means they feel condescended to by the films and the people that watch them.

It's called a cultural divide, people.
posted by lbergstr at 3:39 PM on August 6, 2002


Our taxes subsidize their new roads, new sewers, new schools and such...

Care to back that up? Most subsidies that I'm aware of go the other way. Road construction is usually paid for out of gas taxes (users pay), while most mass transit agencies in the US get a large part of their revenue from sales tax (everyone pays).
posted by jaek at 3:40 PM on August 6, 2002


Way to go UncleFes!
posted by y6y6y6 at 3:43 PM on August 6, 2002


The average person living in a central city uses far *fewer* resources than the average suburbanite, UncleFes, especially if we're comparing cities to newer suburbs. And that's completely leaving aside the damage done in building those new suburbs.

And the potential remains in a dense central city to use far fewer resources than we do now. That potential is greatly limited in newer suburbs where automobile use is pretty much mandated by the distances between destinations, and where retrofitting for energy-conservation is made much more difficult by the size and design of new homes.
posted by AlexSteffen at 3:44 PM on August 6, 2002


The kids spend their days being chaperoned from one adult-supervised activity to another, and from one achievement activity to the next. They are well tested, well trophied, and well appreciated. They are not only carefully reared and nurtured, they are launched into a life of high expectations and presumed accomplishment.

Pausing for a moment to think of the six or seven kids huddled in a suburban basement somewhere who constitute the entire goth/punk rock population of the local high school, plotting their escape, their parents just not understanding why these kids are so ungrateful as to want to get the hell out and to a city centre as soon as they are mobile.

I speak from experience.
posted by jokeefe at 3:48 PM on August 6, 2002


Speaking of subsidies...I'm surprised no one has mentioned morgages. Every rent paying tax payer (read the bulk of the urban population) is subsidizing every morgage holder (ie, the suburbs) because morgage holders can deduct their interest payements from their federal income taxes. If nothing else, this is a MASSIVE subsidy for the suburbs.

And lbergstr, I grew up in a town with 7000 people in it in rural Maine. So believe me, I am comfortable with people who don't watch french film. But what Brooks was saying was, not only are these people uncomfortable with "cosmopolitan" culture like that, but they also have no use for discussions of anything other than sports:

Religion is too hot a subject and politics is irrelevant, so if you are not discussing transportation issues--how to get from here to there, whether the new highway exit is good or bad--you are probably talking about sports. You're talking about your kids' ice hockey leagues, NBA salary levels, or the competition in your over-70 softball league--the one in which everybody wears a knee brace and it takes about six minutes for a good hitter to beat out a double. Sports sets the emotional climate of your life. Sports provides the language of easy camaraderie, self-deprecating humor, and (mostly) controlled competition.

there is a second similar passage that I won't quote in interests of brevity. Plus, did you see any mention whatsover of public institutions like a library? How about theater? And when describing personal affects, Brooks states these people like to have the DVD collection in order...again, no mention of books...even of the Clancy/King variety.

I think Brooks is being stereotypical. I believe there are interesting people in the suburbs (I went to school with some) but Brooks denies this.
posted by pjgulliver at 3:52 PM on August 6, 2002


Lets abandon the suburbs and move back into the cities... all of us.. so we can severly overcrowd them and polllute them with the corner Wal-marts and the Barnes and nobles and the rest that we will bring in with us. We can then let the current suburbs go back to nature, then we can film them as nature and watch them in the cities, and marvel.
posted by Mushkelley at 3:53 PM on August 6, 2002


Ummmm, make that mortgage.....
posted by pjgulliver at 3:53 PM on August 6, 2002


...lost land you didn't own in the first place...

This is, I believe, the little dark nugget hiding at the bottom of this whole mess.

The land we're on is stolen. The question is, do we earn the right to stay on it by honoring it, and by making amends with those we (well okay, our ancestors) stole it from, or do we pretend that it exists to serve us?

Suburbia (and meta-suburbia, which is what I would term this article is about) may seem like a God-given paradise to some, but it sure as hell isn't sustainable.

And inexorably, anything that isn't sustainable will die. It's just a matter of when.

It's not about cities vs. suburbs vs. sprinkler cities vs. rural areas. We're all connected, and we're all part of the same larger whole.

The question is, do we figure out how to come up with a truly sustainable way of living before it's too late? If you think this is Someone Else's Problem, you're wrong.

There's only so long you can piss in the well before your drinking water is poisoned beyond repair.

Okay, so we know that *every* way of living has its problems, so do we start thinking about fixing it, or just stand around pointing fingers and hurling epithets at each other?

Oh, sorry, for a minute there I thought I was on a planet that wasn't doomed. Oops.
posted by beth at 3:54 PM on August 6, 2002


The earth doomed? By humans? Please, you think to highly of your species.
posted by Mushkelley at 3:55 PM on August 6, 2002


Re: subsidies.

The basic model on roads is this: everyone pays the taxes that fund new road construction - in fact, those taxes tend to be fairly regressive - but the majority of transportation spending (at least in high-growth areas) is suburban roads and freeways, which benefit a comparatively small number of people.

You could check out:
the surface transportation policy project, the Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse, the work of the New Urbanists, or that of Northwest Environment Watch if you're interested in finding out more...
posted by AlexSteffen at 3:56 PM on August 6, 2002


Personally, I hate the suburbs. Emotionally.
The rich ones or the poor ones, they are all equally empty of soul, of life, of anything that makes urban life interesting and stimulating.
They rape the remaining countryside in the name of paranoia and sociopathy.
I think that the Jetsons had it right. Floating islands in a non-space, from which you sally forth in your little portable life support module to acquire goods to put in your unit.
Bleah.
A question, what will happen to all these empty spaces when the rich flee them for new playgrounds? What sort of urban structure will they leave behind? How will the next generations re-cycle them? Think of the parts of any large city where the rich lived 100 years ago. These spaces are for the most part now inhabited by middle- or lower-classes, by offices, retail space, who benefit from the urbanity left behind by the richer inhabitants. I don't see that happening in Lake Bonito Vista Estates IV.
posted by signal at 4:07 PM on August 6, 2002


My dislike of the suburbs is primarily an aesthetic feeling. Its not a space that I feel comfortable inhabiting - the sprawl, the sameness, the huge swaths of pavement. Any justification whether environmental or what-not would be, if I were truly honest, simply post-hoc arguments to support this initial feeling.

Even urbanity can be daunting. And so sometimes I will flee to its opposite - to nature, to the rustic, to the ocean or natural desert. The puzzle for me of the suburbs is why anyone would want to inhabit a space that few others would care to visit.
posted by vacapinta at 4:20 PM on August 6, 2002


I'm surprised that readers are so certain that Brooks is derisive or snobbish about the French-film-watching class of people [i.e., "bobos," right? cf. Brooks, Bobos in Paradise] . I took it for granted that Brooks, as a writer for the national media, is himself a member of that class and that his description of them is affectionate self-mockery. As a member of that class myself, I was highly amused by the description.

Here in Southern California, the division between inner-ring suburbs and Sprinkler Cities is taking place even within Orange County, that legendary Reagan-suburban template; compare the likes of north O.C. cities like Anaheim and Santa Ana (46 and 75% Hispanic respectively) with south O.C. abominations such as Aliso Viejo and Mission Viejo (11-12% Hispanic). Meanwhile several of my colleagues spend 1.5-2 hours on the train or in a carpool between home in L.A. and work in Irvine, solely in order to avoid making a home within the unbearable desolation that is O.C.
posted by apollo3000 at 4:39 PM on August 6, 2002


The puzzle for me of the suburbs is why anyone would want to inhabit a space that few others would care to visit.

Huh? In case you haven't noticed, the trend is the other way around. I dislike living in the city because I'd like to actually be able to move around. Where I am now is basically the suburbs with great public transportation that gets me in and out of Boston in the blink of an eye. City's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.
posted by owillis at 4:43 PM on August 6, 2002


I'm surprised that readers are so certain that Brooks is derisive or snobbish about the French-film-watching class of people.

I'm certain that he does it when it serves his polemic purpose.

I took it for granted that Brooks, as a writer for the national media, is himself a member of that class and that his description of them is affectionate self-mockery.

Not so much self-mockery as a balancing act, as practiced by journalist-political-elites both left and right: position yourself as a defender of good old down home America while simultaneously stuffing your mouth with brie.
posted by Ty Webb at 5:01 PM on August 6, 2002


On a side note, it never ceases to amuse me how Gringos have inherited the British dislike, fear and loathing of the French. "French films", "Brie", etc. are all construed as symbols of the most egregious snobbery, and not as something which some people might happen to enjoy. "Oh no! You didn't really like "Delicatessen", right? You just say you did to look superior."

It's strange, especially as 95% of Gringos have probabely never been in France or spoken with a French person. Any theories on where this comes from? I understand it in the Brits, who are neighbors and have invaded or been invaded by the French on numerous occasions, but why was this carried over to the US?
posted by signal at 5:23 PM on August 6, 2002


This discussion makes it seem like the only relevant choices are in the big city or a suburb surrounding it. Speaking as a resident of a small (less than 10,000) person city - there are other options.
posted by dhacker at 5:50 PM on August 6, 2002


The question is, do we figure out how to come up with a truly sustainable way of living before it's too late?

Indeed, that is the question, beth. A question I wish was answered more often, or at all. Do we consider the problems and the dangers and suggest possible solutions? Or do we instead mock the suburban filth from afar, solidify our progressive credentials, and recline to watch it crumble?

So what is to be done, then? Shame their choice of lifestyle until it better matches our own? Tax every Jaguar, manicured lawn and Sharper Image transaction like a Manhattan tobacconist? Legislate private communities out of existence? Sell La Jolla?

More suggestions, less American Beauty rehashing.
posted by apostasy at 7:08 PM on August 6, 2002


Well, these are the suggestions I have.
posted by AlexSteffen at 7:59 PM on August 6, 2002


morgage mortgage holders can deduct their interest payements payments from their federal income taxes

Now I'm jealous. Time to lobby for this to happen here, while we still have a government that slavishly follows the US in everything.

Just a thought, but why do suburbanites in America need such large houses? We have just moved into a new home in the equivalent of what you are calling sprinkler suburbs (and loving it, thank you very much) - a house where everyone who has seen it has gone "Wow, it's so big" when they first see it and which is under 2,500 square feet (for a family of almost 6). What does the average modern family need with so much indoor space? Perhaps your architects need to learn more about using space effectively?

Perhaps if there was less roof and more open space, the environmental impact (which is considerable in the short term, lets not kid ourselves UncleFes) may be more able to be absorbed by the ecology as a whole. In new suburbs here, developers are required to go to quite some trouble to minimize impact with measures such as silt traps to cut down silt and nutrients getting into waterways, wildlife corridors, open space ratios etc. Contrast that with older suburbs and their asbestos roofs, high toxicity termite treatments etc and the newer suburbs probably make a less permanent impact on the environment.

The only real solution to ensuring sustainability is to limit population, it seems to me. Unfortunately, we have developed a culture that cannot live without growth, given that such a large part of our society relies on that growth for income and, therefore, survival.
posted by dg at 9:02 PM on August 6, 2002


This article reads like Snow Crash era Neal Stephenson.
posted by finn at 9:58 PM on August 6, 2002


AlexSteffen - great ideas and close to the perfect compromise, in my opinion. Just need to get the developers and local governments to agree to carry out the plan .....


aw shit, forgot where I was for a moment.
posted by dg at 10:12 PM on August 6, 2002


Nice article Alex, but why not save a city area that's quickly having its own urban sprawl problems before it gets worse? :-) This area would be my hometown (all three cities there are more interconnected than that map would leave you to believe) with a mass population in the 300,000 to 500,000 range.

Urban sprawl is the last thing on anyone's minds here, yet the cities are continuing to merge towards the center. Should they actually do so, you're looking at a miniture version of Seattle here.

Due to an strangely designed road system (zoom in and enjoy) created by the original settlers, the roads here are totally inefficient for busses or trains. Just to drive the point of poorly designed roads here home, our main streets cross three times.

"Downtown" is already gutted and dead from charging for parking (sorry, this doesn't work at all, it's been tried and has failed miserably to the point where the most seemingly viable store on the main street sells bongs. Yes, I'm not kidding).

What are your thoughts on this? How would you fix this urban sprawl problem here before it gets out of hand? As it is right now my drive to work is 20 minutes and it keeps getting longer as the city encroaches on my living area, and a drive like this to work is pretty much the norm here. And its growing _fast_. 50 years ago the main parts of the city weren't much outside the big red X on that map.
posted by shepd at 11:34 PM on August 6, 2002


Great links, Alex, thanks. I live in a city - in a renovated railroad building from the late 1800's (how's that for recycling?). I love it. I support locally owned businesses ranging from coffee shops to restaurants, pubs and an Italian grocer. I also visit local museums, libraries, and walk to all of the above. Anytime I can avoid getting in my car, I do.

It's possible to have quality of life inside a city. There are spaces for gardens and parks. We, too, have birds and bugs and sunsets. I've lived in sprinkler town (or whatever you call it) and much prefer my current residence. Somehow, it has more character. Where that comes from: a mix of rich & poor, renters & owners, gov't and private enterprise. The grocer up the street always has a smile, knows me by name, and hands out the occasional freebie in thanks of my steady business.

A large part of the problem IS greedy developers of the sprawl. They are in bed with local governing bodies responsible for zoning. It SHOULD be mixed zoning so we CAN support locally owned business and be less dependent on cars. That combined with good design that allows for open space within the urban environment from this point forward might preserve the rest of the rock that's left.

Gee, maybe that's what that bumper sticker means. (Think globally act locally).

That damn Star Bellied Sneeches Syndrome. ;)
posted by yoga at 6:16 AM on August 7, 2002


Alex, terrific article. I think one problem people have sometimes with this issue is that the debate is framed in black and white: urban vs suburban. You either live in Manhattan, or Mesa Arizona. I don't think any of us who are arguing "against"--for lack of a better word--suburbs think that all development should be urban in nature. But rather, those areas that are not urban, should follow more of the small town, main street, mixed income model that held sway for development until the 1950s. Its a viable model that has work and has proven longevity.
posted by pjgulliver at 10:49 AM on August 7, 2002


Okay, I don't have all the answers, but sometimes I get interesting dreams (the waking kind).

Like: wouldn't it be cool if I could become a gozillionaire, buy up a ton of land (perhaps that already had stuff on it, whatever), and then redesign it and make it into a truly livable, sustainable place. Or at least as close to it as I could manage.

It wouldn't be perfect. Maybe it would only be one small town. But it could serve as a laboratory for trying things out, for learning better ways of doing things. And maybe, with success, it could serve as an example.

And because I'm really at heart not greedy, I'd deed the thing back to the people who lived there, with whatever provisos seemed prudent to help keep the community thriving for the long term, preserving quality of life, etc.

Again, I'm not so stupid as to think it would be perfect, but damn, I think we can do better than we're doing now.

Sometimes carrying off a profoundly complex and ambitious vision requires the focus of a single person in charge, at least for awhile. With good design and luck, eventually control could be passed to the people who are the true stakeholders of the operation, in a way that keeps a sane equilibrium afloat.

But then again I'm just one crazy dreamer. :)
posted by beth at 11:56 AM on August 7, 2002


Sometimes carrying off a profoundly complex and ambitious vision requires the focus of a single person in charge, at least for awhile. With good design and luck, eventually control could be passed to the people who are the true stakeholders of the operation, in a way that keeps a sane equilibrium afloat.

Heh. It's true: sometimes a proper dictator is required to step in over (on? nah, only if necessary) the heads of we foolish barbarians and keep the trains running on time... or keep the trains out, as the case may be here. Darn that freedom and democracy! Always getting in the way.
posted by UncleFes at 1:08 PM on August 7, 2002


I live in a suburb. There are more supermarkets nearby than I can keep track of (2 Fresh Fields, Safeway, Giant, Gourmet Giant (don't ask)...). Safeway is walkable; been there, done that. So's the drugstore, and three family-owned restaurants. When I moved in I was 1.5 miles from work. New job, now it's 25 minutes of full-posted speed+ highway driving. Less than 3 miles to a great kabob place, a special-occasion upscale Indian restaurant, family-owned deli, another family owned Italian place, a large handful of bookstores. Two miles to two of the finest malls in the world (not sure how many more times I'll need to be in a Mont Blanc boutique, but it was there when I wanted it). The last two times I saw Cirque du Soleil they were performing about 2 miles from my home. It's maybe 2.5 miles to the subway, which I'll be using Friday to meet up with the most beautiful woman on the whole damn planet for lunch before hanging out for happy hour with a mix of urbanites and commuters who, like me, somehow managed to slog it out another week in what many here imagine to be a hellish wasteland. Whatever.

And it's a false dichotomy to posit that urbanites are subsidizers and suburbanites are leeches. What a joke. No condos in the city? No renters in the suburbs? No assisted housing in the city? right....
posted by NortonDC at 1:55 PM on August 7, 2002


... eventually control could be passed to the people who are the true stakeholders of the operation ...

And the next step in the process is that the stakeholders sell out to a developer, who will bulldoze the whole thing because it isn't economically feasible. Not that I'm cynical or anything ;-)
posted by dg at 3:51 PM on August 7, 2002


it's a false dichotomy to posit that urbanites are subsidizers and suburbanites are leeches. What a joke. No condos in the city? No renters in the suburbs?

These exceptions you cite in no way refute the essential, well-documented point, which is that suburbs have a net in-flow of taxpayer capital. In other words, they're subsidized. Look it up.
posted by AlexSteffen at 4:12 PM on August 7, 2002


Look it up.

Well, A quick Googling shows that the subsidies you describe are hardly uniformly distributed - in fact, the regions that obtain the most of the subsidy surround (ahem) New York, LA, and San Francisco, where 10% of all homeowners get 75% of the subsidy, and they are the wealthiest homeowners, not the typical suburban homeowner. The rest of us, of course, have what little interest writeoff we get offset handily by local property taxes. So maybe NortonDC's "exceptions" refute the point a bit better than you might want to admit.
posted by UncleFes at 8:35 PM on August 7, 2002


Additionally, AlexSteffen, in my area
A) the city is outside my state, meaning I don't see a dime of their local taxes, and
B) that city is uniquely federally subsidized, and
C) my suburban region is the economic engine that pays for the whole rest of my state, Virginia.

Yes, that's right, tax money flows away from my suburb to the rest of my state. The scenario you work yourself into a lather over does not describe the essential condition of the suburbs, and yet my home manages to be abuzz with commercial and cultural options. Find a new complaint.

And looking closer at UncleFes's link, my assertions are even more strongly backed up: DC receives more than twice the tax subsidy per owner that Virginia does, $7,535 vs. $3,115.
posted by NortonDC at 5:44 AM on August 8, 2002


Favorite suburbanite quote: "This is a baby plantation dedicated to producing children of privilege."

I've watched this suburb since the trees were felled to put in the street, since the fish-raising ponds were poisoned into swimmability, since the water moccasin in the big lake and the badger disappeared, since the cornfield behind the hedgerow started sprouting million-dollar high-headroom mansions and the field of Concord grapevines got pulled out, since kids stopped getting 25 cents for each dandelion, since the arrival of the Chem Lawn truck and the invisible fences for the dogs in training. The paths through the woods are gone now since everyone drives, and the buffed, travel-team high school country club athletes no longer splash around in the greenish, algae-filled pond. You probably shouldn't eat the vegetables in your garden here now, thanks to lawn care, the dogs don't know each other to run around together, and nobody has a kickball diamond stamped into their lawn by screaming kids.

On the bright side, two high schoolers spontaneously say to me "This is the bubble. It's not real. We want more diversity." Two hours ago, an unknown neighbor walking a dog: "I keep having visions of Sodom and Gommorah. I remember when it wasn't like this." (What AlexSteffen said.)
posted by sheauga at 4:29 PM on August 8, 2002


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