Dreaming of the Suburbs

Matthew Loftus brought up this article on the suburbs (The Conservative Case Against Suburbs, a reaction to an earlier Joel Kotkin piece). It’s a form of the conservative critique that sees the suburbs or suburban sprawl as the enemy of the local, the agriculture. I can get behind that to a certain extent, but still.

Of course, it’s always fun to bash Joel Kotkin. Nevertheless there is a lack of subtlety regarding suburbs, not least how we want to describe them. In larger metro areas, there are all sorts of neighborhoods that once were properly suburban but now with leafy streets and the like.

I probably would not think of the suburb as “centralized” although that fits certain conservative memes. The heart of the suburb is its decentralized quality, its “nowhereness,” part aesthetic, and part philosophic. The suburban organization is less centralized, than one of nodes and interstate ganglia. At its core, a decentralized place makes it more difficult to live a public life, to participate in public narratives be it the library. the school, the local symphony.

In further criticism of the piece, the question of race is inescapable. The federal policies that promoted home ownership did so at the cost of opportunity for African Americans. The policies (redlining) gave institutional and geographic warrant for racism — see the work of Thomas Sugrue. An urban philosophy that does not wrestle with the questions of race and economics would appear to be at best, effete, the stuff of More Brooklyn sentimentality.

Fact is, we will need to deal with our suburbs — they won’t get bulldozed. We will need to think carefully how we create robust spaces within this suburban matrix where individuals can thrive, and more importantly, where we can live out full (and public) lives.

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