Saturday, May 5, 2007

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Crooked Timber vs. the suburbs

There's something about the suburbs that appears to periodically freak out the Crooked Timberites. Exhibit A was a Daniel Davies riff against big-box retailers that provoked a very interesting comment thread.

Exhibit B is Kieran Healy's shock at viewing the most desirable places to live for his demographic:

In the Top 10 for Singles are the fun, densely-populated places you might expect: New York, L.A., Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, etc. For Young Couples, we have cool hangouts like Portland, Austin, and Boulder. Empty Nesters get to kick back in Bellingham, Santa Fe, Tahoe and Berkeley....

But what does my demographic, Families with Children, get? Number 1 in the nation: Louisville CO. It’s followed closely by Gaithersburg MD. Roswell GA, Lakeville MN, and Flower Mound TX round out the top five. Now, I don’t want to offend the many fine people of Gaithersburg, MD or Noblesville IN, but Roll on the Empty Nest, I say.

I confess to some puzzlement at Kieran's distress. What most of the top-ranked Family With Children places have in common is that they are semi-affordable suburbs adjacent to cities that fell into one of the other Top 10 categories [What about Noblesville IN?--ed. I got nothing, but that doesn't mean it's a bad place to live.]

In a follow-up comment, Kieran elaborates:

[C]ome on, everyone. Do people really not find the notional life transitions laid out in the chart—from New York or L.A. to Boulder or Austin to … Flower Mound or Gaithersburg—even slightly funny? It’s like, as if the endless diapers and slug-like minivans aren’t enough, here’s where you have to live.

Having made the move from one of the top 10 places for Singles to a place that I'm guessing ranks high on Families with Children, all I can say is, thank God for the suburbs (in fairness, Hyde Park is not exactly a typical urban neighborhood):
Five minute walk to the elementary school? Check.

Five supermarkets within a ten-minute car ride? Check.

Lots of children for our children to befriend? Check.

Reasonable access to big city to enjoy childless activities once in a blue moon? Check.

Swinging key parties to get to know the neighbors better? Thankfully, this isn't The Ice Storm, so no.

I suspect Kieran was mostly being flip, but I do think there's a part of him that shudders with dread about the exemplary suburban locale.

To which I have to say, sure, it's easy to find fault. But I'll take the small downsides of suburbandom over the nasty stares I recall getting when entering hip and trendy restaurants/supermarkets/stores/shopping malls with a few rugrats in tow. At this point in the 21st century, having small children is kind of like belonging to a different religious persuasion that others view as bizarre and discomfiting. It's nice to be with one's own kind during these years.

posted by Dan on 05.05.07 at 09:52 AM


Dan, Noblesville, IN is one of Indianapolis' northern suburbs. I've been there, though not for a few years, and can testify that it looked as if families with children would find it perfectly lovely for all the reasons you mention.

posted by: Zathras on 05.05.07 at 09:52 AM [permalink]

To paraphrase Screwtape, only a clever human can make a real Joke about Noblesville; any of them can be trained to talk as if Noblesville were funny.

posted by: Paul Zrimsek on 05.05.07 at 09:52 AM [permalink]

I'm single and densely-populated urban areas are at the bottom of my desirability list. Affordability and crime are two big issues. Traffic is another - I don't want a daily commute where my thoughts are repeatedly trained on the words "Evasive action, Mr. Sulu!" - which (aside from distance to job) is why I live in a Dallas suburb and not Dallas.

posted by: Alan K. Henderson on 05.05.07 at 09:52 AM [permalink]

I've never been able to understand the snobbishness about suburbs from urbanites and country bumpkins alike -- unless you ascribe it to jealousy that we happen to live in a place that avoids both the inconvenient isolation of the country and the sheer barren ugliness of every city constructed by mankind.

posted by: Bruce Moomaw on 05.05.07 at 09:52 AM [permalink]

I live in the city and love it. However, I'd NEVER send my child, if I had one, to an urban public school. Most of my co-workers with children live in the 'burbs primarily for that reason: There are good schools.

posted by: mrsizer on 05.05.07 at 09:52 AM [permalink]

Semi-affordable they may be but they can also be sterile and lifeless, with anomie and alienation as the result.

Sadly, the kind of urban environment I grew up in simply doesn't exist any more. It was blue collar and seedy (and doomed) but everything, including the library, schools and movie theaters was within easy walking distance for a kid. Then, there was the corner store. Now the nearest convenience store is a mile and a half away,

In those neighborhoods, friends and relatives lived close by. So, it was a safe place to roam without hovering parents and the logistics of play dates and the like.

I used to love the sound of the neighbors strolling from house to house and gossiping on front porches of a summer evening.

After WW II, veterans took out VA loans and moved to the suburbs as soon as possible, and who could blame them? By the time I got out of college, the old neighborhood was pretty much gone, except for one or two widows hanging on in spotlessly kept houses.

So, materially, we're certainly better off but I miss the sense of rooted community.

posted by: Antonio Manetti on 05.05.07 at 09:52 AM [permalink]

Semi-affordable they may be but they can also be sterile and lifeless, with anomie and alienation as the result.

Don't forget false consciousness and commodity fetishization! Shibboleths lose resale value if you break up the set.

The sterile, lifeless suburb I grew up in didn't have hovering parents or play dates either. I don't know where those things came from but it wasn't suburbanization. Anyone who thinks he can get away from them in Portland, Austin, or Boulder is doomed to disappointment.

posted by: Paul Zrimsek on 05.05.07 at 09:52 AM [permalink]

Noblesville, Indiana: Indianapolis suburb (Colts), low property taxes and decent public schools, moderate state plus local income tax, safe, parks, youth soccer programs. Why wouldn't it be a decent place for families?

posted by: mike on 05.05.07 at 09:52 AM [permalink]

When baby boomers were little, their parents did not take them to upscale, adult-oriented restaurants and expect everyone else to think it was completely normal. And in the family restaurants they did go to (on rare occasions, since eating out was a treat), children were also not expected to "express themselves" in public by screaming, hitting diners in the next booth, and generally making their presence painfully known. That's why we give you dirty looks. That goes double for R-rated movies. Maybe your children are little angels and you would never take a two-year-old to see Traffic rather than hire a babysitter, but a lot of other parents are out there creating expectations of the worst.

posted by: Virginia Postrel on 05.05.07 at 09:52 AM [permalink]

Tell me if I understand properly. Suburbs contribute to the breakup of community because they increase isolation. If population density is a benefit to thriving communities, then apartment communities should be pretty vibrant. But my experience is that they're deader than Katie Couric's ratings. There must be other anti-communitarian forces at work.

posted by: Alan K. Henderson on 05.05.07 at 09:52 AM [permalink]

I've been puzzled by the idea that suburbs are somehow less preferable for a single's POV than a city. Having lived in Chicago during the 90's and in it's NW suburbs for most of the 00's - my own experience is that there are few barriers to interaction that suburb critics cite. Yes - having a car is essential, but even in the city, not having a car made it almost impossible to get a date - unless you dated a co-worker and met after work.

My biggest complaint about suburbs is not the alleged isolation - but the waste of time and money on lawncare. I've never had a green thumb - but the sight of seeing grown people spending their entire weekend trying to grow just the right shade of grass struck me as absurd.

posted by: KXB on 05.05.07 at 09:52 AM [permalink]

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