The Strange Idea of the Suburbs

Published on 01/17/2011

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The suburbs have a strange hold over us. Many of the people who live there insist that they hate Suburbia and all things suburban. But—they live there. Apparently it isn’t that they want to live a suburban life; it’s just that they can’t think of any other life to live.

More than two millennia ago, Aristotle made his famous pronouncement: “Man is a political animal.” He didn’t mean that man was an animal that indulged in politics; he meant that man was an animal that lived in a polis—a city. For Aristotle, the thing that made us human was that we lived in cities.

That’s always been true. Until this century, there has never been a time when it was thought natural for humans to live in isolated groups of two or three. Even in the most primitive cultures, humans are town-dwellers. Our suburban age is the first age where the small family—parents and children, no aunts or grandparents or cousins—is expected to be sufficient unto itself.

You see reproduced on this page an advertisement for a suburban community of the turn of the past century. Do you notice the important differences between Brookline and the suburban developments of today? The main differences are in those three prominent statements right in the middle of the ad:

CHURCHES
are there now
SCHOOLS
are there now
STORES
are there now

In the modern suburban community, all those things are banished—even the churches. Instead, the churches, schools, and stores all line up along dreadful strip-center highways, where they’re accessible only by car. The very institutions that ought to be the centers of community life are ejected from the community. The result, of course, is that there is no community life. (Brookline, incidentally, still has its churches, schools, and stores, and it’s still a very pleasant place to live.)

The suburbs are our ideal, but they make healthy community life impossible. Living in the city (or at least in a small town or village) is the only way of life that’s natural for human beings. But we’ve rejected the city; in fact, we actively seek to destroy it with our zoning laws.

Luckily, we’re beginning to wake up from our suburban stupor. But the strange idea of the suburbs still weighs heavily on the American conscience. When we hear politicians rant about family values, we need to remember that “family values,” meaning the isolated “nuclear” family, are an artificial creation of the suburban mind. The values of community—the only values that can ensure the survival of a free state—need the city to grow and flourish.