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.

Superstore Syndrome

Published on 12/20/2010

Have you noticed how sparse the selection seems to be in the giant suburban bookstore chains lately? How the office-supply superstores seem to carry ever-larger quantities of the same three kinds of legal pad? Do you remember a time when those enormous stores seemed to carry everything, no matter how obscure? What happened?

You’re seeing the effects of Superstore Syndrome, the inevitable course of a suburban superstore’s existence, and one of the characteristic diseases of consumerism.

The cycle begins when the superstore first moves into an area. Let’s say you’re opening a giant book chain. There are already bookstores in the area with loyal customers. How are you going to lure away that loyal customer base? Price is one thing you can try, but your best bet is probably selection. People will come to your gigantic store because you have all the books in the world. They may still buy mostly bestsellers, but they’ll love just knowing that they can come here for Frontinus in the original Latin the next time they happen to need him.

And it works. One by one, the little neighborhood bookstores close as their customers desert them for your enticingly comprehensive selection. You dominate the book market. You’re making money hand over fist as the bestsellers fly out the door, with an occasional obscurity joining them to break up the monotony.

Onward! Ten years have passed. The chain of book superstores has flourished and been bought up by a giant international conglomerate. But a brief economic downturn eats into profits. One quarter even shows a loss. In a panic, the parent company begins to look at the numbers very closely. Why, one uncommonly bright young executive demands, are we stocking these Loeb Classics when each store sells only about a dozen each year? Every square foot of shelf space must be accounted for, and these things are wasting valuable space that could be given over to something really profitable, like self-help books. Everybody buys self-help books.

So the superstore begins to cut back on selection. And at first all goes well. Now the superstore doesn’t really have any more of a selection than the neighborhood bookstores used to have, but since there are no more neighborhood bookstores that’s not so much of a problem. But gradually shoppers begin to realize that the superstore just isn’t fun anymore. There are still acres of books, but it seems as though the’re all the same books. And if bestsellers are the only books you stock—well, we can get those at Kmart. Why should we bother coming to your bookstore?

Where does that leave the book-shopper who’s looking for Frontinus? It sends him back to the city, the natural home of everything unusual, nonstandard, interesting. In the city he can find stores that thrive on the customers left behind and rejected by the superstores, because in the city there are enough of those people to support a store with unusual stock. The superstore begins to struggle, and blames changing economic conditions. The neighborhood specialty shop begins to thrive, and can thank the management of the superstore.

An update, July 1, 2013: Since this was written two and a half years ago, all but one of the big book superstore chains have disappeared, and in the city of Pittsburgh there has been a much-discussed trend toward small independent bookstores.

Original comments:

12/26/2010: Paul Rodriguez says:
Your account of the decay of the superstore is persuasive but the notion that people resort to the city for obscure books surprises me. What numbers I have seen, and my personal observation, suggest that when the superstore cannot satisfy, Amazon does.

12/27/2010: CB says:
You’re quite right, of course, when someone is looking for something specific. It’s the pleasure of browsing among obscure books that I was thinking of, and I muddled the two ideas a bit.

09/12/2012: Sean says:
Sir, while I find the idea presented here compelling, do you have any data to back up this claim of diminishing selection in big-box stores? I’d like to believe it, but it seems like a difficult claim to make simply from anecdotal observation.

The Contemplative Serenity of November

Published on 11/7/2010

There must be a thousand shades of brown in these November trees. October is the month of spectacular colors in the parks and hillsides of Pittsburgh, but November is more subtle. There’s a kind of pleasant melancholy hanging in the air, especially on one of those long rainy days when the wet leaves spiral downward one by one as if they had all the time in the world–and I watch them as if I had all the time in the world, which in fact I do. On a wet November day, you have all the time in the world. There are no grand excitements, no hurries. Everything is calm. Nothing interesting is happening.

On a rainy November day, the possibilities are endless. You can’t plant bulbs; you can’t rake leaves; the dog would rather not take a walk if it’s all the same with you. So there’s time for all the things you’ve always wanted to do, but never had the time for. You can read a book. You can write a book. You can teach yourself Russian. Or you can just sit, with a cup of good Darjeeling tea in one hand and absolutely nothing in the other. Just sitting is a sadly neglected art in the modern world, one we should all cultivate. Most of the evils of the world would disappear if people could teach themselves to enjoy just sitting.

But perhaps the best thing to do on a rainy November day is to grab a big black umbrella and go out into the world. It would be a glorious day to take the streetcar downtown and do some window-shopping. The rain comes straight down on these rainy November days; it keeps the crowds off the streets, but the umbrella is as good as a roof over your head.

Or what a perfect day to spend in the back stacks of the Carnegie Library, back in those endless rows of books that even the librarians seem to have forgotten about. Or the conservatory–it’s a perfect day for the conservatory. Phipps Conservatory is between shows right now; there won’t be many people there, and we could lose ourselves in the palm house for hours.

Even just a walk through the back streets of one of the city neighborhoods–that would be a perfect way to spend an afternoon under the umbrella. There’s plenty of time to stroll down the sidewalk, pausing to admire a well-restored Victorian house or a patch of stubbornly blooming snapdragons, watching the leaves spiral down one by one as if they had all the time in the world. Tomorrow the rain will stop, and we can get back to work. But today is our own.

Things We Get Backwards

Published on 10/8/2010

We make it terribly hard for bars and restaurants to offer live music, but anyone can blare a radio station over a loudspeaker. This is exactly backwards. There ought to be steep licensing fees for recorded music, and none at all for live music. If we made it a financial advantage to have live musicians, there would be live musicians. Young people—and their parents—would see that music was a viable career instead of a waste of time.

It’s no good arguing that licensing fees for live music are justified by the large crowds that live music draws, which require more law enforcement and other city services. Live music draws crowds precisely because it’s unusual. Let every bar on the South Side employ a live band, and the crowds will be dispersed and manageable.

The wonderful thing about music in the city is that you can’t really stamp it out, in spite of punitive laws against musicians who practice their art. But take away those laws, and what a flowering of musical culture there might be! Let the same discouraging regulations be applied to recorded music, and nothing could prevent a musical renaissance in the city.

Still, it might be argued by nervous neighbors that unrestricted live music will produce too much noise. So we might propose a compromise plan. Let there be an amplification fee that applies equally to live and recorded music. You can have a band, or a string quartet, or a symphony orchestra, with no amplification, and you pay no fee. You can play records on a mechanical Victrola without paying the fee. But turn on an amplifier, and you pay the fee. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

Intellectual Immunity

Published on 09/27/2010

A news story making the rounds suggests that people whose ancestors have lived in cities for many generations may have superior immunity to leprosy and tuberculosis. The study in question concludes that frequent exposure to those diseases in crowded urban areas tended to select those individuals who had better immunity by killing off the rest.

This conclusion has little bearing on whether you or I should be living in the city: everything depends on where your ancestors lived, and the diseases studied are not the scourges they once were. But it suggests a closely parallel phenomenon in the intellectual world. The development of physical immunity is much like the development of intellectual tolerance.

Tolerance itself is often portrayed as the disease, an abandonment of the absolute moral standards that made our civilization civilized. But we confuse tolerance with indifference. The two are not at all alike. Indifference is not caring about right and wrong. Tolerance is that grand old Christian (and Buddhist, and Muslim, and Jewish, and Hindu) principle of holding ourselves to a higher standard than the one we demand of other people. It is granting others the right to be wrong, to have bad ideas that we could never allow ourselves to hold. The very word “tolerance” indicates, not approval of what we know is wrong, but acceptance of what we cannot change.

The city exposes us to wrong ideas as soon as we walk out into the street. A Puritan village in colonial New England would find a single Baptist impossible to live with, and would either toss him out or kill him—whichever seemed likely to be most effective in preventing the infection from spreading. The city of today exposes us to a hundred different Christian sects, Orthodox and Liberal Jews and every shade in between, atheists, Hindus, Jains, countless varieties of Muslims, neopagans, Scientologists, and people who just made up their own religion last week. They can’t all be right; most of them must be wrong. Yet we all sit together on the same streetcar and don’t think much about it.

The people who can’t tolerate all this tolerance flee to a colorless suburb where they never have to meet anyone challengingly different. So the city tends to become more tolerant as the suburbs become less tolerant. The tolerance of the city becomes another grievance the suburbs have against it: the city, where evil people peddle their wrong ideas and get away with it. The boundary between city and suburbs hardens into the boundary between tolerance and intolerance.

Once again, it’s important to remember that this urbane tolerance is different from indifference. It can lapse into indifference, but it actually takes quite a shove to push it in that direction. The city is full of churches and temples and mosques, not because its  people believe that one religion is as good as another, but because each citizen knows for a fact that his religion is the only true one. But the urban Puritan knows that you can’t just get rid of the Baptist down the street. He’ll always be there, and he makes a pretty good neighbor if you don’t get him started talking about baptism. Gradually, surrounded by the hordes of Baptists, our Puritan builds up an immunity to them. The Baptists can build huge, ostentatious churches, and it won’t make the Puritan any less of a Puritan. This is tolerance: knowing that your neighbors are wrong, but living with them as neighbors anyway.