Saturday, July 10, 2010

Mugged by Reality

Many readers know that I'm "one of those computer guys", but I hope they don't think I'm a good enough hacker to break into Rod Dreher's Beliefnet blog and write this. Of course I might have written some parts of it around six years ago when our oldest son was two and I moved to a safer part of the greater Cleveland area. But no, I think Rod wrote this piece himself; it's basically a common sense apologia for the suburbs as a place to raise your family. He admits near the end that it is "rambling", so I won't hesitate to excerpt bits of it and comment upon them.

I have surprised myself by how much I've fallen out of love with idea of living in the city, over the suburbs. With kids, it's just too exhausting. I'd have to make a lot more money than I do now to make it worthwhile. Whenever we get ready to buy our next house, it's not going to be in the city―here in Philly, there's a four percent tax added to your wages―but in one of the suburbs. I'd be lying if I said schools weren't a big part of it. We can't afford private schools where we live now, and the urban public school in our neighborhood leaves much to be desired, for the usual reasons.

Really. This is like stating, for the record, that as much as you find smoking sort of cool you have discovered that, for you, it negatively affects your health.

The older I get, and the older my kids get, the less tolerance I have for the kinds of things that I didn't much mind when I was younger and in love with city life.... I do think it's important to re-examine one's beliefs and assumptions in light of the evidence of one's experience, and that's what I'm trying to do here.

Kudos to Rod for admitting this. Seriously. One of the big problems that I had with the whole New Urbanist slant in Crunchy Conservatism is that the people in love with the urban are almost all childless academic anti-capitalists of the liberal persuasion who never mention kids and look down at people who have too many of them. They think that's too suburban, no doubt.

Erin brings up the old house thing in the combox thread, wondering if I'd changed my mind about the desirability of old houses since writing my book, which I completed in the first months of living in our old house in Dallas. Yes, I have....

A little vague, after all, there are old houses and there are old houses, i.e., junk. But it seems like the man can finally see why someone who claims to be a Christian might decide it's not immoral to purchase a split level built in 1970.

It's not at all that I've decided, or am moving toward deciding, that suburbia is utopia. I firmly believe the way we Americans built our suburbs was foolish and not amenable to human flourishing in community....

An obligatory knee-jerk disclaimer which he goes on to contradict...

[S]everal colleagues who live in the Philly suburbs, and who read my bit about the incivility, potential danger and resulting anxiety from the Fourth of July fireworks celebration downtown pointed out that they had gone to their local suburban town's Fourth of July celebration, and it was very communal and peaceful and pleasant. It sounded great. You can bet that if we're still in this neighborhood next Fourth of July, that we'll take our picnic blanket and go out to one of the burbs my colleagues mentioned. Why would I have to go out to a suburb to have the kind of communal festival experience I want, rather than in the city, where, according to my theory, this sort of thing should be more possible? I think about that ... and will think more about that when my wife and I start thinking once again about investing in a house.

The truth is that Rod's theory is just that―a theory. Reality for most people I know is quite a bit different. Most of the time I've found festivities in a suburb to be much more communal and friendly than those in a city, and more akin to that small town feel that everybody idealizes. Rod puts his finger right on the thing I've always rejected when he says "rather than in the city, where, according to my theory, this sort of thing should be more possible". My question is this: what makes it more possible to experience a communal festival in a city? Then he mentions another living room elephant.

No place is an Athenian republic, but considering the dysfunction of the Dallas city council, and the prospect that city taxpayers were going to be paying more taxes for fewer services, and the guarantee of dysfunctional government, I developed a Strange New Respect for the boring dependability and competence of suburban government.

Boring is good when it comes to government. All adults know this. I don't know what really makes suburban officials boring other than the fact that they are white people. I suppose I'm not allowed to speculate whether that makes them more competent.

[F]ar from being a franchise-eatery wasteland, the 'burbs often have the best ethnic restaurants).

Talk to some of the restaurateurs around Cleveland, especially in the Asian immigrant community, about why they moved away from downtown. You'll get an earful, and since none of their ancestors were plantation owners, they will not hesitate to be specific about which population subsection is the problem.

Well, I don't really want to skewer Rod much for this post. Even though a lot of stuff here is standard Rod fare (what's with pulling David Brooks in with his newly discovered anti-Walmart shtick? Is Brooks the poster child for male menopause or what?) I think it at least represents progress in the development of proper tolerance for the tastes of other Americans. My contention all along is that talking about remaining in a metropolitan area like it is some moral high-road is problematic if not simply un-Christian. Your first duty is to your family, not to the entire population of your region, and when you find needles in the driveway, who needs Gideon's fleece? This post also might be the man's attempt to allay his guilt before he settles into a less crunchy home with newer construction. So in addition to a clean conscience he might get insulation and windows that work as an added bonus. So I raise a glass of Bud to the man, get it while it's on sale at Marc's.


  1. At what point does someone's slowness in grasping the obvious allow me to publicly refer to same as a moron (in the clinical sense of course)? Please consider this question to be purely rhetorical

  2. So Dreher is now Captain Obvious. I grew up in Bay Village, and I've always been in love with suburban life. We could ride our bikes and walk all over Bay Village as kids without a qualm. That's the kind of life I want for my kids too.

    On the other hand, I think I've mentioned before that we go to church in a poor neighborhood in Cleveland (near where St. Prokop's used to be.) The end of our Good Friday service was disrupted this year by two "baby-daddies" fighting just down the block. About a month ago a woman was threatening a man in the street directly in front of our church with a broken bottle. Why put your kids through that on a day-to-day basis if you can avoid it?

    I have a single friend who would love to live in downtown Chicago, not for any high moral reasons, but because she enjoys the restaurants and shopping. But as you point out, she's single so things like schools don't matter to her.

    It'd be great if every neighborhood was nice and safe and friendly. Reality is that original sin gets in the way. You do what you have to do for your family.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. ooooh, I have TONS to comment on here, LOL. But must get ready for Mass now...more later. Cain't wait!

  5. Kathleen's comment was directed at a spam comment which stated "People throw stones only at trees with fruit on them." It also posted a URL which probably linked to Chinese p*rn....

    Barb, I'm hereby issuing an open invitation for you and your family to come over and visit. If you can't make it, at least tell me what your license plate is so I don't cut you off on Lorain like I do to all the other polite mid-western drivers.

  6. OK, I'm cracking into the comments now. I like this one from "AnotherBeliever":

    Downtown living is a great idea if you can get work downtown. The whole point of living in such an area is to cut down on sprawl and to make it convenient for folks to live and conduct business without being so heavily reliant on cars. But a lot of businesses and government agencies have moved out of downtown same as the people. You'll see masses of empty buildings on the now mis-named "Main" streets in most of our mid-size cities. You can still make out the ghosts of signs on some of them - that used to be Macy's, that used to be Kohl's, all of that was banks, the old Federal building was there, that was the TV station. Streetcars used to run right by all of it, and I'm talking about cities with fewer than 200,000 residents, not NYC.
    This has happened to a lot of people who have businesses in Cleveland. Taxes are higher, parking is higher, costs for insurance are higher I'm pretty sure, etc. So the business will relocate to just about anywhere else. Why not grab a place in N. Olmsted, my old nabe, where you are literally 10 minutes from the airport and the cops actually arrest criminals? Et cetera.

    Wow! Another one for the record books!! Cleveland beats Detroit for losing population!

    So supposedly there is a conspiracy in the City of Cleveland to annex inner ring suburbs. Some guy was telling me about it once who used to work for RTA. I guess the social engineers who run our cities want to fight self-directed urban sprawl with centralized urban sprawl. That makes sense to these geniuses who use the plantation model to manage the population.

  7. Pauli, we would love to visit! And my license plate is BTEG. Seriously. :)

    Mr. Evil Genius works downtown, but I drive him to the Park-n-Ride in Westlake most days. He's worked outside of downtown also, though. Actually, at least in IT, you change jobs so often it doesn't make sense to live where you work.

  8. Here's Erin Manning's comment:

    Recently you wrote about thinking twice about an older home, and now this post suggests you may be headed to suburbia, which makes me wish you'd revisit that chapter (so to speak) and talk about how your ideas have changed, or how, perhaps, the philosophy is still there but the realities are different, etc.

    A few thoughts.

    The philosophy Erin references--or to use Rod's term, "theory"--can be summed up briefly as A steaming dish of Turd Polishing with a side order of Straw-man Toppling. It's purely wishful thinking to say a city should be a wonderful place of community and sharing while a less urban area lying nearby outside is a place of degeneracy, selfishness and wasteful indulgence.

    Generalizations are valuable for talk about real estate prices and school quality, but I reject the notion that there is such a place as "suburbia" which an individual can move to. There are all different kinds of suburbs out there. No one talks about "urbia" in this discussion referring to "whatever city is in the midst of all these non-city communities". This seems to be because the metro-evangelists presuppose the city is a normative dwelling place and the suburb is an unnatural appendage constructed by rebellious prodigals who reject their metro-patrimony. Real people who live in actual suburbs see their towns as places which grew up naturally to allow people to survive the city's bad effects while still enjoying the good the city has to offer. Why not insulate yourself from danger as humans have done since the beginning of history?

    I've been doing some research on the 'net about the concept of the city; I'm very interested in reading an essay by a professor Raymond B. Marcin entitled "The City of Babel: Yesterday and Today". I believe that cities have always been tempted by the sin of pride just as Babel was. Obviously so are smaller towns/suburbs to a degree, but the bigger you are the harder you fall. This whole fevered pitch about LeBron James is a good example of corporate metropolitan wounded pride, for example. But I'll bet you anything that most of the New Urbanists do very little thinking about the Tower of Babel and whether or not it may be the archetype of a modern city.

  9. So, so much to say about this huge and complex topic. Can only spout a bit of it now....

    When I worked in downtown Boston (Tremont Street), I absolutely loved it. I was young and single; all my colleagues were young and single; we were all crazed workaholics; we went out to eat (and drink) a fair amount; etc. etc. etc.

    But the operative phrase there is "young and single." Especially "single." Single and childless.

    And, unlike Rod (apparently), I made full use of the city. I was an opera fanatic, and I went to the opera all the time, both when the Met was in town and when the Boston Opera was having its season. I went to the Science Museum, the Aquarium, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Gardner Museum, the street festivals (like St Anthony's in the North End), the outdoor restaurants at Faneuil Hall (amazing people show), and so on. Loved it all. (OK, I'm kind of missing it a little bit, just writing about it like this. LOL.)

    But the city drains your energy and completely overwhelms you (sensory overload). It can seem really soulless and impersonal. (Urban parishes are the unfriendliest places on earth, IMHO.)

    Above all, IMHO, the city is a rotten place to raise kids. A concrete playground is simply no substitute for a big backyard. But that's what we've all been saying, so I guess I'm Captain Obvious, too, LOL.

    I remember visiting New York City once for a conference. The city's energy and dynamism were exhilarating. I can totally understand why some people want to live in Manhattan. But who in his right mind would raise kids there?

    OK, enough pointless rambling. Next: my reflections on the y'all can't wait. ;) But first I hafta go out on the porch to enjoy the blue skies and green greenery and stuff with the kids.

  10. But that's what we've all been saying, so I guess I'm Captain Obvious, too, LOL.

    The point is that obviously this stuff isn't obvious to some, esp. if they've bought in to all the tripe about the evils of sprawl, SUVs and chain restaurants. There is tons of it out there, and I'd had my fill of it YEARS before I'd heard about Dreher. It comes straight out of academia from progressives who still believe in over-population.

    Natch when I heard there was a conservative Catholic convert (at the time) who was parroting the rhetoric and assigning moral values to real estate decisions it sort of shocked and horrified me. My feeling has always been that if you don't like chain restaurants, then don't eat there. But don't preach a sermon about it, gee whiz. That's what pulled me into this discussion to begin with.

    Coincidentally, my friend Janice recently emailed me the following:

    If you ever wondered what side of the fence you sit on, this is a great test!

    If a conservative doesn't like guns, he doesn't buy one.
    If a liberal doesn't like guns, he wants all guns outlawed.

    If a conservative is a vegetarian, he doesn't eat meat..
    If a liberal is a vegetarian, he wants all meat products banned for everyone.

    If a conservative is homosexual, he quietly leads his life.
    If a liberal is homosexual, he demands legislated respect.

    If a conservative is down-and-out, he thinks about how to better his situation.
    A liberal wonders who is going to take care of him.

    If a conservative doesn't like a talk show host, he switches channels.
    Liberals demand that those they don't like be shut down.

    If a conservative is a non-believer, he doesn't go to church.
    A liberal non-believer wants any mention of God and religion silenced.
    (Unless it's a foreign religion, of course!)

    If a conservative decides he needs health care, he goes about shopping for it, or may choose a job that provides it.
    A liberal demands that the rest of us pay for his.

    If a conservative reads this, he'll forward it so his friends can have a good laugh.
    A liberal will delete it because he's "offended".

    Well, I forwarded it to you.

  11. A few random comments come to mind:

    1) "It's the culture, stupid." Not urban vs. suburban, or whether one has to drive a car (gasp!). Good schools and peaceful order are objectively good. Crime is objectively bad. A culture that values the former is better. Even if you have to drive a car to buy groceries.

    2) Funny thing about Utopia -- nobody wants to live there. More's Utopia makes that point with the traveler who travels the world for years telling everyone about Utopia but doesn't go back himself. John Lennon wrote the song Imagine, but he lived on the Upper West Side.

    3) One can hope that Our Hero begins to question some of his other Crunchy assumptions, and eventually look into the whole premise. But he's got a ways to go before he gets there, to wit: "I think any place that makes you car-dependent is bad for your soul and the community's soul. The way we built suburbia in the 20th century was foolish and destructive in a number of ways..

    A car is just a car. It's a tool. What happens to your soul is up to you, in a car or otherwise.

  12. Pikkumatti, great thought, thanks, especially about John Lennon/Imagine, lol. You might also mention Al Gore's limousine entourages.

    A car is just a car. It's a tool. What happens to your soul is up to you, in a car or otherwise.

    Nothing could be clearer from Catholic teaching about how to "use this world". Maybe that's one of the reasons he ultimately left. If I spend too much time waxing my car and becoming attached to it, or I purposefully neglect to maintain it properly so that it becomes dangerous, or if I use it to seduce (very stupid) women, or if I drive it recklessly, etc.--all these things endanger my soul. But the jump to saying/insinuating that car use or ownership is intrinsically evil is not logical or Catholic.

    This kind of thinking along with environmentalism, political correctness and health fanaticism is all part of the "replacement morality" which originates from the aformentioned liberal folks who have given up traditional Christian morality and want to do away with it.

  13. Growth in wisdom doesn't occur by becoming smarter, but by becoming quieter.

  14. Pikkamutti, Pauli, Tom -- y'all speak much wisdom! And Pauli, your friend Janice's observations are excellent.

    "A car is just a car" -- eggzackly!

  15. "[Narcissism] is what you get when you have a culture built on emotivism, which is the philosophical view that feelings determine the truthfulness of a proposition."

    Dreher today. not kidding.

  16. By dressing it up as a "philosophical view," Rod makes it safe to talk about. "Emotivism" isn't something he thinks, it's something he does.

  17. Perceptive, Tom. Yeah, I never heard anyone say, "As for my philosophical view, I'm an emotivist narcissist."

  18. Our Hero left out one word in his definition of emotivism. I'll correct it for him:

    [Narcissism] is what you get when you have a culture built on emotivism, which is the philosophical view that your feelings determine the truthfulness of a proposition."

    Dreher's own feelings are exempt from this indictment, of course.