Why Do We Hate the Suburbs? by Keith Miller

Suburbs have been getting a bad rap for a while now. But recently, Anthony Bradley struck a nerve in his probing post on the dysfunctions of Evangelical twenty-somethings. He blames two salient ideas: the “missional narcissism” of the Radicals and the anti-suburban dictates of the Metro-Evangelicals. Both trends are animated by the conviction that the comfortable, consumer-driven suburban life of the previous generation of Evangelicals was a travesty. The young people Bradley is encountering are paralyzed for fear they will recreate their parents’ lifestyle choices and hold down hum-drum jobs in a peaceful ‘burb.

Bradley, while spurring these young folks to action, did not actually defend the suburban lifestyle—chiding the “lukewarm Christians” living in “safety, comfort, and material ease” there—he just thought the Radicals and Metro-Evangelicals were overreacting.

In response to Bradley’s mild critique of this reflexive anti-suburbanism, the editors at Fare Forward reflexively proclaimed their anti-sburbanism:

[T]here are some things deeply unChristian, and deeply counter to even natural virtue, in the suburbs. . . [A]s the buzz around Rod Dreher’s latest book on moving home, a lot of the anti-suburban sentiment comes from people who support small town living just as much as from those who support city living. And the thing that unites the city and the country against the suburbs is the belief that the suburbs are not, as a matter of fact, ordinary, natural life, but a strange artificial construct that hinders ordinary lives and ordinary relationships.

In other words, “No, really, suburbs are that bad.”

I am prepared to say the unthinkable: suburbs are good. Stay with me now. While suburbs have suffered decades of derogatory propaganda, there is still much to be commended. In fact, I wonder if the only reason we think suburbs are bad is because we were told they were bad and we believed it.

Hating the Suburbs Since 1921
Denigrating suburban living has been a favorite pastime amongst the hip-cool set for almost a century. Joel Kotkin outlines some of this history in a fabulous post on his New Geography blog. Since the 1920’s when Lewis Mumford described the expansion of New York’s outer boroughs as a “dissolute landscape” and “a no-man’s land which was neither town or country” the chattering class has been convinced that suburbia is eternally boring and somewhat sinister. F. Scott Fitzgerald expressed this jazz age sentiment in The Great Gatsby by describing the inferiority of the “bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions.”

The condescension only accelerated after the Second World War and the ensuing boom of suburbanization:

In the 1950s, the rise of mass-produced suburbs like Levittown, New York, and Lakewood, California, sparked even more extreme criticism. Not everyone benefited from the innovation that allowed the Levitts to pioneer homes costing on average just $8,000—African-Americans were excluded from the original development—but for many middle- and working-class American whites, the housing and suburban booms represented an enormous step forward. The new low-cost suburbia, wrote Robert Bruegmann in his compact history of sprawl, “provided the surest way to obtain some of the privacy, mobility and choice that once were available only to the wealthiest and most powerful members of society.

The urban gentry and intelligentsia, though, disdained this voluntary migration. Perhaps the most bitter critic was the great urbanist Jane Jacobs. An aficionado of the old, highly diverse urban districts of Manhattan, Jacobs not only hated trendsetter Los Angeles but dismissed the bedroom communities of Queens and Staten Island with the memorable phrase, “The Great Blight of Dullness.” The 1960s social critic William Whyte, who, unlike Jacobs, at least bothered to study suburbs close up, denounced them as hopelessly conformist and stultifying. Like many later critics, he predicted in Fortune that people and companies would tire of them and return to the city core.

—from Joel Kotkin’s The Triumph of Suburbia. Watch Kotkin’s Q Talk on the future of the suburbs.

In recent decades, New Urbanists have taken up where Jacobs left off. They extol the virtues of compact center cities and lament the continued bane of suburban sprawl. Some of the modern rejection of suburbia now features argumentation about carbon footprints and climate change. But that is largely a retrofitting of the old aesthetic prejudice with scientific-sounding rhetoric.

Suburb as suffocating, anti-human landscapes has also become one of the most clichéd themes in twentieth century literature and film. From Babbitt and Revolutionary Road, to Pleasantville and American Beauty, the creative class seems quite certain that suburbs, well, suck.

Have Evangelicals Bought Into This Critique?
In light of this barrage, it would be unsurprising if we did not eventually become convinced there is something morally suspect—even unChristian—about suburban life.

Here are a few of the most prominent Christian objections to living in the suburbs. How many of them hold up to even a slight bit of scrutiny?

Suburbs are inauthentic: I confess to not quite understanding what this means. Yes, suburban things are often newer and feature less exposed brick, but how is that a moral argument?
Suburbs are consumeristic: No more than large cities.
Suburbs are morally repressive: Wait, overt exhibition of immorality is a good thing?
Suburbs lack diversity: The most diverse places in the country are suburbs.
Suburbs are full of a lot of Evangelicals who vote Republican: Oh, maybe now we’re getting somewhere…

Obviously, each of these charges deserves an article of its own to address these issues with the requisite nuance, but even the one-liner responses should cause us to think. Why are we down on suburbs? Do we have a biblically grounded objection rooted in our personal experiences, or have we merely baptized a secular prejudice and called it Christian ethics?