Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Grass is Indeed Greener: How I gave up dreaming about the big city and learned to love the suburbs

Rod Dreher, a self-declared "crunchy con" and editor of the Dallas Morning News editorial page, let slip some opinions about suburban living that was a bit surprising coming from him but all too obvious in my own experience. To understand where he is coming from, Dreher has been a major proponent of living a way of life that combines holding conservative political beliefs and choosing to live an authentic lifestyle that rooted that is cherishes nature, traditional family life, community, and faith. "Burkeans with Birkenstocks", in which back-to-the earth values of hippie movement are grafted onto bedrock conservative principles of self-reliance, independence, religiously-based virtue.  They like to consume market-fresh organic produce, protect the environment and live in historic walkable neighborhoods. They agree with most liberals on a whole of host of lifestyle and cultural issues, but depart from them on issues such as taxation and the level of government involvement. It's rather a private choice to live this way, and policy should be designed to grant independence to people who choose it, while encouraging everyone else to be better connected with nature and eschew crass commercialism and sprawl.

Since popular examples of crunchy-cons are still too few, Dreher openly refers to his own daily life to illustrate. He insists on eating food from the farmer's market or at Central Market (an upscale grocery store, which sells both organic products and exquisite foreign brands) while raising chickens in the backyard. He home schools his children, belongs to a small orthodox Catholic parish, and has purchased and restored a small craftsman-style bungalow in a historic yet transitional neighborhood in Dallas. Reading some of his more anecdotal columns, there is an inevitable air of sanctimony when talking about himself, but the benefit to the reader is that he lets you peer inside into how he thinks about a variety of topics as it relates to his life. His writing makes his personality accessible, which allow readers to see someone who constantly confronts doubts about his beliefs and witness how his opinions change.

Recently, Dreher admits that he has been rethinking some of his positions on urban life, prompted by his move from Dallas to Philadelphia:

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. We're homeschooling, so that's not a big deal now. But the fact is, we don't have any practical options now but to homeschool. It wouldn't be that way in the suburbs. Besides, life with kids is just easier in the suburbs. I hate to admit it, but it's true. 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.

Rod Dreher's house in Dallas
Dreher is admitting to the trade-off that comes when choosing to live either in the city or the suburbs-the cultural and social dynamism of the center versus the predictability and calm stability of the fringe. Such differences make the comparing of city to suburb akin to comparing apples to oranges--neither can embody all such characteristics at once.  In the U.S., at least, it seems to be accepted as a given that large traditional cities have problems with crime, poorly run schools, political corruption and social inequality which are compensated with superb cultural facilities, fine historic architecture amidst walkable neighborhoods and major landmarks, all summarized in the term "character". The suburbs around them are usually considered bland, sprawling, and ugly cultural wastelands balanced by being quite safe, uncorrupt, great places to raise and educate children. There are exceptions to this, with well-run large cities (New York City under Giuliani) and poor, chaotic suburbs here and there, but overall, the choice essentially remains taking the good with the bad.  What is important depends on one's stage in life, what the needs of the household are, and to what degree does one need to be surrounded by a sense of cultural sophistication. 

But do these pluses and minuses truly cancel each other out? Don't the bad characteristics cost municipalities more than they gain from the good ones? How bad does crime have to get before residents flee elsewhere? How dysfunctional must the schools get before private schools become the defacto 'public school' and one has to pay quite a bit extra to receive a minimally decent education? How much more taxpayer money must be wasted to finance projects, bribe parasitic special interests, and inflated salaries?  Or one could flip the question by asking oneself how close, how often, and how great must a museum or concert hall has to be and still tolerate alarming signs of urban decay in one's daily life.  How important is a safe, clean and quiet neighborhood compared to resigning oneself to shallow neighbors, dull strip malls, tacky chain restaurants, and cheap architectural fabric?

For Dreher, it seems that more basic, pragmatic concerns have finally won over his qualitative ideals.  Even if it felt right to his conscience to live in a part of the city that was charming, rich in history, and filled with culturally and socially enlightened neighbors like himself, it became over time impossible to disregard that area's serious drawbacks.

In Dallas, we lived in a gentrifying neighborhood, and loved our neighbors, but we'd see gang tags from time to time on our sidewalks, and sometimes we'd lie in bed at night and hear gunshots in the near distance. This is not conducive to bourgeois serenity, especially if you have kids. As I've gotten older, and as my kids have aged, I've come to appreciate the virtues of basic social order more than what you might call "vibrancy" in my community. I would love to have both, but it seems to me that in many large cities, if you are going to have both, you have to be willing and able to pay a premium.

As part of a profession that plays an essential role in the making of culture, architects seem to have a natural tendency to gravitate to places that are major cultural magnets. Like many of my peers, I find it important to surround myself in culture and absorb it deeply, and I continue to relish the idea of regular pilgrimages to places of cultural significance, no matter how obscure (travel with any architect, and you'll find yourself waiting around for hours as your friend take hundreds of pictures and draw dozens of sketches of a building in locale devoid of visitors or businesses). Early in our careers, especially, we are known to forgo more secure jobs in the more economically dynamic, yet less glamorous cities, for a chance to work in a low-paying boutique firm barely scraping by, maintaining an office in the more established cultural capitals with a cost of living so high as so as to render the job no better than an unpaid internship (or even worse, an actual unpaid internship in exchange for working with some 'master'). Economic rationality is not a frequent trait of ours, judging by our inherently unprofitable business structure and the willingness of too many to work for peanuts, or even for free.

It gets no better in the private sphere, either. Architects tend to marry their own, forfeiting any kind of financial security that comes from having a spouse in a different and hopefully more stable industry. After tying the knot, the newlyweds, will actively seek to live in an over-priced yet historically charming neighborhood near the city center.  On top of the inflated monthly mortgage, the numerous repairs and renovations required in many of the historic houses they opt for, they then begin to panic when the time comes to educate their kids, since public schools nearby are usually bad, and private schools keep raising their tuition. If they are lucky enough, there might be an independently governed municipality within city limits (e.g. Highland Park in Dallas) that offers first rate public schools. Naturally, the cost of admission to those schools translates to an escalation in the price of acquiring residency there. Add to that the car note of 'cultivated' European brand and installment payments for their pricey modern furniture from Design Within Reach, and one makes the startling conclusion: Architects and like-minded designer types make perfect citizens for cities riddled with budgetary recklessness and institutional mismanagement, since in many ways they embody such traits at a personal level.

I openly confess to being bitten by the same bug in wanting to live that kind of lifestyle.  For a while, a few years into moving into a suburban community a half-hour away from downtown, I yearned to live closer in, purchase and renovate a 50s-60s ranch home (which qualifies as 'historic' here in Dallas), enjoy walking or biking around the lake and indulge in the more eclectic dining establishments nearby.  The light-rail station would be just a stone's throw away, not to mention all the transit-oriented mixed-use developments predicted to come.  In addition, I would be surrounded by neighbors with whom I share a lot in common, from a preference for the more tasteful architecture of the immediate Postwar period to a greater acceptance of slightly offbeat personalities.

Eventually this bug was drained out of my system. Where did it go? To begin with, though my wife and I were a bit better off than the traditional architect couple, such a move still did not add up financially. The cost to renovate would be considerable, and the return on the investment would not materialize in a market characterized by a very shallow growth in prices.  The schools in the area were problematic, and the thought of having to pay private tuition on top of the outrageous property tax rates within Dallas city limits was unappealing, to say the least.  On top of that, I've found myself sharing less in common with my potential neighbors than I would care to admit.  Over the years (if my writings on this blog are any indication) I've become more of a curmudgeon, as my socio-political leanings have turned more conservative to the point of overriding any appetite for the company of liberal neighbors. Though I tend to feel more at ease socially among your garden-variety liberal than your typical conservative,  I cringe and find myself trying hard not to have my eyes roll out of their sockets when the discussion turns to politics.

But more importantly, the more I examined this kind of urban lifestyle, the more suburban life looked better by comparison. As more time went by, we became more deeply connected to the surrounding community. In the last few years our town was becoming more diverse, and retail and leisure options continued to expand. Though most people in our community often didn't share our intellectual curiosities and tastes, they seemed to cherish our core values all the more.  One of these values is an intolerance for senseless governance, whether it be in enforcing laws, running the school district, or enticing businesses. I've come to realize that this value is critical in sustaining a healthy and growing community. It explains for much of the difference between suburban and urban living, as Dreher remarks here:

But there were differences, and important ones. The educational choices were more appealing [in the suburbs]. The government was more rational (Dallas city government sometimes seems like a bargain between the poor and the rich to squeeze out the middle classes). 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. The restaurants were often better (far from being a franchise-eatery wasteland, the 'burbs often have the best ethnic restaurants). The idea that American suburbs are white-flight havens is antiquated and false; a colleague at the News who covers the Dallas suburbs showed me census stats showing that the suburbs are highly diverse in terms of race and ethnicity; it's just that they're all middle-class people. Because of that, crime was much further away. Nobody lays in their bed in Plano and hears gunshots half a mile away.

Whether one attributes the suburban advantage to fiscal conservatism or to the radical idea that local government should be competent or accountable, it seems to exist in places where all residents are part of an aspiring middle class.  In this place, social hierarchy has been flattened, elitism is openly scorned and equality between all individuals fiercely defended.   People here in the 'burbs are for the most part cordial, and overall social relations in the public realm are horizontal. It is relatively easy to interact with government officials, with your mayor or city council representative living in circumstances not too different from their constituents, such as down your street. Civic involvement by serving on boards and commissions is relatively easy, and their impact on is more significant due to the suburb's smaller size.  Disgruntled citizens can make themselves heard, since council meetings and zoning meetings are sparsely attended, and the microphone is set up for you to use it. Since the suburb's basic infrastructural obligations are small, concerning only with a few streets and utility easements, its expenditures are always being scrutinized. Public amenities such as a park or a library often are rejected by voters several times before they are finally approved. Simply put, one has an easier time making a difference and improving the quality of life of a community in a small suburb, for the simple reason that one is not hindered by all the bureaucratic red tape, cozy and clandestine political and business arrangements among the leadership and overarching hostilities between rival political factions.  If some architects wish to make a positive and more direct contribution to their communities, I can't imagine a better outlet than civic involvement in the suburbs.

Dallas City Hall- a brutalist fortress
for thethe city's political opportunists
and rentseekers.
Even though their ideas seem to hold more currency there, Architects have few outlets to influence what goes on in the big city.  Their scope seems to be limited to designing on behalf of the city's elite, which limits their independence of action. Much of the problem lies in the social inequality that characterizes so many large cities.  As Dreher mentions, Dallas is no stranger to this problem, and instead has accommodated it with tacit arrangement between the city's wealthy elite and the careerist ethnic chieftains that claim to represent the poor.  Though the middle class still exists in pockets around the city, it has mostly fled to the surrounding suburbs over last few decades, thus leaving city issues in the hands of clashing factions of the rich and poor.  The merit of any new capital expenditure or even repair is no longer determined by what's best for the middle class, but rather to what extent it makes the powerbrokers of the rich and poor satisfied.  For the wealthy, that means some financial help in paying for cultural palaces, landmark bridges and parks, and tax breaks or subsidies for high-end residential or commercial projects. For the poor, money flowing to low-cost housing or business development in their sector is appreciated so long that their brokers get enough kick-backs from the deals. For the middle class, they get nothing but to hit with high taxes, under performing schools and a lousy police force.

In such circumstances, many urban architects take sides, and are usually the pockets of the wealthy faction, since that is where there livelihood comes from.  The wealthy also help fund the architects' professional associations and other related nonprofit groups.  Architects consider themselves a vital part of the their city's cultural infrastructure, and thus work in tandem with major art patrons to further enhance their city's stature.  They have no use for fiscal conservatism, especially considering that much of the work is paid for with borrowed money, either through municipal bonds or bank loans.  It's beauty at all costs, and many of them would approve of the Medici model of governance.  And so many architects shun the more democratically-run suburban communities at the fringe, since many of them would nix their grand plans if put to a vote.  Plano, one of the wealthiest cities in the country just north of Dallas, still does not have a decent performing arts facility, since it seems to get voted down every time it's proposed.  In my own town, the incumbent county judge lost his own primary for pursuing the construction of a new courthouse no one seem to want.

Paris in the 1860's- those boulevards
didn't just suddenly appear.  A lot of
demolition and expropriation was
Daniel Burnham, masterplanner for the city of Chicago a sort of god to the urban planners, is famous for saying "make no small plans".  Small plans or for the little towns, the result of democratic compromise and accountability to citizens who are equal to each other.  Big plans require top-down leadership, the marginalization of elected bodies, pay-offs and a highly mobilized political machine to twist the right arms. Big plans have clear winners and losers which require a long time to erase the pain and loss that is often experienced.  Hausmann's changes to Paris seem splendid to us now, but this was far from evident to expropriated Parisians 150 years ago.  Moses' urban renewal schemes were indeed grand and probably enabled New York to continue to thrive today, but Jane Jacobs and her allies continue to remind us of the tremendous toll that was exacted on the city's historic fabric and neighborhoods.

Contrary to many of my peers think, choosing the suburbs to raise my family did not make me a 'sellout' in the fight for more enlightened urban planning and architecture. Rather, it has been empowering by allowing me to act independently in the community.  Instead of siding with the elite urban factions of a big city on almost every issue, I can relate with others on a more equal basis, and the debate is not marred by class division.  Suburban living can broaden one's outlook about how a community of equals come together, what makes them work, and what local government is expected to do.  One  learns that local government is about serving their constituents as fairly as possible, and not simply about bending to the will of a small group's costly fetishes.  Institutional competence and economic competitiveness comes takes precedence here, and no amount of pretty facades and beautiful hardscape can conceal it.  Victories for enlightened design are admitted small in the suburbs, but you can claim them as more virtuously accomplished, taking little from taxpayers or compromising the town's financial health.

More importantly, as Dreher alludes, the prosperous American suburb has become a beacon to bourgeois stability and social decency.  Without this social glue brought about by bourgeois values that tempers the interaction between different individuals and groups, public life becomes mired in tribalism and politics reduced to us versus them and who can grab the most money from the coffers before anybody notices.  I sincerely wish architects and planners could champion the bourgeois order, or at least to take it into account even if they disagree with it.  On paper architects are solidly middle class, and we inculcate many bourgeois values to our children even as we put up and feed off the balkanization of city life.  The bourgeois mentality should guide not only what we should build, but who are building it for on how it will be cared for (and paid for) in the long term. We should design for wealthy clients without pressing them to take on more expense to result in a crassly indulgent building. We should design for those much less wealthy with the understanding that other social problems may overwhelm the benefits of what you do for them, and that a minimum level of responsibility on their part is necessary for your project to succeed.

Architecture is about giving a visual order to a physical space. It far too often ignores the social order that animates and gives an emotional significance that space. To furnish a beautiful space for a community in which order and decency has broken down is similar to clothing a terminally sick person with fashionable threads. Suburban life can teach the reverse, in which a healthy body can always benefit from additional embellishment. The most important thing, though, is that this body stays healthy.


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