Monday, May 23, 2005

If This Is Paradise I Wish I Had a Lawnmower

Twenty-two bonus blog points if you can tell me the source of the title.

EDIT: Please read the comments after this. I won't violate the post, but Connor shot me down in fashions I consider extremely productive. END OF EDIT.

I went away last weekend in celebration of Sarah's birthday. Her mother owns some land in Wisconsin, with an RV, and a whole bunch of us spent the night on there, cooking corn and potatoes on a campfire, looking at stars, doing as the bears and the Pope do in the woods, playing Marco Polo and calling back and forth to cows (seriously, the cows responded) in a valley the next day. Rarely do I have such a good time, and of course the wonderful people present were a large part of it, but something changes the instant I'm out of urbanity and urban environs, something just completely lightens--something other than the literal air, I mean. I've lived in major, MAJOR urban areas all my life, and lately pastoralia has been on my mind. Why and how do people make the choices to live where they do, particularly with regards to raising children, and how exactly *do* these choices change us?

As the lifelong urban dweller that I am, I felt all right about completely belittling suburbs, about not honoring or respecting the choice to live in them, until a (fairly) recent conversation with Virginia. She mentioned the disparity that often exists both between the property values in smaller cities and their suburbs, and between the public schools in same. Having grown up in New York and been a grown-up in Chicago, I assumed that in a city there are always decent cheaper neighborhoods to be found, and that if you're putting that kind of focus on your child's education in the first place, there are always better public education options to be found--magnet schools, gifted programs, charter schools, bla bla bla etcetera. But those educational movements, Virginia pointed out, do not always flourish in smaller cities, and in such cities, the culture of the suburbs is often not so drastically different from the culture of urban living. (In the suburbs of New York and of Chicago, it is a seriously different culture.) So I've had to tone down, or at least revise, that opinion: I'm allowed to be contemptuous of subruban living when we're talking about the suburbs of major cities.

So then, why am I contemptuous of suburban living in the suburbs of major cities? First, because I'm a snob, and I think the cultural offerings of a city and the inspiration that population diversity and density lend to artists of all kinds are really important. It's not that you can't do art in the suburbs, it's not even that you can't be good at art in the suburbs, it's simply that all artists--be they in middle school, undergraduate conservatories, or suburban residents their entire life--are limited by being around people like themselves all the time. It saps depth from Hollywood actors, too. Secondly, because that diversity of community is important even if you're not an artist. I think it's important to raise your children in a diverse environment, and that the concerns about children's safety in the city often voiced by suburban-dwellers are cop-outs. If you're of a class where you're capable of making this choice in the first place (i.e. you have the capital and the credit rating for it), you'll be able to live in an urban neighborhood where you're just as safe as you'd be in the suburbs. The reason cities overall have a higher crime rate is because they have larger populations and contain subsidized housing, which makes it easier for people of low income to live there, and if you're desperately poor and feel that society holds some responsibility for that, which it usually does, you're a lot more likely to commit crimes either as an income-generator or out of anger. Your backyard or lack thereof will be as safe as it was in the suburbs, which isn't quite as safe as some would have you believe anyway. If you don't have kids, you still have these responsibilities to yourself. I understand the desire to have a small and supportive community, but that exists in urban neighborhoods while allowing you to feel you're also part of a larger context, the city itself, and I think that balance not only cool but important, because it shows you the multiple aspects of living in the nation as a citizen and in the world, the responsibilities and balances that come with it, that no one should be insulated from.

SIDEBAR: Okay, yeah, I recognize that that's opinionated and unfair. It's a blog, so I suppose I'm allowed, but I acknowledge that any logic I managed to insert into that doesn't make it any more generous, nor does it make it come from experience, and a good number of people I love come from suburbia. Therefore, if you have an argument, you should make it.

THIS IS NO LONGER A SIDEBAR: But then there's pastoralia. Probably like many people who grew up in major urban areas, I'm totally amazed by the rural. Land that goes on for miles, just being land, and nothing looks the same. People who choose to have the land be part of their community. Why do I accept rural living, which lacks a lot of the same things that suburban living lacks, when I can't accept suburban living? I want to say that it's associated with a choice to go *to* something, rather than a choice *not* to be in something, but that's not always the case--I think as many rural as suburban dwellers move to escape the relentlessness of city life. The transformation in the case of rural is more complete, certainly, and I appreciate the lack of ambivalence--not the lack of ambivalence, I like ambivalence, but the ability to make big and definitive decisions in spite of ambivalence. But I don't want to see it solely as a rejection of urban living; it's also its own thing. Maybe that's it: as I see it, suburban living is defined as the absence of some elements (of urban living) without the full addition of other elements (of rural living) to compensate. Rural living honestly has natural culture in proportion to what it may lack in human/artistic/whatever culture by means of not being urban and not having that population density or (sometimes, as in the case of small cities) monetary incentives for artists. Natural culture, the culture of humanity's interaction with things it did not create or build, is the absence I'm feeling these days.

Obviously, I've a penchant for human culture. I recall in particular one night when I was on the Staten Island Ferry with Mel, going towards Staten Island and away from Manhattan . . . I honestly can't remember if this was before or after September 11, which given that we were departing from the southern end of the island (where the towers once were) is *weird.* I think after, but I'm really not certain. Anyway, it was night and we stood at the back of the ferry and looked at the buildings, and Mel said, "And sometimes I think that man made all this, almost everything I can see, and it's amazing." Those are words into which I never would have put it, but it *is* amazing. What a piece of work, indeed. But then sometimes the factor of our having eliminated or confined everything we ("we" being humanity) might not be able to control is a little creepy.

I recognize that for some people it's the city that feels out of their hands, but it's not that way to me: a good day in the city makes me believe I can control everything, or if not everything (I'd actually hate that) at least enough of what happens to me that if things are in a bad direction I know how to change them. On a bad day in the city, I still feel I *should* be able to control that much, but I can't. Leaving the city I immediately have a sense of how much I don't control and become much more okay with that. That is probably a different process if, say, you live in a rural area in order to be a farmer and your livelihood is entirely dependent upon the balance of control and lack thereof. But still, living in a rural area seems to never force you into the illusion of invincibility--in fact, it forces you into the other direction. In some ways, the only way to live well in a city is to occasionally have that illusion, and the only way to live well in a rural area is not to do so.

I *value* the illusion of invincibility. Is that seriously problematic, or not?


At 10:07 AM, Blogger Connor said...

Ah, Gemma,

You asked for argument, so I will oblige. Nothing overwhelming: I do get the sense that one only exchanges one invincibility for another, and I don't recognize the reference in the blog title. I do think I follow your observation that a rural life has more fundamentally different priorities, whereas suburban is more of a derivation of urban life.

But I do have some substantial quibbles with your statements regarding suburbs and crime.

The problem I have with your statements on suburbs is that I think you've taken the general defintion (if I might, "a community economically dependent upon and geographically contiguous to a larger urban center") and applied conditions such as diversity and artistic resources that may only be true of some suburbs. Your statements may well apply to Schaumburg or Napierville (I don't know NYC suburbs at *all*), but there's more diversity in suburbs than just schooling and housing values.

Here's an example.

You state that "In the suburbs of New York and of Chicago, it is a seriously different culture," but this itself varies considerably. I think Evanston, Skokie, and Oak Park are sufficient arguments, but Calumet City or Cicero even more so. These are neighborhoods that offer more of both diversities you value, arguably than much of Chicago itself. There are parts of the Northwest side that are incredibly homogenous, maybe not in the stereotypical suburban way, but certainly, just as demographically homogenous as Schaumburg or Napierville. Meanwhile Berwyn is several miles removed from Chicago, but is still a major port of entry for Czech and Mexican immigrants, and boasts a magnet program of sorts.

There is some basis in reality for the observations you make about suburbs... there is something about the basic idea of a suburb being a dispersal that lends itself to homogeneity, and the fact that the major wave of suburbanization consisted largely people trying to avoid diverse communities. But I think there are enough exceptions that they cease to be simply exceptions. Rather, homogeneity is only a very broadly observed trend. I'm very cautious about judging suburbs simply on account of their being suburbs.

Second, I understand what you're trying to say about crime, but I think you're also making some huge assumptions here. Crime does, broadly speaking, have a lot to do with standard-of-living and density. That said, there are plenty of high crime areas that have virtually no subsidized housing or are relatively low density. Flint, for example, probably has less of both, than many of Chicago's more prosperous areas. That's more of just a heads up, though, because there are also circumstances in which subsidize housing concretely helps a community without noticably impacting the crime rate.

~ Connor

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Ammegg said...

Okay, insubstantial quibble first, because mostly I recognize these arguments as quite good and things I hadn't thought of--but being from the U of C (I've recently decided this is the main difference that comes with U of C training), I have to argue everything I have to say, even when I know you're mostly right. And that quibble is: the diversity or lack thereof in particular urban *neighborhoods* is inconsequential in light of my major point, which is that even when neighborhoods are not diverse, they're contained in the larger context of a city and that usually (though not always) causes residents thereof to enter different parts of the city and experience diversity on some level. . . . Which I guess gets circular, because of commuters, but generally they have only one destination. Also, technically I think Evanston's now part of the Chicago metro area.

That said.

You're right about crime; I don't think I was totally clear with what I wanted to say, because I certainly didn't mean to imply that subsidized housing causes crime or anysuch. What that is is the explanation for why there is often higher crime in areas that have lower standards of living and greater population density--in the major urban areas I've experienced, those areas tend to be the areas primarily composed of subsidized housing. I'm relieved to know that subsidized housing isn't like that everywhere--I guess I could have imagined that was the case for smaller cities, but I really didn't know. I'm glad to know that city governments care about it in some places, 'cause here they certainly don't. But it's mostly just that I feel like when urban crime rates are compared to suburban crime rates, it's rarely done by per capita percentages.

As to diversity, I still don't feel it's been proven to me in any Chicago suburb I've entered, including Skokie and Oak Park (and Wilmette, hoo boy, Wilmette). I'm talking more about class than about racial/ethnic/national background. And not that everyone in the suburbs is the same as every other surrounding suburb--maybe I need to be able to see strings of suburbs more as communities, "the western suburbs" and so forth--simply that each small community strikes me as fairly uniform. But maybe to really make these statements I'm required to live in one for a while. After all, I can't imagine I've spent more time anywhere in Chicago et environs than you have, with the possible exception of South Austin.

At 11:05 AM, Blogger Ammegg said...

P.S. Talking Heads, "(Nothing But) Flowers"

At 11:18 AM, Blogger Michael said...

Interesting remark about diversity having to do with class, not just ethnicity or race. I once heard our beloved Hyde Park -- which looks diverse as all get out in terms of race (whatever that is) and ethnic and religious identity -- described as a place where blacks and whites stand shoulder to shoulder against the poor. Ouch!


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