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Friday, June 16, 2006 | There are no suburbs here. There is only a mirror reflecting the pathology of our society into every community. – Wiliam Fulton
Wednesday evening, in the last exam of my college career, I was asked to write an essay on the future of suburbia, and whether or not I thought that any of the solutions proposed to solve its problems – yes, suburbia has problems – could work.
What a good question that was: not one that merely masks a request for regurgitation and/or fawning over a professor’s apparent brilliance, but instead asked us to sit in the expert’s seat and give an informed prediction.
I didn’t know what to say.
Most residents of San Diego are suburbanites. If you rarely leave the house to do anything – like go to work or rent a movie – without first getting in a car, you probably live in a suburb. If you rarely see people who are less affluent, you probably live in a suburb. If you had to accept a list of rules about what you could or could not do to the home you own, you probably live in a suburb.
Why do you live there? (That’s not a rhetorical question – please write an e-mail and tell me your story. The answer to my final college question depends on your answer.)
Most of the experts see your motivations as a problem that needs to be solved, because the suburban way of life exacts a toll on society that we can’t perpetually afford. Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth” points to the obvious environmental impact of car-dependent urban planning (or lack thereof), but even electric cars wouldn’t fix the suburbs.
Their most important impact – and this is where your responses come in – is the mindset they allegedly facilitate, what planning expert Wiliam Fulton calls “cocoon citizenship.”
In short, smart, wealthy and motivated people draw up behind their walls and gates and the gleaming grilles of their pothole-proof SUVs, and subsequently cease to give a damn about what happens to anyone outside, especially in that big metropolis just over the horizon. They may be active in their local communities, but they don’t see how their well-being is related to everyone else’s. They fear the city and don’t want to pay for its problems – hell, they don’t even want to read about them in their newspaper.
And what happens to the metropolis, since most of the money, talent and ambition is gone, is that it dies – its politicians get corrupt and lazy, its potholes get bigger instead of fixed, and its neighborhoods get blighted and dangerous.
Cocoon citizenship is the essence of the suburban illusion, that we can escape the problems of society merely by ignoring them. But what are we really trying to escape?
That’s where my final question comes in. Lots of professional intellectuals have theorized and conceptualized and operationalized grand concepts to save Americans from the destructive paradise they want so badly – but lots of them still don’t really understand why so many people want it.
The academic explanation for the popularity of the suburbs looks down at the seas of stucco and says that the people who live there bought a lie. That what they thought was urban crime just follows their flight to the suburbs (ask the residents of Carmel Valley, whose crime rate is climbing along with police response times.) That their “communities” are vapid stand-ins for a vibrant social life. That their gates are useless, even when they’re not being repaired.
And while those critics are frequently correct, calling suburbanites stupid is going to encourage further retreat, not meaningful change – and it assumes that there’s nothing good to find in suburbia.
Finding that good is the key to answering my professor’s question. If it turns out that people flock to suburbia because they like that everything looks the same, enjoy driving everywhere and don’t want to be around people different (economically or otherwise) from them, then I think we’re screwed. Or maybe we do just need electric cars.
But, if instead our love for the hinterlands is motivated by the fact that they provide something people think city life does not – like, say, good schools – it’s not inconceivable that we could transfer those qualities somewhere else.
We’re resuscitating downtown San Diego right now, at least physically – the easiest part, because there are lots of chances to make money on it. How we will fix the city’s political problems, which are emblematic of the consequences of cocoon citizenship, is a bigger challenge, especially given the particulars of the city: It doesn’t help that our City Council members are responsible first to a district and second to the greater good, or that the political boundaries of the city encompass so many suburban cocoons.
Part of the solution is media like this Web site, which has largely earned its reputation by elucidating the consequences of cocoon citizenship. But it is of course bigger than that. Illusions must be broken. Attitudes must change. And people – both the suburbanites and the urbanites – must be willing to listen to each other.
Many San Diegans condemn Los Angeles – “the eternal suburb” – and swear not to become it. But look around: our city is growing in its image.