Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Fresh Air? Times Square!

This post will be more rambling than usual. It germinated over last weekend, when Atrios was leading a discussion of city living, suburban living, and why people with children are so averse to the idea of raising them in a big city. By "people" he is, and I am, probably thinking of Atrios's readership: Bobos, Yuppies, strivers, Merlot moms, Dickel dads.

What I'm talking about is my sense that there are large numbers of people who would consider someone who chose to raise their kids in an urban environment to be, well, out of their minds. And, that would be the case even if you took the top two "why I love the suburbs" reasons off the table - schools and crime. If you provided more decent school opportunities in urban areas and substantially reduced crime, they would still consider it nuts to raise your kids in the city.

My first thought was that he was describing a caricature of an urban-phobic parent. Turning the tables rhetorically, I'm sure there were a few rural-phobes who thought that "Deliverance" was a documentary, but only a very few. So I posted a comment at Atrios about public schools, which was a little wonky, and ignored the part where he explicitly took schools off the table.

Then darned if a couple of commenters didn't live up to the caricature. One guy wrote that he had to protect his kids from gang culture. Damn, buddy, we weren't suggesting you move to Cabrini Green, just to a decent townhouse near the city bus line.

I don't know what type of circles Atrios runs in, but I for one don't know a lot of people who are explicitly mulling a choice between, for instance, Philadelphia proper or one of the Main Line suburbs. (Fill in the metro area of your choice. Atrios lives in Philly.) But I do know a lot of folks who have followed this general migratory pattern of (1) city living when young, just out of college, single or newly married, then (2) buy a house in a suburban setting when the baby arrives. I once read an article in the Raleigh paper that referred directly to a (supposedly) common flight path in which young professional types graduate from UNC, go to Atlanta for a few years to have fun and add heft to the resume`, then come back to Raleigh or Greensboro or where have you to settle down. But generally, people don't talk about it as a deliberate plan, they do it semi-instinctively. My family and I moved four years ago, more or less following this pattern. Not the Atlanta part, we moved within the city of Raleigh, but the urban to suburban part. Heading for greener acres.

I don't hear people in real life articulate the thought, it's nuts to raise your child in the city. One is either a city person or one is not. And though this wasn't exactly the question the class was given, Atrios seems to posit the existence of an adult who sincerely loves city life for himself but decides he must leave the city for the sake of his offspring. I think such an adult is a mythical creature. We want to form our children in our own likeness. Cost of living or schools or other factors may play a part, but odds are, if a couple settles in the 'burbs, it's because their heart is in the 'burbs. Period. Becoming parents may be a handy excuse or a catalyst.

Here's what I do observe in real life. (My real life these days is largely suburban, some rural, not too much urban.) Lots of people love their cars. Personally, I consider the things an often-necessary evil, and I'm attracted by the idea, hypothetical though it is in my case, of living day-to-day without an automobile, relying on public transit. I hope to live that way at some future stage. But a lot of Americans have a horror of that. They love their cars--the bigger, the better. They want to come and go on their precise timeframe, in comfort and solitude.

Also, I've been struck by how many of my friends and relatives have bought a big parcel of land and built a brand new house. Maybe nothing fancy or distinctive, but brand new. Lots of space inside and out. Clean, convenient, anesthetic. Never been lived in. No history, no mystery.

Via Tapped I came across this interview with David Durenberger, Republican former U.S. Senator from Minnesota. As one who remembers when the GOP really was a big tent, Durenberger bemoans the current state of his party and the coarsening of political culture, and he reminds us to celebrate American diversity at the same we celebrate freedom. These are some of the terms he put it in:

David Brooks writes about exurbanites, the people beyond the suburbs, using the analogy of golf. Their life needs to be like a golf course, where all the grass is clean, and cut to the same size, and the sand traps are all edged appropriately. That's the way they live, that's the way of a growing number of Americans. They want to go to churches where people are just like them, and go to malls that serve people and lifestyles just like them. This is Brooks's characterization, not mine. Increasingly, people want to vote for people who look like them, talk like them, and think like them. They go to church on Sunday, and they want to vote for somebody who talks to them the way the preacher does.

And what [Garrison] Keillor is saying is, "You know, you guys wouldn't have those opportunities. Your girls wouldn't be playing for national basketball championships and things like that. You wouldn't have 911 to call to save your kids' life or your own life, if there hadn't been Democrats or liberals fighting for those things." Those are some of the examples he uses. And he's right.

... And there's a value in universities, there is a value to big old cities. There's a value to the Hmong or whomever. Here they are. And there's a value in that that doesn't exist in the golf course community, where everybody is the same. You can't possibly say you can represent everybody in your district, everybody in your state, everybody in your nation if you have this golf course community mentality.

The suburbs are typified by people who want things cut to their specifications. They don't want to wait. They don't want to share. They don't want to think. They don't want to be surprised or confronted with other-ness or challenged in their worldview. And if that correlates to people who are likely to have children, it's a sad commentary. It points to a rather cramped and narcissistic mode of parenthood.

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