suburbs vs. cities

I just ran across MUDOT magazine for urban documentation, opinion, and theory: mudot.org. I’ve only begun to scratch the surface here, but what caught my eye this morning was Michael J. Thompson’s article How Suburbs Destroy Democracy and Alex Schafren’s response As a
Child of the Suburbs
as well as Thompson’s rejoinder to Schafren.

I side quite clearly with Schafren on this one. After all, I was born in 1967, the year that Herbert Gans wrote the Levittowners. It’s been forty years and its remarkable how little things change. Suburbs = bad. Cities = good. Gans’s work seems to be forgotten. Grab a copy. It’s well worth the read.

Here again I’m glad for my Los Angeles experience. If Los Angeles was not without its problems (after all, there are reasons I don’t live there anymore…), the experience taught me to rethink the self-validation that still seems to prevail here in the city (note to non-residents: New York is the city, not New York, not Manhattan, the city). Somehow, living in the city is pure goodness. Somehow, shopping in Soho stores (most of which can be found in the Garden State Plaza in Paramus) is equal to democracy. To be fair, in his rejoinder, Thompson argues that he isn’t so much glamorizing the city (and indicts the growing homogeneity of cities) as condemning suburbia, but I’m not sure how that is that much different. In any event, read the back-and-forth and judge for yourself.

The city, as we once knew it, is disappearing. Not only is it becoming more homogeneous, many of its classic functions—such as being the place to which immigrants go first—are being absorbed by areas once called
suburban. If urbanism wants a major task for this century, here it is: look at the suburbs, learn from them, and figure out how to make them work. Jane Jacobs taught us the virtue of cities, perhaps too well. Her defense of Greenwich Village not only saved that community, it made it impossible for anyone with a working-class income to live there. The endless condemnation of the suburbs and validation of the city is tired today.

Schafren rightly argues that re-imagining the suburb is a crucial task today. Lamenting it won’t get us anywhere. And yet, the common refrain is still suburbs bad, city good. Just as parts of cities (take Manhattan for example) are becoming suburbanized, turned into homogeneous, consumption-oriented territories (how different is a co-op with a doorman from a gated community?), suburbs are far from the homogeneous places they once were. There is exurbia, edgeless cities, inner-ring suburbs, outer-ring suburbs, and technoburbs among the many species of community out there. Some of these are incredibly homogeneous, some of these are radically diverse. Sometimes the homogeneous and the heterogeneous co-exist only a border apart. The impossiblity of continuing to use categories such as suburban, urban, or rural is made clear through Claritas’s PRIZM system, based on demographics, marketing research, and of course, voting patterns, It’s worth taking a look at, as is Michael Weiss’s book on the system, The Clustered World.

So let’s put a moratorium on the word "suburb" for a decade or two, until we can learn to use it again. And, with that minor corrective in place, turn to the task of envisioning the networked (sub/ex/edge/dense/empty/global/local)urbanism of this century and seeing what we can do to remedy its downfalls.

I just ran across MUDOT magazine for urban documentation, opinion, and theory: mudot.org. I’ve only begun to scratch the surface here, but what caught my eye this morning was Michael J. Thompson’s article How Suburbs Destroy Democracy and Alex Schafren’s response As a
Child of the Suburbs
as well as Thompson’s rejoinder to Schafren.

I side quite clearly with Schafren on this one. After all, I was born in 1967, the year that Herbert Gans wrote the Levittowners. It’s been forty years and its remarkable how little things change. Suburbs = bad. Cities = good. Gans’s work seems to be forgotten. Grab a copy. It’s well worth the read.

Here again I’m glad for my Los Angeles experience. If Los Angeles was not without its problems (after all, there are reasons I don’t live there anymore…), the experience taught me to rethink the self-validation that still seems to prevail here in the city (note to non-residents: New York is the city, not New York, not Manhattan, the city). Somehow, living in the city is pure goodness. Somehow, shopping in Soho stores (most of which can be found in the Garden State Plaza in Paramus) is equal to democracy. To be fair, in his rejoinder, Thompson argues that he isn’t so much glamorizing the city (and indicts the growing homogeneity of cities) as condemning suburbia, but I’m not sure how that is that much different. In any event, read the back-and-forth and judge for yourself.

The city, as we once knew it, is disappearing. Not only is it becoming more homogeneous, many of its classic functions—such as being the place to which immigrants go first—are being absorbed by areas once called
suburban. If urbanism wants a major task for this century, here it is: look at the suburbs, learn from them, and figure out how to make them work. Jane Jacobs taught us the virtue of cities, perhaps too well. Her defense of Greenwich Village not only saved that community, it made it impossible for anyone with a working-class income to live there. The endless condemnation of the suburbs and validation of the city is tired today.

Schafren rightly argues that re-imagining the suburb is a crucial task today. Lamenting it won’t get us anywhere. And yet, the common refrain is still suburbs bad, city good. Just as parts of cities (take Manhattan for example) are becoming suburbanized, turned into homogeneous, consumption-oriented territories (how different is a co-op with a doorman from a gated community?), suburbs are far from the homogeneous places they once were. There is exurbia, edgeless cities, inner-ring suburbs, outer-ring suburbs, and technoburbs among the many species of community out there. Some of these are incredibly homogeneous, some of these are radically diverse. Sometimes the homogeneous and the heterogeneous co-exist only a border apart. The impossiblity of continuing to use categories such as suburban, urban, or rural is made clear through Claritas’s PRIZM system, based on demographics, marketing research, and of course, voting patterns, It’s worth taking a look at, as is Michael Weiss’s book on the system, The Clustered World.

So let’s put a moratorium on the word "suburb" for a decade or two, until we can learn to use it again. And, with that minor corrective in place, turn to the task of envisioning the networked (sub/ex/edge/dense/empty/global/local)urbanism of this century and seeing what we can do to remedy its downfalls.

One thought on “suburbs vs. cities

  1. Suburb-Speak
    Great post … here at Princeton, Beatriz Colomina’s proseminar is dealing with VSBA’s “Learning from Levittown” studio. So, we are looking at the history of suburbia quite extensively. We even interviewed Herbert Gans a while back. Just yesterday, we saw a documentary about Park Forest, IL (the suburb celebrated by William Whyte in “The Organization Man”) … it is interesting because the narrators and interviewees kept vacillating between the term “suburb” and “planned community.”

Comments are closed.