Exurban Dream? What Exurbs and Suburbs Have in Common

by John Cuddeback on February 28, 2013 · 13 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Culture, High & Low,Economics & Empire,Region & Place

exurb dream

When in 1967 my parents were the thirteenth family to move into newly minted Columbia, Maryland, I was three months old. The American dream at that time generally took the form of owning a house in the suburbs. In the forty-five years that have been my lifetime, that dream, it seems, has been tarnished. As an adult I have moved to the exurbs—one of those areas not only outside an urban area but also beyond the suburbs that lie in closer proximity to the urban area. And I am not alone. While the bulk of Americans still live in suburbs, the Urban Institute reports that between 2000 and 2010 the exurbs have almost universally outgrown the suburban areas, as well as the entire metro areas, to which they are attached.

Just as in the earlier exodus to the suburbs, the reasons for the movement to the exurbs are complex and varied. Judging from at least some accounts of families that moved from city (or farm) to suburb between the end of the Second World War and the 1970s, they were seeking a way of life that appeared more bright and promising—something closer to the American dream of economic success, comfort and security. The move to the suburbs was generally perceived as an upward movement. The status of exurbs today is perhaps more ambiguous. Not always an instance of upward mobility, indeed sometimes rather a search for the more affordable, the move to the exurbs is nevertheless often associated with financial success and freedom.

As the move to the exurbs seems rooted at least in part in our disenchantment with the suburbs, we might find ourselves wondering whether life in the exurbs will prove more satisfying. Will people fulfill a dream there that it seems they did not in the suburbs? This of course raises the burning question: what is missing in the suburbs? It seems to me that what is missing in suburbs is likewise missing in exurbs, a fact that casts serious doubt on the likely success of the exurban dream.

The suburbs sundered, in practice if not in theory, that which neither the traditional urban nor rural community sundered: working together and living together. In other words, by and large in the suburbs those with whom we work are not those with whom we live. Since this separation became common, our communities, and thus also human lives, have not been the same.

In the typical suburban household, the ‘breadwinner’—originally one, later sometimes two, now regularly two—sallied forth, leaving behind housemates, and neighbors, only to return later with the spoils of work. While this might satisfactorily provide for the material wants of the household, it leaves a gaping hole that often goes unnoticed: a hole in the fabric of human relations, human connectedness.

We might reflect on two places traditionally characterized by strong community: the urban neighborhood and the rural village. One thing that these two had in common is the fact that, for the most part, those with whom people worked were the very people with whom they lived. Shared work binds people together in a unique and irreplaceable way. By shared work I mean not only when people literally work together in the same economic project—such as the butcher shop, or the farm, but also when they work for and among one another. For instance, in the butcher shop neighbors buy and sell from one another, and this forms concrete, deep ties between them. In an agricultural community, the fact that neighbors provide goods and services for one another, through buying, trading, or simple solidarity, is a foundational element of their relations and mutual belonging.

I posit that the absence of the ties of shared work is a significant reason why I and so many others have experienced suburban life as isolated and sterile. And why those of us who try exurban life may well find it similarly so.

An exurb is not the same as an outright rural area. It is where the edges of a metropolitan area blend with a rural area, resulting in a semi-rural character. And it is this character that is often a prime cause of the exurb’s appeal. I believe that one of the major features that constitute the perennial appeal of life closer to the land, or ‘in the country,’ even when not consciously, is the aspect of connections—of personal relations of dependence, trust and mutual belonging. But life in the country does not necessarily provide such connections. In fact, life on the land today is often marked by a solitary character, a seclusion that can exceed that of the suburbs: not only does one not work with those he lives with, he might hardly ever lay eyes on them. The separation of working-together and living-together is common to suburban and exurban, and even most urban, life today.

A few years ago the Washington metropolitan area was blanketed with a couple feet of snow. Many residential areas were not visited by municipal plows for days, and people were stranded at home. But then something significant happened throughout the region: neighbors came out shoveling, checking on one another, delivering groceries and medicine. Many commented on the new and exhilarating feeling of working together with neighbors. Somehow this was what being neighbors must be all about.

I think that most of us desire and need more connectedness. There is something natural, fitting, and pleasing about working together with those with whom we live—in our household and between households. But our current socio-economic structures, our cultural habits, as well as much of our residential and commercial planning and zoning, do not foster conditions amenable to such shared work. There is no easy solution to this lacuna in our lives. Yet we would do well to recognize what is missing, and then turn our deliberations toward finding solutions.

Work that concerns basic aspects of human life—such as the arts of food production and preparation, of carpentry and mechanics, to name a few—is a good place to begin, whether we live in suburb, exurb, or urb. The rise of the local food movement is an appropriate, even while incomplete, response to this problem. People prefer to know and have contact with those who actually produce the food they eat. They are especially pleased if those producers are in some sense their neighbors. This movement should not be reduced simply to issues of food quality—be they ever so important. It is also essentially a matter of personal connectedness.

In seeking greater connectedness through work, we can always start in our own homes. Wendell Berry writes: “[Children] need to see their parents at work…they need to work with their parents… (and) the work done should have the dignity of economic value.” While many professions today are not well-suited for inter-generational sharing, we can still find real opportunities for shared work in the basic arts of the household. Such working-together will be an antidote to isolation. It will be a lived connection, a form of mutual presence and solidarity, and one real step toward living an exurban, suburban, or urban dream.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Chris Travers February 28, 2013 at 1:12 am

Interestingly I have been suggesting something similar for a while in terms of how to put contemporary feminism in context. I see this as a reaction to the decline of shared women’s work as the textile industry was mechanized. Before the cause of women suffrage, our government was basically a union of households, with one household member (most of the time) being allowed to vote. Women could and did sometimes vote as head of household, particularly in widowhood. But at some point something shifted which made that union of households approach no longer agreeable to women. The question is what that was.

I argue that what actually happened was that women were kicked out of the “Women’s Hall” and forced to re-enter the economy and society playing the part of men. The traditional women’s industries, like spinning and weaving, were taken over by large factories and corporations, and the result was that women no longer had an autonomous place in the world of economic production. Worse still, while women in days gone by would get together to card the wool or beat the flax, and in the process gossip and socialize (and in the process essentially coordinate their concerns outside the official organs of government), they now re-entered as factory workers and laborers at least until getting married and then often did not have any such role anymore.

The decline of shared neighborhood work was, I think, the issue that created an imbalance in the traditional lifestyle sufficient to force a correction, and if I am right the narrative that things are getting generally better for women is a lie aimed at social control, intended, consciously or not, to get women to embrace competing for success in the field where success was defined as a man’s game.

It is interesting to me that in many parts of the world, the neighborhoods in fact *do* work the way they used to. In Bali for example, neighborhood communities are very tightly knit with their own governance (male) and their own society (female). In the end what will happen when we can no longer sustain the level of consumption we have? Will we learn that the only way forward is back to the past and away from expecting women to compete in men’s terms or vice versa?

avatar Scott Dadson February 28, 2013 at 11:15 am

Beautifully stated.

avatar Scott Dadson February 28, 2013 at 11:38 am

I would extend this to apply to re-locating or retiring folks who move to the south and southwest. Most leave suburbs around metropolitans, go to idealic small towns or retirement towns (golf course, et al) and then fight for laws and rules that put them back into their world of isolation. Because they no longer leave during the day to gain the spoils that keep them in supply, they become dislocated, distracted, and in many cases overly involved. This is not everyone of course, but, it is at least anadotedly, a fair representation.

avatar Joel February 28, 2013 at 3:50 pm

My guess is that most move to the exurbs because it is all they can afford. You mention DC: at the height of the bubble, buying in the inner burbs was utterly unaffordable. People moved further and further out. Also, illegal immigration drove up costs in the inner burbs as immigrant families with huge numbers bought or rented in places where your typical 2 income, childless family could no longer afford to buy.
Families were driven further and further away to places like Fredericksburg and even Gettysburg, or in West Virginia. I don’t think there is any stopping the multiple set of forces that have created these changes.

avatar John Cuddeback February 28, 2013 at 11:48 pm

Joel: I think you have a good point about the economic forces involved in exurbanization. You express doubt that anything can change these economic forces. I would like to suggest that even if that is true, there are real steps that we can take in our households and between our households to strengthen personal connections and thus community. My main focus here is on shared work which remains, at least to some extent, within our power.

Scott: You have an excellent point about the challenges of the dislocation that often occurs in retirement. Further, the separation of generations is itself a real loss to each of the generations.

Chris: I agree that the demise of various kinds of common work is intimately related to the issue of feminism. And it is fitting to point to contemporary examples of vibrant neighborhood life. I am convinced that it can still be achieved in America too, if we are willing to put a premium on it.

avatar love the girls March 1, 2013 at 1:43 pm

John Cuddeback writes : “As the move to the exurbs seems rooted at least in part in our disenchantment with the suburbs, we might find ourselves wondering whether life in the exurbs will prove more satisfying. Will people fulfill a dream there that it seems they did not in the suburbs?”

Will they be satisfied? Yes, in so far as their deformed appetite that causes them to seek the uber-suburbs can be satiated. And like all the other extreme sports americans seek out, it will never finally satisfy them.

A deformed appetite that the Wendell Berry comment only exacerbates because it pushes an antisocial, and very american, concept of the rugged individual, or in this case the rugged individualist family in the wilderness.

The perfection of work is not the man isolated at home or in the shop beneath the home, but work done down the street at the rail yard, or some manufacturing shop or similar a trolley car ride away.

avatar JimWilton March 1, 2013 at 4:27 pm

In an otherwise insightful and interesting essay, you fail to discuss transportation. The phenomenon of suburbs cannot be understood without the automobile and the federal government’s subsidizing of automobile culture through the development of highway systems in the post-World War II era.

I expect that the automobile also contributes to the isolation and loss of community in modern culture (the occaisional car pool community notwithstanding).

avatar John Cuddeback March 2, 2013 at 9:19 pm

Jim: You make an excellent point. The role of the automobile was central both in the formation of suburbs and in how people actually live there. Perhaps our challenge is to use the automobile judiciously, the best that we can, in the service of personal connections, both within and between households.

avatar robert m. peters March 3, 2013 at 8:01 pm

Mr. Walt Garlington in the following article from his own blog overstates the case being made here, particularly pursuant to car, but he overstates it beautifully.

http://confiterijournal.blogspot.com/2013/02/putting-car-before-horse-why-self.html

avatar Zinman March 4, 2013 at 12:13 am

An excellent article. I think that some very solid ideas about where to begin to gain that sense of connectedness again have been given in the above article. I was just speaking with my brother the other day about how, as insignificant as it may initially seem, doing something work-related together as a family, (e.g., even something as simple as the dishes), provides some amazing opportunities for growth between individuals. There is indeed something about shared work (and I would suggest particularly that of a more natural and simple nature) that tends to open the door to a mutual growth in knowledge and love of the other and a greater appreciation of reality as a whole. Thinking back in my own life, I have noticed that it is often in precisely those moments of working with a friend or family member that a certain discovery is made- a part of their heart is revealed, some thought is shared, and, the task having been finished, one is left with a deeper relationship and even a certain sense of surprise- gratitude and wonder permeate your being- who knew that the secrets to life’s mysteries would manifest themselves in such ordinary events?

avatar love the girls March 4, 2013 at 1:49 pm

Zinman,

Berry doesn’t mean washing the dishes and other household chores. He means home cottage industry, i.e. “dignity of economic value” “the work they departed from . . for the sake of the professional salary or the hourly wage” page 110 The Art of the Commonplace” The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry.

avatar love the girls August 12, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Per Mr. Wilton’s comment above. Cars did not cause the suburbs.

The concentric circles we have today already existed before the first production car ever rolled off an assembly line.

If anything, cars did not cause the suburbs, but the reverse, the popularity of cars was caused by the suburbs.

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