Saturday, January 30, 2010

Day 30- The city & the suburbs

Dear Mr. President,

While shopping with my sister and her husband today, they mentioned that they are looking for houses outside of the city. The hustled pace and crowded nature of Seattle is too much for them, apparently. I suppose this must be some aspect of settling down, getting older, finding that self-reliance that so many adults seem to value.

As for me, I need the city. The community of urban youths like myself, who may not be poor, but who have to keep working, moving, running, constantly, to escape the pull of our debts. We huddle together, sharing light and warmth and WiFi; sharing cigarettes on the sidewalks outside. We exchange information- the petty, the profane and the occasionally profound pieces of insight that aid and ease our survival. We sustain one another as we sustain ourselves, knowing that the community is more important than lower taxes or an illusion of safety.

The suburbs, as I remember them from my childhood, are all about divisions; mine from yours, ours from theirs. Keeping up appearances to keep people from talking, keeping up the lawn to look better than the neighbors, keeping out the Others. Is this solitude the unavoidable desire of maturity? Will I, too, find my life too slow for the city, my needs too big for the high-density life style? I hope this is not the case.

I think the future will inevitably look more like the city than the suburbs.I think, as much as we try to resist it, the truth is that the world is getting smaller, more diverse, more complex. We need each other more than ever. The walls we build around our houses, around our neighborhoods, around our countries, will only make it more difficult for every one.

Respectfully yours,



  1. I think city dwelling is a pathetic and unnatural existence. I hate city life for all the reasons you embrace it.

    I'm not sure if it's an age thing or if it varies based on personality. I have never wanted to live in a big city. But with a sample size of one I'll refrain from making sweeping conclusions at this point.

    Speaking of sample size, I'm not sure I agree with your assessment of suburbia. It has it's own sense of community--along the lines of "hey can I borrow your lawnmower". I love my neighbors here in Wedgwood...not sure if it quite qualifies as suburbs, but I think it's pretty close. The lady next door had a bumper crop of tomatoes over summer and brought us the extras. My neighbors across the street are really cool people and have an awesome yellow lab named Tess. I think the "Community" in any community has more to do with the people in that community than in the physical form or density of the community. I would tend to agree with what I think is the overall theme of your letter--that we need more community--but with the caveat that it need not necessarily be in the form of high-density urban centers.

    I'm starting to think density preferences vary based more on personality. I *need* space. I am pretty strongly introverted and after dealing with people all day I *have* to go hide somewhere for at least a few hours. Also, most of my interests are space intensive...apartment dwelling is not conducive to restoring cars, waxing skis, storing scuba gear, having a rose garden, and whatever other projects may strike my fancy on any given week.

    I began this comment with a pretty inflammatary statement, so I should give some reasoning. Why do I think city dwelling is pathetic? You mentioned self-reliance, and you once told me that I was "such a useful human being". I find most city dwellers are not very useful or self-reliant. I guess this is subjective--city dwellers are probably good at a lot of things I just don't value. So....While I think city dwelling is pathetic, I am willing to accept that possibility that it may not, in fact, be pathetic.

    I also said city dwelling is unnatural. Humans did not evolve in urban centers. That's half of why we're fat--we don't *do* anything. Urban centers have these places called "gyms" with strange torture devices...apparently contemporary humans use these devices as a substitute for the physical exercise their ancestors got from something called "real work". I was going to make an argument about fast food, but the American diet is a mess pretty much across the board. That's the other half of why we're fat. Cities are so disconnected from the outdoors--and a park is a pathetic excuse for nature. Parks are a tamed down version of the outdoors--for city-dwellers, by city-dwellers. At least in Suburbia you can throw a baseball in your backyard, and you're closer to the real world there than in a city.

    "the world is getting smaller, more diverse, more complex." This has more to do with technology than anything else. My hope is technology will allow us to retain the benefits of urban centers without having people crowded together so much.

  2. No, Matt, Wedgewood does not count as the 'burbs. You can still walk to things. This was more aimed at the gated/regulated communities like the one I grew up in where homeowner's associations set standards for everything from permissible types of lawn decor to how long the grass could be and I, as a child, was cited for violating the HA code for defacing the sidewalk with chalk. For the purposes of this argument I'm defining suburbia as a place that requires car ownership for survival.

    As for it being natural, cities are a part of evolution. Cities and urban areas have been a part of many major societies in human history, they are a natural evolutionary step when a population gets too large for its environment.

    Speaking of, I love nature and being in nature as much as you do, but I love it too much to live there. Our presence is far too damaging. There are simply too many of us to each own a house with a yard. I'm not saying no one should, but it is a simple fact that we call cannot. You'll notice I didn't decry rural living. It's not like I think every one should live in a city or should have to, but it is the most efficient way for a population our size to exist without destroying the planet entirely.

    As for the sense of community, I'll grant your point. But, in my experience, urban communities have less to do with knowing one another and more to do with collective interest. It's not up to me to judge my neighbors if they don't look, act, talk, or worship like I do. We have the same interest in our community, in public transportation, in local schools, etc.

    "at least ... you're close to the real world there there than in a city"? "real" world? That might require a bit more definition.

    Anyway, sorry to ramble. I think this is a "to each his own" argument. You're a practical guy, though, and you have to admit the population and the environment are better served by more people living in smaller spaces. Even if that's not your choice- you should be grateful for the ones who do live like that, since they won't be competing for space in your rose garden or citing neighborhood code about the broken down cars in your driveway.

    also, if you re-read the post and notice its changed that's because this letter ended up slightly different when I wrote it by hand, so I'll be editing the post later.