This Halloween, Sean Clancy had the most original costume in his southern Pennsylvania neighborhood. The base layer of his costume wasn’t very exciting at all- a flannel shirt, jeans and boots. However, the next layer really made Clancy’s costume memorable. He tucked a street sign into his belt and draped a GAP bag from his left pocket. He hung a Coke can from his thigh and pinned a Sunoco gas rebate banner on his right knee. A KFC sign was just above his left knee, and Clancy’s mask was a US road atlas. Even among all the goblins, ghouls, ghosts, and Lord of the Rings characters, Clancy was the scariest creature of them all. Urban Sprawl.
Since the emergence of prefabricated housing in preplanned neighborhoods in the 1950s, the Pleasantville ethic has brought more than half of the country’s population to the suburbs. Yet while the suburban value system has improved the quality of our lives, it has tarnished the quality of our character. This trend of modernization was recognized by Henry David Thoreau more than a century ago, when he wrote that “While society has been improving our homes, it has not improved the men who are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it has not been so quick to create noblemen and kings.” It seems that today’s kings and queens lord over backyard bar-b-q’s, and ride in SUV chariots. But the purpose of this speech isn’t to criticize these kings and queens. What I take issue with is the society that makes them royalty. Herein lies the problem: Our society has come to idealize a destructive vision of the American way of lifeone that puts up white picket fences to keep out our neighbors. Rather than valuing what the suburbs used to stand forcommunity and opportunitynow we first, embrace isolation, and second endorse exclusion.
Clancy’s roadmap Halloween mask may have been cleverbut it was probably useless. Roads connecting the suburbs to other locations spring up so fast, maps can’t keep up. Many parts of the country lack public transportation that would integrate our communities rather than isolate them. According to the April 28, 2002 New York Times Magazine, “In most parts of the country, people now spend more on transportation than on medical care, education, clothing and entertainment- combined.” In Atlanta, the average person wastes 3 hours a day commuting. That’s three hours spent alone in a car, away from family and friends, and forced to listen to those horrible morning radio shows. As it turns out, when we finally get out of our cars, what we really want is some alone time. The suburbs used to be a place where you would find neighbors grouped around the light post catching up with each other. But as David Ehrenfeld explains in his article “Strangers in Our Own Land,” “One might think we would spend every possible moment outside enjoying the paradise that we have made for ourselves at such great expense. Not so. We have gone indoors to sit in front of out TV and computers, surrendering the outdoors.” So instead of “honey, I’m home,” we’re greeted with “You’ve got mail.” According to Stanford University professor Norman Nie, who surveyed nearly 3,000 American households, “the more hours people use the Internet, the less time they spend with real human beings.” But don’t worryif you get lonely surfing the net, you can always visit “romance class.com,” one of hundreds of websites dedicated to internet-only dating, where participants never have to worry about meeting face to faceor having a real relationship. From drive-thru-Starbucks to online grocery shopping, our American dream has made life so much easier and so much lonelier.
But we’re not just isolating ourselves from other individualswe’re isolating our communities from one another. In idealizing the modern suburban lifestyle, we’ve held on to one of its more notorious characteristics: exclusion. With high fences and big lawns, the suburbs have always been a perfect place for keeping out those who don’t fit in. But even those with the best of intentions sometimes forget how illusive this dream can be. For example, When suburbs do try to incorporate low-income housings, the privileged status skews the perception of reality. The affluent Chicago suburb Highland Park developed an initiative to bring low income housing to the town. Their version of affordable housing? $240,000. Since when is a quarter of a million dollar home considered “affordable?” Of course, most of us wouldn’t think such prices are affordable. But the issue of affordable housing is emblematic of a more dangerous social trend: excluding certain groups of people because they are perceived to reduce property value or make our neighborhoods unsafe. For most Americans, living in prosperous neighborhoods with good jobs and nice houses, blinds us to the status of others.
By idealizing an image of what the ideal community should look like, we end up reinforcing homogeneity. This is perhaps most felt in public education. Sociologist M.H. Metz conducted a study of school choice amongst middle-class parents in New York City. He concluded that “many middle-class parents sought a school where their children would be with children of the highest social class and achievement level possible.” In fact, Metz found that for many parents, diversity within schools within schools was seen as an indicator of sub-par education. So what does all of this mean? Our personal isolation and social exclusion may be comfortable, but comfort comes at a cost. In Atlanta, public rail and bus lines do no extend to three of the wealthiest suburban counties. According to USA Today, this is no accident. These counties said they didn’t want public transportation in their neighborhood because they were afraid it would bring black people. There goes the neighborhood.
It’s not that the suburbs are themselves are horrible areas. I should know, I live in one. But whether we live in the suburbs, the inner city or rural areas, we’ve endorsed a life of service and ease. Isolation and exclusion are opposite sides of the same coin. Both reflect an emphasis on the self and a desire for comfort. With isolation we lose contact with our communityby excluding, we lose potentially great neighbors. Now, I’m not suggesting that we set up weekly block party bake sales in the cul-de-sac to bring us all out of our isolation. But we do need to remember that all those luxury items that make our lives easier are just that luxury items, and they can’t replace basic human interaction. While we can’t change the ours in the work week or even our commute we can take the time to make time to spend with our family and friends.
Getting beyond isolation is only half the solution. Perhaps most importantly, we need to start considering the well-being of others as integral to our own well being. Being part of a community doesn’t mean just reaping it’s benefits. It means accepting that one of our responsibilities is to consider the well-being of those around us. As individuals, we need to start thinking of ourselves as part of a community, and acting knowing that what we do affects those around us. Our sprawling lifestyle simply means thatlike it or notwe’ve enlarged our communities and increased the lives we effect with our actions. Pursue luxury and the American dream, but take ownership of its impacts. For the not-so-huddled masses of suburbia, there’s still something appealing about the white picket fences, the 2.2 kids, golden retrievers and even the distinguished title of soccer mom. Granted, giving up the SUV may disqualify us for membership in the manly fraternity of Those Who Haul Things, but through interconnectedness and diversity, it will make us better neighbors.