Countering blanket statements about cities and suburbs

A Dallas columnist argues typical views of the city and suburbs are outdated:

Yet we seem to cling stubbornly to outdated city-vs.-suburb cliches and mutual suspicions that serve no purpose other than to make people think ill of one another.

On one side are quasi-racist Dallas baiters for whom “urban” is thinly veiled doublespeak for poor, minority, crime-plagued neighborhoods where government is unfailingly corrupt and public schools actually make kids stupider. It’s a segregationist stereotype that by now should be eroded by three decades worth of urban revitalization, crime reduction and development of spectacular public spaces.

On the other are sanctimonious hipsters who use “suburban” as an insult that describes selfish, conformist commuters who drive everywhere in super-sized SUVs, spend their leisure time at the mall, vote like the people next door and think “art” is a Thomas Kinkade print. It’s a myopic definition that hasn’t budged since Richard Yates wrote Revolutionary Road in 1961.

The truth is that the places we live are as individual as we are, and we choose them based on our individual priorities — entertainment, safety, good schools, friendly neighbors, what we can afford, what we want to see when we look out the window.

I agree with one conclusion but not the other. First, individual communities, whether they are urban neighborhoods with a sense of place or far-flung suburbs, are unique and have different characters. This is particularly true for a number of the people who live there and buy, in terms of housing but also symbolically and culturally, into the place. Both cities and suburbs are assumed to be all alike and this is simply not the case. There are distinguishing differences between these different types, such as population density, the number of nearby jobs and business, the kinds of housing, the history, etc. but it is silly to lump them all together.

On the second conclusion, it isn’t quite as simple as suggesting people make individual choices. This may feel like it is the case, particularly for those with means (money, status), but even those people are constrained by the lifestyles they desire. But, people with less means have fewer choices and then are restricted by cheaper housing options or what is close to jobs. In other words, residential choices tend to fall into patterns based on class and race, whether in the cities or suburbs.

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