Moral minimalism and addressing social issues

In the 1989 study The Moral Order of a Suburb, sociologist M. P. Baumgartner argued that suburban order rested on what she called “moral minimalism”:

A kind of moral minimalism pervades the suburbs, in which people prefer the least extreme reactions to offenses and are reluctant to exercise any social control against one another at all. (3)

In a later description of moral minimalism, she writes:

Moral minimalism entails a considerable degree of indifference to the wrongdoing of others…If people in such places cannot be bothered to take action against those who offend them or to engage in conflicts, neither can they be bothered to help those in need. (131)

Most residents do not want to involve third parties when conflict arises (unless it involves strangers) – it would be better to do nothing at all.

The pervasive moral minimalism found in the suburbs contrasts sharply with claims that American society is particularly violent or litigious. However true such characterizations may be for other settings, they do not reflect suburban reality. Residents of suburbs like Hampton rarely aggress against one another physically, and for them, law remains primarily a theoretical option for handling grievances that arise in their everyday lives. They are happy to have police at as their champions in preventing and resolving trouble that unknown persons might cause, but beyond this, they have very little use for law. When problems occur, most people do not seriously consider recourse to legal officials, and, in fact, they generally act as if law did not exist at all. In this sense, suburbia is a king of limited anarchy. (127)

In conclusion:

suburbia is a model of social order. The order is not born, however, of conditions widely perceived to generate social harmony. It does not arise from intimacy and connectedness, but rather from some of the very things more often presumed to bring about conflict and violence – transiency, fragmentation, isolation, atomization, and indifference among people. The suburbs lack social cohesion but they are free of strife. They are, so to speak, disorganized and orderly at the same time. (134)

All of this does not lend itself to addressing social issues or community problems. If people are used to leaving each other alone and avoiding conflict, what happens when legitimate structural issues arise? Or, what happens when others make the case that addressing a structural issue is necessary or helpful? Or, if there is need, how do people used to moral minimalism respond? Convincing suburbanites to move on from moral minimalism, particularly when it seems to “work” in wealthier, whiter communities where people have the resources and agency to generally do what they want (having a single-family home, a good life for their kids, etc.), is a difficult task.

Depicting heaven, hell, and in between through mid-century modern, the 1980s, and the Getty Center

The creators of The Good Place aimed to create a specific aesthetic for the locations on the show:

Rowe: There’s a signature that is heavily inspired by mid-century modern. Not just because it looks cool and clean, but because [the creative team] made a very deliberate dedication to a certain style per world. So the ’80s were the Medium Place. The Mad Men era was the Bad Place. The heightened, more European, I would say, version of that influenced the backlot. Dan Bishop created that cute, charming, endearing vibe from European villages. Those ice-cream colors and those colorful pops in our flowers—those defined what the rest of the world would look like.

It’s very important to point out that [Ted Danson’s character] Michael was an architect, and that was a character choice from Mike Schur that influenced everything from there. What architect going to school, at any stage doesn’t love mid-century modern? Plus the age of the actor—he’s all dressed up. If he was designing kooky ’80s architecture or ’70s skyscrapers, I don’t know if those would fit.

The focus on European villages gets at some features of desirable places: existing at a human scale, full of street-level activity including food and shopping alongside people talking and walking, and a relatively small set of people. (One feature of these some villages that might be missing on the TV show: the homes seem to be set apart from the village area, separating home and work.) While the village streetscape could be part of a larger city (perhaps each neighborhood or district has a village area like this), it hints at more small-town life. Residing in smaller-scale villages might fit better with human history than the substantial urbanization of the last two centuries. At the same time, we view big cities as centers of progress and human achievement. Perhaps the choice of villages hints at human desires for social connections and a human scale rather than big cities. (But Michael’s depiction is not what it seems – so is this commentary about European villages?)

As for heaven itself:

Rowe: When heaven showed up, it was pretty much unanimous right away that they wanted to shoot at the Getty [Center, an art museum in Los Angeles]. There was a lot of discussion that happened to help the Getty get on board, because obviously they have a brand they want to protect. The location manager went and said, “It’s a show about heaven, and we’re showing the Getty as a place of paradise.”

We actually didn’t do that many things there, because the architecture speaks for itself. People breeze through that museum, and you can ask them, “Oh, did you see any paintings?” And they’re like, “Yeah, I kinda saw the modern stuff upstairs, but I was basically outside the whole time.”

The Getty Center is indeed a unique building and it connects modern architecture, gardens, and a view overlooking Los Angeles. As an oasis set apart from the Los Angeles bustle, I could see how it would be compared to heaven:

Getty2

Comparing depictions of heaven across time and cultures could prove to be a fun exercise. How much do the depictions reflect contemporary tastes or standards? If the architects of today or those with architectural knowledge generally like mid-century modern, this is what they might prefer heaven to look like. Would Christians throughout the United States agree? There have been too many depictions of clouds for that not to show up somewhere and ancient Greek architecture – familiar to Americans in a number of important buildings including government structures – might be popular. Would heaven look more like the nondescript suburban megachurches of today or more like a Gothic cathedral? Or, would Americans prefer heaven to look like mansions in a well-kept suburb or prefer it to be more about nature? And global depictions would likely differ significantly from these options.

Tiny homes that also come with community

Fewer square feet than an average new house is one feature of tiny homes. For some tiny homes, they also come with built-in community:

With the tiny home lifestyle comes a certain determination to do more with less. Of course, this explains why tiny home owners are choosing to flock to dedicated subdivisions with like-minded individuals opting for a simpler life. According to Randy Hanson, the longtime developer behind Lake Walk Tiny Home Community in Greer, this shared philosophy has forged a strong connection between residents.

“Tiny houses create more of a close society and close community than anything else. I’ve been developing subdivisions all my life, and I’ve never seen this before. The people have formed almost like a family and they do things together,” says Hanson. “The houses are close enough together and they all have front porches. They sit on their front porches and holler back and forth like the old days.”

Sitting along the shore of Lake Cunningham, Lake Walk’s amenities include a dog park, community garden and picnic area, as well as a newly opened coffee shop. Of the community’s more than 60 lots, only three sites remain available…

After a year and a half of navigating the permitting process, Creek Walk Tiny Home Community in Travelers Rest is perhaps South Carolina’s newest tiny home village. Located along the Swamp Rabbit Trail and in prime distance of Greenville proper, Creek Walk offers access to downtown locales while also providing the peace and seclusion of nature. Whereas traditional, full-scale developments would require leveling a wooded area before construction could even begin, tiny homes are small enough to position among the trees. This means that rather than waiting a lifetime for the tiny sapling you planted in your yard to reach full size, you can enjoy the shade of a hearty forest on move-in day. In this way, tiny home communities can be about preservation as much as they are about destination.

Many homes are part of subdivisions. What makes these communities much different? Four possible answers:

1. The houses are still separate but are smaller and closer together. Unlikely townhomes and condos that allow residents to own their unit but are connected to other units, tiny houses have both the closeness and separation.

2. These tiny house communities may face unique zoning and regulatory challenges. As the article notes, not all municipalities are prepared for this.

3. More so than typical subdivisions, these communities might really bring people together for lifestyle reasons. Those who want a tiny house may be more alike each other than the typical homeowner.

4. Speculation on my part: because the homes are relatively small,residents spend less time inside or in private spaces and thus interact with each other more than typical homeowners.

The factors that keep stop some Americans from moving even when they have opportunities elsewhere

Richard Florida summarizes survey data that looks at why Americans are resistant to moving:

The survey identifies respondents’ most recent move, their probability of moving in the next two years, and other data related to moving including job opportunities and income prospects, housing costs, the distance from current home, costs of moving to various locations, crime rates, taxes, community values and norms, and proximity to family and friends. The researchers use these data to estimate the overall costs—what they call the “willingness to pay” or WTP—for people to move different locations. They then use statistical models to examine the importance of these psychological factors compared to other mostly financial explanations.

A significant reason for the decline in mobility is that many of us are highly attached to our towns. Nearly half of those in the survey (47 percent) identify as rooted. The rooted are disproportionately white, older, married, homeowners, and rural. Their reasons for not moving are more psychological than economic: proximity to family and friends, and their involvement in the local community or church.

Another 15 percent identify as stuck, lacking the resources or ability to move. The stuck have less formal education, are in worse health, and are less satisfied with their jobs, the survey finds. In addition, they are more likely to live in cities and live relatively close to family members. Their reasons for not moving are mainly economic: the costs of moving, the affordability of housing in other locations, the difficulty of qualifying for a new mortgage, and the perception that there is less opportunity for them elsewhere…

It turns out that the personal costs of moving—and leaving family members, loved ones, and friends behind—are quite high. According to the study, the average American perceives not moving as worth a sacrifice of more than 100 percent of income. The psychological cost of leaving family and friends alone equates to 30 percent. As the study reads: “The median person in our sample will forego 30 percent of his or her income in order to stay close to family.”

I’m guessing there is a lot more to explore here with more data collected from a variety of angles.

Why does Florida talk of these factors as primarily psychological factors? The survey results do not sound like Americans are afraid of moving but rather there are broader social and economic forces that both tie them to their current communities and limit their perceived options elsewhere. Together, these sound like sociological conditions.

How does this fit with suggestions that local ties and interactions are fewer in number or weaker in intensity in America today compared to the past? Or, do Americans now have tools that allow them to maintain and stay in certain social networks without a need to move across networks or join new ones?

How can researchers get at a different cultural milieu regarding mobility? Over time, how could Americans shift from fairly mobile to less mobile?

Separating the ills of suburbia from the ills of the United States

The critiques of the American suburbs are common and persistent. But, how many of them are unique to the suburbs as opposed to multiple American settings or American society as a whole? A thought experiment with a number of the ills of suburbia:

  1. Consumerism. Present everywhere with displays of wealth such as expensive housing, cars, and technological goods alongside just having a lot of stuff. Certain suburban symbols may catch attention – such as McMansions and SUVs – but these are present all over the place. Excessive or wasteful consumption is not solely an American problem.
  2. Sprawl. This may seem like a uniquely suburban problem. Yet, numerous American cities have varying levels of density and lots of single-family home neighborhoods (even if these homes are closer together).
  3. Driving. Suburbs may be more dependent or designed around automobiles but so are most American cities and urban neighborhoods. And  rural areas would be very different without widespread access to cars.
  4. Conformity. Mass culture is everywhere, even if cities are often regarded as having more diversity and cultural experiences. This is related to consumerism as many Americans are thoroughly immersed (just see the figures on how much media Americans consume a day).
  5. Inequality. Across categories of race, class, and gender, American communities of all kinds experience problems. They may manifest differently in each context but addressing inequality in the suburbs would not solve the problem in the entire country.
  6. Lack of true community. Social ties seem to be more tenuous across the United States as a whole and the influence of and trust in institutions of all kinds has declined. Americans are famously individualistic, whether in suburbs or other settings.

Another way to think about it: did these problems begin in suburbs or are they amplified or exacerbated by suburbs? Imagine the United States where only 30% of American lived in suburbs: might driving and sprawl still be an issue? Would the problems of inequality be alleviated?

Rahm Emanuel on what divides people and how art can bring people together

Toward the end of an interview about the arts during his tenure as Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel briefly discussed factors that divide people and bring them together:

I think Lori and Amy know that the arts are the soul of a great city. Martin Luther King used to say the most segregated day in America is Sunday. The arts can make the other six days more integrated. Technology is balkanizing and dis-aggregating people. Only a government working with artists can create equity across shared experience.

According to this short quote, two factors work against community:

  1. Religion. Watch MLK make his 1960 statement about the most segregated hour in Christian America. So if religion in the US has tended to divide people by race (see Divided By Faith) and Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in America, Emanuel may have a point about this in Chicago.
  2. Technology. Emanuel could join a chorus of pundits and scholars who argue technology has detrimental effects on community life.

On the other hand, Emanuel cites two forces that encourage community:

  1. Art/the arts.
  2. Government helping to facilitate the work of artists.

There is little doubt that major cities in recent decades have used the arts and cultural experiences alongside public art to try to drive growth. Whether this truly enhances community in the long run, particularly when other forces at work – with Emanuel’s reference to equity, I can’t help but think of uneven development and capital investment in cities like Chicago – work against community, remains to be seen. In other words, can shared experiences overcome persistent social inequalities?

Building amenity-filled suburban apartments to encourage community

Some suburbanites may not just expect more amenities in apartments; the larger push may be toward creating community rather than just rental units.

Tony Rossi, president of M&R Development, the company behind the Wilmette and Itasca properties, agrees that the “explosion of amenities” seen downtown is starting to take hold in the suburbs as well. He said rent in the suburbs is usually two-thirds of rent in the city, but newer buildings with extra features will have a higher price tag. Martin pays about $1,925 a month for her one-bedroom and underground parking…

Greenberg developed the project with more than 20 years of hospitality experience and considers design a key factor in changing the vibe and perception of suburban rental living. For example, adding color and art to corridors in apartment buildings, as hotels do, makes all the difference, he said.

And while some suburban developers merge residential and retail in the same physical structure — think storefronts at street level and housing on top — Greenberg said 444 Social is unique because the apartment building is new and located near (but not connected to) existing commercial facilities, like Regal Cinemas next door. It also has natural elements, like forests and a lake, nearby.

“This goes to part of the DNA of this place,” Greenberg said. “If you want to be happy, if you want to live a healthy life, if you want to stay active, you got to be social. … That is what is missing in apartments where it’s downtown or in the suburbs where you just go to a place and hole up. Here we’re actually creating a community, so it’s pushing that experience.”

Four quick thoughts:

  1. Building apartments in certain ways does not guarantee that community will develop. Certain features of units, buildings, and the grounds could help encourage social interaction but it does not necessarily mean that it will happen.
  2. Apartments with more amenities and higher prices are likely to attract certain kinds of residents. Might it be easier or harder to create community among groups with more resources?
  3. I wonder how many residents in such apartments are interested in developing more community as opposed to enjoying a higher level of luxury or feeling that such apartments fit their cultural tastes (with connections to their social class).
  4. Are developers interested more in profits they can obtain through more amenities and higher rents or creating community?

More broadly, see an earlier post on “surban” places.