Friday, April 07, 2006

Suburban community - for a price

Someone gave me a copy of the article "Backlash in the Burbs," by Sarah Elizabeth Richards, from the September/October 2005 issue of Psychology Today. It's a profile of Ladera Ranch, a new suburban development in Orange County, California, that's an intelligently designed mixed-use suburban community based on the principles of the Congress for New Urbanism. The physical geography of the community is designed to maximize neighborly interaction and civic involvement. Houses are close to each other and have porches in front and garages in the back. Interconnected streets and broad sidewalks are designed to be walkable and facilitate use of parks and green space.

Six salaried event planners organize community functions - holiday parties and decorating contests, movies in the park, block parties and barbecues. A community services organization provides "event in a box" resources to help residents plan activities. Lareda has over 75 resident-organized clubs and activities, from book clubs and scrapbooking to groups for computer junkies or divorced moms. Residents describe their experience like living on a stationary cruise ship, or college dorm life - "Leisure World for thirtysomethings," says one resident. Neighbors go on walks together and invite each other over to dinner, even if they just met at the park. There's always something going on.

Sounds great! What's the catch? Well, a four-bedroom colonial house in Lareda starts at nearly $1 million. It only goes up from there. Essentially, if you can pay, you can play. Suburbia is a commercial environment, and all the more so when you are paying for the amenities of a cruise-ship-like community. Southern California is different from much of the country in terms of housing costs, but even so, the financial investment needed to live in this kind of community is prohibitive for many.

Of course, there are plenty of people who spend that much money for suburban housing but live their lives in privacy and seclusion from their neighbors. Despite the price tag, Ladera's vision of a socially connective suburban community is commendable in that it encourages people to look beyond themselves and their own nuclear families. I suspect the next step, then, would be to extend that vision beyond their subdivision's boundaries. I would hope that residents would not only make their community a happy enclave for those who can afford to live there, but turn their focus outward as well. Not just community for themselves, but community service and development for others.

Richards's article also points out that by no means is fun civic housing a cure-all for personal issues. One researcher says that people are drawn to new developments because they are marketed as a way to start fresh. "They move to solve their problems but that doesn't happen." Richards writes, "Marriages don't automatically get better, and isolated people may still feel lonely. Disillusionment sets in when residents slowly realize that 'a development is in fact just a collection of houses and not a magic salve.'" In other words, a friendly civic environment can facilitate community interaction and social neighborliness, but it won't necessarily fix you. Christians living in affluent communities like Ladera have the opportunity to minister to neighbors with deep spiritual needs unfulfilled by activities and events.

While only a small percentage of the population can afford to live in New Urbanist communities like Ladera, all of us can work toward community involvement and social interaction wherever we live. Certainly it's not just communities that can afford event planners that can have interactive community spirit. The larger challenge, I think, is for Christians in ordinary suburban communities to find ways to foster community and social interaction in their neighborhoods. It could be that my neighborhood's geography or infrastructure hinders me from getting to know my neighbors. Or I might just need to get off my duff and attend our neighborhood association meetings.


Craver Vii said...

Gee, Al...I was kinda looking forward for part 2 of your interview. I clicked on that link and you've got me wondering about this idea of the church being the "third place" for our communities. It sounds like an excellent opportunity for outreach.

I imagine that in order for our church building to be an effective outreach tool, (That's what I think of when I read about the "third place.") we're going to have to get past a certain "fortress mentality."

How do we move from protecting the sacred furniture and climate controls to grasping a vision for investing in the souls of men?

Tonya said...

From 1993 to 2005 we lived in the Victory neighborhood of north Minneapolis. We purchased our home for well under $100,000. Our block was either single elderly ladies who were dying or moving to nursing homes and they were being replaced by young couples or singles who found the housing stock to be quality but very affordable.

By about 5 years into our time there we found ourselves in the midst of the most wonderful community that included about ten homes. When new folks moved in we were at their door the same day with muffins or cookies. We celebrated engagements, weddings and births. We had block parties and coffee clutches. We started a garden club and traded plants. We started a book club and traded ideas. We held a "Yeah-its-summer" bash each June (we had a lot of teachers and grad students on the block!). We rented movies together, went out for dinner or cooked for each other. My personal favorite was our "stoop sits." If someone was out you were always welcome to join them on their front stoop (no porches even), bring your own lawn chair and a beer. We often moved to the backyard for a fire as firepits caught on in later years. It was indeed, like college.

It was an amazing time and we all acknowledged that we would probably never again experience that level of intimacy with our neighbors.

One by one people moved out of these "starter homes." We were the remnant and we tried with just as much effort to bring others into the warm circle that had existed. But it just didn't happen. I don't know why. Was the earlier time just chemistry? We certainly weren't carbon copies of each other, though we did hold a lot of the same values.

Last year we moved a mile and a half into a first ring suburb. We moved to a house on a very wide busy street. I have wonderful relationships with my neighbors on each side and straight across the street. I never even SEE people in the other homes on our block. We did have a block party on National Night Out last August, but I wouldn't recognize half of those people if I saw them at Target.

I mourn for how it was. I am committed to getting to know my new neighbors as this summer approaches, since we are more settled than last summer. But my experience leaves me wondering one thing...should I lower my expectations so much? Should I really believe that it could never be that way again? Or, should I renew my passion for creating true community and acknowledge that it happened once (with no small effort) therefore it can be again...

Sorry for the lengthy comment. This topic is very near and dear to my heart. It is something I have thought about a lot and something I have invested a lot of energy in!

Kristi said...

One side note is that lower-income urban neighborhood tend to be much more community-oriented than middle- to upper-class suburbs. (From what I've heard and read, unfortunately--not from what I've experienced.) People keep an eye out for each other and kids play on the streets. What does that say?

Al Hsu said...

Great point, Kristi. Maybe the more affluent you get, the more likely it is that community is a commodity that can be purchased. (As is privacy, if that's your preference. Either can be a consumer choice if you have the luxury of affording it.) And if you can afford a nanny or child care, you don't needn eighbors to look after your kids.

And thanks for the great post, Tonya! I suppose it's kind of like how grad school is different from college or high school - each have their own pros and cons, and we try to make the best of each of them, on their own terms. We can be both hopeful and realistic about what kind of neighborhood community we can develop in suburbia - maybe it's not going to have the kind of 24/7 community I had in college, but it can at least be better than total isolated anonymity.

Natalie said...

I am so excited that I came across your blog! As a Chicagoland suburban Christian myself, I too have struggled with what it means to cultivate community in our context.

You've touched on the theme that the suburbs are often overlooked. I work for a Christian non-profit in Dupage county, and our staff meeting today reinforced this theme.

One of my fellow employees was asked to join a focus group dealing with the ever-increasing diversity of the county. Before, immigrants and others with lower incomes tended to live in large metropolitan areas, but recently people are moving to the suburbs first, bypassing the cities. Homeless shelters, public schools, public health, and many other social service providers now have to grapple with the changing landscape of the suburbs, since we out here are not as equipped as urban neighborhoods.

All that is to say, we suburban Christians do not necessarily have to travel to the city, for example, to “fight poverty.” The needs are still out here in the suburbs, despite the shiny, upper-middle-class veneer!

I didn't mean for this to get so looking forward to your book!