Friday, May 19, 2006

Quality of community and subverting suburban transience

My friend Helen Lee, coeditor of Growing Healthy Asian American Churches, has a post on her blog describing her experience in suburbia. She notes that when her family moved to one particular suburb, they didn't get to know the neighbors there much at all. They recently moved to another suburb, and in contrast, they found themselves in a community that was very neighborly, rooted and interconnected. This is particularly interesting to me because the latter suburb has a bit of a reputation of being upscale and perhaps snobby/elitist, and if the stereotypes held true, I would have expected Helen to have had a more neighborly experience in the other suburb.

I guess it's a lot like local churches as expressions of larger denominations. Sometimes you think that a particular denomination is liberal or fundamentalist, but the specific local church down the block surprises you by being the opposite, whether evangelically conservative or progressively activist or whatnot. In churches, so much depends on local leadership. And in suburbia, so much depends on the local residents. It's certainly true that some neighborhoods have structural things that either facilitate or inhibit community, but we're called to bloom where we're planted, and a few key people in a neighborhood can make a huge difference in creating a neighborly environment.

Interestingly enough, Helen's post also mentions that she lived in a rural small town for a few years and was quite socially isolated. It's been said that small towns and urban communities have more in common than suburbs, because they maintain a sense of local neighborhood and aren't fragmented by suburban commuter culture and anonymity. On the other hand, it seems like it's often hard for newcomers to feel welcome in small towns, because the existing communities are well-established and transplants can be viewed as a threat to that stability.

This actually makes me wonder if suburban transience is a downside that can be subverted into an opportunity. Many suburbanites are transplants, and that means that communities may be more porous and easier for newcomers to break into, with less of an existing establishment. New residents might actually be more open to new connections and building community, especially in new developments and subdivisions where everybody is in the same boat. Again, to draw a church parallel, sometimes it's easier to start fresh church plants than to renew historic long-term congregations. Not that there aren't challenges either way. At any rate, I'm encouraged by Helen's post, that people are taking initiative and creating community here in suburban Chicagoland.


Helen said...


Our suburb definitely has that reputation you mention--upscale and snooty--and there certainly seem to be parts of it that are like that. But the stories I've been hearing from friends of mine who also live here reflect how much interaction they seem to have with their neighbors. Particularly if you are parents with young kids, that seems to be an instant barrier-breaker that allows for relationships to quickly be built with others. A friend of mine who also recently moved to this suburb was invited to a bunch of playdates the first week she moved in. Maybe there is some sort of "suburban pride" that the residents of this particular suburb feel, and so there is an intrinsic motivation to be welcoming to others, so as to continue perpetuating the image that this is a great place to live? For the most part though, everyone I've met seems to sincerely enjoy living here. Have we discovered some sort of false utopia that is just masquerading as true community? Hopefully not, but time will tell!

Helen said...
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Helen said...

I forgot to mention that in our small town experience, it was very much the case that it felt very difficult for us to "break in" to existing relationships. People were nice and friendly, and they obviously knew who we were (hard to miss us when we were one of a very small handful of Asians who lived in the town--we had random strangers come up to us on the street after our son was born and say things like, "Congratulations, I heard about it on the radio!") But I definitely felt like we were on the outside. I think our ethnicity played a big role here; while living in New York City, I felt much more a sense of belonging than I ever did in Iowa. _Everyone_ belongs in New York City! And there is a certain rootedness that comes from greeting the same grocer, newsstand operator, dry cleaner, etc., every day. Perhaps this is why so many people who I know who grew up in NYC have to go back there to live. No other place in the U.S. can match the experience you can have of feeling as though the world is at your doorstep, while still relishing in the fact that your local deli knows exactly how to make your bagel in the morning.