Monday, March 12, 2007

Suburbia's origin story

[This is an excerpt from a seminar I did at the National Pastors Convention.]

If you’re a comic book fanboy, you know the importance of the origin story. The infant Kal-El was the sole survivor of the planet Krypton, rocketed to Earth as a baby, raised by his adoptive parents to stand for truth, justice and the American way, using his superhuman powers to defend his adopted world from all threats. That’s Superman’s origin story. Or Bruce Wayne, a young boy who watched as his parents were gunned down in an act of random violence, grows up to become a caped crusader, a relentless creature of the night, protecting the innocent, striking fear into the hearts of criminals as . . . the Batman. That’s his origin story. The origin story sets the tone for the character. It establishes their aspirations, motivation, rationale and destiny.

So what’s suburbia’s origin story? I find it instructive to go back in history and to see suburbia’s original goodness. Suburbia, originally, was about providing affordable housing in healthy living environments. Go back to the late 1800s, the industrial revolution. The culture had shifted from rural to urban. It was an urban jungle, people lived in overcrowded urban slums in the shadow of factory smokestacks, and it was toxic and dangerous. Bad sanitation, bad infrastructure, noisy. It was a public health hazard. People were at risk at home and at work.

Suburbs were developed so people could live away from industrial areas and have better living conditions, with green space and open land and better health. That was a good thing. Suburbia provided affordable housing for millions of families after WWII. All the soldiers and sailors came back from the war and there wasn’t room in the urban centers, which had decayed during the Depression and the war effort. Suburban housing was affordable and peaceful. It was considered the happy medium between city and country, away from an overindustrialized, mechanized culture, closer to parks and grass and woods, while still having convenience and access to the benefits of civilization. That’s the origin story, suburbia’s creational good. It points back to one of the most basic human needs – shelter. If the Bible starts in the garden of Eden and ends in the city of the New Jerusalem, suburbia was a way of bringing garden and city together.

The problem, of course, is that modern suburbia has departed from its original noble ideals, especially in terms of the vision of affordable housing for all. We all know that suburbia can be an extremely expensive place to live, that housing values have far outpaced income, making living in suburbia difficult for the lower and middle class.– the cost of living in suburbia now, for many, runs counter to the original dream. Instead of a place of peace and rest, a suburban home and lifestyle often generates financial anxiety and worry. It’s no surprise that debt counseling and financial management are now strategic ministries for many suburban churches.


Ken Liu said...

hi al. i tried leaving a comment before, but i guess it didn't work. thanks for leaving a comment on my site. i was wondering which book on taiwan you were referring to. if you get a chance, could you email me the title? thanks!

L.L. Barkat said...

Yes, our church is actually doing the Good $ense program (Willow Creek?) and it is terrific, and needed.