Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Discussing suburbia

Bloggers L.L. Barkat and Charity Singleton are blogging about The Suburban Christian, and they've posted some thoughts relating to the intro and chapter 1. L.L is subfused (by which she means that she is confused about the meaning of suburban) while Charity is calling herself a subruralurbanite.

It's interesting that both of them find themselves in contexts where the lines between urban and suburban are blurring; what's true of L.L. in New York and Charity in Indianapolis seems to be true nationwide. New suburbs (exurbs, edge cities, etc.) are becoming new cities, while old suburbs are becoming old cities. Cities are becoming more suburban in form, and suburbs are becoming more urban. And even small towns and rural areas are suburbanizing.

(BTW, the fact that suburbia is confusing popped up yesterday. I was at my local library picking up several dozen books that had come in, and the librarian recognized me and asked me about my own writing. I explained that I had written books about suburbia, grief and singleness and was starting to tell her a little about each, and she said, "Now, that's part of the former Yugoslavia, right?" I gave her a blank look. She clarified, "Serbia? You wrote about Serbia?" Serbia, suburbia, whatever. Now, suburbia in Serbia, that would be a topic. :-)

If you'd like to join in on these discussions but don't have a copy of the book, the intro and chapter 1 are both available online as free PDFs here. I'm curious - what kinds of contexts do you find yourself in? Suburban, urban, rural, or some sort of hybrid of them all? If you have migrated from one kind of context to another, what characteristics or traits do you see as different from one to the other?


L.L. Barkat said...

Oops. I think my tongue-and-cheek use of "subfused" has made me sound like I missed a vocabulary class. The thing is, though I know what suburban means in my head, it is hard to define the word when applying it to my life.

Charity's "Grass-O-Meter" is one good standard for trying to define where we live. The thought that Place is also defined by who we are is also in the back of my mind.

In other words, what is suburban to one person seems terribly urban to another. I am that "another" person. Growing up in deep country makes this place feel hopelessly urban.

Oh, and SERBIA! That was so funny.

Anonymous said...

I liked the Serbia too!

I was just recommending your book to one of the elders from my church (a VERY suburban church), and he asked, "So, am I a suburban Christian?" I said, "Oh yeah," but then I realized that he'll have to figure that out for himself, just like the rest of us.

Funny, it seems that I can define everyone else's situation, just not my own.

Jac said...

This is likely because my field of study is architecture/city planning, but I think there are some very clear lines between rural/urban/suburban.

I grew up on a farm in Manitoba, Canada.
I then spent several years living in an urban neighborhood in Winnipeg. (a city of 600 000 or so)
To me, living in a walkable mixed-use urban neighborhood was the most humanizing way to live. i could take transit easily and walk downtown in a few minutes. I got to know many of my neighbors, and all shops and services were only a quick jaunt away. The sidewalk and street are part of the collective shared space, and there were many public parks and plazas as well.

Then, I lived for a year in the suburbs. My life soon centered around parking lots and shopping malls and 7-11's. To go for a walk, jog, or bike ride, people would get in their vehicles and commute to the nearest park. Every basic part of life necessitated driving a car.

I have many reasons for hating the suburbs. The suburban lifestyle is about consumption, individualism, and environmental degradation.
(disclaimer: there are a few, however rare, cases where this is not so).
This lifestyle is in contrast with the kingdom ideas of community, simplicity, and stewardship.

...I could go on but I will stop here. Your book sounds very interesting and I am definitely going to check it out.

Al Hsu said...

Jac - As you'll see if you pick up my book, I resonate with many of the critiques and concerns of suburbia that you list off. I'm all for mixed-use, walkable communities and commend many of the suggestions of the New Urbanism. But rather than just echo the many voices that rip on suburbia, my question has been how do we look at suburbia missiologically and seek the kingdom even in the midst of a suburban context? It seems to me that we can't abandon the suburbs; rather, we must cast a vision for a better suburbia. As I say in the book, I have something of a love/hate relationship with suburbia (which I hope is more constructive than all love or all hate!), and my hope is that we can all work together to seek the welfare of the suburbs.

modorney said...

My view of suburbia is that it is driven by two basic paradigms. One is that home ownership, encouraged by the tax code, is a basic element of financial planning. Generally, the easiest home to buy for the first time homeowner is in a far suburb, and sold by the developer of that suburb. Then (again encouraged by the tax code) one moves to more expensive, closer in houses, usually sold by individual owners.

The second element is schools. Better school districts cost more money. Although economically, private schools may make more sense, living in a lesser school district usually means a lower overall quality of life. And, better school districts appreciate better.

I see three challenges to the suburban life. One is that the church needs to channel suburban wealth into less prosperous areas, instead of spending it on buildings and staff. I don't necessarily sending the youth to the homeless shelter all the time, I mean a thought-out relevant, relational ministry to a stable urban or close-in suburb. With people in a lifestyle similar to most suburbanites.

The second challenge is an urban planning one. With marketing and persistent patience, suburbs can be weaned from a lot of auto traffic. Half the commuting by the 9 to 5 workforce can be easily done by transit. (I'm in transit and can see how this works).

The third is a recognition of a spiritual and creative flow between the city and the suburbs. My son goes to the city (cities - San Francisco and Berkeley) for music and mathematics. He hangs with the top 400 musical and mathematical teenagers in the Bay Area, and this talent converges at SF Conservatory of Music and UC Berkeley. This flow of talent happens in many paradigms and practices, and flows both ways.

Anonymous said...

Al, greetings from "the suburb looking for a city." I was shopping for gifts for students on Thursday and came across The Suburban Christian at the book store and reminded myself that I really wanted to read it but hadn't yet. I was debating between getting it or getting Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline and couldn't decide, so Cindy encouraged me to go ahead and get both. I'm so glad I did.

I started TSC yesterday and was drawn in immediately. I had to put it down to spend some time with the boys and then to head off to the end-of-the-year choir banquet and I figured I would pick it back up today. I got home last night tired but not sleepy so I picked up the book intending to finish the chapter I was in. At 3:30 this morning I reminded myself that I had responsibilities at church this morning and I had to finally put the book down after finishing chapter 6 (I'm a slow reader). Early this evening, after spending some time doing yardwork and playing outside with the family, I finished it, much to my simultaneous delight and sadness. I was delighted because I enjoyed the book so and was deeply challenged by much of it, and sadenned for the very same reasons.

I have quite a list of people to whom I want to recommend the book. Thank you, Al, for your thorough and thoughtful treatment of a subject that hasn't gotten much ink. Although I technically don't live in a suburb anymore, I found the book enormously relevant to my own situation. Thank you for walking this road and bringing me alongside you on it. You are helping me learn to live more Chrstianly regardless of my location.

You are a good teacher, Al. The best teachers provide a wealth of information, but make us students think for ourselves. You are making me think.

Al Hsu said...

Glad you liked the book, Brian! Thanks so much for your kind comments, and I hope others likewise find it helpful.