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Volume 11, Issue 3: Recipio

The Burbs

Ben Merkle

National Review recently devoted several articles to the task of making a defense for the existence of suburbia.1 It seems ridiculous that something as American as the burbs would need a defense. Who would be so asinine to attack the suburbs? The main culprit referred to was, of course, the arch villain-Al Gore.

But Gore's voice is not the only one squawking. NR is battling a veritable Left Wing conspiracy of anti-suburbanites. Gore2 and his minions refer to the burbs under a much more nefarious sounding name-Sprawl. Sprawl is the endless puddle of patchwork subdivisions flooding out of the city for miles in every direction. Gore has put quite a bit of effort into demonizing the middle class's fixation with the subdivision. And though Gore's understanding of the evils of suburbia probably deserve about as much credit as his claims of inventing the Internet, he has managed to touch an American sore spot. Our love for the suburbs rivals the cultish affections of a Grateful Dead fan.
We refuse to admit the awful fact that they are ugly. But the terrible truth must be shouted from the roof tops. The pattern of Sprawl is so redundant that it would seem developers must be following some sort of platonic suburb form. Drop out of the sky onto any suburban street in the United Sates and you will see to your left the subdivision developed in the late sixties (when split level was cool). Look to your right and find the new strip mall featuring (at last!) both a Gap and a Baby Gap. Continue down the road a wee bit to find the Walmart and the newest development (where painting your drainpipes another color counts as having trim). Although we shrink at the thought of granting truth to anything coming from Al Gore, we still need to 'fess up. Our suburbs are mindless and ugly.
The attack of suburbia generally begins with an assault on America's love affair with the car. Since the advent of the automobile, the American landscape has been reshaped by car buyers. JH Kunstler's recent book, The Geography of Nowhere3 does a wonderful job documenting this transition. As cars became available to the public, business men were no longer required to live in the city with their work. A family could live several miles outside the city in a rural setting and commute to work. As this trend caught on America saw the birth of the suburbs.
This transition had a tremendous affect on the way a city was designed. By the early fifties urban planners had changed the way a city was to be built in order to better serve a car-oriented people. Everything interesting about a street was removed in order to make them safer for cars. For instance, the grassy tree-lined strip that ran between the street and the sidewalk was left out, because of the hazard these trees created for cars. All streets were built to enable a car to safely negotiate them at fifty-five m.p.h., no matter what the actual speed limit of the street was. Back alleys were abandoned, forcing homebuilders to attach their garages to the front of their houses. Now the house's dominating feature is the aesthetically pleasing (and sometimes even checkered!) garage door. Business buildings were set back from the road to allow for visibility and to make room for the required parking lot. Instead of walking down the sidewalk and looking in at various storefront displays, shoppers now must drive from parking lot to parking lot (or park once in the mall parking lot, bringing up a whole new stack of criticisms).
It would appear that the death of our cities' beauty is directly attached to our fascination with the car. But conceding this fact does not put one entirely on Gore's side of the issue. The solution that Gore has advocated has been an increase in the federal oversight of city planning, overtaxing anything car related, and lots of free money for public mass transit. Essentially, Gore makes the asinine assumption that the motivation to build a local community can be the federal government. This also overlooks the fact that federal interference in city planning and its massive push for freeways was what got us into this ugly mess to begin with.
But if we reject the V.P.'s proposed solution and approach the whole thing from a Christian worldview, we will see both the heart of the problem and the true solution much differently from Mr. Gore. A true sense of community and love for your neighbor can only come from a regenerated heart (1 Pet. 1:22). America's love affair with the car is not the heart of the problem with our cities. Our real problem lies with the fact that America is composed primarily of unregenerate hearts who are annoyed by being around other sinners for extended periods of time. Our fixation with cars only reflects the deeper problem of living in a nation enslaved to its sins.
The only thing that can unite a community foundationally, is the power of the Gospel. This principle is evident in the layout of the average medieval city. At the center of the city was the church, and the community was built around the church building. America perverted this principle early on by replacing the church with the state building. Our politicians have taken this abdication as their cue and now see themselves as the uniting principle behind our communities. But Christianity teaches a drastically different solution. How the details, like our love affair with the car and our fondness for fake metal shutters, work themselves out we don't necessarily know. However, Scripture does tell us that the consummation of history will be a beautiful city, a bride adorned. And the corner stone, unifying the entire structure, will be the Lord Jesus Christ.

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