16 Comments
May 9Liked by Addison Del Mastro

You wanted feedback, so here goes the contrarian view.

I guess I have to question your assumptions. I don’t think that clubs, meet ups, and social activities are particularly dependent on density, unless you get to fairly isolated areas. Going by the difference between my experience and my husband’s (he was born and raised in NYC), I think you actually have more social interactions in smaller places where you see the same people over and over.

I actually talk to the grocery clerk, the delivery guy (who turns out to be a relative of a friend), the postal worker, the woman who does my hair, the guy who does my yard, and so on. Many of them know each other. You have more of a social fabric and more feeling of community. You go to the farmer’s market or one of the many festivals, and you see people you know. Ditto the grocery store, the post office, or the vet.

For the history - people moving from the country were extremely well represented in postwar suburbs. Between 1940 to 1970, the percentage of people living in the country in the US dropped from 43% to 26%. My guess is that most of those people moved to the suburbs.

That’s certainly the pattern that I saw with my dad and some of my uncles, who were WW II veterans. After the war, they went to college, some stayed, and some moved their families to the outskirts of cities. None moved to a city center. Fully 17% of the country moved from rural areas to MSAs during that time. I would really question your assumption that early suburbanites were primarily originally urban. That was not my experience at all, going by the parents of my friends growing up in the 60s and 70s.

The suburban community socialization patterns that I saw were similar to the same habits I see now out in the far exurbs. There was then more of an emphasis on going to church and church activities as a cornerstone of social life and public service. Many people were active in organizations and clubs, whether it was Elks, Moose, or Garden Club. (Today it’s library board or writer’s group or organizing community events.)

Many people bonded over hobbies like fishing, boating, hunting, horseback riding, tennis, gardening, or golf. Many people met each other through their kids and their kids’ activities. They still do.

None of that is at all urban specific.

I am familiar with how my own ancestors lived pre-1945, and it was not dense. It was primarily rural, with small town centers that had stores, with houses on larger lots around it, surrounded by farms of varying sizes. People first came in to town by horse, and then later by car.

As far as today, I don’t feel more impatient in an automobile. If I am in a car, I am going somewhere, and cars are an efficient and comfortable way to get many tasks done. If I want to stroll, I stroll. I generally do not want to stroll carrying a thirty pound bag of dog food. Different circumstances.

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These are good points, especially the number of people who may have come from rural to suburban settings rather than leaving cities. However, that would also hinge on how you classify small-town life. I consider small towns to be generally urban, meaning that some of those "country" people would in my view have been urbanites too. And it also depends on what sort of suburbia you're talking about. This bit:

"I actually talk to the grocery clerk, the delivery guy (who turns out to be a relative of a friend), the postal worker, the woman who does my hair, the guy who does my yard, and so on. Many of them know each other. You have more of a social fabric and more feeling of community. You go to the farmer’s market or one of the many festivals, and you see people you know. Ditto the grocery store, the post office, or the vet."

What sort of place is this you live in? That certainly doesn't match a lot of suburbs as they exist today, although the older suburbs were more dense and had more proximity, so there's also that question.

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It's not that clubs, meet ups, and gatherings are DEPENDENT on density. It's just that density and walkability helps relieve some of the activation energy it takes to participate in these kinds of activities.

I'm much more likely to leave my home if I just have to go for a 5 minute walk somewhere. If it involves a 30 minute car ride to get to anywhere meaningful then I'll likely default to staying home because it takes too much time and effort to get to the destination.

The lack so socializing is leading to social atrophy and people have forgotten how to simply "hang out". This is why we're seeing an epidemic of loneliness and isolation in the U.S.

I live in Barcelona, it's a city with 1.6 million people, yet here in my neighborhood I see the same people over and over again every single day. Even though it's a big metro city, there's still a strong sense of community within each individual neighborhood.

We also have delivery services from nearby grocery stores and everything is not ridiculously oversized here so no need to stroll with a thirty pound bag of dog food :)

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There is also a change in the way society is organized. Growing up in suburbia in the 50’s, we kids were always in and out of each other’s houses and backyards, and there was always a parent (read Mom) wherever we went.

And now? There is likely not an adult at all and if there is that person is probably working from home and not able to fit in the care and feeding of whatever neighbourhood kids have shown up on the day.

So kids are more apt to stay in their own houses and their social connections are almost exclusively through school and organized activities rather than neighbourhood proximity.

Why is this important? Because it was through the kids that the adults formed their own neighbourhood social connections.

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I feel like a bigger change is the idea that kids need to be supervised at all times until they are high-school aged or beyond. Growing up in the 80s, we were also in and out of each other's houses, but there wasn't always a parent home. I distinctly remember going over to play at the neighbor's house when there were no adults home. I was probably 11 or 12.

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No, it's not the lost wisdom of urbanites.

All four of my grandparents raised their children in a 1960s suburb populated by white collar professionals. All four were what you could call civically engaged. The women in particular were expert organizers, committee-formers, bringers of casseroles, and informal news networks. And they did in fact successfully pass those values to their children.

Except my parents' generation exercised those values, not with their physical neighbors, but with their church community, or their kids' school communities, or their hobby communities. This occasionally included people who happened to live nearby, but that wasn't the determinant. These were chosen communities. Call them intentional, selective, pre-screened, exclusive - whatever mood affiliation you want to throw on it.

These values have not really been practicable or livable for my generation. Why?

We were raised in a thick community in a denser urban environment than my parents were. We were allowed to roam the neighborhood on bikes with our friends. We were encouraged to walk to the corner store. We were given these habits. Most of us now live in even denser, more urbanist environments than we grew up in. Some of us are actually moving back into the very neighborhoods our immigrant ancestors once built in the 1840s.

But the churches are dying, and my generation barely believes anyway. Hardly any of us has school-age children yet, long past the life stage when our parents did. Hobby groups have only the most tenuous social hold on us, easily replaced with some other hobby or even Netflix. We move jobs every few years. Some of us move cities every few years. Many people my age can afford to disown family members over cultural and political differences - never mind friend groups. As a direct consequence of our wealth and freedom and individualism, all of our connections are simply more disposable than our parents' were.

Built environments don't make communities. Shared values and rituals do. Common life experiences do - that is, cultural affinity. Most of all, interdependence does. The most powerful bonds are those between people who rely on each other for survival. (Ask any combat veteran or subsistence farmer.)

And urbanites mostly just don't need each other anymore.

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This is a great point; I think it certainly holds true in the case of my mother, who grew up in an original New Jersey suburb after her early years in the Bronx (mother from there, father from Brooklyn). Compared to apartment living, it must have seemed immense and extremely quiet. But I also think that these original suburbs were different. Sure, there were big lawns out back (and woods where the developments hadn't gotten to yet), but the houses were small (my mom shared a room with her sister), pretty close together, and there was more population density simply by the fact that the average family had more kids (my mom is 1 of 3). Also, it was still just a mile or so to walk to a tiny but living "downtown" (and schools). So while it wasn't urban, it nonetheless wasn't isolated the modern suburbs are, with bigger houses placed further apart and nothing to walk to for miles.

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On an individual level, I absolutely think growing up in suburbia reinforced my shy/socially anxious disposition, and moving to the city has done wonders for me.

I wonder how much cities have become more anonymous/asocial over recent decades, and if they have, how much that might be caused by so many acculturated suburbanites like me moving into the cities.

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Dunno if I have anything profound to contribute, but I completely agree. This matches my intuitions and experiences!

I personally REALLY hate the attitude that says we have to explain all these trends in black-and-white terms, as if the people who move out to the suburbs can only be one way forever, can never change, can never be shaped by their environment, even that their CHILDREN can never be shaped or change at all. It's silly, and reflects a lot of the lazy thinking that went into making the suburbs so mainstream in the first place.

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This one was very timely! I'm working on a piece now about Putnam's research and the Decline of Social Capital in the US.

Couple of parts that stuck out for me:

1. Our opinions are shaped by our surroundings and possibilities. In different circumstances, we can be different people.

- Before moving to Barcelona, I was not a cyclist. In my teens I rode my bike to school from elementary up until I got my drivers license in high school. Then all throughout my 20's I relied on a car to get everywhere. Once I started my career those long commutes to work were soul crushing. I felt trapped in this little bubble, no one to socialize with. That's when I got into listening to podcasts, at least it felt like I was sitting in the room with other people talking. Now in my 30's, having moved to Barcelona, I've rediscovered the joys of biking. We have an extensive bike lane network and I can be just about anywhere in the city within about 15 minutes. So just as you mentioned, my surroundings and circumstances have turned me into a different person.

2. Denser neighborhoods do seem not to make people more sociable, but simply offer sociable people the chance to live close to other sociable people.

- This goes hand in hand with the idea that there's a difference between friendships and relationships. You don’t have to be a social person to have lots of relationships. These are two distinct things (i.e. I have a relationship with my neighbors but we don't grab coffee together on the weekends) If we live in denser neighborhoods we have the opportunity to develop more relationships, even if we're not social butterflies.

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The It's a Wonderful Life article is an interesting read. In hindsight we know that Bailey Park was bad development, but at the time the intentions were good (why would it be bad to put a family in a house?). I think it goes off the rails though when it accuses George of building on top of a cemetery. The scene is to be symbolic that without George there is more death and misery in the community. It would seem odd that Clarence the Angel wants George to know how wonderful his life is, even though he destroyed a cemetery.

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Heh, I've had this debate with a few people. I think the scene does imply the development was built atop the cemetery. Some people say there's a scene with a map that implies the borders of the cemetery changed or something, but why would his brother's grave be *there*, implying the cemetery grounds were already there when George would have been alive...

I think it's just a continuity error and doesn't mean anything but I do think if you take it literally it implies that.

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Maybe the cemetery had to expand a bunch due to the squalled living conditions in Pottersville.

Or maybe his brother was the first one in that cemetery, and the rest grew around it. Did the Bailey family own that land already and just decided to use it as a graveyard after they lost their child?

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Just another data point to add here, and one I think does really impact the isolation of the suburbs: bikeability.

When my dad grew up, as a kid in the first post war suburban boom, him and his siblings would bike everywhere when they moved to the suburbs from the city proper - around when my dad was 10.

Where he grew up...that's just not really possible anymore, and I'm sure it's true for most suburban areas today. Not only does the suburbs have quite a bit more people (they've actually put up some midrise apartments) but most American households now own two cars, cars are much larger, there's a ton more through traffic on the main roads due to road widening and a ton more urban sprawl. Add the endless entertainment options available online, and I'm not really surprised urban culture hasn't translated through generations.

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I think there are different types of suburbs. I grew up in what my mom always called a “bedroom community” to NYC, in northeast New Jersey - Glen Rock, to be specific. It was one of the smaller towns in Bergen County, but we had our own schools and a 2 block long commercial district. Most of those houses were built post-WWII, I believe, though possibly some pre-war. I walked to school since we had no buses for a town that was only about 2 miles square. Some of the larger towns around us did have school buses, but regardless, the commercial areas were still usually walkable. But you couldn’t tell when you crossed into one town to the next if you didn’t know the area. It was pretty much completely built up with no room for growth or in-fill when I grew up there in the 1970s and 1980s.

Contrast that with the farther out suburbs of Richmond, VA where I am now (though I live in the city). Those were built much more recently and have the typical subdivisions with major arteries connecting secondary roads and cul-de-sacs. Everyone drives bc there are only sidewalks on the smaller streets - not the major arteries, and schools and retail are usually too far away to walk.

But those are much farther away from downtown Richmond. There are closer suburbs that were built post-WWII that are more like where I grew up. Folks around here probably consider these older suburbs more like the city than where they live. And in fact some of them are technically within the city limits, though not downtown.

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One type of suburban and urban neighborhood that was superseded by the post-war development style was the ethnic neighborhood. This added an extra coherence that is missing today. The Conshohocken and Swedeland areas outside Philadelphia were heavily Polish/Slavic due to the steel mills like Allen Wood. Not far from where I now live, there’s Roseto, PA with its Italian ethnicity. Again, there was an industry attracting them, the slate industry. Ethnicity and industry seemed to double up to form strongly coherent neighborhoods. Now these are gone due to deindustrialization and absorption into the mainstream.

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