Rod Dreher

How many stories have you read in the past few years about people moving back into downtowns, leaving suburbs and exurbs to wither on the vine? Joel Kotkin says it ain’t true. Excerpt:

Housing prices in and around the nation’s urban cores is clear evidence that the back-to-the-city movement is wishful thinking. Despite cheerleading from individuals such as University of Toronto Professor Richard Florida, and Carole Coletta, president of CEOs for Cities and the Urban Land Institute, this movement has crashed in ways that match–and in some cases exceed–the losses suffered in suburban and even exurban locations. Condos in particular are a bellwether: Downtown areas, stuffed with new condos, have suffered some of the worst housing busts in the nation.
Take Miami, once a poster child for urban revitalization. According to National Association of Realtors data, the median condominium price in the Miami metropolitan area has dropped 75% from its 2007 peak, far worse than 50% decline suffered in the market for single family homes.
Then there’s Los Angeles. Over the last year, according to the real estate website, single-family home prices in the Los Angeles region have rebounded by a modest 10%. But the downtown condo market has lost over 18% of its value. Many ambitious new projects, like Eli Broad’s grandiose Grand Avenue Development, remain on long-term hold.
The story in downtown Las Vegas is massive overbuilding and vacancies. The Review Journal recently reported a nearly 21-year supply of unsold condominium units. MGM City Center developer Larry Murren stated this spring that he wished he had built half as many units. Mr. Murren cites a seminar on mixed-use development–a commonplace event in many cities over the past few years–as sparking his overenthusiasm. He’s not the only developer who has admitted being misled.
Behind the condo bust is a simple error: people’s stated preferences. Virtually every survey of opinion, including a 2004 poll co-sponsored by Smart Growth America, a group dedicated to promoting urban density, found that roughly 13% of Americans prefer to live in an urban environment while 33% prefer suburbs, and another 18% like exurbs. These patterns have been fairly consistent over the last several decades.

I have surprised myself by how much I’ve fallen out of love with idea of living in the city, over the suburbs. With kids, it’s just too exhausting. I’d have to make a lot more money than I do now to make it worthwhile. Whenever we get ready to buy our next house, it’s not going to be in the city — here in Philly, there’s a four percent tax added to your wages — but in one of the suburbs. I’d be lying if I said schools weren’t a big part of it. We can’t afford private schools where we live now, and the urban public school in our neighborhood leaves much to be desired, for the usual reasons. We’re homeschooling, so that’s not a big deal now. But the fact is, we don’t have any practical options now but to homeschool. It wouldn’t be that way in the suburbs. Besides, life with kids is just easier in the suburbs. I hate to admit it, but it’s true. The older I get, and the older my kids get, the less tolerance I have for the kinds of things that I didn’t much mind when I was younger and in love with city life. Meh. But the important thing is I had an onion tied to my belt, because that was the style at the time.
UPDATE: OK, let me expand on this post, which I tossed up yesterday before our dinner guests came. Let me explain what’s on my mind. I haven’t reached any hard conclusions, and certainly nothing that would justify a headline saying, “Crunchy Con: ‘Run to the suburbs!'”. I do think it’s important to re-examine one’s beliefs and assumptions in light of the evidence of one’s experience, and that’s what I’m trying to do here.
Erin brings up the old house thing in the combox thread, wondering if I’d changed my mind about the desirability of old houses since writing my book, which I completed in the first months of living in our old house in Dallas. Yes, I have. I really loved our old house in Dallas — I mean, really loved it — but I have to say we’re going to think twice about buying an old house again. It’s entirely about the expense of maintaining them. As Erin indicates in her comment, these old places, for all their charm, can be very expensive. We had problems with the house that had everything to do with its advanced age, and which really cost us some money. The $18,000 to $20,000 we lost on the house was all in necessary improvements and basic maintenance beyond what we would have had to put into a newer house. And the cost of cooling and heating a house insulated so poorly, relative to modern houses, was significant. Yet we so loved that house, and its deep charm. I would by no means rule out living in an old house again, but we will definitely be more careful before signing on for one. If I were more handy around the house, or handy at all, that would have made a difference.
My views on suburbia are changing along similar lines. (Go below the jump for that discussion…)

It’s not at all that I’ve decided, or am moving toward deciding, that suburbia is utopia. I firmly believe the way we Americans built our suburbs was foolish and not amenable to human flourishing in community. Our old Brooklyn neighborhood, Cobble Hill, was pretty fantastic. You could walk everywhere you wanted or needed to, and you could see people all the time. I talked to my mom the other day and told her how where we live in Philly, we can walk to buy almost anything we need. She said that sounds great to her. Happily, the New Urbanists and their ideas are re-engineering suburbia to take advantage of the lessons urban living have to teach about the way our physical spaces enhance our individual and common lives.
But we cannot afford to live in a New Urbanist enclave, and we cannot afford to live (except as renters) in the kind of urban enclave (e.g., Cobble Hill) that provide us with the kind of middle-class life that we like. In Dallas, we lived in a gentrifying neighborhood, and loved our neighbors, but we’d see gang tags from time to time on our sidewalks, and sometimes we’d lie in bed at night and hear gunshots in the near distance. This is not conducive to bourgeois serenity, especially if you have kids. As I’ve gotten older, and as my kids have aged, I’ve come to appreciate the virtues of basic social order more than what you might call “vibrancy” in my community. I would love to have both, but it seems to me that in many large cities, if you are going to have both, you have to be willing and able to pay a premium.
And it’s not just about money. It was one thing to be able to zip around Cobble Hill with a baby in a stroller. I wonder, though, how we’d do now with three kids, all 10 and under. We visited NYC en famille two summers ago, and though Julie and I knew well how to get around the city, we were exhausted by how stressful it was to do it with three small children. I’m sure one gets used to it, but it did make us wonder if we’d have it in us to live like that again, given how exhausting it is simply raising our children, especially the one whose particular needs provides us with a particular challenge to our parental patience. That said, living in the city as I now do, I have a much shorter commute to and from work than my suburban colleagues (depending on their suburb, of course) — and it’s hard to put a price tag on what I save in time and frustration daily by not having to join the daily freeway exodus.
It should be said that in a newer American city like Dallas, the whole idea of “city” and “suburb” is largely meaningless. We lived in what some call, with justice, “inner-city” Dallas. Yet our life was in most respects wholly suburban. You can’t walk to anything; you have to drive everywhere. Unlike, say, Center City Philadelphia, or Brooklyn, NY, downtown is relatively dead in Dallas. They have lots of expensive condos and lofts for well-off childless young people and retirees, but there’s not a lot to draw families there, and there’s not much infrastructure to support ordinary daily life (the one grocery store stays alive because the city government subsidizes it). In nearly every respect, there was little difference between the lives we lived as residents of inner-city Dallas, and the life we would have lived in an inner-ring suburb (e.g., Richardson), or an outer burb like Frisco. We had to depend on our car for everything — and that’s the most distinguishing aspect of suburbia, the thing that people like me decry.
But there were differences, and important ones. The educational choices were more appealing. The government was more rational (Dallas city government sometimes seems like a bargain between the poor and the rich to squeeze out the middle classes). No place is an Athenian republic, but considering the dysfunction of the Dallas city council, and the prospect that city taxpayers were going to be paying more taxes for fewer services, and the guarantee of dysfunctional government, I developed a Strange New Respect for the boring dependability and competence of suburban government. The restaurants were often better (far from being a franchise-eatery wasteland, the ‘burbs often have the best ethnic restaurants). The idea that American suburbs are white-flight havens is antiquated and false; a colleague at the News who covers the Dallas suburbs showed me census stats showing that the suburbs are highly diverse in terms of race and ethnicity; it’s just that they’re all middle-class people. Because of that, crime was much further away. Nobody lays in their bed in Plano and hears gunshots half a mile away.
That means something, and not only in terms of safety for oneself and one’s family. I have a friend in Dallas who is, or was, quite the idealistic liberal. She bought her house a decade or more ago in a gentrifying neighborhood. She prized the vibrancy of her neighborhood. But at some point, the crime lines shifted, and she found herself a single woman living alone in what had become once again a bad neighborhood. She was pretty much trapped in her house, not only in the sense that she couldn’t get out of her house in the evening, because the neighborhood was too crime-ridden (to say nothing of the fear she lived in at night), but also because she couldn’t sell her place. She was miserable there, and that fact corroded her idealism about urban life in “vibrant” enclaves. Now, as someone who just sold his house in what is now a pretty solid gentrifying neighborhood, but which is not so far away from a crime-ridden part of town, I think about this. Keep in mind that I just spent six months consumed by anxiety over not having sold that house, and worrying that we wouldn’t be able to sell it in this market. That experience has focused my mind intensely on risk, and has made me, at least for now, quite unwilling to easily take on that kind of risk again. I mean this: when I get ready to buy another house, I’m going to be more wary of where I choose to invest. Back when we bought our Dallas place, the neighborhood was very much on the upswing, and we thought we were getting a bargain — and we absolutely were … if the neighborhood continued its upward march. Then came the economic crash, and everything stalled everywhere. I worried for a while, living in that house, if the tide of crime and urban decay would turn against us, and reclaim our neighborhood (one couple who lived next to us had moved there during the 1980s, and told us jaw-dropping stories about how you couldn’t even sit on your front porch at night back then, for all the drug and gang activity). What would we do if that happened again? I wondered. What would my obligations to my family be? Would we be able to sell and leave, if it came to that? Could we sell and leave under those conditions? How great would our financial loss be? And so forth.
The point I’m trying to make is that I’d never considered how risky our investment in the city was; I, too, had bought unconsciously into the idea that everything was going to get better and better. But that always was foolish, and I’m not going to make that mistake again. Mind you, there’s no such thing as a sure thing, but at my income level, the house I can buy in the random suburb is signficantly less of a risk than the one I could afford in the city. To find a city locale where I’d undertake a similar relatively low level of risk that my investment would suffer would be beyond my financial ability to pay.
Does this make sense? It seems to me like a personal defeat, of sorts. I haven’t suddenly decided that suburbia is utopia, not by any stretch. In the end, when we get ready to buy again, we may find a place inside city limits that makes sense to us. We may find a suburb that makes more sense to us. The main point I want to make here is that my experience and assessment of risk, and my willingness to assume it, has changed over the past few years, in a way that makes suburbia more appealing to me in theory than it used to be.
James Poulos has some thoughts on the matter. Patrick Deneen, as always, writes beautifully and compellingly against the way suburbia as a way of organizing community life deadens us. But again, I’m coming to believe things are a lot more complicated than my idealism would have had it. Last night, we had some new friends over to dinner, a couple moving here with their kids from the Midwest. They’re house-hunting now, and told us how hard it was to leave their suburban neighborhood, a place where everybody knows each other, and the thing people do is to open their garages up in the evenings, and everybody comes together to sit around eating, drinking, talking and being neighborly. I’ve never lived in a city where I saw something like that, and there are certainly many suburbs where you don’t see things like that. But it happens in their suburb. Secondly, several colleagues who live in the Philly suburbs, and who read my bit about the incivility, potential danger and resulting anxiety from the Fourth of July fireworks celebration downtown pointed out that they had gone to their local suburban town’s Fourth of July celebration, and it was very communal and peaceful and pleasant. It sounded great. You can bet that if we’re still in this neighborhood next Fourth of July, that we’ll take our picnic blanket and go out to one of the burbs my colleagues mentioned. Why would I have to go out to a suburb to have the kind of communal festival experience I want, rather than in the city, where, according to my theory, this sort of thing should be more possible? I think about that … and will think more about that when my wife and I start thinking once again about investing in a house.
Once again: I have not concluded that suburbia is utopia. I don’t believe in utopia. I think any place that makes you car-dependent is bad for your soul and the community’s soul. The way we built suburbia in the 20th century was foolish and destructive in a number of ways. But we are where we are, and the flaws of suburbia don’t obviate the flaws of urban life for middle-class families in the year 2010. As I’ve tried to discuss in this rambling blog post, I have had my illusions challenged since I published my book in 2006 … and suburbia-extoller David Brooks has had his illusions challenged too since he published his 2004 encomium to the burbs. From the NY Magazine profile of Brooks:

“I’ve changed my view of suburbia,” he says. We’re sitting at the Best Buns Bread Company in the Village at Shirlington, a sort of prefab town square in Arlington, Virginia, designed to be quaint and homey. The streets are fresh red brick. The lampposts are faux antique. The trees are evenly spaced. A color-coded map explains the area’s layout, like a mall. The neighborhood’s culinary diversity–Aladdin’s Eatery abuts Bonsai Restaurant abuts Guapo’s–is matched only by its patrons’ ethnic lack thereof. We are sipping coffees and munching on identical Ginger Crinkle cookies, when it occurs to me: I am in a David Brooks book. We are Bobos. This is Paradise.
“In my last book, I was pretty pro-urban/suburban sprawl,” he explains. Pro is an understatement. On Paradise Drive, released in 2004, was a satirical, pop-sociological exploration of American suburbia, but also a celebration of it. Consumerism wasn’t just empty accumulation; it was how Americans express themselves. In the ever-expanding exurbs, he wrote, every man creates his own private bubble, “an aristocrat within his own Olympus.”
“Now I’m much more skeptical,” he says. For the last three years, Brooks has been researching and writing a book on neuroscience. At least that’s his shorthand for it. It’s basically about how unconscious processes–in short, emotions–shape our behavior, and what that means for public policy, all told through the stories of two composite, pseudo-novelistic characters. (A working title was How Success Happens, but he dismissed it as too Gladwellian.) Good policy, he argues, should understand that people make decisions emotionally, not rationally. It should also try to foster good habits with “communitarian” solutions like pre-K education, or zoning laws to prevent Wal-Marts from taking over neighborhoods. In other words, says Brooks, “the more contact with other people, the better.” Hence his newfound beef with suburbia.

I would love to know more about Brooks’s thoughts here. In describing how my thinking has changed, it’s not that I have suddenly decided that suburbs are great after all. I think I still recognize the problems with them, and believe that I discerned them long before David Brooks did. What I would say, though, is that just as Brooks has become skeptical of suburbia as a way of life, I have become more skeptical of, uh, urbia as a way of life, for all the reasons I outline here. As ever, I welcome your thoughts, as long as they’re civilly expressed.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus