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Suburban man never gets a break

Clive Davis approvingly quotes a book by a fellow called Rod Dreher, a “crunchy conservative” (whatever that is) who is, we are told, a passionate environmentalist, a disliker of suburban sprawl, shopping malls (oh, the vulgarity!), television (ditto), McMansions (huh?) and other regrettable features of consumerist, dollar-obsessed America. Instead, this fellow, who sounds rather like an American Roger Scruton (of whom I am an admirer, at least in parts) is a fan of government restrictions and regulations, and mentions the case of the U.S. Pacific Highway, left pristine and free of crass development by land-use regulations.

There is nothing actually all that new in conservatives embracing controls on development. The very word, conservative, is based on the desire to conserve and protect what exists from the new. During the Industrial Revolution, conservatives like the Poet Robert Southey railed against what they saw as the ugliness of industrialism and the associated sprawl. (Some of the dislike was also based on snobbery and fear of an pwardly mobile and undeferential middle class). The trend has continued. It was that perfect symbol of cuddly English fogeyism, Sir John Betjeman, who took potshots at suburbia, penning one of his most famous verses about that place to the west of London known as Slough. (The former Poet Laureate asked Hitler to bomb it).

What is so striking is how unoriginal and old-hat all this sort of thing is. More interesting to me, however, are those writers who do not imagine that shopping malls or mock-Tudor mansions in Surbiton deserve our scorn. Virginia Postrel has recently written approvingly of a book actually describing sprawl rather than automatically condemning it.

And let’s face it, most of us, particularly those with children, live in suburbs or are moving there. It is a conceit, I reckon, of people who have no children, and who do not need the space, to take potshots at those who have decided to leave the supposedly hip inner city. It remains a mystery to me why the desire of people to live in a bit of space and comfort drives certain intellectuals nuts. Maybe it is the garden gnomes.

20 comments to Suburban man never gets a break

  • I take it you’ve never:

    A – Seen Betjeman’s Metroland.
    B – been to Slough

  • grayson

    Seems to me that what they don’t like is lack of control. If I move away and into the suburbs, one of the reasons is because I don’t like people bearing down on me all the time. This explains the large houses on small plots – the McMansions. We build the large house because we want our room – the room that supposedly is gotten through public parks and such. But we don’t want that room where people can harass us. It’s not that the large house is hording what’s inside. It’s sheltering from what’s outside.

  • Jacob

    It’s ok for people to hate suburbs. But most people love them, and that’s why they get built. (Ditto for malls).

    The problem is that the haters try to impose their views on all, to enforce them by legislation. It’s about control, not suburbs.

    If people had chosen to live in high rises, in dense cities – the control freaks would have advocated decentralization (i.e. suburbs).

    Let people live where they wish.

  • RKV

    In the immortal words of Rodney King “Can’t we all just get along?” Why do some people feel compelled to impose their vision of aesthetics on others? If I want to live in a suburb, damn well let me, eh? If I want to live in a dense urban space, same story. It shouldn’t be about good or evil. It’s about taste, and there is no accounting for that. To each his own. I live in a HIGHLY restrictive land use city in Southern California – Santa Barbara. I laugh every time I go downtown to see what FITS the local planners force our business into to “appear” to be consistant with our Spanish colonial motif. There never was a Nordstroms in Old California, and the attempt to square that circle is just a disaster. White paint on stucco and tile roofs do not a historically accurate building make.

  • Joshua

    I think the Canadians call these people “Red Tories,” but I admit I’ve never fully understood how a “Red Tory” is supposed to be different from any other kind of red. Something about maintaining cultural elites? In any case, cultural snobbery seems to play a role – which is what always springs to mind when people start condemning “McMansions” and other trappings of the nouveau riche. As others have said – if McMansions are in poor taste, get a job that allows you to live in a neighborhood where all the buildings are pushing 90. It’s not like we go around telling you what color the tablecloths at your country club should be!

  • Historical opinions, however deluded and malevolent, should not be criminalised.

    Ah, but what about Hysterical opinions? Can we at least give em slap? (please?)

  • gravid

    I went and read the Rod Dreher article. Very interesting in that he seems to understand that taking a hardline on things leaves him with less. Why shouldn’t he eat the organic vegetables etc? I got the impression that there seems to be a willingness to pigeonhole oneself and others into a rather small list of political/lifestyle affiliations. It seems to me that Mr Dreher is railing against this and enjoying his new found freedom. I really liked Atlas Shrugged but the one thing that jarred was when viewing a nice piece of countryside Hank commented that it should be covered in advertising billboards. I agree with Mr Dreher that some things should be left as is. The concept of ”McMansions” – from my understanding it seems to be a term used to describe overly large houses that are presented to the public at large as the next rung on the aspirational lifestyle ladder, a must have, if you will. Much like the backlash against SUVs, the rally against the larger houses is really a reaction against the programming that tells us we must aspire to owning these things. If you don’t like it don’t buy it.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    gravid, “If you don’t like it don’t buy it”. Well, indeed, and being a libertarian, how could I say otherwise? My point is that most folk who rail against “McMansions” tend to want to use the force of the planning laws to make it impossible to buy such things if one wishes to do so.

  • Jonathan, Thanks for the link. I don’t know why you assume this is something that only childless intellectuals care about. I’m not childless or an intellectual. It’s not about fogeyism or snobbery either. Take a look at Dreher’s new blog: http://crunchycon.nationalreview.com/

  • This isn’t about aesthetics, for the most part.

    It’s about suburbs personifying everything that these people hate: suburbs rely on the automobile, they replace countryland of some kind, they use up a lot of concrete and bricks and asphalt and other ‘unnatural’ material,….. and MOST IMPORTANTLY OF ALL…..

    …..they resemble human ambition and design and ingenuity and the desire to better ourselves (which these people HATE).

    That’s why I love suburbs.

  • “Crunchy con-ism” appears to be an effort to deflect criticism from those whose criticism no man with a brain or an independent mind should care about anyway. Utopias always end up being forced on people.

  • RAB

    Test broadcast for Perry.
    By the way I have always lived in the suburbs and love them. I can walk to first class resaurants shops pubs and supermarkets in minutes.
    In anticipation of this working, thanks Perry I felt it had to be a glitch. Though I have felt like I was trapped in a Kafka novel for the last few days, when I would rather have had my nose in a Peter Ackroyd one.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Clive, thanks. I will look at the site when I get some time. My worry — and of course I would not bracket you with the sort of anti-bourgeois types one becomes wearily familiar with — is that many of the quotes taken from your original post did look rather a lot like the usual stuff: dislike of malls, tv, etc. Of course, the “new urbanism” has much to commend it and a lot of suburban sprawl is ugly and dull. I am all for better design and so forth (who isn’t?). My main concern is that in most cases, the upshot of all this will be more, not less planning, and less, and not more creativity in housing design.

  • Midwesterner

    Oh my. I really feel an inarticulate rant coming on. Younger or more sensitive viewers may want to look away. Easily offended viewers have a scroll key.


    I’ve no problem with sub-divisions. I was raised in one for most of my youth. They are excellent places to live. Build all you want, but … My problem is with how they get to be among farms and other incompatible uses.

    Some people bought a farm next to ours. They tried to buy some additional land from us under false pretenses. Then they subdivided and put in around a dozen lots. Seriously, there went the neighborhood. Unlike farm kids, latch key kids are unsupervised with time on their hands. They treated our farm like it was their own. ‘Camp’ fires in our pine woods during droughts. One of the craziest examples was the summer someone was climbing up pine trees to 25 or 30 feet, halfway sawed through branches, then broke them and stripped them down the tree. A lot of trees were attacked that way. We never did figure out who or why.

    These people come into a rural community and let their Fido and Fifi run. ‘Such well behaved dogs, they never cause any trouble’. Not so. Until you’ve seen a dieing sheep dragging it’s intestines behind it, it’s hard to be sympathetic with some cranky old farmer who’s such a hypocrite about dogs. ‘His dog runs, doesn’t?’ Well, his dog doesn’t chase livestock.

    And please don’t suggest that we could just shoot their dogs preemptively. They can, and are in some cases are the sort of people to, retaliate against our stock, pets, or property. Not to mention, I don’t want to shoot dogs that are just doing what they’ve been bred to do.

    Used to be, people drove respectfully here. They had to, every one knew every body else. Some kid drove crazy, you called his mother. She generally thanked you. Now, the drivers are all late for somewhere else and doing two or three other things while driving. They live in their Ipod worlds and are unaware of anything going on around them in the farming community. If your livestock were to get anywhere near the road, in the pre-subdivision days neighbors called each other and helped when stock got out. Now you’re lucky to not get sued blind when somebody, late for work, driving ten over the limit, talking on a cell phone and eating breakfast, hits your animal.

    And land use planning? You brought it up, I’ll say this about it. It’s just a way for politicians to get a monopoly on development rights. It bears no detectable connection to building compatible land uses near each other although that’s given a lot of lip service. At least in our area, but just check the owners of land planned for development. More than likely it’s either an elected official or one of their family members. And occasionally, they put the development down wind of a hog farm. Who do you think wins that conflict?

    And before I hear any more people advocating unlimited development rights, just let someone bulldoze a couple of houses next door to your house in a suburb so they can put in an asphalt plant with 75 trucks a day, noise, and smell. You’ll be screaming ‘incompatible uses’ all the way to court if you have to. For some reason, you should be allowed to decide what can be next door to your suburban house, but others can’t be allowed to decide what can be next door to their rural farms? I suppose your rights are more equal than ours.

    Here’s a surprise for you people. Subdivisions make awful neighbors. It is you, imposing your idea of ‘public good’ on others, that is violating our right to live undisturbed, in peace.


    Good grief. I sound like such an old fart. I’m not. Really, I’m not. But I get tired of debating libertarians who somehow become left coast liberals in attitude and aspiration with presumptions that they know what is best and everyone else is either being greedy or unreasonable. Property use effects its neighbors. Just as you should be entitled to protect your property by blocking the asphalt plant next door, we should be entitled to protect our property.

    And RKV, your comment “Why do some people feel compelled to impose their vision of aesthetics on others?” is nonsensical. One would have to attribute the act of imposing a vision on a neighborhood to the change, not the status quo. You don’t impose a status quo, you preserve it. Changing the status quo requires the imposition. If I follow your meaning correctly, you are switching the meaning of imposition with preservation.

  • RKV

    I call “bullshit” Midwesterner. If you look at the architectural history of my city you will plainly see how a previously non-existant architecture (Spanish Colonial Revival) was foisted on the city of Santa Barbara. Bottom line – let property owner have a LOT more control over their property.

  • Midwesterner

    RKV, your city of Santa Barbara has had a Spanish Colonial building mandate since 1925 when an earthquake substantially destroyed the city and they used the opportunity to choose a style.

    Unless you’re a lot older than you sound, Spanish colonial is your city’s status quo. That mean’s that if you want to change it, you are the one who is imposing your asthetic on the rest of the community.

    Whether or not this was an appropriate matter for neighboring landowners to agree on (in 1925) is another discussion. You are the imposer.

    By the way, did you notice the thread you’re commenting on? It’s about suburbs. Not cities. And in large part, suburban sprawl.

  • Matthew A


    If an idiot pops a subdivision downwind of an existing hog farm, the hog farm wins. Every time and in all 50 states. I’m not certain about Canada, Austrailia, NZ and Britain. It’s funny you should have used that as an example as that was an actual lawsuit I was involved in. The realtor only showed the houses in that particular subdivision when the wind was blowing the right way. And the hog farmer won.

  • Midwesterner

    Matthew, if you mean win a law suit he can afford to fight, usually. What more often happens is hyper enforcement. Complaints to the DNR, ASCPA, that sort of thing.

    It’s a matter of how miserable you want to be. Opponants of the hog farm can achieve it. RIght now, a half a mile from where I’m at, a farmer with hogs is facing having an upscale 1/3 – 1/2 million dollar home subdivision put across the fence from his small operation. Is he in the right? Yes. Can he afford the battle with all it’s various elements? I doubt it.

  • Darren

    Many complaints about suburbia concern attitudes, not aesthetics. Over dinner a couple of years ago, a friend from university who grew up in the suburbs told me that she was having problems living in the city. You see, she kept running into these homeless people and this had an impact on her emotional health. She felt SO BADLY about the homeless that it made her sad and she was having difficulty coping. Better to live in a bubble outside the city and avoid the more harsh realities of the world in which she lived and worked.

    By no means am I saying that all folks who live in the suburbs are similarly ostrich-like. However, I do think that flight to the suburbs can reflect a pernicious NIMBY-ism.

    I’m not suggesting that anyone be made to do anything differently through government or other intervention. I’d just like to point out that concerns over the suburbs aren’t limited only to those with a preference for high density or who worry over the annoying tendency for kids growing up in the suburbs to write terrible music about their profound alienation.

  • DuncanS

    So your friend, feeling distressed and saddened by the homeless.. is worse off — more “ostrich-like” than people who live with it day in and day out and essentially *don’t* see it anymore having effectively become desensitized?

    (Not that I care)