Suburbs Are Generic, Cities Are Particular

As all of you who follow me on any social media outlet already know, I recently took a trip home to the motherland: the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. I lived there from birth (1985) until 2007, when I made a 3-year layover in the suburbs of Phoenix before finally moving to New York City in 2010.

So basically I have spent 25 years in the suburbs and 3 years in the city. Not just any city, of course… The City. It’s important to note, though, that I ended up here in New York kind of by accident. I knew people in high school who were dying to make here, Brooklyn or bust, right? But I had applied to graduate schools (the second time) all over the place, would have preferred to end up in the bay area, and very nearly moved to Urbana-Champaign, Illinois instead.

That means that, when I landed in NYC, I didn’t really have any preconceived notions about what it should be like, or what it should do for me. Unlike many moony-eyed transplants, I was here to do a thing (obtain PhD) and then scram. Moreover I was married at the time and not expecting to get much out of the place personally or romantically, either. Just a place to do a thing.

I quickly (happily) gave up on doing that thing (the PhD) though, and now intend to stay in NYC for the indefinite future. I have gotten much more out of this place in particular than I expected, and the people here are totally my people. When I go back to the suburbs, I feel deeply uncomfortable, but it’s not because I’m so impressed with New York City per se, or so turned off by the Atlanta suburbs per se.

Rather, I’ve come to understand it like this: big cities are each special, in their own ways. They have particular neighborhoods and particular institutions and particular energies and particular flavors. Though each city of course has its natives, each city also has a critical mass of transplants who self-select into it according to what the city has to offer. The natives are shaped by this really distinct climate, too.

Whereas suburbs are kind of just general places to live. In America, one middle-class suburb is much like the next: the same 4-lane divided highways running through town, from neighborhoods of 3 or 4-bedroom, 2 or 3-bath houses to strip malls of chain stores and restaurants. You typically live in the suburb in which you find yourself because you were born there, or have some other social attachment to the place — and, had that birth or social attachment happened in a different suburb, then you’d live there instead, and things would mostly be the same.

What explains my dislike for the suburbs of Atlanta isn’t some strong aversion to affordable and delicious chain restaurants or newish homes with plenty of space. Rather, it’s the sense of social distance that I have from its people. I never put down deep social roots, in high school or even in college, and those are what keep people tied to a place that isn’t in and of itself pretty special.

There’s nothing wrong with loving your very own particular suburb. People need loyalties, they need communities, they need to feel attached to something. I don’t mean to suggest that there’s anything less sophisticated about my parents’ and acquaintances’ allegiances to Marietta, Georgia, as compared to my emerging allegiance to New York City. I’m not a New York snob, the trade-offs required to live here are substantial, and I understand very well why people would choose to live elsewhere.

But here’s the thing about New York, and I think about other big cities, too. It’s not that you’ve chosen a place over a set of people, when you relocate from some suburb to some city. It’s that you’ve chosen that city, along with the other people who’ve chosen that city, and some of them are looking for you too. Cities situate a bunch of capital in one disproportionately small area — including social capital.

I didn’t move to New York to work or meet (or sleep) with any particular person, but I realize in retrospect that I did in so doing give myself access to a huge array of New York-type people. The high cost of living means that you have to always be giving something to this place, but you get something in return, too. Access to people. The same type of people who wanted to be in a place that makes huge demands on them. The type of people who are also looking to connect and create.

And that’s what it comes down to, I think, really. This is somewhat falsely dichotomous, but… in the suburbs, you can have a nice life consuming things with the people you already know. In the city, you can have an exciting life, creating things with the people you don’t already know. The suburbs are a backdrop for doing the life things you’ve already taken as your goals. The city is an obstacle course/choose-your-own-adventure. It’s not right or wrong to prefer one over the other. But if you’re bored in the suburbs or stressed in the city, it might be why.

When it comes to suburbs, the place itself is generic, but the people and histories there are very particular, and specific to you. When it comes to cities, the place itself is specific and unique, but the people who you’ll find there are of a type, i.e. the type who like that place. So you can choose your poison: commit to some people and end up with a place, or commit to a place and end up with some people.

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