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.



Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *