2.20.2008

Being a Good Neighbor in the City Versus in the Suburbs

You may know from my links on the left side of this page that I'm quite fond of Al Hsu's "The Suburban Christian." Earlier this week, I emailed him to ask if we might help each other and hopefully sharpen one another by bantering publicly on topics of mutual interest that intersect our respective perspectives.  Happily, Al agreed this would be fun.  So here's the first installment, which I will update with Al's response with his permission.  The first chunk below is an excerpt from my initial message to him suggesting the idea, and the second chunk is the first question I wanted us to broach.  (By the way, there's no reason this needs to just be a two-way conversation; if others have anything else to add, either anonymously or not, please chime in with your comments.)



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I know you have many life responsibilities and writing assignments, but I was wondering if it might be fun and useful for you for us to carry on some sort of ongoing public exchange on our respective blogs.  You may or may not know that I periodically post to my blog, called Musings of an Urban Christian.  (I give you some link love there - you're my link for "Spirituality"!)  Since I blog for personal exploration first and public edification second, I thought batting ideas back and forth with you on various issues of interest might be of use to me in both regards.  Perhaps such an ongoing conversation will be useful for you and your audience as well.  

Feel free to ignore or decline this admittedly unusual request; no hard feelings either way.  But if you are interested, let me know how (mechanically) we could do this, and what topics of mutual interest might be fun to probe into together.  Off the top of my head, I'd be curious to explore Asian-Americans engaging in their cities vs. in their suburbs (where they are usually in the minority in both places), city-suburb social/political/economic collaborations, and what it looks like to practice Christian community in the city vs. in the suburbs, among other topics.  

If it makes any difference to you, and in the interest of full disclosure, my own contribution to this ongoing conversation (and to my blog in general) may be sparse at times, due to work and family and life commitments, which I'm sure you wholeheartedly understand; and yet I share that to say there should be no pressure here in terms of expectations of quick turnarounds on responses and what not.  Call it one more source of blog-worthy ideas, as needed.



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What does it look like to be a good neighbor in the city vs. the suburbs?

If I could over-generalize, there are four main differences between the make-up of our cities versus our suburbs, which impact what it looks like to be a good neighbor:

* First, cities experience more residential turnover than suburbs.  Where I live, you have a lot of people getting through their graduate studies, or immigrants making an initial stop in familiar enclaves before they branch out, or yuppies making the most of urban life before they have kids.  So there's a constant moving in and out, which means more opportunities to help people (move in, move out, answer questions about the neighborhood) but less oomph to really build lasting relationships.  Versus suburban neighborhoods tend to be more stable, where you can really get to know your neighbor over time.

* Second, cities are more socio-economically diverse than suburbs.  Zoning tends to allow for more mixing of uses and densities, so you can have in the same neighborhood some high-end single-family homes and some low-end multi-tenant apartments.  So again, such mixing makes for some interesting interactions but raises the level of difficulty in building meaningful relationships up and down social classes.  Suburbs, on the other hand, tend to practice some level of exclusionary zoning, whereby minimum lot sizes and other mechanisms ensure relative homogeneity of income and wealth.  That homogeneity makes for easier on-ramps in terms of friendships and interactions.  

* Third, cities tend to be more pedestrian and transit oriented, while suburbs tend to be more auto oriented.  The density of people and activity in cities necessitates transit resources to move everything around, and makes more possible trips conducted by foot or bike.  As a result, formal and informal meet-ups become more likely, and the very young and very old are more able to get around.  Suburbs are more spread out, and cars are needed for almost every kind of trip, so meet-ups must be scheduled, there is very little chance of accidentally bumping into someone along the way, and those who cannot drive themselves and instead must be driven may become less mobile if drivers aren't available.  

* Fourth, cities deal in public space while suburbs deal in private space.  The density of cities means people trade having larger personal space for having easier access to shared space: the corner coffee shop instead of one's own living room, or the playground down the street instead of one's own backyard.  This may make hospitality harder but also leads to more mixing rather than isolation.  Suburbanites have traded longer commutes for more personal space, and can use that space for personal enjoyment as well as for hospitable outreach, but at the loss of engaging with other residents in common areas.

Where you live is, in this country and in other parts of the free world, a matter of personal preference.  It is, however, interesting to consider the national policy mechanisms that are currently in place to (either intentionally or unintentionally) subsidize cities over suburbs, or suburbs over cities.  Cities, on the one hand, are beneficiaries of direct urban renewal investments, as well as of more indirect reallocations of funds such as those that go to universities, research facilities, and cultural institutions, which are primarily in urban areas.  Suburbs, on the other hand, have been made possible by heavy federal subsidy of highway development, and the mortgage deduction on our income taxes essentially lowers the cost of housing for those of us who make enough money to itemize, effectively giving a break to richer suburbanites to own bigger homes without a similar break for poorer urbanites who might not itemize and/or be homeowners.  

It is also interesting to consider the effects of these differences on our desire as Christians to be good neighbors and congregants.  Urbanites like me struggle to engage meaningfully with our neighbors, since we are never sure just how long they'll be our neighbors; even if we know they're staying put, we may struggle to really connect with them if they are very different from us in terms of socio-economic status and life perspective.  Suburbanites have told me they struggle to engage meaningfully with their fellow congregants, with whom they may share interactions on Sunday morning but then don't or can't see any other time of the week; they also lament the relative homogeneity of their relationship circles, and wonder where they can interact with people different from them in ways that stretch and challenge them.  

These are, to be sure, gross over-generalizations, but hopefully with at least a grain of reality to them.  Regardless of the location and its characteristics, we are under one God, who asks of us the same thing: that we worship Him alone, love those around us, and seek justice and healing in our relationships and systems.  Whether we are urban Christians or suburban Christians, would that we be those kinds of Christians, to the glory of God.
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