Thursday, February 24, 2011


A city is a collection of its people. Their jobs, families, homes, schools, offices, opinions, choices, and countless other minute details. How far can a city's population deviate before it loses not just its character but its very identity? One decision follows another and soon enough a city may be unrecognizable, not at all resembling the collection that it once was. They may as well change the city's name. 

In moving to the suburbs, in propagating the growth of suburbia, Americans were not merely transferring their lives from one part of the city to another. No, they were abandoning the very patterns and collection of ideals which characterized their cities. Left to rot and decay or invaded by skyscrapers, downtown America has been transformed beyond all recognition. The choice to abandon cities and neighborhoods was tantamount to a death warrant. 

Our built environment has such tremendous influence over our daily lives. Can we even identify with the nation of our ancestors, so different is our way of life today? What, truly, does the United States of 2011 share with the US of 1911? Of 1811? Up until the 1950's, the argument could be made that there were many similarities in the way of life and therefore the thought patterns that bound the nation. But after the 1950's, after the widespread domination of automobiles and the onslaught of suburbia, I find the argument much contrived. We are no longer the same people, we do not live our lives among our cities and see our homes by foot, but instead live among strip malls and approach our homes in cars. Look out your window. Unless you live in a historical part of town (unlikely), what out there binds you with your city? Not much, I'll wager. Likely you live in a suburb which could be anywhere in any part of any city in the country. If you live in a Victorian in San Francisco, a Greek Revival in Savannah, or Brownstone in Brooklyn, among many other fine options, I hope you appreciate where you live. That sense of identity is increasingly rare. 

Sense of place binds a nation. I believe feelings of guilt and responsibility are appropriate for what amounted to the end of a way of life which had sustained for centuries, for an unraveling of our bindings. It was almost like leaving the nation and starting anew. A single invention, the automobile, was allowed to waltz in and hijack a country. Worse, nearly all alternatives were obliterated, such as the dismantling of the streetcar network. Suburbs so dominate the available choices today that any other option seems impossible to contemplate, especially if the government continues to subsidize suburban developments in the form of infrastructure and federally backed mortgages. But change it must, if we are to once again recognize our way of life.