Friday, November 11, 2005

Escape from St. Paul

Earlier this week Mitch Berg blogged about a conversation he and I had last Saturday after the NARN broadcast. It consisted of a comparative analysis of the quality of life associated with living in a densely populated urban environment versus a suburban setting.

While that all sounds very clinical and sophisticated, it manifested itself as a shouting match at a bar over whether living in the city or the suburbs is better. I'm not even sure how we got on that topic, since the occasion of our meeting was a cordial meet and greet with Linda Seebach, a writer from the Rocky Mountain News. And as I recall she sat there mute for 30 minutes while we hashed out this titanic battle of perspectives. I regret subjecting her to that, especially since she was still good enough to pick up the tab.

Mitch Berg has now escalated matters by posting his 10 Foundations of Urban Utopia. Over which another war has broken out in his comments section, with our own JB Doubtless.

I should learn from past mistakes and not subject even more people to a continuation of this argument. But what the hell, everyone enjoys seeing a good blood feud on occasion.

Understand, my objection isn't anyone's individual choice to live in the city - for I encourage them to do that as long they wish (and longer). My problem is the continuing string of attacks against the greatest invention in the history of human habitation, the suburbs. That, I cannot abide.

Now, on with the Fisking:

10. The Market - Like any good capitalist, I like a good deal for my money. I bought my house - an 1891 four-square in a very nice part of the Midway - for about half of what I'd have paid for the same square footage in, say, Eagan. As a good conservative, I like a great value for my housing dollar. In Saint Paul, I got it.

You definitely can find cheaper housing in certain areas of the city than you can in certain suburbs. The kicker is that whole "very nice" stipulation Mitch throws in. Very nice (clean, safe, quiet, leafy, happy, wholesome) parts of a city are more expensive than very nice parts of a suburb. Reason being, scarcity. There is a limited amount of very nice real estate in cities. And enough urbanophiles like Mitch to keep up a constant demand for it, resulting in king's ransom sized mortgage in toney areas like Tangletown or Crocus Hill. If you're one of the elite who can afford that, I'm sure it's a very pleasurable lifestyle.

For the rest of us, you can always buy more house in a very nice part of a suburb than in a very nice part of the city. If for no other reason than supply. The suburbs keep making more of it. There is increasing supply of very nice parts of suburbs thanks to our friend Mr. Sprawl (and his surly cousins Monsieur Deforestation and Senor Wetland Draining). The very nice parts of a city aren't growing. Often, they are under siege and shrinking.

9. Centralization - If I were to move to Minnetonka, you can bet that my job would tank and my next gig would be in Woodbury. Living in the Midway - the center of the whole metro, in many ways - the changing job geography is less a problem.

True, to a point. But centralization is not an objective benefit of the city. It's a subjective benefit relative to the career and lifestyle chosen by Mitch. If one has a more stable job or values the benefits of suburban lifestyle (safe, clean, quiet, leafy, happy, wholesome) more than the costs related to a commute, it's advantage suburbs.

8. Döner - Within four blocks of my house are three great Korean joints, an amazing Turkish cafe, a bodega, an Ethiopian hole in the wall, a place that serves a decent cup of coffee, a very cool record shop - all of them a five minute walk or a one-minute drive away. Given the choice between that and driving 20 minutes to get to Applebee's - well, it's really not a choice at all.

Truthfully, how often does Mitch frequent the Ethiopian hole in the wall? (My response to his forthcoming claims: I said truthfully!) My guess, never. And certainly not enough to actually have a positive and significant effect on his lifestyle. If it's the mere thought of an Ethiopian hole in the wall within four blocks of one's house that is so enticing, I would suggest living in Lakeville with a good imagination gets you just as far.

By the way, my research indicates the best Korean restaurant in the Twin Cities is generally considered to be King's Fine Korean Cuisine. Deep in the heart of suburban Fridley.

7. Suburban Schools Suck, Too - Look, I've checked 'em out. A nicer facility doesn't necessarily mean one's kids are getting a better education. Inner city schools have problems, many of which are amenable to being solved by pain-in-the-ass parents; other problems require more radical solutions than even suburban districts can handle.

Look, there is no guarantee of success for any individual student, no matter where they attend school. Some will be destined to fail. But statistically speaking, there is no comparison between the academic performance of suburban vs. city public schools. The parent who, given the real choice, would send his kid to Como Park or Minneapolis South over Stillwater or Woodbury needs some counseling.

6. Covenants - No, you may not specify what color I paint my property.

Red Herring. I've lived in the suburbs for more than half of my life. Most of the people I know still live in the suburbs and I've never heard of this happening to anybody. Maybe that's because no one I know has ever wanted to paint their house Electric Fuchsia. Or maybe it's because these types of laws are rarely enacted and rarely enforced. Yes, of course it happens in some suburb somewhere. But if Mitch really wants to paint his house Electric Fuchsia, he better not move to Summit Avenue (a very nice part of the city). He'll find out what covenants are all about pretty quickly and just how much freedom he has over his property.

5. Suburbs Fill Me With a Soul-Crushing Ennui - I'm sorry - I know it's a liberal cliché, groaning about the mindless homogeneity of the 'burbs and exalting the urban thrum of the city - but for me it's true. So friggin' sue me...whoops, there's another of those suburban affectations!

I think only a psychiatrist can properly address a crushed soul in relation to the sight of split level ranch houses, big yards, and acres of free parking at Target and Applebee's. But, Mitch has never really lived in the suburbs. I guess my growing up there enabled me to recognize that there is no homogeneity in the suburbs (mindless or otherwise). The neighborhoods and commercial districts all have teeming life and the infinite variation human beings impose on the physical environment. When I see the suburbs (and clean, safe, quiet, leafy, happy, wholesome things in general) my soul is fortified.

And if Mitch still sees soul-crushing, mindless homogeneity on those clean, quiet, well kept streets, I refer him to Tolstoy:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The same is true for cities.

4. Massive Passive Aggression - Twin Cities' burbs exalt the most obnoxious trait of the Scandinavian character; the passive-aggressive, passively-controlling, busybody neighborhood boss. Is your grass getting a little shaggy, there? Whose car is that in your driveway, huh? Hey, could you water your azaleas a little more, so they match mine?

Behavior that exists in the city as much as in the suburbs. More so when you consider that population density is higher in the city and there are more people liable to witness Mitch's unmowed lawn, abandoned cars, and dead flowers. If you can get out into the exurbs, being a lousy neighbor is actually a lot easier. There's nobody around to see it.

3. Criminals Are Breakable - I've had fewer crime problems in my house in the Midway than during any of my stays in the 'burbs. A concerted neighborhood response to crime usually does a lot of good. And a handgun or shotgun will fix any leakers. (It should go without saying that an urban gun ban would be pretty intolerable).

As Mitch has mentioned on numerous occasions, his tenure in the Midway includes these episodes:

I've patched bullet holes in my walls (three of them, from a scary night in 1998), chased thieves, staked out my alleys and taken down license plates with my neighbors, and on one horrible night about eight years ago, held my kids and answered their frightened questions when the news of the murder of a toddler in a gang-related shooting, scant blocks from our house, came on the TV.

Remember, Mitch considers this a "very nice" part of the Midway. And I believe his only experience living in the suburbs was crashing on various couches while he was between apartments several years ago. To exceed the accounts above, all I can say is that must have been one hell of a violent couple of weeks in Burnsville.

2. It's The Only Home My Kids Know, and It's Not A Bad One - Both my kids were born in St. Paul. The house we're in is the only one either of them remembers. One of my key values is providing my kids a home, not an escalating series of investment properties to park their stuff in. Someplace where they can develop their own sense of place - and have that place be more than some anonymous cul-de-sac. Where we're at is where that is, and I'm gonna make it work.

To quote some other Russian SOB: those who are born in a cage, yearn for the cage.

1. It's My City - It's where I've spent 17 of the last 20 years. If the forces of history are on conservatism's side, then certainly they favor me as well. I'm a patient guy - but nobody, nobody, pushes me out of my home. If it's me on the one side, and the entire Volvo-driving alpaca-wearing Saint Paul DFL on the other, one of us is leaving the fight on a slab. And I'm going to take a few of 'em with me in the process, at the very least. (Figuratively speaking).

The great thing about the suburbs is that no one is forced to live there. And, for the most part, nobody already there wants to add a bunch of new neighbors from the city. Any "pushing" Mitch is likely to encounter with a move from the city will be push-back from his prospective new neighbors.

In the spirit of giving equal time, there is yet another pro-city perspective to consider and it's eloquently provided by the Nihilist in Golf Pants.

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