Rural Ideal, Suburban Compromise

For those who spend quantities of time philosophizing about lifestyles, suburbia is almost universally reviled. Large tracts of similarly designed homes, each set on its patch of lawn, seem for many people to epitomize the problems of isolation, conformity, mass production, consumerism, or whatever the bugbear of choice may be. And yet, suburban life remains persistently popular.

Having spent the last month building a large raised vegetable bed and putting in this year’s expanded garden, such that I can now look out on the garden with my morning coffee in hand and not with satisfaction the growth of the tomato plants and the strangely obscene orange flowers of the zucchini and butter-stick squash, or go out in the warm evening when I return from work to gauge the progress of the pair of grape vines and the climbing rose bush, the explanation for this does not seem strange to me. There is, it seems to me, a desire that a great many of us have, despite our city-based jobs and cultural tastes, for a home and small plot of land we can call our own.

A yard to mow or landscape or turn the children loose in. Space to have a pet larger than a fish or hamster. Streets which are comparatively free of cars so that kids can tear around on their bicycles and scooters. Enough space between houses that one does not hear the pacing of the upstairs neighbor at midnight, or the morning arguments of the couple next door. Arguably, these desires originate from an inborn desire to live closer to the land, and in a smaller community, than modern urban society makes possible. Our instincts tell us that land is vital to us, and that we should live with a small group of people who are “safe”, “our kind”.

However, if your career depends on living near a large city, and your cultural ties similarly draw you to a city large enough to provide fellowship with the other 1% of the population which shares your interests or background, actually living in a village or agrarian setting is not a realistic possibility.

And thus the attraction of suburbia, which grants its residents a stand-alone house and enough yard to give privacy and some sense of touching nature, while at the same time leaving them able to commute to their jobs, belong to a church which only claims membership by a minority of the population, enjoy bookstores and ethnic foods and all the bustling variety which an urban center provides. Suburbia represents a compromise between our natural desire for land and local rootedness, and our cultural and economic desire to take part in city life.

15 Responses to Rural Ideal, Suburban Compromise

  1. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Suburbia is a good solution for those unable to live as God intended us to live: in a small town in a rural area. 🙂

  2. Jay Anderson says:

    Having lived in each of the below scenarios (excluding #6), here is my ranking in order of preference:

    (1) Small-to-midsize town in a rural area (preferably with a mid-size city within a half-hour-to-hour drive).
    (2) Revitalized older neighborhood in small-to-midsize city (preferably with a college or university).
    (3) Rural village.
    (4) Rural homestead.
    (5) Revitalized older urban neighborhood (preferably somewhat artsy-fartsy) in a metropolitan area.
    (6) Hell.
    (7) Suburbia.


  3. Phillip says:

    Agree with number one. Still wonder why I left that. Having said that and having lived on a small farm in the past, it is hard work. You do learn how much a “b” nature can be. Late frost wiping out blossoms on fruit trees. Deer and other critters eating garden. No rain. Too much rain. And those pesky skunks spraying the dogs. Just some of the joys of rural living. Helps you understand how little human efforts can accomplish and how much one depends on God.

  4. I recall Russ Roberts (who spent a while working on a Kibbutz) saying something along the lines of, “Most people think that farm life is beautiful and fulfilling. That’s because the closest most people get to farming is gardening.”

    I enjoy growing things as form of recreation, and I enjoy brewing my own beer and baking my own bread, etc. But I certainly recognize that I lead a happier and more fulfilled life because I rely on these as enriching hobbies and not for survival.

  5. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “Late frost wiping out blossoms on fruit trees. Deer and other critters eating garden. No rain. Too much rain. And those pesky skunks spraying the dogs. Just some of the joys of rural living.”

    Growing up Phillip I did a fair amount of agricultural labor for hire. That tends to whip romantic notions about rural living out of one’s soul. However, whenever I am visiting a large city, I cannot wait until I am leaving it and returning to my home in the Village of Dwight.

  6. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Jay, your comment about Hell as a place to live reminds me of General Sheridan’s comment about Hell and Texas. He said that if he owned both he would rent out Texas and live in Hell. A Texan hearing this, opined that since Sheridan was a Yankee general, that he heartily approved of Sheridan’s choice of abode.

  7. Jay Anderson says:

    Until the time I was 9, I wanted to live on a horse ranch (must’ve watched too much “Spin and Marty” on the Mickey Mouse Club). When I was 9, my mom remarried and we moved to my stepdad’s ranch with horses and cattle.

    I soon decided that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, but rather was a LOT of hard work with daily chores. Feeding and watering animals, cleaning barns, hauling hay, mowing pastures, building fences, etc.

  8. Jay Anderson says:


    As a Texan, and as the former mayor of a town in Virginia that Sheridan raided, I also concur with Sheridan’s choice of abodes (but will decline to speculate on the likelihood of his actually having taken up residence there).


  9. Dale Price says:

    As I have gotten older, I’ve grown in appreciation for my small town upbringing. That said, I like being in striking distance of cultural and athletic events, too. Not to mention the opportunities it provides my children. If I can speak up for the older suburbs, I think they have a lot to offer–as opposed to the outer-ring townships where developers have run riot over the past generation. The older ‘burbs still have a certain older charm and organization, at least in their better spots. As well as convenience to big-city amenities. Having lived in one and being (almost certainly) in the process of moving to another, there’s something to be said for the inner ring places. Starting not least with affordability.

  10. Big Tex says:

    My family has rural roots. I grew up in the suburbs of Dallas. My parents, though, grew up in a small German Catholic town about 70 miles north of Dallas (Muenster, TX). I still have plenty of family there, and thus ample reasons to visit. In the town’s cemetery, the remains of three generations of my ancestors are buried, from my great great grandparents to my my grandparents. I speculate that even though my parents are still in Dallas, that they will eventually move back and live out their lives in their home town. The history is rich within a small town like this. It has retained some nice customs from the old country, and yet has new American ones as well.

    One such custom, is that they celebrate the feast of St. Joseph each year, treating it as a holy day of obligation. This was the town’s promise from years gone by when tornadoes destroyed one or two previous churches in town. At the completion of Sacred Heart, they dedicated it St. Joseph as the parish’s patron, promising to celebrate his feast annually. Ever since, the church has been protected from disaster, even with a couple close calls.

    My desire is to live there some day. I’ve never lived there, but it is a home of some sort. I imagine that when (if ever) I live there, it will be in my golden years.

    I admit, I have something of a romanticized view of this town. Practically speaking, living there at this point in my life would be a challenge. For one, it would be a long commute. Additionally, we aren’t sure how a town like this would welcome the idea of a home school family. Moreover, I am aware of some of the negative influences that would be difficult to shelter my children from, such as the social/binge underage drinking.

    As for Sheridan… I concur with Jay.

  11. Lone Star Man says:

    It was Davy Crockett who said “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”

    Incidentally, Texas has plenty of small towns and suburbia.

  12. Nick says:

    People who dump on suburbia seem to have a lot in common with people who make fun of minivans. I am fatigued by the immaturity displayed by the need to justify one’s choices of where to live, what to drive, etc., by the method of criticising the choice you didn’t make.

    Every choice is made on a sliding scale of factors of varying degrees of importance.

    Be happy with your choices and be done with it.

  13. j. christian says:

    Count me in as an advocate for suburbia, for many of the reasons Darwin and Dale Price cite. True, some of the newest suburban developments show a lack of beauty, but not all are created equal. I live in a “suburb” of Los Angeles (is there such a thing?) in a home built in 1940 that has plenty of charm and character. Joel Kotkin has written well about the appeal of suburbs as well (He goes against the dominant urbanist view.).

  14. Elaine Krewer says:

    I grew up in a small town of less than 1,000 people, and spent part of my early married life living in an old farmhouse which was in a perpetual state of remodeling/improvement. It was great to live in when the weather was good, when the garden was thriving and when our vehicles were running properly.

    However, it also required me to make a 40-mile commute to work daily. That was not fun when we had car problems (and the nearest repair shop was 10 miles away), or during snowstorms, or when gas prices approached the then-unconscionable $2 a gallon level, or during cold snaps when the propane tank had to be refilled twice in one month, etc.

    The 2008 gas price spike, which followed several years of having to make a 60-plus mile commute to work every day, pretty much scared us into deciding to live as close as possible to my job. I must admit that while I miss seeing stars at night, the smell of freshly cut grass, etc. the thought of gas going back up over $4 a gallon again or driving through whiteout conditions to get home from work kind of throws a wet blanket on those thoughts.

  15. […] this week I referred in this thread to General Sheridan’s quip about Hell and Texas.  Here is the background story on […]

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