I really shouldn’t talk to people. About city stuff I mean. I get a little too strident, I take it a bit too seriously. Seriously.
A conversation started with some fellow faculty members over lunch at school: I teach in a suburb, I should say up front. Along with that I don’t think there is another teacher in the building who lives in an urban environment. I didn’t start the conversation but it quickly turned to the issues I care about most when a colleague complained that placing a casino development in Springfield would…well, I did him a favor and shared that I not only live in “the city”, but that my house is in the same area as the proposed casino.
I did that to save him from having to walk back whatever it was he was about to say to disparage my community. If you’re thinking I might have jumped to that conclusion unreasonably, let me assure you that, in spite of that possibility, this time I was spot on.
If you live in a city, or in a neighborhood with a reputation you may have experienced this before. These guys (The table happened to be segregated by gender) live in the ‘burbs, work in the ‘burbs, and (as we later heard) “buy their shoes” in the ‘burbs. They’re as used to expressing their thoughts about Springfield, or Hartford, or New Haven as openly and honestly as any people who live in a homogenous situation are when they discuss “the other”.
I’ve laid low and heard what people really think on other occasions. The best was when one of the attorneys who sold their “office” to me (It’s a house) didn’t recognize me on an inspection visit. Because he thought I was a contractor he expressed his real opinion about my intent to live in the center of the city with my daughters. He confided to “contractor” me that “the guy who is buying this place” is “nuts…after five o’clock it’s the wild west out here”. He would never “raise daughters in this neighborhood” he added. The look on his face a few minutes later in the post inspection meeting was priceless. Well, not priceless, I did lower my offer by $25,000.
The point here is stridence. Or is it? You see the one man in question simply stated at a later point that he loathes cities; he detests the presence of others in proximity to his home so much that he declared his intention to move from his present suburban home because another suburban home like his was being built contiguously to his backyard.
It seems to me that Kunstler addresses this aspect of America’s suburban build out and points out that city dwellers, like me for instance, actually want to see more of what makes a city a city next to where they live in the city, but suburbanites detest another iteration of suburb in their suburb.
I’ve come to respect, and admire people who will just be forthright about their hatred of cities. It saves time, they don’t pretend to care. Some other attitudes are, if not more troubling, more offensive. In every group there is the lover of urbanity, who simply loves his children too much to subject them to city schools, city traffic, city filth, and every other depredation.
“Oh, but it’s fine for you. The museums are fantastic, and the architecture, I know…but I just can’t imagine dealing with the guilt of my daughters inevitably becoming crack whores due to my effete tastes so… you know, I live where normal people do.”
That is how I hear it, even though he may have just sort of mumbled the word “schools”. I can feel the blood either rushing to or from my head. Literally. I tell my self I’m speaking calmly, but I know I’m not:
“Both of my daughters went to Springfield schools K-12. The oldest earned the most generous merit scholarship offered by Smith College, a pretty good school, and the youngest is at Salem State University having earned the Abigail Adams Scholarship. I’ve never paid a nickel in tuition. Ever. Both earned scholarships based on academic merit.”
I’ve lost them. There is a pleasure center in the brain which lights up when we reject facts that put in doubt our strongly held prior assumptions. If it had been visible, the suburban gray matter at my table would have looked like Clark Griswold’s house at Christmas, metaphorically.
And so I failed to make any headway at all. I did manage to make clear that I wouldn’t live where they live under any circumstances I could envision: I like to at least make clear that there are people who don’t want the American Dream as they envision it. But I know it was a pyrrhic victory. None of them are one iota closer to viewing urban life as good for families and my vehemence has probably more firmly entrenched them in their positions.
I tried to make the point that what I was looking for was equality of opportunity. Opportunity for Americans who prefer to live in cities, to live in cities because they both are perceived to be and are quality places to live. I don’t think that it’s a point that can resonate with most Americans. Most Americans don’t acknowledge because they really don’t understand just how subsidized the suburban free market utopia has been by government at all levels, and they see any tax revenues returned to cities as waste.
People in Europe and perhaps even South America and Asia can see that cities can be great places to raise children because they see the benefits that come with urban living. Most Americans live in proximity to urban centers which have been sometimes decanted, often eviscerated, and nearly always shorn of all glamour. The task of making urban life in general, outside the glamour centers like Manhattan, Beacon Hill, and Queen Anne, in places like Rochester, Bridgeport, and Akron, a viable, normal, acceptable choice for people with the wherewithal to live most anywhere is going to be a difficult one.
Eroding the myths about things like schools, while confronting the real problems about things, well, like schools needs to be done slowly, calmly, and rationally over what is likely to be generations. I wish I had the patience for it.