Times are changing

In the past century, obviously, the suburbs of major cities like London have expanded to include people who earlier would have been considered non-middle class, such as blue collar workers and salespersons. Whether this increase in real terms is derived from America’s immigrant background and of the various incarnations of the American dream, is probably not in question. It is more important to realize that these values have become in the twentieth century the dominant values of the American culture itself. As Baritz summarizes: “America’s spirit and tone, its historical anthology and official aspirations, political bent, educational arrangements, the centrality of the business enterprise, as well as the dreams of many of its people, derive its psychology from the great imperial middle class.” 3 What then is an appropriate description of middle class?

It is a group whose values system is derived from the belief that an individual’s social status is static and therefore adapts a life outlook revolving around the notions of a) avoiding risk, b) planning for and investing in the future, and c) maintaining an expectation of personal, economic and social ascendancy in time. To be middle class, using this definition, is to have options, to be participant in local activities, and to exercise the vested personalized stake in the processes (political, educational) that govern one’s life. Furthermore, it is to believe that those options both present and future will be derived from an adherence to a given system: economic, institutional, and cultural. In other words, this is a belief that staying in school will lead to a better job; that investing in home ownership will lead to security in old age; that acquiring the right material wealth — clothing, furniture, machines, and residential location — as one’s income and responsibilities increase is to appropriately demonstrate one’s claim to that status. When one considers that such systemic guarantees were hardly available in most of cultures from which the immigrants to America had come, it is clear that the American dream of individual security and material accumulation, and the freedom of choice in that process, has been unique enough to become something of a national credo:

To assign this belief system to most Americans, if accurate, is to also explain the precarious state of affairs which threatens the habitability of cities in their continuing states of neighborhood decay. For to accept this idea, is to realize that the quest for personal achievement and improvement inherent in the middle class’ psychology, dictates that the best in a given set of alternatives be chosen as the middle class’ residential preferences. For much of this century, these preferences have gradually become for a suburban way of life, in a house that is owned by the family, with a yard that offers privacy, and a way of life that is supplemented by the newest technologies and the ubiquitous automobile. That these preferences developed is in keeping with the middle class psychology equating security with property ownership, whereby wealth is cautiously invested in a house or neighborhood appropriate also to one’s current status. With the additional beliefs of self-improvement and the opportunities to “rise up”, the American Dream of suburban home ownership was and is easily transferred to working class and newly-immigrated Americans as a necessary goal to be achieved in their rise into middle class. In keeping with middle class conventions, the suburbs offer by virtue of their history and location, new houses with contemporary conveniences, a perception of safety, privacy, outdoor living, contact with nature, and freedom from the burdens of racial and class tensions commonly associated with the city. These come in stark contrast to the traditional problems associated with cities: crime, pollution, noise, expense, high density, lack of privacy, racial conflict and decaying infrastructure. For parents of children over five, the disadvantages become even more pronounced because of the statistical notoriety of urban public schools. And free amenities which come to be taken for granted in the suburbs are usually available in the city only as an added expense. Parking and the ability to use the car; use of recreational facilities, access to the natural environment, and the overall qualities of “new-ness” and convenience — all are lacking in comparison to the suburbs.

Today, Suburbia has emerged almost as a distinct world from the city which used to dominate its culture. The location and consumption decisions made individually by middle class families have collectively exerted great changes in the quality of daily city life by comparison and have altered the economic leverage of the city. Downtown retailers were quick to follow the middle class in its exodus to the suburbs, as were employers and commercial services such as neighborhood banks. All of this changed the consumption and production options of the city. Even more detrimental to the central city, has been the loss of revenue in tax dollars that formerly supported the city libraries and schools, and any number of city institutions that had before 1945, been the “cutting edge” of mainstream culture. This last point is of particular social importance because, although it is difficult to measure, it is nonetheless commonly experienced in its impact. Simply put, whereas the central city used to be the generator of new ideas, of popular and retail culture, and of countless modern conveniences, cities have now become the recipients of second-hand Suburban culture. It is suburban influence that dominates the culture of all Americans today. The “edge cities” of suburbia now are the incubators which grow and drive the American economy. From within them emanate the new ideas that shape culture.

Whether these ideas arrive in the form of a computer chip or a mega-super market makes little difference. When aspects of modern life make their debut in the suburbs, particularly in the forms of commercial and popular culture, they frequently go no farther. Thus, the best and the latest of modern life remains sequestered in the suburbs, away from life in the central city. The effect, then, is to cut the central city off — not only in terms of standards of living and quality of life –but also in terms of access to the mainstream American culture. Although, this might be viewed as a good thing by urban elitists who prefer either the quirky, alternative lifestyles that a less than mainstream place attracts, or the eclectic array of boutiques on exclusive streets on which Information-age cities have come to depend. However, in everyday terms, the exotic and the quaint, the one-of-a-kind and the bizarre, are of more use to the occasional urban tourist, than they are for the lower and middle-class residents of a given urban neighborhood. For them, everyday life in the city is without the selection and quality found in a suburban grocery stores, or the variety and competitive pricing of the suburban hardware and home center. Walkability and eclecticism may sooner or later take a back seat to inconvenience, lack of quality and variety, unavailability, and expense, and city-living, for all of its advantages, may then exact a penalty — simply in terms of daily routines — which begins to weaken its appeal to even its most committed, young, middle class residents as they age or begin to raise children.


May 5, 2018

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