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City Places for City People
A Word from Richard Risemberg for January, 2005

The Tyrant of Lawns

The suburban ideal, I think, is founded on an intense desire to maintain the twin delusions of independence and superiority. This explains the preferred form of housing there, that being a combined simulation of both 19th-century style farming homesteads and a caricature of a feudal manor--a single, preferably grand, house within a moat of unbuilt (though not by any means untouched) land. This is allegedly where family values thrive and one can be close to God's Green Earth (or should that be "Earthe"?).

In the case of the farm, one grows food or fiber on that land; in the case of the suburban pseudo-farm, one grows grass, apparently for the express purpose of thwarting its growth and obviating its utility by repeatedly cutting it.

This apparently gives the suburbanite the feeling that he is a Master of Nature--all the more so since in the present day he very often exerts this domination by proxy, through employees who, given the economics of the time, are barely freer than medieval serfs, granting him a feudal lord's feeling of droit de seignieur over man as well as nature.

That independent farmers in much of the world--and in much of the US before the Homestead Act--lived in farm villages is something not to be considered by the Suburban Princeling in his plastic chaise longue. That the feudal lord had his retainers clustered closely about him in a village as well does not enter into the mindset of the Lord of Lawns.

The suburbanite often refers as well to the opportunity to be "close to Nature"--somehow conferring on putting-green lawns, and flora more pampered than a hairstylist's poodle, the charm and danger of the panther-prowled Rocky Mountains' ragged heights.

But the qualities thus ascribed to Suburbia are in actuality not present there, or at least present in lesser degree than even in most cities.

I'll leave aside the more charming instances of urban nature, though let me give for an example the hummingbird who hovers by the second-story windowpot a few centimetres from my elbow as I drink my morning coffee. The plain fact is that the sun shines, the wind blows, and the rain falls on the cities as well as the suburbs--but the suburbanite may never feel the freshness of storm wind on his face, plodding as he does directly from bedroom to attached garage, where he inserts himself into his car--interfacing with Nature only through the streaks on his windshield.

When I go to work, even when I take the bus or train, I still walk to the Metro stop, with the breeze on my cheek or the perfume of rain in my lungs; I can look up and around me at the clouds, the blue sky, the brilliant sunset, or the stars; I feel the heat or the cold through my sleeves; I stand with my fellows in the open world, touching Nature. Trees grow in town, and grass is not less green, nor birds less melodious, in a park than in a walled and bounded patch of yard. And night or day, I am outside; I know the world that sustains us much more intimately than the suburbanite can during his hours in the car. Sure, he comes home to a lawn--but I, in a city famous for a deficiency of parks, have ten acres of lawn a couple of blocks away, and four thousand acres of mountains at the cost of a Metro fare. The suburbanite gains nothing real by his lawn.

Independence? That's an illusion for us all. It both frustrates and amuses me that Suburbia tends to believe itself "conservative," economically self-sufficient, and thus superior to the welfare-addled urbanites...yet the suburban lifestyle enjoys a far higher degree of subsidy than the urban, using money generated by the inherent physical, economic, and social efficiencies of city living. Where I live, a hundred feet of sewer pipe serves hundreds of taxpayers, thereby burdening each one but little; in the suburbs, the same hundred feet serves usually fewer than ten taxpayers, but, thanks to miles of collector lines, costs far more to install and maintain. Yet taxes are low in the suburbs...so who pays? The urbanite; the suburbanite steals the value of the urbanite's efficiency to indulge his delusion of individualism. The same paradigm applies to roads, freeways, and other transport infrastructure--terribly inefficient out there, after all; all that sprawl is unsuited to trains or even electric cars--and massive fuel subsidies (not to mention wars) necessary to indulge the Suburbanite's appetite for social isolation.

Suburbia is conservative only in that it seeks to maintain a stratified, hierarchical society, with privileged landowners served by fate-blasted renters, and the resources of whole regions--at present the whole world--devoted to the comfort of God's Elect. But individual rights? Equality within diversity? The ideals of America's Founders that the conservative suburbanite claims to uphold? You don't find them there, in single-class and often single-race enclaves, nor do you find the Christian virtues of humility and voluntary poverty so redundantly expounded upon in the fundamental religious tracts of most US suburbanites. Instead, you find a sort of enforced gluttony--gluttony of land, of air, of public money--and a literal gluttony of food itself, to judge from the outlines of most of its denizens.

Family values, then? The suburbs are the bastion of same, they claim...yet the isolation the suburban form fosters leaves children to be raised by TV sets, sunders husband from wife during long commutes, keeps neighbor from meeting neighbor--and, ironically sends the divorce rate sky-high. After all, the state with the lowest divorce rate in the US is liberal, urban, high-tax Massachusetts; while something in the western suburbs causes couples to split, and well-off kids to plunge into drug use and shoot up their schoolmates.

It seems that none of the clichés holds true--living in the suburbs confers upon one not independence but parasitism; brings one closer not to Nature but to the hard concrete channels of the freeway; nurtures not familial intimacy but separation.

The Tyrant of Lawns, like any other tyrant, lives by lies, and gets and keeps his power by lies. And the bigger the lie, the better it works.

Richard Risemberg

Go to A Word from Eric Miller