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Friday, February 04, 2005

A Few More Thoughts on City Life

I thought that the comments to my previous essay were outstanding and deserved to be posted here in the text of this page. The whole urban/suburban issue is extremely complex and I often come across as flip, but I think that the important thing is that we are at least having the discussion in the first place instead of blindly plowing ahead without any sort of dialogue. Less than 10 years ago the downtown area of Seattle was a lot less of an inviting place to live than it is today. The change was brought about by aggressive zoning laws that encouraged a mix of residential and commercial buildings. The street floor of all new apartments and condos now has to include space for businesses. In the six years that I have lived in downtown Seattle there has been a tremendous expansion in population density. With this density has come a host of new businesses. The city block that I mentioned in the last essay was built during this expansion and represents one of the best uses of a city block that you will find in Seattle.

I am not suggesting that everyone live in a city but I do think that more people need to consider it. A lot of problems that readers have pointed out concerning city life are the direct result of people in this country abandoning the cities over the past 40 years. It is hard to think of a large American city that didn’t experience decay during the past generation. In the short time I have lived in Seattle I have witnessed the revitalization of the downtown area. We voted on a mass transit system that should begin construction soon. High rise apartments spring from vacant lots, new businesses appear, choices increase. Seattle should be a model for other beleaguered cities across America.

The comments from the previous essay:

I have lived in a small town, the suburbs, and a large urban center. I cannot ever imagine living anywhere else but a large urban center any more. But that's just me. -Matt

Downtown Seattle is my Walden Pond. I love it. -Management


We get out eggs from a local farm and no two of them are the same shape or color. They range from beige to light blue and some are so big the carton can't be closed.
They are delicious. The yolks have an intense color and flavor unmatched by any egg I've ever had from a store, including the expensive, 'free-range organic' variety.

Now, on those occasions when we do buy eggs from the store, I can't help but wonder how they get their chickens to lay eggs so uniform in size and color, and short of any problems closing the lid, why such uniformity is desirable. The store eggs are uniformly bland. In our house, they get used for baking only, never for eating.

In our quest for uniformity, consistency and fungibility in all things, we seem to be squeezing the flavor out of life. What do we get in return for that? - kevin m.


I lived in a city for 5 years - my apartment was too small and too expensive. For whatever reason I didn’t get to know really anyone in the building.

I moved to the suburbs and was able to afford a much nicer place in a nice neighborhood. Its quiet and I know all the neighbors - we have cook outs during the summer. I work from home for a high-tech company so no commuting for me - most of my necessities are fulfilled nearby. I go into the city rarely.

For me the fresh air and open space of suburban life coupled with a nice area to live and pleasant neighbors worked better. I have a 6 month old son and the idea of allowing him to run around outside without fear of traffic is nice. And I am married so hitting the bars and the nightclubs isn’t that interesting to me anymore. You suggest this isn’t sustainable however I just don’t see it (comparisons to ancient Norsemen are easily refuted - I have plumbing after all). With telecommuting becoming more popular the place you live is less important than perhaps access to broadband internet.

The "sameness" you mention is a bit exaggerated - a New England town in New Hampshire (Plymouth for example) feels so different to me than Fort Lauderdale. And the difference between them and the neighborhoods of Chicago land are night and day. I think you overstate the argument - I used to travel every week for 6 years to a different place depending on the client and I was always surprised by the differences.

I admit I see the allure to the building you mention - however I really enjoy waking up, brewing a cup of Joe and going out to my deck with the nearby stream bubbling by and breathing in the morning air before I start my day. I don’t miss city life - although I do dress up once in a while for a night on the town (not in the last 6 months though). I would suggest that the suburban lifestyle still has legs - maybe not on the west coast where they have reeeeally taken urban sprawl to new heights - but there are plenty of areas where it works.

If I need sushi - I'll go out for it. - Marty


Part I

Marty makes some nice points to defend the suburban lifestyle, but I would counter that living in the city isn't just about bars and clubs and picking up chicks. There's live theatre, the symphony, superb non-franchise restaurants, cafes, galleries, museums, professional sports teams, and a whole host of other cultural outlets that the suburbs do not—and will never—have, and certainly not as accessible to them as in the city. I can walk to more cultural outlets within a few city blocks from my house than Marty has within a twenty square-mile radius from his home.

Perhaps you don't go out as much, Marty, mainly because you do not care to, but also because to reach the better places to go it's just not worth the long drive, the hassle, paying for parking, and etc. I think suburban living ultimately makes people live their lives from their homes for their cultural outlets, making cable television, video movies and gaming, and the Internet the primary cultural activities of suburban dwellers. Or when you venture from the home you have to drive fairly long distances to reach even the most basic necessities.

Obviously this is a generalization, but I do know in my own life that my city-dwelling friends watch much less TV and go out way more than my suburban friends. Moreover, we city dwellers drive less, if at all; not much of my life is spent in gridlock. All of my suburban and country-dwelling friends complain every day about the awful one-to-two-hour commute on the highways and byways of suburban Philly. Meanwhile my commute consists of my sitting on a train, sipping coffee, and reading the Philadelphia Inquirer or New Yorker. When I get to work I am already at peace, while the private vehicle drivers are already stressed because some idiot cut them off or ran a stoplight and nearly crashed into them.

So how Marty defines what makes his life interesting and peaceful and happy is that he likes to stay at home with his family and not venture out much beyond his suburban enclave. And that's cool. I am not one to try to tell people how to live. We all have our personal preferences. Judging from his excellent articulation of what makes his life tick, I’d say Marty has a good grip on life and I’d be hard pressed to challenge him on that point. Far be it from me to judge how another chooses to live.

However, I think Leftbanker's point goes beyond lifestyle issues.

Because anyone with even a little bit of common sense can step back and see that this way of living wastes land, resources, and energy. It’s crazy. At some point in the future it is going to collapse, and the cost to fix it at that time will be thousands of times greater than if we start planning and changing—and spending—now. But first we have to recognize the pitfalls and admit there are problems.

Personally, when I lived in the country or in the suburbs, while it was nice and quiet, it was also boring and I had to drive everywhere to more or less do nothing, because there was really nothing around worth doing. I didn’t want to spend a vast majority of my life sitting in a car, stuck in traffic, with the probability increasing that I’d be one of the 40,000 Americans who die in car crashes every year. So I practically ran to the city.

Like I said in the first comment, I am not one to claim cultural superiority to my way of living. But there are some serious issues with suburban sprawl that we first must admit exist, and secondly must figure out how to fix, and thirdly come to the conclusion that it is just not a sustainable way to live for the future for all Americans.

Sometimes in America we choke on our own hubris and enthusiasm and egocentric outlook. These qualities make America great but can also lead to great peril if left unchecked. Like the Vikings in Greenland. - Matt


\\ lived in a city for 5 years - my apartment was too small and too expensive.\\

A reasonable retort would be to argue that perhaps the high cost of city apartments is due primarily to the fact that too few of them are built, energy going into the big new sprawl-divisions in outlying areas. If more effort were put into city spaces, then perhaps costs would come down...

\\For me the fresh air and open space of suburban life coupled with a nice area to live and pleasant neighbors worked better.\\

Again, more a flaw of modern urban "planning" than city life itself. Parks don't generate appealing tax revenues, so they're often left out or neglected in planning phases. Although I'm sure anyone who lives in a decent city will tell you how wonderful their park systems are.

[I know some people would complain about parks, saying how much they don't like them or don't like being bothered by all the people, but those people then, I would argue, will never be part of the solution. Having theirs is obviously their dominant value [i.e. my own private yard v. a public park; private car v. public transportation] and they'll never be happy with a solution to this very pressing problem.]



My downtown apartment is small, old, and fairly expensive—at least when you compare it to an apartment out in the suburbs. One way to more than make up for the money spent on rent is to do without a car. Out of the 54 units in my building I would say less than 20% of the tenants have a vehicle. Living without a car is all but impossible if you live outside the city limits. You certainly don’t need much of a car if you live where I live because you probably won’t drive very much. Basic transportation I think is what they call it. The driving environment in the city is much less intense than in the sprawl areas surrounding Seattle.

I will admit that the urban area of Seattle isn’t very kid-friendly but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are lots of kids in Amsterdam, Madrid, London, New York, and Paris and those can be wonderful places for children. I’ll never forget one time walking through a gallery at the Louvre and coming upon a class of French grade school kids being lectured on Renaissance sculpture techniques. Their teacher had a collection of the actual tools used by the masters. I never had a field trip to the fucking Louvre growing up in a small town.

I don’t claim to have any of the answers on this whole urban/suburban issue; all I want is to start asking the right questions. Once we have the right questions we can then come up with a host of solutions before some archaeologist is sifting through our ruins determining where our culture made the wrong choices and failed to sustain itself. - Management

Yo Matty Poo,
The city is cool, but the school system in Philly is the pits. And, I mean armpit stinky! Both of my neighbors have taught at various downtown schools for more than 30 years. They say the kids are getting more and more difficult to teach and that parents are becoming less and less involved with their kid's educations. Their pay scale is also much lower than it is here in the burbs. So, they are not rewarded generously for teaching under sometimes very stressful circumstances.

They both had to move out of their beloved city twins because the Germantown section in which they lived has become so crime ridden. My grandmother also lived there many years ago and decided to escape to this town 10 minutes west, after her place was robbed.

And it does sound an awful lot like you are chastising Marty for his lifestyle preference. This discussion shouldn't be about city vs. suburbs vs. country. It should be how about how society as a whole can better design of all of the above landscapes and the transportation modes to improve both safety, air quality and space issues.

We all have the same basic forms of entertainment at our disposal, minus great live theater and upscale restaurants in the burbs and country. I commute downtown by train from the Noble station in Jenkintown and can enjoy plenty of culture in just a very short train ride. I began making this trip downtown several times a week with my girlfriends in high school and we had a blast. The city is a hot place to party and shop, etc and I still go downtown on occasion to dance at clubs with my girlfriends. - Jessica


I think it’s also a generalization for you to say that people in the burbs stay home more often. The only reason that may be somewhat true is because there are more single people downtown that have the freedom to go out on the town whenever they choose. Those of us that are raising a family have to hire a babysitter to be able to go out and party.

I would also bet that city people spend just as much time online as those of us a few minutes outside of the city. Most downtown and suburban people take their laptops with them to cafes nowadays.

What about those that have vertigo and cannot imagine living in a high rise situation? What about the fire hazards that these buildings can pose? What about elevator malfunctions and noisy neighbors? What about the fact that cities are usually a beautiful metropolis surrounded by ignored slums? What about the fact that there is heavy noise and air pollution downtown? People have more asthma and anxiety attacks that live in the city. People are also at a much greater risk to be mugged or raped downtown. In my own experiences on the Temple and University of Penn campuses I have faced these very scary issues. I never felt afraid and no one ever tried to attack me at the Penn State Abington Campus.

I do not propose that the suburb is crime free, but incidents are certainly much less frequent. I am also friends with police officers that work both in various sections of the city, as well as the suburbs. The guys around here have a whole lot more free time and much less to complain about.

I also can speak of my experiences with inner city kids at proms and inside the walls of their schools. A lot of them speak very poor English and have even worse manners. My dad’s company has also never been robbed doing jobs in the suburban areas, but downtown must hire an off duty police officer to protect the money box.
- Jessica


Many sections of Philadelphia are also guilty of being a trash ridden mess. Every time that I go to watch a sporting event, concert or go to a club or restaurant, I notice that there is trash galore sitting on the side of the road. Delaware Avenue is atrocious at times. Why is this a chronic problem in the city, but not in the suburbs?

I do love the city of Philadelphia but it needs a lot of help to feel like an appealing, wholesome, safe place to live for families. Maybe if cars weren’t a part of our lives that would help. But there are many other issues involved.

I'm going to have to read John Raulston Saul's book to satisfy my curiosity and to educate myself. I realize that there will be space issues in the future. People in America continue to buy bigger and bigger homes and vehicles. I’m not sure why people cannot live in a more modest more manageable, less of a tax hog home. The wealthy end up selling off and paring down as they get older. But even at 30, I have no need for 3 guest rooms and 10 bathrooms.

Society needs to examine its desire to over consume stuff, as well as space.



Wow - you make it seem like the only things worth doing happen in the city. Really isn’t true. I live about 5 miles from the local town - which is tiny by most standards. I am about 15 miles from the nearest city (within that 20 mile sq radius you mention) and about an hour from nearest metropolis. I would argue that since I view the city center as a comfortable drive I am far more able to experience a true variety of activities than a city dweller who is typically more contained to a few city blocks - and I doubt a city dweller will head out to the country on a regular basis when s/he views driving as such a pain (and perhaps they don’t see the benefit?). I can go into the city for the events you describe - or go to the local farm to pick up fresh food (there is actually a fresh food market down the road from me that sells fresh produce grown on their farm - the excess is sold to the local Wal-Mart). I go to AAA ball games- if you have never gone to a AAA baseball game I highly recommend it since they spend Far more time catering to fans than they do at pro games (pro games are bit too expensive and hyped up anyway) . A nearby horse farm allows for horseback lessons/riding and we have a water park near here too for water events (big slide, swimming ...). For those of you in cities without cars you really are confined to the city and have no chance of experiencing the countryside.

The town has tons of regularly scheduled events year round - as does the neighborhood in which I live. In addition there are plenty of healthy outdoor activities which do not require a city - yes including bike riding. Plenty of City folk lock themselves in their apartments and are stressed out by :
Loud neighbors (upstairs / on both sides)being yelled at by neighbors for being loud

Don’t get me wrong - I did enjoy parts of living in the city - ironically at the time though my employer moved OUT of the city into the suburbs. Which meant I had a reverse commute - very frustrating. And this is very common - Chicago had a raft of employers leave the city and relocate to the suburbs to accommodate a larger suburban worker community, cheaper land and room to expand. The room to expand is often the driving requirement for moving businesses out of city centers.

40,000 may die in car crashes (probably many of them in cities!) but city life is no safe haven - crime rates tend to be higher in cities. Pick your poison. I understand that unchecked suburban sprawl leads to significant problems. Doesn’t mean suburbs are evil - planned growth needs to be a major focus for any city council and can and does lead to a pleasant environment.

I do appreciate the fact that there is a large city nearby - I get a lot out of that without having to actually live there. I do prefer living with a bit more space around me - I much prefer the scenery of the suburbs with its manicured lawns and trees, to the often dull grey of city streets. To be honest though, having said all that, if it were cheaper to live in the city than in the suburbs I might do it again - the advantages mentioned are not without appeal. It definitely is NOT cheaper though - from taxes to property values to incidental costs city living is just more expensive. When that turns around I would bet you would see an urban migration - before then don’t hold your breath. - Marty


I don’t want to argue over whether one lifestyle is superior to the other; I am asking which one is more sustainable. I’m sure the Vikings in Greenland thought that raising cattle was superior to the fishing done by the native Inuits but livestock wasn’t a wise choice in that eco-system. As attractive as a 5,000 sq ft home with a half acre of property may seem, it is not a viable option for a large segment of our population in the future. We need to address these issues related to growth as soon as possible or we could go the way of ancient Greenland. - Management


I'm not sure either model is more sustainable the way they are currently designed. Both have positive and negative aspects.

I agree whole heartedly that using several thousand square feet and having a football field for a yard for a single family is ridiculous. It's as ludicrous as driving a Hummer if you're not in the military or driving through the outback.
I just want to point out that you and Mat are both single men and the city is a viable option for single men. However, most American cities are not particularly family friendly living situations.
I’m proud to be an American, but my northern European roots are still a big part of who I am. I think that Holland and Sweden are countries with more forward ideas about remodeling and changing things for a better future. - Jessica

OK - the Viking comparison needs to be rethought. To compare today’s economic drivers to the trials and tribulations of ancient cultures can lead to wild conclusions. Greenland is a harsh inhospitable climate that SHOULD have been called Iceland - the fact the Vikings didn’t quite make it is nothing less than ... well ... expected. Proclaiming the end of civilization as we know it because I live in the suburbs and proving this with analogies to the ancient Vikings in Greenland is quite a stretch. - Marty


I've been tempted to move to NYC more than once, but a weekend visit, fun as it is, usually cures me of that. For the same money we're spending now to own a 1,900sq ft house on 2 acres, we could afford to rent a crappy two-bedroom walkup in Brooklyn under the BQE. Ugh.

I agree with you about the suburban lifestyle not being sustainable, but Americans always opt for more value for their money, and that's why so many of us live outside of cities. Oh, and to get away from the smell of piss, if memory serves. - Kevin

I live paycheck-to-paycheck in a Dominican neighborhood of Manhattan, and I feel I'm getting more bang for the buck than I'd be getting in the 'burbs. Why? Well, because I get to witness things like a Latino kid with his little Japanese friend, bicycling over to the Latino kid's mom to ask if the Japanese kid can come over later, in English -- even though he doesn't have to -- just so that his friend will understand what he's saying. I've never seen that in the suburbs or the country.

A homeless man on the subway once offered me banjo pointers for nothing in return except conversation. He said his own banjo was "still out in Iowa". I've never seen a man light up so -- let alone a man who doesn't know where his next meal will be coming from -- and I've certainly never seen that in the suburbs.

Sometimes I, myself, don't even know where my next meal will come from, but I do know that when I walk out my door, there will be hordes of three-generation families conversing on every stoop I pass between here and the subway, and that any single one of them would take me in for dinner without batting an eye, if the need arose. How many electronic fences would I have to scale in the suburbs for that to happen, only to be mistaken for a GameBoy villain & shot at by junior with daddy's hunting rifle?

I don't have or need a car, but it's true that my family is within a two-hour train-ride upstate. And whenever I visit them, I'm disconcerted by the new BestBuy that's gone up, or the extended WalMart parking lot laid down where some farmer's cows used to graze.

Kevin, the smell of piss is harder to come by nowadays, as the poor & homeless are being crowded into tinier & tinier projects and neighborhoods. Those who dare to venture out of their cages to mark their territory are quietly whisked away and numbed down with meds until they've accepted their fate, or until a luxury hi-rise can be completed on the vacant lot in which they used to set up camp.

The scent of piss isn't what's responsible for the skyrocketing rents. You can blame l'eau de riche for that. I'll take the scent of piss over that any day. - Bess

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