Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Suburban studies

I fashion myself as somewhat of a scholar of the suburbs, having lived all of my years in these comfortable, if sometimes bland and mediocre, locales. Apparently, however, the school of My Own Personal Observation is not accredited, and therefore, my hard-earned PhD means little to the outside world. Alas, there are other scholars who are more "respected" and their suburban studies are finally getting some traction within the cozy confines of the Ivory Tower.

Increasingly, if still a bit disdainfully, academia is beginning to pay attention to the 'burbs, home for years now to at least half of all Americans.

"Emerging" is the assessment Robert E. Lang gives to suburban studies on most college campuses. He's the founding director of the Metropolitan Institute on Virginia Tech's satellite campus in Alexandria, Va. The institute is one of a handful of academic think tanks that have sprung up around the country in recent years - including in Maryland - that study suburbia as well as cities.

On the surface, I'm kind of agnostic on suburbs in general, but my living preferences should give you a good idea of how I actually feel about them. That said, I think living in Columbia for the last 14 years has given me a different perspective on what suburbs can and should be.

Having read several anti-suburban tomes, I agree with the assertion of several professors in the story that suburbs are given a bad rap. Being critical of suburbs is one thing, disguising genuine disdain with supposedly objective criticism is another. There is a lot not to like about suburbia, but there's also a lot to like. And the same could be said about cities. So, let's not get into a turf war over who's really living the good live and who's missing out.

Here are some good quotes from the story:
"Many of these people see the suburbs as the ultimate expression of everything they hate about America," contends California author and social critic Joel Kotkin. A native New Yorker, he has lived in suburban Los Angeles for the past three decades and writes frequently about the suburbs. "Even the people who study suburbia do it mainly to dis it."

"There's a huge bias [against suburbs]," agrees Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, situated in another suburban locale, Catonsville. "I've had countless academics in this field tell me, 'I wouldn't live in a suburb. I only live in a city.'"

..."The fictional portrayal of suburbs remains fairly bleak," counters D.J. Waldie, whose nonfiction Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, recalls growing up in suburban Los Angeles. "It is a convention in American fiction writing to regard suburban places as problematic at best and as horrific at worst."

That sounds about right.

Meanwhile, here's a story about a new book that presents both sides of the suburban sprawl debate and even describes how suburbs have been around since the Roman empire. Sounds interesting. And here's a link to the scholarly journal Opolis, which is mentioned in the article and is devoted to studying suburban issues.

I have more thoughts on this, but I'm having trouble finding the right words. Perhaps during the next slow news week I'll get around to it.

1 comment:

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