THR Web Features   /   January 14, 2015

Back to the City! Back to the Country!

Stephen Assink

( Las Vegas suburbs at sunset; Wikimedia Commons.)

Thomas Jefferson once said: “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.” Despite his penchant for Parisian culture and cuisine, Jefferson obviously did not hold the same affection for European cities. Rather, Jefferson, who spent much of his private life gardening and farming at his rural home in Monticello, celebrated those who lived off the land. In 1785, he wrote to John Jay:

Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty & interests by the most lasting bands.

Although others may not have shared Jefferson's exact passion for the bucolic, his preference for agrarian life was commonplace throughout much of American history. Indeed, the United States was mainly a rural country well into the twentieth century.

By the end of the nineteenth century, American cities such as New York City and Chicago were metropolises of more than one million people. With the growth and dominance of these cities, apprehensions about urban culture deepened. As William Cronon argues in his study on the growth of Chicago:

What really worried rural and small-town residents of Chicago’s hinterland was their perception that the city acted as a magnet for sin. Young people drawn to the city by its energy and excitement could all too easily give in to pleasures and temptations that would finally jeopardize their souls.

Small town residents were not the only ones to view the big city suspiciously. At the turn of the twentieth century, prominent city-based scholars—particularly from the Chicago School of Sociology—also conceived of cities negatively.

But once urbanization took hold, largely thanks to the immigration and industrialization of agriculture, Americans began flocking to cities. There, they sought economic opportunity, improved education, and the sophistications of the cosmopolitan lifestyle. The city-dweller came to view rural life as backward and narrow.

This trend didn't last. By the mid-twentieth century, the tide turned in the opposite direction. Once again, cities were perceived as dangerous and undesirable—but the person who sought a safer home turned not to the country, but to the suburb.

Suburbs have existed as long as cities. In the Middle Ages, they were places for the poor—priced out of the cities and living along the city walls—as well as the rich, who had their own suburban villas. In America, suburbs sprang up in the 1800s as a response to urban industrial pollution and lack of sanitation infrastructure. They allowed those with the monetary means to travel back into the city with their health intact. Such suburbs were more akin to natural villages and were closely linked to cities. Suburban expansion was relatively limited compared to urban growth—until the automobile.

After World War II, suburban neighborhoods grew exponentially in size. People left cities for the suburbs, as rural and urban populations declined. Thanks to the automobile and the ease of obtaining a home mortgage, suburban living became easier. Coupled with the outsourcing of urban industry and (often racist) concerns about urban violence, the city quickly fell out of favor. Soon suburban living (or certain forms of it) became the apogee of the American dream.

One of the most salient features of the post–World War II suburb was its localization of the American middle class and its propagation of practices of mass consumption. In her 2003 book A Consumers' Republic, American historian Lizabeth Cohen noted, “As home in the surburb[s] became a mass consumer commodity to be appraised and traded up like a car rather than a longstanding emotional investment in a particular neighborhood, ethnic community, or church parish, ‘property values’ became the new mantra.”

Although the suburban ideal still figures predominantly in our cultural imagination of individual success, the discussion around suburbs has become more nuanced and complicated. Though the suburb still has its defenders, criticism of the “'burbs” has grown steadily, with many questioning their environmental, economic, social, and even spiritual legitimacy. Perhaps, the most poignant critique is simply that are banal. Lewis Mumford summed that view up best:

Whilst the [historical] suburb served only a favored minority it neither spoiled the countryside nor threatened the city. But now that drift to the outer ring has become a mass movement, it tends to destroy the value of both environments without producing anything but a dreary substitute, devoid of form and even more devoid of the original urban values.

Today, cities and suburbs with high walkability (or access to mass transit) are again growing in population and desirability. City living is increasingly being celebrated for its economic potential. In addition, cities with a range of institutions and opportunities offer particular ecological and social benefits.

This urban revival is well-documented, but a small return to farming has also begun. In an article earlier this month, NPR journalist Jennifer Mitchell reports that “overall, fewer young people are choosing a life on the land. But in some places around the country, like Maine, that trend is reversing. In Maine, farmers under the age of 35 have increased by 40 percent.” Mitchell goes on to cite environmental factors as one of the key reasons people are getting back into farming: "all the young farmers interviewed for this story mentioned environmental health and climate change as factors in choosing a life on the land."

As Thomas Jefferson reminds us, praise of country life has often come at the expense of the city. Now, however, the country appears defined not so much against the city, but rather the sprawling suburb. Although there are clear differences between urban and country living (farming is not exactly a get-rich enterprise), they are no longer opposed to each other.

Each environment offers opportunities for unique connections and activities difficult to attain in mass suburbs. In the country, people live closer with the biotic world and are able to work with their hands. In the city, populations are more dense and diverse, and there are a plethora of cultural, social, and economic options. The very structure of these places makes it easier to be a part of a community larger than oneself.

Yet, the temptation to romanticize both city and country is strong. Community still takes work. Cities can price out the poor, reinforce racial and class divisions, and promote individualistic consumer ideals. And the burgeoning return to farming presents its own challenges to community-building. (Not to mention, it's really hard work.) Suburbs remain intact and seem unlikely to diminish in significance, and they too contain vibrant neighborhoods.

Though the quest for thriving encompasses all places, including the suburbs, the return to town and country reminds us that where we live can just as much affect who we are.