I’m on the record as a skeptic of predictions that we’ll start bowling together again once we’ve been downsized out of our McMansions and SUVs. But this article suggests that suburban neighborhoods are actually responding like the optimists hope. Aside from the anecdotal evidence, and the gauzy hopes of urbanists and sociologists, there appears to be a genuine uptick in local organization. Suburbia, per Joel Kotkin, could have the last laugh yet.
But get this:
“It’s more caring. . . . It’s like we’re a team,” said Rob Burnett, 44, of Fredericksburg. Residents in his subdivision have planted trees, donated items to a neighbor with five children who lost his job, and formed a study group on debt-free living. “Before, everybody was showing off what they had. Now it’s like, ‘What can I cut back?’ and ‘How are you doing things differently?’ Before, the guy who has the biggest Hummer on the street was the biggest guy in the world. That’s gone.”
I read that and my first thought was to bang my head on the desk in embarrassment. “Unemployment rates and underwater mortgages have turned you and your neighbors from an enclave of self-absorbed, positionally obsessed, Hummer-worshiping Patio Men into a real community overnight? How sweet.” Did it really take a dire macroeconomic backdrop to inspire them to help an unemployed neighbor with five kids? The cartoonish self-congratulation in his conversion story makes me distrust both Burnett’s account of yesterday’s groveling materialism and his praise for today’s virtuous austerity.
But you go to war with the army you have, and if Americans are going to pull through a tough recession and discover the virtues of mutual support and community engagement, it will probably not be through a wholesale reorganization of our priorities — it will happen in a way that flatters and accommodates our peculiar (and peculiarly American) flaws and fantasies. Rather than deep moral and spiritual renewal leading to civic health, what if it’s our national solipsism and susceptibility to suggestion that pull us together, and pull us through? What if, rather than being stuck with virtue, we discover that, after a few initially painful changes in lifestyle, we can buy spray-on virtue in a can? If enough Americans decide that the TV show of their lives should feature them acting like engaged, conscientious citizens, might that not be just as good as a more “authentic” conversion?
It might be exasperating to live among neighbors who are acting out a self-conscious “sense of” community, but that may be the precise way our better natures come to light these days. And the available alternatives could be a hell of a lot worse.