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A Tale of Two Existences

Between recent comments here on the blog and the URBANEXUS gathering downtown recently, it has been striking how vehemently people feel about the urban vs. suburban existence. The vitriol is mostly one-sided, the urbanists against the suburbanites. To most suburbanites, there is little passion for that fight because the city is basically irrelevant to them. Suburbanites tend to fall into three main groups: they have lived in the city at one point and subsequently chosen a suburban path; they enjoy visiting city amenities but don’t want to live there; or it never appealed to them. So what lies behind this divide?

If urbanists disdain the suburbs and speak arrogantly toward those who live there, where is the fuel? I would suggest it is, at heart, anger. The suburbs represent everything they hate: sameness, conformity, uniformity, and detachment or entrenchment from the world at large. But aren’t these all illusions? Aren’t they just as conformist to an urban identity and shared disdain for the suburbs? Aren’t both cities and suburbs created landscapes representative of their times? Aren’t as many people isolated and detached from the world in their urban condos and apartments as the folks who inhabit split-levels, ranch houses and huge suburban great rooms? Is one really better than another? Or are they neither better or worse, just different?

I am the most unlikely defender of the suburbs. I have hated them most of my adult life. I grew up in a small town, 100 miles from any large city, and I didn’t really experience city life until after college when I started my career in Peoria, then Chicago. I lived on the Chicago’s north side, in Lincoln Park before it became ultra chic. Then I moved to Seattle in the Queen Anne neighborhood. I spent my vacations in cities visiting friends in New York, LA, San Francisco and Boston. Nothing else appealed to me and I was horrified by friends and relatives as they abandoned the cities for the suburbs. Not me, not ever, I said.

So here I am, in Maryland Heights, and (gasp) I enjoy it. It’s a second-ring suburb so it’s grown-up, it’s mature, it has huge trees and sidewalks. Its houses were built in the peak era of the rise of middle class. Large enough to be comfortable, but small enough to be considered now as modest in comparison to much larger, new suburban homes and mega mansions. The lawns aren’t huge, the neighborhood is extremely walkable for exercise and recreation, and the energy footprint is modest like the houses.

I have a garden and enjoy yard work after years of container gardening on porches and balconies. I have a giant sweet-gum tree in my front yard and love raking leaves. I know my neighbors. My sister and her family live less than a mile away. My mother lives with me. It is easy to get around and run errands, pick up library books, and every night, for the first time in my life, I park my car in an enclosed garage. I no longer have to get up early to scrape the ice from my windows, shovel myself out of street parking, or get soaked in the pouring rain before I’ve ever left home.

Located smack in the middle of I-270, I-70 and Page Avenue, I can get to the airport in under 15 minutes (important when I commuted weekly to Seattle for my job) and there’s almost no place in the metropolitan area that I can’t get to in about 20 minutes or less. I have fresh, locally grown food available at Thies Farm and the many charms of Creve Coeur Park are less than a mile from my house.

My city is small enough that I can easily attend meetings and interact with city government. I know the people who run my city and I can work both with them and in opposition to them to build a better city with a sustainable future. I have easily met others and formed a residents’ group that will continue to educate and inform the political process.

Maryland Heights is also auto-centric, lacks a town center and informal gathering places, and, like every other place on earth, is sometimes boring. So I think it comes down to this: time of life and love. Our decisions about where to live are not abstract concepts. They are practical and they come with a constellation of considerations, many beyond our control, and many of them related to love.

We fall in love with someone who already owns a house in the suburbs or we move to have a vastly shorter commute to our suburban employer. We move to the suburbs of St. Louis because our toddler will soon be in school and we believe in the value of public-school education, but not in the St. Louis city schools. Our parents grow old and need help and comfort in their old age. They move in with us, into a single-story ranch house with an attached garage, and easy access to medical facilities and grocery stores. We can simply be ready for a change of pace: ready to garden in our own yard, to participate in civic activities, and take care of our extended families while we still have them.

Time is precious. I wouldn’t trade my 25 years as a fervent urbanist for anything. It was the absolute right thing for me. I have come to love my life in the suburbs in service to those I hold most dear. There will be other chapters in my life and I will, doubtless, live other places, including the heart of a great city.

I wish I had been more thoughtful, and less shrill, about my choices when I was younger. I wish I could have been more confident in my own choices without thinking everyone had to feel the same way. I wish I had known more about the value of family ties and the difference between sacrifice and a loving sacrifice. I wish I had been kinder to my friends who married and left for the suburbs.

One of the great gifts of age is a truer appreciation of diversity and how we all make choices for love. My neighborhood is as integrated as my neighborhood in the city, maybe more so, because of all the nationalities that live near me. But it isn’t race that makes us diverse, it’s all the stories of how they came to be here, the choices they made for love, and why this is only one chapter of a long and varied life.

-Deborah Moulton


Currently there are "19 comments" on this Article:

  1. anon says:

    What do you think your neighbors would say about having St. Louis City re-enter St. Louis County? Do such matters come up in casual conversation? It would be instructive to hear some of the perspectives of your neighbors’ toward the city. After all, this is an urban-focused blog. Hearing what suburbanites think of St. Louis urban issues would be interesting.

  2. zink says:

    Nice Post.

    Going to your first point, I have found the exact opposite. Living in the city and working in the Suburbs, all my co-workers who live in the suburbs are the “haters.”

    In my opinion, and from my experience I have not seen the City “hate” on the suburbs… mainly because they offer nothing except a shopping mall and a place to live. So why would city folk hate the suburbs? Seriously… why would I ever go to the suburbs besides the mall?

    Look at all the comments in the Post Dispatch… 95% are spitting on the CITY and then the other 5% is a poster replying back to defend the city.

  3. john w. says:

    I personally have little use for the suburbs, but from a sustainability standpoint it would be difficult to argue that low-density, auto-centric areas are sustainable patterns of land development.

  4. equals42 says:

    Nice post.

    As far as urbanites, I have continually moved to higher density areas. I was born out in the Mohave desert area and then moved to the SoCal beach cities, then Silicon Valley and now in St Louis city proper. I may move from here to NY or London as my profession allows/dictates. I have always found the cities to easier to live in and cheaper in some respects.

    I went from two cars and a 45 minute commute (each way) to one car and no commute unless I travel to a client. There’s a huge savings in time and money with just the auto and commute. I walk to local bars and restaurants on weekends and don’t endanger others with drunk driving as many friends and relatives end up doing in the burbs.

    I have a 4 yr old son. I am a little worried about this. The local schools are not highly regarded. I do believe though that my wife can make a difference there. She stays at home and can do what many others cannot: give her time to local schools. Even with that, I believe my son will attend a new charter schools which uses language immersion to teach either French or Spanish. [Mandarin and German are coming in a couple years.] I am excited about that. He could also go to Catholic school. The money doesn’t concern me too much but I don’t think it’s a solution for the ails of the community unless we talk about vouchers. Not everyone can go to private schools.

    I really have little use for the burbs. I like the Galleria but would gladly shop a Downtown or Midtown retail area instead. Sadly, there is none. The city needs to look at tax reform. Lowering taxes to become competitive is really what needs to happen. Not just targeted TIFs and other backslap deals. Ditch the salary tax. A modest property tax increase could cover the deficiency.

    A last note: We have around 380,000 people in the city. No city of that size needs the bureaucracy and bloated payroll we have. Why does a mayor of a small city our size need as many paid staffers as Slay has? [23 staff in 2007 at $1,972,767 for his office.] Why 28 aldermen and their associated costs? Why a fleet of cars for city employees to take home? I’m not a Republican. I don’t hate government. I just think our city needs a big-time change which may require an outside voice. Maybe some wealthy person with the money to run a campaign without the party machine and a ruthless streak to cut the city government to fit wholly within the beautiful city hall it inhabits. One can hope.

    [slp — The US Census estimated the population at just under 350K in 2008, reinforcing your points on bloat.]

  5. john says:

    I would never criticize someone who prefers more space, more greenery, better schools, etc. It’s more than just bloated, over-priced government (yes a major problem), it’s also about quality of life and how public resources are used to subsidize one group’s “nice” life style at the expense of others.
    – –
    Just one example: If you work, shop near your home, great, but most don’t. Most suburban communities requires large highways to make their life convenient. Those highways destroy pedestrian connectivity (something city dwellers put a high value on), increase noise (already too much in a city), increase pollution (meaning a much sicker population and especially detrimental to children), and are simply UGLY. In other words, your oasis is largely dependent on destroying the oasis of others. It’s always ironic to see suburbanites rally against highways when they go through their communities. Just look at the response re. the expansion of 141.

  6. Mark Groth says:

    Thanks for your honest assessment of Maryland Heights life. I agree with you that people choose their home based on economics, convenience and finally very personal reasons. This is why I love St. Louis. People who choose to stay in/live in/improve the city and put up with the worse schools, racial tension, crime, etc compared to the burbs are truly passionate about their love for the history, architecture, mixed uses and diversity of people and places.

    However, you say the regional vitriol and arrogance is from the city people and not the county people. Really? Maybe on the city/urban websites and an urban converance, but certainly not in general. Being a city booster/dweller, I’ve developed a nice little inferiority complex over the years having worked in west St. Louis County for the last 15 years overhearing the suburbanite perspective on St. Louis. Listen to how most people talk about St. Louis, or as many say “Downtown”…it ain’t pretty or constructive in any way. That’s why I like a little city pride or arrogance. I think it’s a response to the overwhelming negativity many feel as city underdogs in the region.

    I believe St. Louis is way cooler than Maryland Heights and that’s why I live here. That’s why you live in Maryland Heights. We can all be friends. I’ve rarely go to MH, there’s not really anything there I want to see or do, so I don’t feel I get much from MH. However, you probably get a lot from St. Louis (arts, culture, restaurants, sports, name recognition, etc), so please speak kindly and remember that after years of declining population and lost homes and architectural treasures, we St. Louisians do sometimes feel a little inferior and sometimes even resentful of the placid, stable life that suburbanites lead with relative ease. There’s always a fight in St. Louis. Not arrogance, just well placed and well timed pride for the city we love and cherish.

  7. Cheryl says:

    I agree with others here that I see a lot more anti-city online comments, than anti-suburb. A lot of the comments are not so much anti-city, as anti-density. When the Post ran a story about a noise ordinance in New Town in St. Charles County, there was lots of vitriol about how people should expect noise when crammed on top of each other like in New Town, etc.

    The city of Maryland Heights, in particular, is not homogenous. There are very old parts that go back to the streetcar days and very new subdivisions built in the 2000s. The walkability of these various parts varies considerably. Almost any part is walkable for exercise and recreation (you might be walking in the streets) , but few parts are walkable in the sense that you could walk somewhere to run an errand, go to dinner in a restaurant, or get to work.

    As far as people being isolated and detached in urban condos, I can speak from experience that that is true. People still walk out of their condo and jump into their car. But that is the same experience I had living in Maryland Heights. People were isolated because they walked out their back door and into their car. The car culture causes a lot of the isolation whether we live in cities or suburbs. Despite that, I know about the same number of neighbors since living in the city as I knew living in Maryland Heights.

  8. studs lonigan says:

    I think a lot of the animosity expressed by city residents (whether “hip” and/or “urbanists” or not) toward distant suburbs is based in the legitimate notion that sprawl exists at the expense of and detriment to existing urban fabric. They are doubly antagonized by the suburbanites who, along with their elected officials, bash the city while asserting that “private market forces” paved the former cornfield they now reside on, when in fact basic sprawl infrastructure would be impossible without massive subsidy.

    It’s not so much about “hating” as it is recognizing that while “market forces” do exist, they are not necessarily managed or administered in an equitable or intelligent manner.

  9. matt says:

    I appreciate your post and point of view.
    This comment hurts, though…

    “the vitriol is mostly one-sided, the urbanists against the suburbanites…”

    Working in west county in a very westplex/st. charles oriented office (I actually grew up in st. charles) I have been deemed sort of the office “clown” for living in the City (the only one), and I’m very often asked how the “ghetto life” is. I’m surrounded by people that don’t really even know how to get to downtown Clayton(!), much less anything in the City limits except for the ballpark.

    I moved back “home” to St. Louis 3 years ago to take part in its revitalization (and for a better future for the greater region that will forever be a part of me), but I don’t know how much courage I have left. You are right, time is precious, and this region is at its last crossroads.

  10. john says:

    We all know and realize that suburbia (example Maryland Heights) requires highways to survive. Without them they wouldn’t be convenient and popular. This means greater infrastructure costs (highways, roads, sewers, electricity), higher energy costs, more government resources and more government entities (more and higher taxes). And as people move out of the city its financial position (ability to sustain infrastructure and services) is irrefutably damaged.
    – –
    As Mark Twain once said, “Civilization is a limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities.” Photographer Mitch Epstein in documenting the utilities built to support the rapid growth in our demand for energy states “Humankind’s technical prowess has etched itself into nature’s grandeur,… But settlers did not expect that their American Dream of material ease would ultimately require more energy than the land could give.”
    – –
    Do the necessities of suburbia have to mean the destructiveness of urbania? For the StL region the answer is obvious. Even MoDOT recognizes that its continual underwriting of sprawl is financially unsupportable.

  11. matt says:

    in a region that has trouble attracting fresh blood, and keeping its own, I made the assumption that you were a native (I forgot where you stated you are from a town I’m assuming in central or northern illinois). that’s why I was so surprised by your idea that the urban/suburban debate is mostly one sided here. all of us, particularity if we are from the west/northwest side of the metro, have heard a certain mantra all of our lives. perhaps this debate is one sided in other places where the heart of the region isn’t fighting for its life and where people essentially realize the connection between the health of a regions core and the regions ability to thrive. in this midwest, its even more critical, as its all we have.

    “just bulldoze the whole thing.”

  12. Many things suburbanites dislike about the city they created themselves through flight and divestment.

  13. stlzou says:

    I think many parts of your essay are very relevant and I thank you for saying them, specifically parts defending the reasons why many choose to live in the suburbs. I think there are very honest and good reasons for choosing to live in the suburbs, and it’s important to understand that the appeals of city life are not for everyone. There are certainly some great aspects of suburban life which I wsh could be incorporated into some urban neighborhoods. However, I have to concur with many of the previous posters in disagreeing with your assessment that the city/ suburban divide is a one-sided offensive against the burbs. There is certainly visible animosity among many urbanites towards the suburbs, though all it takes is to read the comment section after any STLToday piece reporting a crime or even discussing something positive in the city like a school turnaround or a new development project to see there is also very visible disdain for those who live in St. Louis city by many who live outside it. Having gone to school in St. Charles and now living in the city, I can appreciate the difference. While it would be unusual for someone in St. Chuck to come out and say “Cities suck!” as I am embarrassed to say I’ve known city dwellers who resort to this high level of discourse when talking about the suburbs, the suburban sentiment is more of a subliminal wariness towards the type of people who live in cities. They fear being in the city and warn me against my lifestyle choices, which to me can be just as offensive. They insult the city as being crime-ridden and dangerous. Fear is their motive, and anger becomes their weapon. While urbanites tend to abhor suburban living, whether justified or not, it is more often the lifestyle they reject than the people themselves. Suburbanites, or at least those who are loud, proud, and angry, on the other hand tend to disdain the people themselves who live in the city. Whether this is fueled by racism, classism, or political divide I’m not sure. I just know that I have seen its destructive power first-hand and it is real and it is ugly.

  14. john w. says:


  15. Kim says:

    I would agree with your post and most of the comments made. There are pros & cons anywhere you live, it just depends on where you are in your life and what your priorities are at the time. I wish some things were different where I live in Maryland Heights, but I think enough is good that I am working to change the things I don’t like. There are a lot of great things about living in an urban environment that I would like to have, but at this point in my life they aren’t on my list of necessary things. I think a lot of good things could come if the city and county merged, but I have no idea how that would ever realistically occur. It’s kind of like dreaming for the lost land of unicorns.

    My coment on the city or suburban ‘haters’ debate would be that there are many people living in the suburbs who are trying to put a halt to the sprawl that still occurs, trying to halt senseless, expensive highway projects. They are trying to save the things that made them move to the suburbs in the first place. I would think that would garner more support from people, both urban- and suburban-ites, but the main comment from both camps is to attack them for being hypocrites and NIMBY’s. Sure some of the people who are opposed to (for example 😉 141 were only opposed when they realized that it would be near their homes, but most oppose it because 1) it is a waste of money that could be utilized to repair many other crumbling roads and bridges
    2) it is being built specifically to funnel traffic to unneccessary commercial floodplain development in Maryland Heights and 3) it will completely destroy an entire wetlands ecosystem and pollute our drinking water. Why should we continue to allow development that we know is destructive and wrong, just because it’s been done the last “x” number of years? In reality, we all need to work together to stop the sprawl and the destruction of our remaining green spaces and agricultural land. The problems that have been caused over the last 50+ years can’t be solved by just one group or the other, the solutions lie in regional solutions that everyone (suburban, urban and rural) need to embrace. We all go down together.

  16. mogreenie says:

    Nice post, and really interesting comments. I agree that there are indeed good reasons to live in the ‘burbs. I also agree with the general assessment that most of the criticism is against the city, and not against the suburbanites.

    Two things are missing. First, poor people do not have the same types of choice. Second is the financial component: Most local government services are paid for through (a) sales taxes or (b) property taxes, particularly on retail space. Retailers like to be close to richer people. Hence, West County Mall (Des Peres), Chesterfield Valley, etc.

    Every time a city dweller goes to the County to shop, she is subsidizing someone’s “choice.” This tends to be reverse Robin Hood — the poor subsidizing better-off people.

    Maybe that’s why urban advocates sometimes seem hot under the collar.

  17. Cheryl says:

    You just made a great point about St. Louis City residents – not just poor city residents – subsidizing other people’s choice to live in a suburban location by choosing to shop at suburban centers.

    I recently read Michael Shuman’s “The Small Mart Revolution:how local businesses are beating the global competition”, and I learned a lot about the value of shopping locally. So, I have been making a bigger effort to choose to shop in a business located in the city of St. Louis, if I have the choice. Shuman’s book is not just about shopping locally, but about shopping in locally owned businesses, as opposed to say, Target’s. However, just shopping in an Office Depot or Macy’s located within the city helps the city of St. Louis provide services to its residents and there is no benefit for city services if you shop in Brentwood or Chesterfield.

    The same advice may not apply to residents of suburbs, because of the sales tax pooling system. However, as far as I know, all the sales tax generated in the city of St. Louis stays in the city of St. Louis.

  18. Cheryl,

    I, too, do as much shopping at locally owned businesses. And, yes, local chains are the next best thing. However, eating at the Qdoba on S. Grand is better than eating at the one in Loughborough Commons. Why? TIF. That’s why. So many strip developments in the City of St. Louis were built with them. Sales taxes generated from those developments go to pay off the bonds that were sold to build those developments (I think LC is a 20 year TIF). They do not go into the City coffers. By the time the bonds are paid, chances are it will be “blighted” once again and redeveloped using another TIF. The lifecycle of these strip centers are just far too short to ever see any payback. The only payback i can see is attracting retail that most likely wouldn’t have opened in these locations otherwise. That attracts and retains residents and maybe even draws some in from the county. And I do think that is worth something. It’s just too bad our sales taxes are diverted pay for such unsustainable developments. It’s too bad our elected officials don’t demand more for all they give away. I also like choosing the Qdoba And Bread Co. on S. Grand because it’s a vote for traditional street level retail development (and often easier to park on the street right out front). The more people who choose the Loughborough Commons model, the more they will locate in such developments and vice versa.

  19. Claire says:

    Actually, I see very little difference between the city and all the ‘burbs, at least as far out as I-270 and maybe farther. I came to the St. Louis area as an adult, first living in Maryland Heights, then Jennings, and now Spanish Lake. I’ve now lived here for 25 years. There is less difference between any of these as a whole and the city as a whole (in fact, Jennings borders the city, and I could walk there in 15 minutes or less) than there is between some city neighborhoods.

    If it weren’t because of the weird disagreement back in the 1800s that caused the boundaries of St. Louis City to be fixed in the state constitution, by now St. Louis would have annexed everything to the Missouri and Meramec Rivers on the north and south and at least as far west as Maryland Heights. We’d *all* be living in the city.


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