The Suburbanization of America

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Return migration to the United States’ urban cores could not have come at a better time. In fact, we never should have left in the first place. Many of the economic and social issues sickening this country are a direct result of the suburbanization of the United States.

We already know that the means to make suburban America happen has been (and continues to be) one of if not the greatest wastes of resources in the history of the United States. The highway trust fund is bankrupt as the nation’s infrastructure collapses. What precious resources remain are rarely used to promote alternative means of transportation, of which would further encourage living in or near urban cores while lowering our dependence on cars.

The cost has not been merely financial, however. Social ramifications of the suburbanization of America are running rampant across the country, most obviously in Ferguson, Missouri where an unarmed black man was shot six times.

Not My Problem

At the same time, many Americans – not coincidentally white, suburban Americans – refuse to admit there is a problem. Their community, of which is probably 90-percent Caucasian, lives peacefully. The problem must be with the African-American community.

But how did these almost entirely white, suburban communities happen? At the expense of cities, of course, but more specifically at the expense of urban African-Americans who either could not afford to follow suburban flight or simply were not welcome. Naturally jobs flowed to the suburbs and budgets for public transportation dwindled to embarrassing levels, killing an African-American’s opportunity at accessing employment. This perpetuated (and continues to) poverty, poor education and crime.

Somehow, though, these racial imbalances have been normalized by suburban America. How could this be? Shouldn’t we feel some guilt at watching our fellow Americans struggle so painfully, thrusting us into collective action and change?

Yes, if only we could see it more closely. But with suburban sprawl comes distance. With distance comes indifference.

Too Far To Care

Anecdotes abound proving this phenomena. An easy example is the fact that we as Americans have normalized violence happening in certain pockets of the world, even within our own country, as inevitable. But — and here’s where we take a look at history — American generals following World War II discovered something interesting that helps explain the correlation between distance and indifference.

Following the war, military professionals were disturbed to find that there was only an approximately 10-20 percent firing rate among soldiers. What an incredible waste of resources to build weapons and train troops who weren’t even going to fire. They needed to find out why soldiers weren’t shooting and how to flip the statistics.

“Less standing, more shooting!” y’know?

Flash forward after Vietnam and the powers that be found a 90 percent firing rate among troops. How did they achieve such a drastic switch? In part, by increasing the distance between the soldier and the enemy. Not surprisingly, it became easier to kill the further away the enemy was. Life was easily reduced to anonymous CGI characters in a videogame.

Today, drones and snipers are obvious examples of how creating distance makes it easier kill. This same logic continues to be at play with the suburbanization of the United States and helps explain why we normalize the suffering of others who we cannot directly see outside of a newspaper or television.

“Just Don’t Go There”

Approximately 60 years after the beginning of urban renewal, we have Americans who see struggling areas of the country as if it’s foreign land. Children of suburbanized America and often their parents have, as a result, normalized this violence and breathtaking inequality in the United States. A suburban American reading about a shooting in a low-income African-American community will hardly raise eyebrows. It just happens there, right? It’s normal.

“Just don’t go to those neighborhoods,” right? Problem solved! At least for the white, suburban American who was already born with a plethora of advantages in life.

By normalizing it, we accept that there is nothing we can do about it. Yet if any of the heinous acts that occur world or nationwide happened in our backyard, there is no doubt we would not stand for it. But suburbanization made it easy for us to escape, perpetuating racial and social inequality in the land of the free.

This is why it is all the more encouraging to see more young Americans buck trends and return to urban cores. We need to be neighbors again, looking out for one another and not simply flee to the ‘burbs at the first sound of trouble. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s better than rolling caution tape around so much of this country and labeling it district nine.

Unfortunately our leaders, as reactionary rather than progressive as ever, continue to prioritize suburban living that keeps us bunkered away from one another. For some reason it’s a sign of success if you have to drive a car to get to your neighbor’s house or even the local grocery store. Sounds awful, though, no?

That leaves the task on us, the average American, to decrease the distance from one another so that we might start becoming a nation of neighbors again. With the decrease in distance, perhaps we will be more empathic of one another, offering to help when tragedy strikes rather than victim blaming as an unarmed black man is shot once again.

 

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About Joe Baur

Joe Baur is a freelance writer, filmmaker and satirist with a diverse array of interests including travel, adventure, craft beer, health, urban issues, culture and politics. He ranks his allegiances in the order of Cleveland, the state of Ohio and the Rust Belt, and enjoys a fried egg on a variety of meats. Joe has a B.A. in Mass Communication with a focus on production from Miami University. Follow him at joebaur.com and on Twitter @BaurJoe
Posted in: Society