back to the urbs

Many years ago I wrote a post about living in a suburb — Wheaton, Illinois — but having a life that in many ways felt more like what city life is supposed to be:

For people like me Wheaton doesn’t feel like a suburb at all, and many aspects of my life sound kinda urban. My family and I live in a small house – with one bathroom, for heaven’s sake – and have a single four-cylinder car. I walk to work most days, frequently taking a detour to Starbucks on the way. From work I often walk to Wheaton’s downtown to meet people for lunch, or, at the end of the day, to meet my wife and son for dinner. Drug stores and a small grocery store are equally close; I even walk to my dentist. I also like being just a short stroll from the Metra line that takes me into Chicago, just as Chicago residents like living just a short stroll from the El. And I know many other people who live in much the same way.

The point of my post is that the common opposition between “city life” and “suburban life” obscures many vital distinctions and gradations.

I don’t live in a suburb any more, I live in a city. But because the city I live in — Waco, Texas — has 125,000 people rather than millions, it’s not the kind of place that people refer to as urban when they talk about “America’s urban-rural divide.” For example, here is a piece by Eric Levitz that uses the binary opposition in the conventional way, or what seems to me to be the conventional way. I can’t be certain, but I strongly suspect that Levitz thinks that people who live in cities the size of the one I live in — especially if those cities are south of the Mason-Dixon Line — are “rural.” But they aren’t. Even if we don’t think or vote like New Yorkers.

When people talk about “the urban-rural divide in America,” I think what they usually mean is “the divide between people who live in megacities and people who live everywhere else.”

crooked neighbors

Onward we went, asking people everywhere we stopped about the Flushing Remonstrance. None of them knew anything about it. We ended up at the Macedonia AME Church, the third-oldest religious organization in Flushing, a block west of Bowne House, on Union Street, another ‘God’s Row.’ Partway through the service, we managed to wrest ourselves from the centripetal pull of the funky organ. On our way out we encountered a deacon who not only knew about the Remonstrance, but regaled us with reminiscences about growing up in Flushing with close friends whose surnames included Lum, Vargas, O’Neal, and DiVecchio. He saw in himself—part African American, part Native American—the story of the place. He told us that John Bowne had been an abolitionist, as were many of his descendants. For the deacon, the significance of the Remonstrance wasn’t whether it had bequeathed the diversity he celebrated. It was in providing a model for how that diversity could be preserved: A group of men stood up to defend the religious freedom of people with whom they disagreed, refusing to demonize them. They stood up for unity as well as diversity, just like the Chinese and Italian friends who’d come to his defense as a kid, when they would travel together to parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island where his skin color wasn’t welcome.

Catapult | Love Your Crooked Neighbour / With Your Crooked Heart | Garnette Cadogan. Another wonderful essay by Garnette, and more fruit of his ceaseless walking of New York City — despite the dangers of walking while black. The essay is, among other things, a reminder of just how prodigiously religious a city New York is: that’s the great hidden truth of the metropolis.

Garnette elegantly links the story of the Flushing Remonstrance to recent controversies in the city, for instance the whoile “Ground Zero mosque” kerfuffle of a few years back. When that was fresh I wrote a post about tolerance — and why George Washington didn’t like that word. I think it’s still relevant.