Things That Have Helped to Destroy America’s Social Cohesion (Part 1) – The Suburbs

American social cohesion is at an all-time low.  At no time in American history have Americans felt and acted less like genuine communities than they do now.  There are a number of factors which contribute to this – many of which will be explored in this and upcoming posts – but the one I’d like to discuss today is the rise of modern suburbia, a phenomenon which took place largely after the end of the second world war.

It’s a testimony to the powerful grip upon the American mind that suburbia has gained that when you ask the “typical” American what the ideal way of life is, they would most likely describe suburbia – a three-bedroom house in a nice neighbourhood with a white picket fence and half an acre for the kids to play on.  Yet, many social commentators over the years have criticised the rise of the suburbs from various angles.  Suburbs use up lots of land, so there’s the environmentalist angle that views them as a waste of perfectly good spotted owl habitat.  Suburbs (presumably) encourage uniformity and conformity, so they are viewed as stultifying by many counter-culturalists.

While these may be true to a degree, I don’t believe these are the real reasons to find suburbia distasteful.

Rather, the rise of the modern American suburb has been a socially decentralising force that has worked to destroy the sense of community, neighbourliness, and social order that Americans had for their local communities, and which worked to bring a cohesion to our people that we are now lacking.

In another place, I discussed the modern city, and the way in which industrial and post-industrial cities differ from earlier cities in the classical and medieval worlds.  Primarily, this was through the atomisation of the people who live in them, the destruction of the social bonds of community that occur when cities changed from being organic entities that grew up around their neighbourhoods, boroughs, and local subcentres and in which there was a sense of genuine community and fellowship between the people living in them.  The modern city, instead, is made up of rootless wanderers with no real connexion to each other or to the city itself – during the industrial age, these were unemployed workers from all over the countryside aggregating in cities to look for factory jobs; today they are globalised cogs in modern industries who move from city to city whenever a pay raise or a change in title present themselves.

Unfortunately, in post-war America, the suburbs arose to fulfill much the same function, and consequently created much the same sort of rootless, community-less situation.

The suburbs arose because of millions of soldiers returning from the war who were looking for a piece of “the American dream.”  That dream manifested itself in row after row after row of cheap, easy to build housing constructed on relatively inexpensive tracts of land all around our cities.  These were places where former soldiers, now using their GI bills to obtain educations in business, science, engineering, and other professional fields, could live where they would be close enough to “the city” to enjoy the amenities, but yet still maintain the illusion of the good life “in the country” that many of them had known before the war.

During the war, the military served as a great mixing bowl for the soldiers who were drafted or who had volunteered for service.  Unlike the wars of the 18th and 19th centuries in which soldiers in a unit were drawn from the same localities, or at least the same states, soldiers in World War II were completely isolated from their former bonds of community and earlier loyalties.  A man from Kansas might find himself thrown into a platoon with men from Maine, North Carolina, Indiana, Ohio, Texas, California, Idaho, Vermont, New York, and Alabama.  As a result (and this was purposeful), his loyalties and emotional ties to his community back home were weakened, while his bond to the other men in his unit was forged and became stronger than the former.

As a result, our soldiers in the war became, in a sense, rootless once they were discharged after the end of the war.  While many returned home and regained those former ties, many forged new lives in the new-fangled suburbs that were being built and which were cheap and available for a man who wanted a home and a plot of his own.  Yet, while a man in the suburbs might know and be friendly with his neighbours, they were missing that essential element of community that arises from lifelong ties of family, church, school, intermarriage, and the like.

This has driven the evolution of American suburbia into a holding pen for a rootless population of transients as they move from job to job while climbing the corporate ladder.  An overwhelming number of residents in suburban areas have few, if any, ties to those living even next door to them.  In many cases, they may not even know their neighbours, even while sharing with those around them a common “suburban” mindset of soccer games and backyard barbeques.  The criticism of the counter-culturalists that the suburbs encourage conformity are on the mark.  However, conformity does not equal community, and your kids playing on a seasonal soccer team with the neighbour kids does not create or reinforce genuine lasting bonds of loyalty and fellowship.

Tract housing in California. Doesn’t it look like a great place to barbeque and play soccer?

One merely needs to look at the physical, structural layout of the suburbs compared to earlier, more traditional non-urban living arrangements to see why this is.  One thing that any Google Map view of a suburban area will instantly show is how decentralised suburbs are.  They essentially consist of small centres containing strip malls and office plazas, surrounded by a sea of tract housing.  Schools are interspersed throughout, as are the churches.  These centres are evenly spaced through for the sake of convenient.  This is the perfect design if you wanted to discourage community and cohesion between people living in them.  There are no real centres of interaction for the whole community, just places for individuals to go spend money.

Contrast the suburban model with the layout of a typical colonial New England town (below):

This is a much more centralised layout.  In the centre of town, you have a strip of public land that runs from the school to the town hall to the church.  Surrounding these are the homes of the villagers.  Outside of this are the common pastures and the farms of those living in the town.  Everything centres around the bond-building institutions of the village society: The church where the whole village worships, the town hall where the villagers all made their corporate decisions, and the school where the knowledge and traditions of the village and their larger colonial, Anglo-Saxon culture were passed on the children, who all learned together from one or several of the local women.  If you had a village with multiple Christian denominations, then the churches were usually lined up down the centre of town.
Land divisions in Sudbury, Massachusetts, 1639-1656 (Source: Puritan Village: The Formation of a New England Town, by S.C. Powell, Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1963)



Even in a larger town like Sudbury, Massachusetts (right), we still see the same pattern – the meetinghouse sits near the geographical centre of the town, and the houses are more or less in a ring around this centre.

Just as detrimental to social cohesion as the physical geography of suburbia is the mental geography it creates.  Just as each home is an island in a sea of swing sets, so each family is socially insularised from its neighbours.  In the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina in which I live, I see this everywhere.  Towns like Cary, Morrisville, Chapel Hill – they are dominated by tract housing, usually home to people from every corner of the country and the globe.  One home may contain a family from New Jersey, the next from California, the next from Korea – none of them knowing or caring about each other.  There simply is no sense of community in these areas.  Even where I live, which is considered “out in the country” for our county, none of the neighbours in our neighbourhood really know each other, and there is no sense of community, of communal trust, or a spirit of loyalty towards each other at all.

I compare this with the next county over, where our church meets.  This county is much more rural, conservative, and traditional.  There is, not coincidentally, a much stronger sense of community.  Volunteerism is much more pronounced.  People can depend on each other much more, and there is much less reliance on the government.  Everyone knows each other through one or a multiple set of organic ties.  One man in our church literally seems like he knows everyone in the southern half of the county because he either went to school with them, or is related to them, or his wife is related to them, or he has done some kind of construction work for them, or he goes to church with them, or…you get the picture.

Yet, I would almost guarantee that the sense of community here is nothing compared to what it would have been 50 years ago.  Such has been the corrosive effect of the suburban mindset even on our genuinely rural and traditional areas.

The problem is that healthy national and regional cohesion must begin with local cohesion.  And we simply don’t have that anymore.  And the lack of that cohesion contributes to the drastic decline of America towards being a “low trust” society, with all the ills that attend to that.

This pattern of life is too deeply embedded in modern American culture for us to simply wish it away.  Unless and until some earth-shattering event happens here, the suburban social pattern will continue to exist.  The only changes to it will be that it will gradually cease to be a “white flight” repository of middle class whites from the few remaining urban areas where they live, and will be gradually “multiculturalised” as the federal government steps up its efforts at “neighbourhood diversity” by shipping in inner city blacks and Hispanics into suburbia.  This, in turn, will further erode the already low social cohesion and trust levels in the suburbs.

So what should traditionalists and other alt-Righters who are concerned about this trend in our society do?  Even if we live in low cohesion areas, we must seek out like-minded individuals and families and apply ourselves to cohesion-building institutions such as churches, volunteer organisations, and the like.  It may not always be possible, but moving out into genuinely rural, high-trust, high cohesion areas and making a conscious effort to fit into them and become productive members of these communities will go along way towards contributing to a slow down of the trend, even if it won’t reverse it.  If nothing else, this might be a wise thing to do in preparation for the possibly (and some would say inevitable) breakdown of American society and the chaos that would come with it.  These rural, high-trust, high-cohesion areas will probably end up being the islands in a sea of anarchy that tide America over through the Dark Times until order can be restored.




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