Suburbian Authenticity

We’re caught in a weird, unproductive dialog between the real and the fake, searching for an ideal verisimilitude. An idealized “real” is counter-productive when the questions worth asking are about relative value.

Andrew Potter deconstructs James Kunstler’s ‘inauthentic’ attack on suburbs:

Everyone can recite the standard critique of suburbia by heart: It is fake, artificial, unreal, ersatz. It is alienating and inauthentic, devoid of true community, offering a mere simulacrum of real living to people who are either too dim or too brainwashed by advertising to know better. . . .

Ultimately, the distinction between what is “real” and what is “fake,” or what is authentic and what is inauthentic, tells you a lot more about the kind of person making the judgment than it does about what is being judged. As the architect Witold Rybczynski puts it, the claim that the suburbs are not “real” makes sense only if one assumes that a real city has cathedrals and plazas instead of parking garages and fast-food franchises, or sidewalk cafes not shopping malls, or live theatres instead of cineplexes, and so on. That is, the suburbs are fake only if you assume that what is “real” is beautiful and high-brow, and what is fake is unfinished and dedicated to mass taste.

Given this, it is hard to avoid concluding that virtually the entire case against the suburbs is little more than lifestyle snobbery disguised as a quest for authenticity. Or more accurately, it appears to be a classic instance of the desire for authenticity revealing itself as a thinly veiled form of contempt for middle-class tastes and preferences.

Why do people move out of cities and into suburbs? In part, because childless hipsters have significantly higher disposable incomes than married families, pricing families out of Williamsburg. But more importantly, suburban life can be a significant improvement over city living for lots of reasons. Subjective preferences and values account for much of the diversity and vibrancy city-dwellers enjoy. Under the guise of ‘authenticity’, modern city dwellers are likely to denigrate the very mechanism that makes our lives so rich. It’s like we’re all birds who think wings are a bourgeoisie affectation.

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