The suburbs are really little cities, and in my last essay, I explained how my town really is an idea with at least three elements. The first is its historic element; in my case, my town, Old Sewell, was once a little town, with a mayor, I’d guess, and a unique identity.
No longer. Old Sewell is now just a few streets with what was once a downtown, but now only has a few shops, and nothing more. It has been engulfed in the larger municipality known as Mantua Township.
But rising out of the ashes of Old Sewell is the Mighty Sewell Post Office, which has lent the name of Sewell to lots of other little towns in the municipality of Washington Township due to a dispute over naming rights that goes back more than a hundred years. This is the second element of the “idea of Sewell.”
The last element gets to the point of the series, namely: making a defense of suburban living.
It is this truth: as far as I’ve been able to tell, Sewell is made of what most people would call neighborhoods, subdivisions, or developments. There are between twenty to fifty of these, depending on how you count them.
But where others see neighborhoods, I see cities. In fact, I call them little cities.
My “city” in Old Sewell is my neighborhood, which happens to have been built in 1989 by one of the Paparone brothers on top of what was once the old Pitman airstrip. It was a land deal between (I presume) Pitman and a local tree and garden plant grower, who owned land back here, and who required a certain amount of the adjacent property to remain wooded (or so I’m told).
And so, with these moves, our city was built.
I’m the only one who realizes this city reality of our neighborhood—I and the politicians who walk through once a year. Most other people call our “neighborhood” just that: a neighborhood.
But the truth is, the people who live in this neighborhood treat it like a city.
In this “city,” there are about 160 single family homes, and about 98% of them are occupied. Two or three are for sale. Some are lived in by elderly folks; some are lived in by young families; many by recent immigrant families (you can define that however you wish; I define it as non-Anglo: Black, Indian, Asian, Hispanic, African, and some recent generation European).
On my street in this little city, our little town, five houses take up about a seventy five yards. What I mean is that if you were to measure five houses with a measuring tape, it would be a little longer than the size of a football field.
Taking this scope, then, going five houses to the right, left, and the same across the street, we have what I would call my twenty closest neighbors. I know other neighbors in our “village,” some better than my physically closest neighbors, but that’s another topic.
I think almost half of these twenty neighbors work in Philadelphia. A couple of them are retired. The rest work in New Jersey: businessmen, teachers, cops, moms, real estate salespersons, government employees, etc.
I have met all twenty of these neighbors at one point or another. Some I know quite well.
In fact, the four neighbors across the street, I know the first and last names of the husband and wife, and in the case of those who have children, I know the names of their children. The same for both of my next door neighbors, those who live on either side of me. I know about when they get sick, I know when they’re out of town. I know somewhat their extended family members. I know their habits: yard work, vacation, work cycles, etc.
So by almost any standard of human interaction, almost half of my twenty neighbors I know pretty well. We interact on a regular basis, we help one another, keep an eye out for one another, and in most cases, we’ve spent time together over dinner, going out for fun, or working together on some common project. I pray for all of them regularly.
We are like a little civic family. Think of it as a village within our little city. Village life isn’t too bad; in fact, I think it is getting better.
Don’t get me wrong: we have problems. We have drama. We have disagreements. And of course we have taxes. But we also do stuff together. We support one another. We like where we are and where we’re headed.
One of my neighbors is concerned about another neighbor who’s getting on in years. As a gesture towards him, my neighbor knocks on his door at least once a week to “get him out and walking.” They walk the neighborhood together. Paul’s charity to Gerry is a beautiful thing.
Conclusion: In Defense of Suburban Living
So with that anecdote, I will conclude: living in what people call the suburbs is really just an academic designation for scholars and statisticians. I don’t live in the suburbs. I live in a city: my neighborhood, and the twenty houses around me are my village within this city. This is my place, the place in which God has called me to worship Him, love Him, and display that love to the people around me.
In this way, the people in my city might get a glimpse in me, and in my family, of what the New City looks like. Because whether you live in the city of Philadelphia, or in the Jersey Suburbs, the fact of the matter is that we have no lasting city here, but a city whose builder and architect is God.
It is coming down from heaven very soon, and until it does, we have work to do, regardless of what “city” we live in. As Christians, we want to make sure as many of our neighbors have a place in it as we can.
“I go to prepare a place for you, that you may be with Me where I am” (Jesus, to St. Thomas, in John 14).