Let’s stop the suburb-shaming

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June 16, 2014
By: David Brauer
David Brauer

Most humans inherently like being a member of a tribe. A family tribe. A political tribe. A tribe organized around a passion, be it a sports team, or “Star Wars,” or knitting.

I’ve always been a member of the “urban tribe.” Like many of you, I’ve sneered at non-central-cities without walkability, diversity or true downtowns.

But a few weeks ago, I ran into a blog post by Steve Imhoff, a real estate broker who loves Minneapolis’s traditional character. Steve put together a detailed, lacerating post entitled “STOP ignorant development.”  Showcasing grossly out-of-character new south Minneapolis housing, Steve named developers’ names — and their business addresses; places like Maple Grove, Savage and Chanhassen.

“We are starting to notice a pattern here,” Steve wrote. “If your construction company is located more than 20 miles outside of Minneapolis, do you have the best interest of Minneapolis in mind while building within its borders?”

Maybe I was in a mood that day, but the sentence caught me up short. Steve connected the dots — something journalists are trained to do. And yet it felt like the stereotyping we groan over when someone says, “I won’t come downtown because I’ll be shot.”

Stereotyping isn’t great morally, but there are some strategic reasons we should stop the suburb-shaming:

1. We alienate potential allies. We have a lot of friends in the suburbs. People who work downtown and want both places to prosper. People who moved for jobs or cheaper housing, but retain affection. People who have no links at all, but “get it.”

We react badly when people say, “Oh, you have kids in city schools? Is that safe?” so how should they react when we throw them all into the same wastebasket? P.S. suburbanites vote — for legislators we ask to support school funding, a Nicollet Mall re-do, transit and other things we smugly cuddle to our urban breasts. Turning allies into enemies is idiocy.

2. We’re not all that. Many of us cluck our cocky clucks from the city’s most privileged precincts, where the elementary schools and cars don’t look much different than Chanhassen’s. Meanwhile, Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center have higher minority percentages than Minneapolis; Richfield High is more diverse and has a higher percentage of students in poverty than Washburn, Southwest or South.

Yes, we shoulder a higher property tax burden in part because we haven’t run away from society’s problems, and we should be proud of that. But we need a stiff dose of self-awareness: many of us live in Greater Edina, not the Greater North Side.

3. We confuse timing with virtue.  Minneapolis has walkable streets because our city grew up during the horse and streetcar era. We have smaller stucco houses because it was fashionable then, and people weren’t as wealthy. When given the opportunity, our forbearers destroyed walkability (Hi-Lake, Hennepin-Lyndale) and put aluminum siding over the stucco (let me show you my exterior trim).

Likewise, the suburbs developed decades later, during the car-and-siding era. When given the opportunity, some ‘burbs now add sidewalks and downtowns. It’s more about chronology, and less about character, than we think.

Yes, I hate houses with trim as thin as a prairie parson’s lips and siding that looks like a Menard’s showcase. But guess what? Stucco and old-growth wood are a lot pricier than a century ago, and styles evolve. I bet those Sears-kit bungalows looked déclassé to the 1920s intelligentsia. Sometimes, a house looks the way it looks so people can afford it or because — gasp — their tastes differ from ours.

When we redid our house, we used a blend of locals and out-of-towners — there were a lot of the latter because that’s where almost all construction has happened for two generations. We put HardiePanel on the back to save money for historically accurate interior trim.

Does this mean we should shut up about lame design and all the other things that make us proud to live in the city? Of course not. Steve provided a public service — one of the houses he highlighted is two blocks away, which I’ve nervously watched rise.

But what really matters is what the crappy builder does, not where the crappy builder lives. We ask others to judge us on our character, not physical characteristics. Let’s demonstrate it by demolishing our most pleasurable prejudice.

David Brauer, a former Journal editor, lives in Kingfield with his wife and two kids.