Urbanism and Suburbanism as Ways of Life: A Re-evaluation of Definitions, Herbert J. Gans

by on January 26th, 2006

Gans describes the diffusion and establishment of Urban and Suburban structures as based on life cycles of individuals and the choices they are susceptible to making. He bases the corollary fabric of this structure as a hiearchical construct with particularities in trans-interactions. He classifies interactions as being primary, quasi-primary, and secondary.

“I use this term to characterize relationships between neighbors” (Gans 634) offers Gans. Suburbia to him “is best described as quasi-primary” (634). “The interaction is more intimate than a secondary contact, but more guarded than a primary one/ There are actually few secondary relationships, because of the isolation of residential neighborhoods from economic institutions…shopkeepers, store managers,, and other local functionaries who live in the area are treated as acquaintances or friends, unless they are of a vastly different social status or are forced by their corporate employers to treat their customers as economic unts” (30: 634).

The Suburbia then is a shift away from the Volk conscious Gemeinschaft where a normative primary relationship dominates, as well as from the dreaded Gesselschaft (by Wirth), where the marked anonymity of individuals, and coolness in their secondary-type relationship contracts make them susceptible to a desensitizing, nonchalant, humanistically counterthetical lifestyle that invoke the qualities of decadence. In the peculiar times of Wirth (1938) the sparring ideas of Capitalism and National Socialism had made exactly this visceral Gesselschaft an identity statement in justification of respective pursuits and compulsions. Wirth’s sympathies to Volkgemeinschaft typifies the attitudinal content of National Socialists who viewed such anonymity and contradiction to community as incipient diseases. In spirit of that it is interesting to note that exactly after the titantic spar between Capitalism and National Socialism, the phenomena of suburbs appeared, almost as an allegorical compromise between rival tendencies.

In his discussions Gans disseminates clear distinctions between the suburbs and urban centers based on 6 particular points of departure: “1. Suburbs are more likely to be dormitories/2. They are further away from the work and play facilities of the central business districts/ 3. They are newer and more modern than city residential areas and are designed for the automobile rather than for pedestrian and mass-transit forms of movement/4. They are built up with single-family rather than multi-family structures and therefore less dense/5. Their populations are more homogeneous/6. Their populations differ demographically: they are younger; more of them are married; they have higher incomes; and they hold proportionately more white collar jobs” (8, p.131: 636).

He proceeds to point out then the connectdness Suburbian beneficiaries have with their Urban benefactors in outlining the value of logistics, transit systems, and automobiles, and the associated “…folklore about the consequences of commuting on alcohol consumption, sex life, and parental duties” (636).

Additionally, and finally, he notes that homogeniety is the very scope of suburban lifestyle as opposed to the bustling heterogeniety of the Urban City.

His narrative, involving five types of urban residents, proceed concentrically, where the urbane Cosmpolites consist the dense inner corpus of the vital city, and the outer perimeter occupies the “trapped” and downward mobile. The ever widening circles in this concentric scheme include then, the cosmopolites(1), the unmarried or childless (2), the “ethnic villagers” (3), the “deprived”(4). and finally, the “trapped” and downward mobile (5). The interactions are upwardly mobile from the fringes of item 3, the ethnic villagers to the Cosmpolites (as evinced by immigrant American History) item 1. The deprived and the trapped, the bottom two, huddle with one another for warmth, competing over limited resources of goodwill, welfare, and subsidies.

Wirth’s Gesselschaft portraitures and Gans’ detailed interpretations and adjustments while qualified are nevertheless more classical than cogent in the era of incipient Globalization. While much of Wirth’s apprehensions about city-life and Gans’ description of Suburbs persist, Globalization is putting new pressures on the social constructs redefining primary, quasi-primary, and secondary relationships to such level that the phenomena is tantamount to a radicalization of contemporary norms, which are becoming less contemporary and more historical by the month.

Globalization is an era of innovation and entrepreneurship and ideas are incubated, nursed, and brought to fruition in bedroom offices and basements. Digital interfacing is shortening distances and broadening perspectives. The eye of the storm lies in the institutions of the old order and demands upon them transformation. Bulky ideas and archetypical thinking common in the times of Wirth and Gans are facing constant concision and streamlining, blending into a new, liquid, lexicon. In this era, the challenge and topography of living space is going to rest with how adeptly we adapt our relationships with ourselves and each other in bringing into fruition a fresh, mobile, cognizant, spontaneous, and creative individual of a newer World Order.

Alexander Rai