Making Peace with the Suburbs

Kate Harris and her family try to walk the "middle way" between the city and the suburbs as they try to live faithfully in the place God has called them.

By Kate Harris

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays. This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, the opinion journal of CARDUS:]

Perhaps it is because I am Anglican, or merely because I fit many classic stereotypes of a middle child, but the Reformed notion of via media or “the middle way” has always appealed to me. Reflecting on our life in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C., I see how our choices about housing, place, and community demonstrate a similarly proximate approach. Our home is near the culture, diversity, and opportunity of one of America’s largest cities. It is less than an hour’s drive from quaint country vineyards and hikes along the historic Appalachian trail. Still, our day-to-day life takes place in between these two poles, the modern via media known as suburban America.

In many ways, the suburbs we now call home picked us more than we picked them. I was raised in the mountains of Colorado and initially came to the Washington area to participate in a postgraduate Fellows program at The Falls Church, an historic Anglican parish which serves as the namesake for the small suburban city where we currently live. As I became involved in The Falls Church, along with my now-husband (who also moved to Washington from Colorado), we quickly began to see how our preferences about houses, community, and location were deeply altered by the sense of being “hemmed in” by the life of this local parish. Over time, this commitment to our local church, to friendships and community, and to vocations which tie us (albeit loosely) to the political life of Washington have governed most of our choices about where and how we seek to live faithfully in the midst of complex and competing responsibilities. Our choices are always made within the context of financial realities and our family’s needs, long-term desires, and personal preferences, many of which present tensions and trade-offs that ask us to give up or take up more than we desire and often lead us away from the categories and choices we constructed for ourselves and more deeply into the ambiguity and compromise of the middle way.

Just recently, my husband and I had to reconsider many of our own choices about housing and place as we returned to the United States after spending two years in England for his graduate studies. In England, we lived with our two small children without a car in the central part of a vibrant university town and walked or cycled nearly everywhere we needed to go. When we faced decisions about how and where to resume our life in the U.S., we weren’t sure how to adapt our newly beloved lifestyle to the American context, but recalled Iris Murdoch’s observation: “In critical moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already done.” In other words, we relied heavily on the habits of choosing we developed before we went to England, trusting that the elements that fostered a sense of place and belonging before would hold true upon our return. Consequently, we looked for jobs in the Washington area and a home near The Falls Church that fit within our budget and allowed modest space for our family of four with some room to grow and to host guests. And in accordance with the advice of a good friend who encouraged us to pick a neighbor before a house, we sought to find a home that would be within walking distance of my best friend.

As we have lived into these choices over the past four months, we have appreciated the ways our suburban home has served as a reminder of our commitments to ministry, community, and vocational coherence. It gives daily evidence of the ways we have sought to live out an incarnate faith by binding ourselves to real places and real people, imperfect as they may be. But suburban life has presented its challenges as well, causing us to frequently wonder how these commitments to place, people, and budgeting weigh against the increased effort it takes to connect with our city and neighbors, our increased reliance on driving and mass retail, and the everyday struggle to find sources of creativity and stimulation among our surroundings.

None of these challenges are necessarily unique to the suburbs, of course. People can be disconnected from other people and places for any number of reasons or situations. They can drive and shop at will from just about anywhere, and ennui can assault even those in the most beautiful or diverse settings. However, the infrastructure of suburban life does pose many challenges to some of the more simple aspects of human activity, which, for centuries, have defined community life and work. Walking, for instance, is often a challenge in suburban settings, perhaps because there is nowhere near enough to go, or because a community is built without sidewalks or situated near very busy roads. In the absence of places to stroll, cars take on special eminence in the suburbs, which minimizes the amount of interaction neighbors have as they come and go from their homes. It often makes it hard to know if a neighbor is even home, let alone available for a quick hello.

The commuter ethic of suburban life also changes habits of consumption—something I first realized when we moved back and I felt like I was continually buying things, but was never done. I visited a friend in the city one day, and we walked from her house to the local gardens, then home again via a small retail area. I needed a USB adapter for my camera and stopped at an electronics store to purchase one. I had a vague feeling of nostalgia and productivity and quickly realized why my retail habits felt so radically altered. In a more urban setting, I had many opportunities to run out and pick up just one or two things I needed, and I could easily fit those errands into the course of my regular daily activities. Now, in the suburbs, buying basic household goods has become its own daily activity because it requires loading kids into and out of car seats, making lists, battling traffic, dealing with parking, and experiencing countless other tiny inconveniences. Instead of buying one thing I need—which, incidentally, would not merit the hassle—I now try to make my purchases, as much as possible, in one place, so I can limit the need to go again any time soon and go to as few places as possible.

There are opportunities for faithfulness everywhere; we hope to take part in what we are called to here.

Compounding some of these smaller adjustments is the larger sense that the suburban setting can make it difficult to see and engage the world as a rich, dynamic community full of character and uniqueness with abundant differences in style, personality, needs, and cultures. Instead, in suburbia, most of our roads look the same, many of our houses could be interchangeable, our shopping plazas look remarkably similar to the shopping plazas in my hometown 1600 miles away, and we rarely encounter differences which make us feel out of place or uncomfortable. In the midst of this repetition and similarity, it can be difficult to remember that we are creative people called to faithfully live out unique callings—which may or may not conform to the local flavor.

On the whole, we have made our peace with the Virginia suburbs as our own middle way. But this has happened largely because we have done so intentionally, with our eyes wide open to what the suburbs are and what they are not as well as the knowledge of who we are and who we are not. We are Coloradans, so we often make use of nearby orchards to pick apples or blueberries or take drives or hikes through the Blue Ridge mountains to make us a feel a little more at home (albeit a far more humid home than Colorado). We are also big city people, thriving on the museums, events, intellectual life, and international focus of a major metropolitan area, so we make an effort to make the markets, monuments, or Smithsonian museums a regular part of our week. We are not particularly “homey” people, but we want to have a home that is welcoming and comfortable to those in need. The suburbs allow us the extra margin of space to host people for extended periods of time.

We are also, like everyone, embodied people living incarnate lives. So we work hard to walk places when we can reasonably do so; I grow herbs and make our own bread as a reminder (mostly to myself) that I don’t have to purchase every convenience; we choose to visit local libraries, parks, and farmer’s markets; and we work hard to know and engage with the neighbors on our street. We are still new to our neighborhood and are still learning ways to live well in our new community, but we are encouraged. There are opportunities for faithfulness everywhere; we hope to take part in what we are called to here.

Kate Harris is a Fellow with The Washington Institutewhere she develops the Institute’s online content and oversees its Vocare program. She spent several years working on Capitol Hill for U.S. Senate leadership, where she was also involved in leading the vocational ministry Faith & Law. She left Capitol Hill in late 2006 to help start The Wedgwood Circle, an angel investment network to fund art that lifts up the good, true, and beautiful.

She recently returned to the Washington DC area after spending two years in Oxford, England as a part-time strategy consultant and trailing spouse to her husband while he earned a graduate degree. She is a mother to Addison, Walker and another baby due in 2011. She graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a B.S. in Journalism and B.A in Political Science.


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