Sold On Space: The Great American Lie

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“Go West Young Man.” I truly believe American sprawl began with the famous words of author and newspaper editor Horace Greeley. What is not commonly known is the paragraph of which this 1865 quote is part of…

“Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”

This, right here, is the first stroke of the engine that powers the most unappreciated and all-encompassing American narratives. When we really look at this statement, we must realistically assess what it means:

If you don’t like a place, move. If you don’t like a community, leave it behind. If you are dissatisfied with the way things are, run away to a place where no one will bother you.

In fairness to Mr. Greeley, cities back then were often dirty, chaotic and laced with crime and prone to corruption. Many would argue that not much has changed. Cities have always been places where the faults of humanity are most blatantly revealed. But they have also historically been the unquestioned furnaces of innovation, economic advancement, artistic expression and social progressivism.

However, the echo of Greeley’s statement lives on today, as Americans have spent a century seeking space away from the often difficult variables of human nature. Bigger houses and yards with higher fences, farther and farther away from centers of population. Big, fast automobiles that ensure we never have to deal with the gruesome elements or “deplorable people” have become the standard for American mobility. No need for public transit when Americans have been sold on the auto-manufacturer/big-oil-driven standard that $40,000 is a reasonable price to pay for transportation.

First, let’s discuss housing. The American economy is based on the notion that home ownership is the greatest investment a human can make. I remember when I was young, older people told me “buy the biggest house you can afford, it’s still the best investment!” To a poor kid with a single, self-employed mother, knowing nothing but financial hardship, this is the biggest “let them eat cake” statement ever. I have lived in apartments my entire life. Only now, days after turning 40, have I recovered from the difficult financial status into which I was born. Add the fact that I survived childhood leukemia (another tremendous financial burden) and I can truly look back and see how far I’ve been fortunate enough to come.

I’m just now at the place where my wife and I might consider buying a small house in the next 5-10 years. But for a progressive couple that has chosen not to have children, apartment living is still our best option. We have little desire to leave behind “legacy money.” Instead, we look to do what we can for our community and our planet rather than worry about what investment yields the most lucrative financial rewards. Our concerns are less about keeping family “safe” from the variables of a dense urban community and more about contributing to the public good. If we do end up buying a home, it will be in a city location that caters to our desire to be part of a diverse neighborhood.

Home ownership will always be a goal in this nation. But we must strip away the notion that it is the standard of adulthood or the definition of success. Mortgages and square footage shouldn’t dictate our self-definition of maturity… rather these factors should be seen as a choice that is part of the much larger story of who we really are.

And yet the suburban house with the two-car garage that looks like every other house on a dead-end street that’s purposefully disconnected from anything with real community-based value is still the dream of most Americans. I can’t help but wonder how many people think I’m less of an adult because I live in an apartment with a city zipcode.

Car ownership might be an even greater measure of success than home ownership with regard to public perception. Since the United States is almost exclusively built around automobile-centric design, not participating in the “pay-to-play” reality of car culture can be crippling physically, professionally and socially. Outside of major metros like New York, Boston, Washington DC, Chicago, Atlanta and Philadelphia, not owning a car means limiting your choices and opportunities. It means being a social outlier. It means that any attempt at upward mobility will be a difficult challenge.

The car has long been a symbol of masculinity and strength in our society. While gender roles are blurring and evolving every day, I’m willing to bet that “I don’t own a car” is probably a statement that nullifies a second date in most cities across the country, even if it’s a lifestyle choice. A nice car, like a big house in the suburbs, and the escape-style life that these afford is seen as a sign that we’ve “grown up” and are ready to live as an “adult.”

This is true even for the lower middle class American. Having a big house and a big car, both of which are tremendous financial commitments for this population, are often the most visible social projections of success. Ironically, to be taken seriously as a mature, stable adult in society, many put themselves in a position of greater financial risk in an effort to appear like they have “made it.”

Why have we been told that running away from the difficult issues of human society is ok? Why is American self-definition birthed from the furnace of isolation, distance, square footage and speed? Why is escapism the default, while the toughness of digging in and solving community problems is the exception?

Because from the housing market to car commercials, we as a country have been sold on space. From Horace Greeley’s statement comes a baseline of the American story, one that contradicts the “toughness” with which the country identifies. The clear message rings true from the Great Lakes to the shores of the Pacific… when faced with adversity, discomfort or change, run away. Far away. Leave the definition of community behind and forge a life devoid of the need to build social connections in a diverse and challenging environment. Instead of working to re-weave the fabric of our urban communities through intense and difficult neighborhood engagement, deny our greatest social issues with a turn of the head from afar. Instead of exposing our children to the reality of a diverse and nuanced social world, ensure that they go to school with other children who look and talk like them, reinforcing a “from my front porch” view of their world for generations to come.

In the truest style of cognitive dissonance, the self-image of American toughness is harshly negated by the reality that we, as a nation, flee societal inconveniences and discomforts at the drop of a hat. The masculine persona heralded by the blue collar spirit of the patriot falls flat when we accept the reality that our obsession with space, speed and square footage feeds our desire to distance us from social issues rather than confronting them head on. It’s time to change this narrative and realize that real toughness is about digging in, getting involved and connecting with our communities rather than running away from our most vexing social conundrums.