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Jewish World Review Dec. 17, 2001 / 2 Teves, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Consumer Reports

Are the Suburbs Bad for the Jews?

One person's 'sprawl' is another's right to a better life -- WALK through most any American neighborhood and without too much digging, you'll quickly find that the most contentious issue on most local minds isn't the threat from terrorism. The really nasty fights are about zoning.

Whether the source of the controversy is the right of a homeowner to improve his or her property against the wishes of the neighbors, or the attempt of a school or a synagogue to move onto a block whose residents are unhappy about the idea, nothing gets 21st-century Americans marching out to the barricades with pitchforks quicker than a perceived threat to their property values.

But in recent years, environmental concerns have moved some of these local battles from the realm of personal grudges to that of ideology.

Along with atomic energy plants that we fear will rain down nuclear fallout upon us and corporate villains who pollute our soil, air and water with industrial waste, a new face has been added to the modern American rogues gallery: the developer.

Forget about the bad boys of Brazil who are supposedly cutting down the rainforests and eliminating our breathable air. For the children of the environmentalist generation, the real creeps are now the guys who build McMansions and strip malls in the outer suburbs of our cities, where once only the deer and the antelope played.

Enlightened people despise these profit-driven ogres who, we are told, will soon pluck the last blade of grass within a 100-mile radius of every major American downtown.


That's an interesting change in American culture, because 50 years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the World War II, the people who built new homes and neighborhoods for the returning heroes of the "greatest generation" were regarded quite differently.

Armed with a mortgage guaranteed by the G.I. Bill of Rights, hundreds of thousands of Americans moved out of the cramped tenements of the cities, seeking breathing room and and dignity behind white picket fences alongside a paved driveway. Though much urban carnage was wrought by power-mad developers such as New York's Robert Moses, these people did much good for Americans previously relegated to the depths of inner cities.

Before this, home ownership was a remote dream for many city dwellers, especially the children of immigrants. Privately owned homes within reach of urban jobs were just too costly. But in the 1950s, with the vast expansion of suburbs (made possible by the development of state and federal highways), all that changed.

Half-a-century later, the grandchildren of these veterans look at the ever-expanding belt of suburban crackerboxes with a different eye. To them, the continuing development of land on the fringes of our cities represents not a revolutionary growth in the quality of life of most Americans, but a despicable decline in the quality of our environment.

Modern-day environmentalists aren't interested in the desire of individual Americans to call a small plot of land their own or the right of that same American to drive where he pleases when he pleases.

Instead, in the best tradition of past utopian movements, these intellectuals want to tell us what to do with our money, lives and families. In the name of all that is holy to the environmental nature gods, they tell us to forget about our need to break loose from urban congestion and move back to the cities, where we will give up our minivans and Jeeps and ride the subways or bicycles to work.

Part of this stems from the fact that most of those urging restrictions on building in the sticks already live comfortably in upscale urban neighborhoods or own land in the country - and don't want their view spoiled by the arrival of too many neighbors.

But, to be fair, who can blame them? Regional sprawl does ruin the countryside, while at the same time lengthening traffic jams and diminishing public services, even if it does better the lives of those moving in.

It's also bad for the Jews.


The truth is, whether we enjoy urban living or not, cities are good for building Jewish communities. To take it one step further, nothing is as deadly to Jewish continuity as the growth of suburbs.

It may be pleasant to live far from from the madding crowd but, as the saying goes, you can't be a good Jew on a desert island. That's because it takes a critical mass of Jewish people to build the sort of infrastructure that a thriving community needs, such as synagogues, schools, kosher food stores and community centers.

That's why 19th- and early 20th-century Jewish communities in rural America quickly died out. Rates of assimilation and intermarriage are always exponentially higher outside of the city limits.

Thus, anything - even the expansion of freedom for the growing middle class that allow them to buy cars and private homes - turned out to be very bad for the Jews in general, though good for most of us individually.

News this week from the most sprawled out part of America - Los Angeles - should reinforce our fears. There, despite having the second-largest Jewish population in the country, the local Jewish Federation has raised so little money that it was forced to lay off dozens of employees, and five JCCs are being shut down. The scattered and heavily unaffiliated Jewish population has contributed to that community's problems.

And, despite the obnoxious and hysterical cant heard from many in the world of the "greens," there is a powerful environmentalist ethic within the Torah that enjoins us from destroying the natural beauty of G-d's domain, or polluting it with sewage and postmodern architectural ugliness.

How then do we balance the rights of prospective homeowners to live their affordable suburban dreams with the imperative of sensible regional and urban planning, not to mention the Jewish need to stop the dispersion out of our population?

Some urban areas have developed rules that seriously restrict growth in their suburbs. Others more sensibly call for a reinvestment in mass transit that will enable people to get to work comfortably and on time without driving. But we must remember that the real victims of growth restrictions are not wicked developers, but poor and middle-class Americans who seek the same sort of better life that the postwar generation of our fathers found.

Though many may wax nostalgic for the old urban Jewish neighborhoods like New York's Lower East Side or Philadelphia's Strawberry Mansion, few of today's home-buying yuppies want to bring their kids up there or in places like them, environmentalist beliefs or not.

That's the problem with freedom. People don't always choose the way planners or idealists want them to. American Jews will continue, like their neighbors, to range far from downtowns in their search for the ideal lifestyle. Though we would like them to stay in the city or at least the inner suburbs, we must make our peace with the fact that they have a right to make this choice.

And no amount of green rhetoric or Jewish continuity arguments will persuade them otherwise.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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