It has long been cultural sport to mock or to misunderstand the social life of suburbs. More recently, however, sport itself has been identified as a major arena for social decline in suburbia.
In his Bowling Alone, published with an almost apocalyptic sense of timing at the beginning of the present century, the esteemed social scientist Robert Putnam focused upon the decline of the American bowling leagues as symptomatic of a lost America. League bowling took off during the fifties and peaked during the sixties before its decline set in after 1970. From this downward trajectory, Putnam widens his analysis to raise serious and important questions about the culture of civic engagement in the USA. In other works, Putnam has also viewed the localised politics of northern Italian towns in a more favourable light than the sprawling suburbs of the USA.
Putnam worries that both community involvement and church attendance is lower in the central cities and suburbs of major metropolitan areas than in the smaller towns of the USA of which he is clearly enamoured. He places this in the wider context of the more mobile, privatised and suburban way of life that has developed in America and other countries, including Britain, since the fifties. Somewhat ironically, perhaps, the decade that was once diagnosed as bringing about the Organisation Man and the Lonely Crowd of tract suburbia, is now viewed as a decade of suburban neighbourliness. What Putnam terms the ‘compulsive togetherness’ of the fifties has been eroded, apparently, by atomised isolation, self-interest and ever widening widths of commuting and social connectivity.
Yet Putnam’s own statistics do not support the widely cited assertion of declining suburban sociability as compared to urban centers. In his argument that “community involvement is lower in major metropolitan areas” we find from tables in Bowling Alone that in the central areas of cities with one million or more people, about 7 per cent had served in a local community group, and almost 9 percent had attended a public meeting on town or school affairs. In the suburbs of that same-sized metropolis, over 10 per cent had served in a local community group, and over 15 percent had attended a public meeting on town or school affairs.
In communities between 250,000 and 1 million people – quite a range of cities – again the suburbs manifest higher levels of civic engagement than the city centres. In the town of 50,000 to 250,000 however, we find a slightly more mixed picture: 14 percent living in central areas had served in a local community group compared to 13 percent in the suburbs. This is a paltry differential. However, whereas over 15 percent in central cities of this size had attended a public meeting on town or school affairs, it was over 20 percent in the suburbs, a much wider gap.
When Putnam analyzes church attendance, his findings tend to exonerate suburban living. In the ”major metropolitan area of more than 2 million”, the “non-central city” manifests higher levels of regular church attendance than the central city. Yet in smaller metropolitan areas and towns both central and non-central areas have almost identical levels of church attendance.
Surely this all raises a significant questions about the common notion that suburbanisation is bad for local community life. Of course, these figures may also be qualified by ethnicity, gender, occupational class and tenure. For example, home owners tend to be more rooted than renters, says Putnam. But most people living in the American suburbs are home owners, whereas rental levels are higher in downtown areas. Perhaps there is a weaker relationship between faith and tenure than between tenure and community participation?
So what about sports? Over time-spans of decades, people learn to like other sports, or new ones, and the younger generation does not always emulate the interests of its parents or grandparents. Interests and disposable income are shifted onto other pursuits. Baseball leagues and American football may be declining, but Putnam pays only lip service to the growing popularity of sports such as skating, snowboarding, fitness walking and going to the gym. These are sports that now bind young people together via discussion on social networks and in media like fuel.tv in terms of fashion and popular events.
For his part, Putnam sees these as symptomatic of a modest demise in team sports as more individualised pursuits become increasingly common. Yet he may be missing the social aspects of the new “extreme” sports.
He also seems oblivious to the growing social role of soccer, particularly in the suburbs. He gives it three mentions in Bowling Alone. Relative to other countries, soccer may be a relatively small team sport in the USA, encouraged by immigration from soccer-loving countries, and cheered on by the soccer moms of America. But more important is the expansion of amateur soccer which attracts more young people. I would argue that the relative vitality of local soccer leagues is more important than the success of the professional leagues. After all, the issue is grassroots, volunteer social interaction, not mass behavior.
Soccer was originally born in England, and remains a vital force of social cohesion, particularly in suburban working-class council estates. The Old Left thinkers, many of whom have embraced Putnam’s ideas remain woefully ignorant of the energy and diversity of working-class suburban life.
Soccer remains the working-class sport that has refused to die, even when the English working class has been diagnosed with terminal decline. Whether at grassroots amateur level, in the lower professional leagues, and in the glamorous world of the Premier League and international competitions, the game continues to draw people together in parks, at football stadiums, around their television sets, and in a million and more websites dedicated to the sport.
The internet brings people together not just across the world but also in a local context. Online communities, and formal and informal emailing, are mechanisms not of isolation but of interaction. For example, in some research I have been doing on a poor suburban council estate in Southern England, the local tenants’ groups have established and maintain websites. And local amateur soccer in the English provinces has no shortage of websites dedicated to the sport and the teams who play it. And poorer working class areas are currently viewed by politicians and cultural commentators as possessing historically low levels of social capital.
Ultimately, Putnam is saying little that is new. In both England and the United States of America writers, film directors and metropolitan journalists have long played the game of bashing the suburbs. This elitist lineage can be traced back from the late-Victorian Diary of a Nobody to the nobodies at The Office, and from Babbit to American Beauty. The message takes on different emphases and tones but at its heart is contempt or faux sympathy for the allegedly alienated and privatised suburbanite. Films such as Backfield in Motion or Bend it Like Beckham give us a different take, but they aren’t as widely popular as American Beauty. Why is that? Perhaps their message is too optimistic. The chattering classes continue to want to paint suburbs as bastions of privatism rather than as a flexible and sociable context for community and association. The fact that they are, on the whole, woefully wrong is likely not to change their opinions, but should inform those who have not yet closed their minds.
Mark Clapson is a social historian, with interests in suburbanisation and social change, new communities in England and the USA, and war and the built environment.