Mormons Like the Suburbs

For my last post as a guest blogger, I have written something a lot more dough headed than the stuff usually posted on this blog. This is a flavor of what I am up to on my own dough headed blog. While I hope you enjoy it, I also want to thank Times & Seasons for the chance to post here. I have enjoyed the change of pace. So, here we go…

Mormons Like the Suburbs

Mormons like their houses to be houses of order, houses of stucco, and houses with a lot of square footage. Granted, many people like the suburbs and not all Mormons live there, but generally speaking Mormons are suburbanites. So, if you want to find a Mormon in his or her natural habitat, follow the minivans past Lowes and Chuck E Cheese to the cul-de-sacs.

Why do Mormons like the suburbs? For starters, Mormons like the suburbs because public schools are relatively good and crime is perceived to be low. It is a plus that the suburbs are also close to many of the stores Mormons love like familiar chain restaurants with good food served in large portions—for example, the Olive Garden, Café Rio, and the Cheesecake Factory. They like the exclusive clubs found in the suburbs: Costco and Sam’s Club. These are not only places where Mormons bump into friends, but also stores that sell stuff in quantities that pretty much force Mormons to buy food storage with every purchase.

Mormons also like suburban neighbors. In the suburbs, unlike urban places, you do not need to have piercings and tattoos to be hip. And, unlike many rural areas, you do not need to be truly tough to be tough. In the suburbs, people are content with guys who wear Dockers, women driving SUVs that never leave paved streets, and kids who sport Old Navy t-shirts. They like the suburbs for their relatively quiet streets and that people put out lights, nick-knacks, and decorations to mark many holidays—Christmas, Halloween, and the Fourth of July. Additionally, Mormons like having other Mormons as neighbors. So the more Mormons flock to the suburbs, the more Mormons like them.

Mormons like suburban houses because they tend to have a lot of square footage. Big houses mean that even when the kids are running rampant or a teenager is on the war path, an adult has a hope (even if it is a false one) of finding a quite place at home. Big houses also mean that Mormons will have enough room for a large pantry and perhaps even space for a craft room, which is great for quilting and scrapbooking projects. Lastly, big houses have ample wall space. This means enough room for pictures of family members, art work relating to the church, framed copies of the Proclamation on the Family, and the essential family photo.

Houses in the suburbs often include large yards. For Mormons this means space for gardens and fruit trees—both essential if one is going to take canning seriously. Additionally, big yards give the kids or grandkids space to run around without much adult supervision. From the Mormon perspective, “Go play in the back yard” is one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language.

Some people claim they do not like the suburbs because they do not like a long commute. Even if Mormons won’t admit it, many Mormons like a long commute because “commute” is a synonym for “break from both work and kids.” For some, commuting is the only quiet part of their day—despite their large yards and gobs of square footage.

35 comments for “Mormons Like the Suburbs

  1. You’re right on target. For us, we are in the suburbs because we can have a huge back yard for our numerous tow-headed children to play in.

  2. @Russell – This is my experience even in Brazil, 20 years ago, where most people are neither white nor American. Very few members lived in the Centro of their respective cities/towns, and most were in the outlying areas for most of the same reasons stated by Brigham.

  3. I don’t know that it is necessarily “sad”–you’ve pretty much described the “American Dream”. Or Hobbits.

  4. Little boxes on the hillside,
    Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
    Little boxes on the hillside,
    Little boxes all the same.
    There’s a green one and a pink one
    And a blue one and a yellow one,
    And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
    And they all look just the same.

    And the people in the houses
    All went to the university,
    Where they were put in boxes
    And they came out all the same,
    And there’s doctors and lawyers,
    And business executives,
    And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
    And they all look just the same.

    And they all play on the golf course
    And drink their martinis dry,
    And they all have pretty children
    And the children go to school,
    And the children go to summer camp
    And then to the university,
    Where they are put in boxes
    And they come out all the same.

    And the boys go into business
    And marry and raise a family
    In boxes made of ticky tacky
    And they all look just the same.
    There’s a green one and a pink one
    And a blue one and a yellow one,
    And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
    And they all look just the same.

    “Little Boxes”
    Malvina Reynolds

  5. Replace “Mormons” with “families with children” and 85% of this “Mormon” characteristic applies. Make it “families with children who moved to their metropolitan area from somewhere else” and the overlap rises to 95%.

  6. The people in the boxes
    All went to the University
    Where they lived in tiny flats
    With screaming babies all night long
    So they got that fancy job
    With a six figure salary
    And moved out to the suburbs
    Where the baby has IT\’S OWN FREAKING ROOM!


  7. Very funny post. With a kernel of truth, of course. When we were putting an offer on the house where we currently live, my parents wanted to know how close the nearest Costco was. They were scandalized to hear that it was almost 40 minutes away.

    I feel like a failure in many regards. I don’t have vinyl lettering quotes on my walls nor do I have family photos. We don’t have any close Mormon neighbors and I neither quilt nor scrapbook. Our house isn’t particularly large for our family size. Our largest food crop is acorns and hickory nuts.

    Thanks, Brigham, now I’ll have to waste brainpower reevaluating my priorities in life as a Mormon woman living in the suburbs. Where’s the nearest scrapbooking store? Where’s a copy of the Proclamation on the Family?

  8. I largely agree — see my BCC guest post on LDS Wards and American Metropolitics — but I think this is an oversimplified portrait of suburban life and of types of suburbs. It doesn’t get much past the whole “soulless suburbs” thing that has guided so much bad narrative art over the past three decades. And I think that’s a mistake.

    The problem isn’t the suburbs. Not everyone can live near the city center — metro areas are always going to have suburbs. The issue is less the culture of the people of the suburbs (there are plenty of funky, cosmopolitan Mormons living in the suburbs [and all for various reasons — and some of whom would like to do things differently but either can’t, won’t or don’t know how]) and more that we Americans haven’t been so smart about planning our suburbs. If our inner ring suburbs had been planned better then there would be less incentive to move to the exurbs.

    Of course, Mormons haven’t been very good about sticking with the inner suburbs and what Brigham describes are for sure some of the reasons (although schools are by far the biggest issue). For example, my anecdotal understanding is that Mormons are pouring into the newer suburbs/exurbs of the Dallas/Ft. Worth metro area instead of populating the older ones that are more multi-ethnic and have a mix of blue and white collar workers. I explore the possible costs of these choices in my BCC post.

    What I would like to see is more Mormon families taking the Crunchy Con route and moving into inner ring suburbs and cities and home schooling (if needed) and community gardening, etc. Not that I’m providing an example of that. My family and I live in an outer ring suburb. Our choice was guided by the desire to live close to my in-laws, and they lived there because my father-in-law’s job is in the outer ring. I’m not sure where we would have chosen to live if the in-laws weren’t here (of course, we wouldn’t have moved to the Twin Cities if relatives weren’t here). We do live in an apartment, though. And I take public transportation to work so we are a one car family (and we only put around 3k miles on the car each year). And yes, it is great having good schools and living close to a Costco. And we have a fantastic ward.

  9. A couple (major) quibbles: first, this basically describes the middle-class American exodus from urban to suburban centers of the last lots of years. From what I understand, trends are back toward the urban life; as a people, we tend to be behind the times, but I’d be unsurprised to find us back in the cities in 20 years.

    Also, you don’t need a yard or fruit trees for canning. My wife and I have been canning fruit and tomatoes in New York apartments (and one Virginia townhouse) for the last 4 or 5 years. All you need is a pick-your-own farm within driving distance and a willingness to work in a small kitchen.

  10. For example, my anecdotal understanding is that Mormons are pouring into the newer suburbs/exurbs of the Dallas/Ft. Worth metro area instead of populating the older ones that are more multi-ethnic and have a mix of blue and white collar workers. I explore the possible costs of these choices in my BCC post.

    I live in the DFW metro area …

    I came here the first time over a decade ago, on a year-long internship. I lived in the suburbs, because that’s where my big multinational employer was located (NOT in the city). In fact, managers of my big multinational employer joked that “you can enjoy everything Ft. Worth and Dallas have to offer, and don’t have live there and pay their taxes”. Upon deciding to return, we moved down the road from where we had lived — again, much, much, cheaper for my family and we can still join the local art museums (DMA, the Kimbell, etc.) and frequent the downtown areas. And DFW has great downtown areas … to visit.

    I live in one of those fast-growing exurban areas in DFW. Our membership in our ward has about doubled in 18 months (and in all the time I’ve lived here, we keep getting split over and over). Why do people move here and not in the more inner-city areas? Land is cheap. You can build a house for the same cost of buying an old one in the inner-cities (although, I didn’t build). The school district I live in is one of the tops in the area. Taxes are cheaper. I don’t see it as a ethnically homogenous — when I go to my children’s soccer games, I think I see a pretty diverse ethnic blend. Much MORE ethnic than the suburbs where I grew up in the 70s (one of the most segregated cities in America.) (In my grad program, I was definitely a minority.)

    But I’m biased. I was born in a big city up north and raised in the suburbs of another northern horror story (in the 1970s, although I think it’s wonderful now). By my parents’ house is (still, after almost 40 years) located a short public bus ride away from one of America’s underrated downtowns. I think my father took one look at the horrific problems in in the big city and said, “there’s no way I’m living there”. For him, living in the suburbs (albeit, with a bus stop on the corner) was success.

    I have a tiny lot in my town in DFW, but there’s a huge community park and the end of the street. Costco is 15 minutes away (about 20 stop lights). The chapel is 5 minutes, if I cut through the park. Target is 10 minutes. The community soccer fields are 5 minutes. It’s a 45-minute drive to work, but only 30 seconds for my to walk over to my laptop on the kitchen table and VPN to work.

    There seems to be a belief that if people live in the suburbs, that they NEVER EXPERIENCE downtown. That’s just not true. I’ll enjoy what I want from downtown, a la carte (we spend a significant amount of time in the local art museums, for example).

  11. From what I understand, trends are back toward the urban life; as a people, we tend to be behind the times, but I’d be unsurprised to find us back in the cities in 20 years.

    As a people, we’re obstinate and like good schools. When the cities have schools as good as the suburbs, we’ll talk.

    (What’s this? Dallas ISD has a multi-million budget shortfall and is laying off hundreds of employees and teachers? Whew – looks like I dodged a bullet by not buying that loft within walking distance of my office.)

  12. This seems rather shallow, in parts rather condescending. [“that the suburbs are also close to many of the stores Mormons love like familiar chain restaurants with good food served in large portions—for example, the Olive Garden, Café Rio, and the Cheesecake Factory. They like the exclusive clubs found in the suburbs: Costco and Sam’s Club.”] For those reasons, it seems to me that it gets a lot wrong.

    The first thing this is missing is the role of socio-economic class. It misses the point that most people choose to live where others with a similar socioeconomic class live. So really, what this post is about is upper-middle class mormons. And frankly, in most US cities, the middle to upper-middle class types choose to live in communities defined by decently sized houses, good schools, and relatively low levels of street crime. Due to long term patterns of urban decay, in most urban areas, only some old-money neighborhoods (think pre-war mansions) have these characteristics. And middle to upper-middle class types do not, as a rule, feel comfortable in these neighborhoods, either, given that they neither have the money nor the social connections that their neighbors there would. So where else would they go? (Moreover, remember that expecting them to be gentrifying pioneers–’cause that’s what they’d be anywhere else–is probably an imposition of your aesthetic taste on some one else, and often creates problematic situations for the neighborhoods.)

    The second thing that it’s missing is a sense of how much of this is the product of local patterns of development. Particularly in the East and in the North, there are cities with relatively few suburbs meeting your description. I grew up in Pittsburgh; there, because over the last 25-30 years the aggregate metropolitan population has declined by >500,000, there are very few outer-ring suburbs like this. Most upper-middle class mormons there live communities like Mt Lebanon, Upper St Clair, or the North Hills–and mostly within a 20 minute drive of the city center, in suburbs that were built between 1920 and 1960. Cleveland OH has similar patterns of development. So too with really much of the north, and really, a good part of the south (excepting only the Raleigh Durham Chapel Hill triangle, Altanta, and Northern VA and Florida (the last two of which are really part of the south anyways). One simply cannot generalize ‘the US’ from SLC, Denver, and California.

  13. crime is perceived to be low

    We might have the occasional vehicle break-in and some drunk drivers, but we just don’t have the murders and rapes and drive-by shootings (our local paper’s crime section is not quite as funny as BYU’s, but it’s about as quiet). Thanks for reminding me of another reason I prefer the ‘burbs.

  14. “Mormons love like familiar chain restaurants with good food served in large portions—for example, the Olive Garden, Café Rio, and the Cheesecake Factory”

    When we lived in a CA ward, for the ward Christmas party we were all instructed to either bring 1 Costco sized pie or 2 Marie Callendar sized pies. I thought it was hilarious to refer to the size by the store. In our current ward in MT, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone show up with a pie that was not homemade. Funny how both behaviors could be classified by some as stereotypically Mormon.

  15. Well, I\’m with queuno, here in the DFW area and mentally. We chose specifically to live within 10 miles of work (located in Carrollton, a large, old suburb) so I could ride my bike to work, rather than drive. Dallas suburbs have no commuting–only lots of car traffic.

  16. Some thing that supports this trend – I’ve noticed that older wards established in city center areas are shrinking and or have had to be disbanded. Where as new wards usually pop up in the suburbs after a few new housing tracts have been completed.

  17. queuno,

    Leave your Frisco. Leave your McKinney. They’re just highways and Suburbans and bland-tasting Tex-Mex and wards you can find in Utah. Move down to Lake Highlands or Lakewood where you can get excellent, out-of-the-way Tex-Mex, actual residential neighborhoods with character, and wards that really need help. You might be surprised that home prices aren’t much higher than where you’re living (largely because where you’re living just keeps growing).

  18. I wonder how much of the preference goes to preference bias.

    “Mormon culture” (which I believe is a misnomer) typically refers to the culture of mormons in the intermountain west.Utah, Idaho, Arizona and its bleed into surrounding states. A lot of transplants to California, Washington, Texas grew up in this area. One defining feature in this area is the distinct lack of traditional dense cities.

    In the mormon corridor this can be traced back to BY’s decision to scatter the saints from Yellowstone to Ciudad Juarez, from Wyoming to the Muddy Mission. Thus, small towns developed instead of big cities (something my Mt Pleasant born grandfather much lamented). Even the “downtown” areas of these towns and cities were built with wide streets and big lots. Growth didn’t really occur until WWII and the development of the need for industry in these areas, after the emphasis on the highway system and the domination of the automobile as a means of transportation. Thus for most of us who grew up in the Mormon Corridor, and our parents and grandparents, we experienced only suburban or rural lifestyles. The “inner city” was not a nice place to be (with the exception of SLC – which had no real downtown). I grew up in Central Phoenix. Every neighborhood I knew was either single family homes or low density small apartments. I can think of only a few places in phoenix even today that I would consider “city” and not suburban.

    You go with what you know.

  19. We live close to the central city, in a low crime middle/upper middle class area with a very good school district. The school district is continuing to grow. Although our children are grown, and many of our original neighbors (with children the ages of ours) have moved, they have been replaced with new neighbors with young children.

    However, the number of Latter-day Saints continues to decline, particularly Latter-day Saints with children at home.

    The price of housing where we live is higher than in the exurbs. I suspect that this affects LDS purchasing patterns in several ways–those who would like to live closer in cannot, because of the price of housing, and those who could afford to live closer in prefer to live further our because they can buy more house for the money. LDS still tend to have more children than the population at large, which makes larger home more desirable or necessary. I think the ability of LDS to afford housing is also affected by: 1. tithing, which reduces disposable income, 2. Church encouragement of one earner families, and 3. more children, which increases expenses. And, I think the encouragement for the one earner (usually male) to spend time with family, and in Church assignments, may affect how many are assiduously attempting to climb the corporate ladder and to earn more money.

    I also agree that LDS, particularly those with children at home, prefer living in areas with other LDS with children at home. Thus, over the years, I have known several families (who were well off financially) whose decision to move further out was driven entirely by the desire to raise their children in wards with “critical mass” in the primary and mutual. It becomes a self-reinforcing spiral.

  20. A few thoughts:

    A number of you have argued that living somewhere other than the suburbs is somehow better. That may be. That wasn’t my point. My point is that Mormons tend to collect in the suburbs. My crass characterization had nothing to do with what people ought to do. I have a strong opinion about this issue, but that is not something I really wanted to push with this post.

    A couple of you thought I over simplified. Really?! That was sort of the point. My (attempt) to stereotype Mormons was–as I freely admitted from the beginning–dough headed. It may be seen as an attempt at humor.

    At least one of you thought I was shallow and condescending. I admit to shallow. If–as the commenter thought–it was condescending to discuss the size of portions at the Cheesecake Factory, I won’t escape that judgment.

    Others of you thought my characterization did not work outside of the Interior West. My experiences living in California, North Carolina, and Texas seem to suggest otherwise, but I admit that what we have here is a stereotype and at some point stereotypes unravel.

    I am also glad that at least a few of you actually appreciated the post for what it was. One of you mentioned that “commute” may also be a break from church as well as work and the kids. I found that funny. I also enjoyed learning that a few of you enjoy Costco as much as I do and that in some wards pies come in two forms: Costco size and Marie Callendar size.

  21. So I take it, Brigham, that none of the T&S permabloggers warned you that all attempts at humor in the Bloggernacle must be misread and/or completely ignored so the serious underlying discussion can be beat to death yet again?

    I’m afraid it’s time to add another section to the already 249-page in length “Guest Blogging at Times & Seasons: A Sacred Privilege” manual.

  22. See here’s the thing:

    1. It’s not really satire. A list of stereotypes, perhaps. But it lacks the edge and wit of real satire. That’s a bit insulting to Brigham, I realize (although there are much more ham-fisted attempts at satire out there in the Mormon sector of the Interwebs), but he admitted as much in #25.

    2. I would imagine that most of us realized that it was an attempt at humor, but it’s also a blog post, which means that ostensibly it’s to provoke discussion. Some of us decided to not point out the fact that it wasn’t actually very funny and so roll with the serious aspects to it because we find the issue interesting and that seems like the more logical place to take the discussion.

    3. I would have been much more interested in Brigham’s “strong opinion about this issue.”

  23. Yes, I grew up in the suburbs and now live in the suburbs as an adult mom with kids. Where else would I live? Downtown is for singles or childless couples. Downtown is expensive. My husband works with plenty of liberal Seattle people who wouldn’t even consider living here. They don’t have kids.
    When you are a parent you care about 1) living where you can actually afford to buy a house 2) living where your child can go to a decent school and get a decent education 3) that your quality of life in your family lifestyle is good and enjoyable. Nobody really loves a long commute. You balance commute time with all the other stuff. We live as close to work as we could afford.
    If you are a parent you go to restaurants that are more kid friendly. My husband hates Olive Garden but I love it and it keeps the kids happy because they love breadsticks and pasta. Taking four kids to a new restaurant and trying to figure out what they might want to eat is not exactly relaxing.
    It reminds me of driving around Europe with my family when I was a kid. When my then-boyfriend-now-husband looked down his nose at us having stayed in Holiday Inns all over Europe. He had done the Eurail pass and youth hostel thing. I pointed out that with six kids from ages 14 to 3 how else could they travel? Traveling with children is stressful when you don’t know what kinds of accomodations you might find. At Holiday Inns there was a pool and a restaurant you could count on to feed your family. Who wants to be in a foreign country with hungry kids and nowhere to eat? You have to limit the adventure a little.

  24. As Wm Morris suggests, I do not really consider this satire. It is soft gloved, whereas satire is more hard hitting and tends to exaggerate and perhaps even focus on the ridiculous. I do gently poke fun, but what I really tried to do here is to provide an accurate stereotype to the extent that is possible. If it strikes people as funny, it is because (1) people see these stereotypes play out in people they know and maybe themselves and (2) they are willing to find something funny about that. While this is not my personal favorite blog post, I thought that it melded well with my other blog posts–many of which dealt with urban growth and the concept of Zion. This is what helped me decide to publish this post here.

  25. JKS (29):

    I think there are a few misconceptions in your comment. I’ve lived in an inner city for more than 20 years now. My wife and I have three children, the oldest of whom is now serving an LDS mission, after living in an inner city all his life and having attended only city schools.

    I think a lot of the perception that downtowns are for “singles and childless couples” comes from perceptions about what is an acceptable way of living. We’ve given up a yard (I wouldn’t have done yard work anyway, to be honest) and space. We’ve gained convenience and less dependance on a car.

    From what I can tell, we may actually be paying less than many suburbs, where prices are just as high or higher, and where commuting costs are much higher. You have to really be careful about the circumstances of each individual family. Those circumstances vary widely, even when they live in the same place.

    I couldn’t say whether or not it is possible to live in downtown Seattle with kids. I don’t know what its like there. But I suspect that a lot of the problem depends on your expectations of the amount of space you need. Where I’ve raised three kids (well, the last two are still a work in process) here, some good LDS friends, with 4 children closer together in age and much more active than our children, decided to move to the suburbs, just so that they could put the kids in the backyard regularly.

    As for restaurants, I think you reap what you sow. If you don’t take your children to sit-down restaurants regularly, they don’t know how to act or order in restaurants. About the only kind of restaurant we’ve had to avoid in recent years is Korean Barbeque — because they have a grill in the table itself and until recently our youngest was too young to keep her hands away from the heat.

    Of course, a lot depends on the ages of your children. But we’ve had great success by going to sit-down restaurants once a month or so — frequently enough that even our youngest (now 5) is familiar with restaurant behavior.

  26. If I had kids, and/or could telecommute, I’d absolutely live in the suburbs. This has nothing to do with being Mormon, and everything to do with the fact that at the moment, I’m single, burdened with a fantastic amount of student loan debt, and so forth. Of course, I don’t ever go outside at night, my kitchen doesn’t even have ten square feet of walking room, and I probably can’t get a scooter because it’ll be stolen — and the three hospitals and the major 24-hour mental-health crisis center just down the street ensure that I’ve already learned how to sleep through sirens. $450/month rent plus a workplace I can walk to outweigh most other considerations, such as air conditioning and peace of mind.

    Oh — and in some cases the Mormons live in the suburbs because all the Mormons left in the city are inactive — depending on which three-block distance I walked from my apartment (North/South/East/West) I would find myself in one of three different wards, in three different stakes, attending meetings in one of three different buildings, all of which are either a two-hour-but-nothing-runs-on-Sundays bus ride or a 20-minute drive on interstate highways from me. I know of one older couple in my neighborhood who are active; the old central ward was dissolved because everyone was so needy, and now few of those folks go to church at all. And technically, my neighborhood is an original suburb to my city — a mile from the state capitol building, old manor houses that were once home to the city’s elite (in, say, 1920 — James Thurber’s childhood home is a block from my front door,) and a handful of folks who still remember when Jews weren’t welcome to live here (hence Bexley, just down the road, was born — now it’s the home of two of the highest-ranked private schools in the state, as well as the original home of Lil’ Bow Wow, who doesn’t ever mention that part of his biography.)

  27. FWIW, how “safe” an area is doesn’t have as much to do with whether or not it is inner city or the suburbs as many people think. New York City’s crime rates are lower than those in Salt Lake City and those in many suburban areas.

    Just because you live in the city doesn’t mean its dangerous. I’ve lived in the “inner city” for 20 years and I’ve never even had anyone attempt to rob me or make me the victim of their crime. I go out at all hours of the day and night. I haven’t heard of members of my ward suffering from crime.

    I know that statistically many inner city neighborhoods are more dangerous than most suburbs. But its not always true. There are safe neighborhoods and cities.

  28. “I think a lot of the perception that downtowns are for ‘singles and childless couples’ comes from perceptions about what is an acceptable way of living.”

    Besides any perception of what ought to be, there is also observation of what is; in other words, looking at who is living where. It is pretty obvious that the relative value of proximity to work depends on how many people in a household go to work, and how many don’t. Proximity to work is a relatively high priority for a single person or childless couple, a lower priority for a family with a couple of children, and an even lower priority for a family with seven children.

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