Wesley Vaughn | A ‘good part of town,’ but for whom?


Wes Side Story | The shortcomings of a well-meaning suburb as it ages


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Wesley Vaughn
Wes Side Story

Photo by Wesley Vaughn


You will have to forgive me, for I am a stranger here. But I come in peace, since I am no stranger to a city with its fair share of problems.

I am from Birmingham, a major city in Alabama and a place far enough south and irrelevant enough that you’ll have to bear with me as I impart lessons from its mistakes.

Like many in Birmingham, I grew up in a suburb. My hometown of Vestavia Hills is regarded as a “good part of town.” But this “good part of town” is only good for a select few.

Vestavia Hills turns out the lights early enough on the weekend that if you went to a movie at 7 p.m. you’d have no place to hang out once the credits rolled. My friends and I closed out the soft drink bar at the nearby McDonald’s on numerous occasions, at the godforsaken time of 9:30 p.m.

The local movie theatre is housed in the Vestavia City Center, which is as close to an actual city center as it is to a space station on Mars. It’s like titling something “The Great Whatever” and expecting it to be any good just because — nice try, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Suburban life is endorsed as the perfect environment for raising kids, but it doesn’t fully deliver on its lofty promise. My hometown was planned specifically for adults with children, not for those kids as they grew up.

Vestavia Hills, and suburbs like it, seeks a sense of safety at the cost of a lively community. Suburban communities have great private spaces in the form of homes but lack great public spaces.

With no public transportation, kids require constant chauffeuring until they obtain driver’s licenses. With no integrated neighborhoods and nearby public spaces, kids rely on in-home entertainment.

When a community only functions for one purpose and for one demographic, it creates a stagnant monoculture. This direction poses significant problems, regardless of how noble that one function or how well off that one demographic may be initially.

As a community grows, residents will age, kids will grow older and others will want to move in. The area will soon be unsuited for this changing population. The infrastructure won’t support those without automobiles and entertainment options are limited in scope.

Supporting the lowest common denominator of society prevents this shortcoming and nurtures diversity by allowing for all types of individuals to flourish. In cities, for example, one block can vary wildly from the next, creating a compelling culture for the area.

This foundational yet unpredictable feature of cities — major urban areas in particular — is what deters those who prefer suburban living.

This August, along with reminding me to ignore the liberals and to enjoy Penn State, my family members and neighbors advised me to avoid the “bad parts of town.”

Now, most of those well-meaning individuals have never visited Philadelphia nor know anything about the city. Their view of a good part of town is a sterilized suburban community. The loose borders between urban areas make this distinction impossible, of course.

This misconception is important and needs to be avoided. There are indeed bad or unsafe parts of cities, but over-generalizing what makes up this type of area is dangerous.

Conversely, there should be no generalized “good part of town.”

For recovering cities such as Philadelphia, the influx of young professionals into previously undesirable areas is a tempting strategy in this vein. Members of this demographic are commonly highly educated and hold well-paying jobs.

Young professionals and the like can’t be viewed as a saving grace, though. Tweaking an area to bring in a certain set of individuals lends itself to the same problems as those occurring in my hometown suburb.

Once a community has been deemed a certain type of community, it takes a long time for it to be changed, for better or worse. It’s important that a community strives to cater to everyone in order to ensure its longevity and lasting value.

Wesley Vaughn is a first-year PennDesign graduate student from Birmingham, Ala. His email address is wesleymvaughn@gmail.com. “Wes Side Story” appears every other Monday. Follow him @WesleyVaughn.

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