A Suburban Mindset Has Taken Over Life in America
Jason Diamond on the Sprawl of Suburban Culture
I’m suburban; I’m of the suburbs. I’ve spent my entire adulthood in cities, but I still get nostalgic when I smell freshly cut grass. It brings me back to the malls of my youth, to the food court at Town Center at Boca Raton, the mall we used to go to whenever I visited my grandparents in South Florida, or the old tobacco store in some forgotten shopping center in the middle of the country. I love grilling meat on a Weber grill I spent an hour trying to light, and by God, I miss not having a never-ending stream of cars honking outside my window.
It took me a long time to admit any of that. I was, at best, ambivalent about where I come from, but filled with pure hate is more like it. Whenever somebody asked, I always told them I was from Chicago. That’s the way most people do it, right? If you’re from Round Rock, Texas, you’ll say you’re from Austin. If you grew up in Fountain in a house with four bedrooms, a two-car garage, and a big backyard, you just tell people “Colorado,” because they won’t know your hometown. If you’re from Long Island, ran on the cross-country team, and lived in a quiet little subdivision but moved away to college and never looked back, you’ll tell anyone who asks you’re from New York—which isn’t wrong. You just hope they assume you mean Manhattan and not Hicksville, which is over an hour away.
Yet getting to a place where I could clearly and honestly tell people yes, I grew up in suburbia, in neighborhoods up and down Lake Michigan, took a long time. I left as a teenager and immediately started telling people I was from Chicago. I never looked back—until I did.
After an adulthood spent mostly in two of America’s biggest cities (Chicago and New York City), the suburbs came back into my life in my midthirties. It started slowly: weekend trips to my in-laws’ house outside Hartford, Connecticut, in a whimsical little town called Avon in the shadow of Talcott Mountain. From their backyard, you can look up and see Heublein Tower, the “castle” A.1. sauce and Smirnoff vodka manufacturer Gilbert Heublein built his wife in the early 20th century. You can walk barefoot around my father-in-law’s immaculately green grass and gaze at the hawks as they circle or watch the woodchucks scatter about. It’s country quaint, but it’s suburbia, no doubt. Drive five minutes and there’s a Chili’s, an antiques dealer/coffee shop, a hotel bar I sometimes sneak away to for a quiet drink, a few car dealerships, some elite private schools, a couple of local farms that sell pumpkins and cider, and a golf course—then another golf course, and another. It’s Gilmore Girls cozy with a deliberate small-town feel baked into the city plans, even though the population reaches over 18,000, and the bulk of the housing is from the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s all thanks to that postwar boom; the place jumped from 1,738 residents in 1930 to 11,201 fifty years later, in 1980.
I hear a lot of debate over what is and isn’t a suburb. My general rule of thumb for including somewhere in the “is” category tends to be when the population of a place has increased since World War II, but industry hasn’t been added to lure people there. So when houses and grocery stores and coffee chains and places of that nature pop up in locations where things were traditionally made or grown, that generally is a sign that a place is suburban. It’s not always the case, but people moved to the little town of Avon, for example, to work in nearby cities, such as Hartford, a fifteen-minute drive away. Avon became a suburb out of necessity.
There isn’t all that much to do in this small suburban town, and frankly, that’s nice to me. It’s still and quiet. I don’t have to worry about getting on the subway and dealing with people coughing on me or some guy clipping his fingernails between taking bites of a burrito (yes, I’ve actually seen this). There aren’t sirens and jackhammers and people yelling outside my window. When I go to my in-laws, butterflies flutter around in the summertime and there’s a fireplace to sit by in the winter. In the city, there’s the dirt-and-god-knows-whatever-else-covered snow, and rats, lots of rats. That all said, I think I’ll spend the rest of my life in cities. The suburbs are nice to visit, but at this point, more of my life has been lived as an urbanite than not; everything else feels like a vacation. I’m part of that group of younger Generation Xers and older millennials who moved back to cities after our parents and grandparents left to build a better life, with backyards and places to park their station wagons. And I’m pretty sure I’m staying put.
But who knows?
The American suburbs were the great promise to the baby boomers. If you were white and middle class, a little piece of the postwar pie was yours for the taking in the years after World War II. Suburbia was the idea of the good life, something humans had been looking to attain for centuries but only the wealthy could afford: a place outside the city. After the war ended, that dream became more attainable, especially—and this needs to be repeated—if you were white. The Federal Housing Administration, starting in 1934 and all the way until 1968, graded neighborhoods from A to D. Areas with large black populations usually received the lowest grade, and those same black people who wanted to make a change were shut out of attaining loans to help them afford housing in newer, nicer, safer areas. This is enough to make any sane person want to rebel against the idea of the suburbs, a place that actively kept groups of people out. But as I’ll show, there’s more that has colored our view of what the suburbs are and aren’t. We have so many ideas of what we think suburbia is, yet we don’t realize how suburban we’ve become, whether we live in a suburb or not.
The suburban way is taking over our lives. Walk down Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, and you no longer find mom-and-pop stores or Spanish and Yiddish speakers outnumbering English speakers; you find an Apple Store, a Whole Foods, and banks where independent businesses used to be.
Cities may be our media hubs, but suburbia makes the news. It’s where horrible violence happens, like the shootings of unarmed black teenagers Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown (Martin in a gated Florida community by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch member once described as being “obsessed with suburban law-and-order minutiae,” and Brown by a police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson). School massacres, from Littleton, Colorado, to Newtown, Connecticut, and Parkland, Florida, seem to almost always happen in places where people tell the news some variation of “this isn’t supposed to happen here.” The suburbs, we’re also told, are the battleground where each and every election will be decided.
Today, over half of all Americans, 55 percent according to one Pew study, live in the suburbs. If we want to live well together in this country, we must gain a better understanding of the suburbs as a concept. Suburbs are places that are made up of white people, African Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, Russian, and Indian people, and just about every other nationality or group you can think of. LGBTQ people live in suburbia. There are churches, mosques, synagogues, and all other places of worship in the suburbs. The suburbs aren’t only Democratic or only Republican. There’s poverty, violence, and drug abuse in the suburbs, and there’s also creativity, passion, and genuine character in these places. The suburbs aren’t one thing or another; we try to pigeonhole suburbia, act like it’s a great big boring monolith of conformity and tract housing, but there’s so much more to it than that, and we need to understand it better. Otherwise, I believe the things we consider to be true about the suburbs, the fears and misconceptions we have about these places, will overtake us.
The title of my book The Sprawl was borrowed in part from speculative fiction writer William Gibson. In his work, notably the Sprawl Trilogy (Neuromancer , Count Zero , and Mona Lisa Overdrive ), Gibson gives us the near-future Boston–Atlanta Metropolitan Axis (bama) megacity. I sometimes see traces of that fictional dystopia as I drive down endless roads lined with strip malls and car dealerships. I’ve seen this sprawl not only in America but also all over the world, from Canada to China. The sprawl, to me, is soulless. It’s bad planning, it’s corporate, it’s bland, and it’s spreading. It’s everything becoming one, and not in some utopian hippie love-in way. The sprawl is building more stuff on top of stuff; it’s design without thinking; it’s building without caring. It’s putting up another golf course or a third home goods store or adding another chain restaurant instead of propping up local independent business. It’s this car culture Americans are still so obsessed with. We get into these things, drive up our wide streets to get on the highway, and our feelings and compassion seem to go out the window the longer we sit in traffic. The sprawl, not the suburbs, is what I don’t like. I want to separate the two to better understand and appreciate these places that are everywhere.
Since I’m from the suburbs, and the suburbs have given us some of our greatest creators of science fiction (from Ray Bradbury to Gibson to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg), I’ll use another analogy: the suburbs are Anakin Skywalker.
Yes, I’m making a Star Wars comparison. But it’s apt not only because the franchise’s creator, George Lucas, grew up in what is often referred to as the “sleepy” California suburb of Modesto, but also because Anakin is a flawed, imperfect, but ultimately good person. He’s seduced by the Dark Side and eventually turned into a masked cyborg version of himself. My aim is to show how the suburbs are Anakin and the sprawl is Darth Vader. We want to find our good side, however flawed and deeply buried it may be, and fight off the evil guy in the cool black uniform.
I can say with certainty that suburbia is an outsider. I’m putting all the designations of the suburbs—the exurbs, edge cities, and commuter towns—under this umbrella to avoid confusion. Schaumburg, Illinois, for instance, is a large, sprawling area with nearly 75,000 residents (74,184 at the time of this writing), malls, and lots of tall glass buildings. It’s home to the North American branch of Zurich, a Swiss insurance company. The Motorola Solutions headquarters was also there for years. Schaumburg sounds like a city, yet it’s a suburb. On the other side, there are parts of Queens, New York, that look like Grosse Pointe, Michigan, or Simsbury, Connecticut, but it’s still a city. Queens, just like its fellow borough of Brooklyn, which could qualify as one of the first true American suburbs, is within, not outside, the city. What makes something a suburb is where it is in relation to a city. The Merriam-Webster definition of suburb is “an outlying part of a city or town.” An outlier, something other than the city. It’s sub-urban; it’s beneath a city. Outsiders are odd; you look down on things that are below you. The suburbs, too, have taken on the status of cultural oddity, something Rod Serling picked up on in some of the most iconic episodes of The Twilight Zone and Shirley Jackson and John Cheever channeled in their very different types of fiction. Matt Groening drew it as the Springfield of The Simpsons; David Lynch and Stephen King placed monsters, human and otherwise, in the suburbs; and even today, acclaimed indie rock bands like Arcade Fire write albums like 2010’s The Suburbs, and filmmakers from Jordan Peele to Greta Gerwig mine suburbia for inspiration.
I look around my Brooklyn apartment, and I see so much influenced by cities: books by New Yorkers Edith Wharton and James Baldwin, records produced in Los Angeles and old Motown lps from Detroit, hats representing sports teams from Chicago and Boston. We know what was built in the cities (industry, commerce, media, political power); what we ignore is just how much the suburbs have influenced our culture. America’s early days were rural, then the urban century sprang up during the Industrial Revolution. Today, we’re still very much in the middle of the suburban century. America has fashioned itself from the suburbs since the end of World War II; so many people are suburbanites, and we’re constantly reminded of how much influence the suburbs yield over the rest of the world. Learning to better understand anything of such importance is vital.
Suburbia’s influence will only grow, not only in America but also throughout the world. On nearly every continent there are places that could be considered suburbs that have populations of over one million. And in the US, while there’s been a lot of talk about the boom some of our once-forgotten cities have experienced over the last decade, the fact is, the suburbs are still growing. According to the Brookings Institute, the 53 major metropolitan areas across the country outpaced suburbia in growth in 2010–11 and 2014–15; but in 2015–16, city growth declined to 0.82 percent. While the suburban growth rate also dipped from the previous year, it was still above its urban counterpart with a rate of 0.89 percent growth.
Cities are great. I live in one, and I wrote the bulk of this book from my apartment in Brooklyn and the library on Forty-Second in the heart of Manhattan. Yet the suburbs are legion, and people argue they’re more livable than the cities. They offer so many of the things I hear my other friends in cities complaining they miss—from more space to less noise—all the time. Yet we keep staying in the city for whatever reason: because our jobs are here, we can walk to the subway or the little restaurant that serves the best fried chicken or the bar that makes the best bloody mary; stuff is happening in cities. As one person told Al Jazeera in 2017, it’s “the culture, the food, the shopping,” that keeps them living in a city and not a suburb. Another said, “There’s just something kind of cool about a big city with skyscrapers and glass windows and, um, kind of the hustle and bustle of downtown living,” adding, “It’s pretty cool.”
I’ve never heard anybody say that about the suburbs.
While every suburb is different in some way, what links them from coast to coast is that undercurrent of strangeness, of bottled-up energy, rage, passion, and creativity—the great suburban exports. As a structured and structuring way of being, suburban sprawl foments a kind of imaginativeness in people that’s both unique to the boring suburban imagination and reflective of an alienating longing for the archetypal urban lifestyle. These emotions engendered by living in the suburbs are consistent over time: anxiety, boredom, and alienation. Understanding how and why the suburbs are this way can help us better understand the present and the future, whether we live in suburbs or not. Because America, by moving farther out of the cities and building new subdivisions filled with single-family households bordered by malls and office parks, created modern suburban sprawl. But in the end, that sprawl reshaped America, became our modern condition, a state of mind: more stuff—more cars, more houses, more stores—and less of what we need.
The suburbs were a smart, practical idea that was put into practice in all the wrong ways, and they deserve to be scrutinized. This book isn’t a celebration of the suburbs as an idea or a way of life. Rather, it examines how the suburbs came to be what they are today, how much they’ve influenced our world, and what we can learn going forward, since the suburbs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Used by permission from The Sprawl (Coffee House Press, 2020). Copyright © 2020 by Jason Diamond.