Why Do We Hate the Suburbs?

Suzannah Lessard on E.M. Forster, Bipartisan Snobbery, and the Language of Place

One summer day a few years ago, when the stream was brown and racing, I set out across the Hudson River to a village in the Connecticut Berkshires to visit a friend. Caroline is 20 years my senior, an interesting interval that makes us a short generation apart. Generations today are separated by vastly different experiences of a changing world, but Caroline and I share a language of place-love that can bridge that gap easily. These languages are not the same as what linguists look at but are rather skeins of references, usually to the natural world, regional or even local, that have emotional meaning to people who live there.

Paumanok, for example, is my name for a pre-suburban Long Island place language, a subcategory of mid-Atlantic, and there are Berkshire and Helderberg, which are related, belonging to the larger group I think of as Northeastern—but different, like dialects of Italian. If Paumanok speakers say, “The beach plums are ripe,” that evokes not only the dunes where they grow, not just the plums, and the sweet-sour taste of the deep red-purple jam that can be made from them, but also continuity going back, not just through human generations—certain kitchens, certain people, long gone, momentarily alive in the reference to beach plums—but the whole tapestry of a former way of life, now vanished, and, even, the longer history of the place where beach plums grow, back to prehistory as we think of the time of native tribes. (I haven’t been able to ascertain whether Long Island tribes used beach plums: they are very sour and require a lot of sugar to become palatable.)

There is a special intimacy in using place-language, usually unspoken, and the deepest level of the feeling communicated is of the way place itself transcends, connects. The associations are usually unspoken, their presence more likely conveyed with a glance or an especially tender way of spreading beach plum jam on toast. An equivalent in the Helderbergs might be “The ramps are in,” meaning a kind of wild leek that pops up in dense clusters in the forests before almost any other green has arrived, standing out spookily against the dead brown of the forest floor. I’d never heard of ramps when I came here, but knowing beach plum language I had an inkling of what they meant, and that helped me into the local landscape. When a basket of ramps was left anonymously on my porch, I knew that meant more, than, say, zucchinis. Wildness is a part of it. Place-love language can also convey a sense of uncanniness. On a mid-Atlantic coast, crows on the beach, on a windy late October day, are an unusual sight, conveying something reckless afoot, perhaps transgressive. I don’t yet know Helderberg well enough to cite an equivalent but am on the lookout.

Caroline and I are both native speakers of mid-Atlantic. Berkshire and Helderberg, respectively, are second languages for each of us: she doesn’t know Helderberg at all, while I have only a visitor’s smattering of Berkshire. So it was native fluency in mid-Atlantic that provided a language of powerful connection. Yet over time a kind of anxiety, a sense of generational alienation, had begun to undermine this, and not just with Caroline. I had begun to repeatedly have a feeling of my elders, sitting smug, safe, and oblivious in a seemingly intact world on one side of an abyss, abandoning me to horrid loss and exile on the other.

Caroline perceives the changes in the world from a perspective that evidently does not require her to question her beliefs about the landscapes she loves, nor does she feel any necessity to engage imaginatively with the new one engulfing us. I, in contrast, feel I have no choice, and that goes deep with me, is indeed the driving force of this whole exploration, an adventure from which I do not want to turn back. But when I feel generationally abandoned, self-pity takes over. How could I be stranded in this way, and Caroline not, when there is only 20 years between us? I can find myself wanting to strip her beautiful faith in the constancy of the places she loves from her, forcing her to come with me, even as I keep that faith for myself in my pocket almost like a secret vice.

And yet, at another time, we will communicate just fine, and I know that what I really want is company. I want someone to mourn with me who knows what is being mourned, and maybe a bit of applause for my struggle to let go of attachments and step into a reimagined world from someone who understands the cost. That’s not a longing that goes well with being an explorer.

How does he get away with romanticizing feudalism while demonizing democratization, which is surely what that line of approaching sameness was?

In the week before going across the river to visit Caroline, I had been reading Howards End, a novel by the English writer E.M. Forster, published in 1910. I hadn’t read it since I was a young woman, when I loved it for affirming the value of the country landscape, though in English place-love translation. Indeed Howards End is a story written wholly in the language of place-love—and, place-hate, sometimes. The title is the name of a house and the lands around it that, while modest enough, represent the old landowning aristocracy of England that originated in feudal times.

The novel contains the phrase for which Forster is most famous: “Only connect!” It is the deep inner thought of his heroine, Margaret, an urbane person who learns from Howards End—the place, and the people who live there—the limits of cultural refinement and, above all, the supreme importance of a natural connective warmth between human beings that arises out of an older relationship to place and that was fast disappearing in a “commercial age.”

Human feelings are very much the subject of Howards End. The paragon of good in the novel is Ruth Wilcox, the aristocratic owner of Howards End when we first encounter it, who has a mystical connection to the place beyond normal language. Living on the estate, too, are people whose ancestors worked the land, still practicing customs dating from pre-Christian times. The pigs’ teeth embedded in the trunk of the wych elm that spreads over the house are the most concise image in the novel of the spiritual vitality of those roots. The foil to that spiritual vitality are Ruth’s husband and sons, unsentimental businessmen who don’t like Howards End because it has no modern conveniences. The true antagonist, however, the embodiment of the worst of the “commercial age,” is the loathsome tide of suburban sameness creeping inexorably out from London toward the house and its lands.

Forster was a humanist and progressive in ways that were daring for his time. And yet for these poor suburbanites he has so little love that he does not even bother to imagine them on the page. When I first read the book, and this second time, too, the question pressed at the edges of my enjoyment: How does he get away with romanticizing feudalism while demonizing democratization, which is surely what that line of approaching sameness was? What struck me this time was the longevity of the attitude. It seems not to have budged one bit in a century, our having passed into an entirely new era notwithstanding. But I saw something else, which I might not have seen had the era not changed: that I loved the village landscape because it was country, but also because of what it wasn’t—because it wasn’t suburbia, and that not being suburbia had, over time, become a part of the definition of “country” for me. Since I would be spending the night across the river I took Howards End, which I had not quite finished, with me.

Soon after my arrival we set out to meet Caroline’s friend Kate for lunch at a restaurant in a nearby village. Kate was about 12 years Caroline’s junior—that is to say, between us in age—and deeply fluent in Berkshire. Somehow suburban development cropped up in the conversation: how awful it was, and why it is that “Americans”—as if Caroline and Kate and I were not American—feel they have to have a freestanding house on a piece of land.

Off they went, the two of them, both with their beautiful old houses and even more soulful gardens, on the emptiness of the suburban dream. All about what a crime the destruction of the countryside was, and not one word about what those houses, those small plots of land, might mean to those who owned them, let alone the fairness of distributing a little to many rather than sticking with a lot for a few.

Of course I knew what they meant; they were speaking to my deepest springs of place-love. And yet, wrestling, as I was, with the paradox of Howards End, I felt I would blow my top any minute. We were in one of the most fashionable parts of the Berkshires, pastoral though it appeared to be. Didn’t they realize that the “countryside” they loved was really a kind of picturesque park, an amenity, a redoubt of privilege? Didn’t they see that they hated suburbia because it was an intrusion on that comfortable and exclusive bastion?

“Suburbia is an English invention,” I said, as a way to catch them off guard in their righteousness—a clever strategy because I knew Englishness had cozy associations of landscape authenticity for them. But then I faltered. I knew from experience that there is no winning against suburbophobia. That night I finished Howards End, closing it, for all my quibbles, with satisfaction. Illogical as Forster’s assumptions might be, his book had survived the crossing into our new era.

What is lost for us with the suburban development of the landscape?

Raymond Williams was a Welsh literary critic who came along a couple of generations after Forster, and who took as his subject the meanings with which we infuse landscape and place. He invented the excellent phrase “structure of feeling,” for those powerful combinations of emotions and ideas that we attach to landscape— among other aspects of culture—to the point that we don’t even notice them because they have become a part of our emotional and intellectual lives. A structure of feeling to which he paid special attention is the idea, to be found in much literature, of a golden past, as embodied in the memory of an idyllic landscape, in comparison with which the present is degraded.

He then showed what the supposedly golden ages really were: never golden. Williams’ focus was on landscapes of the past, both real and mythical. The one venture he made into 20th-century suburbia was coining the trenchant phrase “mobile privatism” for that way of life—but not, as far as I know, examining our contemporary attitudes toward suburbia, or our sense of an earlier golden age, which I find interesting, given that, coming two generations after Forster, he lived well into the period of the suburbanization of England. But that, perhaps, reflects the scholar’s wise caution about wading into one’s own time. Still, we can surely use Williams’s wonderful conception to say that the opinion that country is good and suburbia is bad—which the tone of the phrase “mobile privatism” might be said to reflect—is a structure of feeling deep set in the progressive mind of our times.

Something I admire about Williams is that, despite his commitment to bursting bubbles of illusion with facts, he doesn’t mistake his scholarly debunking for the last word. He is engaged with a range of ways of knowing landscape, of which scholarship is just one. For example, he wrote a two-volume novel that begins in geological time, and in which, I have been told, the mountains of Wales are a major character. I confess I have not rushed to read this novel. But I love the way giving the mountains an important part in the novel implicitly acknowledges the ultimately strange yet intimately powerful presence of landscape in our lives, that there is always more to the meaning of landscape than service as a stage set for our doings; that it is always a bit beyond us.

What is especially puzzling to me about the suburbophobic structure of feeling is that it is as rampant in progressive circles as it is among the upper class, especially “old money” landowners who have a natural interest in preserving landscapes not only steeped in family tradition but representing a society in which their position has long been one of privilege.

But what could be the roots of suburbophobia in urban progressive people? Forster’s political inclinations were courageously advanced for his time, yet he lovingly depicted endangered humanistic values thriving quietly in the aristocratic environment of Howards End. In contemporary America the urban creative class flocks in summertime to country landscapes long beloved as havens by people of wealth, developing Forsteresque attachments to those places alongside a horror of invading suburbia. What could be at stake for them—for us? I ask of myself as much as of anyone else. What is lost for us with the suburban development of the landscape?

The answer is many things—beauty, refuge, relief from the city. I wonder, too, if social position doesn’t also play a role here, even for this more modest class. Suburbia has been cast by Hollywood as a domain barren of culture and also politically conservative. That’s a stereotype, true of some suburbanites and not of others, but it’s a widespread assumption. So there is, perhaps, a level on which suburban development says to a creative or intellectual person, “There is no place for you here.”

But my guess is that the need for a sense of transcendent providential order that beautiful country can convey is the wellspring of cosmopolitan devotion to pastoral landscapes and antipathy to suburban ones as well. Quite aside from theistic doctrine, the capacity to sense ourselves as part of something larger than ourselves, and, indeed, the need to exercise that capacity, to feed it, to keep it in play in our lives—to be in relation to dimensions of life beyond our comprehension—is an elemental part of our humanity for many of us. It was for Forster surely: I can think of no other explanation for why this atheistic progressive made of a feudal holding a symbol of spiritual health.

The problem with transcendence for progressives is that it is conservative in a profound way. I would venture that Howards End expresses a conservativism in Forster, in the sense of valuing what has accumulated over time, and the ways in which it can amount to something more than the sum of its parts, its uses, its price; a conservativism that was at odds with his progressive values yet could be expressed through a relationship to place depicted in Howards End; but only because that world was depicted as sufficiently obsolete that issues of power and status, of exclusion and exploitation, were not at play. The actual form of suburbia, in contrast, breaks up landscape into tiny pieces, spreading out indefinitely, undoing the pastoral terrain as context—as something larger than ourselves. It balkanizes an age-old archetype of providential order—much as most progressives would resist that quasi-theistic idea. The pastoral landscape is the last resort of secular humanists in search of a quiet expression of their sense of transcendence—and the suburban formation destroys that. Long-shot speculation? Well, yes. But maybe it opens a tiny chink in the mystery of suburbophobia.

It would seem that just setting foot on American soil entailed contracting the “city is bad” virus.

The lecture that was on the tip of my tongue at lunch with Caroline and Kate was about the English origins of American suburbia. In Bourgeois Utopias, historian Robert Fishman identifies William Wilberforce, an 18th-century British evangelical preacher and crusader for the abolition of slavery, as the founder of the first modern suburban community, outside the farm village of Clapham, not far from London. Its pleasant environment of airy houses surrounded by lawns was an idealized country setting, in an actual working country landscape, but near enough to the city that the men could get there to work. As London grew, becoming an industrial city, it turned, in the eyes of Wilberforce and other religious people, into a cauldron of evil unsuitable for women and children: “The city is bad.”

Wilberforce’s settlement had communal spaces, but as the suburban idea became more popular these fell away. The prevailing model became the “villa,” surrounded by walls. This was a small-scale imitation of the aristocratic estate. The driving idea remained that “the city is bad,” physically and also morally: women and children should be removed to a more wholesome environment. Continental Europeans, who experienced exactly the same enlargement of their cities as well as the same cultural changes, didn’t recoil in this way at all. What Anglo-Saxons saw as vices—theater, restaurants, society, and less legitimate activities, too—they saw as attractions.

In Paris, for example, the luxury apartment building, invented for the rising industrial class, appeared along grand new avenues, such as the Champs-Élysées. Paris was the arbiter of fashion on the Continent. Suburbanization did not happen in Europe. America, however, though over half a century behind, took up the British moral loathing of cities: after all, our Puritanism originated in England. Still, the first waves of suburbanites in 20th-century America were of European extraction, descendants of immigrants who had come across the ocean for jobs. It would seem that just setting foot on American soil entailed contracting the “city is bad” virus, but then most 19th-century immigrants to America were not coming from luxury apartments on the Champs-Élysées. Many in fact were coming from peasant lives in quasi-feudal sectors of Europe, in which home ownership was beyond the reach of most.

To satisfy my suspicion that the springs of suburbophobia are lodged in a hidden relationship to providence, I have to trace back in English history past the villas to the aristocratic model on which they—unlike Clapham—were based. The villas were not imitating old landed estates like Howards End. Their model was a new aesthetic, first embraced by some in the old landed aristocracy, and then taken up in force by the new industrial capitalists, self-made men who derived their wealth not from the land on which they lived but from factories in the cities or plantations in faraway colonies.

This was an industrial-age severance of work from domestic life, breaking the direct relationship between survival and nature as we live in it. A confusing factor is that, though the industrial barons sought to overthrow the old aristocracy with free-market values and social mobility, they fervently sought to imitate the style of the old estates. On most of these work and life had been intertwined since time immemorial. But it was the newer picturesque style that appealed to the self-made industrialists.

This style was the creation of a great generation of British landscape designers who had sprung up in the second half of the 18th century; Lancelot “Capability” Brown and Sir Humphry Repton were among the most famous. These geniuses distilled the aesthetic qualities of the older estates, qualities that had evolved out from the requirements of agrarian work and of a feudal social arrangement. Lifting these qualities off their practical foundation, they created idealized facsimiles, evocative landscape romances that looked like the “real thing” but weren’t.

And indeed there were differences. On older estates, as they had evolved over time, the cow pasture came up to the house, separated from it, perhaps, by only a small formal garden. Villages inhabited by the people who worked the land were located where they had originated in the mists of time. Fields fell out in formations that had, in some instances, first been laid out in prehistoric times. In the new facsimiles, terrain was artificially harmonized and eyesores removed, cows and rough pasture put at a distance at which they are pretty, a lake created where it would improve the composition, fields tailored to visual pleasure, too, less ideal elements excised or made over.

Indeed, in one famous case a whole village was removed, because it spoiled the view from the great house. The style was called picturesque, a word that in itself conveys separation, a frame: “picturelike”—not a farmer’s term, certainly, but it was entirely suitable for estates that were not in themselves the source of their owners’ wealth but principally built for pleasure.

Is not the phobia, at bottom, a fear of exposure to the truths of modern times that finds a quiet, sub rosa expression in the language of feelings about landscape?

Indeed, pictures literally were the models for the idealizing aesthetic, in particular swooningly romanticized pastoral scenes by the French painter Claude Lorrain.

The villas, the first stabilized model of English suburbia, were, in turn, small-scale imitations of the facsimile estates. Each villa was a compartmentalized landscape, strictly separate from the realm of work. The picturesque aesthetic was miniaturized by British horticulturist John Claudius Loudon. An ocean of such tiny walled landscapes spread out inexorably, enveloping the old countryside, extensions of the ever enlarging industrial cities of England: the gray force that was approaching Howards End. The breakup into miniature units destroyed the continuousness of the natural world and the long evolving relationship of people to it, as evoked by Forster.

This destruction of a world in which work and life are intertwined in an ancient landscape overtly animates Forster’s antipathy to suburbia in Howards End. He seems to be saying of the modern world, “We need something else, we had something else, and whatever that is we can’t live without it as full human beings,” and then he cooks up a mysterious world of pigs’ teeth in the wych elm and an imbedded relation to nature with its origins in the mists of time, without noticing that he was embracing a remnant of feudalism. Are not we latter-day American suburbophobes of a piece with Forster?

Maybe we need something more, too, but don’t have a way to define it in our political and social universe.

Is not the phobia, at bottom, a fear of exposure to the truths of modern times that finds a quiet, sub rosa expression in the language of feelings about landscape? Forster created a place-language that arose out of a visceral sense that the ancient country of England was good and suburban development was bad. I am no scholar of English attitudes, but it seems likely to me that this structure of feeling had been in the cultural air for some time before Forster brilliantly expressed it in his novel. The social history of our landscape is very different, but it seems likely that in our reaction against suburbia there are strands of the Fosteresque contradictory thirst as well.

Over here in America, Andrew Jackson Downing developed both architectural forms and garden designs for suburban Americans: he is regarded as the founder of landscape architecture in the United States. His first book, which drew heavily on Loudon’s designs, was published in 1841. He was a passionate democrat. He hoped his standardized designs for suburban houses—the Italianate, the Gothic, the Bracketed—would bring to the common man a dignity long denied him.

He also believed in large urban parks for a similar reason. His partner was Calvert Vaux. Downing died very young, in an accident. After Downing’s death Vaux entered a partnership with Frederick Law Olmsted, a landscape designer who became famous for his large pastoral urban parks. Olmsted was also a passionate democrat. On a trip overseas he was impressed by the picturesque aesthetic developed for the English estates, but was repelled by the social inequity of the aristocratic system.

With Vaux he designed Central Park in New York in which a picturesque environment was open to all. Olmsted adored the natural landscape, but one could actually argue that, hero today to urbanists and suburbophobes alike, he was a great suburbophile and in fact had a hand in inventing the archetype. Indeed, he laid down the suburban ideal in the creation of Riverside, Illinois, on the outskirts of Chicago, a rolling landscape created from scratch on the flat prairie, planted with quantities of imported trees and bushes and laid out with winding roads that unfolded scenes in the most pleasing, seemingly pastoral way—a creation as severed from the continuous providential world of working country as could be. Toward the end of his life, he lived in Brookline, a rich early suburb of Boston. Brookline is famous for resisting annexation but Olmsted did not see cities and suburbs as opposed but rather as necessary to each other. He did not design Brookline but he admired the qualities that had evolved there of comfortable houses on grassy leafy plots with railroad access to dense central Boston.

Olmsted did not hate cities. He understood that cities, with their economic and cultural dynamism, were essential to the age and sought to civilize them—perfect them—with parks, and also suburban outskirts that provided relief from density. Still, suburbophobe that I am, I have to laugh at the fact that Olmsted not only was a suburbophile but made significant contributions to the suburban aesthetic. I laugh because of the way this embrace of suburban ideals collides with the sacred structure of feeling with regard to cities and suburbia among urbanists and country lovers alike: myself, for example. I laugh because these attributes are so indelible in myself: at the fact that, for all my earnest efforts to unmask old structures of feeling and to reimagine the contemporary landscape in a forward-looking way, it remains that if I were to climb the beautifully refurbished steeple of the village church and, looking down the valley, see McMansions there, I would suffer.

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From The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape. Used with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2019 by Suzannah Lessard.

Suzannah Lessard
Suzannah Lessard
Suzannah Lessard is the bestselling author of The Architect of Desire, a New York Times Notable Book. A founding editor of The Washington Monthly and a staff writer at The New Yorker for twenty years, she is a recipient of the Whiting and Lukas Awards, and has received fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and George Washington University.





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