Reconsidering the Weird American Suburb

Reconsidering the Weird American Suburb

Nicholas Cannariato
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The midsize midwestern city where I grew up was outside the orbit of any big city’s metropolitan area—a postindustrial landscape whose anonymity was its defining quality. Risible as it sounds, I was pretty unaware that I should’ve felt angst about my hometown’s cultural vacancy. I knew it wasn’t cool or interesting; I also knew I didn’t feel inclined to stay long-term, mainly because I didn’t see a path to sustainable work there. Yet I lacked the “truth is elsewhere” feeling in my bones until well into my college years, after I had been exposed to my classmates: restless suburban kids beset by a gnawing urgency that was alien to me. What I left my hometown feeling was that even if it was time to go, cultural striving and enriching community should and could exist almost anywhere. My suburban classmates seemed to feel differently: some places were cultural voids. 

The city where I grew up is perhaps best known for being Cheap Trick’s hometown and having a water park that’s visible from the highway. When I was a kid, my reality lacked a cosmopolitan horizon that might make my city’s parochialism feel parochial. Maybe that was for the best: in retrospect, its blandness and isolation engendered in me an imaginative freedom and autodidact’s temperament. I didn’t yearn to break free then, but, rather, to grow in what I loved (always books, always music) and pursue them with monastic fervor. Growing up in a mildly meh milieu allowed me to settle into the contours of life without the demands of ambition, excellence, brilliance, or whatever looming over me. It was a racially diverse place with a broad socioeconomic range, but it was also a place in which you could live and die a baseline pleasant life, one unclouded by larger questions of cultural politics. It was Edenic in its mediocrity. I somehow figured suburban kids might feel the same way about where they were from. 

But no. For my peers, the suburbs were boring places to escape from, Smashing Pumpkins songs as lived reality. There was something about being from the suburbs that seemed to set these people’s compasses awry, stir in them a need to forge an identity elsewhere. The urgency was palpable. Media conditioning aside, it also seemed like my peers’ feelings were related to their being from an in-
between place. The suburbs—not city and not countryside, a stifling gray area—made them feel that whatever it was they needed to do had to be done elsewhere. Usually that meant heading to a big city, usually on a coast, since growing up in the Chicago suburbs meant compounding the complex of being from the suburbs with the complex of being from the Midwest. 

As I aged, I realized that my peers’ perception of the suburbs was too simple. I came to see the suburbs as sites of lost and future potential, places where originality, unconcerned with its own reflection, could shine. Perhaps, I began to think, the suburbs could be something more: zones of cultural limbo where people could create, contribute, and imagine themselves—or figure out what any of that means to begin with. In these zones, you wouldn’t “settle down” so much as “settle in.”

Given my amateur anthropologist’s experience of the suburbs, I couldn’t help but be interested in Jason Diamond’s The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs. A book that blends social criticism and memoir, The Sprawl never gets too sentimental about the suburbs and remains acutely aware of their past and present limitations. Historically, the suburban ideal is, among other things, a desire for blinkered and enervating simplicity. Diamond invokes Back to the Future to illustrate this, contending that the 1985 movie “summed up the suburban zeitgeist better than most people might’ve realized.” In Hill Valley, California, the town where the movie is set, the sense of a lost golden age, of curdled middle-class disillusionment, pervades all. You can see it early in the movie in the hapless passivity of Marty McFly’s father, George, and the blunt dissatisfaction of his mother, Lorraine. The implication, as I see it, is that the suburban ideal has failed in its promise, if only because that promise was built on faulty ideals.

Reconsidering the suburbs further requires us to consider their racist origins. Starting in the 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration would not insure mortgages for homes in neighborhoods of color, and it encouraged racially restrictive covenants that prevented or impeded people of color from buying homes in white neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the FHA’s 1938 Underwriting Manual recommended against “incompatible racial and social groups” living together and encouraged the use of highways to further housing segregation. As white residents got federally insured mortgages to move into the suburbs, lenders peddled high-risk loans to aspiring home-buyers of color. These practices led to mass disenfranchisement and exclusion from the white suburban developments the FHA was promoting. This carried on into the 1960s, ultimately leading to the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which essentially banned housing discrimination. And yet, forms of housing discrimination remain today. 

Then there was the matter of public housing. Public housing during the New Deal was conceived to provide housing to working class people who needed it (and a jolt to the beleaguered housing industry), but racial segregation was endemic to it. As white flight from cities to the suburbs proceeded, public housing in many cities disproportionately housed people of color without access to gainful employment and without the option to leave the blight foisted upon them. 

Amid this history of racist neglect, Diamond also locates the history of the American suburbs in a utopian striving for sylvan surrounds. The Llewellyn Park community, nestled in the New Jersey township of West Orange, might be one of the suburbs’ most intriguing expressions. Its founder, Llewellyn Solomon Haskell, was “a rich man looking for spiritual fulfillment,” Diamond writes. Llewellyn Park was Haskell’s attempt to create that fulfillment, a utopia that manifested “spiritual enlightenment through good landscaping.” What’s perverse about Llewellyn’s conception of the suburb is that it turned nature into private property. It was and is famous as a gated community, with large lots full of trees and greenery. However, these lots place a premium on personal privacy that borders on seclusion. The same can be said of a suburb like Lake Forest, on Chicago’s North Shore. To get there, you drive quite a ways north from the city until you reach a village hidden away amid trees and ravines. It’s quiet, beautiful—and, for me, unnerving. Lake Forest wants to look like it’s part of nature, but its planned and exclusive landscapes feel, well, unnatural. Llewellyn Park’s and Lake Forest’s deference to nature endures in suburbs like Highland Park and Riverside, both of which sit outside Chicago. And yet, however loftily conceived Llewellyn Park’s or Lake Forest’s nature-forward, privacy-focused planning may have been, it still leaves most everyone else on the outside looking in. 

This sense of seclusion—from others and from America’s racial and cultural diversity—is why so many people really experience suburbs as places of cultural torpor and spiritual desolation. Diamond wrestles with this reality through a case study of one of America’s most famous suburbs: Levittown, in Long Island, New York. When he visits, he’s struck that “very little feels natural in Levittown; it’s a gloomy place. But most of all, it’s hard to shake that feeling of loneliness.” It feels isolated, like an odd collection of ruins or, as he puts it, “like another planet we colonized and built up, then sort of gave up on… There’s so much in Levittown, but there also isn’t much of anything.” Diamond often returns to and reflects on this feeling, effectively conveying the muted thrum of adolescent urgency to which it gives rise.

Diamond illustrates how teenage suburban ennui can give way to ambition by writing about the seminal punk band the Misfits. The band broke out from Lodi, New Jersey, and wrote songs about the comic books and B horror movies that provided a childhood sanctuary. “Glenn Danzig and the Misfits celebrated the things that made living in the suburbs a little more bearable,” Diamond writes, “and used them as inspiration.” He concludes that they “are a testament to having one big weird idea, free from the trends and financial hand-tying that might curb such ideas in the city, and just going with it.” This is the paradoxical psychological dimension of the suburban experience—a sense of constriction and compression that artists can mine for the ideas that form like diamonds within it.

Diamond himself spent part of his childhood in the Chicago suburb of Skokie. Some may know it because of the 1978 controversy involving an attempted neo-Nazi march—a bald provocation in a suburb with a large Jewish population—but there’s a lot more. Once called “The World’s Largest Village,” Skokie is, for Diamond, a model of what meaningful community can look like. He remembers it fondly as a diverse place, hardly like the suburban nightmare of the popular imagination. “Besides the large numbers of Jews—some recently defected from the Soviet Union, some second- or third-generation Americans, others part of that sizable population of Holocaust survivors—on my little street alone I can recall Black neighbors and Greek neighbors,” he recollects. “The family next door was from Bangladesh, the neighbors in my building spoke Spanish and Yiddish, and my best friend was a kid named Eugene whose family was originally from South Korea.” Skokie, for him, was and is an attempt at an inclusive version of the suburban American ideal. “It’s not perfect,” he reflects, “but people there are out walking, talking to strangers, going to the library, and its population comes from all over the world.” 

Today, suburbs continue to grow more diverse, making Skokie less an exception than a harbinger of what a pluralistic suburban community could be. The scholar Richard Florida argues that immigration in America is an increasingly suburban rather than urban phenomenon. What’s more, he notes a sustained flow of African Americans to the suburbs. Between 1970 and 2000, the percentage of Black suburban dwellers rose by roughly 50 percent in suburban Atlanta and the greater Washington, DC, area, for example. Florida posits that this is due in part to the gentrification of big cities, which pushes poorer Black residents out, and in part to members of the Black middle class seeking higher-end suburban lifestyles. In contrast, from 2000 to 2010, whites made up less than 10 percent of suburban population growth in America’s one hundred largest metropolitan areas. So, taken as a whole, suburbs are becoming melting pots in a way the cities they hug have been historically. Increasingly, it seems, the idea of the suburbs as dead and dull is itself dead and dull.

Or maybe the suburbs were never dead at all. Since fleeing his childhood surrounds, Diamond has had time to reflect on how they provided him the space to cultivate his sensibility as a writer. “What I was rich in was space, lots of space and plenty of free time to roam around it,” he realizes. “I had physical space, but I also had mental space. I could really experience things—movies and records, books, and people. I had time to let it all seep in and help build the person I am today. The suburbs made me, and it took me a long time to understand that.” I feel similarly about where I grew up. Quiet and (often boring) places, it turns out, can compel the growth of imagination as a sanctuary and staging ground for who you want to be. I guess that’s something you can’t really understand unless you’re looking back. 

In the interest of full disclosure: Diamond and I now both live in big cities. I live in Chicago, Diamond in New York. Nevertheless, it took his moving to New York to reflect meaningfully on what the suburbs meant to him. It’s unlikely I’m returning home anytime soon. But Diamond’s successful inversion of the suburban ideal as a place of innovative refuge rather than middle-class enervation has taught me how to look anew at these spaces as pregnant with potential. I never thought I’d be sitting here in the city, writing about the suburbs as sites of cultural dynamism and self-discovery. But maybe I’m being too parochial. It wouldn’t be the first time.

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