Suburbia, Reconsidered

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It’s a weird time for the American suburbs. 

As the Trump administration attempts to secure votes in the lead-up to the 2020 election, the president has leaned in to a not-so-subtle tactic: promising to protect suburban America from the supposedly harmful influence of low-income housing, by abolishing an Obama-era rule designed to combat racial segregation. 

But Trump’s suburban rhetoric — and his apparent conviction that suburbia is the exclusive domain of affluent white housewives enjoying the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” — no longer holds water. Suburban America is more diverse than ever, and poverty is rising in the suburbs at a faster pace than in urban or rural areas. 

“I honestly don’t think that guy has ever been to a real suburb —  aside from like, golf courses.” says Jason Diamond, the author of The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs, a new examination of the suburbs and their influence on American culture. As he writes in the introduction to his book, out Aug. 25 from Coffee House Press, “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.” 

As in his previous book, 2016’s Searching for John Hughes, Diamond mined his 1980s childhood in the suburbs of Chicago for material. But he also traveled to suburbs throughout the U.S. to try and understand how they went from being perceived as utopian enclaves to bland wastelands. Along the way, he discovered that hackneyed ideas about the homogeneity of suburbia don’t hold up.

“I started noticing how much some of these places are different from the other ones — like some suburbs are suburbs, but they’re more country,” he says. “I was like, that’s interesting, because we’re taught that suburbs are one thing, and all the houses look alike. That’s not necessarily true.” 

The book is also an examination of how the suburbs have influenced popular culture and vice versa, through the work of artists like Steven Spielberg (raised in the Phoenix suburb of Arcadia, Arizona),  TV shows like “Twin Peaks” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” and authors like John Cheever, Shirley Jackson and William Gibson. 

None of this is to say the suburbs aren’t worthy of critique; as Diamond writes in the introduction, “the suburbs were a smart, practical idea that was put into practice in all the wrong ways.” He finds plenty to scrutinize in the racist policies that established patterns of segregation and inequity that persist to this day, and inthe strain of suburban NIMBYism that defends it. In addition, the car-centric geography of many suburbs takes a terrible environmental toll. But, Diamond argues, it’s worth fighting those forces and making suburbia more welcoming for all. “Whether we like it or not, the future is in suburbia,” he writes. “We just need to reclaim it.” 

We spoke with Diamond about the the cultural power of the American suburb, why stereotypes about it persist, and how life among the cul-de-sacs could change. The following conversation has been condensed and edited. 

Why did you want to explore the suburbs? 

I’d read this thing about St. Louis Park, Minnesota, which is a suburb outside of the Twin Cities. I think the Coen Brothers, Al Franken, and maybe Thomas Friedman — a bunch of people who were considered brilliant or great at their jobs — all came from the same place at the same time. I got fascinated with this idea of place, and how a place can produce certain things. 

A couple years later, my first book came out, and I was going to suburban bookstores to do talks and signings. The one thing everybody kept coming up to me and talking about was being a weirdo in the suburbs. That was the exact way they put it: “Oh, I was a weird kid in the suburbs.” Or, “I was an art kid in the suburbs. I was a punk kid in the suburbs.” They would say it with such embarrassment, and it stuck with me. I could hear the tone in their voices, and I was like, “Why are we all so embarrassed to come from the suburbs?” In the age of Twitter, it’s so easy for people to just s–t on something, and I love to kind of dive into why that is. Why, culturally, do we look down on things?

The concept of place in your book is really interesting — you write about the way the suburbs are designed, and how that can foster creativity. What’s the connection between the suburbs as a place and art?

I am always curious about how people hit a certain point and are still creative and curious about things. I started realizing that it wasn’t so much the specific suburb they were from; it was mostly the suburban way of life that influenced them. I would talk to a lot of people and everyone had the same experience: “Yeah, I was really bored, and would just draw all day.” That is a thing that unites all the people I know from the suburbs; boredom was a great connector.  

I didn’t want to write a book about the architecture of the suburbs; that’s not something I know a lot about. From the get-go, the art coming out of the suburbs was going to be the focus. We can pooh-pooh the suburbs, but we’ll call Blue Velvet one of the great cinematic masterpieces of the last 40 years, or “The Simpsons” will get voted the greatest show of all time. There’s a reason. It’s because this stuff connects to us. 

One of the suburban stereotypes that no longer really applies is that they’re extremely white spaces — now they’re more diverse, and more people immigrating to the United States are moving into the suburbs. How did you see this play out in your research?  

I definitely saw it in places closer to cities. When I was in the suburbs of Houston, you could see, this is a suburb, but there’s a lot of Latino people, a lot of people from all over India. When I went further out from the cities, it would get whiter. It was interesting to me because it syncs up with — and I always use the term “white flight” really carefully because that’s a term that’s been overused throughout history — but with the idea of how much further out white people went from the initial suburbs. But once you start seeing people of color moving further out, you’ll see even more diverse suburbs. 

But I also worry because I always say, my family gave up a lot of our [Jewish] culture to become American, and I think the suburbs had a big part in that. 

Do you think living in the suburbs still requires some level of assimilation or acceptance of an amount of homogeneity? 

I think they might. But I also think that people my age and younger, we’re more interested in our culture. I’m first-generation on my dad’s side. My family spoke Yiddish, but they didn’t want anything to do with Judaism. But I picked up the mantle. I see a lot of my friends who are children of immigrants, or their grandparents or great-grandparents were [immigrants], and I see them getting more interested in their culture and heritage. If it can keep on going into the suburbs, then I think that’s also really good for America. The whole point of this place is: Bring what you know, bring what you have, bring what you are, and you make this place better. Unfortunately I think there are way too many people who are afraid of that, as we’re seeing play out in the political stage.

Your book is coming out at a strange time, as President Trump keeps pushing this notion about how he’s going to protect the so-called suburban lifestyle. But that’s clearly an idea of the suburbs that’s based in outdated and even racist ideas of what these places are.  

The guy is stuck in the Cold War, and yeah, up until 30 years ago, what I’m saying about the [diversity of the] suburbs might not have been necessarily true. In the 1980s when Trump was busy being a billionaire playboy, not paying attention to politics, he probably saw white people in the suburbs and that’s just stuck with him this entire time.

Trump [is] like, “We’re not going to get low-income housing in the suburbs.” [But] there are more people living in poverty in the suburbs by numbers, by the sheer size of them, than there are in other parts of the country. And they could probably use that low-income housing. 

But that stereotype about the suburbs does still exist, and the fact that they’re becoming more diverse places hasn’t quite trickled down into the popular consciousness yet; do you think that’s also part of why he’s trying this tactic? 

Oh, absolutely. But it’s a stereotype that we really need to fight against, because the suburbs make up over half of our population. I mean, that’s a lot. And due to the way that the electoral college works, certain suburbs are more important every four years. A friend of mine tweeted something to the effect of, I’m so sick of people talking about how the suburbs are becoming more diverse. They’ve been more diverse. It’s just that nobody showed it that way. That’s true.

There’s also often a really negative attitude in urbanism circles about the suburbs and who chooses to live there, even though people often have legitimate reasons for choosing them over urban areas. 

People in cities have ways of s—-ing on people who don’t live in cities. But when it comes to the two groups of people, rural and suburban, there’s almost this like, “Aw, simple folk, living in the farmland, they’re dumb, and they’re gonna vote for Trump.” They feel bad for them, almost. But with the suburbs, it’s this hatred. It’s because most of us come from there, and it’s kind of funny to me. It’s self-hatred. 

You end the book by saying you’re hopeful and optimistic about the future of the suburbs. What makes you feel that way? 

It’s little things: people talking to each other, going to places and seeing more representation. I’m fascinated by young people who are moving to the suburbs and actively being like, “We want more livable places. We want to be able to walk or ride our bikes.” That kind of stuff fills me with hope. To me, these little bits of incremental change would be good. 

You also say that one way to fix the suburbs and make them more livable would be to “decrease the ease” that people who live there have gotten used to. How do you sell that to suburbanites when part of the appeal is the ease of living? 

I don’t think you’re going to sell it. As we’ve learned with trying to get people to wear masks, I don’t think we’re going to sell anything. I think you change the culture. You’re going to see people moving from the cities back to the suburbs — which was happening before Covid — and [those] people are like, “I want what I had in the city, I want more of that.” It’s not going to be widespread, but it’s going to impact the culture of certain suburbs. And that’s a good thing.

At least I hope that can happen. But I have to be hopeful at this point, because what else do we have? 

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