Is suburbia the American dream — or its worst nightmare?
On the very first page of “The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs,” author Jason Diamond describes feeling ambivalent about admitting you’re from the suburbs. “If you’re from Long Island … you’ll tell anyone who asks you’re from New York,” he writes, to which I reply, “Guilty as charged.” Diamond himself has always claimed Chicago as his place of origin, even though he grew up in cozy, leafy neighborhoods outside the city limits.
But, oddly, Diamond does not come to bury the suburbs but (largely) to praise them. For Diamond, the suburbs “were a smart, practical idea that was put into practice in all the wrong ways….” And unlike this writer — who to this day feels like he was stripped of his birthright the day back in 1961 when his parents uprooted him from Jackson Heights, Queens, to the nowheresville of Islip, thereby condemning him to grow up amidst the numbing conformity and cultural wasteland of suburbia rather than the vibrant cultural ferment of downtown New York City in the 1960s and ‘70s — Diamond still believes in the strain of pastoral idealism that fueled early efforts to settle the areas between cities and rural districts, such that in the end, he concludes, “… whether we like it or not, the future is still in suburbia [and] we just need to reclaim it.”
As Diamond explains, there are at least two kinds of suburbs: those that sprung up organically on the edges of cities in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, which would have included Brooklyn and my native Queens, and the planned developments built in the wake of the Second World War, the most famous of which were the various Levittowns (seven in all) built by William J. Levitt. The architect of suburban developments was born in Brooklyn in 1907, the grandson of a rabbi who had immigrated from Russia. The original idea behind Levittown was ostensibly to provide cheap housing to returning GIs and their families — the mortgage payments on one of these mass-fabricated houses would be less than the monthly rent on an average city apartment. These developments wound up encouraging “white flight” from urban areas, with their promise of a (very small) patch of green for everyone and their restricted deeds that forbade sales to people of color—the “suburban lifestyle dream” that Donald Trump recently revived as part of his racism-fueled campaign for reelection. (Restricted deeds weren’t the only guarantee of lily-white suburbs; social pressure picked up where unenforceable covenants left off. When my family moved to Islip, one of the only other Jewish homeowners in the neighborhood warned us not to stir the pot by being seen socializing with Black people.)
Diamond, who has lived in Brooklyn for several decades and whose previous book was “Searching for John Hughes” (HarperCollins), about the cinematic chronicler of teenage suburban life in the 1980s and 1990s, waxes nostalgic for the suburbia of his youth. His favorite pastime whenever he visits his in-laws, who live outside Hartford, Conn., is to sneak off in his car to nearby shopping malls and big-box stores to get a fix of his suburban childhood with all the emotional impact of Proust’s madeleine. He gushes about his grandparents’ place in Boca Raton: “So much of Southern Florida gets a bad rap for being a place for senior citizens, but to me, it was the ideal suburban setup.”
But is there really such a thing as an “ideal suburban setup”? Can a town built without sidewalks in order to discourage pedestrians in any way be considered “ideal?” Can the architecture — if one can call it that — of the suburbs that gives primacy to the driveway and the garage in any way be “ideal?” Haven’t the suburbs proven to be the most destructive form of development in the U.S. and across the globe, with their overreliance on private-passenger gas-powered automobiles; their destruction of vast tracts of wild habitat; their culture (I use the term loosely) of faceless and characterless conformity; their environmental destruction that has helped foment the climate crisis; and the fraying of family and communal ties that are built right into their plan and design? To say nothing of the racial segregation embedded in their very DNA — the original sin of the suburbs.
The prewar suburbs, writes Diamond, “were built with the idea of humans living closer to nature while still having access to the modern world, but that idea was traded for convenience.” The postwar suburbs have left us instead with the sprawl of the book’s title, where one place blends seamlessly into another, where everything looks the same, and it’s all so downright depressing. As Diamond elucidates with considerable authority, the suburban dream has fueled the imaginative nightmares of many writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians, stretching from Shirley Jackson to Stephen King to George Lucas to David Lynch to indie-rock band Arcade Fire, whose Grammy Award-winning album, “The Suburbs,” was a kind of manifesto against suburbia in the form of an experimental-rock song-cycle.
Diamond, who was the editor of the Jewish pop culture website Jewcy.com and who has written for The New York Times, Esquire, the New Republic and Tablet, sees the suburbs as having taken over from cities the role of the “melting pot” — a problematic notion from the outset — wherein waves of immigrant populations and ethnicities could assimilate on the road to achieving the elusive American dream. He writes, “… I for one welcome more people moving to the suburbs. For so many it represents mobility, moving forward. It was something I saw in Skokie with my own family…. [m]y hope for the suburbs’ legacy is that suburbia could give people the opportunity to get to know other people and their cultures, the way I’ve always felt lucky to do in Skokie.”
Diamond is ever the optimist. “The sprawl,” he writes, “has consumed so much of this country with its ugly houses, chain store upon chain store, forgotten shopping plazas, and endless stretches of road. But it wasn’t supposed to be that way, and in that I see a chance, an opportunity.”
For someone who views the suburbs as the worst thing that ever happened to America and the worst thing that ever happened to him personally, I will just have to take Diamond’s word for it.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward. He lives in the small, upstate city of Hudson, N.Y.