Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Suburbs

I was sitting out in the sun today reading this book, Clash of Eagles. It's a novel about an alternate history, if the Nazis had invaded America in 1940, Christmas Day, and the subsequent occupation and resistance. Excellent book, this is my second time reading it and it is just as good as the first. It is set in New York City, and it got me thinking. Why the hell do people want to live in suburbs?

Around here, in southwest Florida, that's what we have. Fort Myers has a sort of city center, but it's rather run down, and certainly not a place people live-- it's a business district for a small city with little actual business. Punta Gorda is nicer, with more of a "downtown" feel, but is itself much smaller than Fort Myers. Cape Coral was built from literally nothing starting in 1957, and it shows. There is no center, just long commercial strips along the main roads, then a horrifyingly unnavigable grid system of suburban sprawl amid the endless canals. The Cape is huge (considering it was intended as a retirement town/bedroom community for Fort Myers), large in area and population-wise, with more than 150,000 people, and most of it is a blight to me. I console myself with the knowledge that it will be under the waves of the Gulf in a hundred years.Who said climate change didn't come with some benefits, right?

The vast majority of the cities down here are much of the same. Even the upscale subdivisions and gated communities are rather crummy. I'm not saying there's no neighborly friendliness, but there's no life to it. Or, put another way, living here there's all the negatives of living in a city: the traffic, the noise, the air pollution, the close quarters with other people, yet also all the negatives of living in the country: namely, the long driving distances and relative (if not strictly actual) isolation. Where I lived most of my life so far, back in an older, inner-ring Detroit suburb, I used to think it a long way to Oakland Mall, a mere 4 miles from home; but I rarely had to go there, because there were places much closer that generally had what I needed. I could walk or bike to work for many years, for 3 different jobs. Down here, it's 7 miles to the first grocery store, with nothing in between but housing and undeveloped land. To the mall, double that number. There is a Walmart about 8 miles from here, but... well, fuck Walmart.

So you get all those negatives, but none of the benefits. You can't live the quiet country life, with the space and freedom to do your own thing: you're in a city (incorporated or not), and there are all the usual building codes and zoning laws. On the flip-side, cities are great because people live in close proximity, resulting in lots of interaction and mix of ideas and experience. It's a little horrifying to me how people live stacked on each other in cities like New York and Chicago, yet I always said if I were to live in a city it would have to be in the thick of it. I can see the allure, of the culture and vibrancy of it all. The excitement of never knowing who you might meet, what new idea or experience might come your way.

Part of Cape Coral. The canals make it a confusing maze.
But it often feels like we developed almost nothing in the last several decades but single family housing: the suburb, and its especially malignant form, the subdivision and the gated community. Where people huddle alone in front of their TVs and computers, with a large spatial buffer around them-- their yard-- everyone spread out and rarely interacting much. We drive everywhere because everything is so far away, and because everything is too decentralized for public transit, thus making traffic terrible. Human interaction is there reduced mainly to turn signals and road-rage middle fingers. We often don't work, shop, or publicly recreate near where we live, reducing the feeling of, the reality of, "neighborhood" and "community". We are alone out there, in the midst of thousands.

I've been told, on the way to this or that job or other trip to the nicer areas down here, like Bonita Springs, Naples, Marco Island, that "oh, that's a really nice area down there." Then I get there and see nothing but the same sprawling, broken living arrangement that you can't really call a city, because it's just a bunch of juxtaposed homes. This is more horrifying to me than living in the middle of New York City.

Mind you, I'm not really critiquing here the houses themselves, though I find them disagreeable as well. What ultimately bothers me is the lifestyle of modern Americans (yes, in the cities too, where people hide in their apartments just as much as the suburbanites do in their homes). People who live in a subdivision but work elsewhere, who's neighbors work elsewhere as well, almost never at the same place as each other, who have little relation to each other save for proximity and the general beliefs and biases that often at least somewhat unify socio-economic groups. Neighborhoods are planned and developed, and therefore there is even less mixture between the classes than before. Obviously they've always lived separately, but now, great blocks of land are built up to cater to a specific income level, and are often gated off.

It's like a massive sterilization of our culture, this move to the suburbs and the attendant car culture and television addiction. Does any great art or poetry or philosophy really come from the suburbs? Sure, you can have those things anywhere, from the idyllic pleasure gardens to the dankest gulag in frozen Siberia. Clearly, though, there are places that better encourage such endeavors. The country and the wilderness provide raw, inhuman reality, where insights and inspiration fall upon you like the sunshine. Meanwhile, cities have always been the engines and factories of art and high culture. They are where things mix together, where there is struggle and competition, influence and interaction, the great coming together from many places and many ways of life, all fermented together in the crazy alchemy of concentrated living.

But the suburb, well, it is a weak dilution of both. Things are made more interesting, true, by the internet, which connects people in unimaginable ways. Before, someone not living in a city had little access or exposure to the great thinkers, poets, artists, writers, and musicians. Now, I can interact with people from all over the world on message boards and blogs, can hear music from foreign countries, read (and contribute) poetry and stories and get critiqued on them, can post paintings and have more people view my amateur art than great artists ever did in their day, can find people with the same interests and hobbies, no matter how obscure... and all that interaction and influence is real.

Yet, one feels something vital missing. How often do you expose yourself to things you aren't interested in, aren't in agreement with? The internet is very self-centered: we search out people like ourselves, with common interests. We read the blogs and newspapers and editorials we agree with, and never see the ones we don't. I exaggerate a bit, but if you think about it, it's basically true. But if you're hanging out in some hip urban bar or cafe, you're going to hear people who aren't like you, who challenge you, who will speak things that you disagree with. You can't just change the channel, close the webpage, tune them out; they are there and demand to be dealt with. It is the unpredictable nature of the city that fascinates me; but the suburban lifestyle is made to be safe, secure, predictable, and in the end, bland and lifeless.

I'm not saying anything new here. It's been said before, to the point of it being a cliche: the suburbs are boring. But why, then, do people continue to flock to them? What is the allure of those dead-end cul-de-sacs, the confusing, windy streets and the cookie-cutter homes? I grew up in them and never understood it, always knew I'd have to get out of them, or somehow die inside. Am I really that different from everyone else? Someone tell me what the great thing is about the suburb, because I just don't get it.


  1. Initially, the suburbs provided WHITE families the ability to get away from colored ones. During the 50s and 60s, as so many people gravitated toward the middle class, black, brown, red and yellow-skinned people starting moving into previously all white neighborhoods. Since federal laws increasingly made it more difficult to deny or exclude them, whites started to move to the city's edge to escape organic integration.


    On another note, though I live in a small town in a rural area 75 miles from the nearest city of any size, I do live in a neighborhood in which most of my neighbors don't think like I do! My next door neighbor (Todd) and I disagree on almost any topic that can be broached!! The lady across the alley thinks my wife & I are hippies. Yet, despite our differences, we know and converse with almost all of our neighbors.

  2. I live in an apartment complex where except for the usual "good morning" and "hello" greetings on the sidewalks, no one ever talks. Ever. You go into the laundry room and try to strike up a conversation with someone and they can barely be bothered to look up from their cell phone. I can count on one hand the number of neighbors I've known on a first name basis over the ten years or so I've lived there. It's a completely dysfunctional environment from a human interaction standpoint. If this is what high density urban living is all about these days then it's no better than the isolated suburban life...

  3. Del, quite true; really it comes down to the shift in American lifestyle over the last 60 years, which I believe is largely attributed to suburbanization and the issues that go with it: television, personal automobiles, computers/iPods/cell phones (ironic, that one)... So now, yeah, even the city centers are pretty isolated in terms of community.

    Trey, I know all about white flight; it's a clearly defined phenomenon in Detroit, where from I originate. And, I never said everyone will (or should!) agree on everything in the communities they live in; just the reverse, I think that's one of the cons of subdivisions, where they concentrate people with the same socio-economic status, and thus tends to decrease the range of opinions. Not that alone, of course, pop culture plays a large part, and I'm not saying suburbanites are all drones.

  4. I grew up in an moderate sized city, a railroad town, that simply grew. It was not white flight, but simple rural to urban expanision; farms on the edge of town were sold and developed; on the street where I grew up, the houses are like a living mini-architectural lesson of style from the 30s to the 70s; each house is a little newer. It was post-war baby-boomism that generated suburbs in my hometown.

    On the other hand, I lived in a neighborhood, which I think is distinct from a community. Neighbors are different than community members. I think the condo association is the most horrible example of community, especially for folks who want to be just good neighbors.

    I think the communication technology you cite mostly serves to isolate people, no matter where they are, that whole "cocooning" concept.

  5. Where is you're first come from?

  6. Detroit, Michigan. Well, one of the older suburbs, anyways.