The Nation's Pulse

Long Live Suburbia

The death of Suburban America has been greatly exaggerated.

By 9.22.11

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Repent, suburbanites, for the end is near!

That's the gist of a new piece in The Atlantic titled "The Beginning of the End for Suburban America." And this time, say the doomsayers, it's not just wishful thinking.

Many signs and wonders portend suburbia's last days. First, the number of miles Americans drove fell in 2008 and 2009. True, this could be the result of a number of things. More carpooling, for one. The corporate exodus. More telecommuting. Even -- though unlikely -- more use of public transportation.

There's just one small problem. Turns out Americans aren't driving fewer miles. In the next paragraph, the author tries to slip this in on the sly: "In 2010, Americans drove a little more [than in 2009]."

Okay, but what about this: Houses are getting smaller and using less energy. "The average size of a new home in 2010 is nearly 130 square feet smaller than in 2007." That could just as easily be a sign that suburbanites plan on having fewer children. Or that the popularity of the gaudy McMansion has run its course. Or that suburban homeowners simply want homes that are more fuel efficient. Some suburban folks, believe it or not, are actually concerned with energy efficiency. They just don't harp on it continuously. They have more important things to do. Like commute three hours to work.

Ever since modern suburbia sprung from the loins of the post-World War II economic boom it has been criticized by right-thinkers as homogenous, conformist, dull, and populated entirely with lawn-obsessed, wife-swapping alcoholics. More recently, the burbs have been attacked for the clown-like size of their carbon footprint. "[The suburbs] are the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world," says professional scold James Howard Kunstler. "America has squandered its wealth in a living arrangement that has no future." 

Well I, for one, happen to like big houses with big yards. I grew up in a family of five where we four boys were crammed into a single room the size of a telephone booth. Our backyard was far too small for the Nerf football field – Wiffle Ball diamond our budding athleticism required, which meant our neighbor's vegetable garden paid the ultimate sacrifice. At that time, my parents couldn't afford anything larger. But if today's families can, why pack your kids into one cramped room like veal calves?

The "obscene suburban lifestyle" isn't the problem and never has been. Our cities are the problem. They have become, in Rousseau's words, "the abyss of the human species." Still, a lot of suburbanites would like nothing better than to live in a great booming metropolis and enjoy a 10-minute commute to work. But for the great majority this is a non-starter. We city dwellers have to endure constant vandalism, crime, litter, noise, lousy schools, corrupt and unresponsive governments, derelict properties, drug wars, and so forth. How many times do you want to replace your shattered car windows because some hoodlum thinks there may be a revolver stashed under the front seat? (It's under my pillow.) Raising kids in the city, if you can afford not to, should be considered a form of child abuse. At the very least, child neglect.

Kunstler and his ilk drone constantly about livable cities, by which they mean green, walkable neighborhoods, close to reliable food and water supplies. They never seem to talk about cities as they really are: barbaric hellholes. For example, this summer in my inner-city neighborhood an elderly Asian couple was assaulted by a gang of teenage thugs. The elderly man was savagely beaten to death. The next day, the couple's children whisked their grieving mother away to the safety of a senior apartment building in the suburbs. It's a story that is repeated far too often. As long as such things happen, on a fairly consistent basis, the suburbs will continue to thrive. Regardless of the price of gas.

Sure, the city has its compensations: Hip restaurants, quaint homes, kitschy shops, art museums, the best music venues. But suburbanites can take advantage of these too. Many own big armored Humvees they can drive into the city, dine at some upscale Bedouin eatery, and, if they are lucky and their tires aren't stolen, they can get out of Dodge before the rioting starts.

Here's what I don't get. You'd think the city's hipsters, couch surfers, trannies, green-anarchists and urban farmers would be glad the kind of people who live in the suburbs live in the suburbs. Perhaps they should ask themselves this: do they really want hundreds of senior-level reputation development executives and B2B IT consultants moving into their "edgy" neighborhoods?

You city folk best be careful what you wish for.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.