Are America’s suburbs facing end times? That’s what a host of recent authors would have you believe. The declaration comes in variety of guises, from Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion (2012), to “the peaking of sprawl” pronounced by urban planner Christopher Leinberger to, most recently, to Leigh Gallagher’s The End of Suburbs(2013). Suburbs and sprawl have joined the ranks of “history” and “nature” as fixtures of our lives that teeter on the verge of demise—if we’re to lend credence to this latest clamor from journalists, planners, and academics.
When you declare the “ending” of a place where you acknowledge over half of Americans now live, just what does that mean? One sure bet is that their demise won’t prove nearly as definitive or thorough-going as advertised. Looking around the Long Island neighborhood and town where I’ve lived for the last twenty years, I don’t see them vanishing any time soon. Moreover, from my own perspective as a long-time resident as well as historian of such places, the particulars grounding this narrative point to something very different: the rise of conditions, as yet only starting to be realized, for a new suburban progressivism.
This media wave of talk about suburbs or sprawl “ending” mirrors an earlier one in the decades after World War II, which fleshed out a rise of “mass suburbia.” That earlier wave turned out to be well-nigh mythological in its selectivity, its choice of emphases and its silences. Embellishing the idea of suburbs as more than just a place, as an entire, distinctive way of life, it built upon age-old notions of suburbs as simply the edges of cities, also a change commencing over two hundred years ago among cities in the industrial West. Cities began to grow less through the spread of a discrete and distinct rim than via a widening transition zone between city and countryside. But only after World War II did the idea of “suburbia” congeal into a solid stereotype: those subdivisions of lawns and single family homes occupied by a white middle class.
Among the earliest discoverers was 1950s Fortune correspondent William Whyte, who found in the suburbs an entire generation of upwardly mobile, affluent, younger families, in search of the American dream. Journalists concentrated mainly on places that fit this story line, the very largest and newest housing developments around the very largest of cities. Early coverage celebrating these suburbs classless-ness was quickly followed by more critical accounts. Commentators such as Whyte and Frederick L. Allen distinguished this “new suburbia” from an older one they preferred, quieter and smaller and more securely elitist. Sociologists taking a more even-handed approach, such as Herbert Gans and Bennett Berger, also questioned the “myth” of these places’ classlessness, by highlighting more working class homeowners and communities. The great majority of those moving into such places had also been white, and as the racial imagery of a white “donut” surrounding a black core consolidated with the urban and busing crises over the 1960s and 70s, an ambivalent imagery of postwar “suburbia” stuck. At once affluent, middle class, and white, but also vaguely declassé, suburbs were self-satisfied and reactionary places that deserved the progressive city-dweller’s disdain.
While these authors do leaven their arguments with a lot more demographic yeast than their 1950s predecessors, they still leap to generalizations that, in an era of soaring income inequality, bear more scrutiny than they get. When Gallagher refers to how “we rebuild once or twice a century in this country,” just who is this “we” she means? It is not hard to draw some unsettling answers. As an editor at Fortune, as avowed resident of Greenwich Village, whose one-bedroom rentals are the most expensive in Manhattan, she seems heavily identified with affluent, especially the movers and shakers in the development community. Whether singling out recent failures of building projects in outer suburbs or exurbs, concentrating on suburban malls that have been abandoned or are being retrofitted, or homing in on downtown reconstructions, “end of suburbs” authors often tacitly adopt a financial standard for future promise: where the most real-estate money is to be made.
By the same token, this literature of suburbia’s end offers astonishing little reflection on the implications of its favored trends for the ways in which our cities divide the wealthy from the rest. Today’s declarations of an “end of suburbs” come just as rents in places like Manhattan are hiking out of reach of the merely middle class, generating anxieties tilled, most recently, by Bill de Blasio’s successful campaign for mayor. Yet when Gallagher sweepingly contends that “millenials hate the suburbs,” she doesn’t even ask how many young people are actually going to be able to afford living in cities. And at this point, as well, her definition of “suburbs” itself suddenly narrows: just the subdivisions and malls, not the new “planned community” or the “urbanized small town or suburb” that may lie nearby.
The trend of urbanizing suburbs offers the most compelling angle of this reputed “end” for us actual suburbanites. For a good while in suburbs like my own Long Island, proponents of smart growth and the New Urbanism have pushed for multiuse, for bringing apartments into old town centers, for recreating walkability there. Having watched and participated in the political rows stirred by such projects, like Avalon Bay’s plan to build an apartment complex near the Huntington train station, I can say this: those people most likely to see these projects as an “end of suburbs” aretheir opponents. For the rest of us, their supporters, they look more like diversifying: taking us away from the old “suburbia” stereotypes, but not by leaving subdivisions behind. All those stores, restaurants, and events available in walkable downtowns have the virtue of enhancing the suburban experience for those of us who remain homeowners, even as they furnish living quarters for renters who might otherwise leave: twenty-somethings, singles, and the elderly.
“The end of suburbs”—it’s a dramatic claim, and as mythological as that old “myth of suburbia,” especially for those of us living in the places that are supposed to be ending. I prefer another narrative, with a more positive spin. The demographic and other changes underway in our suburbs may well wind up breaking the old stereotype in another way, by building the basis for a newly inclusive and forward-looking politics in the suburbs.
Christopher Sellers is a Professor of History at Stony Brook University and author of Crabgrass Crucible; Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America(2012), He is now writing on, among other things, the historical relationship between suburbanizing, race, and environmentalism around Atlanta.