Civil Liberties

Lawn Jockeying

The CDC takes suburb bashing to a new low.


Few features of the American landscape come in for more regularly scheduled abuse than the good old suburbs, those wall-to-wall-carpeted, finished-basement fever swamps of conformity, blandness, and sterility where, for one reason or another, most Americans — the chain-store-patronizing, mall-shopping fools! — actually choose to live (about 140,000,000 of them, according to the latest Census Bureau tally on the matter).

The basic beef with the 'burbs had already had the flavor chewed out of it by the 1920s, when urban apologists such as Lewis Mumford — yes, of the Flushing, Queens, Mumfords — inveighed that if "the 19th century American town…was the negation of the city," then "suburbia was the negation of that negation. The result was not a new synthesis but a deterioration." Since then, it seems everyone from Only Yesterday author Frederick Lewis Allen (who coined the term "suburban nightmare") to the cliché-glomming geniuses behind American Beauty (a film whose protagonist, in the words of one representative critic, struggles bravely to "awaken from the stupor of 20 years in the suburbs") to the spiteful community planners behind the recent book Suburban Nation (subtitled "The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream") have taken more free swings at the territory than Domino's has delivered abortion-free pizzas there.

Indeed, contempt for the suburbs is such a baseline assumption that even ersatz rockers like the Monkees — who claimed in their TV show theme song that they were "too busy singing to put anybody down" — broke their own sacred oath in order to mock the 'burbs in their 1967 chart-topping tune, "Pleasant Valley Sunday." Undoubtedly fueling their performance with more than a few hits off a Liquid Paper vial, Davey, Micky, Peter, and Mike, like all the other critics before and after them, cast a cold eye on the banal evil that is specific only to the suburbs. Unlike the city or the farm, sing the pre-Fab Four, the suburbs are a "status symbol land," where "rows of houses…are all the same," and "creature comfort goals…numb [the] soul." Worse yet, there's that damn "charcoal burning everywhere," testament to the human potential that inevitably goes up in smoke from prolonged contact with such creature comforts as the barbecue grills, two-car garages, front lawns, and multiple bathrooms typically found in suburban homes. (Written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, "Pleasant Valley Sunday" strangely fails to incorporate the spousal-abuse theme that marked a number of their earlier collaborations, such as "He Hit Me [and It Felt Like a Kiss]" and "Please Hurt Me;" one assumes that the songwriting couple, who were in the midst of ending their marriage around the time they wrote the song, thought the suburbs so shallow that even such misguided passions are totally absent.)

Given decades of such repetitive and unimaginative anti-suburban blandishments, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is a vein of social criticism that has finally played out, and that critics of suburbia might soon be rubbing shoulders with displaced dot-commers down at an authentic city welfare office. In the midst of an economy inevitably described as "rapidly cooling," then, it's surprising but heartening to learn of a whole new line of attack, one that promises to rejuvenate the topic for at least another few weeks, by which time fully all of Americans will actually be living in the suburbs and critics will have finished at least the first chapter of What Color is Your Parachute? in anticipation of a serious career change.

According to a recent working paper done for the Centers for Disease Control, the suburbs are not simply hopelessly uninteresting places populated by the likes of "Pleasant Valley Sunday"'s Mrs. Gray ("she's proud today because her roses are in bloom") and Mr. Green ("he's so serene, he's got a TV in every room"). More insidiously, says the CDC, the 'burbs are the main suspect in what has been dubbed "the obesity epidemic." "We are coming to the conclusion that land use, urban design and the built environment are much larger factors in public health than people have really appreciated," Richard J. Jackson, director of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, told the Washington Post. What with their big lawns, lack of sidewalks, and sprawling shopping districts, goes the CDC's line of thinking, suburbanites don't walk anywhere anymore and just become fat loads, with all the attendant illnesses.

"In this country, everything has become so easy and convenient," 44-year-old Emma Megerditchian, who emigrated to the D.C. suburbs from Iran two decades ago, told the Post. Don't get Megerditchian wrong — "I love this country" she swore — but the move to the Land of Opportunity made everyone in her family "turn into a giant." Fully assimilated into an anti-suburban mentality — and perhaps just a tad wistful for the material deprivations that keep people in the Islamic republic stylishly svelte — she clucked, "Drive-through cleaners? Drive-through post office? During the day when it's nice, go get some fresh air."

Unlike the bulk of allegedly bulky suburbanites, the CDC is not taking the slide into chubbiness lying down. Like a government-funded Richard Simmons, the agency is spearheading efforts to "Fight the Fat." (No news on whether or when the CDC will release its version of Sweatin' to the Oldies.) Chief among these are the creation of a "national obesity map" (Here's a hint: Start with Houston and then head north to Detroit), and a $4 million, Atlanta-area study in which 800 people will strap on global-positioning devices so researchers can tell, in the words of a CDC spokesperson, "if you cross the road for shade. Or because there are more shops. Or because there's something to avoid, like the sidewalk stops." While the CDC won't even be starting its programs until March, we're betting dollars to drive-thru donuts that the agency will indeed find that suburbanites tip the scales on the heavy side. Indeed, such a bet is as solid as a Godiva soccer ball, if only because, as Suck fearlessly reported years ago, all Americans are increasingly what used to be euphemistically called husky.

We're less convinced, however, that the CDC's novel addition to the plus-sized corpus of anti-suburban sentiments will do much to fully revitalize the field; in the final analysis, it represents dessert, not the start of another banquet. Last year, even as American Beauty was snagging more awards than a typical suburb has Jiffy Lubes, a full-fledged revision of thinking on the matter was getting underway. Scholarly books such as Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened and American Dreamscape: The Pursuit of Happiness in Postwar Suburbia argued that the suburbs may not be all that bad — or all that different from other areas. (As the authors of Picture Windows, who teach at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, discovered, their suburban students "led lives as intricate as any urban dweller.") Other academics, including folks at Ohio State, Syracuse, and Rutgers, are making a similar case that, in the words of Rutgers' James Hughes, "the suburbs today are really cities in horizontal form….all the economic functions that were once in cities are now in suburbs." The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to "the triumph of burbopolis." Amid conventional snipes at suburbanites (defined by the Times essentially as anyone who doesn't live in Manhattan) the article had some kind words for Levittown, Long Island, the epicenter of postwar suburbia.

More to the point than such markers of elite opinions are popular cultural artifacts such as The Sopranos, which hints that the suburbs are not simply acceptable, but perhaps where the action really is. Certainly those self-propelled refugees (and if the CDC is right, soon-to-be fat loads) from Walton's Mountain on the one hand and Greenwich Village on the other, who just keep streaming into the suburbs, must have their reasons for heading where they're heading. (Big, relatively cheap houses and decent yards, lower than average crime rates, increased proximity to work and other amenities, and the possibility of gin-soaked key parties have a certain obvious lure.) Whatever the ultimate cause for the continuing popularity of the 'burbs, these days we hear America singing a different "Pleasant Valley Sunday."

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.