Suburbs

The Weird Beauty of Suburbia

How can a place that we're intimately familiar with—more than half of America lives in the suburbs—be so unknowable?

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The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs, by Jason Diamond, Coffee House Press, 264 pages, $16.95

I was scrolling through the posts on my Maryland neighborhood's Listserv this summer when a notice for a bake sale caught my eye. This was no brownies-on-a-card-table affair. It sounded like a banquet, with snickerdoodles, madeleines, pecan butterballs, lemon shortbread, and other treats spread out in a senior center's parking lot.

Anyone who lives in a middle-class suburb knows that when Type A parents organize to raise money for the PTA, nothing can stand in their way. But this was a fundraiser for an initiative called Bakers Against Racism. All of the proceeds went to Black Lives Matter DC and, more generally, to groups that are fighting police brutality.

Suburbia is supposed to represent everything bland and boring, yet it still manages to surprise us. How can a place that we're intimately familiar with—more than half of America lives in the suburbs—be so unknowable? This is the enigma Jason Diamond plumbs in The Sprawl, a collection of essays tracing the "undercurrent of strangeness" running beneath fescue lawns and chain restaurants, linking Ray Bradbury to Poltergeist to punk rock. The result is an enjoyable, generous, and heartfelt tour around the suburbs of the American psyche, although Diamond sometimes boxes himself in with a too-rigid conception of the suburban way of life.

Diamond lives in Brooklyn, but his roots are suburban. Growing up, he bounced around communities on Chicago's North Shore. These are not just any suburbs: They're the suburbs, thanks to Sixteen CandlesFerris Bueller's Day Off, and other movies that John Hughes filmed in the area, shaping the world's perceptions of American suburbia for a generation to come. The misfits of The Breakfast Club are the kind of suburban souls whom Diamond most identifies with—creative, lonely teenagers restless to explore the world beyond their cul-de-sacs.

Diamond's basic theory of suburban creativity is that dull suburbs foster a sense of alienation or anxiety or bottled-up longing that sometimes becomes art. So you get John Cheever's famous short story "The Swimmer," about a suburbanite who makes his way home from a party by pool-hopping across the backyards of his neighbors, a journey that turns progressively darker; but you also get the spate of suburban horror movies of the 1980s, with a menacing Freddy Krueger hinting at suburbanites' fears of both urban crime and Russian nukes.

And you get lots and lots of music. Probably the strongest essay in the book is "In the Garage," where Diamond explores the unselfconsciousness of teens messing around with riffs or beats in suburban basements. The raw, fatalistic rock of Suzi Quatro's band the Pleasure Seekers sprang, he notes, not from mean city streets but from genteel Grosse Pointe, Michigan. In another Detroit suburb—Belleville—Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson bonded in high school over their love of Kraftwerk and Bootsy Collins and went on to create Detroit techno.

Describing the suburban genesis of hardcore punk, Diamond takes a detour through the blog Hardcore Architecture, which brilliantly pairs punk bands of the 1980s with Google Street View photos of the homes at the mailing addresses they used. Mechanized Death was based in a Colonial Revival house in Montclair, New Jersey; No Comply produced "harsh abrasive thrash" in a little ranch house in Clearwater, Florida. Diamond locates the omphalos of suburban punk in Lodi, New Jersey, a working-class, largely Italian suburb of 25,000. In an unremarkable home there, Glenn Allen Anzalone, a.k.a. Glenn Danzig, put out the debut seven-inch of his band, the Misfits. The Misfits assembled their songs from the bric-a-brac of suburban adolescence: comic books, horror movies, William Burroughs novels. Other punk bands railed against conformity, but not so much the Misfits: "They didn't write songs about the suburban experience; instead, they channeled it."

Emphasizing suburbia's role as a container for the child and teen psyche, Diamond fluidly weaves in moments of autobiography. In the most poignant of these, he returns to Buffalo Grove, Illinois, and the split-level on a hill that his parents bought when he was a baby, only to separate and move away shortly afterward. On childhood visits to family who lived in the same neighborhood, he writes, he would sometimes sneak away to the old house and gaze into what had been his bedroom.

For the author, escaping an unhappy childhood meant escaping from the suburbs. But having done so, he is unexpectedly struck by suburban longings. The smell of lighter fluid on a Weber grill full of charcoal briquettes is his madeleine. He gets nostalgic about skateboarding in parking lots, eating fries at Denny's, and hanging out at the mall. (He hopes Generation Z will reinvent the mall as a true public space, fulfilling the utopian vision of its creator, architect Victor Gruen.)

Diamond's effort to reexamine the places of his youth feels familiar, at least to this reader: As a teenager, I projected my feelings onto the world around me, but I later came to realize that my unhappiness sprang from who I was then, not where. The teenage angst animating the book gives it an emotional center.

Yet it's also a limitation—suburbia is inhabited by more than moody high-schoolers. American suburbs have undergone considerable changes over the past few decades. The prevalence of aging Baby Boomers and a low birth rate mean that many suburban households these days don't include kids. Suburban poverty is sharply on the rise. And despite a legacy of racial exclusion, suburbs are more diverse than ever; more black Americans now live in suburbs than in central cities, and immigrants have been flocking to suburbia. Diamond recounts these trends carefully at the beginning of the book, and he spends part of a chapter exploring suburban fiction by writers of color, but his core conception of what suburbia is doesn't really budge.

After the election of 2016, Diamond confides, he started to seek out the enervating atmosphere of suburban chain stores and restaurants as a form of relaxation. Watching football at a Chili's or wearing a Patagonia fleece to stand in line at Starbucks, you don't need to worry about anyone judging you—it's obvious that you're not cool. "When I drive through the suburbs anywhere in the country, I notice all the same corporate boxes that anybody from any background can fit into. You might find some indie record store or a great Mexican restaurant…but it isn't likely."

Say what? In the area where I live, city people make trips to the suburbs just for Chinese and Vietnamese food. While not all cities have large suburban immigrant enclaves, many American suburbs are dotted with restaurants that serve up dishes from around the world, a reflection of residents' diverse backgrounds and the importance of aging strip malls as small-business incubators. The idea of taking solace in Buffalo Wild Wings is funny, but a little more attention to majority-minority suburbs like Edison, New Jersey, or Missouri City, Texas, would have pointed in a different direction and enriched the book.

There's also a misstep in the penultimate essay, "The Battle for the Soul of Nod Road." Here Diamond recounts a campaign by homeowners in Avon, Connecticut, to block the construction of condos on a nearby golf course. "This was suburban activism," Diamond notes with some surprise, and he comes around to their way of thinking: "It isn't about keeping people out or stopping developers from doing business; it's about retaining peace of mind. About holding people accountable and holding back the sprawl….Suburbia would only benefit if more of its people did the same."

Yes, this is a form of suburban activism. But it isn't surprising, and it's certainly not beneficial. The campaign Diamond describes fits the larger pattern of affluent pushback to new development and, especially, to housing for people of limited means. (In 2018, the average household income in Avon was $132,500.) Defeating land-use reforms, as the Avon homeowners succeeded in doing, excludes would-be residents from desirable neighborhoods and schools in order to protect the status quo. This is what single-family zoning has done around the country for decades now, deepening racial and economic segregation.

But suburban activism takes many forms. Since the killing of George Floyd, Americans have protested in hundreds of suburbs, gathering in town squares, stopping traffic, and forming car caravans. Suburban demonstrators have sometimes faced police crackdowns, as in Aurora, Colorado, where police used pepper spray and batons to break up a June vigil for Elijah McClain, a local 23-year-old black man killed by police last year.

It's much easier, of course, to put a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard—or to organize an anti-racist bake sale. But suburbia is already changing, perhaps more rapidly than Diamond is willing to credit. And as old attitudes are challenged, there's reason to think the suburbs of the future will be more inclusive—and weirder—than the suburbs of today.

NEXT: Gavin Newsom's California Business Closures Are 'Autocratic, One-Man Rule,' Argues New Lawsuit

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64 responses to “The Weird Beauty of Suburbia

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  2. “But this was a fundraiser for an initiative called Bakers Against Racism. All of the proceeds went to Black Lives Matter DC and, more generally, to groups that are fighting police brutality.”

    Virtue signaling isn’t just for pretentious university students, Cape Cod WASPs and Hollywood parvenus anymore.
    Now even blowsy, social-climbing Karens can broadcast feigned concern for the fashionable topics of the day.

    This is proof that the West is becoming more egalitarian.

    1. Or that life has gotten too easy–and meaningless–for much of the middle class.

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      3. blowing stuff up aside, Unabomber was onto something with this ‘power process’ idea

      4. IDK. Here in NorCal the middle class is the enemy for Her Nuisance.

    2. Do they know BLM DC organizes mobs to attack the DC police station?

      1. Probably some, but mostly no.

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        2. When/if Biden is elected, the police violence will most certainly continue against Black people, and the suburban Karens will go back to the nail salons and schlepping their kids to soccer practice instead of BLM protests

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  3. ” Bakers Against Racism”

    I hope all of the baked goods were burned to a crisp. Because, remember, keeping track of the time is racist.

    1. Hell, temperatures must be racist too. I wonder about bake vs broil. Things could get messy!

    2. Black loaves matter!

      1. As long as they didn’t bake any brownies-have heard the origin of that name is likely racist

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  5. Does anyone still believe anything you read on these pages?

    1. Belief is racist. Disbelief is white privilege.

      1. weirder, like WhiteAntifa Portland weird?

        Living in the suburbs means never having to wait with a bunch of neo-progressive urban chauvinists lined up at a Nazi soup kitchen.

        Urban areas ablaze are the new flyover country.

  6. Suburbia is supposed to represent everything bland and boring, yet it still manages to surprise us. How can a place that we’re intimately familiar with—more than half of America lives in the suburbs—be so unknowable?

    Because you didn’t pay attention to what was happening around you when your were growing up?

  7. Suburbs are a stupid way to set up towns. Put all the houses together and make everyone drive to find retail or dining or entertainment, or to go to work. End the zoning laws and see what evolves organically.

    1. Give us high-density brutalist residential towers and free bicycles.

      1. Hey man Houston isnt that bad.

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  9. I love my little house and little lot in the burbs and I throw up my middle finger to all the far lefties who think it’s better for us to be packed like sardines in the city. I say if that’s what they want to do then go for it, but leave the rest of us alone. I like being a part of a community and hate small town America life, the burbs are a nice middle ground.

    1. Spent my entire life in suburbia except for a four year stint in the City of Brotherly Shove. I’d much rather hear the distant music from the high school marching band at practice than the sirens of yet another fire truck, ambulance or police car. Once one outgrows clubbing and bar hopping, and crappy public schools, the suburbs beckoned again.

  10. Let me guess, suburbia becomes cool only when it adopts the worst elements of urbanism: Racialist Virtue Signaling, the proceeds of which go to an (as of late, not so) openly Marxist organization who wants to destroy suburbia.

    1. This whole essay felt like anti-white sentiment.
      Boring, stale, lacking in culture, yada yada yada.

      Basic Bitch territory, right?

      It’s so damn cool to be oikophobic.

  11. Suburbia is supposed to represent everything bland and boring

    In the suburb I grew up in, an FBI agent lived 1 block over (and a cop), my insurance agent (who lived across the street from me) supplemented his income by being involved with a jewel smuggling ring, 2 of my friends were busted dealing in a county-wide drug sweep, and a mob lieutenant by the name of Nick Caramandi lived one block in the other direction.

    And nothing ever happened in my development.

  12. I live in a single family housing neighborhood in the city. It’s great. The best of both worlds.

  13. It’s not unknowable; It’s purposeful selfish ignorance.

    1851; Democrats – [WE – skin color identity politcs] take from our slaves because we don’t want to *earn* x, y, z. And we’ll pretend we’re virtuous by giving them shelter and food which ironically they made for us.

    2020; Democrats – [WE – various identity politics] take from our slaves because we don’t want to *earn* x, y, z and we’ll pretend we’re virtuous by giving those-people shelter and food which ironically they created for us.

    Same evil party; same principles (virtue signalling theft) – different century.

    1. 1851; Democrats – We take from our slaves according to their ability, and give to them according to their needs.

      Need I say more?

      1. A strong back is a terrible thing to waste!

  14. I grew up in a small town . then lived in the country and drove into a larger town for 25 years for work and all. Came back to take care of my parents for some years and now work and live in that small town. Not into the burbs or cities. I’ll go to visit, that’s it.

  15. I’m not reading this.

    The NY Times email blast is written by a third generation New Yorker.

    That is how the media fails to understand suburbs. Everyone else gets them just fine. Even my “urban” friends live in neighborhoods designed to achieve suburban quality of life.

  16. An unspoken truth is all types of weirdness foments in the land of boredom and cheap rents. When there is nothing to do, you make your own fun.

    And that eventually gets transferred to the big city to be discovered and assimilated.

    Curious how the perpetual distraction of the web will play into this (indeed, it seems much of the cultural trends seem constipated, but that is probably old man on the hill syndrome talking), but the web has given a window to just how weird it is out there.

  17. The misfits of The Breakfast Club are the kind of suburban souls whom Diamond most identifies with—creative, lonely teenagers restless to explore the world beyond their cul-de-sacs.

    Which is rather ironic, considering Hughes never bothered making a movie that shows what happens to those same kids once they leave the suburbs for DA BIG CITY, MAN. Everything is portrayed through the lens of someone who looks down on suburbanites, while unintentionally highlighting exactly why people move there–because they’re seen as safe, high-trust, homogenous, and predictable, and thus a reasonable place to raise a family in relative comfort. The very “blandness” that creative types use as a pejorative for the suburbs is a feature, not a bug.

    That’s why Millennials that spent the last 15-20 years using the city as a playground started moving out to the suburbs when they began getting married and having kids. This is also why the suburbs are turning more purple now, while the exurbs and rural areas become even more red than they have been in recent decades.

    1. Almost everyone I knew from high school who did their time in a big city is back in the burbs. Cities are great when you’re in your 20s and 30s and want to go bar hopping 5 nights a week, but it gets boring once you get to a certain age

      1. What is appealing about suburbs is that most of them lack the decay that is found in cities. People who live in them keep them up. This includes even many of the lower income ones. You often cross the line into the main city, though, and you see that they are literally dirty and falling apart. Even high class establishments in cities often have rats. People who live in the main city are more interested in living it up than keeping it up – so decay is tolerated, even admired. Travel down any suburban street, commercial or residential, and you see that the owners keep things neat and tidy. Travel down any street in a main city, commercial or residential, and you are more likely to see things falling apart, as the owners aren’t so interested in keeping things maintained. The same goes for the type of person who moves into each. I think that is the appeal of suburbs over the main city, and has been the appeal of suburbs for almost a century:

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  20. Niggers are ruining the suburbs.

    1. Nice try, troll. Now go home and have a bowl of borscht and a glass of cheap vodka.

    2. Is that a quote from Biden?

      “Person 2” says aloud what the typical Democrat thinks.

  21. “ Since the killing of George Floyd…”

    There is little evidence that George Floyd was killed, but some significant evidence that he suffered and died from a fentanyl overdose.

    Kneeling on someone has been an approved restraint method precisely because it isn’t very dangerous.

    Reason’s writers should aspire to greater accuracy than their competitors, not ape their propaganda and lazy assertions.

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  23. Seriously?

    Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Breakfast Club?

    That’s the burbs of 35 years ago. No wonder you don’t know the burbs.