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?
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 Candles, Ferris 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.