Read This Before Moving to the American Suburb
5 reasons to ditch this outdated social experiment. Cities rule.
It’s the first day of 3rd grade. I’m a bit fidgety.
I’m excited to be back in school but it’s not to see my classmates. I didn’t have the kind of school friends who invited me over to play in the summer.
We’re going around the room, saying what we did on our summer vacations. Some kids went to sleep away camp. One kid went on vacation with his family to Lake Arcadia, a manmade local reservoir a 15-minute drive from our small school.
I perk up when it’s my turn to talk about my family vacation. This year we went to London. I describe how tall the clock was (Big Ben) and the big palace where the Queen lives and . . .
I hear snickering. I clam up. My excitement dwindles.
My story is too different. I’m too different. Again.
We were a lower middle class working family, like all the other kids at this private school. We were far from rich.
Our family friends and family lived in London, New York City, and Accra, Ghana so that’s where we took our vacations.
These places never felt exotic or indulgent because they were a version of home for the 3 of us.
But no one in my class, not even the teacher, could relate. Several had never left the state, let alone the country.
Each trip (especially the ones to NYC) imprinted an awareness on me that there was more to the world outside my small, predominantly white suburb.
That morning in class I felt a feeling whose name I’d only uncover later in life — shame.
But, I also felt giddy with thoughts of walking under cloudy London skies while gobbling up Trifle, my Mom’s favorite British dessert.
I laughed quietly, remembering the roar of a crowd in a pub during that summer’s World Cup. It was so loud I heard it from inside my uncle’s 25th-floor apartment.
And I remembered marveling at all the different kinds of people in the same place, some of whom looked like us. My town never looked like this.
By the time I’d turn ten, these trips had crystallized the city as an oasis where I could finally feel like I belonged. College in NYC became my escape plan.
By idealizing city life for the next 8 years, I survived a suburban experience that perpetually made me feel lonely, misunderstood, and like “the other.”
My childhood town was supposed to be paradise, but things always felt a little bit off. Kind of like in that show “The Good Place.”
Let’s look at 5 cultural and historical reasons why the American suburb is the Bad Place.
Problem #1 Distance
If we were to play a word association game and you said ‘suburbs’, I would say . . .
Why does it have to take forever to get to the suburbs?
It’s important to note that I’m a New Yorker. My travel pathway to the ‘burbs is colored by a troubled subway and regional transit system.
I spend each minute of each hour of my journey to the suburbs debating whether to feign illness and flee back to the city where I can breathe again.
In the car-based cities of the US, the suburbs are even further away. Seven-lane rush hour traffic stretching for miles is migraine-inducing as any resident of Atlanta, Dallas, or Los Angeles knows.
Why would anyone choose to endure this tortured existence not once, but 2x daily in the form of a commute?
Is the promise of peace and quiet worth it especially when winter means you have to do this commute in the dark?
Problem #2 Options and opportunity
The American suburb shuts down early. People are perpetually tired there, I suppose. Or they’re not late-night eaters or drinkers or theatergoers or karaoke singers or listeners of poetry or neighborhood strollers or any of the hobbies one can have in a major metropolitan city after 9 pm.
These days, I’m not exactly dancing until sunrise on the sticky floor of some dance club. I usually spend my free nights working on my business or watching Netflix.
But doing so in a major city gives me the option open to spontaneously engage my curiosities in a way that is much more difficult to do in the suburbs.
Should spontaneity burst forth in the form of a food craving, or a desire to socialize with new and interesting people, I can take a short walk or cab ride into a whole new world.
Options matter, even if you aren’t exercising them on a regular basis.
Problem #3 Layout
The entertaining parts of a suburb tend to be the “downtown” area or “Main St.” This is usually one long street or a small cluster of blocks that are walkable and devoid of obnoxiously large parking lots.
But if these are the most interesting parts of the town, why isn’t the whole town planned out like this?
- Property ownership. People want land to call their “own.” But is your land truly yours if the bank owns 80% of it?
- Education. But children need a good school system, you proclaim. That’s true.
But wouldn’t it be interesting if parents who could afford to stay in the city actually stayed in the city and demanded better schools?
- Trees/Nature. I grew up having a big front lawn and a back yard with a whole ass swing set and it was AWESOME. Having actual grass to play on is a great experience for a kid. I concede that.
But exposure to nature is something everyone living in a city needs more of. Can we demand greener spaces?
- Privacy. I’m a digital nomad and an introvert. Sometimes you just don’t want to engage with people.
But this is also why living in NYC is an experience everyone should be required to do for a short period. You’re forced to become a master at creating personal privacy while face to face with someone’s sweaty armpit in the subway.
What you gain in land and privacy, you (and your children) lose in serendipitous interaction with people who look different from you and think differently from you.
It’s very difficult to harbor prejudices against people with whom you are forced to have MEANINGFUL, and vulnerable conversations regularly.
Problem #4 Conformity, and a lack of diversity
- Neighborhoods. In my childhood neighborhood, just across the street from my little school, a new homeowner could choose one style of house out of about 5 or 6 model homes.
For this stupid concept ubiquitous to the American suburb, we can thank a Long Islander named William Levitt. He created identical, affordable free-standing housing after World War II.
- Strip Malls. Strip malls look identical to one another. Sure, this one has a pizza shop while that one has a deli, but it’s the same damn thing. Shopping malls are a similar concept but fortunately, they’re dying.
- Racial Homogeneity. More importantly, suburbs often lack racial diversity.
Mr. Levitt’s affordably priced homes were one factor that precipitated “white flight.” White people fled in droves to the suburbs from the crime-ridden, diseased-scourged cities in the 50s and 60s. They blamed the city’s black and other non-white populations for the city’s problems.
Black people were excluded from these suburbs even if they could afford to move there.
But America has always had a racism problem, so why should the American suburb be any different?
These days racially integrated suburbs, like the one I grew up in, are still overwhelmingly white. If they are truly balanced, they contain people of similar class and economic levels.
Like racial homogeneity, a lack of socioeconomic integration can cause wealthy communities to feel entitled to their better schools. They can be less likely to recognize that all children even poor ones also deserve a good education.
Problem #5 Mindset
The suburbs are about ease, comfort, privacy, and good schools. They fly the moral flag of community — groups of people thriving around similar values, interests, and ideals.
The mission is to cultivate a life of predictability which masquerades as the more palatable idea of stability. A life that will look the same a month from now as it will in 20 years.
Cities offer the ease of opportunity to insert oneself into a new community simply because you develop a new curiosity. Chances to explore something new in the suburbs are few and far between.
The subjective sense of comfort and predictability can make suburbanites less resilient and less tolerant of change.
Change arrives in the form of a new neighbor of a different race or religion. It’s an unexpected cancer diagnosis or losing everything you own in a tornado.
If you don’t do and see new shit regularly, you’ll be less able to deal with new bad shit that happens to you. And it WILL happen because that’s life.
The suburbs can also cultivate a false sense of identity. If you are known as the doting husband and football coach like the Dad in Euphoria [SPOILER ALERT], but your sexual preferences are not an accepted part of this archetype in the small town you live in, you will have problems. Like having sex your son’s transgender classmate and then running into her at the town fair.
In the city, that is far less likely to occur because there is a higher chance of finding a community to which you can belong.
That’s why kids who feel “different” in any way, escape to the nearest major city as soon as they can like I did. You have to leave to find your people.
You escape to exist as whoever you are without the secrecy, lies, and that perpetual tormentor of humankind, shame. Tools that are often necessary to survive in suburbia.
As social critic Lewis Mumford put it, the suburbs are
“an asylum for the preservation of illusion.”
The American suburb exists because we choose socioeconomic systems that make it difficult to have land ownership, privacy, good schools, quiet, and affordability in cities.
The suburb thrives because of this, plus the false notion that it is a better place to live only because we believe it is a better place to live.
Cities thrive on the belief that acceptance and opportunity are for anyone who wants it.
The ultimate problem with the American suburb is that it’s built upon another notion that doesn’t exist: The American Dream. But that’s another conversation.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to visit the people I love who live in the suburbs (sporadically) while awaiting the arrival of high-speed trains in the US or the invention of teleportation.
Or until their kids reach college-age and I can lure them back to the big bad city.