Critics of the American suburbs have long charged that suburban lives are incomplete, diminished, or not all they are cracked up to be. Yet, Americans keep moving to suburbs and aspiring to live there. I was reminded of this by seeing a quote from Bennett Berger’s 1960 study Working-Class Suburb: A Study of Auto Workers in Suburbia:
The critic waves the prophet’s long and accusing finger and warns: ‘You may think you’re happy, you smug and prosperous striver, but I tell you that the anxieties of status mobility are too much; they impoverish you psychologically, they alienate you from your family’; and so on. And the suburbanite looks at his new house, his new car, his new freezer, his lawn and patio, and, to be sure, his good credit, and scratches his head bewildered.
Why can’t Americans take the hint and stop moving to or living in the suburbs when the problems (an auto-dependent lifestyle, emphasis on private houses, limited community life, use of lots of resources to sustain daily life, etc.) are so clear? There are two possible answers to this question:
- Suburbanites are being duped or pushed by larger forces to live in the suburbs. There is little doubt that the federal government has promoted suburbia over decades. If they truly were free to choose, Americans would pick the dull or anxious life of the suburbs.
- Americans truly do want to live in the suburbs. They like the lifestyle associated with it with the ability to own a house and drive a lot. The American Dream, even if it is just aspirational and not easy to attain, involves moving to the suburbs.
At this point, Americans have been choosing the suburbs (with generous pushes and promotion from various sources) for over a century when they have the means to do so. To reverse this pattern would require a lot of change.