Will the suburbs be more appealing moving forward because of COVID-19?

With discussion of COVID-19 in cities plus urban residents leaving for suburbs, does this mean people will view suburbs differently going forward? Ian Bogost suggests this will be the case:

photo of roadway during daytime

Photo by Myburgh Roux on Pexels.com

But after the anxious spring of 2020, these defects seem like new luxuries. There was always comfort to be found in a big house on a plot of land that’s your own. The relief is even more soothing with a pandemic bearing down on you. And as the novel coronavirus graduates from acute terror to long-term malaise, urbanites are trapped in small apartments with little or no outdoor space, reliant on mass transit that now seems less like a public service and more like a rolling petri dish. Meanwhile, suburbanites have protected their families amid the solace of sprawling homes on large, private plots, separated from the neighbors, and reachable only by the safety of private cars. Sheltered from the virus in their many bedrooms, they sleep soundly, dreaming the American dream with new confidence.

Safety has always warmed the suburban soul. The American dream is sometimes equated with property ownership and the nuclear families such properties house—but really, they are just hulls for a more fundamental suburban aspiration: individualism, which the suburban home demarcates and then protects…

The pandemic will improve suburban life, perhaps in lasting ways. Take the automobile commute: The exodus from the office has dramatically decreased traffic and pollution, a trend that will continue in some form if even a fraction of the people who abandoned their commutes continue to work from home. Dunham-Jones, who is also my colleague in Georgia Tech’s college of design, thinks that even a modest rise in telecommuting could also increase the appeal of local walking and bike trips. Families have two cars, but nowhere to go. They are rediscovering the pleasures of pedestrianism…

The suburbs were never as bad as their stereotypes. The little boxes might have been all the same, but the ’50s suburban plots also flowed continuously into one another, with unobstructed front and backyards, forming unified communities. And those communities were in some ways far less homogeneous than their legacy recalls, even despite the scourge of redlining and its serious, long-term effects.

There is a lot to consider here. A few categories of thoughts in response:

  1. There is an underlying contrast between how elites and urbanites viewed suburbs versus how many Americans have viewed suburbs for decades. Even as majorities of Americans now live in suburbs, there is a well-established line of suburban critiques. Is the individualism Bogost discusses a feature of suburban life or a terrible thing to promote? Do suburbanites really have individualism or does it end up looking the same across suburban single-family homes?
  2. The suburbs are aspirational. This reminds me of the argument by historian Jon Teaford in The American Suburb: The Basics: “Suburbs are an expression of the American desire for freedom and the right to pursue one’s own destiny.” (219) At the same time, the path taken to pursue these aspirations involved exclusion. Can these two competing interests – private freedom in a single-family home yet excluding who can access this – be reconciled in the future, let alone in assessments of the past?
  3. It is hard to know exactly what suburbia is under discussion. Complex suburbia is here. Bogost mentions at least a few visions of suburbia today including New Urbanist communities and neighborhoods of McMansions but we could also consider ethnoburbs, working-class suburbs, suburban job centers, and more. Which suburbia is the preferred one in the minds of Americans or which one should policy try to promote or is a varied suburban landscape more ideal?
  4. COVID-19 is theoretically a temporary issue to face. Once it passes or is controlled or societies learn to live with it, it is hard to know what consensus regarding places might emerge.

This debate which stretches at least to the early 1900s is not over even as COVID-19 changes the terms.

Of the urban residents fleeing for suburbs, how many of them are living in dreaded McMansions?

McMansions have attracted the criticism of many (examples here and here). However, what if some of the wealthy urban dwellers fleeing COVID-19 hotspots end up in a suburban McMansion?

Wealthy New Yorkers, who once looked down on anyone quitting the vibrant city for a McMansion and manicured lawn, are doing exactly that.

Egads! The horror! Even worse, what if those urbanites in suburban McMansions decide to stay for a while and come to enjoy parts of their new suburban lives?

high angle shot of suburban neighborhood

Photo by David McBee on Pexels.com

It is easy here to connect the critiques of McMansions to the broader concerns about suburbs expressed by numerous critics since the early twentieth century. McMansions have multiple issues of their own but suburbs are connected to conformity, ticky-tacky houses, provincialness, middle-class lifestyles, unnecessary consumption, and more. For some urbanites, the suburbs represent the opposite of dynamic, diverse, cosmopolitan, and engaging cities or urban neighborhoods.

Another way to think about this is to consider how much of city life city-dwellers pre-COVID-19 might bring to suburbs. Are the suburbs such a totalizing place that any vestiges of life in New York City disappear? And vice versa: if these residents end up back in New York City, will they bring suburban expectations and values to the city? How many McMansions are there in s the numerous single-family home neighborhoods in many American cities?

The same writer thinks the move to the suburbs is relatively short-lived as the city has many advantages:

The old trade-offs involved in moving to the exurbs or suburbs aren’t going to disappear overnight. France’s Gilets Jaunes stormed Paris precisely to protest the decaying quality of life outside cities. The typical U.S. city resident lives near almost three times as many jobs as a typical suburbanite, according to the Brookings Institution. Those jobs pay better, too, with average wages per worker in urban areas some 46% higher than lower-density suburbs. So it’s likely that making the move will mean trading subway rides for car commutes. And when journeys get longer, there’s generally less inclination to travel to enjoy the fun stuff — the so-called “friction of distance.”

And make no mistake, the fun stuff will be around as long as cities can keep attracting people, money and ideas. In the 1980s and 1990s, metropolises like London and New York reversed decades of decline by focusing on services such as finance and leisure rather than factories. While it’s true that excessive property speculation turned them into playgrounds for the rich, threatening their draw as diverse and creative melting pots, things could change for the better. The next reinvention, according to urbanism expert Laurent Chalard, will be about making cities less dense and more livable: More cycling, fewer cars, bigger homes. Outside the city, life may end up less green and less convenient.

Given the long-term preferences many Americans have for suburban life, this may continue to be a hard sell.

Quick Review: Suburbicon

I try to keep up with movies, books, TV shows, and music about the suburbs. I recently watched the 2017 film Suburbicon. Here are three thoughts:

1. The basic plot of the film extends a decades-long emphasis on the underbelly of suburban life. The main focus is on what looks like a typical suburban family – white, middle-class with the father working in a corporate office, one kid, in a recently-constructed suburban community – but they turn out to have family issues. The question at the end of the IMDB summary – “Who would have thought that darkness resides even in Paradise?” – is one that dozens of works have considered.

2. The twist to this film is that the under-the-surface issues of the white family are juxtaposed with the experiences of a black family who moves into the home directly behind the white family. As soon as I heard the last name of the black family (Mayers), I thought of this incident from 1957 in Levittown, Pennsylvania:

It began on the afternoon of Aug. 13, 1957, when the Levittown Times newspaper (the precursor to the Bucks County Courier Times) reported “The First Negro Family to buy a Levittown home” had moved into a house at 43 Deepgreen Lane in the Dogwood Hollow section that morning. The family included William Myers, his wife, Daisy, and their three small children…

Day 1: Within hours after the newspaper hit the streets, small groups of agitated Levittowners are already gathering in front of the Myers home. Throughout the evening, the crowd continues to grow. By midnight, more than 200 shouting men, women and children cluster on the Myers’ front lawn. A group of teens throw rocks through the Myers’ front picture window, and 15 Bristol Township police officers are dispatched to the scene. Soon, the county sheriff arrives, and orders the crowd to disperse. By 12:30 a.m., two adults and three teens have been arrested. Now, with the violence increasing, the sheriff wires the Pennsylvania State Police asking for immediate assistance. His request states, ”…the citizens of Levittown are out of control.”…

Day 7: As darkness settles, a group estimated at about 500 men, women and children gather directly across the street from the Myers house. Despite repeated warnings to leave, many in the crowd stand defiant — screaming, shouting and cursing at police. Finally, 22 state troopers, swinging clubs, charge into their midst. Men are slapped across their backs and knocked down; women are slapped across their buttocks. Many in the crowd become hysterical. Curses, cries and shouts of “Gestapo” are hurled at the troopers. Following the melee, remnants of the crowd linger along Haines Road well into the early morning hours. At one point, they defiantly join together to sing “America” (better known as “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”).

Day 8: About 500 men, women and children gather along the Farmbrook section of Haines Road. A rock is thrown, striking a Bristol Township police sergeant on the head and knocking him unconscious. He is rushed to Lower Bucks Hospital, then transferred to Rolling Hills Hospital. He suffers a concussion and ear lacerations, but fortunately will soon recover. A 15-year-old boy is seized in the incident, but later released. State police inform the protesters, “A police officer has been injured … Absolutely no more crowds will be permitted in the area.”

By midnight, the crowd has disappeared.

There is no direct commentary about the contemporaneous fates of the two families but the connection is interesting to consider. The white family cannot hold themselves together while the black family simply wants to live a quiet suburban life? The two boys are able to interact even as the adults lose their heads? The community cares about skin color more than they do about violent acts?

3. I wonder how much narratives about the hidden negative aspects resonate with viewers. For those who already dislike the suburbs, perhaps it feeds the critiques. But, for suburbanites or for those who aspire to living in the suburbs, does a story like this seem credible? It reminds me of a quote from sociologist Bennett Berger after studying a working-class suburb:

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.

If there are plenty of racists down the street in suburbia or families that fall apart, does this stop others from living in suburbia?

Looking for stories of millennials and young adults who want to and enjoy living in suburban homes

The suburbs are indeed changing – such is the premise of Curbed‘s “The Suburbs Issue.” And the lead story seems to fit into this argument: the suburbs are changing in that millennials are not so sure about buying a large suburban home. Here is the conclusion from that story:

Scocca concludes that the dream of having a big house built just for you was “never a very good dream anyway,” and that might be true, and maybe it’s not even a revelation. Houses have always been a location where we can project our hopes, dreams, and fears. No matter how much we try to rationalize the process of owning a house, the relationship is always a bit foggy, tinted by human emotion. It doesn’t seem possible to live somewhere for any meaningful length of time without imbuing it with your own nebulous ego. Over the past few months, I kept returning to this quote from novelist Helen Oyeyemi: “I think that houses, or at least the home part of them, are so much constructed that they’re simultaneously magical and haunted anyway.” Houses are not homes, and homes are not necessarily houses. Perhaps the real American dream is to find a sense of stability, safety, and acceptance. Maybe this is a downsized version of our parents’ American dream, or perhaps it’s just more honest, taking into account all the different stories we’re fed from the outside, and all the private stories we tell ourselves behind closed doors.

There is much truth here: homeownership in the suburbs is not such an obvious path for many young Americans due to financial insecurity, watching what happened to older generations, and different priorities about what they want to get out of life. Just because Americans prioritized suburban homeownership in the last one hundred years (and propped it up through policies and cultural ideology) does not necessarily mean this will continue in the future.

At the same time, is an article like this in a long line of suburban critiques that now stretch back roughly a century? Some of the same concerns are present: what makes a home (the happy suburban facade or the difficulties many people still face even when it looks like they have the American Dream), whether the suburbs are financially possible (beyond just homes, driving is expensive and giving children all sorts of advantages is encouraged), environmental effects (using more land, driving, building individual homes), and a lack of excitement or vibrant community in the suburbs.

All of this leads me to wondering about the millennials who are still moving to suburbs by their choice. Surely they exist. Surveys suggest many millennials want to own a home in the suburbs at some point. The homeownership rate recently increased, driven by millennial’s purchases. The population of millennials in big cities recently declined. Empirical data could settle whether millennials are not settling in the suburbs at the same rate as previous generations or might be doing so at a delayed rate (which would fit with other findings regarding emerging adulthood).

Is finding these suburban millennials not a priority because it reinforces the suburban ideology? If millennials do largely settle in suburbs, would this be viewed as a failure of American society on multiple levels? Would settling in denser suburban areas be enough to make amends for decades of urban sprawl and “the ghastly tragedy of the suburbs“? Or, might slight changes among millennials be an acknowledgement that reversing long-standing narratives about the good life – the American Dream – could take decades (just as it took time to develop suburbia as the ideal on a mass scale)? What if, in the end, Americans like suburbs for multiple reasons?

Novel suggests McMansions gentrify small suburbs

A new novel suggests McMansions can upset small suburbs:

Novels about small houses in small towns can feel cramped. But in Julie Langsdorf’s White Elephant, the locals fight to keep things that way in their property battle with a builder who puts up McMansions. Set in the suburban Maryland town of Willard Park, the story depicts a married couple’s struggle with their defunct sex life, middle school kids and their awkward, back-stabbing drama, a pot-head attorney whose marriage is in trouble, and numerous sketches of other denizens. White Elephant has a long, slow start, but once it gets going, it bolts straight to the end...

White Elephant is a gentrification story which focuses on suburbs and small towns. This tale will feel familiar to anyone who has lived in an inner suburb and woken up one morning to the shock of McMansions going up nearby. Suddenly all the talk is of assessments, property values, equity, and second mortgages. The new houses tower over neighbors. Or, if a block of expensive townhouses has been installed, suddenly the local school is too small. It’s not as pernicious as urban gentrification, booting out locals to make way for wealthy hipsters and their $10 latte watering holes, but it’s a menacing cousin. Costly houses and townhouses open the door for luxury apartments, and once those appear, all the old affordable ones raise their rents. A person working full-time on minimum wage can hardly afford a one-bedroom apartment in any American city, and this is the next step, as the blight of gentrification seeps out into formerly cheap suburbs.

I believe that McMansions can upset residents’ conceptions of their neighborhood or community. There are plenty of cases in the last 10-20 years that suggest some believe McMansions, whether in new subdivisions or as teardowns, ruin locations they like.

On the other hand, the description above of how all this works seems a bit odd to me. A few questions:

  1. How many inner suburbs become home to many teardown McMansions? Inner suburbs can be wealthy, working-class to poor, or somewhere in-between.
  2. My guess is that McMansions and more expensive housing do not just pop up in a community: there are precipitating qualities of the community that lead developers and local officials to think that the more expensive housing would take off. In other words, wealthier communities beget more housing for wealthier residents.
  3. Cheap suburbs, if just going by cost of housing, can be located throughout a metropolitan region. If gentrification is simply more expensive redevelopment, it could happen in many places throughout a region.
  4. Why is this gentrifiation not as pernicious if new development makes it harder for locals to stay? It may be happening in a suburban area but not all suburbs are that well-off.
  5. Is there a small-town suburban life worth defending? Decades of suburban critiques suggested suburbanites and their communities have all sorts of deficiencies. Are suburbs now to be saved from McMansions?

The McMansion is a monster to invoke in today’s fictional tales as its size and lack of good taste relegate it to at least shady, if not menacing, status.

Can you sell a product with the main pitch that it will help consumers “keep up with the Joneses”?

Comcast is currently running an advertisement titled “The Joneses” that makes an explicit connection to keeping up with the consumer’s reference group:

It is regularly stated that consumers want to keep up with others around them. Reference groups matter as look to others around them as they consider what to acquire.

So, can you run a successful advertising campaign based on (1) regular human behavior (2) that is regularly maligned? “Keeping up the the Joneses” is not often a positive term. Instead, it implies striving to be like others. These strivers are not content; they have to earn approval through acquiring what others have. All of this can lead to conformity if everyone is chasing some trend or perceived advantage. Suburbanites have heard this critique for decades: they are trying to look like the leading middle- to upper-class suburbanites. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, perhaps these people are viewed as violating the tenth commandment.

Perhaps this is all meant to be ironic. “Keep up with the Joneses” while winking or doing something unusual with all of that high-speed Internet. But, this commercial does not seem to have that tone. The goal does seem to be to have the same high-speed connection as everyone else. Maybe the true story is something like this: “keep up with the Joneses’ and everyone can use that Internet to hide in their private residences and do their own thing online and in social media.

Separating the ills of suburbia from the ills of the United States

The critiques of the American suburbs are common and persistent. But, how many of them are unique to the suburbs as opposed to multiple American settings or American society as a whole? A thought experiment with a number of the ills of suburbia:

  1. Consumerism. Present everywhere with displays of wealth such as expensive housing, cars, and technological goods alongside just having a lot of stuff. Certain suburban symbols may catch attention – such as McMansions and SUVs – but these are present all over the place. Excessive or wasteful consumption is not solely an American problem.
  2. Sprawl. This may seem like a uniquely suburban problem. Yet, numerous American cities have varying levels of density and lots of single-family home neighborhoods (even if these homes are closer together).
  3. Driving. Suburbs may be more dependent or designed around automobiles but so are most American cities and urban neighborhoods. And  rural areas would be very different without widespread access to cars.
  4. Conformity. Mass culture is everywhere, even if cities are often regarded as having more diversity and cultural experiences. This is related to consumerism as many Americans are thoroughly immersed (just see the figures on how much media Americans consume a day).
  5. Inequality. Across categories of race, class, and gender, American communities of all kinds experience problems. They may manifest differently in each context but addressing inequality in the suburbs would not solve the problem in the entire country.
  6. Lack of true community. Social ties seem to be more tenuous across the United States as a whole and the influence of and trust in institutions of all kinds has declined. Americans are famously individualistic, whether in suburbs or other settings.

Another way to think about it: did these problems begin in suburbs or are they amplified or exacerbated by suburbs? Imagine the United States where only 30% of American lived in suburbs: might driving and sprawl still be an issue? Would the problems of inequality be alleviated?

The comfortable suburban afterlife

What if humans after death end up in a suburban community? This is the premise of the Amazon show Forever:

Starring SNL alums Maya Rudolph as June and Fred Armisen as her husband, Oscar, the eight-part series, which dropped in its entirety in September, does a deep dive into the meaning of life by exploring what happens when it ends…

For the couple, the hereafter is ambiguous — neither heaven nor hell. Rather, it seems a lot like their former life in a subdivision of tidy ranch-style homes in suburban Riverside, Calif.

Familiar, safe, comfortable…

Oscar spends his days struggling doing crossword puzzles at the dining room table. June teaches herself how to make vases and bowls on a potter’s wheel on the back patio (a nod, no doubt, to the famous Demi Moore/Patrick Swayze scene from “Ghost”). They go for strolls through the neighborhood, where the weather feels perpetually like early autumn with its amber light and just enough of a nip in the air to make you reach for your flannel shirt or lightweight cashmere pullover.

Apparently the show then moves on from this suburban start. Given that Americans moved to the suburbs in large numbers in the last century plus the goal of attaining the suburban American Dream is well-established, is it much of a stretch to cast the afterlife as a comfortable suburb?

I imagine critics of the suburbs might have other views. Indeed, they might suggest a suburban afterlife would be hell. (Bring back the TV show Suburgatory!) This reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s description of hell in The Great Divorce (as noted by an astute commenter):

As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarrelled so badly that he decides to move….Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house.

So perhaps the suburbs are actually a decent middle ground between heaven and hell, containing elements of either depending on who is doing the evaluating. Then, perhaps the real debate starts: if suburbs are in the middle, are cities heaven and rural areas hell or vice versa…

“To urbanists, suburbia is self-evidently evil”

A reflection on the recent book Radical Suburbs includes this paragraph about critiquing American suburbs:

To urbanists, suburbia is self-evidently evil: sprawl is an environmental disaster, subsidized by lavish post-World War II road-building programs and the mortgage interest deduction (which promotes home ownership) and turbo-charged by low interest rates. Why would any sophisticated architectural thinker want to get involved with such iniquity? In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art tried to rouse a group of high-caliber architects to stage a suburban intervention in the wake of the 2008 recession and the foreclosure crisis that followed. The show, “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream,” was well-meaning and inventive but it left no trace in the real world, and the designers who were recruited to rethink towns and subdivisions didn’t return to the topic. The trouble with throwing up your hands at suburbia’s obstacles and contradictions is that it means giving up on most of the country.

And plenty of suburbanites notice the negative assessment of suburban living:

Getting ignored by snobs is just fine with millions of Americans, whose only complaint about their center-less towns is when they become too much like cities: clogged, expensive, and big.

Presumably, this writer is trying to model a different way: working in small ways to push suburbs toward more density and more community without asking suburbanites to give up everything they say they like:

One radical step would be for towns to hold competitions, inviting the world’s designers to make adjustments to their layouts—not to plow them under or replace them with faux urban centers, but to find new ways to tweak roads, shorten commutes, and encourage people to live in closer quarters—all while satisfying the desires of privacy, peace, and contact with nature that lured people out of the city in the first place.

Tying far-flung suburbs together with public transit is expensive, complex, and controversial, but modest modifications aren’t. It’s not insurmountable to recycle dead malls into community centers, art spaces, and indoor plazas; to lay down footpaths that steer clear of cars and converge on a park or a playground; to legalize back alleys and rentable granny flats— standard items in the New Urbanist toolkit.

This approach might be dubbed “urban-lite” or “retrofitted suburbia” or “surban.” All of these get at putting together denser pockets of suburbia without needing to get rid of all of the sprawling areas. This is the pragmatic approach to transforming suburbs rather than hinting at the nuclear option of moving everyone to cities (as some fear).

Similarly, middle-range steps to altering suburbs also can help those opposed to suburbs make strong value judgments that will simply provoke defensiveness among suburbanites. Tell someone their lifestyle is evil or wrong and this likely will not prompt the response the critiquer desires. And American suburbanites have heard some version of this critique for at least six decades and continued to move there. Amidst the similar architecture, the conformity, the mass consumer culture, the private space that enriches only the homeowners, the lack of community, and the effect on the environment, Americans have moved to and have been pushed to the suburbs in large numbers. Did these critiques have any effect on making some think twice?

Recognizing and learning from “radical suburbs”

A new book from journalist Amanda Kolson Hurley looks at “radical suburbs” that do not fit the stereotype of sleepy, homogeneous, bedroom communities. From an excerpt:

Clichés and misconceptions still define suburbia in the popular imagination, and it drives me crazy. I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. I’m a suburbanite, but my life doesn’t revolve around manicured lawns, status anxiety, or a craving for homogeneity. My suburban experience is riding the bus as people chat around me in Spanish and French Creole. It’s having neighbors who hail from Tibet, Brazil, and Kenya as well as Cincinnati. It’s my son attending a school that reflects the diversity—and stubborn inequality—of America today…

Radical Suburbs is about waves of idealists who established alternative suburbs outside of Eastern U.S. cities, beginning in the 1820s and continuing through the 1960s. These groups had very different backgrounds and motivations, but all of them believed in the power of the local community to shape moral and social values, and in the freedom provided by outskirts land to live and build in new ways.

As opposed to the groups who went far into America’s interior to settle isolated communes, these were, in a paradoxical-sounding phrase, practical utopians. Staying close to the city let them try out new ways of living with a financial lifeline and emergency exit. Now, at a time when—it could reasonably be argued—the future of the country hangs on what suburbs do over the next 20 or 30 years, their history shows that bold social and architectural experimentation is not alien to suburbia. In fact, it’s a suburban tradition…

Over the past 150 years, suburbanites have lived in large communal dwellings and tiny shacks, Modernist apartments and neo-Gothic mansions. They’ve been renters and homeowners, domestic servants and corporate executives. They’ve cultivated both emerald lawns and food crops. They’ve sought escape from social progress, and freedom from convention.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. I would be happy if academics and the public alike, particularly those interested in urban regions and issues, would acknowledge and analyze the variety of suburban communities. This book and multiple other studies make exactly this case: the suburbia that is often criticized may fit some suburbs but certainly not all. As jus ta short list, there are suburbs of working-class residents, suburbs of non-white residents, communities built around different ideals than single-family homes and cars, edge cities, and more. Suburban communities may share some fundamental features yet differ significantly on other parts of social life.
  2. I’ll have to read the book but I would be interested in knowing if there are patterns as to how at least a few suburbs could pursue less conventional ideals while a good number of suburbs simply followed convention. In other words, how did radical suburbs start and how can other communities follow similar paths? If these communities present some models worth emulating, how do established suburbs change course? It is possible for suburbs to change but going against local inertia can require significant decisions.