Poughkeepsie, NY, by John Lehr, 2005. Courtesy Kate Werble Gallery, NY
Back in 1974 when it opened, Washington Square Mall was too big and too near to ignore. With more than 100 stores it seemed like the largest mall at the time, containing a world of distractions for bored teenagers long before “mall rats” became part of the lexicon or even a Hollywood movie. With no sidewalks to connect it to the surrounding neighborhoods, it didn’t seem like an inconvenience but more of a journey. However, like many big shopping centers, it has since fallen from grace, living an existence that kept it afloat in a kind of retail purgatory — neither a dead mall nor the kind of vibrant town square once imagined by Victor Gruen. This reversal of fortunes was not surprising in retrospect. The area around the mall had been in a slow, steady decline: the shuttered manufacturing plants in the township, which also meant the loss of middle class families, telegraphed the mall’s demise. After working the last several years on Worlds Away, an exhibition and book about the contemporary American suburb, I found myself reflecting on my own life in the burbs, finding it so typical of the challenges and opportunities facing the most maligned and emulated of American lifestyles. As a long-time resident of the city, I had left that world behind more than twenty years ago, and to revisit it again, now, revealed just how much had changed in suburbia.
Although most people have assumed for a while that the United States was a suburban nation, it wasn’t technically true until the last major census confirmed that more Americans were living in suburbs than in central cities or rural areas. The growing divide between the city and suburb was obvious in both the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns when maps charting the voting results county by county revealed a cascade of red flowing from the urban periphery into the surrounding countryside. Obama’s victory in 2008 saw the pendulum swing back to democrats in the suburbs, a demographic he won by two percentage points. More importantly, as stat-guru Nate Silver has written, Obama may be the first urban-identified president in recent memory, not only for his Chicago residence, but also because of his massive winning margins in major cities, which offset the ever-declining number of rural voters and the Sam’s Club (suburbanite GOP) electorate. Of course, it’s easy to jump ahead and predict a return to the importance of cities (something already signaled by Obama’s creation of an Office of Urban Policy), but — evoking the president’s own post-partisan rhetoric — its not so much about cities versus suburbs as it is about the metropolitan conglomerate as a whole.
The mutual dependency of city and suburb is both physical and psychological. City dwellers and suburbanites need each other to reinforce their own sense of place and identity despite ample evidence that what we once thought were different places and lifestyles are increasingly intertwined and much less distinct. The revenge of the suburb on the city wasn’t simply the depletion of its urban population or the exodus of its retailers and office workers, but rather the importation of suburbia into the heart of the city: chain stores and restaurants, downtown malls, and even detached housing. If the gift of urban planners to suburbia was the tenets of the New Urbanism, it has been re-gifted, returned to cities not as tips for close-knit communities but as recipes for ever more intensive consumer experiences. Suburbia has returned to the city just as most suburbs are experiencing many of the things about city life it sought to escape, both positive and negative: congestion, crime, poverty, racial and ethnic diversity, cultural amenities, and retail diversity. At the same time, cities have taken on qualities of the suburbs that are perceived as both good and bad, such as the introduction of big box retailing, urban shopping malls, and reverse suburban migration by empty nesters, who return to the city to enjoy the kind of life they lived before they had kids to raise. For every downtown Olive Garden there is an Asian-fusion restaurant opening in a strip mall; for every derelict downtown warehouse there is an empty suburban office building waiting to be converted into lofts; the Mall of America is the largest shopping center in the country, but SoHo may be the nation’s largest retail neighborhood; and everywhere we have Starbucks.Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes is on view at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery, March 2–May 10, 2009
While the definition of a suburb is vague and varied, the concept of suburbia remains potent — less a matter of propinquity and more a state of mind. The suburbs have always been a fertile space for imagining both the best and the worst of modern social life. On the one hand, the suburbs are portrayed as a middle-class domestic utopia, and on the other as a world of unrelenting homogeneity and stifling conformity. Most of what we think we know about suburbia has been shaped by its portrayal in various media — film, music, literature, and television in particular — where it has been depicted alternately as an idyllic setting for family life in TV sitcoms, for instance, and a dysfunctional landscape of discontent in Hollywood movies: every subdivision has its Wisteria Lane or Revolutionary Road. Just as the quintessential picture window can function to frame the view outside as well as the lives inside the home, similar depictions of suburbia can be read both ways. If suburbia conjures a safe haven of neighborliness for some, that same image of familiarity is viewed as an alienating place for others. This rigid dichotomy reinforces persistent myths that offer partial, outdated, or stereotypical ideas about suburbia that present it in static, monolithic terms. Just as suburbs have evolved from streetcar serviced bedroom communities to postindustrial technoburbs and outsized boomburbs, its demographic composition has also changed. The mid-twentieth-century image of largely white, prosperous, middle-class, two-parent families as the predominant household of suburbia has been transformed. Contemporary statistics reveal a different picture: more ethnic minorities (27 percent), including many new immigrants, make their homes in suburbia; households without children now comprise a plurality of suburban occupants (29 percent); and, for the first time, there are about one million more people living in poverty in the suburbs than in the city.
While the current mortgage foreclosure crisis seems concentrated in the newly constructed housing developments on the fringes of suburban sprawl, the effects are being felt across entire metro areas. Suburban growth may have stalled due to frozen demand or credit, but the long-term human interest in such places to live will not diminish. Even the latest round of burb-bashing, which casts sprawl as the dangerous by-product of suburbanite lifestyles, is unlikely to stem the tide. This is not to say that the impact of climate change or $5-a-gallon gasoline won’t affect suburban development any less than it will urban lifestyles. The problem with so many end-of-suburbia theses is that they forget the most powerful thing about suburbia — its symbolism and the idealism associated with it. What might be surprising to critics of suburbia is not that most people choose to live there, but that they do so contentedly. Despite decades of trying to apply urban theory and assumptions onto suburban scenarios, it seems far more likely that suburbia itself will adapt and evolve on its own terms.
Aside from some early twentieth-century concepts, many architects have simply opted out of practical engagement with transforming suburbia, with the exception of those involved in New Urbanism, an attempt to ameliorate aspects of sprawl with more pedestrian-friendly, higher-density, mixed-use, and community-oriented designs, or the pragmatics of Joel Kotkin’s New Suburbanism or Ellen Dunham-Jones’ Retrofitting Strategies for Suburbia. The designs of New Urbanism are easily dismissed because the resultant forms are too traditional and nostalgic (“inauthentic”), but, as Ellen Dunham-Jones has argued, this recourse to traditional styles is often strategic, a way of masking the more difficult aspects of such proposals (such as living on smaller lots, with poorer people, and alongside businesses). Unfortunately for architecture, suburbia has become a place to avoid rather than one to engage. In turn, the general absence of design professionals — whether by choice or circumstance — from the development equation has resulted in the continued proliferation of unimaginative buildings and landscapes that typically have no relation to each other or their contexts. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the absence of signature architecture, suburbia is the most popularly successful of imagined utopian communities, with a clear minority of residential structures the direct result of an architect’s design. Public acknowledgment of and debate about suburban growth and its broad consequences have expanded greatly in the past decade, and advocacy of such ameliorative strategies as sustainable design or mixed-use development has moved architecture and planning issues to a higher level of general recognition in this country than ever before. Does suburbia represent vast, untapped possibilities for architecture and planning? Will suburban planning ever sound like anything other than an oxymoron?
Whether in art or architecture, the suburbs seem to lack cultural authorship and a “back story” — the suburban landscape simply unfolds ex nihilo — out of nowhere and out of nothing. This lack of identity also represents a lack of history. Suburban time is strangely suspended, literally an arrested development frozen in its initial phases of construction: no wonder most people conjure an image of suburbia as a series of new housing starts and barren landscapes. From William Garnett’s photos of Lakewood Park in California to Robert Adams’ pictures of suburban Denver, there is a long tradition of using photography to record these processes of transformation, and because they are focused on an early moment in the life cycle of suburbia, they do not typically provide any evidence of human settlement, aspiration, or inhabitation. Most suburbs are now old enough to have a history, and enough inhabitants over time to establish an identity. A perceived lack of identity and history, however, accounts for the proliferation of rebranded suburbia: the creation of new pedestrian streetscapes, “downtowns,” and town centers.
The inability to situate a suburban aesthetics or to develop a language and theory to assess suburban forms as anything but an aberrant urbanism is clearly one of the crucial hurdles in constructing a more objective and less judgmental approach. The continued reliance on urban theories, assumptions, biases, and practices as a lens for viewing suburbia only compounds the problem. Rem Koolhaas can theorize the Generic City and Junkspace, and Sarah Susanka, author of the Not-So-Big franchise, can write about the virtues of downsizing, but there is very little between these extremes. Another difficulty in developing a suburban aesthetics is the issue of popular taste. Most forms of criticism and artistic practice cannot perceive suburbia without the posture of ironic distance or cynical dismissal. Historian John Archer in his essay from the catalogue, “Suburban Aesthetics Is Not an Oxymoron,” undermines the conventional assumption that suburbia represents an empty, thin, and inauthentic form of consumption — a paucity of experience — a myth that is contradicted by the richness of suburbia’s symbolic universe, an experience lived by its occupants rather than viewed by its critics. The greater social and cultural context has shifted for both urbanites and suburbanites. The oft-claimed alienation of the suburbs and the supposed close-knit communities of the city are both myths — convenient stories we tell about the other in the hope that the world next door will be kept worlds away.